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A Green View of Global Warming

copyleft by Art Myatt

Global warming; climate change; the greenhouse effect; the enhanced greenhouse effect - by any name, there is no bigger or more important or less understood political issue.

People actually get upset about the failure - largely organized by the United States with assistance from Canada and Australia - of the Kyoto Accord. If totally successful and fully implemented, Kyoto would knock less than a tenth of a degree off a total warming of 2 to 10 degrees (depending on what climate model is used) warming in the next century.

All the climate models, divergent as they are, agree in indicating that the Kyoto Accord is similar to providing clean underwear for the homeless. It's a nice gesture, and it is not quite nothing, but it does not solve the problem. It does not even come close. The treaty is essentially a pretense at addressing the problem.

It may be better for the people of the world to understand that their governments are actually doing little or nothing to deal with climate change than to imagine that Kyoto would have taken care of it. the failure of the negotiations may be more useful than their success would have been.

That leaves us with the question of what the problem really is, and how it can actually be solved.


Excess carbon dioxide (CO2) built up in the atmosphere is responsible for about 70 percent of climate warming. Methane accounts for another 15-20 percent. All the other greenhouse gases together cause the balance. Depending on what sources you look up and what methods they use to weight the contributions of the various gases, you will get slightly different figures. If you are looking for the cumulative effect over a century, you will get a different number than for the effect in a year. This could get confusing.

A molecule of methane traps 21 times as much heat as a molecule of CO2. Does this mean we should count each molecule of methane as equivalent to 21 molecules of CO2?

A molecule of CO2 might last for a hundred years in the atmosphere, while a molecule of methane lasts for only ten. In a hundred years, the methane would be responsible for 210 units of warming, while the CO2 would be responsible for 100. In that case, perhaps a molecule of methane should be equated to about 2 molecules of CO2.

But, when a molecule of methane is removed from the atmosphere, that most likely happens because it has become oxidized; chemically, this means it would contribute its hydrogen atoms to two molecules of water, and its carbon atom to a new molecule of CO2. Then the methane should be weighted as equivalent to 3 CO2s - 2 for the warming it causes while it is methane, plus 1 for the carbon dioxide it will become.

It is certainly possible to be yet more refined and exact in deciding the relative weight of methane and CO2 for purposes of global warming. But no doubt we should leave that to the scientists who are interested in the calculations, trusting they will do their job properly.

For most purposes, we don't care if carbon dioxide causes 60 percent of the warming or 75 percent. We don't need to know that figure with any great degree of accuracy to see that it is over half the problem and that, if we want to stop global warming, we are must cut back drastically on the amount of carbon dioxide our activities release into the atmosphere.

The short story on carbon dioxide is that there is a maximum rate at which the plant life of earth and the oceans can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. We are, globally, putting twice that amount into the atmosphere yearly. Every year, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases. The amount of heat trapped by carbon dioxide also increases.

The same sort of thing is true for methane and the rest of the greenhouse gases. Any way we can cut back on the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere will be helpful. And we do not have decades to decide on what course to take. It does no good to suggest, as one prominent scientist has, that it would be "best" to reduce methane emissions first and work on carbon dioxide later - perhaps in 20 years or so. We should work on reducing all types of emissions. The longer we wait before getting serious about it, the work becomes harder and we have less time to do it before we cross a line to real catastrophic effects. The trouble is, we don't know where that line is.

Our natural impulse is to think that we can and should stop global warming. If, by "stopping" it, we mean to prevent it from ever happening - unfortunately, that is not possible. We can't prevent it. We just can't. We are already a century too late for that.

There is a terrible inertia about the process of global warming. The greenhouse gases have been building up in the atmosphere for well over a century now, and there is no known way to remove them quickly. If this very minute we magically stopped producing new greenhouse gases, it would take a century or more for natural process to restore the natural (pre-industrial) concentrations. Put another way, the greenhouse gases already produced will be heating up the climate for at least a century, just as some of the carbon dioxide produced by burning coal in the boiler rooms of the Titanic is today still contributing to warming our 21st Century climate.

