There’s no doubt that modern life is fraught with unprecedented difficulties that will change us as a species, and none of them are as unavoidable and catastrophic as global warming. Let’s not mince our words and use the benign phrase "climate change". Just as a broken leg is not adequately described as a "change in mechanical stability," nor is the sense of urgency and importance severed from the grave seriousness of global warming by watered-down phrases like "climate change".
Carbon dioxide (CO2) measurements from the present compared with climatic cycles going back 800,000 years irrefutably prove that global warming is directly caused by burning fossil fuels. This is not a matter of reasoned debate any more than the scientific fact that the earth is round.
So, the only question remaining is: "What do we do?"
First of all, there needs to be enough political and social force to counter the disingenuous arguments put forward by the profiteers who seek monetary gain at the expense of our collective survival. The corporate heads whose profit margin depends on fossil fuels don't believe for a second that this current global warming is a natural cyclical event. But they know that it’s in their interests to create a public disinformation campaign to prevent the switch over to alternative energy for as long as possible.
Secondly, alternative energy technologies need to be engaged, new research needs to be done, and infrastructures to support these need to be built.
Lastly, current CO2 levels need to be absorbed back out of the atmosphere. At present, these levels are far higher than in the past 800,000 years. Some techniques are already being tried with varying degrees of success, whether by cost or other limitations of practicality. But they will, no doubt, receive much more attention as cresting sea levels continue to threaten coastal cities.
OK, let's deal with these in order.
1. Refuting the smokescreen argument that what we
are experiencing is a cyclical event of natural temperature change.
We can measure the amount of CO2 (the main component contributing to global warming) that historically existed in the atmosphere by drilling ice core samples and testing CO2 concentrations at different depths that correlate to different millennia. Based on samples that go back 800,000 years, we see cyclical warming trends where carbon dioxide levels peak at about 250 parts per million volume (ppm) about every hundred thousand years up from cooler periods of about 200 ppm. In May 2013, the US National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration measured 400 ppm (a number that National Geographic says that we haven't experienced on earth for millions of years). What's more disturbing is that this rise has occurred within the past hundred years, which directly correlates with the emergence of fossil fuels powering our civilization. Compare this to the typical fifteen to twenty thousand years that the normal warming trend takes to peak, and you can see why the entire scientific community is sounding the alarm.
But this doesn't tell the whole story. We are on track to hit 500 ppm in the next 25 years, and there is no sign that this is slowing in fact, it’s speeding up. We now have to start comparing these CO2 levels to the highest known levels in the very distant past known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) from 55 million years ago. Estimates from this era put CO2 levels at 700 to 900 ppm where we see in the fossil record no polar ice caps, sea level rise of 200 feet from today's oceans, lifeless equatorial zones, and palm trees at the polar regions. At this stage, it is useless to try to point out the effects of the damage to the habitation of our planet. It would be trite to say that agriculture would be gone, or that coastal areas would be flooded for hundreds of miles inland, or that the internet would be down. It would be like trying to describe the injuries to a body that had fallen from an airplane in front of a train and then knocked into a furnace. This warming would not be survivable.
2. Alternative energies that can be explored and used without putting more carbon into the atmosphere.
The obvious choices here are all the renewablessolar, wind, tides, and geothermal. Radioactive waste is so extraordinarily toxic that nuclear power can’t be considered a credible alternative. When Uranium is split to create nuclear power, it results in the formation of different elements like Plutonium-239. This particular isotope of Plutonium has a half life of 24,000 years. In other words, half of its mass will radioactively decay into other isotopes and elements in this time, then in another 24,000 years half of the remaining mass will decay, and so on.
That isotope will remain lethal for a couple of hundred thousand years, but other byproducts take even longer, like Iodine-129. This has a half life of 15.7 million years - considering that modern humans have only been around about 100,000 years, and civilization only about 8,000 years, the duration of nuclear waste makes it unmanageable.
Geothermal energy is incredibly efficient, envir-onmentally clean, and relatively nonintrusive in the landscape. But it is also very limited to the regions that happen to be on geothermal hot spots like tectonic plate edges. Iceland, for example, benefits from sitting atop the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and generates 85% of its energy from geothermal and hydropower. But few places in the rest of the world are so geologically fortunate.
