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A Seven Percent Solution Will Never Remedy Global Warming

Sherlock Holmes was a fictionalized “consulting detective” celebrated in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle for his powers of observations, reason and skill in forensic science.

No skilled scientist approaches an impossible to understand or unexplained problem by throwing out 93% of the evidence at their disposal. In crime fighting this is a sure-fire way to incriminate the innocent and to free the guilty but for the top global threat to the world’s population, according to the Pew Research Center, it is a recipe for disaster.

Nonetheless that is how we are approaching global warming.

In literature Sherlock Holmes occasionally used cocaine in a seven-percent solution with a syringe kept in a Morocco leather case because, “I abhor the dull routine of existence. I crave for mental exaltation,” he said.

There is nothing routine about the preservation of human existence and for mental exaltation the pursuit is better than any narcotic.

The following SkepticalsSience.com graphic based on IPCC AR4 5.2.2.3. data for the period 1993 to 2003 tells us over 93% of the heat of global warming is going into the oceans.

Where

Only 2.3% of the heat is going into the atmosphere yet the science tells us the ocean and the atmosphere ultimately have to come into equilibrium. The more heat we put into the oceans the more heat they have to ultimately give back to the atmosphere yet we are treating the oceans like they are our free lunch, or as Sherlock Holmes would have deduced the dog that didn’t bark because it was devouring our lunch.

The 2.3% of the heat accumulated in the atmosphere is a problem is in its own right but when you consider the oceans have accumulated enough heat already to warm the upper 10 kilometers of the atmosphere by an additional 36°C were this heat instantly released into the atmosphere the problem becomes clearer. Specially since April, 2016 was the 12th consecutive month of warmest recorded temperatures ever recorded principally on account of the release of a small fraction of the ocean’s heat to the atmosphere due to El Nino conditions.  For the most part this heat came from no deeper than about 300 meters whereas in the past 18 years the oceans have accumulationed as much heat in the past 18 years as they did in the previous 133 years with two-thirds of that heat going into the upper 700 meters of the oceans, 20 percent between 700 and 2000 meters and the remainder below 2,000 meters.

NOAA’s global State of the Climate report for April found the temperature over the Earth’s surface was 1.10°C above the 20th century average about slightly less than the March temperature of 1.22°C which crushed the previous warmest record.

In the estimation of Gavin Schmidt, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies, the average global temperature in 2016 could range from about 1.1 °C above preindustrial to only slightly below 1.5 °C, based on the GISS’s temperature record per the accompanying graphic.

yeartodate

The 1.22°C mark for March however stands as the high-water mark for now but two hundred years from now the Nature Climate Change article of Tokarska et al. points to the potential for global mean warming of 6.4–9.5 °C, mean Arctic warming of 14.7–19.5 °C, and mean regional precipitation increases four times higher were we to burn the five trillion tonnes of carbon corresponding to the lower end of the range of estimates of total fossil fuel resources.

As the authors point out, “Concrete actions to curtail greenhouse gas emissions have so far been limited on a global scale, and therefore the ultimate magnitude of climate change in the absence of further mitigation is an important consideration for climate policy”.  But unsaid in the article is the point that we are yet to address or do not have any plan or policy for mitigating 93% of the problem.

M.J. Kelly of Cambridge University says in the 2015 paper Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability, says, “An examination of successful and failed introductions of technology over the last 200 years generates several lessons that should be kept in mind as we proceed to 80% decarbonize the world economy by 2050. I will argue that all the actions taken together until now to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide will not achieve a serious reduction, and in some cases, they will actually make matters worse. In practice, the scale and the different specific engineering challenges of the decarbonization project are without precedent in human history. This means that any new technology introductions need to be able to meet the huge implied capabilities. An altogether more sophisticated public debate is urgently needed on appropriate actions that (i) considers the full range of threats to humanity, and (ii) weighs more carefully both the upsides and downsides of taking any action, and of not taking that action.”

The full range of threats to humanity is probably the easiest of these questions to answer.  Richard E. Smalley, 1996 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry said in his paper, Future Global Energy Prosperity: The Terawatt Challenge, “When I have given talks on this subject before, I have often asked people in the audience to name the most critical problems we will have to confront as we go through this century.  In every case, after a bit of discussion, the audiences have agreed that energy is the single most important issue we face,” he said. Because it is the key to solving all of the other problems identified including water, food, environment, poverty, terrorism and war, disease, education, democracy and population.

So successful energy technology has to have the capability to solve as many of these issues as possible.

It can not make matters worth and it will have to make a serious reduction in carbon dioxide levels.

