Monday, December 29, 2008

Dr. James Hansen for President

(published by the Crossroads Chronicle, Cashiers, NC, October 29, 2008)

To anyone who is paying attention, we are in something of a sticky wicket.

That is, we are within a decade of oil production peaking over, for which we are unprepared. And we are witnessing ecosystems teetering on the brink of collapse, with the current extinction rate between 100 and 1,000 times the normal background rate. Climate change resulting from global warming is beginning to play a major role in these extinctions, not requiring a bulldozer or chainsaw to kill these animals in their pristine habitat.

We’ll get through current financial crisis, but these other two concerns have the capacity to collapse the global economy and kill the biosphere.

Inherent to both of these problems is one simple fact: the earth is a closed system. By burning a few hundred million years worth of hydrocarbons in a period of just a century or two, mankind is throwing the carbon cycle out of whack. What CO2 that is not absorbed by ocean or forest remains in the atmosphere. The oceans are becoming acidic, and carbon dioxide levels are 30% higher than anytime in the last million years.

Current CO2 levels, along with other greenhouse gases (GHGs), are melting the polar ice cap, Greenland and West Antarctica. As much of humanity lives within a few meters of sea level, there could be some economic, ecological and humanitarian consequences.

Recent warming trends are accelerating. Natural feedback cycles are reinforcing anthropogenic (man made) warming. And those feedback cycles, which were thought to be slow, such as the albedo flip of melting glaciers and sea ice, are happening at an alarming rate. Instead of reflecting 90% of solar irradiance, exposed deep sea reflects only 10% and absorbs 90%. This albedo flip is causing the poles to warm as much as five times the global average, which by the way is .8 degrees Celsius since the Industrial revolution.

Permafrost across Canada and Siberia is thawing, releasing CO2 and methane from decomposing organic matter. Roads, forests, train tracks and buildings are collapsing into sinkholes. Google it and see for yourself. Permafrost is thought to contain some 500 billion tons of carbon, which if allowed to thaw and decompose, is good for enough GHGs to cause tens of degrees warming.

So, current business as usual scenarios of capping off CO2 at 450 or 550 ppm, if implemented, are not going to be just dangerous. A warming of 3 to 6 degrees Celsius would be somewhere between calamitous and cataclysmic. Most species will not be able to adapt to a rate of warming which could exceed .4 degrees C per decade.

The United States, we must admit, has played a major role in GHG emissions. We emit about a quarter of emissions. We have set the example of a lifestyle most are trying to emulate.

Our rise as a superpower was largely shaped by our bounty of oil reserves. Up until the 50s or 60s, we were the Saudi Arabia of the world. Now, we know, the situation is reversed, with $700 Billion being sent annually to unstable regions.

There is now a narrow time window in which we can affect the changes required to save both this nation and this planet. For less than we are sending oversees, a recent Scientific American article illustrated, we could build the infrastructure for solar thermal power generation based in the southwest which would obviate our need for coal, and provide enough electricity to charge a nation of electric cars.

Oil is used as a feedstock to make over 300,000 products, including fertilizer and pharmaceuticals, so it might be wise to save some for those uses, as well as for future generations.

Both candidates have expressed a desire to cut dependence on foreign oil and expand renewable energy sources. Current efforts though, such as ethanol, are costing taxpayer dollars, exacerbating global warming, and causing children to starve.

Political expedience, and business as usual, are grinding the United States of America and the biosphere into oblivion. I say, let’s elect Jim Hansen of NASA, America’s top climate scientist. Its high time that logic, science, and compassion play some role in our decisions.

You never know, the planet we save could just be our own.

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