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.

Science and Climate Change

In the previous post, I questioned whether science is being carried out properly. You may well wonder, then, when this week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a rather depressing report, and a rather awkward challenge: according to their report, the world needed to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C between now and 2050, and to do that, it needed to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030, and net zero by 2050. Even then significant amounts of carbon have to be removed from the atmosphere. The first question is, then, is this real, and if so, why has the IPCC suddenly reduced the tolerable emissions? If their scientists previously predicted seriously lower requirements, why should these be considered better? There are two simple answers. The first is the lesser requirements were based on the assumption that nations would promptly reduce emissions. Most actually increased them. The second is more complicated.

The physics have been verified many times. However, predicting the effects is another matter. The qualitative effects are easily predicted, but to put numbers on them requires very complicated modelling. The planet is not an ideal object, and the calculation is best thought of as an estimate. What has probably happened is their modelling made a projection of what would happen, and they did this long enough ago that now that they can compare prediction with where we are now. That tells them how good the various constants they put into the model were. Such a comparison is somewhat difficult, but there are clear signs in our observations, and things are worse than we might hope for.

So, what are we going to do? Nothing dramatic is going to happen on 2040, or 2050. Change will be gradual, but its progress will be unstoppable unless very dramatic changes in our behaviour are made. The technical challenges here are immense. However, there are a number of important decisions to be taken because we are running short of time due to previous inaction. Do we want to defend what we have? Do we want to attempt to do it through sacrificing our life style, or do we want to attempt a more aggressive approach? Can we get sufficient agreement that anything we try will be properly implemented? Worst of all, do we know what our options are? Of these questions, I am convinced that through inaction, and in part the structural defects of academic science, the answer to the last question is no.

The original factor of required emissions reduction was set at 1990 as a reference point. What eventuated was that very few countries actually reduced any emissions, and most increased them. The few that did reduce them did that by closing coal-fired electricity generation and opted for burning natural gas. This really achieves little, and would have happened anyway. Europe did that, although France is a notable exception to this in that it has had significant nuclear power for a long time. Nuclear power has its problems, but carbon emissions are not one of them. The countries of the Soviet Union have also actually had emission reductions, although this is as much as anything due to the collapse of their economies as they made the rather stupid attempt to convert to “free market economics” which permitted a small number of oligarchs to cream the economy, sell off what they could, use what was usable, pay negligible wages and export their profits so they could purchase foreign football clubs. That reduced carbon emissions, but it is hardly a model to follow.

There is worse news. Most people by now have recognized that Donald Trump and the Republican party do not believe in global warming, while a number of other countries that are only beginning to industrialize want the right to emit their share of CO2 and are on a path to burn coal. Some equatorial countries are hell-bent on tearing down their rain forest, while warming in Siberia will release huge amounts of methane, which is about thirty times more potent than CO2. Further, if we are to totally change our way of life, we shall have to dismantle the energy-related infrastructure from the last fifty years or so (earlier material has probably already been retired) and replace it, which, at the very least will require billions of tonnes of carbon to make the required metals.

There will be some fairly predictable cries. Vegetarians will tell everyone to give up meat. Cyclists will tell everyone they should stop driving cars. In short, everyone will have ideas where someone else gives up whatever. One problem is that people tend to want to go for “the magic bullet”, the one fix to fix them all. Thus everyone should switch to driving electric vehicles. In the long term, yes, but you cannot take all those current vehicles off the road, and despite what some say, heavy trucks, major farm and construction equipment, and aircraft are going to run on hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future. People talk about hydrogen, but hydrogen currently requires massive steel bottles (unless you are NASA, or unless you can get hydrides to act reversibly). And, of course, there is a shortage of material to make enough batteries. Yes, electric vehicles, cycling, public transport and being a vegetarian are all noble contributions, but they are just that. Wind and solar power, together with some other sources, are highly desirable, but I suspect that something else, such as nuclear power must be adopted more aggressively. In this context, Germany closing down such reactors is not helpful either.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere is not that easy either. There have been proposals to absorb it from the effluent gases of coal-fired power stations. Such scrubbing is not 100% efficient, but even if it were, it is not dealing with what is already there. My guess is, that can only be managed by plants in sufficient scale. While not extremely efficient, once going they look after themselves. Eventually you have to do something with the biomass, but restoring all the tropical rain forests would achieve something in the short term. My personal view is the best chances are to grow algae. The sea has a huge area and while we still have to learn how to do it, it is plausible, and the resultant biomass could be used to make biofuel.

No, it is not going to be easy. The real question is, can we be bothered trying to save what we have?