Saturday, April 15, 2017

Do We Fight Global Warming Or Not?

Note:  article was updated 4-23-17 in purple text below to include sources of traceable data.  

Note:  another update added below in blue text 4-25-17.

Note:  one slight edit adds an item in red text below 5-4-17.

This is an issue that has become politicized to the extreme,  which precludes rational action. What I present here has absolutely zero to do with ideologies or politics.  It is simple logic and common sense. 

There are two things to consider,  but only one available choice.  Whether humans cause global warming or not is not a matter of choice,  it is something decreed by nature,  which does not tell us which is true.  Our only choice is whether or not to act,  based on what we do know. 

What we know is this:  (1) there is a huge volume of ice on Earth located above sea level,  (2) if even some of it were to melt,  sea levels would rise sharply,  (3) added heat melts ice,  and (4) most of our critical institutions and a major fraction of our population live in the zone threatened with flooding. 

What portends here is a disaster far exceeding the temporary flooding of a city by a hurricane,  or the migration of millions out of Syria and Africa to escape war.  What could happen is the forced migration of billions,  and (nuclear) war over failing food resources.  So,  this decision is important to get “right”. 

Filling Out The Decision Matrix

One simple way to decide this is by a version of the trade study matrix,  a pretty standard tool.  However many choices you have is the number of columns (in this example 3),  however many versions of the unknown natural issue there might be is the number of rows (in this example 2).  That gives you a 6-hole pigeon-hole matrix to fill in with likely consequences. 



There are two rows because human emissions might,  or might not,  cause global warming.  You do not get to choose between them;  this is decided by nature,  not humans. 

There are three columns instead of two,  because if we decide to act,  there’s two ways this action might turn out.  There is only one,  if we choose not to act.  Acting versus not acting is the choice available to us.  If we act and it doesn’t work,  we’d better already be working on how to cope (the third column).

As for the consequences,  they need not be detailed,  and it is OK to exaggerate them for better contrast.  

If we choose to act,  we will spend lots of money to act,  and there will be monetary losses,  too.   These costs could range from significant (damaged economies) to catastrophic (going back to the stone age).  That variation doesn’t matter,  just fill in all four “choose to act” cells with “lose $$”.

If we choose not to act,  then the consequences depend upon what nature does not tell us:  whether or not human-caused global warming is real.  If not real,  there will be no meltdown,  no sea level rise,  no migrations,  no war,  and no money lost.  If real,  all those things will happen,  and both money and lives will be lost (at catastrophic levels). 

That fills in all 6 cells with consequences.  5 of the 6 involve lost money,  there is no avoiding that.  1 of the 6 involves life loss as well as loss of money;  that one is really bad.  1 of the 6 has no bad consequences in it at all. 

Now We Must Choose

You cannot choose which row you want (political ideologies notwithstanding).  You can only choose a column!  The standard way to use the matrix is to pick the outcome that you cannot abide,  and then cross out the entire column that contains it. 

In this example,  losing lives is to be avoided,  which rules out choosing not to act.  This valuing of lives over money is in accordance with the teachings of all 3 Abrahamic religions in the West.  Most of the Eastern religious traditions agree. 

That result says:  act,  and be prepared ahead of time to cope,  if your initial action fails. 

Did you notice that not once did I refer to any of the prognostications or temperature history data of the climate science community?  I didn’t need it to make this decision.  I need it only to help define the actions we might take to mitigate this threat:  reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

And,  there is another independent science dataset that says the same thing:  observed ice melting behavior as the fossil fuel-guzzling population has exploded.  Getting the same answer by two independent means lends a lot of confidence to that answer. 

Update 4-23-17:  Sources of Real Data to Consider

There are ice core data that cover atmospheric composition during the ice ages and the warm periods in between.  This is based on the actual composition of the ancient air trapped in the bubbles in the ice.  The atmosphere is mixed well enough that this composition is not restricted to polar regions,  it is global.  These can be dated by the layers,  similar to tree ring dating.  Here is that data for atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 400,000 years,  obtained right off a NASA website:




You can see the 4 dips to 180-200 ppm at the height of each of the 4 main glaciations of the ice age. We know when these glaciations occurred from the timing of the evidence in the rocks:  they show marks of glacier passage,  and the debris left behind on melting.   Note that it never got above about 280-290 ppm during the deglaciated warm intervals.  Ancient is to the left,  modern is to the right.  You can even see the little "wiggle" in the curve at about 260 ppm about 10,000 years ago that is the sudden cool-down they call the "Younger Dryas".  

From 180 ppm to 290 ppm encompasses atmospheric composition all the way between fully glaciated to fully warm.  Correlation does not establish causality,  that has to come from elsewhere (such as basic demonstrable physics).  So,  is something else going on?  Such as Milankovitch orbital cycles?

