Tuesday, 5 April 2016

One and a Half Degrees from Boiling Point!

Hi Guys,

As usual once more my apologies for posting so seldom. But this time I have an excuse – actually I always do – I'm lazy! But life does intrude as usual on my time, and I have been busy editing Samual as I prepare it for publication. At present the book has gone through its first pass with my editor, and then I've gone and more or less rewritten it! Such is the life of a writer I suppose.

To add to my woes I've also been wrestling with the thorny matter of Tables of Contents in books. As some of you may know Amazon has recently had a problem with these, insisting that they can no longer be in the back of a book. (Not my problem since I don't use them of course – I just can't see the point and it would look ridiculous. A list of chapter numbers sitting by page numbers. Why?) However it looks as though Aunty Amy is insisting that books should have them. So I've been attempting to do one – without page numbers. So really just a list of hyper linked chapters at the front of the book. Trouble is, no matter what I do, I can't seem to get Libre Office 5 to do something so simple. I could get it to row the Atlantic while reciting Pi to a million places – but produce a table of contents without page numbers? Hell no!

And then wisdom came to me – or alcohol, they may be the same thing. And I remembered that the reason I use Libre Office 5 is that it not only can produce a Word 2000 file, it has the look and feel of it. That's important to a computer moron like me. I don't want to learn a new programme. So I thought since it does that, and Word 2000 is still the industry standard, why not see what the actual programme can do? And what do you know the damned programme has a lovely little toggle button in the dialogue boxes to toggle page numbers on and off! It's just so damned simple! Libre Office take note!

Live and learn as they say!

Anyway Samual at this stage should be finished and published hopefully this month. It will hopefully even have a table of contents at the front! (The ebook version anyway.) And when it does go out I may finally have some time to have that nervous breakdown I've been putting off!

So crisis over and having a little free time on my hands before Samual comes back from its second edit, I thought I'd turn my aching brain to a crisis of global importance. No not the man with the worst comb over in history becoming president! Sorry to my American readers but he's your problem! And not Kim Jong Un either – what is it about bad leaders and bad hair?

No this time I wanted to talk about something much more serious than such matters. I wanted to talk about global warming and climate change – a subject that should be dear to all our hearts. And in particular my view that we've been looking at this problem all wrong.

As you know we recently had another conference of world leaders and countries coming up with ways to limit our carbon emissions, and hoping to control the global temperature increase over the coming century to one and a half degrees Celsius. Even they though believe it will be over two degrees. My guess is it will actually end up over five simply judging by the way temperatures seem to be rising and the polar ice is melting. And it may be worse than that. Though few seem to be mentioning it, there may well be a sort of runaway effect where after we reach a tipping point the rate of global warming increases beyond our ability to slow it. And if you want to take a guess as to how bad that could end up, simply look at Venus. No one would survive that.

Still enough scaremongering. Hopefully I'm wrong. Whether global warming merely heats the world at a couple of degrees per century or a couple of hundred, we've still got to stop it. Because it does mean the end of life on Earth. And thus far it seems to me that we've done absolutely nothing to stop it.

That's the thing I think we need to address.

All our strategies to limit global warming are a form of playing defence. And as any rugby player will tell you, you can't win by playing defence. The best you can ever hope to do is draw. And with all the strategies out there it seems to me that the best we could ever hope to do is reduce the temperature rise to zero degrees – but at a superhuman cost of effort and resources which no one is prepared to do. At some point you have to go on the attack. You have to start scoring tries. And not a single strategy that we seem to have come up with, is about that.

Okay, time for a very simple science lesson. Global warming is about carbon. Put simply, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Carbon in the form of carbon dioxide absorbs heat from sunlight. So put even more simply the more CO2 in the atmosphere, the hotter the world gets. That's the greenhouse effect. Conversely the less CO2 there is the cooler things get. The ice box effect?

Now sea levels are rising and will continue to rise even if we add not a single extra gram of CO2 to the atmosphere. Island nations will be drowned. Polar caps will continue to melt adding not only to sea level rise but also the heating effect since ice being shiny and white reflects heat, whereas when it turns to water it absorbs it. Animal species will continue to become extinct. In short we are well past the point where simply reducing the amount of extra carbon we add to the atmosphere will stop things. We don't need to stop adding less. We need to start taking it away. And not a single policy I've seen seems to be directed at this goal.

Current policies are all about limiting the damage, and decreasing the amount of extra carbon we add to the biosphere. They are like putting band aids on a wound that's only getting bigger. We need to do some surgery! We need to get rid of that extra fat that's making our wounds worse.

And what do you know – the Earth has already been doing that for us – for a billion years. We need to start doing that for ourselves.

