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Putting the Brakes on CO2 is at Best Half a Climate Solution

A new study, Continued global warming after CO2 emissions stoppage by researchers from Princeton University, reinforces the assertion I have made here and here in this forum, in this video and have argued with the U.S. Patent Office for a number of months that the carbon dioxide content already present in the Earth’s atmosphere will continue to cause warming and sea level rise for hundreds of years, even if these emissions were to suddenly stop.

The study challenges the widely-accepted scientific consensus, often echoed in this forum, that the planet’s temperature would remain the same or decline if emissions suddenly stopped.

The reason cited; is the oceans’ decreasing ability to absorb atmospheric heat (especially the polar oceans), which as was pointed out in my last post, with respect to the Arctic, is warming faster than the rest of the planet.

I have used the argument; we already live in a greenhouse that is adding as much as 330 terawatts of heat to the oceans every year to press my position.

A better analogy was offered however by in their current post 4 Hiroshima bombs per second: a widget to raise awareness about global warming. Since 1998, when previous studies claimed global warming ceased or at least was significantly reduced, the planet has accumulated the equivalent of more than 2 billion Hiroshima bombs worth of excess energy. .

Click on the icons at the bottom of the widget to see how this equates to Hurricane Sandys, 6.0 Earthquakes, Million lightning bolts or Big Ben’s full of dynamite.

Nuclear winter is a hypothetical climatic effect of nuclear war. A study presented at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2006 found that even a small-scale, regional nuclear war could disrupt the global climate for a decade or more. In a regional nuclear conflict scenario where two opposing nations in the subtropics would each use 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons (about 15 kiloton each) on major populated centers, the researchers estimated as much as five million tons of soot would be released, which would produce a cooling of several degrees over large areas of North America and Eurasia, including most of the grain-growing regions. The cooling would last for years, and according to the research could be “catastrophic”

Is it reasonable to expect that warming the planet by the equivalent of 2 billion Hiroshimas can be anything less than catastrophic?

Is it reasonable to assume that adding more heat to the oceans with thermal process like fission or fusion would be a remedy?

We have spent trillions of dollars to prevent a nuclear winter; it is long past time we made a commensurate investment in the prevention of climate Armageddon.

Between 1940 and 1996, it is estimated the U.S. spent at least $8.66 trillion in present-dollars on the nuclear arms race, and trying to keep up the Soviet Union spent enough to bankrupt itself.  

If we continue to forestall addressing the climate problem or approach it mindless to the problems of ocean warming, acidification and sea level rise we are headed in the same direction.

On the other hand energy is a $6 trillion/year enterprise and the world is gravely in need of a replacement for fossil fuel.

The Princeton team determined that the oceans that remove heat from the Earth’s atmosphere gradually begin absorbing less and less. Ultimately, the residual heat offsets the cooling that takes place as a result of reduced amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

The researchers demonstrated that the change in ocean heat uptake in the polar regions has a more pronounced effect on global mean temperature than changes in low-latitude oceans. This phenomenon is known as “ocean-heat uptake efficacy,” and according to lead researcher it plays a “central role” in climate change and has been underrepresented in previous studies.

“Scientists have thought that the temperature stays constant or declines once emissions stop, but now we show that the possibility of a temperature increase can not be excluded,” Thomas Lukas Frölicher, the corresponding author said. “This is illustrative of how difficult it may be to reverse climate change – we stop the emissions, but still get an increase in the global mean temperature.”

(And sea level rise, more instense storms, drought, fires etc. )

The researchers created an Earth simulation wherein carbon dioxide emissions suddenly ceased after 1,800 billion tons of CO2 had entered the atmosphere. Within 20 years, 40 percent of  the greenhouse gas had been absorbed by the planet’s oceans and landmasses, and 80 percent of it had been soaked up after 1,000 years.

“By itself, such a decrease of atmospheric carbon dioxide should lead to cooling. But the heat trapped by the carbon dioxide took a divergent track,” Princeton said. “After a century of cooling, the planet warmed by 0.37 degrees Celsius (0.66 Fahrenheit) during the next 400 years as the ocean absorbed less and less heat.”

“While the resulting temperature spike seems slight, a little heat goes a long way here. Earth has warmed by only 0.85 degrees Celsius (1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) since pre-industrial times,” it added. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that global temperatures a mere 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than pre-industrial levels would dangerously interfere with the climate system.”

In order to prevent the planet from reaching that point, humans would have to limit cumulative CO2 emissions to less than 1,000 billion tons of carbon, approximately half of which have already entered the Earth’s atmosphere. The lingering warming effect that the Princeton researchers found, however, means that the two-degree plateau could be reached with far fewer carbon emissions.

“If our results are correct, the total carbon emissions required to stay below 2 degrees of warming would have to be three-quarters of previous estimates, only 750 billion tons instead of 1,000 billion tons of carbon,” said Frölicher.

In another study 10,000-Year Study Finds Oceans Warming Fast, But From a Cool Baseline published in the journal Science, by Yair Rosenthal of Rutgers University and colleagues from Columbia University and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution point out that deep ocean warming could be taking much of the heat that meteorologists had expected to find in the atmosphere.

“We may have underestimated the efficiency of the oceans as a storehouse for heat and energy,” said Rosenthal in a Rutgers interview, “It may buy us some time – how much time, I don’t really know – to come to terms with climate change. But it’s not going to stop climate change.”

Another way to buy time while at the same time producing at least as much energy as we currently derive from fossil fuels is to run surface, ocean, heat through a heat engine into the deep oceans.

It is in fact the only way you address all of the effects and causes of the problem concurrently to producing the energy that is needed.

Jim Baird's picture

Thank Jim for the Post!

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 29, 2013

Jim, the established consensus among climate scientists is that several degrees of warming are indeed “built-in” and irremediable at this point, but it bears repeating – even at the risk of encouraging the fatalism of those who believe all there’s left to do is adapt. Without addressing CO2 emissions as our first order of business, adaptation could be all but impossible and threaten our survival as a species.

You pose one question in a rhetorical manner but I don’t think the answer you’re expecting is the correct one:

Is it reasonable to assume that adding more heat to the oceans with thermal process like fission or fusion would be a remedy?

At any given moment the earth is receiving 173 petawatts of power from the sun. According to James Hansen, all but .42 petawatts is radiated out to space. This accumulation of .24% of solar energy makes up our global energy imbalance – the primary culprit of climate change.

Our global power consumption is .00165 petawatts, or 1/254 of the energy imbalance. This tiny fraction includes all of the electricity, the cars, boats, trains, planes, all of our various uses for energy. So it’s not the thermal energy humans are creating which is the problem, but what we’re trapping (without GHGs, the energy we create would be harmlessly radiated out to space). This is an important distinction because it implies that robust carbon-free energy sources like fission could indeed provide us with energy-rich lifestyles with little or no adverse effect on the climate.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on November 30, 2013

Jim, President Carter committed $260M to OTEC projects in the 1970s with the goal of reaching 10,000MW of production by 1999. To this date, the highest capacity ever achieved in operation was 1MW at a pilot plant in India, and the Navy recently withdrew funds from a 10MW facility in Hawaii, concluding the system was “not viable”.

With OTEC’s most significant contribution to global energy some 1 million times less than what is actually needed, and viable only within 20 degrees of the equator, what makes you believe the technology is capable of meeting global energy needs in the forseeable future?

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