When blogging about anthropogenic global warming (AGW), I often mention the tendency for predictions and warnings to be of the worst-case-scenario variety. This has been going on for over two decades in the case of AGW and for much longer when it comes to general environmental apocalypse scenarios. If the science justifies the warning, then I don’t think you could claim this practice is ”crying wolf”, but so may times in the past the science has been wrong, manipulated, or politically motivated. There are also cases where the theory is highly speculative, but drives headlines as if it were closer to reality.
Lest you think I exaggerate, here is a recent article about how the frozen poles of the earth will become very tropical in 300 years - in a scenario termed “hyper-warming” (one of four scenarios in a recent study). If you don’t read past the headline you will not find out that “hyper-warming” is based on the assumption that every last drop (or chunk) of fossil fuel is going to be burned by humans and that the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere will rise to 2000 ppm by 2300.
This is fine for theoretical speculation among climatologists but I would suggest not for consumption by the general public or policy-makers, because it does lead to the “crying wolf” syndrome. The chance of the hyper-warming scenario coming to pass (due to human emissions) are remote – near infitessimal.
First of all, the world already gets nearly 20% of its energy from cleaner alternative energy sources and this percentage increases every year as fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive. It is highly unlikely that humans would continue to use fossil fuels at a greater rate in the future – not when oil is about $100 per barrel. The economics don’t add up.
Secondly, technology continues to advance. Progress is not slowing down. As sure as the sun rises in the east, we will be able to develop more energy efficient modes of societal operation and better alternatives energy sources. Not only will we be able to live cleaner, if the air has too much carbon dioxide, we will likely develop technologies to take that carbon dioxide (and methane, and other “greenhouse” gasses) out of the air. Nature leads the way in this endeavor, so it is not a pipe-dream. Difficult, perhpas, but not impossible.
Thirdly, population growth has leveled off. The population of the earth is not going to rise to 25 billion any time soon, as was once forecast back in the 1970s and 1980s. Some demographers think that the population will not grow much more than 7 billion (based on current lifespan and technology). As a corrollary, if a couple of degrees warming happens, and the environment is already destroyed by 2100 (as has been forecast many times over), then there are certainly not going to be many people around to keep destroying the bio-sphere all the way through 2300.
Fourthly, even in this extremely extremely unlikely scenario, it is not unprecedented. The earth has seen “hyper-warmth” and carbon dioxide levels up around 2000 ppm in the past, and it was not the end of the world. It would be a tough world for humans to adapt to, no doubt, but life would go on.
New Apple Inc. Data Center in North Carolina
Don’t think I am just a polyanna when it comes to “new-fangled technology” either. A person can find many reasons to be optimistic every day. Take this recent article about how IBM is using a large solar installation to help power a data center in India. The solar panels only provide a small fraction of the data center’s energy needs but it is a step in the right direction and reduces pollution over time. More data centers are also setting up ways to use the waste heat that comes from the computer chips and other electronics (and it is about time). In addition, advances in chip, transistor, and server design continue to increase computing efficiency every single year. Some environmental organizations are upset about the amount of energy that data centers use, but data centers (cloud computing, mobile computing, and information technology in general) are the key to further development of cleaner greener technology for the future. Shutting down data centers would be the equivalent of sending society back to the “dark ages”.
Speaking of solar panel installations, even through the current global depression/recession more solar power comes online every year. Long Island New York just switched on one of the larger solar installations in the eastern U.S.
New Erbium-Doped Material from Arizona State Univ.
Those solar panel installation could become more efficient and cheaper in future years due to developments like this: New manufacturing technique could boost the performance of monocrystalline cells from 16-18 percent up to 22-24 percent. Nanoantennas within solar cells could likewise produce dramatic results. Even low efficiency (but cheap) dye-sensitized solar cells are showing signs of recent improvment. What about thin film solar panels? A new polymer could boost their efficiency up to a little over 6 percent. With the addition of erbium, Arizona State researchers have found many solar and lighting technologies could be improved in the near future.
And these are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recent progress!! I could write a few more paragraphs, but there is only so much time in the day.
Have a good Tuesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew
Posted under AGW, Alternative Energy, Climate Change, Pollution, Technology
This post was written by jloew on November 22, 2011