Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Dose of Doomsday

So, already I’ve fallen way behind on keeping up with the program on this blog. This week we’re going a bit more in depth on science – still fairly basic, most of the math is straight up calculus and most of the concepts I remember from undergrad Environmental Studies.

It’s a little involved and tough to keep up with for us non-engineers, but the real challenge is not getting depressed and giving up as we get into the most recent science on why there is a problem, how complex it is, and how catastrophic the consequences could be.

We’ve been dealing a lot with thermodynamics and global change. The CO2 issue is central to this, basically the chart below tells the story. It is incredibly unsettling and probably one of the most significant, and under-acknowledged research findings of the 20th century, in my humble opinion…

As you can see, over the past 450,000 years or so, the concentration of atmospheric CO2 has been stuck in a pretty steady range – you’ve got your ice ages and warmer periods (global average temp correlation with CO2 not shown here), but the various ecosystems kick into gear and balance out the greater biosphere system. As you can also see, in the past 50-100 years (just a blip on this time scale!!) we’ve fired that level through the upper range by an alarming degree. (the red part of the “projected” obviously includes a lot of assumptions about rates, etc – and while it looks dramatic, I think it actually just takes away from the really dramatic picture the known data paints of the breakout through the 290 level to the ~400 ppm level today).

I’ve been having those thoughts about why everyone isn’t totally freaking out and screaming from the rooftops and stopping the use of any fossil fuels whatsoever. It is mind boggling to think how quickly and easily we could transition to a sustainable energy system if we just all got on board and did it, even with today’s technology – solar, wind, biomass and improved efficiencies – not to mention what we could develop very quickly if we had a fire under our ass and some funds for it. We’re up to about $300 billion or so in Iraq, and people talk about solar being ‘not economically viable.’ Meanwhile, a recent study out of Princeton estimated that a $10 billion boost for the solar industry could make it an economically viable alternative to oil ($10B ~ 5 days of oil revenues… this study was quoted in an early lecture, I’ve been meaning to find it and check out the details)

Anyway, the fact remains that for the most part people aren’t freaking out. Maybe we’re starting to a bit with wars on a few fronts related to oil, American refugees from New Orleans (and now maybe Houston??), gas prices “skyrocketing” (still well below most of the world) – but it’s just natural to not want to deal with such frightening realities, especially when they’re difficult to conceptualize, and easy to explain away. I’ve understood that for a while and shied away from the doomsday approach to promoting sustainability, instead focusing on practical solutions and alternatives. But after days like this, I realize we need some doses of doomsday reality, because it’s there, it’s true, it’s frightening, and we need to do something about it.

If it’s not too late… in looking at natural systems, you find that the collapse thresholds often are not preceded by much in the way of forewarning. So if you’re polluting a small pond for example, and that poisons some of the small fish, and the vegetation gets a bit out of whack, but for the most part, you look in and see plants and fish and things look fine, until that line is crossed, and very quickly a certain key fish or plant can’t handle the stress on the system any more, dies off and disrupts the balance to a point where the whole pond system quickly “dies”.

Anyway, hopefully we’ll get it worked out before that all happens. No lectures tomorrow so hopefully I’ll have a chance to get realigned and catch up on a bunch of half-written postings, so look out for flow on the blog… and please keep some perspective on what’s really important here: the Sox are only ½ a game up on the Yanks and it’s coming down to the wire. Guide your prayers appropriately.