February 16, 2009

Carbon Dioxide Emissions Are Accelerating

Filed under: Climate change — Erin @ 5:21 pm

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.

June 27, 2007

Bad Air.

Filed under: Climate change — Erin @ 3:29 pm

This is a bit of a rant.

The Massachusetts Bay area is under an Air Quality Alert and Air Stagnation Advisory today. Particle pollution and ozone levels are expected to be at level orange, “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Here is the text of the National Weather Service message:

AN AIR QUALITY HEALTH ADVISORY HAS BEEN ISSUED BECAUSE OZONE AND PARTICLE POLLUTION LEVELS ARE EXPECTED TO CONTINUE TO BE ELEVATED ALONG THE COAST AND INTERIOR REGIONS ON WEDNESDAY. THE MAINE DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION RECOMMENDS THAT INDIVIDUALS CONSIDER LIMITING STRENUOUS OUTDOOR PHYSICAL ACTIVITY TO REDUCE THE RISK OF ADVERSE HEALTH EFFECTS. PEOPLE WHO MAY BE ESPECIALLY SENSITIVE TO THE EFFECTS OF ELEVATED LEVELS OF POLLUTANTS INCLUDE THE VERY YOUNG...AND THOSE WITH PRE-EXISTING RESPIRATORY PROBLEMS SUCH AS ASTHMA AND OR HEART DISEASE. THOSE WITH SYMPTOMS SHOULD CONSIDER CONSULTING THEIR PERSONAL PHYSICIAN.

Symptoms, all right — try “difficulty breathing,” “the urge to faint,” “fatigue,” “coughing fits,” and “respiratory chest pain.”

While the ozone apparently hasn’t kicked in yet as of 2:00 p.m. local time, the particle pollution is VERY evident already. Apparently I am in a “sensitive group.” OK, I am — I’m mildly asthmatic. This happened last year, when ozone and particle pollution days were quite frequent in July and August during the East Coast heat waves.

This form of pollution is caused by hot temperatures such as what we’re having today (approaching 100 degrees), a persistent haze, and people with polluting habits. Taking the thoroughfares into one of the cities during peak hour generally means that your car crawls along at 25-40 mph and often has to stop altogether. This sort of driving pattern just contributes extra to the pollution level, especially when the vehicles are in close quarters, as they would be during peak hours.

Look, the area has public transit. Most commuter rail stops are within a reasonable driving distance of someone’s home. For most people, it really isn’t necessary to do a 2 hour commute on the freeways. (If there truly aren’t any other choices for you, I’m not complaining about you.) I don’t ask that you alter your schedule every day, but is it really too much to ask for commuters to forgo the car for a couple of days out of the month in the summer, out of consideration for people with respiratory problems that are aggravated by the pollution?

The big stumbling block in doing something about global warming, which incidentally is always the stumbling block for any sort of environmental change, is that people don’t want to change their habits. They certainly don’t want to make sacrifices if they don’t see their behaviors directly affecting themselves.

I’m in the prime of my life, but among those who experience ill effects on these high pollution days, I’m in the minority in that respect. Most people who have problems are either elderly or children. You wouldn’t blow car exhaust into your elderly parent’s face, or your kid’s. But by choosing to drive on days when the air pollution potential is high, you might as well be doing just that.

February 16, 2007

Global Warming Would Drown the Coastal Hurricane Defenses

Filed under: Climate change — Erin @ 6:24 pm

The barrier islands of the Gulf Coast are an important defense against hurricanes. Mostly uninhabited, they are the first landforms that a Gulf Coast hurricane strikes. While they do not weaken the hurricanes (they aren’t large enough), the islands take the brunt of the hurricane’s storm surge, diffusing it somewhat before the eye makes landfall on the mainland. They are also an important defense against tsunami, a real (if little-known) threat. Significant seismic activity has occurred in the Gulf of Mexico fairly recently.

Global warming is predicted to melt part of Greenland and/or West Antarctica, raising sea levels worldwide up to 20 feet (more if all of Greenland and some of West Antarctica melted). This would have horrific consequences on coastal cities around the globe, of course. This blog, however, will focus on one specific area — the United States Gulf Coast. (Ha, doesn’t it always?)

If global warming raised sea levels as predicted, most of low-lying Louisiana — as well as the critical barrier islands — would be underwater. The low-lying swampland of Louisiana, which has been receding for years now, is another natural barrier for the coast, as well as an environmental treasure. It too would be covered in water.

The coastline would lose its natural defenses against hurricanes.

And, as research is indicating, global warming would also intensify the hurricanes themselves.
The EPA produced a series of pictures showing the coastal areas that are most at risk from global warming-induced inundation. Red indicates areas that are less than 1.5 meters above sea level. The images can be clicked on to show a larger view.

Here is an image of Louisiana and Texas:

And here’s one of Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida:

It’s hard to see on these maps, but the barrier islands are the thin trail of red south of the main coastline. They would be underwater.

More disturbingly, from the National Environmental Trust, here is a QuickTime movie of how Biloxi, MS (and its barrier island) would be affected by a rise in sea level. (WARNING for dial-up users: 3 MB file!) I’ve linked to the movie from this graphic I’ve made showing how the coastline would be inundated.

The barrier island protecting the city would no longer exist. Sure, the projection of the land would still exist underwater, and would serve to slightly lessen the impact of a storm surge, but it isn’t at all the same as having a true island above the sea. A dry, projecting landmass stops the flow of water, at least temporarily, and breaks the waves. A former island that has gone underwater obviously doesn’t keep the water from flowing.

Also, as you can clearly see, the city itself would be partially underwater. This includes the glitzy new development that is taking place on this part of the coast in response to Hurricane Katrina — very shortsightedly, I ought to add. Whether this is because of the government of Haley Barbour, who is very likely a global warming skeptic, or because the businesses are aware of the risk but decided to hedge their bets, I do not know.

The Katrina recovery and rebuilding process is not taking global warming into account at all. When the next really bad hurricane strikes, its impact could be compounded by the effects of global warming. The coast will be farther inland due to rising waters, there will be fewer natural barriers, and the hurricane itself is likely to be stronger and wetter than it would be without global warming. And, as unfortunate as it is for me to say this, at this point it’s not enough to simply drive less, replace incandescent light bulbs with fluorescent, cross our fingers, and hope that we’ve stopped the problem.

I absolutely support cutting carbon emissions. If we don’t, the consequences will be even more horrendous than the scientists are daring to predict right now. But we’ve reached a point where it would be nothing short of grossly irresponsible to fail to look into preparation for the potentially disastrous changes that we have brought upon ourselves.

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