Climate intrigue and a change in prosperity:
I want a sequestration machine for Christmas
By Bruce Melton / The Rag Blog / December 23, 2010
Climate change is not just another dangerous dead-end road for humanity. There is really no doom and gloom just around the corner. The situation is not as dire as the catastrophists would have you believe. Yet, the news from climate science land has gone from bad to worse.
The impacts are happening faster with greater strength. The feedbacks appear stronger. The thresholds are proving to be nearer and threaten greater consequences. Ecosystems are rapidly deteriorating right now, or in some cases like caribou and coral reefs, they are simply collapsing.
So how can I be convinced that the solutions to the climate change challenge are things that can easily be accomplished? That the cost will at first seem burdensome, but will quickly be realized to be the intelligent investment that it is?
In the thousands of scientific papers on climate change that I have reviewed, most of the results talk about how lab tests sequestered far more carbon than imagined; about how the new techniques have been “scaled up” to mass production capacity and shown to be valid. The cost analyses show what at first would seem like ghastly expensive expenditures, but upon deeper thought, are revealed to be no different than other challenges we as society have already conquered.
Lord Nicholas Stern was former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s head of economic services in the United Kingdom. In 2006, Stern authored a definitive review of the economic impacts of climate change. His work was 700 pages of evaluation that included most of the current knowledge on climate science.
What Lord Stern found was that it would take approximately 1 percent of world gross domestic product to address climate change every year. But in 2008 Stern came forward with a revision to his report. He said that in the two years since his book was completed, new discoveries about climate change and about how we as a society were reacting would raise the cost of mitigating climate change to about 2 percent of gross domestic product.
So, one or two percent of world gross domestic product (GDP) is what it will take to avert a climate catastrophe; is that a lot of money? How much money is this exactly, compared to something that we can relate to? The Moon shot maybe
To see the value of anything, first we must understand how that value is important to our society. Preventing “dangerous climate change," or as the scientists call it “dangerous anthropogenic interference," is what the scholarly climate change literature tells us is our goal. The climate scientists say that just 2 degrees C of change (about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) will result in dangerous climate change.
Or at least this is what they said five or six years ago. Today the answer is more like 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) and this is additional warming above pre-industrial levels. We have already warmed 0.7 degrees C (1.3 degrees C). So just 1.3 to 2.3 degrees F of warming is what remains between dangerous anthropogenic interference and us.
Considering that most of the warming that has already occurred has happened since 1970, It appears as if we cannot help but pass this dangerous threshold. But, you may ask, what is so dangerous about a couple of degrees of warming?
Most folks think climate change is no big deal. The polls these days show that nearly one-half to two-thirds of Americans think that climate change is either not real, not going to impact them in their lifetimes or is exaggerated.
All of this while the latest mega review of climate science literature shows that 97 to 98 percent of climate scientists agree on the tenents of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In the climate scientists’ world, the one where I interpret the peer reviewed literature so you don’t have to, the beginnings of dangerous climate change are here now.
Right now, primary productivity in our oceans has declined 40 percent from levels in the 1950s because of warming. Billions of trees are dead in the North American Rockies in a sixty-one million acre attack. A native pine bark beetle is responsible and this event is 10 to 20 times bigger than anything ever recorded. It is still growing and is expected to impact virtually every pine forest in North America. Only extreme cold can kill the pine beetle, cold like we have not seen in nearly two decades.
Eighty percent of complex reefs in the Caribbean Sea have collapsed because of warming between 1969 and 2008 and the worst coral bleaching year ever recorded is likely to have just occurred in 2010. Greenland’s ice melt and discharge have quadrupled in 20 years. Antarctica is discharging now as much ice as Greenland, but Antarctica, in the 2001 IPCC report, was not supposed to start losing any ice for another 100 years or more.
These things are happening now, but as of yet they do not really rate as extreme enough to be called dangerous climate change. To get the idea across, I like to use an analogy comparing the weather to climate. We have all heard time and again that we cannot compare the weather to climate. We know that the weather is what happens tomorrow, or last spring, or even for the last decade and that climate is measured in decades, generations, and even centuries of average weather.
