November 10, 2008

dubya dubya too

In case you were wondering, that's the kind of effort we'll need to stave off catastrophic climate change - the same effort we put in to fighting and winning World War II. So says NASA and scientist/climate prophet James Hansen.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress breaks down Hansen's latest research. In this paper, Hansen and his team try to nail down the target for atmospheric carbon that will lead to a stable climate. Alarmingly, it's 350ppm. We're already at 385ppm and rising right now. Romm, meanwhile, disputes Hansen's claim that 350ppm is even possible this century. Romm thinks 450ppm is at least conceivable though it will take superhuman effort to get there by 2100. I discussed some of these issues in my post on stabilization wedges, but with this latest paper, Hansen incorporates the latest data and models to confirm that stabilizing much above 450ppm of atmospheric carbon will indeed end the world as we know it (large-scale desertification and significant sea-level rises). And where would our carbon emissions need to go to stop this? The answer is down. Down, down, down. To zero. Forever.

Because of feedback loops, carbon levels can keep rising even after we've massively cut emissions (that's how 500ppm can turn into 1000ppm and the end of the world very quickly). So the target for carbon EMISSIONS, i.e. the stuff we put into the atmosphere, is zero by 2100. And it would need to stay at zero for at least a century. [Insert expletive of choice here]!!

Now that we really are two months away from a President Obama (I sure am glad I don't need to go back and revise my earlier posts), we can have some confidence that we as a nation will begin to attack climate change. But are we prepared for the scale? A favorite metaphor of the climate change activists for this or that effort has been the Manhattan Project that built two atomic bombs during WWII. But Hansen and his team (along with Romm) prefer the metaphor of World War II itself as the model upon which we must build. As he puts it:
Present policies, with continued construction of coal-fired power plants without CO2 capture, suggest that decision-makers do not appreciate the gravity of the situation. We must begin to move now toward the era beyond fossil fuels. Continued growth of greenhouse gas emissions, for just another decade, practically eliminates the possibility of near-term return of atmospheric composition beneath the tipping level for catastrophic effects.

The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20-25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II. The stakes, for all life on the planet, surpass those of any previous crisis. The greatest danger is continued ignorance and denial, which could make tragic consequences unavoidable.
For the record, in current dollars, World War II cost the United States $5 trillion in cash and the worldwide cost was something like $11 trillion (putting aside the human cost, if that's possible). And of course, the entire nation turned nearly 100% of its attention and output to fighting and winning that war. While there are some hopeful poll numbers now out there regarding support for alternative energy investment and combating climate change, I don't see an appetite for doing anything close to what we did back in 1941. Are we remotely prepared for what's ahead? Let's hope so. Or we're [insert favorite expletive again]!

Image from the Northwestern University Library Collection

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