It has taken a long time for humanity to start the climate change boulder rolling, and it will take a long time for us to stop it, assuming we ever begin to stop it. First we have to slow it down, assuming we ever begin to slow it down. Right now, we are still speeding it up. A few individuals are screaming and pointing in the other direction, but the great mass of humanity is pushing it, faster and faster, insisting that economic growth is essential, and that we will have to find some other way to stop this particular avalanche, or to live with it.


Greenhouse gas emissions are not the result of any one thing that we do. They are the result of practically everything that we do. They are produced by heating houses and cooling them, by transportation (and therefore by tourism, even including eco-tourism), by manufacturing, by garbage burial, by agriculture. We are not, short of our own extinction, going to stop doing these things. We can, however, pay a lot of attention to the way we do them, and make some judgments about what activities we could give up, or just do on a less grand scale.

The most we can hope to accomplish - without killing a substantial portion of the world's population, starting of course with the population of the advanced industrial nations which have caused most of the emissions problem - would be to stabilize the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, hoping that this would eventually stabilize the climate at some tolerably hotter level. Accomplishing just this much will require drastic, radical changes in both the conservation of energy by all the societies in the world and greatly increased efficiency in the energy they do use.

Continued production of greenhouse gases by continuing with the present sort of "economic growth" will cause continued climate instability - into the 22nd Century and beyond, if we can keep it up that long.

Drastic, radical changes will be required because, since we are now producing greenhouse gases at roughly twice the rate they are removed them from the atmosphere, it follows that mankind should cut the global total of greenhouse gas emissions in half. If mankind as a whole is to cut emissions in half, and the United States section of mankind, at 4 percent of the earth's population, is producing 20 percent of the emissions, it is apparent that some very drastic changes are called for in this country. Most other industrial countries are doing a bit better than we are, but radical changes are required there as well.

This is not to say the poorer countries of the world need change nothing they are doing. Chinese cities are already choking on the amount of coal they are burning, and they need to cut way back on this practice just to eliminate the soot, mercury and sulphur contamination. Producing less carbon dioxide will be a bonus. Using more fertilizers to increase crop yields on China's farm land sounds like a good idea until the runoff chokes off fish production in inland and costal waters, turning them into methane-producing dead zones like the one produced by the Mississippi in the Gulf of Mexico. But we ought not worry much about advising China (and India, and Indonesia, and so on) about global warming until we demonstrate the ability to deal with our own role.

In the industrial countries, we ought to be rebuilding our cities with smaller and better insulated housing, clustered close together in neighborhoods with most jobs and services available within walking distance. Our housing and our work places could be cooler in winter and warmer in summer, using less energy and better solar design to control the temperature. Public transportation should be built up so that we have much less use for automobiles in everyday life and more use for bicycles, scooters, walking and the like. Automobiles and equivalent devices can and should be designed to be much more efficient, albeit more expensive and more long-lasting than is currently the case.

Of course, it's not all about carbon dioxide. We ought to be capturing all the methane produced in landfills and burning it for energy, at least replacing some of the energy now produced by burning coal. We ought to insist that all sewage, whether produced by concentrated humanity or by concentrated animal feeding operations (pig factories and the like) be treated, and the methane produced there also used. We ought to be applying only an amount of fertilizer that will be used by the plants in each field, minimizing the waste and pollution of runoff.

We ought to minimize the production and use and release of the other greenhouse chemicals.


And while we are making all these radical changes, we will also have to adapt to the consequences of that warmer climate, whatever those consequences are.

Should the polar icecaps melt down entirely, sea level will be only 225 feet or s higher than now, so some of the great cities of the world could survive. Now, no climate model is predicting the meltdown of the ice caps in any foreseeable future. However, given the uncertainty of climate models and the lack of knowledge about what temperature feedbacks operate at what rate of heating, it is impossible to be sure they will not. Perhaps only the Greenland ice will melt off, and sea level will only increase by 20 feet or so.

Lest this amount of sea level change seem preposterous, let's look at a brief description of the last Ice Age. From 100,000 years ago to 15,000 years ago, glaciers up to a mile thick covered almost all of Canada and a good part of the northern United States, including the locations of all the Great Lakes. With all this water locked up on the land, sea level was 300 feet lower than it is now. When the glaciers melted back, the oceans rose to their current level which, for all of recorded human history, we have considered to be the "normal" level.

