Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Convenient Truth - Another Perspective on Global Warming

One of the ways that the global warming prevention advocates lose some credibility among skeptics and conservative young Earth creationists is that they exaggerate, slant, spin or fear monger.  A little balance about alternative views and information, in my opinion, builds credibility.  Yes, putting 10 gigatonnes of CO2 in the atmosphere every year is going to affect our climate, but that isn't the full story.  Things might not be so awful after all.
  • Yes, we're warming up, but historically we are on a warming trend.  Ice ages are cyclical and have happened every 40-100 thousand years for the last few million years.  We're just coming out of one of the worst about 20k years ago and we should expect that things would continue to warm for a while.
  • Fossil fuels may be putting an unusual amount of CO2 into the atmosphere within a geological blink of an eye, but we aren't the only contributing factor.  Of all the CO2 that entered our atmosphere last year, how much do you think was man made from mostly fossil fuels?  About 2%.  The other 98% comes from natural processes such as the decomposition of organic material.  (source:  Super Freakonomics)
  • The worst predictions of our future, if we burn every last drop of oil, gas and coal is a global average temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius.  This would cause our sea level to rise about 2 feet.  Historically that's not so bad.  During the Cretaceous period temperatures were 10 degrees Celsius and deep water temperatures were as much as 20 degrees warmer with sea levels 550 ft higher.
  • Prior to industrialization CO2 occupied 280 parts per million and now, largely due to our actions have increased that to 380 parts per million.  That seems like a lot, and it is, but 80 million years ago the CO2 levels were at a 1,000 parts per million.
  • Carbon dioxide is not all bad.  Plants love the stuff.  Wood is made mostly of carbon and that carbon comes from our atmosphere.  Studies have shown that if you double the amount of CO2 in a greenhouse you can increase the growth of plant by 70%.
  • What's the strongest greenhouse gas?  Before you say methane, which is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a green house gas, the real winner is water vapor.  There is an enormous amount of water in our atmosphere and it does a marvelous job of both trapping infrared radiation (the cause of much of the greenhouse warming), but also as a very white, fluffy reflector of solar radiation.  How, in the end, an increase in temperature and possibly increased water vapor and cloud cover could affect our future climate remains to be seen.
  • Trees are darker and therefore absorb more solar radiation than do desert and grasslands (but not necessarily city scapes).  Less trees, oddly enough, might make a very minuscule global cooling.
  • There are ways of defanging the worst case scenarios:
    • We might be able to bust hurricanes by using wave motion to pump hot surface water down and cold water up. 
    • Agricultural advancements are making famine less and less of a concern (though still important in certain areas).
    • CO2 scrubbers exist that can absorb the gas from the atmosphere.  No, there not cheap, but nevertheless what we're doing is reverse-able.  Or, we could just plant a bunch of trees...
    • The largest fixer of CO2 is algae, not trees.  Some have considered putting iron fertilizer (a limiting reagent for algae) into the ocean to create blooms that would capture CO2 from our atmosphere and, eventually, sequester it to the bottom of the ocean once they die.
    • As for ocean levels inundating coastal cities, don't forget that places like the Netherlands are as much as 23 ft below sea level.  We just may have to construct more levees.  They're not a perfect solution, but flooding isn't the end of the world, that's all.
    • Sulfur dioxide:  It's long been known that there are global cooling events after large volcanic eruptions.  One  such eruption, Mt. Toba, very likely played a pivotal role in our human evolution.  Some 70k years ago this super eruption significantly cooled the Earth changing weather patterns so as to cause severe famine and drought in our home, Africa.  Based on genetic data it's been hypothesized that the diversity of humanity all came from perhaps as few as 10,000 individuals during this period.  Around the same time there was a veritable explosion of human culture.  Put the two together and it'd make sense that maybe only the smartest survived this cooling drought--hence us.   Anyway, the reason the Earth cooled so much was because of all the ash that soared into the stratosphere, particularly sulfur dioxide.  It's kind of like dimming the lights basically since it reflects back into space a considerable amount of solar radiation.  And fortunately, other than cooling the atmosphere it doesn't do a whole lot of other negative things.  That being the case, there's nothing stopping  us from replicating the same event--pump sulfur dioxide into the air and cool the  Earth back to a manageable temperature (the book Super Freakonomics says this could be down with helium floating tubes with as little cost as 10 million dollar a year with a 20 million dollar initial infrastructure cost).
However, as it's been said, this isn't our world, we're borrowing it from our children.  That being the case, take care of her.  We just have one.  Reasons to take heed of the global warming warnings:
  • What we do might be irreversible.
  • It might cause a cascade effect--for just one examples: heat up the northern permafrost and we may release a frightening amount of methane.  The scales may tip in a huge way.
  • We just don't know the effects.  We're essentially running a massive experiment with the one and only planet we have.
  • Yes, global temperatures fluctuate cyclically, but never this fast.  If we change weather patterns and temperatures, ecological catastrophes are quite likely.
Be wise, be cautious, act long-sightedly, but also be informed.  Things might not be so awful after all.

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