Spaceship Earth in Trouble

By Scott Paterson

The entire population, faced by the threat of climate change, has been flung into a state of complete panic (below right)

In 2003:

"[Critics of the pact] often say, half-jokingly and half-seriously, that Russia is a northern country and if temperatures get warmer by two or three degrees Celsius it's not that bad - we could spend less on warm coats and agricultural experts say that grain harvests would increase further," he told the conference."
 -- Vladimir Putin, President of Russia1

In 2010:

At a meeting of international sporting officials in Moscow on July 30, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev announced that in 14 regions of the country, "practically everything is burning. The weather is anomalously hot." Then, as TV cameras zoomed in on the perspiration shining on his forehead, Medvedev announced, "What's happening with the planet's climate right now needs to be a wake-up call to all of us, meaning all heads of state, all heads of social organizations, in order to take a more energetic approach to countering the global changes to the climate."
 -- Dimitri Medvedev, President of Russia 2

After hurricane Sandy 2013:

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science – of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements – has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They've acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.
 -- Barack Obama, President of USA 3

September 27, 2013:

We're 95% confident that human emissions are causing global warming.
 -- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

June 16, 2011:

"We're going to become extinct," the eminent scientist says. "Whatever we do now is too late. We'll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island," he says. "Climate change is just at the very beginning.
But we're seeing remarkable changes in the weather already. It's an irreversible situation. I think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off.”
 -- E/Prof Frank Fenner, ANU microbiologist 4

May 10, 1940:

The historian John Lukacs recounts the conversation between Churchill and his bodyguard, W. H. Thompson as they are driven back to Admiralty House from Buckingham Palace where Churchill has just been made PM. France is about to fall, the British army about to be surrounded at Calais and Dunkirk. What Churchill had warned against throughout the 1930’s – but had been ignored, even ridiculed – is now coming to pass; and Britain is 0unprepared. Thompson congratulates Churchill on his appointment but laments the magnitude of the task ahead. Churchill, with tears in his eyes, says: “God alone knows how great it is. I hope it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is. We can only do our best.”
 -- John Lukacs, “Five Days in London, May 1940” 5

September 27, 2013:

We still have a future. But only if we get on with it!
 -- Johnathan Porritt, ABC Science Show 6

1. Introduction

You're driving along when you notice the thermometer pointing into the red. You call in at your mechanic and with the car idling and the radiator cap off he says: “See those bubbles – combustion gas is escaping into your water circulation system and raising the temperature; it's possible you've got a crack in your cylinder block and the engine may need replacing.” You say, “Damn!” But you go ahead and put in a new engine and everything's fine again. No dramas!

What if combustion gases – carbon dioxide etc. – were escaping into the circulation system of planet Earth, passing a critical level, and taking average global temperature towards the red ...?

2. Spaceship Earth at a Pit Stop

Suppose you're orbiting along in Spaceship Earth. For the last 250 orbits – or years – you've been on cruise control powering your on-board domestic, industrial, and transport activity by burning coal and oil, with a big spurt of activity in recent orbits. So when your CO2 gauge shows that during the same period on-board carbon dioxide has risen steadily to 400 ppm (parts per million) – about 30 - 40% above where your logs say it was 250 orbits ago (280 ppm) – you're not surprised. Nor alarmed: CO2 is essential for your food systems, “plant food” as they say, so a rise seems like grist to the mill. But when your temperature gauge starts rising slightly above the average of about 15 deg. C – for the planet as a whole – and when, at the same time, you experience a lot of freakish weather events, you start to wonder. The rise is only 0.8 deg. C for Earth as a whole. Surely insignificant. But those weather events: firestorms, floods, droughts – both their frequency and severity increasing. And the greater than normal melting in the Arctic deck. Not to mention big tides and coastal erosion. So you decide to dock with your planetary mechanic. He has a look at the logs and then says:

