What to do about Climate Change

As noted in my previous post, the IPCC report on climate change is out. If you look at the technical report, it starts with pages of corrections. I would have thought that in these days the use of a word processor could permit the changes to be made immediately, but what do I know? Anyway, what are the conclusions? As far as I can make out, they have spent an enormous effort measuring greenhouse gas emissions and modelling, and have concluded that greenhouse gases are the cause of our problem and if we stopped emitting right now, totally, things would not get appreciably worse than they are now over the next century. As far as I can make out, that is it. They argue that CO2 emissions give a linear effect and for every trillion tonnes emitted, temperatures will rise by 0.45 Centigrade degrees, with a fairly high error margin. So we have to stop emitting.

The problem is, can we? In NZ we have a very high fraction of our electricity from renewable sources and we recently had a night of brown-outs in one region. It was the coldest night of the year, there was a storm over most of the country, but oddly enough there was hardly any wind at a wind farm. A large hydro station went out as well because the storm blew weeds into an intake and the station had to shut down and clean it out. The point is that when electricity generation is a commercial venture, it is not in the generating companies’ interests to have a whole lot of spare capacity and it make no sense to tear down what is working well and making money to spend a lot replacing it. So, the policy of using what we have means we are stuck where we are. China has announced, according to our news, that its coal-fired power stations will maximise and plateau their output of CO2 in about ten years. We have no chance of zero emissions in the foreseeable future. Politicians and environmentalists can dream on but there is too much inertia in an economy. Like a battleship steering straight for the wharf, the inevitable will happen.

Is there a solution? My opinion is, if you have to persist in reducing the heat being radiated to space, the best option is to stop letting so much energy from the sun into the system. The simplest experiment I can think of is to put huge amounts of finely dispersed white material, like the silica a volcano puts up, over the North Polar regions each summer to reflect sunlight back to space. If we can stop as much winter ice melting, we would be on the way to stop the potential overturn of the Gulf Stream and stop the Northern Siberian methane emissions. Just maybe this would also encourage more snow in the winter as the dust falls out.

Then obvious question is, how permanent would such a dispersion be? The short answer is, I don’t know, and it may be difficult to predict because of what is called the Arctic oscillation. When that is in a positive phase it appears that winds tend to circulate over the poles, so it may be possible to maintain dust over summer. It is less clear what happens in the negative phase. However, either way someone needs to calculate how much light has to be blocked to stop the Arctic (and Antarctic) warming. Maybe such a scheme would not be practical, but unless we at least make an effort to find out, we are in trouble.

This raises the question of who pays? In my opinion, every country with a port benefits if we can stop major sea level rising, so all should. Of course, we shall find that not all are cooperative. A further problem is that the outcome is somewhat unpredictable. The dust only has to last during the late spring and summer, because the objective is to reflect sunlight. For the period when the sun is absent it is irrelevant. We would also have to be sure the dust was not hazardous to health but we have lived through volcanic eruptions that have caused major lowering of the temperature world-wide so there will be suitable material.

There will always be some who lose on the deal. The suggestion of putting the dust over the Arctic would make the weather less pleasant in Murmansk, Fairbanks, Yukon, etc, but it would only return it to what it used to be. It is less clear what it would do elsewhere. If the arctic became colder, presumably there would be colder winter storms in more temperate regions. However, it might be better that we manage the climate than then planet does, thus if the Gulf Stream went, Europe would suffer both rising sea levels and temperatures and weather more like that of Kerguelen. In my opinion, it is worth trying.

But what is the betting any proposal for geoengineering has no show of getting off the ground? The politically correct want to solve the problem by everyone giving up something, they have not done the sums to estimate the consequences, and worse, some will give things up but enough won’t so that such sacrifices will be totally ineffective. We have the tragedy of the commons: if some are not going to cooperate and the scheme hence must fail, why should you even try? We need to find ways of reducing emissions other than by stopping an activity, as opposed to the emission.

What are We Doing about Melting Ice? Nothing!

Over my more active years I often returned home from the UK with a flight to Los Angeles, and the flight inevitably flew over Greenland. For somewhat selfish reasons I tried to time my work visits in the northern summer, thus getting out of my winter, and the return flight left Heathrow in the middle of the day so with any luck there was good sunshine over Greenland. My navigation was such that I always managed to be at a window somewhere at the critical time, and I was convinced that by my last flight, Greenland was both dirtier and the ice was retreating. Dirt was from dust, not naughty Greenlanders, and it was turning the ice slightly browner, which made the ice less reflective, and thus would encourage melting. I was convinced I was seeing global warming in action during my last flight, which was about 2003.

As reported in “The Economist”, according to an analysis of 40 years of satellite data at Ohio State University, I was probably right. In the 1980s and 1990s, during Greenland summers it lost approximately 400 billion tonnes of ice each summer, by ice melting and by large glaciers shedding lumps of ice as icebergs into the sea. This was not critical at the time because it was more or less replenished by winter snowfalls, but by 2000 the ice was no longer being replenished and each year there was a loss approaching 100 billion t/a. By now the accumulated net ice loss is so great it has caused a noticeable change in the gravitational field over the island. Further, it is claimed that Greenland has hit the point of no return. Even if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases now, it was claimed, more ice would be progressively lost than could be replaced.

