Category Archives: climage change

Water Management

Exoplanets, or extrasolar planets, are simply planets that circle a star other than our own. First detected in the late 1980s, there are now thousands of known exoplanets. Although there is no current interest as a place to flee the ravages of our planet, the exoplanets are none the less of scientific interest.

The biggest problem as an escape route is the fact of distance, the nearest is over four light-years away. A light year is the distance light travels in one year or about six trillion miles. Despite being quite distant, the exoplanets are of interest as possible sources of other life in the universe. To accommodate life as we know it requires one universal – liquid water.

Water has unique chemical properties as a solvent that no other substance really can compare. Chemistry and thermodynamics, anywhere in the universe, combine in a way that makes life inconceivable without it.

With an abundance of water on this planet, one might think it is not an issue but increasingly it is. Specifically the availability of manageable water. Global warming and the climate change that follows therefrom is making the management of water difficult.

Sea levels are rising and rising faster than previously predicted. A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has suggested that the sea level rise may be as much as six feet by the end of the century, more than twice the prediction of just a few years ago. And lest you think the end of the century is a long way off, it is within the lifetime of someone who could be reading this column today.

Whole cities will either have to be abandoned or pay incredible costs for infrastructure to hold the seas back. Forty percent of the world’s population is coastal, that is live within fifty miles of a seacoast.

Meanwhile farther inland, managing water is being made more difficult. Billions of people around the world depend on meltwater from the mountain snowpack. The regions which include the western United States, Alpine Europe, Central Asia and downstream of the Himalayas and Tibetan Plateau contain nearly half the human population of the planet. Global warming is threatening the timely delivery of freshwater. More cold season runoff can overwhelm reservoir storage of water, making less water available later in the growing season.

We’ve recently had a lesson on water management with the historic flooding of the Arkansas River valley. Serious to catastrophic failure of levees is responsible for disaster declarations in a sixth of Arkansas Counties. Levees and other flood control structures will have to be not just replaced but radically upgraded to accommodate changing rainfall patterns.

At every turn, climatic instabilities force greater expenditures on infrastructure. This is the cost of climate inaction. The sooner we act to reduce the rate of global warming, the less we have to spend on mitigation. We have economically practical technologies to stop driving global warming. Wind and solar electric energy coupled with battery storage can power the world. We must wholeheartedly invest in the future, now. Or do we abandon our children to our unaddressed climate disasters?

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Modification

Modern humans are a couple of hundred thousand years old at best – compare that with cockroaches at 350 million years old. Regardless, in our short time on the planet we have worked tirelessly to modify our surrounds to our purposes. Minor reservoirs and irrigation channels are a few thousand years old.

Widespread modification of the soil in the Amazon basin over a thousand years ago was accomplished by building up polders in swampy areas then adding charcoal, bone, pottery shards, and nutrients to greatly improve soil productivity. The result was “terra preta do indio,” a Portuguese phrase meaning black earth of the Indian.

Prior to European colonization of north America, Indians use fire to modify the environment, maintaining grasslands which were more productive for game animals. What many colonists described as a pristine wilderness was actually a maintained mosaic of grasslands and forests.

These small scale environmental modifications pale in comparison to our current unintentional change to the global climate. From wildfires to floods, and hurricanes to droughts, we are having a negative impact on the climate. To retard further degradation of the climate we must rapidly decarbonize our energy systems. The environmental response to this action is however slow.

If we can unintentionally change the climate, surely we can intentionally make it right, right? We can do things to reverse the warming in the atmosphere? There is a recent natural precedent for global climate impact. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted violently, sending tens of billions of tonnes of ash and sulfur oxides in the stratosphere. The ash and especially sulfate particles circulated around the world, partially shading the earth. A drop of 0.6 degrees Celsius was recorded in the global mean temperature for 1991-1992.

So there you go, all we need to do is inject massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere. The sunlight will be partially shaded, cooling the earth and reversing the heat driven climate change. An engineering research group proposed just such an experiment. Billions of tonnes of molten sulfur would be delivered to the stratosphere via specially designed jet tankers. These would fly sixty thousand flights per year for decades. The scheme has been described as the cheapest and quickest way to cool the planet.

BUT, there is a lot of devilment in the details. Even moderate success may take the pressure off the need to decarbonize our energy systems. This would do nothing to address the damage to the oceans via acidification from the dissolved Carbon Dioxide. And that sulfur mist in the atmosphere? It turns into sulfuric acid, which would untimely rain down on the planet.

