How to slow down this runaway freight train of climate change
by Allen Best
James W.C. White presents himself first and foremost as a scientist, one who specializes in geological processes. You can call him a climate scientist. He says some things are not a matter of belief, but rather laws of physics. The eventual effect of greenhouse gases on atmospheric temperature is among those basic laws.
But White is also a man of faith, someone who believes in free will and the potential of humans to make choices guided by morals, not laws of nature. I saw this last year when he testified in support of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan at hearings in Denver. He identified himself as an evangelical Christian.
In a presentation sponsored by the Boulder chapter of the Colorado Renewable Energy Society on Oct. 15, White made no mention of religion. But after explaining for 45 minutes why the laws of physics should alarm us, he delivered his proposed solution. That solution applies not only to climate change, which he said can be solved, if we so choose, but also to the much greater problem of a species that recognizes no planetary limits.
“In the end, I think it is about us growing up as a species. I don’t want to come across as some Tennessee preacher up here,” added White, who grew up in Tennessee, “but in the end it has to be about us becoming better people.”
A professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, White also has an appointment within the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. For about 25 years, he has been teaching a class on energy and the environment, and his lecture for the Colorado Renewable Energy Society seemed to be a brief summary of that course.
“There are things we know that will happen,” he said at the outset of his lecture. “I won’t get into things we think may happen.”
In its desire to expand, the human species has done only what every other species, from bacteria to primates, attempts to do. “You try to take over the planet,” said White.
In this desire to “have domination over the planet,” however, humans have ratcheted up the game. “I think in the last 30 years, we have demonstrably achieved that goal. While all previous generations saw the Earth as limitless in some ways, all future generations will need to consider planetary limits.”
One example of human mastery: We cause 10 times more erosion than all natural resources.
Another: We can make more fertilizer than all the world’s bacteria. A key discovery about how to short-circuit the natural process was made in the 1930s, and since the 1950s “we have gone from being not a part of the nitrogen cycle to the point that we are on par with all bacteria.”
And this: we have moved past population limits, with rapid expansion beginning about 1800 and now moving rapidly from 7 billion to 9 billion by mid-century. “Growth rates are slowing down somewhat,” said White. “But there’s a lot of momentum.”
By exploiting carbon fuels, many in the world have been able to lead lives premised on great amounts of energy. It adds up. Together, four major regions of the planet as of 2012 produced over half of the world’s global emissions: China (22%), the United States (14%), the European Union (10%) and India (6%).
Still, an average Indian uses only one-sixth the energy of an average person in Denmark. Along with Indonesia and a great many other countries, India is waiting in the wings, eager to gain the lifestyle of those in the Western world.
Now, about the laws of physics: our climate is governed by three factors: 1) how much energy we get from the sun; 2) how much of that energy is reflected back to space by aerosols, ice, and snow; and 3) the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
“Energy in the atmosphere is climate by definition,” he said.
Water vapor is a powerful greenhouse gas. It constitutes just 1 percent of the atmosphere, yet it is a powerful determinant of the environment. With it, the landscapes are green. Without rain and snow, the landscapes turn brown. As the world warms, there will be more water vapor in the atmosphere, amplifying the heating.
“Something very small can have big effects,” said White. “I don’t know why people struggle with that.”
Greenhouse gases give us a livable environment, raising the Earth’s surface temperature by about 60°F. (33°C). Water vapor provides about half of the greenhouse effect.
“If we add a lot of greenhouses into the atmosphere, there will be more energy in the atmosphere and by definition the climate will change,” said White. That is, he added, a physical law, not a matter of belief.
Where has this heat been going? About 90 percent of the increased heat has gone to heat up water, mostly the oceans, and that takes time. “If you’re worried about climate on the planet, look at the ocean,” he said. Unfortunately, we don’t do a good job of monitoring the ocean, he added.
One bedeviling fact of climate change is the lag time of greenhouse gas emissions and their effects, 50 to 100 years.
Now, here’s the worrisome math: We were at 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the start of the industrial revolution two centuries ago. That had grown to just 315 ppm as Jack Kennedy began gearing up for his campaign to be president. Now, it’s at 402 ppm.
“We haven’t had 400 ppm for 3.5 to 4 million years,” observed White. At that time, there were alligators in the Arctic Circle and sea level was 20 to 30 meters higher than it is today.
The Arctic Ocean has not yet warmed sufficiently to support alligators, but it has been thawing at a far more brisk pace than lower latitudes, including places like Colorado. The Arctic sea ice has been rapidly shrinking. Oil companies as well as the world’s major nations have been jockeying to exploit the enormous quantities of oil and gas believed to live below the ocean floor.
“Keep your eyes on the Arctic,” White advised.
With ice melting and the ocean warming, world sea levels will rise. “The physics here are very simple: you put water into a container and warm it up—and it expands,” said White. In addition, there will be melted ice as glaciers on Greenland and Antarctica dissolve.
“The rate of sea level rise is currently such that we expect about one meter of rise by 2100, a rate that is three to five times faster than has been common in the past record.”
A rise of three feet over a century’s time is nothing that people get excited about, but they should, said White. The cost of displacement will be enormous and the refugee issues today caused by war in Syria will seem trifling in comparison.
Sea level rise probably won’t stop at one meter, however. If we stay on our current course, a 10 degree increase in temperature is possible. That would mean about 20 meters (65 feet) of sea level rise. The White House would be on the beachfront and Delaware? Under water.
Because of the lag effect of greenhouse warming, we already have considerable warming locked into the atmospheric system. Future sea level rise is inevitable.
White likened it to a freight train. It takes a while to get going, but once it gets going, it takes a while to stop. But we haven’t even decided to slow the train.
“We have to manage expectations,” he said. “You can’t continue to burn fossil fuels and put C02 into the atmosphere and [think] you won’t change the world.”
White’s takeaways were that we must control population, we must empower women, and we must care about our shared planet.