To explain this lets take a step back and look at global warming from a simple perspective. The predominant agent of global warming is carbon. Carbon which exists either in bound forms such as wood and animals and algae etc. Or in gaseous form as carbon dioxide. All of these things are contained within the part of the Earth known as the biosphere. The living zone just on top of the world's crust more or less. And the part where we live.

The other thing we need to remember is that carbon exists in the biosphere in a cycle. It is never destroyed or created. It simply changes form. From fixed carbon to gaseous carbon and then back to fixed carbon again and so on.

Fixed carbon is bound up in life forms like trees and animals. And as fixed carbon it does not add to global warming. Then those life forms die, and through processes like digestion, rotting and fire the carbon is released into the atmosphere. In chemistry this is oxidation – you add oxygen to carbon and you get CO2. Now if that was the end of it, the Earth would have been destroyed a billion years ago. But it isn't. Because a reverse chemical process also exists – photosynthesis. Plants breathe in the air take the carbon from it and bind it once more into living structures like wood. That's what photosynthesis is.

So that's the carbon cycle in a nutshell. There's only one other thing to consider. It's a closed system. There may be more carbon in the atmosphere at certain times and less in the bound forms, but there's always fairly much the same amount of total carbon in the biosphere.

And that's important. Because it means that until say a couple of hundred years ago whatever you destroyed and converted to gaseous carbon would sooner or later be returned to a bound carbon form. There was a balance. Burn down a forest, and the atmospheric carbon increased a tiny amount. But sooner or later, trees and plants regrew and the carbon was once more bound. You got minor fluctuations.

But then we started doing two things that destroyed that balance. The first was that we industrialised. Spreading out, growing all over the world, beginning wide scale deforestation etc. And the second was that we started burning fossil fuels – coal and oil. And we did it in massive amounts.

That matters because fossil fuels and the carbon in them are not part of that balance. This is extra carbon being introduced to the system. And this is what's caused global warming.

The minor fluctuations in carbon in the air due to the existing carbon in the system changing are nothing to fear. If the amount of carbon in the air rises, in time the amount of plant growth will increase and the carbon will be reduced. It's all perfectly balanced.

But with global warming the problem isn't the carbon trapped in this system. It's the additional carbon that's being introduced into the system that matters. Coal and oil. They are actually carbon that has been taken out of the system over millions of years. And so when they're added to the system, they increase the total carbon available. And most of that since they're burnt, ends up in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That's the thing that's slowly killing us.

And every strategy we've come up to deal with this so far has been about reducing the amount of extra carbon we add to the biosphere and hence our atmosphere and the temperature. So we burn less fuel – not no fuel. But what we actually need to do is start taking carbon out of the system. Out of the atmosphere / biosphere.

So how do we do that you ask? It sounds like a big thing. And actually it is. But the first part of it is simple. We use the world to do it for us. To do what it already has been doing naturally. Plants are already in existence to take carbon dioxide from the air and turn it into wood. And they've done a brilliant job of it for a billion years. The hard part is what follows. Taking that fixed carbon in the form of wood etc, and removing it. Making it unavailable to the life cycle. Making it unable to be broken down and released as CO2.

Now there are some chemical processes that could do this. We could for example turn it all to diamond. But that would of course be an incredibly slow process that would require an enormous commitment of time and energy. We could combine it with other chemicals to turn it into say, plastic. But always when we do things like that we seem to end up polluting the plant. Or we could simply physically remove it.

Logic tells us there are only two ways to do this. Two directions we could send it – up or down. We could stick it all in rocket ships and blast it into space. A glorious system, but one that is likely beyond us. Or we could do what nature has been doing for a billion years – bury it.

This is rather like drilling for oil – in reverse. But again we already do this. We dig mines and wells. We spend enormous amounts of time and effort digging ever bigger holes in the Earth. Why not use those holes? Why not fill them up with carbon? So grow something fast growing – bamboo perhaps. Burn it in an airtight container perhaps through a solar furnace such as those we use to destroy toxic wastes. Reduce it to carbon. And then bury that carbon – which is really coal – somewhere where it can never become part of the carbon cycle again.

Yes this is a lot of work. And yes it will take centuries to do. To fix the damage we have already done to our world. But we are in a situation where we don't have a lot of choice. It's time to go big or go home as they say. And since we are already home, the second option isn't really an option. It's our home that's leaving us.

I say its time to commit ourselves to one and a half degrees. But not the miserable, unachievable goal that came from the politicians so recently. To the reduction of global temperatures by one and a half degrees by the end of the century. It's time to clean up our mess.

Anyway, that's my solution to global warming. What's yours?


Cheers, Greg.