Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Global Warming Q&A

Earth“Is global warming a storm in a teacup? Isn’t it just part of a cycle of natural variation that’s been going on for hundreds of millions of years? Isn’t the scientific community divided on the causes and what the effects will be? Even if it is manmade, what’s the point of action when India and China are industrialising so fast?”

As ever, The Guru has the answers you seek, so sit back and prepare to be enlightened...

What is global warming?

Global Warming (renamed by the Bush Administration’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ to Climate Change) is the increase in Earth’s average temperature coinciding with the industrial age.

What’s causing it?

The rapid release of huge volumes of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2, into a finely balanced ecosystem. (The average Australian household produces 14 tonnes of CO2 per year[1].)

The greenhouse gases act like the glass of a greenhouse to trap more of the Sun’s heat than normal.

Where does the excess CO2 come from?

Fossil fuels. The process of photosynthesis trapped CO2 within the cells of plankton (oil and natural gas) and vegetation (coal) over a long period of time from the Carboniferous (362 million years ago) to late Cretaceous (65 million years ago). (The high plankton levels were towards the end of this period, beginning around 160 million years ago.)

What was the effect of all that CO2 being removed from the atmosphere?

The CO2 had been spewing from active volcanoes around the world, producing first a greenhouse effect and then a ‘super greenhouse’ — a period when all the Earth’s oceans were stagnant and oxygen-deprived, there was no permanent ice at the poles and there were deluges of acid rain. The natural sequestration of the CO2 underground and on the seabed ended this greenhouse effect.

What are the effects of global warming?

Melting of the polar icecaps, rising sea levels, changes in oceanic currents, destabilisation of weather patterns and mass extinction.

Mass ext-what?

Mass extinction. 50 years ago a species was becoming extinct approximately every week. Today, 50 species become extinct every day[2].

As nutrient-rich ocean currents fail and more of the land turns to desert — the amount of the planet in drought has more than doubled in the last 30 years[3] — this extinction rate will increase further as many species fail to adapt to the rapid environmental changes.

And what about us?

Our current population of around 6.5 billion is made possible by the large-scale farming of reliable crops. They form the basis of our diet, and animals that supply our meat also graze on them. We supplement our diets with fish.

Large-scale farming sufficient to feed the current population will no longer be possible if weather patterns continue to deteriorate. Fish stocks, already low, will fall away if ocean currents fail.

But that’s as bad as it will get?

No. Failure of the ocean currents will further destabilise weather systems. They have already been found to be weakening, and part of the Gulf Stream shut down altogether for 10 days in late 2004[4]. Warm surface water at the poles is cooled, and this oxygenated water then drops to the deep sea. Without this oxygen yet more ocean life will be lost. The melting of the icecaps will increase absorption of sunlight, further exacerbating the greenhouse effect, which is a vicious cycle, hard to break once initiated.

If CO2 levels continue to rise unabated, a second ‘super greenhouse’ will begin, complete with stagnant, hydrogen sulphide -laden seas, in which little other than plankton can survive, severely acid rain and highly volatile weather throughout the world.

It will be life, but not as we know it, Jim.

Are you sure about all this? My mate Martin Durkin reckons it’s all a load of hot air!

Yes. Never mind the broad consensus of 2,500 climatologists, geologists, and so on. It’s common sense. We know CO2 is a greenhouse gas, and we know we’re releasing huge and ever increasing amounts of the stuff into the atmosphere. We also know that our climate is destabilising — natural disaster insurance claims have gone up by 5 times in the last 20 years[5]. It’s a no-brainer.

The reasoning a while ago that even if there was only a 1 in 5 chance of catastrophic climate change it was worth acting, was all well and good. It was a ‘stitch in time saves nine’ argument — the financial cost was relatively low and the likelihood of avoiding disaster high if we acted soon, and the reverse if we didn’t. But you reach the point where the evidence is so strong — hottest 3 years on record all within last 9 years[3]; 15,000 Parisian fatalities during 2003 heatwave[6]; flooding in China leaves 600,000 homeless[7]; driest 12-month period Melbourne has seen since records began in 1855[8] — that you have to revise that 1 in 5 chance to a 19 in 20 one.

OK, but what difference can I make when China and India are industrialising?

Everyone can make a difference — and everyone has a vested interest in doing so. China and India realise the problems and are making plans to lessen the impact of their economic development. China, for instance, says it plans 20% forest coverage, amongst other measures, to offset the CO2 from new power stations.

