As Earth Warms, the Hottest Issue Is Energy
mikedf at amnh.org
Thu Nov 6 12:01:09 MST 2003
New York Times
November 4, 2003
As Earth Warms, the Hottest Issue Is Energy
By KENNETH CHANG
Suppose that over the next decade or two the forecasts of global
warming start to come true. Color has drained from New England's
autumns as maple trees die, and the Baltimore oriole can no longer be
found south of Buffalo. The Dust Bowl has returned to the Great
Plains, and Arctic ice is melting into open water. Upheavals in
weather, the environment and life are accelerating around the world.
If global warming occurs as predicted, there will be no easy way to
turn the Earth's thermostat back down. The best that most scientists
would hope for would be to slow and then halt the warming, and that
would require a top-to-bottom revamping of the world's energy
systems, shifting from fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas to
alternatives that in large part do not yet exist.
"We have to face the fact this is an enormous challenge," said Dr.
Martin I. Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University.
But interviews with scientists, environment advocates and industry
representatives show that there is no consensus in how to meet that
challenge. Some look to the traditional renewable energy sources:
solar and wind. Others believe use of fossil fuels will continue, but
that the carbon dioxide can be captured and then stored underground.
The nuclear power industry hopes concern over global warming may help
spur a revival.
In an article in the journal Science last November, Dr. Hoffert and
17 other experts looked at alternatives to fossil fuels and found all
to have "severe deficiencies in their ability to stabilize global
The scientists believe that technological fixes are possible. Dr.
Hoffert said the country needed to embark on an energy research
program on the scale of the Manhattan Project that built the atomic
bomb during World War II or the Apollo program that put men on the
"Maybe six or seven of them operating simultaneously," he said. "We
should be prepared to invest several hundred billion dollars in the
next 10 to 15 years."
But to even have a hope of finding a solution, the effort must begin
now, the scientists said. A new technology usually takes several
decades to develop the underlying science, build pilot projects and
then begin commercial deployment.
The authors of the Science paper expect that a smorgasbord of energy
sources will be needed, and they call for intensive research on
radical ideas like vast solar arrays orbiting Earth that can collect
sunlight and beam the energy down. "Many concepts will fail, and
staying the course will require leadership," they wrote. "Stabilizing
climate is not easy."
The heart of the problem is carbon dioxide, the main byproduct from
the burning of fossil fuels. When the atmosphere is rich in carbon
dioxide, heat is trapped, producing a greenhouse effect. Most
scientists believe the billions of tons of carbon dioxide released
since the start of the Industrial Revolution are in part to blame for
the one-degree rise in global temperatures over the past century.
Carbon dioxide concentrations are now 30 percent higher than
With rising living standards in developing nations, emissions of
carbon dioxide are increasing, and the pace of warming is expected to
speed up, too. Unchecked, carbon dioxide would reach twice
preindustrial levels by midcentury and perhaps double again by the
end of the century. That could force temperatures up by 3 to 10
degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, according to computer models.
Because carbon dioxide is colorless, odorless and disperses
immediately into the air, few realize how much spills out of
tailpipes and smokestacks. An automobile, for example, generates
perhaps 50 to 100 tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime.
The United States produces more carbon dioxide than any other country
by far. Each American, on average, generates about 45,000 pounds of
carbon dioxide a year. That is about twice as much as the average
person living in Japan or Europe and many times more than someone
living in a developing country like Zimbabwe, China or Panama. (Even
if the United States achieves President Bush's goal of an 18 percent
reduction in the intensity of carbon dioxide emissions by 2012, the
output of an average American would still far exceed that of almost
anyone else in the world.)
Even if all emissions stop, levels of carbon dioxide in the air will
remain high for centuries as the Earth gradually absorbs the excess.
Currently, the world's energy use per second is about 12 trillion
watts - which would light up 120 billion 100-watt bulbs - and 85
percent of that comes from fossil fuels.
Of the remaining 15 percent, nuclear and hydroelectric power each
supply about 6.5 percent. The renewable energy sources often touted
as the hope for the future - wind and solar - provide less than 2
In March, Dr. Hoffert and two colleagues reported in Science that to
limit the temperature increase to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit,
non-carbon-dioxide-emitting sources would have to generate 7 trillion
to 25 trillion watts by midcentury, 4 to 14 times as much as current
levels. That is roughly equivalent to adding a large emissions-free
power plant every day for the next 50 years.
And by the end of the century, they wrote, at least three-quarters
and maybe all of the world's energy would have to be emission-free.
No existing technology appears capable of filling that void. The
futuristic techology might be impractically expensive. Developing a
solar power satellite, for example, has been estimated at more than
Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham cited the Science paper from last
November in a speech at the American Academy in Berlin two months
ago. Mr. Abraham said that merely setting limits and timetables on
carbon dioxide like those in the Kyoto Protocol could not by
themselves solve global warming.
"We will also need to develop the revolutionary technologies that
make these reductions happen," Mr. Abraham said. "That means creating
the kinds of technologies that do not simply refine current energy
systems, but actually transform the way we produce and consume
Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior
City University of New York
Department of Invertebrate Zoology
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY 10024
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