We think of sea level as a constant. We have built buildings, roads, whole cities whose function depends on sea level being more or less constant. But sea level can change, and it will. We are changing it, intentionally or not. The question not answered is how much will it change, and how fast, and with what results.

Aside from sea level changes, there are plenty of other effects of a heated-up climate. There will not be much wilderness left anywhere on earth, because the climate that might sustain any existing local ecology will be gone. We will have to work hard to preserve the elements of wilderness in zoos and in reserves, against the day when the earth will be able to sustain them.

The extremes of weather will be more common, with both more droughts and more flooding. We have seen some superstorms already. They will become both stronger and more common as the 21st Century progresses. The dense population of costal areas is a trend that will be reversed, either rationally through planning or catastrophically by the coming weather.

When the permafrost is melted, Canada and Alaska and Siberia should be able to make up for some of the transformation of crop land into desert in China, India, and Mexico. The transition will be very rough on billions of people, with many more losers than winners.

But what, realistically, is the alternative? Should we ignore the issue, and just go on with economic growth until resources are widely depleted and degraded, as the Soviet Union did? In the good scenario, we do not make the climate problem much, much worse by pretending that there is no problem and thus doing nothing to control it. In the good scenario, civilization does not collapse. Mankind does not become extinct.


We would all prefer to believe there will be a miracle intervening to prevent so much pain and suffering. Perhaps a scientific breakthrough will be made. Well, if E. T. does not come to help, maybe the progress of our own science will save us all; but unless and until such a miracle has been demonstrated to be cheap and effective and real, it would be extremely unwise to count on it.

The last technical solution that was seen as extremely promising was nuclear power. Since it was true that we could get a million times more power from a pound of uranium than from a pound of coal, it seemed that clean nuclear power (thinking of all that coal soot, not of nuclear waste) so cheap that it would not need to be metered (not then knowing the cost of making it safe or the horrendous cost of not making it safe) was only a few decades away. Based on what was known in 1950, this prospect seemed almost certain.

Now we are a few decades past 1950, and we can see how that particular promise has worked out in the real world. Nuclear power has proven to be the most expensive way to make electricity, not the cheapest; and we still do not know what to do with the mountains of radioactive waste. Let us hope we have at least learned how many grains of salt should be taken with a promising technology.


The proposed technical fixes fall into four categories:

Alternative energy:

Use energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gases. Most alternative energy sources do in fact produce greenhouse gases, directly if not indirectly.

Damming up a river to produce hydropower results in methane production from the silt trapped behind the dam, often causing more global warming than if the same amount of electricity were produced by burning coal.

Everyone understands that using our forests for fuel does not work; many do not understand that burning alcohol produced from corn is just as bad, for exactly the same reason. Plants pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it as hydrocarbons. Burn the hydrocarbons, and the CO2 is recreated in the atmosphere. This type of alternative fuel is of some interest in a nationalistic sense (Make our country independent of foreign oil!), but it is no better than oil with respect to global warming.

Some people imagine that it makes a difference that the carbon atoms from corn alcohol were only recently removed from the atmosphere, while the carbon atoms from coal were removed some billions of years ago. This is magical thinking, not practical thinking; carbon from alcohol or from coal is chemically identical CO2 after burning. One molecule traps heat just as well as another, and stays in the atmosphere just as long.

Even solar cells and nuclear power plants, which produce no greenhouse gases once they are in operation, consume tremendous amounts of energy (produced from fossil fuels) in the process of making the cells or the generating plants and the nuclear fuel. In these cases, the amount of energy used in creating the devices is not paid back until the solar panels or nuclear plants are in operation for at least a decade or two.

Solar cells have the further disadvantage of being dependent on sunlight. Because of its local climate, the southwestern corner of the United States is the place where solar cells will produce the most power - perhaps four times as much as the identical unit located in Maine or Michigan. And of course, if you want to use the electricity after dark, you have to store it somehow. These are not insurmountable problems, but they do limit the places that solar cells can effectively be used, and the applications for which they are suitable.