Climate happens on such a large scale though that it is difficult to grasp, even for me. So I have developed analogies to aid my own comprehension. My current favorite analogy compares the Dust Bowl to something that climate scientists call a mega drought.
We have these mega droughts in North America once every millennia or so, or at least we have had two or three of them in the last 1,500 to 2,000 years. These things are completely natural, they last for 100 to 300 years (the Dust Bowl lasted nine to 11 years) and they have only half of the rainfall annually when compared to the Dust Bowl.
As big as the Dust Bowl was, it was a simple weather aberration. Mega droughts however, at 10 to 30 times longer and twice as dry, are classified as something that would rate as a dangerous climate change. This is the scale of things that we have to contend with if we warm the planet just another 1.3 to 2.3 degrees F.
A mega drought would obliterate a continental agricultural region. There is only so much water underground that could be used for irrigation. Once groundwater is gone, all that would remain is shifting sand; for generations or centuries.
Another dangerous climate change would be 10 feet of sea level rise in a hundred years or maybe even as little as 500 years. It has already happened on a planet as warm as Earth is today, or within about one degree C of as warm as we are today.
The event occurred 121,000 years ago, in the interglacial warm period between the last 100,000 year-long ice age and the previous 100,000 year-long ice age (there have been about 10 100,000 year-long ice ages in the last million years.)
This globally catastrophic sea level jump happened naturally because of a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet due to natural warming between ice ages. It is just this kind of collapse that the ice scientists have seen signs of starting in the last several years.
Ten feet of sea level rise would displace 700 to 800 million people. Once the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed, it would likely unleash a rush of dammed up ice from the Antarctic Continent into the ocean. This ice would continue to raise sea level at rates up to 10 feet per century or more for centuries on end.
Today we are changing the CO2 concentration of our atmosphere 14,000 times faster than normal for any time in the last 55 to 65 million years. If we as a society continue ignoring climate science as we have been for the last couple of decades, we will see 3 to 5 degrees C of warming (5.4 to 9 degrees F). This means by mid-century, maybe even just another 20 years, we will cross the 1.3 to 2.3 degree F threshold to dangerous climate change.
Our future lives may never be the same, but they may never be better either. We can prevent globally crippling mega drought that would starve hundreds of millions. We can keep the West Antarctic ice sheet from collapsing, or any number of other calamities that could basically end life as we know it.
All we have to do is bring CO2 levels in the atmosphere down to 350 ppm or less. Considering that the Kyoto Protocol would have had our society reducing our emissions to somewhere slightly below 1990 levels by 2012, and that emissions levels have only continued to climb since 1990, it is no wonder that doom and gloom is closely associated with climate change.
But the technologies are out there. The research has been done, the technologies proven in the lab, and some scale models have been built that prove successful. We could even use current CO2 extraction technology, commonly used in industry, to do the job. All it takes is a will to do so, money, and manpower.
For example, Klaus Lackner, at Columbia University, has shown how a polyester-like plastic sheet can absorb CO2 and the CO2 can be rinsed out with water. They built a full scale model and the technology worked well. The cost of the model was also in the feasible range.
Lackner’s full-scale test model was about the size of a train car. Thousands of these rail car-sized sequestration machines could easily be built. We could build enough to remove half of mankind’s CO2 emissions every year. The completed machine would be about the size of the Great Wall of China.
Lackner added up how much his machine cost and made some generalizations about full-scale implementation. When the numbers are looked at in more detail, a full scale model of their sequestration machine costed out so that it would take as much money as the U.S. spent on World War II, about $5 trillion adjusted for inflation, to pay for the machine.
That’s a lot of money of course. But Lackner was careful to explain that his cost was calculated on their own “actual costs” to build the one railcar-sized machine. Reduction in costs due to scale would likely be trillions of dollars.
This would still make the ultimate cost of the machine be trillions of dollars, but we just spent 3 trillion dollars on the economic conundrum bailout stimulus mess. And remember, this is just spending by the United States. Around the world, spending on World War II as well as spending this latest economic brain donation, was significantly more than just that spent by the U.S. alone.
