Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Climate Change: What's the Final Answer?

I was listening to NPR and the story of "Concerned Scientists Vs. 'Superfreakonomics' Author". The author suggests some provocative ideas for addressing the problem of global warming, like pumping sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to cool down the earth.

I do not approve of this approach. This shall remain a best seller on the amazon list and hope people don't take this too seriously.

On the silver screen in 2004, “The Day After Tomorrow” dramatized a possible scenario of an immediate calamity due to global warming and climate change and an overnight push to the ice age.

In the “Inconvenient Truth”, Al Gore was very persuasive on the contribution of human activity to the current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the impending consequences via climate change, for which he won an Academy Award for best documentary feature film and shared the Nobel Peace Prize along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Thus, “global warming” and “climate change” have become common phrases, heightened the public awareness across the world, and created international threshold for immediate need for action.

So far, so good.

Recent projections of the IPCC estimate that by 2080, 1.1 billion to 3.2 billion people will be facing water scarcity; 200 million to 600 million, hunger; and two million to seven million more homes will be hit hard by coastal flooding. Between 75 and 250 million people in Africa alone will experience increased water shortages due to climate change by 2020. Although greater wealth may offset damage through adaptation in many nations, without the ability to pay for such measures the world's poor are likely to suffer more stress from climate impacts in the coming decades. Lord Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank, estimated the cost of climate change at between 5 per cent and 20 per cent of global gross domestic product.

Dr. James Hansen from NASA, renowned physicist in the field of climate modeling, concludes that far from aiming to limit rising CO2 concentrations to a ceiling of 450 ppm (parts per million), as currently suggested, the world should set a long-term target of getting back down to 350 ppm. A few decades with CO2 above that figure might not matter, but it would be foolish to allow CO2 to stay in the danger zone for centuries. The global average CO2 concentration was 385 ppm in 2008.

This morning, Dr. James Hansen sent out an email titled, "Sack Goldman Sachs Cap-and-Trade" and quote..

As I explain in my book "Storms of My Grandchildren" what is planned for Copenhagen is a selling of Indulgences, as in the Middle Ages when the Catholic Church sold forgiveness of sins. The Bishops were very happy (lots of moulah) and the sinners were happy (they could still go to heaven). The developed country sinners in Copenhagen will be paying
moulah via "offsets" (many imaginary or unverifiable) and "adaptation" funds and the developing countries will be looking to collect as many billions as possible. Can't blame them for that, but it is plain as day that the global emissions are not going to take the rapid downward track that the science demands.

This is best explained by Annie Leonard in her "story of cap & trade.

The conference of the parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is meeting for the 15th time in Copenhagen, Denmark. While the goal is to establish an ambitious and effective international response to the climate change, the discussions are still bogged down by the economics of who will do what and how much. There is an increasing pressure on India and China to join an emissions capping agreement, which both parties have restrained from in the past, saying the rich and developed countries who lead the industrial revolution should take the lead and should agree for bigger cuts.

While the high level dialogue at COP15 is ensured impasse and nobody willing to demonstrate the political will to undertake strong mandate, the Atlantic magazine reports a radical - and possibly extremely dangerous - schemes for reengineering the climate by brute force. Similar to the ideas presented in the SuperFreakonomics.

Among the few scientists, the leading voice for reengineering comes from Dr. Paul J. Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for formation and decomposition of Ozone. The theory revolves around blocking and reflecting the sun light by spreading sulphur-aerosols into the atmosphere. The immediate impacts of such an exercise not tested in a laboratory, but are already observed nature. The Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 cooled global temperatures by about half a degree Celsius for the next few years.

The aerosol plan is also cheap - so cheap that it completely overturns conventional analysis of how to mitigate climate change. In the past, Thomas C. Schelling, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics, has pointed out how difficult it is to get vast international agreements - such as the Kyoto Protocol - to stick. But a geo-engineering strategy like sulphur aerosol changes everything.

Dr. Schelling argues that while the big emitters are bickering about the emission caps and whether or not to mitigate the greenhouse gases fast; who will stop a small nation like Maldives or Bangladesh from attempting to cool down the temperatures fast and cheap by pumping aerosols. At the end, this is the step they may have to take in their national interest, to save the millions of the poor and thousands of hectares of drowning land resources?

I hope it will not come to this.

In 1999 Movie, “The Matrix”, Neo “the one” learns that it is the humans who scorched the sky, in order to block the sun and stop the life support to the machines. The unintended consequences led to the end of humanity on earth, but they managed to block the sun.

While the short term measures like sulphur-aerosols are intended to provide immediate relief, this is only postponing the long term damage. The unintended impacts of higher sulphur in the atmosphere mean more incidences of acid rain and further ecosystem damage.

A recent study published by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories, that bad air quality (due to aerosols) in the Eastern China is affecting the rainfall patterns, thus the country's ability to raise crops as well as contributing to health and environmental problems.

The interaction of policies and knowledge base to better understand the air pollution (aerosols) and climate change have not been sufficiently investigated and there is a tremendous potential for co-benefits.

Policy research aimed at clarifying the synergies and trade-offs in this field could help to develop instruments that work both ways. And in the mean time, hope that no radical measures are implemented for short term benefits and people will listen to the likes of Dr. James Hansen for stringent mitigation measures on the ground.

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