Hydrogen is clean when burned, but it must be made - most cheaply from methane, or possibly by electrolysis. Either way, the carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere separate from the point of use of hydrogen, but intimately connected with it. There are no hydrogen mines or hydrogen wells. Hydrogen is not a source of energy, but rather a means of storing it. The pollution is removed from the point of use, but is not eliminated from the ecology.

Electrical transportation is "clean" in the same way. No pollution is produced where the trolleys run, but the nuclear or coal-fired generating station however many miles from there is still intimately connected to the trolley. If batteries are used, the source of the electricity may be displaced in time as well as space, but it has not been moved off the earth.

Windmills are certainly clean in operation, if noisy. It does take energy to make the mechanisms, though the payback period is probably not as long as it is for nuclear power. They take land that otherwise could be differently used. Their energy density is not high unless they are located where the winds are high and constant, and there are not that many good locations. The ones that do exist are generally not close to places where power is needed, because the conditions are not conducive to habitation.

Sequestration:

Produce greenhouse gases, but don't let them get into the atmosphere. This may have some limited application for ocean-going vessels and for oil wells. For most uses of energy, it is impractical or even impossible. Scientific American (Jan, 2000) has an article exploring the possibilities and the limitations of this method.

Biological compensation:

Produce greenhouse gases and let them into the atmosphere, but enhance the processes that remove them from the atmosphere (biological compensation). This is a forest of thoroughly unproven, even untested ideas from genetic engineering of plants to providing extra nutrients for algae and plankton in the southern seas.

Technical compensation:

Allow greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere, but prevent warming by some other, possibly space-based means. We could put giant plastic mirrors in orbit, or tons of aluminum dust to reflect sunlight away from the earth. It would be fantastically expensive and difficult to control. Creation of such a system also creates the possibility that it could be used very unfairly if controlled by one national or political entity. If biological compensation is a forest of the unproven, this is a similar swamp.


While there are helpful elements in each category, there are also substantial problems with each. Books can be written about what these problems are, and how they might or not be overcome. But the point is, none of these miracle solutions has been demonstrated as adequate to stabilize the climate. Not all of them together are able to stabilize the climate. Greenhouse gas concentrations are in fact now increasing, as shown by direct measurement, although all these possibilities are known and are in use to some extent.

The better that any and all of the technical solutions can be made to work, the better off we are. But until we can observe an actual drop in greenhouse gases or demonstrable climate cooling, we should expect to deal with greenhouse warming by dealing with its cause. The activities of mankind, principally the burning of fossil and organic fuels to power industrial society, have increased emissions of greenhouse gases and increased their concentrations in the atmosphere. Reorganizing our activities to emit less is the logical thing to do.

This means doing less in addition to doing more with less. It will not be easy. It will not be cheap. It will not be convenient. But it is guaranteed to actually work. The technical solutions are helpful, but far from adequate unless reinforced with however much conservation it takes.

In other words, if we are to be serious about putting the brakes on global warming, we should plan to cut emissions in a short time with whatever combination of conservation, efficiency, and new technology it takes. Then, if newer developments in technology allow us to do more without increasing emissions, we could do more. That is vastly different from maintaining all the types of energy-wasting "economic" activity while "encouraging" efficiency and technology with a few "market incentives." One approach would give priority to the long-term environmental consequences. The other says that short-term economic growth is the really important thing.

We know what to do about global warming, and we know how. Technically, slowing and then stopping global warming is very feasible. It even carries a bonus in that, by manufacturing less and using less energy, many other aspects of industrial pollution are more or less automatically lessened. With some attention to industrial processes, they might be eliminated. The problem is that, not only are we not doing it, we are doing the opposite.


The reason we are doing the opposite is that communications media, popular culture, and the political processes are thoroughly dominated by commercial and corporate concerns. This domination has every element of a conspiracy both broad and deep except that it is not secret. The commercial purpose is announced in every edition of every newspaper and magazine, on every TV channel, and so on. Every popular song is a product; not a product of the joy of the singer or the appreciation of the audience; just a product. The commercial purpose of clothing is often spelled out in big letters on the back of a jacket or the swoosh on the shoes. And the commercial purpose of elections is amply demonstrated by - campaign commercials.

