Food for Thought #3: Spaceship Earth – ‘Houston, We Have A Problem!

One of the problems that we little bipeds are facing is that they we are engaged in a significant experiment with our whole planet.  Experimentation itself isn’t a
major issue – we’ve engaged in this form of activity throughout our rather brief lifespan (geologically speaking) as the dominant species on the planet.  We wouldn’t have got where we are today without curiosity, intellect and experimentation.

However, this experiment lacks a few of the major controls which we usually build into most of the other experiments we’ve undertaken.  Firstly, we are not doing it at the small scale to demonstrate ‘proof of concept’ before further development.  Secondly, if  something goes amiss, switching off the apparatus won’t stop the experiment.  The effects will continue to develop for many years to come.  And thirdly, we don’t really know what the final outcome of the experiment will be.  There have been educated guesses made by relevant scientific experts, but there is a determined effort by vested interests to ridicule and debase their opinions in order to maintain the status quo.

Bear in mind also that we can’t just ‘pack up and move elsewhere’ if something goes terribly wrong.  This little planet is all we have and there are no lifeboats.

The experiment can be best described as ‘Greenhouse Gas Loading of the Global Atmosphere’.  I’m trying to avoid the mention of ‘Carbon’ and ‘Global Warming’ but will
ultimately have to use the terms.  First off, here’s a table of the Greenhouse Gases so we have some info on what they are (Figure 1);

Fig 1: The Main Greenhouse Gases

Based on this one can see that the major flies in the ointment are Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Methane (CH4) and Nitrous Oxide (NO2), CO2 particularly for the initial arguments but  we’ll come back to the CH4 a bit later, especially as it remains outside the current debate about Global Warming (sorry!!).  You’ll note that CO2 had increased as at 1994 from pre-industrial levels by some 0.278 fold with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) of 1 and CH4 has increased by some 2,457 fold with a GWP 21 times greater than CO2. Nitrous Oxide (NO2) had increased by 1135 fold with a GWP 310 times greater than CO2.

Hmm? Interesting that all the debate is around CO2 with little mention of the others which must also be having a significant greenhouse effect in the atmosphere.

So.  We know our activities (fossil fuel combustion, industrial  and farming practices) are pumping CO2 (as well as CH4 and NO2) into the atmosphere in ever increasing amounts as industrialisation as well as economic well-being increases globally.  The evidence is pretty unequivocal (Figure 2).

Fig 2; Carbon Dioxide and Global Warming Timeline

The information indicates that variations in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are paralleled pretty closely by variations in global temperatures.  The implication is clear and is not a one off event.  Increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere and the overall global temperature increases.  Load onto this the contributions of CH4 and NO2 and it’s not surprising that things are warming up.

Then there are the other indicators that also suggest that warming is occurring such as the trends in Arctic sea ice coverage.  It is becoming less and less each year (Figure 3)

Fig 3: Trends in Arctic sea ice extent

So too is seasonal snow cover in Arctic Eurasia and in Arctic North America.  The trends
since 1970 has been for less and less coverage each year (Figure 4).

Fig 4: Seasonal Snow Cover Trends

Add to that the evidence that glaciers are retreating, not only in the Andeas but elsewhere as well (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Retreat of Seven Andean Glaciers

We are also seeing a steady and inevitable rise in sea level which is accompanying these other changes (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Historical Sea Levels

Hopefully, by this point, I’ve convinced you that releasing Greenhouse Gases into the atmosphere through combustion and industrial activities is leading to an increase in global temperatures and that this increase in temperature is having significant effects on the world’s climate.  If I haven’t then I’d urge you to have a look at the extensive amount of material available on the web and also at the Australian Academy of Science’s publication ‘The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers’ of August 2010.

In addition to the above, what is particularly concerning from my perspective is that we are heading towards a point where continued warming of the permafrost may lead to massive releases of billions of tons of CH4 which is currently trapped there.  That warming of the permafrost is occurring is evident (Figure 6) and I also understand that there is evidence that the process of CH4 release has already commenced.  The potential for this to create a runaway increase in global temperatures over which we will have no control, no rectification strategy, nor any real idea of where the global temperatures will begin to stabilise, is frightening to say the least.

Figure 6: Change in Permafrost Temperatures (Fairbanks, Alaska)

The available evidence points strongly to the anthropogenic causation of these global changes in our environment and yet we still dither about, unable to constructively act for the common good.  Self interest and status quo conservatism push us along a ‘do nothing’ pathway.  Even the Global Economic Forum ranks Climate Change as ‘highly likely’ and of ‘high impact’ (Figure 7) and we still procrastinate, lacking even the will to adopt a precautionary principle approach to the issue.

Figure 7: world economic forums global risk survey

You have to ask whether it will take a significant disaster, clearly associated with climate change, to convince us to act.  And that leads to the question:  “Will homo sapiens be the first species to engineer its own extinction?” – and that’s food for thought.  And maybe
cause for immediate action on global warming.

NB: Unless otherwise indicated graphics are from UNEP’s global warming site.  Last graphic is from the World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Landscape 2011.


About deknarf

Australian born and bred who has spent most of his working life in R&D and IP management with earlier forays in the newspaper industry and martial arts. Fortunate enough to be living in one of the best countries in the World, even though I might get grumpy with it from time to time.
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