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Climate Change
Tim Sunderman
Vhcle Magazine Issue 15, Life
Tim Sunderman is a graphic designer in the San Francisco bay area who does most of his art without a computer, using traditional techniques in drawing, painting, photography, calligraphy, and even sculpture. He is a graduate of the Academy of Art in San Francisco. He eschews speaking of himself in the third person, as he is here, but doesn't mind too much for shameless self-promotion.
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Tidal power, conversely, is available where ever there are ocean waves. Tidal power uses the motion of the incoming and outgoing waves to turn turbines or push large plates. Though current energy output of this resource remains modest, there are promising signs – Scotland is beginning work this year on the largest tidal power facility in the world.
Wind power is similarly not an enormous part of renewable energy solutions, but still a very viable part of the overall shift to clean alternative energy. Spain, for the first time last year derived more of its electricity from wind than any other resource (21%). But worldwide, wind power only produces about 2.5%  of electricity.
Far and away, the most promising alternative energy solutions comes from solar power. One way to think of it is that all the energy on the Earth comes from the Sun, with the minor exception of the radioactive decay of some of the minerals in the ground. Every bit of coal, oil, natural gas, and wood is simply a form of stored sunlight. So, solar panels are just a way to harvest this energy without having to burn the resource in which it is stored. The National Academy of Engineering estimates that the earth gets 10,000 as much energy from the Sun as all the commercial energy that humans use. However, solar power still produces less than 1% of worldwide energy consumption.
There are basic solutions that could have a significant impact on reducing carbon emissions. Just as every homes has to have proper sewage lines, we could require all available rooftops to be outfitted with solar panels.
And it’s possible now. Take a look at Germany: it leads the world not only in solar power, but in all forms of alternative energy. On particular peak production days, solar has provided as much as 40% of Germany's electricity. And when combined with wind power, there have been days when these renewables have provided as much as 60% of Germany's power consumption. They have set goals for themselves to produce 35% of their power from renewables by 2020, and 100% by 2050.
Unlike what some oil company PR campaigns would have us believe, this isn’t just some idealistic dream, as Germany is showing us. These are real solutions and they are happening right now.
And this doesn't even take into account the theoretical and experimental possibilities that we have yet to imagine. The speed at which our technology develops has repeatedly uncovered unforeseen opportunities that profoundly changed the way we live. Modern transportation, electricity, computer chips, and medical discoveries are clear examples of this. It’s not inconceivable that we might find solutions that are presently invisible.
3. Getting rid of the existing carbon.
It’s too late to avert a climatic crisis: it’s already here. We’re in uncharted territory. Our atmosphere has CO2 levels at a concentration not seen for millions of years, and they are rising at an accelerating rate. So, by the time we have stopped adding more, the oven will already have reached critical temperatures. And if we just wait for things to cool off, we can look to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum to find that it took 200,000 years for the atmosphere to return to normal levels. I don't think we can wait that long.
To this end, there are a number of companies investing in technology and facilities to absorb carbon either directly from the exhaust of gas and coal-fired power plants, or taking it from the air itself. In some cases, the CO2 remains as a gas and is injected into the ground to be sequestered there with minimal negative environmental effects.
Other approaches rely on biological processes, or biosequestration, where plants and algae are grown on a massive scale to breathe the carbon back out of the air. Reforestation, development of peat bogs, and wetland restoration can provide a natural and efficient carbon sink. There are even developments in producing artificial trees that can pull a thousand times more CO2 from the air than a tree of similar size. Carbon absorption techniques that induce a chemical reaction   to bind carbon to common minerals could also be part  of a solution, but their large-scale efficiency has yet to be tested.
No matter what technology we use to dig ourselves out of the crisis that we have created, it will certainly take   a long time. And major consequences already seem unavoidable. It is hard to imagine that the melting ice can be mitigated. Large sections of many of the world's major cities will be under water. Adaptation will be a challenge.
As will recovery. Recovery is a process. It will start with awareness and forcing social behavior to respond, and will require concerted efforts on the part of every country. We are standing on the edge of an uncertain future, and platitudes or words of ingratiating encouragement ring hollow. Unless we stare, cold and unflinching, at the reality of this problem, we’ll never feel the sense of emergency that we need.