Remember the story of the Three Bears in which after tasting two bowls of porridge, one too hot and one too cold, Goldilocks gulped down a third that was just right? Astronomers these days often refer to the “Goldilocks Zone” in which life as we know it can exist not only in this solar system but others as well. If a planetary body similar to Earth is too close to its parent star conditions will be too hot for life, and if too far the thing will become an ice ball. What we are doing now to the planet via carbon pollution is shifting Earth away from what Goldilocks would consider to be “just right” to the “it’s too hot to eat” zone. The Earth, even though being gigantic, is a finite body just like Goldilocks’ bowls of porridge.
As a thought experiment I’d like all reading to consider what mankind has done to the Earth. For the first time since the dawn of life on Earth, besides plants, a life form is affecting the temperature of the biosphere. Not only that, a lifeform due to intelligence is altering the Earth’s temperature via a gadget I’ll term the “Global Thermostat.” Science tells us that life has been on Earth for an inconceivably long time… about 4 billion years. In an extremely short time geologically from about 1750 at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to 1980 man inadvertently has been warming the planet turning the Global Thermostat up so much so that the current planetary climate is unstable. For the first time since 1980 some people are consciously turning the Global Thermostat down. Yes, for the first time in the world’s history a species, Homo sapiens, can manipulate and perhaps control global temperatures, and thus the climate. The newly “invented” down setting on the thermostat links green energy, conservation, and energy efficiency in order to cool the planet.
Some of us remember when we were kids fighting over the household thermostat with our siblings and parents because we didn’t like how cold or warm the home was. The next “fight or scientific debate” among policymakers won’t be whether or not anthropogenic global warming is occurring… that to me is very passé… but what the exact setting on the Global Thermostat should be. Eventually this will need to be a majority opinion, but there are a lot of kids in the global house that need to come up with a consensus.😀 That’s right, if mankind survives global warming over the next century or so, we will try to twist the climate control knob back to cooler preindustrial levels to keep civilization in tact.
We’ve just “invented” the Global Thermostat during the early part of the 21st century. The thing does not have many temperature numbers for guidance. We just know that adding more carbon to the atmosphere will raise global temperature averages, potentially pushing the settings on the thermostat to much higher than the current reading of about 1.0C above preindustrial levels. Our best science has suggested that there are readings on the thermostat that the global house should not go above. In order to keep the climate stable global temperatures can be no more than 1.5C to 2.0C above preindustrial levels. We haven’t even defined what the level of “preindustrial concentrations” of carbon were in the atmosphere as a starting point or neutral setting for the Global Thermostat as was noted by Dr. Michael Mann this week. Was this around 280 parts per million?
Science now must determine how much “air conditioning coolant” is needed to get temperatures to agreed upon levels once the Global Thermostat is set to certain marks. In other words, for example, if we want the average global temperature to get no higher than 1.5C above preindustrial levels do we reduce concentrations of CO2 from 410 ppm to the highly suggested number of 350 ppm? What exactly would a ballpark figure for that ppm number be? I also challenge climate scientist to come up with better regional models to gage what effects different levels of carbon will have on local climate. Climate models are getting better, but I suspect that the debate determining exactly where the Global Thermostat should be set will last many more years.
Next, logically, we need fuel for the Global Thermostat to work on. The best fuel is plain old plants such as algae, kelp, and tropical trees to get carbon out of the air. As mentioned, the rapid transition to green energy is a great step that will aid in stabilizing the average planetary temperature. We might need a third method to get our Global Thermostat to cooperate once we decide the level to set the thing on to avoid extreme catastrophe. Yep, that may involve engineering.
I know some of my climate friends cringe at the idea of “artificially” adjusting the climate via methods like putting iron fillings in the sea or building giant solar reflecting mirrors in space. Nevertheless, if it is eventually determined by bodies such as the United Nations that plants can’t do the job over many centuries once our Global Thermostat is adjusted to a set level to lower the globe’s temperature downward, other methods will be deemed necessary. I’m an optimist believing in the human spirit and ingenuity. Hopefully, plants will be humanity’s ticket to a cooler stable future, but should that not be the case, unforeseen inventions may be answers.
Dr. James Hansen recently came out against negative emission proposals: http://www.geoengineeringmonitor.org/2016/10/james-hansen-on-negative-emissions/
I along with others agree with him that most current artificial methods for carbon sequestration don’t pass the scientific sniff test, but what if an environmentally friendly technique came to fruition? This week there has been a “cocktail” approach suggested to employ various methods at once to adjust the planet’s average temperature downward: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170724105044.htm
I’ll emphasize here that methods beyond relying on plants should be a last resort, but I’ll never stop asking the question what if?
Here is a futuristic story from my hope to be published World of Thermo books that I hope you will ponder and enjoy:
From Grim Reaping: Invention
“We can build the first of these in the Ozarks,” said Sandra Blessings. “Scotland and Britain want the second batch. It is great that these machines are being manufactured at our new plant using no fossil fuels. I want Thermo to be constantly on guard against Carbo’s minions at our main plant. I hope the kudzu we planted around the first machine will help ward off those nasty hench molecules. We cannot permit anybody or anything to stop the production of these giant carbon sequestering machines. Dr. Hildegard, as you are aware, each CSM can process 750 tons of air per day. We estimate that we can get atmospheric levels of CO2 below 600 parts per million by 2060 if 100,000 of the CSM’s can be produced this year and up to a half million during 2056.” Sandra was informing Dr. Gertrude Hildegard in 2055, on the secret communication net of her intentions to manufacture and distribute her invention on a very large scale.
