Climate Change: Its Reality and its Mitigation


          In our atmosphere there is now more of each of the greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) than has previously been present for at least 650,000 years.  Reductions from much higher earlier levels depended on the evolution of photosynthesis.

         The fourth report of the IPCC (international Panel on Climate Change) was issued on February 2, 2007, six years after their third report.  It stated that global warming is real and very likely due to human activity.  The 152 scientists responsible for writing the many drafts of the report had reached a unanimous opinion that global warming was real and almost certainly  due to human activity.  The protocol for producing the final draft encourages political representatives from all the member countries of the United Nations to attend and participate in the final session.  One hundred thirteen such representatives attended.  To achieve a unanimous agreement of the 152 plus 113, “almost certainly” was changed to “very likely (agreed to mean more than 90% likely).  This was  because some rapidly developing countries don’t want to inhibit their development.  They think they need more coal burning electric power plants to meet their short-term development goals.  The US and the other delegates went along with this in order to achieve unanimity and perhaps, in our case, out of contrition for our failure to ratify the 1997 Kyoto protocol—the first and largely symbolic international effort to control global warming but a very worthwhile precedent nonetheless.  All other developed countries except the US and Australia have ratified it, and it has come into force without us.

       The IPCC came into being in 1988 and issued its first report in 1990. It is a combined effort of two United Nations Entities, the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environmental Program.  All the scientists are volunteers.  There is no budget for research.  Their mandate is to provide information for policy makers.  Because it is an intergovernmental group, the politicians are appointed by their governments, participate in the discussions, and must concur in the final report.  

       The scientific members of the IPCC do not remain the same choir singing the same chorus. Seventy-five per cent of the members of the fourth Panel  had not served on the third panel, and 25% of them were within ten years of obtaining their first advanced scientific degrees.

       The details of the fourth report include the following to occur within the twenty first century:

               1)  1.4º to  6.4  Cº rise in global average temperature

               2)  sea level to rise 7 to 23 inches

        They also mention significant increases in extreme weather events, floods, droughts, cyclone, etc.  They agreed the Greenland ice cap would not vanish for about 1000 years, but its ultimate demise might become inevitable in 50 to 100 years (called a “tipping point”).  There is enough water sitting on Greenland as ice to raise sea level 20 feet.

        The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science 2007) annual meeting had the theme of sustainability.  Many of the sessions discussed what could be done to meet the challenge of controlling global warming—it is too late to prevent it.  All agreed that action must start  within a decade to succeed in avoiding truly disastrous consequences.  There was prompt agreement that no silver bullet could suffice by itself and that either a carbon tax or its equivalent, capping and trading of carbon emissions, would be necessary—Europe already has a market for carbon emissions trading.  Now that the politicians and corporations of Europe and the scientists of the entire world have agreed, we move on to the details of mitigation of global warming excerpted from a symposium “The Future of Renewable Energy” at the American Association for the Advancement of Science  annual meeting on February 19, 2007, in San Francisco.  Ronal Larson of the American Solar Energy Society (, Boulder, Colorado, was the organizer.  The recommendations were based on the availability and costs of the various technologies.

        America currently produces per capita 5.5 times more CO2 than the entire rest of the world.  A 60 to 80% reduction in our CO2  production would reduce our per capita consumption to only twice that of the rest of the world at their present consumption level.  The Europeans plan to get their CO2  production for generation of electricity to zero by 2050.  Such efforts worldwide could suffice to stabilize atmospheric CO2  at 400-450 ppm.  This would be good enough to prevent many disasters—sea level rise was the example we chose.

        Here is the panel’s idea of what must America do to pull our share as outlined above and in roughly the order of the impact of each change suggested.

1)    Improved energy efficiency. Such as better insulation for buildings, air to air heat exchangers for ventilation with minimal loss of heat (or cool) in addition to the usual mention of efficient appliances and lighting. Light emitting diodes are poised to come on line.  They are as much more efficient than fluorescent lights as fluorescents are to incandescent bulbs.

2)   Solar cells, wind power, harnessing the tides.   The intermittency of these modalities could largely be avoided by efficient long distance power transmission. Already high voltage direct current avoids all capacitance losses. Super conducting transmission is also under development to get rid of resistance losses.

3)   Nuclear power is rightfully making a comeback.  Only proven designs are appropriate for immediate construction—gas-cooled reactors are the current front runner.  American has made a mistake in not reprocessing spent nuclear fuel if only because of limited supplies of uranium.  Actually U235, only 0.7% of natural uranium, is the only isotope of uranium useful for fuel (or bombs) without a breeder reactor or fuel reprocessing to obtain plutonium (Pu239) from U238.  There is only enough U235 for a few hundred years. Thorium has only one isotope and is the nuclear fuel of the future.  It is several hundred times more plentiful than U235, and its reactors produce no long-lived radioactive waste. See also  Global Warming Demands a new Discussion of Nuclear Power on  under the category Other Science and Technology.   

4)    Carbon capture, also known as carbon sequestration, could permit continued coal power to be used for electricity without releasing CO2 into the atmosphere.  There is some experience already with pumping CO2 into nearly exhausted oil wells to get them back into production.  Presumably old natural gas wells and other similar sedimentary rocks would also suffice, but more research is needed to be sure of no problems with leakage.  This research should take much less time than perfecting Thorium nuclear reactors.   Oppose any new coal power plants not suitable to be retrofitted for carbon capture—starting your opposition right away! 

5)    Ethanol is the first example of a bio-fuel.  Brazil’s ethanol production from sugar cane is a mature and viable technology and could be replicated in many tropical countries.  Our ethanol production   from  cornstarch  produces very  little  more fuel,  if  any  more,  than   the  fossil  fuel required to produce the corn and distill the fermented corn liquor.  The research for producing fuel from crop and forest wastes (cellulose) is fairly advanced and will help some.  These efforts are sharply limited by the fact that only so much crop land can be diverted from food production and some crop wastes need to be retained on the land for maintenance of  soil quality.  Nevertheless bio-fuels will make some relatively small contribution to reduced CO2 emissions mainly for transportation (no jet fuel substitute is yet in prospect).

       After improved energy efficiency, electricity production without carbon emission is the priority.  This will indirectly save transportation fuel by gasoline optional vehicles that get almost  all their fuel for local use from the electric grid.  This why bio-fuels are fifth on the list.  The public needs to understand these basics in order to keep the politicians motivated, not to mention doing their individual parts in the choices we all make daily about energy use.

       The bottom line: individuals, scientists, engineers, city planning commissions must make significantly different decisions in their lives and work soon, and they must stay the course for the entire foreseeable future.


John Frantz, member Monroe City Planning Commission

March 8, 2007