Preventing Global Overheating - I

As I sit here at my desk typing out the beginning of this column, it is cool, and I notice it is raining as I glance out the window. On any given day or week, month, or even year it is hard to see and feel that global warming is under way. Yet it surely is. The lack of immediacy to global warming is an important impediment to political action. Politicians sitting at their desks in Washington, D.C. today do not feel a hotter earth; because of air conditioning they will hardly notice the heat this coming July and August either.

My wife, Betsy, and I go often to the Mohonk Mountain House, a 19th century resort near New Paltz, NY, for a few days of hiking, good food, and education in biology and geology. The Smiley family, founders and owners for Mohonk's 140 years of existence, have always had a naturalist's and environmentalist's passion for the thousands of acres they own and care for. One of the founder's descendents, Daniel Smiley, Jr., who died in 1989, kept exhaustive records of the flora and fauna that he carefully observed every day over his lifetime. His records have been incorporated into a Research Center that was once his home and that continues his research today under the leadership of naturalist Paul C. Huth. Betsy and I have taken several wonderful educational walks at Mohonk with Paul and his assistant, the biologist Shanan Smiley, the wife of a Smiley descendant.

Mohonk naturalists have been taking temperatures once a day at the same spot on their largely unchanged property for over 100 years (established in 1896) with official U.S. Weather Bureau (as it was then known) equipment. Only five people have been responsible for those measurements over that time. The result is one of the finest, most consistent temperature records available in the United States. The New York Times published an article on September 18, 2008 about this record; I would like to quote part of that article:

"That extremely limited number of observers greatly enhances the reliability, and therefore the value, of the data. Other weather stations have operated longer, but few match Mohonk's consistency and reliability. 'The quality of their observations is second to none on a number of counts,' said Raymond G. O'Keefe, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Albany. 'They're very precise, they keep great records and they've done it for a very long time.'"

Mohonk's data stands apart from that of most other cooperative weather observers in other respects as well. The station has never been moved, and the resort, along with the area immediately surrounding the box, has hardly changed over time. Rain and snow are measured in the original brass rain gauge issued in 1896 by what was then known as the United States Weather Bureau. Mr. Huth also checks the temperature and pH of Mohonk Lake daily, and he measures the level of the lake according to its distance from the top of an iron bar that was bolted to the Shawangunk conglomerate in 1896." [The NY Times article was in error; the iron bar was installed in 1900 according to Shanan Smiley].

"The record shows that on this ridge in the Shawangunk Mountains, about 20 miles south of the better-known Catskills, the average annual temperature has risen 2.7 degrees in 112 years. Of the top 10 warmest years in that time, 7 have come since 1990. Both annual precipitation and annual snowfall have increased, and the growing season has lengthened by 10 days."

But that average annual temperature record also shows fluctuations year-to-year that are of the same magnitude as the overall increase over the Mohonk record's span of 112 years. That is the way of the earth's weather; it is always changing in a random or statistical manner because of the complex interplay of atmospheric physics and interactions with the oceans, lakes, and land topography. Driving forces in these interactions include the sun's radiation, gravitational tides, the ocean's convection currents, and the earth's spin.

These weather fluctuations make it difficult for people, including our representatives and senators in Congress, to feel a sense of immediacy. They and we do not sense disaster, yet. Meanwhile, CO2 continues to build up in the atmosphere, further raising the atmosphere's average temperature, and as a result unless we take swift and effective action to greatly lower CO2 emissions, all the disasters I described in earlier columns will surely occur!

In this column and continuing in the next two or three, I will outline how the world's nations can prevent excessive global warming in this century if they take action immediately. Fortunately, as a result of hundreds of scientific warnings issued by highly respected organizations and individuals, many nations have begun the process of reducing their CO2 emissions; the U.S. has been a laggard, but this year we have become more serious and a good bill, the Waxman-Markey "cap and trade" bill, is being debated in Congress right now. This bill must be passed this year, I believe, because the United States must take a leadership position at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Dec. 7-18, 2009. That conference will, hopefully, produce a new climate treaty that will embrace all the nations on earth. The new climate treaty will replace the Kyoto Protocol which was adopted in Kyoto, Japan, in December 1997 and entered into force on 16 February 2005, but which the U.S. never signed, in part because China and India were made exempt from the CO2 emissions reduction requirements the developed nations had to follow.

Now China is the largest emitter of CO2 in the world. In order to get China, India, and other developing countries to make serious commitments to CO2 emission reductions, the United States will have to show the way with our own serious and meaningful commitments.