The CSM’s worked much like a leaf breathing or sucking in air, then turning CO2 into oxygen and carbon. The carbon came out of the machines in huge, solid chunks, which were intended to be buried along with other garbage in landfills. The machines, which were as large as a tractor trailer truck, were intended to be run off solar and wind energy trapping carbon and helping to stem the tide against dangerous environmental change. By 2055 it was already too late to prevent millions of people perishing from the Earth due to climate change, but there was new hope that a vast array of recently invented carbon sequestering machines might save modern civilization. Gerty Hildegard, who was well into her eighties, was continuing her fight to save the planet, and retained the energy of a woman half her age. From Sanctuary in the Alps she was aiding a new generation of climate scientists and activists, leading the charge to turn the tide of the war with Carbo in humanity’s favor.
Sandra Blessings was once an inquisitive, curious child. During the 2020s she hung around her mother’s Tesla Motors factory asking all sorts of questions on the assembly line. Sandra’s mother was very skilled at assembling electric motors and was well-paid for her efforts. Sandra was a very fortunate, and yes blessed girl, that her parents were proud of. Sandra quickly learned how to assemble all kinds of machines and became interested in robotics once she finished high school with high honors. Like her mother and father, Sandra knew the stakes of winning the climate war. During her 20’s Sandra spent her time studying at the University of Washington and as an intern at Boeing in Seattle. At Boeing she learned the art and skill of preparing all sorts of diagrams, which in the past were known as blue prints, for jets and even satellites. It was not until the late 2040s though, that Sandra finally designed a machine that worked very much like tree leaves, taking in vast quantities of polluted, carbon rich air, and releasing fresh, life giving oxygen using very little energy.
Upon getting wind of the invention, Dr. Geoffrey White, after an emergency communique to Shadow in the Alps, whisked Sandra Blessings off to his lair of Hallow in Pennsylvania. Sandra marveled at the technology White had in his cave, but most of all at Thermo. How could a robot-drone like Thermo exist, she wondered? Dear old Dr. White filled Sandra in on the dangers from Carbo and his hench molecules. Sandra worked stealthily and diligently with White up until the time he passed, and the rest of our climate science and environmental gang to set up a well-protected factory near Detroit to produce the CSM’s. On his death bed, despite horrible physical pain and weakness, Dr. Geoffrey White looked at Therma, Thermo, Doria and Philip, and yes, his one true love from afar, Dr. Gertrude Hildegard, and smiled, knowing that the climate war would eventually be won.
“What are these machines!” blasted Carbo a few months after the first CSM’s went on line. “How dare you let Nosey get sucked into that thing and destroyed! Toasty, he was your responsibility. You know all too well how inquisitive he was, always sticking his protuberances in and around things without thinking. Now one of my new favorite super molecules to be released this decade is gone. Now you will be punished!”
Carbo had his human slaves take Toasty to the back of his cave lair, the Nest in the Caucuses. As had happened to so many other hench molecules that had displeased their master before, the distraught, rotund, opaque beach ball shaped being would be lowered onto a stalagmite where the force of gravity might pop the poor thing. The human slaves threw dice to see which pointy stalagmite Toasty would be impaled on. Toasty had seen this ritual played out many times before, so he was a little relieved to see that he would be lowered onto a stalagmite that was not so sharp. Toasty struggled mightily in pain on top of the stalagmite in shear torture after a standard period of ten minutes, but was not popped and dispersed. After being released the hench molecule sheepishly floated back to the Nest’s main chamber where Carbo spied him and said, “Aha Toasty! I see that the fates have spared you from my prickly punishment chamber. You know that I must constantly keep discipline among the ranks. Sometimes I think that you guys are too stupid to be of any use, and that my discipline methods just aren’t working. Oh well, deep down I guess that I am slightly glad that you are still with us.”
Toasty replied, “You know dear leader that we all want you to succeed and would do anything to help you release more of our friends from the bowels of the Earth. I am smart enough to know that the humans are stopping to burn coal and oil. The jig is up! It has gotten so hot, and sea levels have risen so much that we can’t use disinformation or propaganda to fool the humans anymore. I have seen with my own eyes these filthy, new human machines sucking air into its bowels and trapping us amongst ash. I would like to destroy these things, but we can’t because those awful vines are protecting them, and Thermo and Therma are on patrol.”
Carbo replied, “Our only recourse will be to kill most of the humans so that there will be no one to operate those CSM’s. For that matter, the rest of those filthy plants around the planet can go too. We will keep just enough human slaves alive to mine and drill for our friends. After meeting these goals, we must get used to releasing our friends at a slower pace. But of course, we can take millions of years to release the last trapped carbon molecule.” Unknown to Thermo and friends, after seeing some light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel, their job of protecting the human race just got that much harder.
In reality there are no malevolent molecules plotting to do in the human race. We are doing a pretty good job ourselves just releasing more carbon into the air and via nuclear proliferation. There may be a hitherto unknown technological method for decreasing CO2 in the atmosphere that could ultimately save our species. That is not to suggest that we depend on technology to reduce carbon pollution. We must stop emissions as soon as possible to let nature begin to decrease carbon, which may take thousands of years. It took billions of machines of our own making about two hundred years to get carbon levels above 400 parts per million, so it would take a vast army of machines, even if we could make them, a long time to purify the air. I would write to never give up hope, though. Keep fighting for a brighter future, even if, scientifically, those prospects appear to be dim. Grim reaping is not set in stone.