Issue Date: December 19, 2011
‘Throw In The Towel?’
I read Rudy Baum’s editorial with dismay and a sense of foreboding (C&EN, Oct. 17, page 5). I know it sounds like a hopeless battle, but to paraphrase Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of selfishness and ignorance is for smart and good people to say (and do) nothing.”
It looks to me like it is the rate of change of temperature and carbon dioxide that is important. Life and the Earth system can adjust pretty well to very slow changes, but not fast ones.
There have been three major periods of global warming from 100 million years ago to the present: the Cretaceous hothouse around 100 million years ago (mya), the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) around 55 mya, and the Pliocene warming around 4–5 mya. The Cretaceous hothouse was very slow, with a heating rate of 0.000025 °C/100 years; PETM was faster, with a heating rate of 0.025 °C/100 years; and the Pliocene warming was very slow, with a heating rate of 0.00016 °C/100 years. Only in PETM did 30–50% of foraminifera, which lived on the seafloor, go extinct as the oceans became more acidic. Life on land adapted (for example, mammals got smaller), migrated, or died.
Current warming, which has been called Modern Warming, is very fast by comparison, with a heating rate of 1–4 °C/100 years, between 40 and 160 times faster than PETM. Life cannot adjust to this fast change, and the results we see so far are the poleward movement of many species, habitat loss, coral bleaching, and extinctions. The effect on the Earth system has been acidifying oceans, extreme weather, glacier melting, and sea-level rise.
Looking at projections of massive increased greenhouse gas emissions, especially in developing nations, we can expect all these effects to increase. We now pump about 9 petagrams (a petagram is 1015 g or about a billion tons) of carbon into the atmosphere each year, and projections indicate that the rate may reach 25 petagrams each year before all fossil-fuel reserves are exhausted. A positive feedback event could occur where one or both of the permafrost and/or the deep-ocean methane clathrates decompose, adding at least twice the current amount of carbon to the atmosphere.
For public consumption, the large energy companies seem to think that natural gas and “clean coal” will solve the problem. They are funding some alternative clean energy sources, but it is not clear if these will have any effect on climate change. I refer you to www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-last-great-global-warming.
By Harvey F. Carroll
Lake Forest Park, Wash
Yes, Rudy, quit global warming. Your passion is evident. China and India will continue to exist regardless of what the rest of us may do. The world will turn; climate effects are slow—peanuts compared to other issues that may have solutions. Many technical issues exist, one of which is the lack of scientific basis of our political and social powerhouse directing us to real problems.
By Larry McNair
Please don’t throw in the towel. I have found your insights on climate change, sustainability, and the like to be worthy of discussion by the membership. They certainly have helped me formulate my own views on these subjects. While it appears that little action on climate change is forthcoming either in the U.S. or worldwide, the future can only be worse if scientists and engineers abandon the debate. At some point, we will be needed to chart a course of corrective actions to save the planet.
In the words of Adam Clayton Powell: “Keep the faith, baby.”
By John Marano
Of course it is long overdue to throw in the towel if, in fact, there ever was a “game.” The shah of Iran said more than 30 years ago that petroleum was too valuable to burn. He was right, but it’s been “burn, baby, burn.”
It may have taken 3 billion years for nature to make the petroleum and coal we have on this good Earth, but we humans plan to burn it all up in the next few hundred years. Come what may, when the fruits of our labors become obvious (20% of Florida goes underwater, Venice and Manhattan go underwater, etc.), perhaps we will do something; perhaps not. We like to believe we can outwit nature. Maybe we can! In any case, like our national debt, we will leave it to our children and grandchildren to figure it out. What, me worry?
By Victor J. Hruby
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