So far the ice loss is raising the oceans by about a millimetre a year so, you may say, who cares? The problem is the end position is the sea will rise 7 metres. Oops. There is worse. Apparently greenhouse gases cause more effects at high latitudes, and there is a lot more ice on land at the Antarctic. If Antarctica went, Beijing would be under water. If only Greenland goes, most of New York would be under water, and just about all port cities would be in trouble. We lose cities, but more importantly we lose prime agricultural land at a time our population is expanding

So, what can be done? The obvious answer is, be prepared to move where we live. That would involve making huge amounts of concrete and steel, which would make huge amounts of carbon dioxide, which would make the overall problem worse. We could compensate for the loss of agricultural land, which is the most productive we have, by going to aquaculture but while some marine algae are the fastest growing plants on Earth, our bodies are not designed to digest them. We could farm animal life such as prawns and certain fish, and these would help, but whether productivity would be sufficient is another matter.

The next option is geoengineering, but we don’t know how to do it, and what the effects will be, and we are seemingly not trying to find out. We could slow the rate of ice melting, but how? If you answer, with some form of space shade, the problem is that orbital mechanics do not work in your favour. You could shade it some of the time, but so what? Slightly more promising might be to generate clouds in the summer, which would reflect more sunlight.

The next obvious answer (OK, obvious may not be the best word) is to cause more snow to fall in winter. Again, the question is, how? Generating clouds and seeding them in the winter might work, but again, how, and at what cost? The end result of all this is that we really don’t have many options. All the efforts at limiting emissions simply won’t work now, if the scientists at Ohio State are correct. Everyone has heard of tipping points. According to them, we passed one and did not notice until too late. Would anything work? Maybe, maybe not, but we won’t know unless we try, and wringing our hands and making trivial cuts to emissions is not the answer.

Another Wellington storm

Yet another storm hit Wellington; this time winds were a mere maximum of 165 k/h (about 100 mph). Is this climate change? Whatever, it is interesting that climate change is now a major concern, which raises the question, what can we do about it? Suppose we answer, “Stop burning fossil fuels,” what would the effect be? Currently, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is about 400 parts per million (compared with about 280 ppm at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution). If we are concerned about the effects of such atmospheric carbon dioxide, then if we stop producing it right now, the 400 ppm remain. Now, as noted in the last post, the climate shows strong signs of what physicists call hysteresis. This is when the effect is something depends on how you got there, where the system has “memory” of previous times. In this aspect, the Greenland ice sheets are actually the last remnants of the last great Ice Age. As we heat the planet, all that happens first in some places is that ice melts, the extra heat being absorbed by the melting ice without any temperature increase. In other words, for a while what you see is not what you are going to get!

In my opinion, the major problem civilization is going to face is rising sea levels. If the Greenland Ice Sheet melts, then the sea will rise about 7 meters. Take a look at Google Earth and see what goes. Amongst other places, a significant fraction of Bangla Desh, and essentially all Pacific islands based on coral reefs (as opposed to the volcanic basalt peaks, but you cannot live on the side of them). So, how do you defend against that?

 One suggestion is to build sea walls. These would have to be around all the land, including alongside riverbanks, and they may have to last tens of thousands of years. And, of course, while you are making all the required concrete and moving rock, you are probably generating massive amounts of further carbon dioxide, which will lead to more of the Antarctic ice melting, thus cancelling any value from your efforts. You could build walls of up to fifty meters high, and that would certainly be adequate for as long as the walls last.

 You could try removing the carbon dioxide from the environment. At first sight this seems futile; there is just too much there. However, at least some can be removed without much effort if we regrow forests. You would have to start planting them, but once underway, they would happily consume carbon. Even more spectacular would be to grow marine algae. The kelps such as Macrocystis pyrifera are extremely fast growing, and you can harvest them by mowing them. I rather fancy collecting such kelp and using it to make either biofuel or other chemicals. The key is to ensure that the carbon is removed from the ocean.

 Currently, we produce about 10 billion tonne per annum of carbon dioxide. That means we have to remove 10 billion tonne per annum just to break even. It is unlikely we can do that, although what we can do, we should, so what other options are there? A massive deployment of nuclear power would slow the fossil fuel burning, but it would not remove any of the current 400 ppm, and who wants nuclear power?

 The simplest answer is for every tonne of water melted by the ocean currents, we deposit a tonne of snow into the ice sheets. That involves geoengineering, and the problem is, when you interfere like that with nature, the effects are probably not that readily calculated. Such proposals in the past have been met with opposition. The problem is, some countries are going to be adversely affected by the geoengineering, and these are the ones that, in the first place caused the problem. Of course if we do nothing, it is the Pacific Islanders and the Bangla Deshis who pay. Do we know what will happen if we intervene? No, we do not, but we know what will happen if we do not. Of course there is another problem: how do we decide, and who decides?