IEET > GlobalDemocracySecurity > Vision > Staff > Mike Treder > Futurism > Eco-gov > Resilience
Climate Change Explained
Mike Treder   Jul 10, 2009   Ethical Technology  

Predictions of melting ice caps, receding glaciers, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels, longer and more frequent droughts, hyper-powerful storm systems, species depletion, refugee migration, disease outbreaks, economic disruption, and other catastrophic results are becoming more plausible with each passing year. Unless something changes very fast, the future does not look very bright.



While generally stable over many millions of years, the climate of the Earth is known to go through periodic and natural “ups and downs” based on a number of factors, some predictable and some not.

For example, our planet’s path of rotation around the Sun is not a perfect circle; sometimes we get a little closer and at other times a bit further away. That can result in warmer or cooler eras, often lasting tens of thousands of years. Similarly, the Earth’s tilt, which gives us our seasons, is not totally stable; it wobbles periodically, leading to disruptions in climatic stability.

Unpredictable events include things like asteroid or comet strikes that can create global firestorms and subsequent decades-long winters caused by atmospheric ash and haze; supervolcano eruptions can lead to the same kinds of effects, including acid rain and poisoned oceans.

Scientists have been studying these and other factors for a long time and have a pretty good understanding of the major influences that will affect global climate patterns. That’s why the vast majority—a near unanimity—of informed scientists agree that our present period of warming is not due primarily to natural inputs, but has been caused to a large extent by humanity’s altering of the ecosystem.

By examining pockets of air trapped inside glaciers and ice packs, researchers are able to determine, to a precise degree, the composition of Earth’s atmosphere at various points over the last several hundred thousand years. They can tell how much carbon dioxide (CO2) was in the atmosphere, a figure usually expressed in parts per million (ppm). This is important, of course, because CO2 is a potent “greenhouse gas”—higher amounts of this and other such gases in the air cause the Earth to retain more of the heat energy we receive from the Sun. Elevated levels of CO2 lead to a pronounced “hothouse” effect.

Although it is a normal pattern for CO2 concentrations to vary over time, the amount of increase that has occurred over the last 200 years is completely without precedent in human history. Predictable natural surges or declines in CO2 levels are one thing, but what we’re witnessing now is at a rate a thousand times faster than would be the case without human input.

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, mankind has extracted fossil fuels from the ground at an ever accelerating pace and burned coal, oil, and natural gas to generate energy. That process—which produces greenhouse gases as waste—has powered tremendous improvements in living conditions for many, but at the cost of a dangerously destabilized environment. Already we have seen average global temperatures rise about 1.3° F (.74° C) over the last 100 years, and if current trends continue, the Earth could heat up an additional 4 to 8° F (2.2 to 4.4° C) by 2100, if not more.

It’s essentially beyond doubt, then, that a significant amount of global warming is underway, that it is resulting in noticeable climate change, and that left unchecked this warming will lead to climate chaos with disastrous impacts.

Predictions of melting ice caps, receding glaciers, thawing permafrost, rising sea levels, longer and more frequent droughts, hyper-powerful storm systems, species depletion, refugee migration, disease outbreaks, economic disruption, and other catastrophic results are becoming more plausible with each passing year. Unless something changes very fast, the future does not look very bright.


That’s the basics of climate change, and it’s nearly all uncontroversial, at least among scientists and analysts who understand the available data. Various interest groups and entrenched industrial powerhouses raise bogus objections and throw out smokescreens to obscure the reality of what’s happening, but their phony reasoning is hollow and easy to refute. (NOTE: If you’re planning to regurgitate flimsy arguments or cherry-picked stats from denialist groups in the comments, don’t bother because they won’t be approved. We’re here to talk about solutions.)


Proposed solutions fall into three general areas: 1) Rapid, near-total reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; 2) Mass conversion to renewable, carbon-free energy production, whether solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, etc.; and 3) Large-scale projects to directly manipulate the Earth’s climate, known collectively as geoengineering. None of these are mutually exclusive, of course, and many experts advocate a combination of all three.

It’s unlikely that #1 above will be enacted at a level required to substantially slow the rise in average worldwide temperatures: the political and economic challenges seem overwhelmingly against it. And even if somehow the nations of the Earth could get together to make the necessary commitments, that alone would not stop global warming or prevent climate change, because too many long-term carbon feedback cycles have been triggered already.

Adding #2 to the mix seems more palatable, since it would not be as disruptive to domestic lifestyles and national economies as #1 by itself. Again, however, it will not be easy to implement, and even if great strides can be made, they may not be enough to sufficiently slow the damaging accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gases. That’s why so many scientists and policy makers are now turning to the previously unthinkable possibility of geoengineering.

This is where we enter science fiction territory.

A few decades back, almost no one would have predicted that world leaders would now be giving voice to ideas like injecting millions of tons of sulfates into the atmosphere to artificially darken the skies, or manufacturing billions of flying or floating mirrors to manage the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth. Unfortunately, though, at a time when science and technology are advancing fast enough that techniques once regarded as fiction are nearing reality, our uncertain ability to predict and/or control the full results of these radical undertakings must give us pause. When we’re talking seriously about “planet-scale engineering,” we should realize that the risk of unintended consequences will be comparably gigantic.