Your mechanic: “You've got a problem. It's no coincidence that the two gauges are rising together. You've been allowing your combustion gases to escape into your on-board atmospheric system assuming it's OK to do so. And, up to a point, it is: CO2 is good for your food system. But problematic for cabin temperature. For some time now – in fact at least 150 orbits ago in your time – planetary technicians have been thinking about the role gases like CO2, methane, water vapor etc. play in the on-board environment. It turns out these gases – as in a greenhouse – trap heat, so causing average temperature to rise; even in tiny proportions. You're familiar with this in the case of water vapor: when a winter night is overcast you'll probably need less blankets. But the technicians have realised it's similarly the case for CO2, methane, etc. (see Box 1). On the one hand, without these so-called greenhouse gases your average temperature would plummet to -20 deg. C; so they're essential for passenger comfort. But you can have too much of a good thing. Your on-board environment is so finely balanced that the 0.8 deg. C rise, due to the big rise in CO2 etc., is enough to upset your climate system – circulation patterns etc. – and hence the weather. The trouble is that, whereas your humidity comes and goes on a daily basis, CO2 hangs around for many orbits, centuries in your time. So the temperature rise caused by the CO2 rise is long term.”

You: “Damn! I was thinking there might be a problem. What can I do?”

Mechanic: “You've got to stop emitting CO2, methane, etc.”

You: “But how can I do that? I've got all these passengers on board and I'm dependent on burning fossil fuels to keep them in the standard of comfort they're used to. Some of them not only enjoy the fruits of industrial  activity but also have shares in it. And some of them have jobs in the fuel industry. If I have to announce that the party's over they'll revolt!”

Mechanic: “You're in a difficult situation. If you try to change it you fear a disruption, even a revolt. But if you just let it go on then not only do on-board conditions deteriorate – and your passengers get restive – but you may reach a point, which some of the technicians are talking about, where it becomes impossible to reverse out of the situation. How will your passengers cope then?” “You didn't do this with the ozone problem 7. You docked in here, I put in a fix, and you moved on. No dramas. Why not the same this time?”

You: “Yeah, that was pretty straightforward. So what are the options?”

Mechanic: “There are four. You stay with your current fuel system but attach a CCS (carbon capture and storage) filter to capture the CO2 and store it. Or you can do geo-engineering: blocking some of the incoming solar energy by mounting reflectors or by injecting aerosols into your on-board atmospheric system, simulating volcanic emissions. Or you can build more nuclear power stations. Or, finally, you can switch to renewables.”

You: “What are the pros and cons?”

Mechanic: “CCS is so far experimental, at best: you could say unproven and costly. Geo-engineering is also unproven and has side effects: sulfate aerosols contribute to acid rain8; continuing emissions to ocean acidification due to CO2 washed down by rain. With neither of these options do you get at the root of the problem: you remain hooked on fossil fuels, in geo-engineering

Box 1. Greenhouse Effect (Fourier, 1820; Tyndall, 1859; Arrhenius, 1896)

Did you know that a cup and an electric radiator both radiate energy? It's deceptive in the case of the cup because, with the light turned off at night, you can't see the cup whereas you can still see  the element of the radiator: it's glowing red because it's much hotter than the cup. But if you put on infrared goggles you can also see the cup. What we have here is the basic radiation law of physics that says that all bodies radiate away their energy – at a rate that increases rapidly with temperature – and with a wavelength that decreases as temperature increases. You can't see the cup because, at room temperature, it's radiating long wavelength light in the infrared, undetectable by your eye. But, in the radiator case, the higher temperature gives you a shorter, now detectable, wavelength: it is red hot. And even more so with the Sun which is white hot. You might wonder why, if the cup is radiating away its energy, it doesn't cool right down. The reason is that all the other objects in the room are doing the same and so the cup absorbs just as much radiant energy as it  emits: i.e. there's a balance between incoming and outgoing energy, the heat energy in the cup is constant, and hence its temperature.

The Earth is more like the cup, the Sun – with an internal source of energy – more like the radiator. To see the effect of greenhouse gases (CO2, methane, etc.) imagine, firstly,  introducing Earth without an atmosphere. Then the Sun would warm it to a temperature, at balance, of about -20 deg. C. Then give Earth its normal atmosphere including the normal level of greenhouse gases (280 ppm CO2, etc.). Instantly you would lose balance. The same amount of sunlight would hit the ground as before because the atmosphere –  the air – is transparent to sunlight (short wavelength). But it turns out that water vapor, CO2, etc. are opaque to infrared light (long wavelength) so part of the heat energy being radiated by the Earth's surface can't get out (Tyndall, 1859). So instantly, outgoing energy is less than incoming. To restore balance, radiation from the Earth’s surface must increase so that the part of this energy that does get out again equals incoming (which is fixed). By the radiation law this implies that the Earth's surface temperature must rise – to about 15 deg. C.