Reducing the ocean’s surface heat load, reducing thermal ocean expansion and sea level rise, utilizing a vast, natural marine carbon storage reservoir to lower carbon dioxide levels, helping mitigate ocean acidification and potable water production are the closes definition of a successful energy technology as we can get. And when added to that mix the avoidance of biophysical and land use limitations posed by negative emissions methods that rely on terrestrial biology, such as afforestation and BECCS you have essentially the perfect solution.

What’s more all of this costs no more than the cost of existing energy sources plus the mitigation of sea level mitigation, storm surge, drought and wild fires that have to be paid for in any case in a single bill.

Holmes would have never been fooled into thinking that cheap energy is the only cost of a sustainable future or that a seven percent solution will ever remedy global warming.

Content Discussion

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 26, 2016

I’m a little uncomfortable with some of the language you’re using here, Jim. A lot of what it’s saying is .., not exactly wrong, but relatively meaningless in the absence of a more tightly defined context.

The oceans may well have taken up 93% of the excess thermal energy that radiative forcing has deposited over the last 50 years, but it makes no sense to talk about that absorbed energy as if it were a caged beast that might someday break loose. And what does it mean to say that in failing to address the ocean specifically, we have no plan or policy “for mitigating 93% of the problem.”

I realize that the language I’m objecting to is rhetorical, and not meant to be taken literally. The point that I think you want to make is that the oceans are a very large heat sink, and that policies that focus solely on reducing GHG emissions are ignoring a potentially potent tool for mitigation of global warming. I agree with that, up to a point.

There’s a caveat, however. Artificially enhanced uptake and retention of heat by the oceans — which is what OTEC would accomplish — is only a short term mitigation strategy. (Although “short term”, in this case, might include the rest of the century.) It can’t be a permanent substitute for the only viable long-term solution of reining in carbon emissions. We absolutely need to move away from burning fossil fuels.

Of course, OTEC would help there too, but it’s a hard sell to potential investors.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 27, 2016

Roger I have grappled with the right way to express myself on this subject for ages but I believe the caged beast analogy isn’t that far off the mark. Peter Gleckler and Paul Durack at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory estimate over the past 18 years the oceans have accumulated as much heat in the past 18 years as they did in the previous 133 years with two-thirds of that heat going into the upper 700 meters of the oceans, 20 percent between 700 and 2000 meters and the remainder below 2,000 meters. The past 12 months have been the warmest on record with the pre-industrial temperature average rising over this period from just under 1°C in December to 1.22°C in March, for the most part occasioned by the release of ocean heat from depths of above 300 meters to the atmosphere due to El Nino conditions. In essence then this heat is but a glimpse into what is in store when the estimated 36°C the oceans have accumulated in the past half century is released over the next 1000 years.

Ultimately carbon emissions have to be reined in but few believe this can be accomplished in under than 50 years so in the interim emissions will raise upwards to 560 ppm and temperatures will increase to around 3 °C.

A Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University team estimated 20,000 OTEC plants (each about the size of the nearly 7000 oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico) deployed in the tropics could generate 5000 GWe of power and reduce surface water temperature by 1C each decade. Nihous estimated as many as 250,000 OTEC 100MW plants could produce 14,000 GWe.

You say OTEC artificially retains ocean heat for the rest of this century at best but with the right design this deferral can be as long as 250 years given that the diffusion rate is about 4 meters/yr. Further once emissions have been halted by the build out of the OTEC fleet the returning heat can be recycled back to the depths in a cycle that converts at about 5% of the heat to productive energy with every pass.

By taking emissions out the equation you still have to account for the 36 degrees at least that the oceans have to ultimately give back to the atmosphere some time over the next 1000 years unless you continue to recycle surface heat as deep as you can and convert as much of it as you can to productive energy with each pass. I also think you also have to account for the additional 2-3 degrees you have added to the atmosphere in the next 50 years that you could have put into the ocean cycle instead. And who’s to say the doubling of ocean heat content that has accumulated in the past 18 years can continue for the next 50 years. What if the oceans start to give up more of this heat to the atmosphere than we expect.

I remain of a mind that we do not currently have a plan or policy to mitigate 93% of the warming problem but I understand this is a hard sell to potential investors and only wish I was a more eloquent and coherent spokesman.

As always my best regards.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 27, 2016

James Hansen, et al. Earth’s Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications.

The thermal inertia of the ocean, with resulting unrealized warming ‘‘in the pipeline,’’ combines with ice sheet inertia and multiple positive feedbacks during ice sheet disintegration to create the possibility of a climate system in which large sea level change is practically impossible to avoid.

Roger the crux of the matter is how do we deal with the thermal inertia of the ocean? It seems to me the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics gives us two avenues to do this; one is to move heat to a colder body and the second is to covert part of the heat to work in transit from the warmer to the colder body.