A uniformly gray sky could negatively impact crops, energy production from solar and wind, and even seriously change weather patterns – just the opposite of what was desired. A worst-case outcome would be international strife if the experiment did not have a global consensus.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Climate Change and the Insurance Industry

The cost of individual weather-related catastrophes is rising and at the same time, they are becoming more common. One measure is to to look at the frequency of events which cost over a billion dollars versus time. In 1988 there was only one event, a drought across a large portion of the United State whereas in 2018 there were ten, including hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, droughts, and floods. This year a new term has come to the fore, the bomb cyclone.

One could show all sorts of trends by picking only two data points especially with weather data which shows a lot of short term variability. But a clear trend exists and global warming can be tied to both the cost and frequency of weather events.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, drought is the one phenomena that worry people the most. Considering drought as just one catastrophe, they have become more intense, and last longer in recent times compared to the past. Not only here in the United States but globally. Many regions in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are experiencing higher air temperatures, drier air, and more severe droughts. A NASA study has shown that a two-decade-long drought in the Mediterranean Levant is the worst in 900 years.

The economic impact of droughts is due in the main to reduced agricultural outputs, but the heat itself is lethal. In the database of billion-dollar weather events since 1980, four of the top ten most lethal events are heat waves.

The impact of climate-related risks falls most heavily on the insurance industry. Across the board, costs are rising. They are rising for property damage, healthcare costs, and even life insurance. Insurers know this – its what they do. One of the main activities of insurers is to calculate risk so they know how much to charge their customers in premiums. Because of their focus on risk, they know better than most just what the financial impact is of climate change.

The insurance industry holds assets obtained from premiums in investments, not cash. The industry is beginning to shift investments from carbon-intense industries. Eighty of the world’s largest insurers hold fifteen trillion dollars in managed assets. Currently, less than one percent of the investments are in low carbon industries that provide a solution to climate change.

California’s Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones leads a group called the Asset Owners Disclosure Project (AODP.) A report from AODP assessed the industry’s investment portfolios and found that leadership in the trend away from carbon-intensive industries is coming from European firms. US firms are at or near the bottom. Some of the biggest firms with the most to lose, giants such as Prudential, AIG, and New York Life are that the bottom of the AODP ratings for attention to climate change.

Personal retirement accounts, in aggregate, are even larger than the insurance industry investments. Increasingly, mutual funds have categories like the Social Choice account at Teacher’s Insurance and Annuity Association. The investment strategy here is to disfavor fossil fuel industries and favor clean energy strategies.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

The Green New Deal

The Green New Deal is a proposal to address global warming and economic inequality. It is widely feared by conservatives as a proposal designed to take away freedom – and cars and money and hamburgers and airplanes. Nonsense.
What it is is a very broad brush plan to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and the release of other greenhouse gases in ten years. Although the timeline is unreasonable, the objective of necessity will be accomplished in the longer term.
Under the plan, sustainable energy sources will be expanded to eliminate the use of fossil fuels for electricity production. Wind and solar with battery backing can eliminate the need for any fossil fuel use for electricity production. This is already underway, as the use of coal has been cut in half in just the last two to three decades.
At the same time, grid-scale batteries are becoming a thing. The City of Fayetteville will soon begin utilizing a ten megawatt solar panel system with energy storage in batteries – intermittency is not an issue with battery backup. Entergy is planning to close two coal fired plants and is building its own solar farms.
In our economy, the transportation sector is the largest user of fossil fuels. Electrification of transportation is in its infancy but happening none the less. Tesla, the biggest manufacturer of electric cars, has sold over a half-million vehicles since they began in 2012. Electric long haul trucks, semis, are in development and will hit the highways in 2020. Electrification of the rails is a no-brainer, it exists already on a limited scale and can be expanded nation-wide.
A tougher nut is aviation. Jet fuel, essentially kerosene made from crude oil, is an ideal energy source as it is very energy dense. To eliminate the use of fossil fuels from aviation will require either of a couple of solutions. The most likely, especially in the short term is to manufacture fuel synthetically from renewable sources.
Biodiesel from oil crops like soybeans is a possibility but would compete with cropland for food production. Better would be the use of waste organic matter as a feedstock for fuel production. This is already happening but needs to be done more efficiently.
Electrification of aviation has already been achieved but is a long way from commercial airlines’ scale. A battery-powered single engine plane with a range of four hundred miles has been flown in England.
The cost of the total conversion to sustainable energy systems will require considerable investment in research and infrastructure, but at the same time it will create quality jobs in an increasingly automated economy. The increased tax revenues from these new jobs can offset some of the costs.
Then there is the issue of what is the cost of doing nothing. Hurricanes in the East, flooding in the Midwest, and wildfires in the West are already costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year and will only get worse from inaction. Our future depends on facing the reality of climate change. The sooner we address the issue the less costly it will be.