It is very important to bear in mind, as I describe how to eliminate CO2 emissions, that we must simultaneously provide the necessary energy needed for a robust economy. This will be the case all over the world. In fact, energy shortages are often a bottleneck for rapidly developing countries such as India, Brazil, and China. Fortunately, we have the technology now to produce power and heat from devices that do not burn carbon fuels; we do not have to invent new technologies, at least in the short run, to solve a terrible dilemma: how to provide more and more needed energy without emitting CO2 and thereby produce disastrous global warming and ocean flooding.

The key technologies to reduce CO2 emissions in the three major categories of energy supply and usage (electricity production, transport, and buildings) are:

Electricity Production - Combustion efficiency improvements; fuel switching (natural gas for coal, for example); renewable energy sources (hydropower, solar, wind, geothermal, and bio-energy); combined heat and power (co-generation); nuclear power; CO2 capture and storage (sequestration) from coal plants.

Transportation - More fuel-efficient internal-combustion powered vehicles; hybrid-electric vehicles; bio-fuels; diesels; shifts from road transport to rail and public transport systems; cycling and walking; land-use planning and city planning to reduce automobile commuting distances.

Buildings - More efficient lighting (compact fluorescents and LEDs); more efficient appliances and air conditioners; improved insulation; solar photo-voltaic electric heating and cooling; heat pumps, and geothermal systems.

In order to put these existing technologies into use widely, cities, states, and countries need to enact effective government policies that will encourage or even require their use.

Green Building Codes: California's energy-efficient building and appliance codes now save Californians $6 billion per year in energy costs.

Vehicle Fuel-Efficiency Standards: California, the United States, China, and Europe have enacted fuel-efficiency standards, but they must be updated as technology improves. Developing nations also must enact such regulations and standards.

Mandates On Power Utilities: they must produce 15% or 20% of their energy from renewable, non-carbon fuels (so-called biomass fuels are OK because they produce no new CO2) by 2020 with much more stringent requirements for 2050. Utility fee and profit structures should be designed to help homeowners save energy rather than encouraging them to consume it.

Price, Cap, Or Ration Carbon Emissions: Polluting the atmosphere can't be free! The previously mentioned Waxman-Markey bill, often called a cap and trade bill, would restrict CO2 emissions, laxly at first, but stringently by 2050.

Promote Nuclear Power: Utilities are showing an increased interest in nuclear power worldwide. Governments must build long-term spent-fuel storage facilities quickly. More standardization of new reactor designs would be helpful.

Many scientists say emissions of greenhouse gases must be cut 80% or more by 2050 to avoid extreme heat waves, killer droughts, and ocean shore flooding from global warming in this century. Prof. James Hansen, probably the most outspoken as well as respected scientist in global warming research, has recently warned that atmospheric CO2 levels must be kept below 450 parts-per-million (and perhaps even less) to avoid losing control to positive feedback mechanisms, as I have written about in earlier columns. We are already at 387 parts-per-million and rising at an accelerating rate so that if we do nothing we will reach 500 parts-per-million by mid-century.

"With strong economic growth and continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels expected for most of (the developing) economies, much of the increase in carbon dioxide emission is projected to occur among the developing...nations," the EIA said in the report, its annual International Energy Outlook. By 2030, carbon dioxide emissions from developing countries has been projected to hit 28.4-billion tons, while the pollution from rich countries has been projected to be 16-billion tons, the EIA said. That totals about 44-billion tons in 2030 and is much more than the 32-billion tons emitted in 2008. Clearly, huge cuts in CO2 emissions will have to be made in the two decades from 2030 to 2050 if we are to avoid terrible global warming.

Despite the fine technologies available today and the promise of even better technologies by 2050, an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050 will be very difficult. Politics, economics, a reluctance to really believe the seriousness of global warming, and a deep desire by the developing countries to grow their economies has prevented much CO2 reduction up to now except in Europe. The world is off to a slow start, but progress is being made now in the U.S. and in China and that is a hopeful sign.

Today the world has about one billion automobiles, trucks, and buses on the road! At the rate the developing world is buying automobiles, most analysts expect two billion such vehicles by 2040! Most of us use automobiles extensively; indeed, the United States and much of the world has a transportation culture dominated by cars. Not only do all these vehicles emit billions of tons of carbon dioxide per year, they predominately burn petroleum products in an era in which we can expect to see petroleum scarcity and high prices. Accordingly, I will begin my discussion on how to reduce CO2 emissions (and petroleum) in the transportation sector with an analysis of clean (or at least cleaner) cars of the future in my next column.

 Phil Eisner writes about environmental issues.  He is a resident of Summit, NJ.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

TAP Into Your Local News:

Sign Up for E-News