Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Weather Makers (6)


Reviewed by Thomas Riggins

Part 6

Lets look at just some of the problems we create by burning coal, according to the scientific evidence in Flannery's book.

There are wee bits of dust and particulate matter that drifts in the atmosphere. They are called aerosols. Coal burning plants in the U.S. now pump so many aerosols into the atmosphere that they kill about 60,000 people per year in this country alone (increased mortality thru lung diseases). Lung cancer rates are higher around areas with coal burning plants.

Aerosols also influence "global dimming." This is a phenomenon whereby less sunlight can reach the earth. Soot aerosols, along with jet trails, reflect sunlight back into space cooling the earth. But we are putting so much CO2 into the air that the heat being trapped is greater than the heat being reflected into space. Therefore the earth is warming up. The only thing that can prevent an ecological disaster is to start removing CO2 from the air (which we have not figured out how to do in any meaningful way).

If we stopped putting CO2 into the air today the CO2 already there will continue to heat the earth for decades. So, we are facing a big problem.

Here are some interesting statements from Flannery. It seems that if all new greenhouse gasses were immediately stopped from entering the air, the ones already in the air would continue to heat up the planet until 2050 or so. Then the atmosphere would stabilize at a new higher annual temperature. But we are no way near halting our polluting ways! In fact, we should note that "half the energy" we have burned since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been burned in just the last 20 years. So our polluting is becoming more intense.

Here is what we have to do to stabilize the climate around 2100-- we would need to reduce CO2 by 70% of the 1990 level by 2050. Then we would have CO2 at 450 parts per million. Flannery thinks it more realistic to aim at 550 parts per million with climate stabilization "centuries from now." The earth would end up around 5.4 degrees F [or 3 C] hotter by 2100 than it is now.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change says we must prevent "dangerous" climate change. So what constitutes dangerous climate change? It seems the consensus is about 2 degrees C-- anything over that may lead to disaster. So 2C is the most we can stand for, and if we get to work NOW we may still get 3C by 2100, the outlook is not so hot (no pun intended).

"Earth's average temperature," Flannery writes, "is around 59 degrees F, and whether we allow it to rise by a single degree or 5 degrees F will decide the fate of hundreds of thousands of species, and most probably billions of people."

Besides oceans, rain forests and coral reefs, the world's mountains are also experiencing rapid change. You can forget the snows of Kilimanjaro and the glaciers of New Guinea. The CO2 already in the atmosphere has doomed them and they will be gone in just a few decades.

As the earth warms the mountain habitat changes and animals who were lower down on the mountain move to the top while the topmost species go extinct. We are now in the process of losing mountain gorillas, panda bears and many plant species.

Flannery says some species benefit from global warming. The Anopheles mosquito is spreading and the malaria parasites it spreads will soon be infecting "tens of thousands of people without any resistance to the disease."

Obama's stimulus bill, whatever else it does, may be a boon for malaria parasites. It contains one billion dollars for the coal industry to help develop "clean coal" [there is no such animal] which fosters the illusion that we can survive without closing down the coal industry itself.

We can't save everything, but scientists think if we start taking strong action now we will ONLY lose one third of all existing species on earth. If we don't take action, then by 2100 we will have doomed 60% of existing species to extinction. Is burning coal and other fossil fuels really worth it?

Don't think calculations have not been made. Economists working for the UN in conjunction with the World Meteorological Association have done calculations that concluded it was too expensive to really halt climate change. The rich nations will be able to deal with it. The billions of poor in the Third World will be the ones to suffer but, the economists calculated that the life of a poor person was "worth only a fifteenth of that of a rich person." It is just not cost effective, according to them, to try and save the poor. At this point I wish Flannery would refer to Marxism, but alas he seems not to be a Marxist.

More grim news to come!