Despite several years of intensive focus on anthropogenic climate change, including a media blitz about “green” technologies that regular people could adopt (e.g., CFL bulbs) easily, carbon emission rates are accelerating. In fact, the current rate of CO2 emission was apparently not even considered in the IPCC climate change report of two years ago.
Carbon emissions have been growing at 3.5 percent per year since 2000, up sharply from the 0.9 percent per year in the 1990s, Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution for Science told the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
“It is now outside the entire envelope of possibilities” considered in the 2007 report of the International Panel on Climate Change, he said. The IPCC and former vice president Al Gore received the Nobel Prize for drawing attention to the dangers of climate change.
The worst-case scenario of global warming is thought to be a mass extinction comparable in scope to the great Permian extinction of about 251.4 million years ago. (Think of the lack of almost all life in the Pixar cartoon WALL-E. Global warming was a strong undercurrent of that movie, despite the stated focus on garbage.) Indeed, current research into that event is strongly suggestive of its also being triggered by a form of CO2-induced global warming, albeit volcanic in origin. That is not thought to be a risk today because the earth’s mantle is much less active today than it was then, but it looks as though the human species can more than make up the difference with our own activities.
I have long been pessimistic that we humans can stave this (“this” meaning whatever scenario we are creating for ourselves, up to and including a mass extinction event) off by energy efficiency and conversion to green power. I just don’t think there is enough time, and moreover, even if we could do it in time, global warming would still continue. The reason is that the carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for many, many years. And ironically enough, the CO2-containing emissions that are causing all this are actually mitigating themselves to a certain degree. Smoke particles and other particle-matter pollutants create misery for those of us who are prone to asthma and allergies, but when released in large enough amounts, they have an atmospheric cooling effect by blocking sunlight. It’s much shorter-term than the warming effect of CO2, because these are heavy particles, but it does exist. If we stop using these technologies, then we would indeed drastically cut our CO2 emissions, but we’d also cut the cooling particle pollution. What is currently in the atmosphere would be filtered out relatively quickly, but the CO2 that is currently there would not. Because of this phenomenon, it’s distinctly possible, even likely, that global warming might hit an exponential rate if we somehow cut CO2 emissions down to a safe level. I have read, in fact, that the CO2 that is currently in the atmosphere is likely to be there for one thousand years. That’s how long it takes to filter back to earth.
What, then, can we do?
The climate change mitigation community is becoming divided into the “go green” people and the “geoengineering” people. Given my pessimistic outlook on it (and my general inclination in favor of technology), I am firmly in the geoengineering camp. What is geoengineering, you may ask? Here is an overview of it. The general idea is to take active, rather than passive, measures to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Carbon capture/sequestration is one example of what it might entail. Personally, I think that geoengineering technology will be necessary if we want to prevent a catastrophe. Strong language, but I’m convinced of it.
I also am very strongly in favor of what I’d call “disaster engineering.” The purpose is to shore up communities against the weather disasters that are thought to be most likely for them—hurricanes for the Gulf coastal cities, drought for the interior of the Southeast, etc. It is possible to model this for large areas, and it seems reasonable that as science develops a greater understanding of the climate change process, these predictions can be further refined.
Needless to say, geoengineering and disaster engineering would create countless jobs, many in the sci-tech arena, but many also in construction and production.
None of this is to say that I think “going green” is a waste of time. Certainly, it should be attempted, if for no other reason than because the types of energy that generate the most CO2 are also the most likely to be nonrenewable. Even if climate change wouldn’t nab us, we would eventually run out and have to find some other way of producing energy. But as a panacea for curing the ills of anthropogenic climate change, I think going green by itself is far too passive. Too much damage has already been done, I think. We made this mess, and it won’t clean itself up—at least, not in a short enough period of time for us to feel confidence that we actually saved the planet.