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We Can't Have Sea Level Rise the Only Thing Raising All Boats

Single boat on a shingle beach with a stormy sky approaching.

Climate change is a unique opportunity to raise all boats.

It could be the alien presence Ronald Reagan fantasized could unite humanity and tear down national borders.

It is the existential threat that could push nations beyond their limits.

It could be all of these things but instead it is being turned into a social experiment that increasingly can’t pass the smell test.

Climate change is a science problem; a matter of thermodynamics.

The second law of thermodynamics has been stated in many ways but Rudolf Clausius said it most succinctly: Heat generally cannot flow spontaneously from a material at a lower temperature to a material at a higher temperature.

Its practical application is a thermal power plant that inserts a heat engine between the heat flowing from the higher to a lower temperature to produce work.

As M.J. Kelly points out in his paper Lessons from technology development for energy and sustainability, “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.”

At Copenhagen developed country Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change committed to a goal of mobilizing jointly $100 billion a year by 2020 from public and private sources to support climate action in developing countries.

These public and private sources expect to see results from these funds but instead as Kelly points out, “since the first oil shocks kick-started the modern renewable energy developments (wind, solar, and cultivated biomass), we still get rather less than 1% of our world energy from these sources. Indeed, the rate at which fossil fuels are growing is seven times that at which the low carbon energies are growing, as the ratio of fossil fuel energy used to total energy used has remained unchanged since 1990 at 85%.”

Many who are otherwise favorably inclined to addressing climate change are concerned that the problem is being transformed into little more than a wealth transfer mechanism for developing nations. These concerns are compounded by globalization that has seen a substantial shift of manufacturing jobs away from the developed nations, who have been the cause and major beneficiaries of greenhouse gases, to the developing countries along with a parallel emission shift that has produced little to no net climate benefit. And when you layer on the financial crisis of 2007–08 that was precipitated by the same people who are now pressing for giving on the part of the hard pressed taxpayers who have yet to recover from the collapse they created there is little wonder there is growing push back, which is a shame.

Energy is vital.

Richard Smalley proposed that it is the solution to the next nine problems faced by mankind from water, to food, the environment, poverty, terrorism and war, disease, education, democracy and population.

In trying to solve these problems 85% of existing primary energy sources produce greenhouse gases that have been shown to frustrate the solutions and add to the problems.

Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere that is ultimately available to the land, the ice sheets and the oceans.

About 93% of the heat has been going into the ocean that has four times the heat capacity and 1000 times the mass of the atmosphere but the second law of thermodynamics tells us this heat is available to produce work.

Ocean heat has negative implications for marine ecosystems, sea-level rise and regional and global climate patterns. It is estimated about 26% of recent CO2 emissions are absorbed by the oceans, about 28% by plants and 46% by the atmosphere.

In the ocean CO2 increases acidity that harms marine life.

Eventually, once we stop emissions, the land and oceans will come back into thermal and chemical equilibrium but as much as 20% of the added CO2 may remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

The ocean’s ability to buffer heat and CO2 is not limitless.

May, 2016, was the 13th consecutive month of heat records corresponding to the recent El Niño that released considerable quantities of heat into the atmosphere that was previously sequestered in the tropics.

Moving surface heat to a depth of 1000 meters where the return rate is about 4 meters/year would put off at least 250 years of the worst consequences of global warming while converting about 5% of that heat to as much energy as is currently derived from fossil fuels.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, in the 70s, estimated 5 terawatts of power produced by ocean thermal energy conversion could lower the surface temperature of the ocean and atmosphere 1 degree Celsius each decade.

Heat rises from the depths at a rate of about 4 meters a year so the deeper heat can be relocated the longer a cooling benefit can be derived, after which heat is either released to a surface that is ideally no longer accumulating greenhouse emissions or is recycled back to the depths to produce additional work.

To relocate heat 1000 meters, where water is at its maximum density of 4°C, a working fluid must be able to resist the crushing forces exerted on a pipe containing the condensing vapor while passing sufficient heat through the pipe wall that the system can produce work.

CO2 in a closed system operates at about half the pressure of the ocean at a depth of 1000 meters so the pipe thickness problem is addressed, as is the work requirement and the need for keeping heat away from the surface for as long as possible.

Hydrogen as an energy carrier to move ocean produced energy to markets can create negative emissions, reduced ocean thermal load, reduced sea levels and storm surge, as well as a natural marine carbon reservoir that mitigates ocean acidification.

The by-product of this hydrogen production is energy vital to mankind’s needs as well as enough water to service the annual needs of every person on the planet.

Greenhouse gas emissions have to peak soon and then decline to zero within 50 years.

In that time the global demand for energy will double.

This dilemma is addressed by Nature in the form of a massive deep ocean heat sink that tries to dissipate the excess heat of global warming and the mechanical and chemical weathering of minerals that produce a carbon-sink for the excess carbon dioxide that is accumulating in the oceans and the atmosphere.

In order to raise all boats we have to assist the natural progression of heat from the surface to the deep through heat engines that produce at least as much energy as is currently derived from fossil fuels and to then use that energy to accelerate the dissolution of silicate minerals through an electrolysis process that produces hydrogen fuel to produce an electrolyte solution that is significantly elevated in hydroxide concentration and that are strongly absorptive and retentive of atmospheric CO2.

A temperature difference of at least 20°C between the surface and the deep ocean is required to produced the necessary energy as well as pipes that are strong enough to convey the heat without being crushed by the pressure exerted on them.

Most renewable energy sources are episodic, do not address all the risks of climate change and are not available to all who need it.

Ocean thermal energy uniquely addresses these risks while sequestering greenhouse gases.

Ultimately we have no option but produce energy that mitigates climate change so the sooner we get on with the job the better, regardless of how long that takes.

Everything else in terms of climate change and sustainable energy is a distraction.

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