By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Sadly, as the threat of climate change worsens, U.S. lawmakers move further away from practical solutions.
Last week, NASA reported that 2010 was the second hottest year on record, capping the warmest decade in modern times. Climate change continues, despite our currently frozen fingers as we clear the windshield of ice and snow (these big snowstorms in fact could be part of the pattern of climate change’s more erratic and severe storm systems).
That temperatures continue their upward march is no surprise to climate scientists who’ve measured the atmospheric carbon dioxide that’s a key creator of the greenhouse effect here on Earth. Atmospheric CO2 once measured around 280 parts per million before the industrial revolution. Now, after 160 years of burning fossil fuels on an industrial scale, we’re at about 390 ppm, well above the comfort zone of 350 ppm and on our way to levels that could be terribly unhealthy for humans. Scientists have set an upper limit of 450 ppm of CO2, above which is a vast unknown and below which, are likely a series of tipping points that could render the whole discussion moot.
Meanwhile, our U.S. Congress stands poised to – ignore the problem. Rep. Ralph Hall, (R-Texas), who will be heading up the House Science and Technology committee for the next few years has said he’s not a “climate denier.” But he’s wants to investigate “the quality of climate science” and has delegated this task to James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), who could fairly be described as a denier. (Sensenbrenner once called a multi-agency federal report on climate change “part of an international fraud.”
While Hall and Sensenbrenner dig for climate science missteps – and surely they’ll find something because researchers are human – the legions of scientists around the world who concur that climate change is a real, imminent and world-altering threat will be working in the trenches. They’ll be delivering more information about melting glaciers, ice caps, rising seas, desertification, deforestation, permafrost warming and saltwater intrusion into fresh water aquifers — all news that too many policy makers have found convenient to ignore.
But climate change is one issue than cannot afford a lot of policy lag time. The more greenhouse gases we emit, the more tipping points we’ll pass, putting human survival at risk. Already, the carbon we’ve emitted will be with us for decades, according to climate scientists, who are the best prognosticators we have.
Where’s the hope? We can all do our part by reducing our energy consumption, driving less, telecommuting, switching to green power in our homes, planting trees, saving forests by using recycled paper, consuming less energy-intensive foods like meat, supporting local food networks, turning off electricity gobblers, line drying clothes. These many small acts can add up.
And still, we’ll need more solutions.
This week, following an article in Science magazine predicting unabated carbon emissions this century could force a temperature increase of 16 degrees Celsius, the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) issued a plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions quickly. It highlights the work of a team of scientists composed of Nobel Laureate Mario Molina and several colleagues.
In a peer-reviewed journal in 2009, these scientists proposed an end run around the U.S. stalemate on controlling carbon emissions by taking steps to reduce the 40 to 50 percent of global warming emissions that come from other sources.
This 2009 research may be just the antidote we need in 2011.
The team’s original paper “Reducing abrupt climate change risk using the Montreal Protocol and other regulatory actions to complement cuts in CO2 emissions” proposes “fast action” changes to avert disaster. These changes, which could reduce global warming effects include:
- Amend the Montreal Protocol to phase down the production and consumption of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) with high global warming potential. These “super greenhouse gases” used in refrigeration and making insulating foams are less pervasive than carbon pollution but highly damaging to the atmosphere. Phasing out HFCs would only cost about 10 to 20 cents per ton of pollution, according to the IGSD. (HFCs are already being replaced by natural refrigerants; the scientists propose accelerating that change.)
- Reduce emissions of black carbon particles and “precursor gases” that lead to ozone formation in the lower atmosphere. Black soot from coal cook stoves — widely used in Asia — contributes the the greenhouse effect, and speeds melting in the Himalayas and other snowy areas by darkening snow, reducing its reflectivity. Agricultural burning also exacerbates the greenhouse effect. Solutions are ready, and include low-emissions stoves and changing agricultural practices.
- Use biochar to increase biosequestration. Biochar is produced when biomass is burned using little oxygen. Turning biomasss into biochar has been widely hailed as a way to produce energy while sequestering or capturing carbon at the same time. Molina’s team notes that this technology is already available.
The scientists proposed these steps as complementary to reducing carbon emissions from the usual oil and coal-burning suspects – coal plants, and gasoline and diesel engines.
The Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development, which has launched a “fast action” climate mitigation campaign sees these ideas as potentially life-saving because they can be put into play quickly through existing arrangements like the Montreal Protocol. Reducing HFCs, the Institute reports, can have a profound effect because they have up to 11,000 times the effect of CO2.
“The fast-action approach recognizes the need for speed to slow climate change,” said Durwood Zaelke, President of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development in a statement. “We can start immediately, and cut non-CO2 pollutants using existing technologies and existing laws and institutions.
Fighting global warming will require a lot of strategies. Let’s hope some of these fast actions can be launched, even as Congress remains stuck, frittering away our time and money on petty diversions like grilling climate scientists.
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