The thing we have that best models the cycling of the ice ages is Milankovitch orbital cycles.  This is not really a fully causal model,  except for the notion that more sunlight striking northern hemisphere land leads to warmer conditions globally.  It pretty much correlates with the advance and retreat of the ice;  not perfect,  but very,  very good.  It is limited;  for one thing,  the distribution of continents was different millions of years ago.  

The basic physics is simple:  ice melts if heated.  The Earth's "average" temperature is an energy balance between lots of visible and ultraviolet light coming from the sun,  and some heat of radioactive decay and original formation escaping from the interior,  versus the infrared heat re-radiated back out into space by the warmth of the Earth's surface.  And,  extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere interferes with that re-radiation,  because it is less transparent to infrared than oxygen and nitrogen,  so the surface must warm further to radiate against the resistance of the carbon dioxide.

You can verify this effect for yourself without actually doing sophisticated measurements:  simply set two bell jars covering thermometers out in the sun at the same time.  One has air,  the other you fill with carbon dioxide (the extreme case).  Both thermometers rise.  But,  the carbon dioxide-filled jar's thermometer will read a lot higher than the air-filled jar's thermometer.  Both are "greenhouses",  but the carbon dioxide gas is far more potent as such than oxygen and nitrogen in the air.  

Another version of that very same chart I obtained from Wikipedia,  to which an inset was added showing atmospheric composition over only the last few centuries.  This makes the point that our unburying of carbon-containing fossil fuels and releasing it as exhaust gas carbon dioxide,  has had effects since the start of the Industrial Revolution,  and really sharp effects in the last 5 decades as our population explodes exponentially.  




If you look on much longer time scales,  there are other things going on as well.  On a time scale of 100 million years,  the astrophysicists tell us the sun has brightened by 4% or thereabouts.  On a 4.6 billion year time scale,  they tell us it has brightened by about 30%.  

Before about 380 million years ago,  there was no life on land.  Before 600 million years ago,  there was only single cell life in the ocean.  Before about 2.5 billion years ago,  there was no oxygen in the atmosphere.  And who knows what the surface air pressure was during those times (which also affects how good a "greenhouse" it makes)?

All we know is that there more carbon dioxide half a billion years ago than in "recent" times (only the couple of million years).  The sun was dimmer,  and yet the geology indicates ice-free conditions.  This chart was published a few years ago in the refereed journal "Science",  published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  It's based on atmospheric composition inferred from rock chemistry,  and it's pretty good back to the Cambrian,  570 million years ago.  Much before that,  it's inherently rather speculative,  which explains the scale change representing time.  These are indirect measures,  which explains the lack of scale tick marks on carbon dioxide concentrations,  which were roughly around 1000 to 2000 ppm during the Mesozoic.  

Update 4-25-17:

What the long-term carbon dioxide and temperature chart makes clear is twofold.  (1) Carbon dioxide fluctuations do not cause ice ages,  because there was little change in level during the Pleistocene Ice Ages,  and carbon dioxide levels were much higher during the earlier ice ages.  (2) Carbon dioxide in the air does indeed warm the planet,  as evidenced by ice-free intervals at high carbon dioxide earlier in Earth's history,  when the sun was significantly dimmer.  

Something else causes ice ages.  Many things,  this is poorly understood.  There have been many of these ice age events over geologic time:  the Pleistocene event we are most familiar with,  the Jurassic-Cretaceous event,  an event between the Carboniferous and the Permian,  another between the Ordovician and the Silurian,  and who-knows-what during Pre-Cambrian times.  





Climate-Modeling Science

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that humans are causing major effects with greenhouse gas emissions.  They arrive at this conclusion with a combination of (1) computer modeling of climate,  and (2) various proxies for past temperature data earlier than historical measurements. 

There is inherently a lot of uncertainty in the computer modeling,  and a lot of inference in the proxies for past temperatures (unlike the ice core data for atmospheric composition).  There is potential for error,  disagreement,  and even fraud.  Many folks outside the community are uncomfortable with that,  and this is the weakness exploited by those who prefer to disbelieve that we are causing climate change. 

Ice Melting Behavior

Ice behavior is unambiguous.  The mountain glaciers have been generally receding since the 19th century.  Now there are enormous summer sea ice losses,  and thousands of summer meltwater lakes on Greenland,  that we have never seen before!  The co-timing of these symptoms with the increases in measured atmospheric carbon dioxide to unprecedented levels since 1958,  is quite damning.

There is a documentary film available in whole or in part on Youtube named “Chasing Ice”.  It was made by James Balog as part of his Extreme Ice Survey (EIS).  The award-winning film was first shown in 2013.  The time lapse photography of many glaciers' melt-back in the last 30 minutes of that film makes my point better than any words. 

Trade Study-Recommended Actions

The mitigation action to take first is to cut back carbon dioxide and methane emissions as fast as we can,  but without hurting or killing somebody for lack of energy, which limits how fast we can do this.  The coping action to take in case mitigation fails is twofold:  (1) start stockpiling foodstuffs,  and (2) to start moving critical institutions and assets to much higher ground.  

