Global warming: no turning back?

So okay, the headline is a little alarmist. I should probably say “Rising C02 levels” rather than “global warming” and “rising in spite of any efforts to stop them” instead of “no turning back”. But that will hardly make people read about this new study.

Tim Garret, a physicist specializing in Atmospheric research, has created a new model predicting the amount of C02 that civilization produces. He models it on some specific and mostly obvious assumptions. Admittedly his first one, that conservation does not slow energy use, it accelerates it in overall terms is counterintuitive, but defensible.

Using these assumptions he’s created a mathematical model that attempts to predict the future effect of a number of possible changes we might make in response to a rise in C02 levels. In essence he’s created an economic model, but used typical physicist assumptions in that he’s views civilization as a heat engine rather than an ensemble of rational actors. Not all economists think his contribution has any value.

But, that aside, his model does make some depressing predictions:

“Garrett says often-discussed strategies for slowing carbon dioxide emissions and global warming include mention increased energy efficiency, reduced population growth and a switch to power sources that don’t emit carbon dioxide, including nuclear, wind and solar energy and underground storage of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning. Another strategy is rarely mentioned: a decreased standard of living, which would occur if energy supplies ran short and the economy collapsed, he adds.

‘Fundamentally, I believe the system is deterministic,’ says Garrett. ‘Changes in population and standard of living are only a function of the current energy efficiency. That leaves only switching to a non-carbon-dioxide-emitting power source as an available option.’

‘The problem is that, in order to stabilize emissions, not even reduce them, we have to switch to non-carbonized energy sources at a rate about 2.1 percent per year. That comes out to almost one new nuclear power plant per day.'”

Read the full article here.

The suggestion that we need to create that many new nuke plants is probably already moot given this news.

Author: Nick Knisely

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

3 thoughts on “Global warming: no turning back?”

  1. Nicholas, I am not one to believe that there is always a technological solution to every problem. This post, and your previous one on the coming shortage of uranium, should be deeply alarming to all of us.
    Even so, I’d be interested in your response as a physicist to the research now being conducted at Lawrence Livermore on high-energy lasers that potentially can achieve hydrogen fusion, and theoretically produce more energy than is put into the system. I understand, of course, that this is not going to be a practical power source in the immediate future. Does it have any long-range promise?
    Here is a recent note on the state of the research at Livermore:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/10/091028113948.htm

  2. John – fusion is the holy grail of clean energy. The problem is that we’ve been trying to achieve it as long as I can remember – certainly since I was a kid reading about it in Scientific American back in the 70’s. It’s always been at least a decade away.
    Which hasn’t changed in 40 years.
    The article you reference above talks about using a more sophisticated modeling technology to get a handle on how to do plasma confinement. That’s been something people have been trying to get to since the Tokamak reactor project was started. Trouble is we’re not making the sort of sudden progress that we keep hoping will happen.
    Maybe we’ll find a trick if we get a better insight into what’s happening. Maybe we’ll convince ourselves that this is a dead-end. The math is devilishly hard and I don’t think it’s obvious which answer we’ll find.

  3. A serious climate problem, often overlooked, is that if we keep ‘growing’ our economies at the current rate of a few percent per year we will, in 100 years or so, be producing so much heat from power plants that it rivals the current effect of greenhouse gasses.
    Not all ‘alternative energy sources’ are going to help us – wind power does turn naturally into heat through friction, and putting up windmills to capture that energy a few hours or days before it goes to heat anyway will not matter. Likewise hydroelectric power and tidal power. Solar energy, however, means capturing light that otherwise would be reflected into space and introducing it to our system. That is NEW heat.
    I guess that geothermal heat would come to the surface eventually anyway – but we can accelerate this process; probably also not good.

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