Report on “Climate Change: The Solutions” by Dr. David Reay

Last evening I had the opportunity attend another session at the University of Edinburgh in their “Our Changing World” series where Dr. David Reay spoke on “Climate Change: The Solutions”.  See http://www.ed.ac.uk/about/video/lecture-series/changing-world/solutions for the event’s web page and eventually the video.  Dr. Reay is Programme Director of the MSc in Carbon Management at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Reay was very upbeat.  His presentation was exclusively about presenting the opportunities for tackling the crisis of climate change.  He’s very confident that “we can do it.”  He’s enthused about society’s attitude–especially students–to face up to the challenges and make the fundamental changes that are required.  He also sees great possibilities with mankind’s command on technology to do things like geo-engineering to fix the problem.  “We can do something.”

Dr. Reay accepts that the climate has always changed and that there has always been during mankind’s time on this planet a varying climate and extreme weather.  He reminded us that humans know how to adapt.  However, he believes that is no longer sufficient to adapt to the rapid onset of climate change (global warming) projected by the IPCC.

To justify the conclusion of the world in peril was to show the measurements of CO2 at Mauna Loa (Hawaii). His graph showed CO2 increase, as “downloaded yesterday”. His y-axis was from 378 to 390 ppm and the x-axis went from 2006 to 2001.  This made the increase in CO2 look to be “alarming” with a trend line of almost 45-degrees upward.  He said that since we know for more than a hundred years that CO2 is a green house gas, it obviously is a problem, he said.  He also showed IPPC temperature forecasts and mentioned numerous times IPPC reports as basis for all thinking of future climate change.

Dr. Reay, while accepting that adaption is part of the solution, said that mitigations are much more important and much more urgently required.  He offers as solutions:

  • Reduce how much CO2 gets into the atmosphere by changing land use practices.
  • Reducing CO2 from generation of electricity shows the biggest possibility of reducing CO2 emissions because there are so many more efficient ways to generate electricity, e.g. CHP (Combined Heat and Power) gas-powered turbines.
  • Renewable energy (hydroelectric, wind, wave, and current).  He pointed out  that Scotland is “blessed” with lots of coastline to produce this renewable energy. Dr. Reay mentioned how he has “plastered” his home with solar panels and because of the new feed-in tarrif he, like 6,000 other homeowners in the UK, can make money by selling electricity back to the power companies.  He acknowledged he isn’t making any money recently because the sun doesn’t shine so much.  Dr. Reay said nuclear power as not a viable solution since it is not carbon free due to the significant carbon cost of mining the uranium.
  • Land use changes, e.g. REDD (reduced emissions from deforestation and degregation)
  • Getting more efficiency from the “built environment” (reduced energy consumption by better designs and insulation)

However, Dr. Reay’s position is that “if we don’t mitigate climate change, and if we don’t have the ability to adapt to rapid climate change, then we have implement geo-engineering solutions”. He discussed three approaches:

  1. Change the energy received from the sun [by putting big mirrors into space at the Lagrangian point to reflect sunlight, or put a lot of dust into space to stop sunlight’s energy reaching the earth.
  2. Change the amount of energy reflected (albedo) [by releasing billions of balloons into the stratosphers, increasing sulphate aerosols in the stratosphere, etc.  We know this would work as we have data from the Mt. Pinatubo 1991 volcanic eruption.  Other way would be to add sea salt spray to the atmosphere to make “whiter clouds”.]
  3. Change the amount of heat absorbed by the atmosphere [by using oceanic iron and macronutrient supply to grow algae blooms in the sea; artificial trees which draw the carbon out of the atmosphere to be put into carbon storage, add “biochar”, manufactured as part of energy production and thus drawing off carbon, to soils;  bio fuels and “super bugs” created from genetic engineering designed to draw out CO2 from the atmosphere].

He summarised his optimism by saying:

  • researchers are working on the feedbacks and uncertainties and the impacts of future climate change
  • we’re getting better at monitoring, e.g. deforestation
  • there are a myriad of technologies–old and new–that can work.
  • need political leadership (he showed a photograph of President Obama at this point), a global climate deal, and probably geo-engineering.
  • have to show the way forward to the third world so that they don’t repeat “our mistakes” [which means, I think, out putting CO2 into the atmosphere].

He closed the formal presentation with a demonstration of his optimism by showing a video from YouTube.  I tried to correctly capture the URL, but failed.  If I get it later, I will update this posting.  [The video was all “arty” and focused on how we must do something now for the benefit of our children. Nothing of any scientific or technical substance.]

While the presentation was clearly up-beat and optimistic, I was troubled by a number of issues:

  • The starting point on all this is: is it a “fact” or a “hypothesis” that the world on on the edge of runaway climate change (global warming)?  For Dr. Reay and others a this series of Our Changing World lecture series, it appears to be a fact.  [I’m not so sure.  Without this starting point being more “certain”, is the “precautionary principal” our only justification in support of this massive mankind disruption advocated and planned for?]
  • Lots of talk about “impacts” of climate change (extreme weather, higher/debilitating temperatures, great droughts and floods, sea level rise, etc.) but no mention of the “risk”.[ Risk discussion must include an added dimension of “probability”.  Given, as stated above it is a “fact”, then I guess the assumption is that the probability of all this is considered 100%.  However, the earth seems to be be cooling over the period since the IPPC became active, the Arctic ice is not melting, and we are seeing a reduction in extreme weather as evidenced by hurricanes].
  • Who has the right to “geo-engineer” the planet? Who pushes to switch to turn it on? And how will we detect when it is time to do so?  [We have so much trouble now agreeing the temperature of the earth and if current weather events are signs of climate change or not.]
  • Design of future geo-engineering solutions will require climate models which can reliably compute the impact/probablity (expressed as an “opportunity” not risk) of the solution’s effectiveness [yet after years of work we have climate models that do not validate against the actual temperature changes and and validate only against other model’s results]. Or will be just “guess” the forecast efficacy?
  • Dr. Reay said in the Q&A that the politicians just need to react. They just have to accept that the case for AGW, as does President Obama, is overwhelming and that we need to “do something”.  He said that it would be disastrous if Sara Palin was elected President. [Just what is the “overwhelming evidence” that AGW is such a big risk and how do we know that anything we do can actually make a difference?  Is the proposed cost commensurate with risk and what alternatives were considered?  I need more than a graph of CO2 at Mauna Loa].
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