Climate Change – The Tip of a Melting Iceberg?
(Elisabeth M. Drake – November 2018)
While scientists study climate change trends and issue warnings about our future, I still hear many people say they are confident our grandchildren will be smart and able enough to deal with future problems when they occur. Then there also are many who are very concerned and who advocate strong governmental interventions to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. But many of these activists live in big houses, enjoy heating and air-conditioning, have all sorts of fancy appliances and cars, travel extensively, and eat lavish meals. Meanwhile, large populations of refugees are interned in refugee camps where the standard of living barely sustains life. The affluent have environmental footprints that are 4-100 times greater than could be maintained sustainably by Planet Earth. (Go online and take an "environmental footprint" evaluation if you are curious about your own footprint.) So, what is the underlying truth? Could it be that we humans are outgrowing our finite planet?
Back in 1798, Malthus noted that human population was growing exponentially, but that food production was only increasing linearly, with time. He warned that Earth's population might soon grow to a point where its food productivity would be insufficient to feed everyone. In hindsight, agricultural advances have allowed us to keep up with population growth so far, proving the timing of Malthus' prediction was not correct.
In 1968, Hardin published a paper entitled "The Tragedy of the Commons" – which analyzed the hypothetical example of a town that established a "common" for grazing local inhabitants' cattle. Initially, a growing and thriving herd of animals developed. But as the herd continued to grow, the common area became insufficient to sustain all the animals and finally could no longer produce any grass due to overgrazing. Hardin noted that the productivity of the common would peak just before its total and sudden collapse occurred. Some wondered whether the fate of Hardin's "common" might ever happen on a larger scale on Planet Earth.
Around this time, a group of prominent executives in Italy (who met socially as "The Club of Rome") got interested in whether there might be eventual limits on economic growth. They commissioned a study by the Decision Analysis group at MIT (with additional funding from the Volkswagen Foundation) to explore whether then-present growth trends in world population, industrialization, food production, pollution, and resource depletion would likely reach some planetary limits within the next century. The work, directed by Prof. Jay Forrester, was published as "The Limits to Growth" (Meadows, et al, 1972). Multiple scenarios were included in the model and the most probable scenarios showed sudden declines in industrial capacity and population occurring within the next (now current) century. Although climate change was not yet on the radar, it was buried in the model as part of industrial pollution. The model was criticized widely at the time, although current trends seem to be consistent with its range of predictions.
In the following decades, effects of climate change were becoming more apparent and scientists gained much more understanding of the impacts of warming on our planet. Most ordinary people now can notice gradual warming trends in local climate, along with sea level rise and an increasing intensity of storms/ more extreme weather conditions. Farmers have been able to adapt to these gradual changes so far, although the warming is evident. It seems that we still are able to adapt without major national trauma, although some localities occasionally suffer unusual damages. Most of us now accept that greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from fossil fuel usage in power generation and transportation, are the culprits.
Universities and governmental agencies worldwide started to take climate change seriously and explore technical and societal options for mitigating present and future problems. In 2009, the US National Research Council published a series of Report on "America's Energy Future." Major findings included the need for:
Capturing carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel power plants to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions would require a major national investment and increase the cost of electricity. We can use less energy if we increase the efficiency of its use. Replacement of fossil fuels with dispersed renewable energy is daunting – and many are still nervous about widespread use of nuclear energy.
The root of the problem is apparent when we look at a simple equation popularized by Chemical Engineering Prof. Kaya of the University of Tokyo in 1991:
[CO2 emissions] = Population x [GDP/population] x [Energy/GDP] x [CO2/Energy] - sequestration
[GDP/population] = standard of living
[Energy/GDP] = energy efficiency
[CO2/Energy] = carbon intensity
Sequestration = CO2 that is captured from emission streams and stored underground or converted to a durable non-gaseous product
Because we are so dependent on fossil fuels, the driver of emissions is GDP – economic growth!
Rich or poor, aren't we happy to have children and grandchildren? We love to find better paying jobs, so we can enjoy a more affluent lifestyle. Older folks are happy when their investment portfolios show growth in assets. We vote for politicians who foster economic growth. The Table below shows that from 1850 to the present world population increased by a factor of about 6; world GDP, by a factor of about 50; and GHG emissions by a factor of about 160!
(trillion $ 2017)
The above table shows the effects of technology changes on GHG emissions around 1900 when fossil fuels were introduced more widely for electricity distribution, for industrial use, and for transportation.
Since the end of the twentieth century, international steps have been taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Today, the good news is that our GHG emissions are no longer in lock step with GDP, but they are still increasing. Are there more issues we should be thinking about?
Today, I do believe that humanity may outgrow our Planet Earth if we don't change course. Instead of planning space missions to start over somewhere else in the universe, why don't we find out how humans can survive in harmony with our planet, it's finite resources, and all its inhabitants!
As Walt Kelly had Pogo tell us: "We have met the enemy and he is us!"
Drake bio: https://marquistopengineers.com/2018/03/22/elisabeth-mertz-drake/
Hardin, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162 (5364)1243-1248.
Kaya, Y. 1991. Panelist statement in Plenary Session II, Policy Strategies for Managing the Global Environment. Energy and the Environment in the 21st Century, Ed. J.W. Tester. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Malthus, T.R. 1798. Essay on the Principle of Population. Reprint, New York University Press, 1993.
Meadows, D., D. Meadows, J. Randers, and W. Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.
One should stop to think about the predictions of "The Club of Rome" and other doomsdayers such as Paul Ehrlich. Their predictions in the mid-1970s of a billion people starving to death within a decade and England ceasing to exist by 2000 never materialized. Even the data in the table in the post belie neo-Malthusianism. Resources increased to make life better for more people. Anybody who has some familiarity with Malthusian principles should also read Simon's article "Resources, Population, Environment: An Oversupply of False Bad News" in Science (1980).
Vivek Utgikar, PhD PE
Professor, Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering
Associate Dean of Research, College of Engineering
University of Idaho
875 Perimeter Drive, MS 1021
Moscow, ID 83844-1021
Phone - (208) 885-6970; Fax (208) 885-7462