Climate Change – focused analysis, focused action

binoculars and turbines

Carbon dioxide is invisible, odorless and non-toxic. It is an essential component of the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas that keeps the surface of the planet much warmer than it would otherwise be. As such, it is in no way a threat to human well-being. Yet now, carbon dioxide is effectively a dangerous pollutant because the fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices (ECDs) that power the world economy burn fossilized hydrocarbons, and in the process discharge some 30 billion tonnes of this otherwise benign gas into to the atmosphere every year. This steady build-up of CO2 is altering the proportions of atmospheric gases, the result of which is now common knowledge. The prognosis is not good. If an effective response strategy is not implemented as soon as possible, as early as 2065 the world’s coastal cities may be under water and many settled parts of the world too hot to support human habitation.

Public awareness of the situation is increasing, but timely and effective action lags as the world struggles to bring two root problems into focus.

Firstly, humans populations are growing, and in the process relentlessly degrading the biosphere. We are burning forests and clearing land for agricultural and industrial development, systematically releasing very large amounts of natural carbon stored in vegetation and in soils. Cleared agricultural lands worldwide are fertilized with nitrogen, which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. Emissions from this kind of environmental exploitation are thought to account for up to one third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Among the remedies: checking population growth, planting millions of trees, and restricting the use of artificial fertilizers.

The second problem involves a technical miscalculation. Since the industrial revolution, various types of energy conversion devices have transformed the chemical energy of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) into mechanical and heat energy. The energy produced has been used to generate electricity, propel all manner of vehicles, make steel and concrete, prepare countless meals, and mow a lot of lawns. Fortunes were made bringing these energy conversion devices to market and constructing the complex domestic and industrial systems for which they provide power. More fortunes were made supplying the fossil fuel for those devices. While all of these economic benefits were occurring, only a few scientists – John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callender among them – had the presence of mind to calculate how the exhaust from fossil fuel combustion would impact the thermodynamics of the atmosphere.

Although the miscalculation multiplied by orders of magnitude and eventually became part of the wallpaper of modern life, it is important to recall the initial, fundamental, and rather simple error: that is, energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Period. That being the root problem, the solution is correspondingly simple: replace all energy conversion devices that add fossil-source carbon dioxide to the atmosphere with energy conversion devices that do not. Essentially this is a pollution response and cleanup operation, the core task, the hinge on which all manner of system changes take place – including removing carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere.

From an engineering perspective, the world already has the necessary hardware at hand. However, deployment of said hardware is not as speedy as some might hope. Deployment remains subject to the constraints of conventional economics. Its not like World War II, when government war policy saw automobile assembly lines become tank assembly lines in a matter of weeks. But that could change.

From a policy perspective, the miscalculation will be remedied when the global community classifies climate change as a symptom of carbon dioxide pollution, and focuses on rapid phase out of the mechanical devices – in the electricity, transportation, heavy industrial, and building sectors – which are the source of that pollution. The ensuing pollution response and cleanup operation will of course transform the energy space.

The White House and the real change agents

the White House in decline

Anyone with an inkling of social literacy can see Donald Trump has been handed a job that is well beyond his reach. As a result, the once reputable White House is sinking into a political swamp that Mr. Trump expected he would drain. Is this because the White House was not built on solid ground in the first place? Or did the political earthquake of the last US election turn the ground at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave into quicksand?

Whatever the case, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord has been a major, albeit predictable, disappointment. But the international community will carry on regardless. The world will continue to transition away from fossil fuel-based energy systems, building on recent momentum.

For electricity generation, renewable energy is now a cheaper source of primary energy than coal in many parts of the world. Automobiles powered by electric motors are proving themselves to be mechanically superior to those powered by internal combustion engines, and may achieve price parity sooner than expected.

The Paris Accord may only become marginally less effective without the participation of the US federal government. And the US exit may lead to scrutiny regarding what the Paris Accord can and cannot do, on its own, to protect the international community from the time bomb created a century and a half ago when we seized on the economic possibilities of coal, oil and natural gas.

