Silver linings from storm clouds of climate change

Good news from the usually

somber climate-change front

 by Allen Best

Lectures about climate change tend to be as full of foreboding as a Baptist sermon about the future world for those unwashed by a full immersion. Chuck Kutscher is no exception to this, except when he spoke to the Colorado Renewable Energy Society in late June, it was more of a sweet-and-sour delivery than usual.

“There’s some good news out there. There really is,” said Kutscher, who is a principle engineer and group manager in the concentrated solar power division at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

But before delivering anything heart-warming, Kutscher summarized the take-homes of several studies that might keep you awake at night. The atmosphere now has 25 percent more carbon dioxide than it did in the mid-20th century, when Kutscher and other baby boomers were born.

The sea level is rising, the highest it’s been in the last 55,000 years. It’s projected to continue to rise another 2½ feet to 6 feet during the 21st century as compared to 1990 levels. That has enormous consequences, he said as he showed a map of Florida much smaller in size as lower-elevations areas are submerged.

Extreme weather is becoming more common and will become more extreme yet. And already, sea shores are getting hammered with stronger hurricanes – at great cost.

Cost of weather impacts attributed to climate change are project to rise to staggering proportions. A 2008 study by Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth A. Stanton for the Natural Resources Defense Council estimated annual costs of $1.9 trillion by 2100 from hurricane damage, real estate losses, energy costs, and water costs.

“When people say we can’t afford to address it (through reducing greenhouse gases), we can’t afford not to address it,” said Kutscher.

But the cost of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, by shifting to renewable sources of energy, isn’t nearly as high: just $26 billion a year for all of the renewables together.

“The real challenge is in grid integration,” he added, noting that the existing electrical grid is old and creaky. Integrating wind, solar and other renewables needs a more sophisticated system. New electrical transmission is probably not so much a problem as an opportunity.

But Kutscher then reported good news. He cited the new push for improved fuel efficiency in automotive fleets, the shift from coal to natural gas to produce electricity, and the drop in prices of solar photovoltaic modules. Plus, wind is really taking off, with 300,000 megawatts of generation now installed in the world, including 2,000 megawatts now in Colorado. And China, as a developing country, is heavily invested in renewables, even if it does continue to build new coal-fired plants.

“Suddenly, we’re really taking off,” he said.

This still isn’t like daylight savings time. You can’t turn back the clock. Too much energy, in the form of greenhouse gases, is already loaded into the system.

Adaptation will be necessary as temperatures and sea levels continue to rise and weather events such as hurricanes, droughts, and rainstorms become more intense.

It’s still a sweet-and-sour story.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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