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Climate Change: The Choices Couldn’t Be Starker

The energy paths confronting the next two generations couldn’t be starker. There is the “business” as usual case that assumes 4 degrees of global warming is inevitable so we should use the cheapest and most plentiful energy sources available regardless of the fact that burning these fuels will raise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations 40 percent higher than current levels.

Then is there is the off-the-shelf case that uses currently available technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible along a continuum between the current level and up to 560 parts per million (ppm), twice the preindustrial level, that produces average temperatures between 3 and 4 degrees higher than preindustrial levels depending on how rapidly the greenhouse levels can be brought down.

And finally there is the lowered ocean heat load case that reduces greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly as possible along the 400 to 560 ppm continuum while reducing atmospheric and ocean surface temperatures one degree every decade, all the while producing as much energy as is derived by either the off-the-shelf approach or fossil fuels with the added benefits of reducing thermal ocean expansion and sea level rise, mitigating ocean acidification and producing potable water.

In a May 10, 2016, article, Almost Everything You Know About Climate Change Solutions Is Outdated, Part 1, Joe Romm says climate science and climate politics have moved unexpectedly quickly toward a broad understanding that we need to keep total human-caused global warming as far as possible below 2°C (3.6°F) — and ideally to no more than 1.5°C. In the follow up, We Can Stop Searching For The Clean Energy Miracle. It’s Already Here., May 12, 2016 he focused on what he claims is the light-speed changes in clean energy technology.

To hear Dr. Romm tell it, 1.5°C is little more than a matter of political will and the adoption of the off-the-shelf technology and we are good to go but that simply is not the case. James Hansen et al. debunked that myth in a 2005 paper, Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications. The inertia of the oceans has already baked 0.6°C – 11 years later now closer to 0.7°C – into the climate system due to 37.5 year’s worth of thermal inertia over and above the +1.22±0.14 temperature anomaly recorded by NOAA in March, 2016. We are already looking therefor at 2°C in about 26 years with all of the best of political and technical intentions in the world. Not counting the 0.9 degrees Ramanathan and Feng have pointed to waiting in the form of hidden deferred warming from aerosols that will be ‘unmasked’ when fossil air pollution or fossil energy production stops and the likelihood of another 1.0°C coming in the least time it will take to actually stabilize greenhouse emissions.

Probably we are therefor looking at closer to 4 degrees of warming.

Michael Mann in an April 1, 2014 Scientific American article  Earth Will Cross the Climate Danger Threshold by 2036 essentially confirms Hansen’s lag and says that if the world continues to burn fossil fuels at the current rate, global warming will rise to two degrees Celsius by 2036, which he says is the threshold above which human civilization is harmed.

The IPCC defines Equilibrium climate sensitivity as the change in global mean temperature that results when the climate system, or a climate model, attains a new equilibrium with the forcing change resulting from a doubling of the atmospheric CO2 concentration.

Knutti and Hegerl in the November, 2008 Natural Geoscience paper, The equilibrium sensitivity of the Earth’s temperature to radiation changes, says various observations favour a climate sensitivity value of about 3 °C, with a likely range of about 2–4.5 °C per the following graphic whereas the current IPCC uncertainty is range is between 1.5 – 4.5 °C.

Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity

Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity

The IPCC estimates 2.4°C is the equilibrium warming above preindustrial temperatures that the world will observe even if greenhouse concentrations are held fixed at their 2005 concentration levels but without any other anthropogenic forcing such as the cooling effect of aerosols. The global mean concentration of CO2 in 2005 was 379 ppm whereas the April 2016 Monthly Average Mauna Loa Observatory reading was 407.42 ppm, about 7 percent higher. So at an accumulation rate of close to 3 ppm annually the equilibrium climate sensitivity mark of 560 ppm should be attained in about 50 years. Which leaves us precious little time to accumulate the massive stockpiles of political will that is not presently in evidence and to adopt off-the-shelf technologies.

As Bill Gates claims, we need an energy miracle. There is little point to massively deploying technology that does not get us to 3 to 4 degrees let alone to 1.5 but Gates’ miracle is at hand and what’s more it isn’t even new technology. It has been around for over a 100 years and a team from the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University refreshed collective memories in the 70s by pointing out if we build over 20000 OTEC plants (each about the size of the nearly 7000 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico) deployed in the tropics, we could generate 5000 GWe of power and reduce surface water temperature by 1C each decade, killing two birds with one stone: generating power and stopping global warming.

The current thinking is closer to 14,000 GWe can be produced with 250,000 100 megawatt plants.

By channeling the inertia of global warming through a turbine to deep water we can sequester heat for at least 250 years, at a returned rate of about 4 meters/year, and return it again at that time to produce additional energy.

In the 50 years it takes to wean the planet off fossils fuels and transition to ocean heat sequestering energy the atmosphere can be cooled 4 degrees rather than be warmed by the same amount with the best of the other alternatives.

The last thing we need is fossil fuel producers being enabled by politicians, who have obstructed the cause of global warming for decades now, being allowed to pivot to charm school offensives to grease the way for new pipelines and hydrocarbon projects in the name of false economy.

It is an act of self-preservation and economic sanity to produce energy that meets our environmental needs and this is the best way to put the polluters out of business.

The best environmental business currently available needs to prevail.

Jim Baird's picture

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