by Patrice Ayme
Fri May 15th, 2009 at 02:45:26 PM EST
Paul Krugman, having visited China, concludes that "China cannot continue producing greenhouse emissions at an escalating rate because the planet can't handle the strain." OK, but China goes on, and so does the USA. The USA gets 71% of its electricity from fossil fuels. China, with supposedly one new coal plant a week, now emits more CO2 than the USA. What to do?
(Health warning: those who cannot tolerate stress should stop reading right here.)
Well, one has to realize we are facing the greatest extinction and cataclysm ever. And it could happen suddenly, thanks to thousands of billions of tons of buried methane. Then the earth would switch to its hot mode, with only the polar regions inhabitable. War for survival would erupt all around. Most of the seven billion humans would die. Drastic, counter intuitive methods have to be used swiftly to prevent or mitigate this. Bellicose pressure, first in economics, should not be eschewed, right away.
SAVING EARTH THROUGH PREEMPTIVE BELLICOSE PRESSURE AND NUCLEAR POWER
Enough fossil fuels have been piled up in the last 400 million years to guarantee that, if we burn them all, the biosphere will cook, simmer and boil. If we leave the energy markets to themselves, this outcome is certain. It does not matter what the advanced countries do by themselves, as long as they restrict themselves to the market, because, if they become saintly and do not burn carbon anymore, the price of carbon fuels will collapse, making them all the more irresistible to the rest of the world's markets. Thus there is no free market solution. It is not a free market problem, it is a survival problem.
Survival, in case you missed out on the last few hundreds millions years of evolution, is the best reason there ever was for war.
The Principle of Precaution requires to consider the very worst case possible, stop, and think carefully about whether it could happen. In the case of climate, the worst case is a runaway eruption of frozen hydrates of methane. And it could happen. There are enormous quantities of frozen methane, of the order of all other fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas), it seems. (Just oceanic frozen methane is of the order of all known oil reserves; the methane hydrates in the permafrost not included, but there are a lot.)
If the temperature rises, a bit more, it will become higher than any in the last three million years, plenty of time for more methane hydrates to have accumulated (from piled up organic sediments, say from rivers). The methane could, and will, bubble out catastrophically. Its greenhouse power over ten years is well above twenty times that of CO2. So if the eruption starts full on, the worldwide atmospheric temperatures would jump by at least ten times what they have risen so far. (We basically went up three quarters of one degree Celsius in one century, thus I am talking about perhaps seven degrees in a decade or two; it would be a heat cataclysm).
This has happened before, at least once in the last 50 million years: a brutal and enormous rise in global temperatures. Such swift brutality was long totally mysterious, until the gigantic deposits of frozen methane were discovered, all over the planet. These deposits are nasty, they can erupt, causing gigantic tsunamis (the last ones known in Europe were the 30 meters high Storegga tsunamis that occurred around 7,000 years ago, from warming post glaciation). There is audio, visual and seismological evidence that methane beds have been active in the last two summers off Siberia, releasing methane, with sound, bubbles and fury, an obvious forerunner of absolute disaster.
Most of the methane is up north, so the disaster may get in full swing one of these summers. It will be impossible to stop. It may happen this summer, or 50 years from now. On our present course, it will happen, that is the crucial point. And very soon.
On the positive side, the heat catastrophe would make the financial crisis look like absolutely nothing whatsoever. On the negative side, billions of human beings will die, and they will not do so without putting up a fight.
Even if methane does not erupt, other long linear thresholds are coming closer everyday. If temperatures rise significantly forests and oceans will become huge carbon sources, instead of huge carbon sinks. Here, too the process has started, it's not just bad taste science fiction. The Antarctic ocean has turned into a CO2 emitter already (because it's shaken too much by high winds and storms, like a carbonated beverage!) An enormous rise in sea level could be around the corner, if the ice shelves disintegrate.
To prevent the methane catastrophe, the only solution is to bring the CO2 creation to zero, ASAP. How to do this? Somewhat delusional minds have proposed geoengineering, such as voluntarily polluting the atmosphere so much that light will not go through (high altitude sulfates, mimicking volcanoes). Another lunacy would be to put sun shades in space for the planet. Such solutions may work in the following centuries for Venus, once we have mastered great energy sources such as thermonuclear fusion or Quantum vacuum energy. But this is now, and this is Earth, not a place for a science experiment.
As it is, we are destroying the planet's natural sun shades, the polar ice caps. Antarctica seems to be doing fine, so far, because the wetter and warmer clime down there accumulates more snow; but this is a dangerous illusion: in truth we have passed the threshold of Antarctica's ice instability: there is too much CO2 EQUIVALENT gases up to allow for glaciation of the polar continent, so its ice cap is now unstable. Learn it here first. The threshold is at 425 ppm, we are above this (the CO2 itself is at 385 ppm, creeping up ever faster).
So what are we left with? According to the Obama administration, wind power and broadband. The problem with wind power is that it helps, but does not replace. Solar, of course has to be pushed, but it is still to expensive in photovoltaic form (in pure thermal, the problem is to transport electricity economically out of deserts).
So we are left with conservation and advanced civil nuclear power. To get conservation, one has to tweak the free market by making energy expensive. Since energy, at this point, means burning carbon (with the exception of nuclearized France), energy tax means carbon tax. That will make the renewable energy market much more profitable, so hasten its deployment.
For drastic, massive energy production, which is needed all around the world, we are left with nuclear energy. There 400 nuclear reactors, mostly obsolete, used around the world. Just as obsolete ecologists object meekly that we do not know what to do with the waste, and they forget to mention the millions of tons of extremely toxic waste that extremely deadly coal energy releases in the atmoshpere and the oceans, from mercury to radiation. True, there is waste, but mostly because wasteful methods were used 60 years ago, when a primitive form of nuclear energy was rushed during a nuclear arm race.
Advanced reactors are extremely efficient, extremely safe, and create little waste, and can be made to burn nuclear waste (as it the USA has 60,000 tons of highly radioactive waste that we better find a way to reuse again someday). But, whereas the Obama administration spends billions to put broadband Internet in rural areas, the research on advanced nuclear reactors is minuscule. (The details about making technology work durably and economically at very high temperatures have to be ironed out; efficiency augments with the temperature.)
Paradoxically, advanced civil nuclear power would be a factor of peace. Indeed, it would give a pretext to inspect, and check, that military nuclear power is not being developed. (Nuclear weapons should be totally unlawful, because of their instantaneous holocaust, and first strike capability; a world civil nuclear inspection regime looking in every nook and cranny is the only way to insure this.)
We face the greatest crisis of the biosphere since the extinction of the dinosaurs. As drastic as this. Some will say that I exaggerate. I wish. Therefore it goes without saying that it is the ultimate casus belli. If countries to not limit their CO2 emissions, they will face war. Total war, destruction of their fossil burning plants. This could be reality within twenty years. Economic pressure should be viewed as a better alternative to start with, a mitigating factor to be implemented immediately.
Indeed, the European Union has decided to take separate action in order to achieve reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions (of the order of 20% very soon). This separate action, the so-called "go-it-alone" scenario, consists of, inter alia, the imposition of "border adjustment measures" such as a "Carbon Import Tax" on products imported into Europe. The idea, pushed hard by France, instigator of the project, is to evaluate the carbon burned to make a product, and tax accordingly. Products made from Chinese electricity, mostly from coal burning would be taxed proportionally, and the carbon burned in transportation would be added to the tax bill.
It would be excellent if the USA joined the EU. Better late than never. We may still avoid, or mitigate, a cataclysm. We do not want to surrender to the devil, before we have to.