The bad news is that I’ve been reading David Archer’s The Long Thaw on climate change projections, and he thinks that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been way too conservative. As I understand him, his research shows that because of massive carbon emissions produced by human beings, by 2100 the average temperature of the earth’s surface will likely increase by 3 degrees C. But, he thinks that thereafter it will go on up another 2 degrees, for a total of 5 over the next few generations. The last time you had a climate 5 degree C. warmer than our prehistoric climate was the Eocene, 40 million years ago. All surface ice melted and the climate was tropical all the way to the poles.
We don’t actually know if there has ever been such a rapid increase in carbon in the atmosphere (there have been occasional periods in geological time when the earth warmed up similarly, as with the Eocene, but it is impossible to know at the moment over what time period that occurred). Human beings nowadays are carbon-spewers on steroids.
Archer argues that the dynamics of ocean water flows and the uncertainties of how quickly the oceans will absorb some of the extra carbon mean that the worst of the climate change effects will likely be delayed beyond 2100. Typically, sea level has risen 10-20 yards / meters for every increase of 1 degree in the surface temperature. So a 5 degree rise will eventually likely mean a sea level rise of 50 to 70 meters, which would cover a third more of the land mass than currently. The rise will take place over several centuries. Kevin Costner’s Waterworld may have been a bad film, but it might be good future history.
It will take about 100,000 years (the entire likely age of homo sapiens sapiens as a species) for the oceans and igneous rocks to wash the extra carbon out of the atmosphere.
Since the human species and human civilization arose under very different and significantly colder conditions, it is possible that a 5 degree rise in the average earth temperature over two or three centuries could lead to severe civilizational crisis and even extinction. On past evidence, the acidification of the oceans from carbon absorption will likely kill most marine life, a major human food source. And, human agricultural techniques assume large temperate zones.
Archer’s pessimism, beyond the IPCC conservative estimates also suggests a problem, which is that the worst catastrophes facing our species because of our current carbon binge may take place over centuries (apparently the first 1,000 years after the period of large carbon emissions will be the worst). If we can’t get people alarmed about 2100 because it is too far off (it is only a human lifetime off in fact), how can we excite them about 2500?
Well, we’re probably screwed. But the more we move to renewable energy in this generation, the less dramatic the millennial calamity. Archer’s worst case assumes that we’ll burn all the coal now known to exist. Friends, really. We don’t need to do that. James Hansen has suggested that coal burning should be a hanging crime, like horse stealing in the old West. Anyway, here are some slim reeds of hope:
1. Solar energy costs are falling so quickly that in a matter of a few years they will be competitive with hydrocarbons on a purely market basis. Controversy has attended the industry (especially in oil-and-gas-oriented America) because of government subsidies. But likely they won’t even be a question soon. On the other hand, it would be nice if the subsidies for petroleum, gas and coal were removed.
2. A solar power generation plant near Seville, Spain, started by Torresol (a joint venture of Spain’s Sener and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar) uses molten salt technology to generate power 24 hours a day. In this way the problem of “intermittency” (solar and wind power aren’t available 24 hours a day) is beginning to be addressed. The plant will supply electricity to 25,000 homes in Andalucia.
3. A German consortium is planning a $2 billion 500-megawatt solar plant in Morocco, with ground-breaking planned for 2012. It is a step toward a new North African electrical grid that may also supply Europe with 15% of its electricity by 2050. The 12-mile plant will use mirrors to run steam turbines rather than depending on photovoltaic cells. The Desertec Industrial Initiative, which includes Siemens, is also exploring putting a plant in newly democratizing Tunisia. DII intends that the plants should also supply electricity in the North African counties, as well as generating green jobs in countries that suffer from high unemployment.
4. Indonesia, with a large number of active volcanoes and more geothermal “hot spots” than any other country, is seeking to put in 9 gigawatts of geothermal electricity-generating plants by 2025 (roughly the equivalent of 9 nuclear power plants). Its biggest problem is attracting foreign investment for the $30 billion development, though recent changes in the law allowing foreign companies to operate as long as they have an Indonesian partner with at least 5% ownership, may help bring in money from abroad.
5. India is developing a new generation of small thorium nuclear reactors. These plants produce 400 megawatts of electricity but do not use uranium, the waste product of which can last thousands of years. Thorium wast might last only hundreds of years. India is relatively rich in thorium, and so far has few hydrocarbons such as petroleum and natural gas. The thorium nuclear plants will be a source of low-carbon energy.
6. Texas plans to double its wind power generation capacity by 2014, only 3 years from now.
7. India’s solar power costs are projected to fall by 40% over the next 4 years, making solar power generation competitive with India’s (limited) petroleum and gas industries, according to Reuters. India hopes to generate 20 gigawatts via solar plants by 2022, and plans to put $70 billion into fostering this outcome. At the moment, 70% of India’s electricity is generated by coal. The solar energy in India is expected to generate 100,000 jobs by 2022.
8. Solar energy is such a growing sector in Latin America that it is attracting substantial foreign investment.
9. South Africa, currently a big coal producer and consumer, is becoming a renewable energy investment hub. It has plans to produce nearly 4 gigawatts of power through renewables.
10. A new report from Transparency Market Research says that wind power generating capacity worldwide was only about 200 gigawatts in 2010, but will likely rise to 1,750 GW by 2030.
This projection is encouraging, but, alas, this isn’t nearly enough. The world consumes roughly 15,000 gigawatts (15 terawatts) of energy nowadays, generated by all its gadgets, most of them driven by hydrocarbons. All of that capacity needs to be replaced as soon as possible with green energy if we are to avoid the worst case scenarios for global warming. But with emerging nations like India coming on line and newly hungry for electricity and automobiles, the world will likely need 30,000 gigawatts or 30 terawatts by 2050. So about 2 terawatts from wind by 2030 is a drop in the bucket. Some scientists have argued that only solar energy has a prayer of meeting the needs of the world on this time scale.