Any other “geo-engineering” activities we contemplate must be reversible,  because we simply do not know that they will do more good than harm.  If they do not work,  we have to be able to undo them. 

It is that simple. And it is that stark.  And,  it has absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology.  Those who claim otherwise are lying to you.  Follow the money to see who and why. 

Previous Related Article on this Topic

There was one earlier article that I wrote on this topic,  which the current article updates and replaces.  That was “On Global Warming”,  dated 1-12-2010,  and sharing the same search keywords you can use to filter searches for this topic on this site:  "bad government",  “bad manners”,  “climate change”,  and “idiocy in politics”.  That older article was last updated in 2014 to show a simpler 4-cell version of the 6-cell trade study matrix presented here.   It now refers the reader to this article.  


7 comments:

  1. Ocean nuclear power is the best way to stop global warming. Centrally mass produced floating nuclear reactors located in remote US territorial waters could be used to manufacture carbon neutral methanol, gasoline, jet fuel,diesel fuel,etc. using the US Navy's synfuel from seawater technology.

    Renewable methanol could replace natural gas in natural gas turbines that could be cheaply modified. Its methanol has already been tested in such modified turbines by the natural gas companies. Recycling the CO2 from those power plants to make more methanol for electricity production would actually make nuclear synfuels for electricity-- carbon negative (reducing the current amount of CO2 in the atmosphere).

    http://newpapyrusmagazine.blogspot.com/2016/12/siting-ocean-nuclear-power-plants-in.html

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    1. Unsubsidised cost of nuclear power is 2 to 3 times more than PV. And nuclear cost is rising while pv is falling.

      When you have places like california where electricity cost is like 40c per kwh, and cost of solar is like 4 cents per kwh. Then theres no need for nuclear.

      Delete
  2. 1. A centrally mass produced floating nuclear power plant is not the same has a large land based nuclear facility

    2. The future of land based reactors is probably in small centrally mass produced underground reactors

    3. PV cost are distorted by the fact that they only produce electricity efficiently when the sun is shining. So a nameplated 10 MWe PV is really only a 2.5 to 3.3 MWe PV. Nuclear power plants currently have a lifetime of about 60 years which could probably be stretched to 100 years. PVs lose about 20% of their efficiency after just 20 years. Per kilowatt of electricity produced, PV produce about 10,000 times more toxic waste than nuclear power plants do. PVs are also extremely land intensive.

    Nuclear power provides about 8% of the total energy consumed in the US even though there really hasn't been a brand new nuclear power plant built in the US in decades. Solar power still provides less than 0.08% of the total energy produced in the US even though lots of solar panels are being produced all of the time.

    Marcel

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    Replies
    1. Nuclear is maybe 8% of electicity generation, not total energy used. You are basically ignoring nuclear waste, and the exclusion zone that reactors usually get on land. Is steel being bent on those floating nuclear reactor designs?

      And you are wrong, in 2016 US got 1.4% of its elecricity from solar. Compared to 1% in 2015. https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2017/03/02/solar-reached-1-4-of-u-s-electricity-in-2016/

      Delete
    2. 20% of the electricity consumed in the US is from nuclear energy.

      China and Russia are already building floating nuclear reactors.

      There's really no such thing as nuclear waste since spent fuel can be recycled to produce even more carbon neutral electricity. France already uses the plutonium from spent fuel to produce electricity.

      Used in next generation nuclear reactors, Bill Gates has estimated that the spent fuel that already exist from commercial nuclear reactors is worth more than $100 trillion in electricity generation.

      No, you're wrong. Read the article you provide a link to, it says 1.4% of electricity production not 1.4% of total energy consumed in the US.

      Marcel

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    3. Global warming is a clear phenomenon, caused by man made CO2
      But the CO2 will go away, and most already has.
      The extra CO2 if squashed down to liquid represents about 1mm across the globe.
      Highly soluble in water and most of the globe covered in water this CO2 will dissolve in the oceans and disappear from the atmosphere.
      The only problem is that this will happen naturally only slowly as the top 50m or so of water heated by the sun floats on the other 99% of the ocean and only slowly mixes with deep water.
      The answer is IMO iron fertilisation.
      It's geo or bioengineering but the risks look small to none existent.
      The oceans are deserts compared to there historic stare as biological activity stripped out nutrients,especially iron.

      Delete
  3. The Keeling curve since 1958 clearly shows that atmospheric CO2 is not going away, but in fact rising quite rapidly. At the same time CO2 is dissolving into the ocean, as you suggest, lowering its pH noticeably. Both effects are bad.

    What gets forgotten here is that not all carbon is "bad". What we have done is unbury long-isolated carbon and add it back to the atmosphere in a geological "instant". Some is necessary to keep us from freezing. But too much really is bad, as with most things. There is no surprise about any of that.

    -- GW

    ReplyDelete