The avoidance of sea level by moving heat to a region of lowered coefficient of thermal expansion and/or its movement somewhere other where it can melt ice seems to be the proof of the theory.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 29, 2016

“Thermal inertia” is one of those loose terms that I don’t like. It’s misleading and tends to cause incorrect reasoning by analogy. Such as the idea that it’s something that will come back at us in the future and that we therefore need to “do something about”.

Newton’s law of inertia says that “an object at rest stays at rest and and object in motion stays in motion, with the same speed and in the same direction, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force”. In mathematical terms, it’s resistance to changes in the first derivative of an object’s coordinates in an inertial frame of reference. I.e., resistance to acceleration. The proportionality constant for that resistance is the mass of the object.

What’s being called “thermal inertia”, by contrast, is resistance to changes in the temperature of an object. That’s changes in the temperature itself, not its first derivative. It sounds like an academic distinction, but it has consequences. If you apply heat to raise the temperature of an object, there is no inertia-like property that will cause the temperature to continue rising after you’ve removed the heat source.

“Thermal inertia” would more properly be termed “thermal ballast”. It mimics some of the effects of inertia, in that it mutes the system response to changes in inputs. But there’s no inertial component to it in Newton’s sense of “an object in motion stays in motion”.

The thermal ballasting of the oceans and ice sheets has indeed muted climate response to the added radiative forcing from higher atmospheric CO2 levels. It has shielded us, to a degree, from the effects of what we’ve already done to the atmosphere. (“degree” pun not intended, but apropos.) But its capacity to shield us is finite and will eventually be used up.

If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow and arrested the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, warming would continue for some time. That may look like inertia, but it’s not. It’s a lagged response to the radiative forcing we’ve already created. That forcing is relative to a per-industrial baseline, and will continue indefinitely, until such time as CO2 levels are able to return to pre-industrial values. On the order of 10,000 years from now, if we stop burning fossil fuels and don’t do anything to accelerate removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Your main thesis, that we can use OTEC to increase the transfer of heat to the deep oceans is absolutely correct. That will mitigate warming and buy us time to adjust. And that’s certainly good. But it won’t be enough to shield us from a significantly warmer world — and higher sea levels — once the heat sinks are full and we’ve arrived at a new equilibrium.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 29, 2016

“Thermal inertia” is one of those loose terms that I don’t like. It’s misleading and tends to cause incorrect reasoning by analogy. Such as the idea that it’s something that will come back at us in the future and that we therefore need to “do something about”.

Newton’s law of inertia says that “an object at rest stays at rest and and object in motion stays in motion, with the same speed and in the same direction, unless acted upon by an unbalanced force”. In mathematical terms, it’s resistance to changes in the first derivative of an object’s coordinates in an inertial frame of reference. I.e., resistance to acceleration. The proportionality constant for that resistance is the mass of the object.

What’s being called “thermal inertia”, by contrast, is resistance to changes in the temperature of an object. That’s changes in the temperature itself, not its first derivative. It sounds like an academic distinction, but it has consequences. If you apply heat to raise the temperature of an object, there is no inertia-like property that will cause the temperature to continue rising after you’ve removed the heat source.

“Thermal inertia” would more properly be termed “thermal ballast”. It mimics some of the effects of inertia, in that it mutes the system response to changes in inputs. But there’s no inertial component to it in Newton’s sense of “an object in motion stays in motion”.

The thermal ballasting of the oceans and ice sheets has indeed muted climate response to the added radiative forcing from higher atmospheric CO2 levels. It has shielded us, to a degree, from the effects of what we’ve already done to the atmosphere. (“degree” pun not intended, but apropos.) But its capacity to shield us is finite and will eventually be used up.

If we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow and arrested the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere, warming would continue for some time. That may look like inertia, but it’s not. It’s a lagged response to the radiative forcing we’ve already created. That forcing is relative to a per-industrial baseline, and will continue indefinitely, until such time as CO2 levels are able to return to pre-industrial values. On the order of 10,000 years from now, if we stop burning fossil fuels and don’t do anything to accelerate removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Your main thesis, that we can use OTEC to increase the transfer of heat to the deep oceans is absolutely correct. That will mitigate warming and buy us time to adjust. And that’s certainly good. But it won’t be enough to shield us from a significantly warmer world — and higher sea levels — once the heat sinks are full and we’ve arrived at a new equilibrium.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on May 29, 2016

Excellent post, Roger. Well worth reading twice.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 30, 2016

Perhaps you will consider that OTEC might be exactly opposite to a very different goal. Instead of ocean surface heat energy getting transferred to the ocean bottom we might wish ocean surface heat energy to evaporate more fresh water. My old eyes don’t read like young, but I never see your vast “scientific” enunciation mention evaporation as what water usually does when heated.

