Should Science Save the Planet?
We have a choice about saving the planet with Science. When we talk about Science, it is not devoid of human opinion and error. Science is an entity that we created to interpret the behavior of our world. Are we taking on superhuman powers when we attempt to correct our mistakes?
In this year of 2007 we are more aware of a change in the climate of the earth than ever. We do not know if the changes in temperature or weather are a short term or longer term phenomenon or part of the natural climate cycle of the earth. Should this be happening? The abnormal patterns raise a red flag. What should we do about it? Do we (a) sit by and let nature take its course, realizing that our messing with the global climate may either fix the problems or tip the balance the wrong way even more. Or do we (b) take action to correct the global climate? Climatologists call this climate forcing, an appropriate term. Let's examine the two options.
Letting Nature Take its Course
We have a choice to do nothing. We can use computer models to try to predict the future but it is hard to say exactly what may happen. The media tends to over dramatize the climate outcome, but it is hard not to buy in to what is happening after watching a show like "Planet in Peril," which aired on CNN in late October 2007. In this special report three reporters traveled the globe to report on climate change. They visited 14 countries around the earth, making the story very convincing. A few of the stories were a sinking, disappearing island in New Guinea, a lake that was drying up in Africa and polar bear problems. These animals are swimming more and more due to more water and less ice, drowning and cannibalizing themselves due to lack of food. Polar bears are shrinking in size. In order to survive, they may need to adapt and evolve to a smaller size.
If we leave things alone we will probably have a world that changes from one extreme to another or is the opposite of what we expect. In general, it seems it will be hotter, more humid, with more water in the oceans and less ice. Ice will melt more quickly in the arctic. Some freshwater lakes may decrease. We may have trouble growing crops due to drought or poorer growing conditions. Deforestation of the rain forest will continue by slash and burn methods. The biodiversity of animals will decrease. In addition to all the climate problems, we will have a larger population of humans. And if we don't solve the energy issues we will have very little energy to actually cool us down in the summer when it is blazing hot. In short, the climate and world will not be the way we want it to be.
Change the Climate with Science Solutions
Let's talk about a few of the solutions proposed:
1. Getting rid of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases with carbon sequestration
2. Cooling the planet down by planting more trees, putting particles in the air
3. Alternative renewable energy: biofuel, solar power, wind power
It's fairly obvious by now that burning fossil fuels has created a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which traps heat. How do we get rid of CO2? One solution is to bury it in the ground, carbon sequestration. This will take a lot of research and is definitely worth a try. It sounds like a good idea.
However, even if we get rid of a lot of CO2 we may still have a hot planet. How do we cool it down without causing other problems? Recently the New York Times Op Ed Section published an article by a climate professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He stated that a way to cool down the earth was to spray sulfate particles in the atmosphere. The logic was that volcanoes erupt and give off sulfate thereby cooling the atmosphere and therefore why can't we use the same technique. The issue most chemists would have with that is that sulfate causes acid rain. How much would we have to pump up into the atmosphere? How much would it cool things down? Do we have to keep putting sulfate in the air all the time? Putting more particulates in the air could cause lung problems. This solution does not seem like the healthiest. At this point, I have not heard of a good method for cooling things down. One way to cool it down is to plant more trees, but it is not enough. We need to find other events that soak up heat. There are devices that are known to convert heat to electricity, thermo electronic devices. However their efficiencies are 15-20%.
There are also options discussed in New York Times (http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/more-heat-on-ways-to-lower-the-thermostat/). One solution that makes sense and sounds the most mild and natural is the idea of cloud enhancement (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fg7J8P-uXqM). Two scientists have found a way to spray ocean water in fine particles from a special vessel into marine stratocumulus clouds. These clouds are the same type of clouds that cause fog in the San Francisco bay and cool temperatures down. They are very reflective, especially when the salt from ocean water spray is injected in to them. As the ocean mist approaches the clouds the water evaporates and very fine salt spray remains. The salt particles attract the cloud water droplets and make larger reflective particles. Larger particles scatter light in a way that is non linear. Scattering increases by a million times as the radius of a particle increases. That is how clouds can be made more reflective to block the sun. And this can be done in areas that need it specifically. As the scientists mention, if it seems detrimental it can be stopped quickly.
A third way to alter the detrimental effects of climate warming is to find sources of energy that are good for our planet. Fossil fuels are not helping us fight the battle. Due to the warmer temperatures we will have increasing demand for energy to cool us in the hot summers. We have to fight the war with a multitude of renewable solutions: solar, wind, water and others. A recent NOVA on PBS discussed the many uses of solar energy. The debate was very convincing, but the price tag was not! The least expensive price was $12,000 for solar panels. Most families cannot afford that upfront price even if the electric bill is reduced by 1/2. The energy solution should be a local one. In South Dakota windmills are being built in windy areas. Energy has to travel to our houses. If we can find local sources we are saving energy as well.
In the end it will be investors and entrepreneurs that will lead the way. Google is one company that is installing solar panels at their work site. Perhaps when these energy entrepreneurs lead the way the government, and then the consumer may follow. Most of us want to help with controlling the global thermostat, but we don't have the political power or finances to do it. The best we can do is hope that someone else fights the good fight. There is a lot of research going on. We need to determine which science solutions make the most sense and don't throw the climate off even more.
However, when all is said and done, I am not convinced that on a cold January or February day that we really want the world to be COLDER. Wherever I am everyone says they like it warm and the hate the cold. Perhaps we have subconsciously selected to have a warm planet. It might seem politically incorrect to say we like it warm. We like what global warming is doing short term to the weather day to day. But we worry about the future and its uncertainty.