Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Climate change requires Herculean effort

Karen McCall is resident of Ketchum.


Having just returned from an alternative energy/climate change symposium presented by the Wallace Stegner Center for Land Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah, I find myself reeling with the most current information concerning the precipitous decline of climate stability and the magnitude of effort required to prevent the planet from being knocked any further off kilter by human perturbation of the Earth's climate.

It is clear that scientists have underestimated the scale and pace of climate demise. Change is coming much faster and more intensely than climate modeling projected even a year ago. Jim Hansen, the NASA scientist who first presented data to Congress 20 years ago, offered in December a mind-blowing bottom line for climate stability: 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is the number that might ensure climate stability, the number that might prevent the planet from sliding over the precipice, the number that might give humanity and some of Earth's species a fighting chance.

To understand the significance of 350, it is important to know that pre-industrial levels of carbon in the atmosphere were roughly at 275 ppm. When Hansen first did his climate modeling he could only speculate what would put us in danger and that number was 550. With that number in mind, scientists, policy makers and economists believed that we could thwart climate change, but only with genuine effort, an effort that was largely ignored.

In recent years, after observing the melting of glaciers worldwide, scientists concluded that 450 ppm might be a more accurate number upon which to base their models and influence world leaders that action was necessary to avert disaster by limiting, for example, the number of coal-fired plants being built and increasing fuel efficiency standards for automobiles.

But then the data for the summer 2007 Arctic ice melt came in. The polar caps melted at an astonishing rate and magnitude far beyond scientific modeling and the Greenland ice sheet, which reaches depths of 2,800 meters, is beginning to break up and slide into the ocean. The data were impressive and startling enough to again lower the acceptable concentration of carbon in the atmosphere to 350 ppm. The current measurement of carbon in Earth's atmosphere is 384 ppm.

What this means is we have gone too far. We have caused an Arctic albedo flip, where the heat-reflective capacity of the polar ice caps is vanishing, but the heat sink capacity of the oceans is increasing. The rise in sea level, currently responsive to expansion by temperature increase, will now rise dramatically, many meters, by century's end or sooner. Sea levels of this degree will inundate petrochemical refineries and energy infrastructure around the globe. Massive international social turmoil and migrating refugees will cause wars and civil collapse.

So just changing light bulbs is not going to help. We are faced with a Herculean effort, one that involves every person, every government, every brilliant innovative thinker, every entrepreneur. The effort has been compared to nothing less and most likely more than the World War II challenge when production of consumer goods was halted and all manufacturing went into the war effort. Maybe we need a WPA (Work Projects Administration), under which, by presidential order, millions of jobs were created during the Great Depression. We need a president with the political will, the vision and the guts to mandate unprecedented change.

Much of the technology for renewable energy sources—solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and renewable fuels—are intact or are being energetically pursued. We need economic incentives and subsidies for clean-energy technology, not the antiquated, non-renewable systems of energy production that have gotten the Earth into this dire scenario.

Above all, we need an enlightened approach to enable all of us to make the dramatic and transformative shift in the way we live our lives on every level. This is asking a lot and it is entirely possible that humanity will not come to the plate and swing at the hardball being thrown at us. It's entirely possible that we will lose, but we have an unprecedented opportunity to create amazing technical solutions and to embrace change with dignity and grace to sustain life on this exquisite blue orb.

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