When we, from our emissions, add more CO2 (to 400 ppm now) we upset the balance, leading to a further rise – about 0.8  deg. C, so far.

like a smoker taking chemo as an offset; better to give up smoking. Nuclear you know: proven but costly; and you've got to store the waste on board for thousands of orbits. Renewables: proven, costly, but no side effects.”

You: “Hobson's choice! By the way, I thought renewables were unproven in that they couldn't meet base-load demand.”

Mechanic: “Not any longer, apparently. One of the technicians has done a feasibility study (see Box 3) which I'll include in my quote, if you like, showing renewable sources – wind turbines, solar thermal, solar voltaic,
hydro, tidal, etc. – can meet real demand, hour by hour. He based it on real demand data and on real weather data: wind and sun conditions for the same period.”

You: “What would you do; I get the impression you favour renewables?”

Mechanic: “Yes. To me it's a no-brainer. Look out there at that beautiful Sun. There you've got a fusion plant giving you millions of years of energy as you orbit around it. Gratis! Why squander your irreplaceable fossil fuels? You'll burn them up in a few hundred orbits anyway, oil for sure. You'll have to switch eventually. Why not now? Leaving some of that stuff for your kids, their kids ...”

You: “Yeah, but try telling that to the various interests: the passengers who don't want any disruptions, the power and fuel companies who cater to their needs, etc. It's such a big change for just a 0.8 deg. C temperature rise. The whole on-board economic system is geared to the present power-fuel system. The cost of replacing it would wreck the economy.”

Mechanic: “Don't be deceived by 0.8 deg. C. This is an average rise for the  planet as a whole and masks the bigger rises in some regions: e.g. several degrees in high latitudes including the Arctic deck. This is the reason the ice is melting there. Your planetary system is so finely balanced that it's like your body: just as a small rise in your body temperature from its steady 36.8 deg. C tells your doctor there's a problem so too does the 0.8  deg. C rise tell me there's a problem.”

You: “What if I do nothing?”

Mechanic: “Then the problem will get worse: planetary temperature will continue to rise, the weather will get worse and other things as well. In fact, even if I install renewables today, your past emissions commit you to another half degree rise in average temperature. The good news is your rising CO2 gauge will ease off; but the bad news is your temperature gauge will keep on rising over the next 20 orbits or so. Unfortunately, I can't do anything about that. So you're going to hit 1.3 deg. C whatever you do. But if your emissions continue – say you see about 550 ppm on the CO2 gauge – then expect to see your average-temperature gauge moving up by between 2 and 4 deg. C.” “It's not just the lag there is in temperature catching up to CO2 – i.e. thermal inertia due to the slow heating up of the ocean. You've also got positive feedback coming into play: such as the melting of sea ice on the Arctic deck. This exposes 'dark' ocean, meaning that sunlight, which would have otherwise been reflected, gets absorbed. Thus raising your surface temperature. Leading to more melting. Leading to more absorption, to more temperature ... Or to CO2 being evaporated from the ocean (like soft drink left out in the sun) leading to more warming, leading to more evaporation, ...”

You: “You mentioned 'other things as well'. What are they?”

Mechanic: “In the ice ages, mentioned in the logs, the gauge would have shown only a 5-6 deg. C drop from where it is now. But some of your decks, including some in business class – such as the North American deck – would have had to be closed: they were mostly covered by glaciers! Basically a different planet; you would have had a hard time attracting passengers. Your worry now is that, with a 2-4 deg. C rise, you face 'a different planet' in the opposite sense. For example, the projected rise on the Arctic deck, which will be much higher than 2-4 deg. C, will cause the Greenland ice-sheets to melt, raising sea levels by many meters. Your island and coastal decks will have to be closed. Likewise you face the permafrost in Alaska melting, exposing organic matter stored beneath it and releasing large amounts of methane, another problem gas. Although these kinds of feedbacks are slower than the ones I mentioned before they will, if they ever get going, cause your greenhouse gas gauges to shoot through the roof. A different ball game. Then your carbon emissions will have been the trigger for the planet itself to get into the emissions game. You can forget about your own emissions then; they'll be dwarfed by what the planet's doing! You've passed the point of no return. You'll be closing most of your decks, if you can operate at all. For many, many orbits. And no use calling in here: I can't fix a problem like that.”

Read the full article, Spaceship Earth in Trouble (pdf)