But some futurists, especially those who tout the near-miraculous potential of advanced nanotechnology—aka molecular manufacturing—are surprisingly sanguine about the ability of new technologies to “solve” problems like global warming. They confidently predict that soon enough we will have no trouble feeding everyone, that billions of humans will live off-planet in paradisaical artificial habitats, and that Earth can be maintained in a park-like condition.

When I hear such pronouncements, I wonder what political conditions these futurists envision that would allow such immense power to be used so benignly.

I am willing to concede that molecular manufacturing is likely to be the one emerging technology with the power to utterly transform our energy infrastructure, capture and store excess carbon, restore the planet to climate equilibrium, and avert global warming disaster. But what we can’t say yet, unfortunately, is how soon that technology will be developed, nor, even more importantly, how it will be used.

Will climate change mitigation be the top priority? Or will a nano-enabled arms race take precedent? Will the leading nations of the world band together to use advanced nanotechnology for the benefit of everyone, or will its emergence result in a mad scramble for superiority, widening inequalities, and decreasing stability?

Technology—no matter how powerful—is never a solution in itself. It is only a tool, to be used by its makers for good or for ill. Managing the climate change threat may be the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced. Success will depend far more on us than on our technologies.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.



COMMENTS

Well, forgive me for mentioning that I understand tempertures have fallen over the last decade. Hav’nt they?  AND,
Again, if I remember correctly, NASA has predicted that the Atlantic currents may turn off in 2010. It would be caused, they said, by too much fresh water pushing the current down. AND, if this happened, it is said, then a new ice age completely blanketing North America and Europe would occur.
Is anything being done about these outcomes because they sound more onerous than what you have written above. What I mean is all the opposites occuring that you have predicted. Falling sea levels, no sustainable life in the northern reaches of earth due to ice… yes, a completely different picture with one major difference, 2010 not 2100.

its great effort of yours putting all the facts together about climate change, global warming and possible solutions. I would like to address one important issue concerning USA. We all are aware that from 90s UN has shown the concern over climate change and subsequently it launched kyoto protocol which states compulsory GHG emission reduction for many developed countries.
In this context, what is the forthcoming steps which USA would take to support this comprehansive movement to combat climate change. Would Obama govt ratify and accept the mandate to reduce GHG emission from USA.?

This is the most concise, accurate and informed explanation of Climate Change I’ve seen.

I will use it wisely. 😉

Thanks.

In the July issue of the International Journal of Global Warming, Bo Nordell and Bruno Gervet of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Lulea University of Technology in Sweden have come up with a remarkable finding that completely changes the way we understand global warming.

The scientist’s calculations show that three fourths of accumulated heat is from heat emissions.  In other words, most of the global warming is from heat humans have generated, not from increased levels of greenhouse gas in the air.

Among the startling implications of this change of paradigm is nuclear power, although it has a small carbon footprint, will not slow down global warming because it produces heat emissions equivalent to three times the energy of the electricity it generates.

By the way, the above article cited is peer reviewed, not an unsubstantiated opinion (like virtually all global warming denier articles).  There is already problems with current climate models, for instance the IPCC underestimated current ocean level rise by 1.6 times, and predicted Arctic ocean ice would remain well past mid-century.  Furthermore, current climate models don’t fully explain the PETM.  Once the heat emissions from volcanic activity are included, our understanding of the last Great Extinction should be more complete.

Today, the heat our power plants, motors, and furnaces put into the environment are at least as significant as the greenhouse gas they emit into the air.  Now we know, and knowing is half the battle.

“(NOTE: If you’re planning to regurgitate flimsy arguments or cherry-picked stats from denialist groups in the comments, don’t bother because they won’t be approved. We’re here to talk about solutions.)” Not merely that; I heard a Christian-radio broadcaster, a James Dobson-type, saying ‘why should we worry about melting icebergs when we have our teenagers mores to concern ourselves with?’

Great article, and well worth a resurface.

Now that messrs Bill Gates, (already a proponent of geoengineering) and George Lucas and co. have stepped forward to give their monies to good causes, what better cause or legacy than to invest in renewable energies and the future protection of our ecosystem and in humanity. And these guys should be networked and wise enough not to be distracted by any less than successful speculative ventures that may stray from real progress?

And what’s more, these guys already have the powers of political sway and the potential to change minds and policies at the very top?

There’s hope for this planet yet! These wealthy elite must band together to share their ideas and options and promote positive world change. And who knows, if potentially large investments do prove successful, the oil magnates and perhaps even the sheiks will follow suite?

The time for a new outlook and possibilities is on offer, let’s work to help change minds and make it happen?

This is funny: a route-guy (who sells gas and propane to stations) told me “you should see a big tank of gas sometime, it is so golden and beautiful”. I replied that looking into a commode can be beautiful too; so he shouts, “you ride in cars, don’t you??”. It IS hopeless, in that you can’t communicate with rednecks, they are too headstrong—we’ll have to wait until they die off.

...oil executives & owners don’t spend a substantial portion of their lives in their niches merely to give up the game, They figure they will die several decades on so they don’t care much that posterity inherits the mess: it is the exception rather than the rule that someone voluntarily abdicates their power—esp. oilmen, they are extremely tenacious. Four or so decades since the alarm was raised they have a death-grip on the energy industry. And what are you going to do about that? hold guns to their heads? what is the percentage invested in wind and solar: less than one percent; whereas there are trillions invested in fossil energy. Not too good, eh?

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