Making Clean Air Costly

The Arkansas legislature is doing its best to look backward rather than forward. Just this year the transportation sector in the United States became the major source contributing to global warming and the changes to the climate it induces. At the same time, a clear majority of Americans including Arkansans believe global warming is real, is caused by humans, and is especially threatening to future generations.

Logic should suggest then that changes to our transportation systems here in Arkansas should take account of this risk and do the right thing. Modes of transportation which don’t contribute to global warming should be favored over those that do. Right?

The new law for funding for highways in Arkansas raises fuel taxes to help pay for construction and maintenance of our highway system. For gasoline, the state tax will go from 20.8 cents a gallon to 23.8 cents a gallon, a 3 cent per gallon rise. The diesel fuel tax will rise by 6 cents a gallon.

It will raise 100s of millions of dollars a year. Ironically it will also reduce highway use at least in principle – the more gas costs, the less gas is used. Less gasoline use means a lower contribution to global warming which is a good thing. Lower gasoline use also means cleaner air, less volatile organic carbon emitted, and less ozone formed. Also a good thing.

At the same time, the bill taxes electric vehicles that don’t contribute to global warming and negative health effects from tailpipe emissions. As they don’t use gasoline or diesel, the “tax” will be assessed via a greater registration fee: 200 dollar increase per pure electric vehicle, and 100 dollars per plug-in hybrid . On the surface, this seems fair as these electric cars use and therefore abuse the highways and need to pay their fair share. But is this taxation rate fair?

The average Arkansas vehicle travels about 15,000 miles per year. At an average mileage, this works out to a tax rate significantly lower than that assessed on electric vehicles. The tax assessment plan will literally punish efficiency. It will make the purchase of electric vehicles less attractive. In so doing, this will increase, not decrease damage due our shared climate. Does the legislature really want to make our children’s future more grim?

Quite simply gasoline and diesel powered vehicles contribute to global warming, electric vehicles don’t. As a society, we need to consider the climate with every decision we make, at least if we care about our children’s future. We need to promote clean energy systems at the expense of those systems and processes that contribute to global warming.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

Migrations and Climate Change

As our climate changes at an ever-increasing rate, everything from bacteria to blue whales are on the move. Climate changes have come and gone over the ages but rarely at the rate we are inducing by our profligate production of Carbon Dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. Both plants and animals alike have only two choices – migrate or die.

Species migrations are generally are to the north or upslope, in either case to cooler climes that existed before global warming. Some migrations have little impact on humans. The Arctic is a bellwether for climate change as it is occurring there more rapidly than elsewhere. Moose are moving north, for the mosses and larch which now have moved northward. Ironically polar bears are moving south. As the ice floes where they hunted seals diminish, they are forced on to land, moving south where they are now competing with grizzly bears.

The now extinct Golden Toad lived in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. As the climate warmed, it went upslope until it had no higher to go. A smallish mammal, the Bramble Cay Melomys is now extinct. It formerly inhabited an atoll near Papua New Guinea, but sea level rise has inundated the atoll and it had nowhere to go.

Of greater concern to humans are shifting populations of pests. Leishmaniasis is a deadly disease caused by a protozoan parasite. Infection occurs from the bite of an infected sand fly. The sand fly and hence the disease has previously only been seen in the tropics, but the sand fly is now seen in North Texas.

Plant pests that affect food crops are on the move. A moth is moving south(southern hemisphere) ravaging cruciferous crops in South Africa. Coffee plants in Central America are threatened by a fungus due to wetter weather. Wine grapes and olives are threatened in Europe.

Rapid climate change invariably means large scale species extinctions. The greatest rapid climate change is called the Permian Extinction. Around a quarter of a billion years ago, not all that long ago considering the nearly 5 billion year age of the planet, something happened that wiped out about 90 percent of life’s species. It has been suggested that an asteroid a couple of miles across stuck earth.

The debris from the impact, plus induced volcanism from the shock to the mantle would have flooded the skies with ash and poisoned the oceans with sulfuric and other acids. The skies would have drastically darkened and cooled the earth, killing most plant life. The subsequent release of Carbon Dioxide upon their decay would have then drastically warmed the planet. The climatic whipsaws resulted in the extinction of 96 percent of ocean life and over two-thirds of terrestrial life. Rapid climate change is a bad thing for biodiversity and biodiversity is the best measure of a healthy environment.

A physical catastrophe such as an asteroidal impact is out of our control, but we can and must get our impact on the climate under control. No amount of walls and fences will stop starving migrants suffering from climatic change.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.