Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 4, 2021

My response to “The Big Question”

 

While studying and teaching the science associated with climate change for many years, I am sometimes asked “The Big Question”: that is, what is my best guess as to the fate of planet Earth due to our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In this post, I will try to answer that question as well as I can – with the understanding shared by the great baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra, who admitted that “predictions are hard to make – especially about the future.”  Nevertheless, here goes my attempt.     

First, I will break my response into two parts, each of which is determined by what mankind choses to do or not do in the next decade. I will call the simplest of these “Scenario A” in which we essentially make no changes and continue with business-as-usual methods of energy production. This scheme requires little changes in our economy but, unfortunately, is sure to lead to distinctly disastrous consequences. This outcome of Scenario A has been predicted many times based on mature and time-tested laws of science.

The amount of CO2 we have already emitted over the Industrial Age has increased the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to about 50% greater than it was prior to the Industrial Age and higher than it has ever been in the last 3 million years. In addition, it should be noted that the extra CO2 we have added to our atmosphere during the Industrial Age will not come out quickly, but will remain in the biosphere for several centuries. That means that our planet is already in dire straits due to its elevated and long-lasting concentrations of greenhouse gases.

Within Scenario A, CO2 levels and the temperature of the Earth will continue to increase well beyond current levels – eventually leading to a runaway condition in which higher temperatures will cause additional natural emissions of greenhouse gases from various carbon deposits (such as those in the permafrost of the Arctic and methane clathrates of the ocean bottoms). These massive natural emissions will add to the emissions of mankind. This is expected to change conditions of Earth so much that they will become incompatible with existing forms of civilization. This distinctly disastrous outcome is inevitable under Scenario A. Sorry, but that is simply what Mother Nature is expected do in response to our continued use of fossil fuels.  

Another detrimental aspect of Scenario A is that it would quickly lead to “gloom and doom” attitudes under which all efforts for climate recovery would be thought to be useless.  “Enjoy the fossil fuel party while it lasts” would become our motto – as it already is among the fossil fuel advocates.

It should also be noted that the advocates of Scenario A will do their best to offer various “painless” options in which continuous fossil fuel use would be allowed -while claiming to solve the AGW problem in other ways.  These proposals generally involve the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere or making weather modifications, such as would result from increasing the Earth’s reflection of the Sun’s radiation. These proposals appear to be motivated mainly by their potential for selling Scenario A to the public more than to actually solving the AGW problem.  Therefore, if we bet the entire farm on any of these supposedly less painful options, I suspect that we would still be headed for the same disastrous outcomes forecasted in Scenario A.     

Fortunately, there also is a Scenario B that is scientifically feasible and would be much less harmful to future conditions if undertaken before that irreversible runaway event described above occurs. This option would require a great deal of work made especially so because of the fact that we would be starting this corrective action so late in the game.

Scenario B requires that we “decarbonize” our entire means of energy production in a manner that does not cause the emissions of greenhouse gases. This option will require the “electrification” of nearly everything (cars are just one example) that was previously powered by fossil fuel combustion.  A massive increase in the generation of the electrical power and its storage will also be required. For this purpose, more nuclear reactors might be required throughout the world. While the development of an “Electronic Age” of this sort is thought to be technically possible (see my post of Dec 9, 2020 called the “The 100 % Solution”), it will surely run into great resistance from the multitude of people and industries that are addicted to fossil fuels. In frank terms, Scenario B would require nothing less than a complete change from our present well-entrenched Fossil Fuel Age to a new Electronic Age. The technical challenges associated with the creation of a new Electronic Age would be formidable and the focus required to achieve it would be similar to that needed for winning WWII.  And, like WWII, there would be no guarantees of success.   

So, what is the answer to the Big Question initially posed – “what is going to happen?”  A major portion of that question can be answered by any well-informed citizen just a well as a climate scientist because a critical portion of Scenario B depends on our communal and intergenerational sense of values.  Will the present set of human beings on this planet be able to say goodbye to the Fossil Fuel Age in which they have lived all of their lives AND will they have enough faith in the fields of science as to jump into the totally new era that climate science recommends?

So, you tell me what the answer is to The Big Question.  If your answer is no – the citizens of Earth will not be able to make that transition – then my answer is that we are headed for the disastrous outcome associated with Scenario A.  If your answer is yes – we can make that transition out of the fossil fuel age and into an Electronic Age – then my answer is that we might be able to achieve tolerable rather than disastrous consequences.

In conclusion, the future of our planet is currently in the hands of its inhabitants and their leaders. While the relevant scientific parts of the problem are relatively clear, we don’t know yet what people and their political leaders will choose to do. Thus, what mankind chooses to do – probably within the current decade – will very likely determine whether future conditions on Earth will be either disastrous or manageable. My own preference is that we do our best to achieve that new Electronic Age. We have kicked this can down the road for much too long and we might not get a second chance to retain manageable conditions on Earth. In the process, we will also be performing a great service to our grandchildren.   


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