Commonwealth Club discussion missing the element of time

by Ginosar  

I was listening last night to a discussion on energy and global warming at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. It was interesting and the speakers presented their arguments well. Except they essentially  ignored the most critical aspect of global warming, the critically of time. Too many of their "solutions" would take so long to implement that by that time we would lose our ability to slow the increase in global temperature.

They did not seem to me to grasp how deeply we are already into this critical phase. They did not show that time is not on our side. And this time element is the most crucial aspect of fighting global warming effectively! Every day we add globally over 70 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and it will remain there for many centuries.

Many of their key arguments seemed reasonable unless you realize that we are already approaching tipping points that would have positive feedback and, by them selves, would continue to add to the temperature increase even without any addition of Greenhouse Gases, GHG.

Many proposed "solutions" by the speakers and others could have been useful several decades ago when we had time to reduce GHG emissions without disturbing the economy or our way of life. But this is no longer possible.


Some want to leave the price of energy low, for example, not to change our comfortable way of life. This is not possible any longer. We need to concentrate on options that can make very large impacts in the shortest time possible.

As a second priority we should also do R&D and demonstrations of promising technologies, but technologies per se would not save us. And I am saying it as electrical engineer with a considerable background in technology. We want the same easy, energy wasting, ways of life that led us to this global tragedy in the first place. Most of us still do not grasp at all how dire is the situation already.

One of the main contributor to this misunderstanding, it seems to me, is the "certainty" that the IPCC gave to the target of 450 ppm of CO2 equ. and to the time frame it attached to it, 2050, as if our knowledge is so precise. Most people in the field, not the scientists, feel that we have 40 years to move in. Not so, we do not!

We must start with a Step function (Big-Bang as Paul Krugman calls it) to reduce global GHG, and we must pay the price for it. We should not start with a slow implementation that would be gradually ratchet up with time to reduce the economical impact of fighting global warming.

We have to remember that we are already in the midst of the following negative environmental events that are likely to be self-sustaining: Just a few examples:

First - the key impact: In the recent past an emission of one ton of CO2 was partially absorbed by nature, mostly the oceans and forests, and only 0.45 ton remained in the atmosphere to add to the long term CO2 already stored there. Lately it was determined that the absorption dropped and now 0.55 ton remains and added to the accumulation. This is a considerable increase.

That may have been caused partially by the increase of the oceans average temperature by half a degree C in the last two decades. A half degree increase is a enormous amount of energy of the oceans that cover 71% of the surface of the globe. The higher the ocean temperature, the lower its ability to absorb CO2.

In addition the global absorption is reduced by the decrease of forest coverage, mainly forest burnings in Borneo and Brazil, and most significantly* cutting in the Boreal Forests.

This reduce absorption was probably caused by the followings, and other elements we still are not sure of:

1. Some 10.5% of the surface of the Earth is covered by snow and ice- a huge amount. This area faced major reductions in the last decades, which accelerated in the last two decades.

2. The positive feedback (ice to sea) of the global melt of glaciers, and the ice sheets in Greenland. Lately some is melting in the "West wing" of the South pole.

3. Due to longer warm period and less ice coverage, the Tundra changed from net absorber of small amount of CO2, to net emitter of methane.

4. Major infestation and clearing of the very significant tree coverage of the Boreal forests. According to a map I just saw, they are decreasing significantly, by about 1.5% to 2.85% per year between 2000-2005. *[Atlas of Global Conservation -Forest Clearing- Nature Conservancy//spring 2010.]

5. Recent research indicates that some small amount of  methane is being release from the ocean floor in the now warmer seas north of Russia. This may or may not become more significant with time, but it could increase because the temperatures of the North Seas region are projected to increase by a significant amount more than the average global temperatures. Possibly as much as 9 degrees by the end of this century or earlier.

These are but a few of the things we are aware of that indicate that we do not have much time to reduce significantly our global emissions of GHG.


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