Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A quick note on climate change

I've been seeing a lot of posts around the whatever-we're-calling-ourselves-osphere recently expressing disbelief in human-caused climate change. And yes, Al Gore, and yes, inadequate modeling, and yes, collapse of the oil economy anyway, and yes, there's wars going on too, and so on, and so on. Come on, people.

No, the science is not complete. Science by definition never is. But the basics, the unavoidable facts, anyone can grasp, and they are as follows.

1. Energy can be converted from one form to another, but it can be neither created nor destroyed.

2. The Earth is essentially a closed system. Aside from the continual huge energy input from the sun, what we have is what we have. And it's a complex system to be sure, and variable, but its tendency is towards the development and sustenance of equilibrium.

3. That thing we call oil? This is what it is: vast quantities of energy, ultimately from the sun, our one significant source of input, which was gathered by biological systems (i.e., living things) and stored over billions of years.

4. We are currently towards the end of a process of releasing pretty much all of that energy in a couple of hundred years.

5. Complex systems (see #2) plus even a little bit of energy (and we're emphatically not talking about "a little bit" here) equals lots and lots of unpredictable chaos and catastrophic destruction of equilibria.

All of that energy, this billions of years worth of sunny days being spewed out into the world in a period lasting only a few hundred millionths of that time, has to go somewhere, and I can tell you this: the place it's going is not "away." The fact that we don't know exactly what the consequences will be is not a reason to stop worrying about it, it's exactly the opposite.

And yeah, we pretty much can't do anything about it. Since when has that been a reason to pretend that a problem doesn't exist?


Jack Crow said...

Top fucking notch.

Bolo said...

Bit of a correction: The energy directly released from those fossil fuel stores isn't causing warming, though your post implies it.

The amount of energy that we receive from the sun every year far outstrips that which we get from burning coal/oil every year. We're not releasing billions of years of solar energy--we're burning a (very) tiny fraction of the sun's input to our planet per year. Barely a statistical blip (something like 0.007% of the sun, if Wikipedia is accurate).

The problem is the end-products that come from burning the fossil fuels. These come in the form of greenhouse gases (CO2 especially), which then trap more of that intense incoming solar radiation and lead to a warmer planet.

The biosphere can easily absorb all the energy contained in the fossil fuels we burn each year. What it can't absorb is all the extra solar radiation that results from that burning. We're basically moving carbon that is safely stored underground and throwing it into the atmosphere, and there is no mechanism (at this time) to put it back and restore the previous atmospheric energy equilibrium.

We can certainly do something about this. There are lots of technologies out there to capture carbon either at the source of emission (power plants) or from the air. The problem is that these methods are labeled not "economically feasible" because we're a society of morons who think money today is more important than human life in the future.

Er, so, I'm just taking issue with your statement that its the amount of energy released from fossil fuels that's screwing us over. Instead, its the chemical byproducts of fossil fuel combustion that enter the atmosphere, because they alter the solar radiative balance and that is what is screwing us over.


Ethan said...

Thanks, Jack.

Bolo, I admit I was vague on the mechanisms, but that is primarily because the point I was trying to make is that we don't need to know the mechanisms to know that what we're doing is fucked up.

And in your second-to-last paragraph, we're using different wes, if you willlll. My "we" was referring to us in the malcontentosphere, while your "we" refers to humanity-in-general-if-we-suddenly-woke-up-to-reality-en-masse. I like your "we" better, of course, but sadly I think mine is more likely to be the one that counts. Or, uh, doesn't. You dig?

Bolo said...

I dig, don't worry ;). Although I do think the mechanism is still very important--you can't fix things if you don't know what's wrong and why.

If fossil fuels didn't emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, then what we're currently doing wouldn't be fucked up (or at least, it wouldn't be changing the climate). The waste energy released from the fuels is radiated out to space very quickly and doesn't appreciably heat the planet.