Now comes the good part. These technologies are literally littered across the scientific landscape. We have all heard about how impossible clean coal is. But clean coal is only impossible on Earth as we know it. If our society finds the courage to address the true risks of climate change, clean coal suddenly becomes entirely feasible.
We are at the same point in our new clean energy economy today as we were just before the Interstate Highway system was built, or just before the Manhattan project ended World War II, or before John Kennedy said that we would go to the moon in 10 years because “it was hard.”
Wind energy is taking off like a bird. From 1996, wind energy installations doubled in capacity every three years. Installed solar capacity has increased 40 percent per year since 1990. Some parts of the U.S., Europe, and Japan have already reached parity -- where solar costs the same as coal-fired power. Worldwide, solar should reach parity with coal in two to five years. In a decade or less, we will see “naked parity” where solar costs the same as coal without subsidies.
All of this clean energy will change our lives for the better. A new economic engine will take over our planet. We will no longer be slaves to fossil carbon. Our skies will clear, our health will improve, our lives will be better, and economies will prosper. It happened when we changed our base energy unit from wood to coal and again when we changed from coal to oil. It will do the same when we change from oil to wind and solar.
Our society has an innate capacity to accomplish vast challenges. The Great Wall of China and the pyramids are two low-tech accomplishments, built by hand, that can be seen from space. The Apollo project put a man on the moon. The winning of World War II saved our society from global dictatorship (or worse.)
Like the pyramids, the Great Wall, the Moon Shot, and World War II, fixing our climate will not be easy. And like those other things, it will not be cheap. It will take one to two percent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is $70 trillion today.
Remember Lackner’s sequestration machine the size of the Great Wall of China that you can see from the moon? One to two percent of GDP is a couple of trillion dollars.
So how much money is a trillion dollars? Let’s compare it to World War II and GDP. The $5 trillion that the U.S. spent on World War II was 25 times the U.S. GDP at the time, which was about $200 billion. Today’s U.S. GDP is $14 trillion. So 25 times today’s GDP would be about the same as what we spent on WW II, scaled for GDP. That’s $125 trillion dollars.
Scaled up to the actual size of the U.S. economy then (this is what GDP is), we spent $125 trillion dollars on World War II! So why is the measly $3 trillion that we spent on the economic conundrum perceived to be so much money? It’s all relative to perceived risk.
When the bailouts happened, Wall Street was being attacked by bad economic policy, not bad imperialists or Nazi’s bent on world domination. The perceived risk that the public has about climate change is just not comparable to world domination. It does not matter that the real risks of climate change are frightening beyond imagining; it is the perceived risk that counts.
Without public opinion, without the votes, without a global catastrophe threatening our very way of life, our leaders will not act. If the climate change threat were recognized for what it is, something worse than world domination, we would easily spend 25 times current GDP on prevention.
And the money is really there. Our capacity to create deficit spending 40 times greater than what we just spent on this little recession is real. It has happened before. We spent all that money during WW II because we saw the need. We understood the risks. We had the courage.
Please, in this time of thought about things bigger than ourselves, about the past and the future, and about our children, have courage. Go to meetings. Write your Senator. Tell your councilperson. Write a letter to the editor. Start a group. Attend a rally.
World War II was won by a revolution. The climate crisis is no less profound. It will need a revolution too. This new economic alternative energy revolution, this great societal challenge that we face, is not really without parallels. Repairing our deteriorating climate is a task that is within our grasp. There is no need for despair. We did not despair when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. We rose to the challenge.
[Bruce Melton is a registered professional engineer, environmental researcher, trained outreach specialist, and environmental filmmaker. He has been translating and interpreting scholarly science publications for two decades. His main mission is filming and reporting on the impacts of climate changes happening now, unknown to the greater portion of society. Austin, Texas is his home. His writing and films are on his website.]
- See previous articles by Bruce Melton on The Rag Blog.
- Listen to Thorne Dreyer's Dec. 3, 2010 interview with Bruce Melton about climate science and global warming on Rag Radio.