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Monday, August 25, 2008

THE VENUS SYNDROME (Part 1)

Over the next week or so I will touch on global warming, covered in Chapter 5 of SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth. I begin with an overview.
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If you've been keeping score, since last month:

1. Oil experienced the biggest one day price increase, ever, and on July 11 reached $147/barrel. G8 oil ministers kicking off their summit in Japan begged OPEC to increase production. (It worked, as prices have since dropped.)

2. Our monthly unemployment rate saw the largest jump in 22 years.

3. The International Energy Agency reported that a sum of $45 trillion (not billion, but trillion) was needed to combat global warming. If you add the total cost of the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan and the Apollo Project, and bring those expenses up to 2008 dollars, combined, this total is only about 0.25 trillion dollars.

4. The U.S. Senate killed the global warming mitigation bill.

5. The Copenhagen Consensus Center, involving a blue-ribbon panel of economists, including five Nobel Laureates, listed global warming as #30, and last, of 30 world priorities.

Let's see now, on the one hand, the feared dual hammer of Peak Oil and Global Warming is already showing evidence of affecting our lives. Yet, our decision-makers are continuing to do nothing, and, worse, learned organizations are saying, why worry.

Actually, as would be expected, things are a bit more complicated than that. For example, the congressional legislation was passed on to next year because Democrats felt that the current bill was not good enough, and that Scandinavian organization was founded by the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, who has become famous for panning climate change.

Irregardless, from all indications, global warming has become almost believable... yet not compelling enough for decision-makers to take any truly preventative steps. Most would say that the problem is the ole USA, with China and India comfortable in being excluded from the Kyoto Protocol, for why should they be concerned when we--the largest carbon dioxide polluter--do not wish to be cooperative?

Clearly, President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney are a prime reason why our nation is so recalcitrant, although industry barons generally also feel that coal, our dominant energy resource, surely can't be as bad as the liberal environmentalists make it out to be. I don't think that the need to maximize profits is a major reason why corporate boards are generally lukewarm on global warming and opposed to something like the carbon tax. The primary reason is that this group, while some do show concern, likes to think that there is no cause for alarm at this time.

Charles Krauthammer, an avowed agnostic on the Greenhouse Effect, is typical of this currently ruling group. His National Review Online article of May 30, 2008 paints the problem as a liberal conspiracy. He could well be right, but maybe this is not being orchestrated, for I am part of this kind of group, and I don't recall being in a meeting when we planned for this, leaving me with the opinion that something must be done now or it could become too late.

I've tried in sundry ways. I participated in forty years of sustainable energy and environmental R&D, and remain quasi-active in an effort on biological hydrogen production. But I needed to try other mechanisms, so last year I applied the "Einstein writing to FDR to build the atomic bomb" model by enlisting a few media colleagues in an attempt to get President Bush to take this problem more seriously, and, hopefully, surprise the world by taking a leadership role in the then upcoming G8 summit scheduled for Germany by proposing a post-Kyoto strategy for climate change. First, we couldn't find an Einstein, so we thought a message from top corporate officials would suffice. Well, we started with General Motors and got nowhere. What could you expect from a company that has a global vice president like Bob Lutz on staff? He has been quoted to say that climate warming is a crock of sh*t, or something similar. Scratch this strategy.

Well, pure logic was not working, so I tried something even more offbeat--FEAR! I wrote a book entitled SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth, with Chapter 5 on The Venus Syndrome. What are some strategies?

What about sea level increase as a scare tactic? If all the ice melts, the oceans will rise by about 250 feet. Wow, that should strike terror into decision-makers. Yeah, but this could take milennia to actually happen. Yes, it could be up to a meter by the end of this century, but that's an extreme high, and the more probable tenth of an inch every few years can safely be ignored. We will feel sorry for those poor souls living on threatened atolls, but will not get too excited about something so infinitesimal at our coastline. Anyway, our authorities will more probably build walls around coastal cities rather than cut out fossil fuels, something known as the Iron Lung Syndrome... which is to treat the symptom, but avoid the root of the problem.

Ah, but it turns out that there is another greenhouse gas, methane, that shows promise for becoming the doomsday gas. Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon and is most of natural gas. Cows burp and flatulate this gas, while biomass generally also produce some in the decay process.

We have all been schooled to plant trees. When you plant trees, what happens? They eventually die, and, yes, the carbon dioxide is returned into the atmosphere, but, worse, the decomposition process also produces some methane. There was even a recent German study that seemed to hint that growing trees produced more methane than we thought, so the greening of lands might well actually hurt our environment. Stay tuned!

So what's the big deal? Well, one molecule of methane is from 20 to 60 times worse than one molecule of carbon dioxide in causing global warming. This miniscule amount of methane in our atmosphere already has half the potency of carbon dioxide in warming our globe.

Let's take the case of our planetary neighbor. Venus is mostly carbon dioxide at a surface temperature of almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Could you imagine a scenario where sufficient methane contaminates our atmosphere to really cause trouble? Methane tends to oxidize into carbon dioxide over time. Ergo... the potential for an atmosphere and surface temperature on Earth like Venus.

We tend to ignore the ocean in our scientific analyses. Did you know that there is more combined mass in the bacteria, viruses and archaea in the ocean than in all the larger life forms (fish, trees, you) in the ocean and on land? You probably never even ever heard of archaea. The scary thing is that marine microorganisms at the surface expire, drop to the bottom of the ocean, and in an absence of oxygen, are converted into methane and other compounds, which, because of the pressure and temperature at depth, generally become trapped in ice as marine methane hydrates. It is said that there might be twice the energy in this methane at the seabed than all the known coal, oil and natural gas. Let me repeat: TWICE AS MUCH ENERGY IN METHANE IN METASTABLE EQUILIBRIUM AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN THAN ALL THE KNOWN COAL, OIL AND NATURAL GAS DEPOSITS, WHICH ARE RATHER SAFELY RESTING DEEP UNDERGROUND.

Over our geologic history, every few tens of million years, our planet naturally heats up. This is accompanied by heightened carbon dioxide and methane levels, or more probably, these gases caused the temperature rise...just like today. Some scientists have speculated that the primary cause might well have been a rather sudden release of marine methane hydrates into the atmosphere.

Tomorrow, I provide some background about the Greenhouse Effect, leading to THE VENUS SYNDROME, finally providing a tale from the future on what might happen to Planet Earth if methane goes haywire, now being converted into a novel with that title.
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Well, just when Fay finally begins to dissipate over the South, here comes Tropical Storm Gustav, which just popped up south of Cuba, has winds already at 60 MPH, and seems destined to take the very same path as Fay. The only consoling virtue is that Gustav appears to be a bit disorganized, and could weaken. But don't necessarily count on it. The stock market and oil brokers are certainly not writing Gustav off.
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In the Pacific, Tropical Storm Julio passed through the Baja Peninsula, is in the Gulf of California, and should become a remnant in a couple days.
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In case you were wondering what happened to Typhoon Nuri, it slammed into Hong Kong on August 22 , but only as a tropical storm at 47 MPH. The city was back to normal by the weekend.
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Oil slightly rose to $115/barrel today, on the mild concern that Gustav could end up in the Gulf of Mexico. As expected, the DJI sunk 242 to 11, 386.
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