The change agents driving the growing international movement to end anthropogenic carbon emissions are not harried politicians and hair-brained presidents. The real change agents are the world’s car makers, electric grid operators, builders, heavy industries, and landowners. And what they must do collectively – as responsible participants in the world economy – is two-fold: Firstly, transform the energy sector, and secondly, restore the biosphere.

It’s not that complicated. Car makers, electric grid operators, builders, and heavy industries will be replacing energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels. Electric motors will replace internal combustion engines in the world’s billion-plus motor vehicles. Renewables (and perhaps 4th generation nuclear) will replace coal fired boilers in electricity generation plants. Landowners, will end or even reverse a deeply entrenched tradition of biosphere abuse by farmers, foresters, and developers. It’s also pretty obvious that hundreds of billions of tons of carbon pollution will have to be removed from the atmosphere. All of this is doable with available methods and technologies.

The international community is beginning to make a concerted effort to deal with climate change – even if a former reality TV star and his willfully ignorant followers can neither comprehend the problem nor imagine the solutions.

Climate change – call the fire brigade

dystopian fire brigade

a sort of reasonable rant

If your house catches fire, you call the fire department. The guys (mostly) at the fire station say they’ll be right on over. Sirens and clatter and ladders and hoses. Usually, they save the day.

Now, with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases polluting the earth’s atmosphere at a dangerous, accelerating pace, causing unprecedented extreme weather, record floods, and wildfires worldwide, who do you call? Politicians? Not the right skill set, apparently. Businessmen? Getting warm.

So your house is on fire. You call the fire department. There’s a crew there. Each has a different opinion about what’s happening. One guy says, “Cynthia’s house is on fire! Let’s go!  Another guy says, “What fire? There’s no fire. I don’t see no fire.” Over by the fire truck, another guy says, “Let’s go turn the fire down. Then we set targets and deadlines, and monitor the situation.”

OK, so who do you call? Really.

You talk to practical and pragmatic leaders of the world community, roughly categorized in two groups:

1) The biosphere brigade

This includes religious leaders who persuade their congregations to see the benefits of an emergency one-child policy. (Seriously. You do that. But don’t do it alone.) You talk to farmers, landowners, mining companies, forest industries.

This first group is responsible for seeing to it that humans stop overrunning the planet and having their way with it. Steadfastly polite, you talk to religious leaders and say your bit. You get farmers to be as friendly as possible to natural systems, and you get forestry companies to plant trees and conserve vegetation. The main point here is biosphere restoration. This takes care of about 25 – 35 % of greenhouse gas emissions.

2) The engineering brigade

You find these professionals managing the world’s energy sector. They are running electric grids, manufacturing automobiles and aeroplanes, making steel and cement, designing buildings, and building homes.

With their help, you mobilize all designers, trades people and laborers in those industries; then you do what it takes to swap out the energy conversion devises (ECDs) in those industries that run on fossil fuels. You replace them with ECDs that run on electricity, or biofuel. You ask them to drop what they’re doing and … PUT OUT THE FIRE.

It’s a real fire! And with fire, you deal with combustion. You stop combustion. Obviously, you don’t burn down trees, for example. So that’s what you do in the energy sector. And what that means is the machines we use to power the equipment of modern civilization stop burning fossil fuel.

But you can’t just switch them off. You have to replace them. That is the mission.

It is possible we humans will not get it together to put out the fire. In that case, we will have to live, at best, in a seriously compromised earthly environment. Parts of the globe will be uninhabitable. Major cities will be have to build dykes against the sea. Some won’t be able to. But the earth will be OK. It has been in a similar condition before. Things will be very different for us, for sure, but the earth will be OK.

Are we headed to Dystopia? Hope not. Ideas and plans welcome.

image: Mad Max -Fury Road