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Moonshots? Earth is the Most in Need of a Shot

EarthShot

On the eve of a Trump administration we would be wise to harken back to the words of President Kennedy. The term moonshot entered popular lexicon in 1961 when Kennedy announced the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade but the term has become synonymous with any astronomically ambitious project; especially one undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and also, perhaps, without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits.

Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

Today many feel that the goal that will best serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills is the problem of climate change. Further paraphrasing Kennedy, the exploration for the solution will go ahead, whether others joins in or not. It is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race.

December 2015, in Paris, 195 countries agreed, by consensus to reduce emissions as part of the method for reducing greenhouse gas “as soon as possible” and to do their best to keep global warming “to well below 2 degrees Celsius. Countries publicly outlined what post-2020 climate actions they intended to take, their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs), which are currently 1.5 degrees higher than the 2-degree objective and just 1 degree below the 4.5 degree, business as usual, marker.

warming_05

For some small island nations and coastal states climate change is an imminent existential threat. The difference between 1.5 degrees and the BAU scenario is an additional half meter of sea level rise and potentially the difference between survival and extinction for some of the 44-members of the Alliance of Small Island States.

Global emissions are not declining anywhere near fast enough to meet IPCC targets and nations that had to this point seen the US as their best hope for leadership are instead now on the cusp of at least four years of a Trump administration, which undoubtedly means federal inaction.

Vice President Biden said a month ago in a visit to Ottawa, Canada, “U.S. climate progress will continue under Trump — if only because it is now largely driven by market forces and by actions taken at the state level.” Biden pointed out to Prime Minister Trudeau “The world’s going to spend a lot of time looking to you, prime minister, as we see more and more challenges to the liberal international order since the end of World War II — you and Angela Merkel.”

Germany’s Angela Merkel has earned the nickname “The Climate Chancellor” for her long-standing campaign to bring about cuts in carbon emissions but as German economist Heiner Flassbeck, pointed out in these pages last week, a recent period of extremely low solar and wind power generation shows that Germany will never be able to rely on renewable energy, regardless of  how much new capacity is built. With a southern border similar to that of Germany, Canada is similarly renewably challenged but for its hydro power, which is incapable of providing more than about 10 percent of the global demand for at least 30 terawatts of primary energy by 2050.

Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged a few days ago that, “You can’t make a choice between what’s good for the environment and what’s good for the economy. . .We can’t shut down the oilsands tomorrow. We need to phase them out. We need to manage the transition off of our dependence on fossil fuels,” he said but where is Canada’s plan for a replacement for oil?

Canada had a long run with nuclear power. Since 1961 25 commercial reactors were constructed in Ontario, Quebec, and New Brunswick. Six of these reactors have since been closed, 6 more are schedule to shut down within 7 years and the remaining 13 reactors are all scheduled for closure by 2054.

Further in a 2016 Gallup poll, for the first time since being asked about nuclear energy in 1994, a majority of Americans say they are opposed – 54% – to nuclear energy as opposed to 44% in favor. The peak for acceptance of nuclear power came in 2010 at 62%, the year before Fukushima and public opinion has been eroding ever since.

Without sufficient, wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power what is left?

Furthermore, David Keller et al., in a Nature article Potential climate engineering effectiveness and side effects during a high carbon dioxide-emission scenario demonstrates that efforts to date to reduce carbon dioxide emissions have been relatively ineffective. Using an Earth system model to compare the effectiveness and side effects of afforestation, artificial ocean upwelling, ocean iron fertilization, ocean alkalinization and solar radiation management during a high carbon dioxide-emission scenario Keller’s study found that even when applied continuously and at scales as large as currently deemed possible, all methods are, individually, either relatively ineffective with limited (<8%) warming reductions, or they have potentially severe side effects and cannot be stopped without causing rapid climate change.

Global warming traps heat that has to go somewhere. It can go towards to the poles, as it has been doing to ill effect or it can be moved into deep water by horizontal convective cycles that last about 250 years because the heat sequestered will rise from 1000 meters through convection at a rate of about 4cm/year. In accordance with the 2nd law of thermodynamics this relocation can produce the energy required to replace fossil fuels and with the process by outlined by Greg Rau in Scientific American carbon dioxide can be extracted from the air.

In the interim the accumulated heat can be converted, 5 percent at a tranche, in heat engines that keep recycling the surface back to the deep until, 5000 years from now, it will have been all converted into productive energy and the atmosphere will have been stabilized.

In other words there won’t be any need for at least the next 5000 years to shutdown this source of energy.

Surface heat is accumulating at least twice as fast as the deep thus the average delta T for ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) is increasing which by default means the thermohaline circulation is being destabilized with significant consequences for atmospheric temperatures and sea levels.

Canadian focus groups were asked last year whether Ottawa should invest in high-tech schemes including self-driving cars, drone delivery and Internet balloons.

Instead they should be looking at the ground beneath their feet, which in parts of the country is inexorably being washed away.

We need expectations of near-term profitability and/or benefits from renewable energy and these are best found in vertically integrated systems that concurrently produce energy from ocean heat while sequestering carbon dioxide.

Unfortunately there are too few of us willing to accept, unwilling to be postponed and intending to win the challenge of the century.

Jim Baird's picture

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