Climate change has returned with a vengeance as a topic of controversy and contention. Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg and youth worldwide marching in the streets over this issue have been in the news of late — and why shouldn’t they be? Whatever else you and I can say of them (and some of us have said some pretty hateful things), they’re the ones who must live in the world we will leave them when our day in the sun is done. We should contemplate all this more thoughtfully than many of us do.
So much of the climate-change debate involves basic science, though some Americans seem positively oblivious to it to the point of embracing wilder and wilder conspiracy theories contrary to anything they should have learned back in high school: If the climate warms, the ice melts. That’s just physics. Ice melting above sea level raises the sea level, same as ice or water added to an already-full glass of iced tea. Again, just physics or, if you like, simple mathematics.
Here’s the list of potential sea-level rise amounts calculated at 100% melting:
- Mountain glaciers: 1 meter.
- Greenland: 6 meters.
- West Antarctica: 7 meters.
- East Antarctica: 60 meters.
Flat-earthers and climate-change deniers must remember: You cannot fight the math.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, mountain glaciers struck me as permanent. Yet over the last quarter-century, they have receded by half.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, the Greenland ice sheet seemed permanent. Yet about a quarter-century ago, the first signs of melting began to appear. Now it looks as if the ice is retreating.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, Antarctic ice sheets seemed permanent. Yet in the last few years, we have seen the same signs of melting in West Antarctica that we saw in Greenland about a quarter-century ago. Nothing really alarming in East Antarctica exists yet. It’s realistic to assume Greenland and West Antarctica ice might half-melt. That plus the mountain glaciers would represent about a 7-meter sea-level rise in only a few to several decades.
And why is this of concern? Governors, mayors, homeowners and businesses along the East and West Coast already know the answer: A majority of humanity lives within 1 or 2 meters of current sea level and humanity’s more valuable assets are within some 5 meters of the current sea level. Given those vulnerabilities, a 7-meter rise will clearly lead to mass migrations simultaneous with mass economic devastation, the likes of which we have never seen .
Whether this global warming is human-caused is almost irrelevant because it’s now happening no matter what. Whether sunspots or a natural cycle of the earth or space aliens, it’s prudent to at least lessen those things we know make the problem even worse. Those are, primarily, release of carbon dioxide and methane into our atmosphere. Of those, methane is by far the more potent warming agent, but there is also far less of it. (Incredibly, the Trump administration has moved to loosen regulations affecting methane emissions from pipelines, storage tanks and wells, a proposal that divides even the oil and gas industry.)
Carbon dioxide promises greater lasting effects because its apparent lifetime in the atmosphere exceeds 300 years, according to chemists. Most carbon-dioxide emissions come from burning fossil fuels. Those are just facts. You cannot fight the physics and chemistry. (And this just in from Texas A&M University: Humans have never before lived with the high carbon-dioxide atmospheric conditions that have become the norm on Earth in the last 60 years. A new study shows that for the entire 2.5 million years of the Pleistocene era, carbon-dioxide concentrations averaged 230 parts per million. Today’s levels are more than 410 parts per million.)
Some folks say water vapor is the strongest “greenhouse” agent of all, but this one gets complicated by unstable feedback effects the other two greenhouse agents don’t share. A warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, adding to heating effects. A warmer ocean supplies more water vapor in the atmosphere. This feedback contributes to sudden flips between a colder, predominantly drier climate and a warmer, predominantly wetter climate.
This much is clear, no matter what the overriding cause of climate change: We must drastically reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels. It’s not clear how we do this, but distractions from climate-change deniers certainly don’t improve the sort of world our children and grandchildren will inherit from us. There’s growing consensus we need to replace fossil fuels with solar, wind and nuclear power. All three have serious impediments not often discussed in public.
Nuclear has a built-in safety problem. Otherwise, the unmitigated disasters of Chernobyl and Fukushima would not have happened. Nuclear needs to be updated in terms of newer emergency cooling designs; more adequate geological-record design criteria for resisting earthquakes and tsunamis, not the historical-record criteria used up to now; and a solution to the waste-disposal problem.
Both renewables have an intermittency problem incompatible with providing electricity “24/7, no matter what.” The sun does not always shine, the wind does not always blow. Transferring power from one region to another through the electric grid suffers losses approaching 50% over certain distances. Plus all of North America is dark at night.
Roughly half the energy used in America is electricity, the other half burns up as transportation fuel. Efficiencies of use aside, we obviously need a substantially bigger electric-grid capacity to support any move to electric cars and trucks. For electric generation, wind power is already far cheaper than coal and competitive with fracked natural gas. Solar is very close to being competitive and will be increasingly so as more and more of it is fielded. As for political arguments about subsidies for renewables, keep in mind the fossil-fuel industry also has them in one form or another.
Intermittency of renewables prevents deploying more than 20% of them in the broader mix of electric-power sources. This has long been demonstrated by the Europeans, who already use it to its intermittent maximum. If there were a grid-scale energy-storage solution, the intermittency hurdle would vanish. Then renewables could out-compete fossil fuel in price and accomplish a simple market-driven takeover. No need for those state-mandated solutions some folks fear.
Ironically, no “Manhattan Project” exists to solve this grid-scale storage problem, though 2008 presidential candidate John McCain raised the possibility. This stalemate has intensified with lobbyists buying off federal lawmakers and presidents. Solve this and renewables will take off without disruption to electric service or our economy. It will mean more jobs, not less: Nobody yet knows how to automate away the jobs of solar- or wind-power installers and hardware producers.
Possible storage mechanisms include elevated water reservoirs, compressed gas in caves, batteries of multiple types, flywheel storage and more. One in particular stands out to me as a near-term possibility: the so-called “flow battery,” a reversible chemical reactor with two tank farms storing the chemicals. Again, the real question is why our nation isn’t working on this when it’s obvious our grandchildren may well encounter the grim problem of dwindling oil and gas reserves.
Much of this remains the province of science and industry, but everyday, ordinary citizens have a role: Think twice about electing and re-electing politicians beholden to the status quo and quick to deny climate change is even happening. They’ve already convinced too many Americans that, like the federal debt spiraling out of sight, we can ignore the problem and everything will be just fine for our progeny. So much for our legacy if we don’t wise up.