As the world’s highest greenhouse emitter per capita[9] Australia has a moral obligation to do its bit. Otherwise it cannot hold its head high on the world stage.

And it’s not that hard. The six households in the ABC series Carbon Cops found they could each greatly reduce their carbon footprint — and make substantial financial savings — without sacrificing their lifestyles. (The families with pools kept them; the family with high ceilings stayed put).

We could easily reduce our average CO2 emissions from 14 to 8 tonnes within the next year, and then continue to reduce them as better house design and more efficient appliances became standard. And if we have an ounce of common sense we will!

[1] Carbon Cops, ABC TV, 28/6/07
[2] ABC News, ABC TV, 7/3/06.
[3] Beyond Tomorrow, Network 7, 12/10/05.
[4] Crude (2007)
[5] The End of the World As We Know It (2005)
[6] Cutting Edge, SBS, 26/9/06
[7] thefreedictionary.com, 11/6/07
[8] ABC News, ABC TV, 15/5/07
[9] Four Corners, ABC TV, 28/8/06

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Anonymous Anastasia said...

I'm perplexed about Australian households producing the most when Americans own more cars than we do, per capita. We're copping the crap because we're less populated, have uber resources, not to mention nuclear potential. I can't understand why we don't go nuclear. Really, there are a few fruit loops who'd prefer to use up so much land to go solar, and with solar you'd need how many plates to trap the energy.

Did you watch Rove on Sunday? He was talking about the carbon negative phenomenon, saying that people offset their carbon usage by...planting trees, with added comic effect (to the effect of), 'I kill a person, I plant a tree' - carbon neutral.


Have you read Michael Crichton's State of Fear? It's a freaky read, and what makes it more freakish is that Crichton is a scientist of sorts, a medical professional, who has collated a lot of data to take on wannabe presidents.

9/25/2007 12:32 pm  
Blogger Al Cad said...

Sustainable energy is really getting viable now, and will become more so as the world puts a price on carbon emissions.

I can see the argument for nuclear – “If it’s so urgent to stop using fossil fuels now we could do it with nuclear and provide base-load (24/7) electricity”. But nuclear power stations take many years to plan and build, last perhaps 30 years and are then very expensive to decommission. Plus their waste remains radioactive for thousands of years. Standard designs also require large amounts of water as coolant and if there’s an accident the lives of hundreds of thousands could be cut short. (The plume from Chernobyl reached Scotland, making sheep there radioactive!) As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also the danger of the China Crisis, where the nuclear reaction would become unstoppable and would eat into the Earth a bit like the molecular acid in the film Alien! (Kinda ironically, China has come up with a design that avoids the China Crisis by using little spheres of plutonium!) When you take into account the true cost of nuclear, including decommissioning and processing the waste, (even without accidents) it’s the most expensive of all.

A new Aussie breakthrough will make photovoltaic solar cells far cheaper. (A single cell wafer is sliced into lots of thinner wafers, which works because it’s all about surface area, not thickness.) We could have them on our rooves. In some European countries there are households that are paid money by the national grid because they actually put power into the grid. Another technology, still in development, efficiently and simply uses electricity to generate hydrogen. With enough commitment to that we could power our homes at night from generators running on our own hydrogen tanks, all in less time than it would take (around 10 years) to build a single nuclear power station.

You talked on Sexualité about possible hidden agendas with global warming. But when you look at who’s trying to make money from nuclear here you find businessmen very pally with Howard, so I’d say that’s where the hidden agenda lies.

No, missed that Rove ep. Haven’t read State of Fear either, but just read an Age review which makes it sound like it’s one long diatribe against environmentalists. As a work of fiction that’s absolutely fine, but Martin Durkin has done exactly the same in his TV essay The Great Global Warming Swindle, deliberately misrepresenting the facts, with the aid of a few carefully chosen ‘experts’. Several of these could be considered ‘Flat-Earthers’, people who’ve also publicly stated things like melanomas not being caused by overexposure to the Sun and smoking not causing cancer.

We should all be free thinkers. People who court controversy rake in sales, which is why they do it. When they influence our opinions it’s often because they’re using – or abusing – the style of the journalistic exposé. Also, they’re playing on what we want to believe (eg. The Da Vinci Code).

I don’t believe things like some people might the Tooth Fairy – I work it out. When I was about seven I hid a tooth in a drawer next to the bed. I figured that if the Tooth Fairy could find it under my pillow it would have no trouble locating it in the drawer. Next morning it was still there. I didn’t get the money(!) but I received something more valuable – knowledge.

9/26/2007 8:59 am  

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