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Sunday, November 8, 2009

The climate change sceptic

OK, so you are a climate change sceptic. So am I. Have you heard about exposure. No I'm not talking about streaking across a football pitch or being out in the snow without a parka on. I'm talking about what a rock climber/mountaineer calls exposure. Let me give you an example.

First example. You are out with your 10 year old and you take him to a nearby climbing club where he can try bouldering. There is a really difficult pitch he tries. If he falls there is a thick mat a couple of feet below him.

Second example. You are high in the mountains. You are on a very easy path - almost like a sidewalk with your 10 year old skipping along ahead of you. The only problem is that there is a 2000 foot drop on either side just off the path. Which of these situations makes your testicles pull right up into your chest.

The bouldering situation has virtually zero exposure. The mountain walk, huge exposure. The consequences of a slip are not to be countenanced. Climate change is like that. If climate change is a reality, the consequences are enormous and it will effect your 10 year old in just about as disastrously as slipping off the path.

Further more, If we are to believe the scientists who study climate change, sudden catastrophic climate change is not some remote unbelievable happenstance such as aliens coming to earth and wiping us out. We know from various records that rapid severe climate change has happened in the past. The signatures are in rock strata ice cores and ocean bottom mud cores. A couple of pretty relatively mild ones are also contained in our culture in the form of the medieval warm period and the little ice age. The end of the last ice age was another quite severe sudden climate change and it  ended a blink of the eye just 11,000 years ago.

We have sufficiently sophisticated science to know that there are good reasons to believe that we could cause rapid catastrophic climate change. We know, for instance that there are huge reserves of clathrates (methane ice) both in the frozen lands of the Northern Hemisphere and in the mid depths of the oceans of the world that only need a little warming to start them disintegrating. A little warming and they will release their methane at a rapid rate, accelerating the warming and releasing more methane etc. We know that methane is a far more powerful green house gas than carbon dioxide. It could be that it is too late to stop them being released as there are already indications that the tundra is melting and releasing its methane*.

*Since writing this article an item in New Scientist reported that 250 methane seeps have been detected on the ocean bottom around Spitsburgen.

We also know that ice and snow reflect most of the incoming energy from the sun and that open water absorbs most of this energy. If the Arctic ice melts, the heat budget of the world is going to be strongly and suddenly changed. Already,it is reported that the Arctic ocean has heated up about 3 degrees. If the ice disappears as predicted, most of the solar radiation falling on this ocean in the summer, 24 hours a day, will cause a rapid further rise in temperature. Clathrates which have been accumulating on the bottom of the Arctic ocean since the Ermian interglacial, 125,000 years ago will start to break down.

Despite all these logical arguments none of us can be sure that a sudden catastrophic climate change is in our near future. We can not be sure that our release of Carbon dioxide is causing climate change and we can't even be sure that through some as yet undiscovered chain of cause and effect that we may not be about to go into a new ice age. However whatever you believe with regard to climate change, there are some things which are certain unrelated to climate change. In no particular order:

* The EROEI* for new oil discoveries is declining. *Energy returned on energy invested ratio. With early oil discoveries it took the energy equivalent of one barrel of oil to discover, refine and deliver to the petrol station the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil. Now the ratio in the US is around 3:1 and in Saudi Arabia 10:1. Tar sands with advances in production techniques run now at about 5.8:1 (calculating using only direct energy inputs) and the ratio falls (gets worse) sigificantly if you include the true energy inputs). It is clear that that oil is becoming more difficult to find and more energy consuming to bring to the petrol station.

Incidentally, the EROEI for wind turbines is about 20:1

*Peak oil has been reached in many countries. For instance: USA-1970, Indonesia-1997, Australia-2000, UK-1999, Norway-2001, Mexico-2004. Combining all oil producing countries together we have arguably already passed global peak oil production. Peak oil for any country or for the world is only apparent a few years after it has been passed so we will only be wise in hindsight.

*P10's, the carbon particles of less than 10 micron size are serious health hazards. They are produced by internal combustion engines and by the burning of a wide range of fuels in cooking fires. They exist in the air of all countries but are particularly prevalent in Asia, especially where there are high densities of internal combustion engines crowded together into cities and people cooking with wood and kerosine.

*There can be no doubt that we are running out of oil at a rapid rate and coal at a slower but significant rate. Lets look at measures which will ensure us a source of energy long into the future and while we are at it, lets concentrate on measures which will reduce the emissions of Carbon dioxide just in case climate change is a reality. Fortunately many measures we can take which solve the first also solve the second.

First it is a no-brainer that we should put wind turbines in any location where the wind allows. Allowing NIMBY's to block the construction of wind farms is insane. With the exception of solar-electric panels, energy generation by wind has to be about the most ecologically benign form of energy generation ever invented. Yes, you get some bird kills and if you live too close, you may be able to hear them (although they are getting ever quieter and their sound is often masked by the russle of leaves when the wind is blowing). Ironically in areas such as New Zealand where we are worried about the survival of a rare daisy or threatened snail, wind farms can be positively benefical. Once there is a commercial enterprise on a ridge, there is money available to fence in the whole area and eliminate stoats, rats and cats and weed out foreign species of plants. Each wind farm ridge can become an ecological preserve to gladden the heart of the most ecologically conservative preservationist. Instead we allow them to block wind farms. If they continue to succeed and if NIMBI's rule world wide, the various things they are trying to preserve will likely go extinct due to climate change anyway. Wouldn't that be a giggle.

Secondly, all levels of government have to come to the party. There is a huge amount governments can do, primarily by waving their cut, to encourage the uptake of all forms of renewable energy. Without a government bleeding off profit at every turn, many renewable energy projects would cost half as much with the commensurate improvement in the financial viability of these projects. Of course, reasonably priced, sustainable energy would encourage enterprise which would increase the government take. It would create a source of tax revenue so that the MP's could afford to clean the moat.Link

Thirdly, we can put in smart grids which provide price incentives to the consumer such that the grid is demand balanced to a large extent by the customer. At the same time, smart grids should allow a fair profit for the small generator and for the large power company so that the system is in the interest of both. A system which is punitive to any one of the interested parties is doomed to fail.

Fourthly, we can encourage the uptake of electric cars and especially cars which are simple, very well engineered, durable, inexpensive and easily repaired. If you want the car with all the bells and whistles, no problem but you will have to pay for it. The Volkswagen/Deux Cheveaux/Model T Ford of electrics would make a huge contribution to a sustainable future.

Lets put in measures which make us independent of the fossil fuel purveyors of the world and at the same time take out an insurance pollicy, just in case Climate change is a reality.

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