December 26, 2013

Saturday Morning Essay: On Graduating from Global Warming Class

Brought to you by Peet's French Roast...

From a paper provocatively entitled "The Non-Disclosed Extreme Arctic Methane Threat" by Malcolm P.R. Light, published a few days ago (

The Earth is a giant convecting planet, the underlying molten magma being heated by deep seated radioactivity and the oceans and atmosphere are its cooling radiator which allows the Earth the facility to vent this heat into open space (Windley, 1984; Allen and Allen, 1990). Mother Earth has carefully held the atmospheric temperature within a stable range necessary for oceans to exist for at least 4 billion years and nurtured the earliest bacteria to evolve into today's space faring humans (Calder, 1983).

The fouling up of the Earth's cooling radiator from Human emissions of greenhouse gases derived from fossil fuels will be counteracted by Mother Earth in her characteristic fashion by emitting vast volumes of deadly methane into the atmosphere from the Arctic regions. This will lead to the total extermination of all harmful biological species that produce greenhouse gases in the same way that Mother Earth did during the Permian and other extinction events. In this case however we have totally tipped the balance with our extreme carbon dioxide and methane emissions so that there will be no chance of recovery for the Earth in this time frame, because the methane release will cause the oceans to begin boiling off between 115oC and 120oC (Severson, 2013) in 2080 and the Earth's atmosphere will have reached temperatures equivalent to those on Venus by 2096 (460oC to 467oC)(Wales, 2013; Moon Phases, 2013).

Mankind's greed for fossil fuels will have completely destroyed a magnificent beautiful blue planet and converted its atmosphere into a barren, stiflingly hot , carbon dioxide rich haze. The earth will have moved permanently out of the magical zone (Circumstellar habitable zone, Goldilocks zone) where life (some of it probably highly intelligent) also exists elsewhere in the myriad of other solar systems that are located within the far reaches of our Universe.
Well, I must say, sir:  that's really bringing it.  Mr. Light is not shying away from identifying Who Fucked It Up.

With my course credits in hand, I naturally feel empowered to comment.  This is not the way we discussed things in my virtual class room.  David Archer, that is to say, who is a very skilled teacher, did not conduct the class with his hair on fire, and while we did discuss the fate of the other two "Goldilocks" planets (Venus and Mars), and we did touch on the topic of oceans boiling away and Venus suffocating beneath a blanket of CO2 so thick it's actually kind of like an atmospheric ocean, we did not talk about Earth in the same terms, now or in the future.  The future being 2100, because it's sort of alarmist to talk about shorter time frames.

I prefer the statelier pace of global warming discussed in class.  Such as the "Slug Theory," which is about the rate at which we belch CO2 into the atmosphere.  Essentially, we have an atmospheric "budget" for doing so, and given the long-lasting nature of CO2 once it's up there, in some senses it doesn't matter how fast you emit it.  It's the total load or "slug" that is introduced that matters. Currently, under this approach, we have emitted about half that budget since the beginning of the Industrial Age (about 500 gigatons of carbon).  To keep global average temperature below the Magic Level of 2 degrees C increase, what we consider (probably unjustifiably) the safe range, we should avoid emitting any more than that amount again until we stop CO2 emissions altogether.

You can kind of sense that's absolutely the wrong thing to tell a species like Homo sapiens.   You can have 14 drinks for the week, you tell the alcoholic on Sunday, and as many as you want (up to 14) on any given day, so long as you do not exceed that maximum.  You can be assured your alkie will knock back ten drinks on Monday followed by the remaining four on Tuesday, followed by various acts of subterfuge to get around the limit for the rest of the week. (The drunk will be seeking "alcohol credits" by talking a teetotaller out of beginning a life of boozing.) This is more or less exactly the approach followed by the nations of the Earth since they began the dog & pony shows of "CO2 reduction" a couple of decades ago. 

The Slug Theory is nice and linear, it has some pretty solid science behind it (climate sensitivity to CO2), it's given activists like Bill McKibben a full-time job, and it makes President Obama sound...presidential when he talks about "80% reductions by 2050" with a straight face.  It also places humans in a better light.  Sure, in our youthful exuberance about fossil fuels we went way over the line and blew through our allowance, about 531 gigatons so far.  But now that we know what sort of mess we've made, we'll begin the process of building solar panels on the moon which will microwave their electricity back to Earth (a proposal as one part of a new energy regime to make up for the terawatts of energy we will lose when we stop burning fossil fuels).

Then this damn methane shows up like The Masque of the Red Death at Prince Prospero's crib.  Natalia (or Natasha) was rueful about spoiling the party when we talked about this on the shores of the Laptev Sea.

"Is shame," she said.

"Is damn shame," I answered.  "Is ruining a lot of perfectly good geophysics textbooks."

"Is I know," murmured Natasha, stricken.

Well, I'm sure we'll still get to build the lunar solar panels; but first we have to build this Star Wars array of methane blasters up here in this godforsaken tundra.  Manned, or boyed, by a couple of 13 year-old American X-Box fiends powered not by fossil fuels, but by industrial quantities of Pringles and Jolt Cola.

No comments:

Post a Comment