This corporate and commercial domination has so much popular support that it is even difficult to claim it is not democratic. But surely we have the right to try to change the general public attitude here, and the obligation to try.

Let's look at the commercial use of fossil fuels. There is profit in the production and sale of coal and oil. If great quantities are sold at relatively high prices, the profits are great. If the price goes too high, the quantity used will drop, the producers will actually have to compete with each other, and profits will drop. If efficiency and conservation causes less to be used, again the producers will have to compete and the price and profits will drop. The fossil fuel producers have departments full of economists and mathematicians to calculate the price range and quantities that will bring them maximum profits. They have legions of lobbyists to ensure that governments, especially ours, do not undertake policies that would damage those profits.

Therefore, it is impossible that either the Democratic or Republican parties could support deliberate shrinkage of the economy for any reason, including preventing the extinction of mankind. They would argue to the last demagogue that some other way must be found, that mankind should be saved by economic growth, no matter how absurd that proposition is, rationally. Somehow, we have to persuade the American public to stop worshiping "the economy" and get them to think about it.

To repeat, this is not a conspiracy theory. It is just obvious fact that the political circus performers of the Democratic and Republican Parties would prefer that we did not examine closely. They would actually prefer that we do not examine it at all. Yet there it is.

We know what to do about global warming. If we do it, oil and coal companies will not be able to make the billions of dollars per year in profits that they do now. That's a plainly unavoidable consequence. It is not that we are "out to get" the fossil fuel companies, it's just what will happen to them as we attempt to do what is necessary to preserve a climate compatible with human civilization.

The company officers would say they have a "fiduciary duty" to their shareholders not to allow any such thing to happen. They believe they have a right to make those profits now, regardless of the cost to humanity over the next century or so. The profits go into their pockets now; the costs will for the most part not come out of those same pockets later.

The conflict between the two positions really is just as simple and direct as that.


In his famous 1968 article "The Tragedy of the Commons," Garrett Hardin used the example of individual herdsmen grazing cattle on a common pasture to show how following the dictates of short-term private interest would lead to the ruin of the pasture supporting all the herders and the herds. The solution is to close and regulate the commons. There is no better example in operation today than the fossil fuel companies. It is time and past time to close and regulate the atmospheric commons.

( The original article can be read in .pdf format at: http://www.physics.ohio-state.edu/~wilkins/sciandsoc/tragedy.pdf )

It is not just oil and coal companies that oppose any effective policies to address global warming. There is a whole interlocking system of automobile and truck companies, road construction outfits, housing and office construction, land sales, and banks whose daily operations are wholly adapted to continuing the use of fossil fuels just the way it is done now. All the officers and boards of directors consider their fiduciary duties to be their highest calling. The oil and coal companies are just an example that a normal 12-year old can understand.

The first step on the path of rebuilding all our habits and physical surroundings to cope with climate change will be to end the corporate control of media, culture, and politics. Well, it sounds simple enough, though it will not be easy to do. If we begin to have the slightest success, we can expect to accused of heresy, imprisoned, tortured, and executed. No, sorry, wrong century. We will be accused of treason.

Breaking the grip of corporations on American society is a staggering goal. Yet nothing less will succeed. It is not just dealing with global warming (i.e., ecological wisdom) that is incompatible with corporate dominance. Social justice does not do well. Grassroots democracy does not thrive. Nonviolence is not so common as we would like. And so on.

Corporate control of the society is good for corporate profits and stock prices, if not for much else.

Working against corporate dominance of America and the world is the issue that should be central to everything the Green Party does. If we can contribute to restoring political power to individuals and taking it away from corporations, we are on the right track. So long as businesses write the laws and control their enforcement, all of our values are thwarted.


Above, I have used round figures instead of attempting precision, I have skipped most opportunities to add footnotes, and I have left out many issues such as releases of methane hydrate, methane generation from rice farming, the potential collapse of the Gulf Stream, and more. These issues all are interesting, but I considered that they would all get in the way of the essential idea of what we should and could be doing about the problem. If you have questions or comments, send e-mail to almyatt@earthlink.net.


Art Myatt is a photovoltaic engineer and technical writer at Energy Conversion Devices in Troy, MI.


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