Since the BP oil spill and clean-up in the Gulf of Mexico, and rapidly growing pollution of the Pacific Ocean, I think I notice a corresponding change in precipitation geographic patterns over the last few decades. Different water solution chemistries exhibit different water vapor pressure ranges over temperature.

Fresh water is a heat energy sink, and plants are a potential CO2 sink. If we are going to make more areas of the Earth more livable we could start by simply insisting less pollution of our Oceans.

Jim Baird's picture
Jim Baird on May 30, 2016

Roger I have no quarrel with your assessment that a warmer world and higher sea levels is inevitable. Shouldn’t the question be, how do we manage the heat sinks so that we arrive at the lowest possible equilibrium temperature?

If that is the objective, as I believe it has to be, then I come to no better solution than OTEC. What’s more the Yale360 article How Long Can Oceans Continue To Absorb Earth’s Excess Heat? suggests we might be perilously short on time to even buy ourselves adjustment time. That said once we buy ourselves time, the equilibrium temperature can be reduced over the millennia by reduced radiative forcing by natural or artificial means?

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 30, 2016

“Shouldn’t the question be, how do we manage the heat sinks so that we arrive at the lowest possible equilibrium temperature?”

Ah, but that’s the thing; a heat sink, by itself, can’t affect the final equilibrium; it can only affect the time it takes to get there.

Of course, the real world is a hell of a lot more complex than that simple model. That model is an “other things being equal” static input sort of thing. In the real world, a lot of parameters are in flux, and the system is full of non-linearities. If we’re actually on a path toward a carbon-negative future, then you’re right; the time bought by constructive use of the heat sink can indeed make a difference.

It may also help avoid or mitigate some of the positive feed-back loops we’re in danger of triggering. That’s if we haven’t already done so. I worry about that. It seems that the annual increment in atmospheric CO2 has been accelerating, while emissions from fossil fuel burning have been relatively steady. Either more CO2 is being transferred into the atmosphere from other reservoirs (forest fires?) or less is being transferred from the atmosphere into other natural reservoirs. The data are probably too thin to say anything definitive, but I’m pretty sure that warming in the arctic has moved it from being a perennial carbon sink to being an annual net source.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 30, 2016

Water vapor is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. It serves as a powerful amplifier for CO2’s much weaker forcing. The last thing we would want to do is to deliberately increase absolute humidity levels in the atmosphere.

If higher absolute humidity levels led to increased cloud cover, then albedo from the increased cloud cover would serve as a convenient homeostatic regulator to dampen global temperature swings. But it doesn’t work that way. Clouds form where air rises, expands, and cools. They evaporate where air descends, compresses, and warms. Since rising and descending air are necessarily in balance over the globe, average global cloud cover is pretty stable. It’s not sensitive to average global temperatures or absolute humidity.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 30, 2016

The blackbody re-radiation of Earth’s low temperature would not excite high frequency O-H vibrational stretch modes, perhaps other vibration bend modes, perhaps some rotational modes, perhaps some scattering. I’m sure supercomputers are busy predicting tomorrow’s weather using concepts you describe.

We could live on a planet with no atmosphere, like the moon, and then avoid notions of optimizing greenhouse physics.

All I’m saying is there might be alternatives to California picking Asian garbage and washed up oil off their beaches and recycling toilet water while cooking themselves with solar collectors.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on May 30, 2016

Oh, I’m with you 100% on the need to respect the oceans and stop allowing non-biodegradable garbage to accumulate there. Not to mention the need to end overfishing and accumulation of mercury, pesticides, and chemicals that enter with runoff from polluted streams. We’re killing the oceans, and our children will be paying the price of living in a poorer world.

I don’t think there’s any direct link to global warming however. Except that both share the same root cause: unsustainable consumption and our refusal to own up to the external costs of how we live.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on May 31, 2016

Perhaps we all use loose terminology too forcefully. Climate change:global warming, sustainability, renewable energy:clean energy, etc.

Adding to your larger list of environmental concerns I’m sure you agree microbiology like Zika virus and antibiotic resistant bacteria raise alarms.

I’m glad the UN has greatly enlarged their global environment research. NASA has also become a leader. An article in the Minneapolis Startribune discussed one such study regarding excessive urbanization about 2 weeks ago and I couldn’t find it since.

Without seeming to minimize the CO2 issue, it is notable that with the fossil burning frenzy of the last 200 years CO2 is still 400 “parts per million” vs. 280. We have many environmental threats, priorities, and opportunities. Mostly, we can’t keep living like violent pigs.