Wednesday, July 28, 2010

THOUGHTS ON GLOBAL WARMING

12" of rain overflows, then undermines, Lake Delhi dam, draining the 9 mile long recreational lake


We recently had still another record rainfall in Iowa with rather dramatic consequences such as the overflowing and destruction of the dam at Delhi, draining a 9 mile long lake.    I have quipped to many people "what do you expect, it's global warming", and I'm not saying it in jest.  Warmer air holds more moisture, so when it meets the cold air mass it has a lot more water to drop on whoever is below.  I do think there is global warming, but why is it happening, and what do I think that means.  This is an incredibly complex issue, with many interactions, and unintended consequences are not only possible but likely.   Most of us are far from experts in this matter, but the consequences of ignoring it could be catastrophic for for mankind (or not.)

I.  IS IT WARMING?

YES!  At least in the short term.The earth warms, the earth cools, again and again.  Sometimes, the reversals are sudden and dramatic.  We are obviously on a warming trend. The first six months of this year have been the hottest on record, and the past 10 years were the hottest decade on record.  The big question is if this is a natural trend, or if it is due to human action, followed closely by another question, how hot is it going to get?  Is the earth going to get 1, 2, or 10 degrees warmer? (The latter number a true threat to our species)  Or . . . Is this warming averting what would have otherwise been another ice age with its consequences?  I really don't know, and I'm less than sure ANYONE knows.

II.  ARE WE CAUSING THE WARMING?

MAYBE!  There have been unintended consequences to the industrial revolution.  Scientists it seems have extracted pretty good data from ice cores and other bits and pieces of our earth and determined the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere for the past several millennia.  The levels were stable for 2 or 3 hundred thousand years, but recently (in geological terms) there was a rapid and steady rise that coincided with the industrial revolution, and now it is at a level ~40% higher than it was for those many thousands of years, and it is still climbing.

CO2 is the lifeblood of plants, which extract it and produce O2, among a lot of other things, so CO2 is not inherently bad.  One of its properties however is that it is a "greenhouse" gas, and, other things equal, its increase in the atmosphere causes the Earth's temperature to rise.  Methane, another gas that has risen since industrialization produces a similar effect.  The rise in CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gasses is, as far as I am concerned, a fact.  But is this causing global warming?  Again . . .maybe.

Another offshoot of industrialization is wider availability of food and a dramatic growth in people.  People use resources  and indirectly produce more CO2.

What about other factors, like the variability in sunlight reaching the earth?  From What I've read, this alone cannot account for change in temperature.  More about sun energy in a moment though.

There are uncertainties when it comes to the interaction between greenhouse gases and other factors in what is clearly a complicated climate system. It is impossible to be sure exactly how quickly or how much the temperature will rise. This warmer atmosphere, as we know, will melt the glaciers and ice sheets, and  sea levels will rise. This warm air also contains more energy can hold more water, and is likely related to the global occurrences of storms, floods, and other extreme weather events

III.  WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING?

Will we be able to adapt to rising temperatures through technology?  Unlikely.  Even small increases of 1-2 degrees could drastically alter local climates, permanently change weather patterns, and significantly alter food production. . . a politically dangerous situation.  Larger increases of 6-10 degrees would end life as most of us know it.  The risk we are playing with are indescribably high.

Are we certain that industralization and CO2 production is causing global warming and will continue to push the temperature higher and higher?  No, we are far from certain.  However, what is the risk we run by not making a major effort to reduce our CO2 output?  The risks, even if low, are high:  Pascal asks the question: What is the expected value of a very small chance of an infinite loss? And, he answers, “Infinite,” and this is the potential risk . . . starvation, loss of biodiversity, and the end of life as we have come to know it.

So, it seems to me that with such high risk, we should do every thing possible to change our output of CO2:  eliminate coal plants unless we can find some way to extract and permanently remove from the atmosphere CO2 (as well as other pollutants,) most combustion engine cars, and other CO2 producing activities and replace that lost energy production with nuclear energy, supplemented with solar and wind generation.

Nuclear power is spreading in other parts of the world.  There is the potential for new nuclear technology to replace virtually all our fossil fuel plants, and do it safely with very low level waste (http://blipsinthecosmos.blogspot.com/2010/03/ray-of-hope.html). The US Navy has been safely operating small nuclear power plants for many decades, and these are large enough to power individually a small or even medium sized town.  Many "micro-nuclear power plants" are on the drawing boards, and all they need to be successfully installed around the country is a reasonable environmental/regulatory acceptance.

More energy hits the Earth from the Sun in one hour than the whole world uses all year. China is betting big on solar.  It is already the largest solar array producer, and is developing new hi-tech silicon PV chips that make solar competitive with current electric rates.  In Tucson, First Solar is one of the leading edge companies using Cadmium Telluride technology and is closing in on production cost of $1/Watt, the point at which it becomes competitive with coal.  I see a point in the future where all homes are built using roofing shingles that double as PV cells.

Is this the time to be spending huge sums on developing and deploying non-fossil fuels?  I think it's a no-brainer: reducing the chance of global climate disaster, becoming independent of fuel oil and the political instability associated with its production and distribution, cleaning the environment, creating new jobs, etc, etc.

On top of all this is the likelihood that we have reached a tipping point on the price of oil.  Remember $5/gallon gas?  It's coming back in spades because of the simple math of supply and demand.  We have passed the peak of easy oil production by industry estimates, yet the population and development of the less developed world is accelerating rapidly, and the demand for energy with it.  In coming years, we will not have to legislate fuel efficient cars; if it doesn't get 50 mpg or more, few will be able to afford to drive it.  Oil, now at $80/barrel has already hit $147 in the past and could blow way past that in the next year or two, exacerbating the uneven distribution of world wealth and dealing a severe blow to the world economy.  It's not a pretty picture.

So, why are we not doing anything?  The skeptics are many, and they may be right that global warming will not accelerate out of control.  For airing their views they have funding from  the petrochemical and coal industries that is almost infinite.  Also, many players in the arena have no goal other than short-term profits and will do or say anything to keep those profits intact.  People naturally tend to be optimistic, and will follow those with a good news message over the prophets of doom, especially when they are faced with giving up something now that might prevent something in the distant future (though according to some research institutes that future may not be all that far off.) 

This country must budget for and create tax incentives that result in massive investment in the development and deployment of nuclear plants and photovoltaics (and perhaps wind power.)  The cost of converting to non fossil energy with all possible speed up front seems large, but is insignificant when placed against the infinite risk accompanying an atmospheric temperature rise of 6 degrees or more.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

GILEAD and Memories of my Father


I recently read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, a book that quickly  returned me to my own youth growing up as a preacher's kid in a rural community.  Out of laziness and reluctance to plagiarize, I  will first give a couple of quotes from the Wiki article on the book, in the following two paragraphs:


"The book is an account of the memories and legacy of John Ames as he remembers his experiences of his father and grandfather to share with his son. All three men share a vocational lifestyle and profession as Congregationalist ministers in Gilead, Iowa. Ames' father was a Christian pacifist, but his grandfather was a radical abolitionist who carried out guerrilla actions with John Brown before the American Civil War, served as a chaplain with the Union forces in that war, and incited his congregation to join up and serve."

"Although there is action in the story, its mainspring lies in Ames' theological struggles on a whole series of fronts: with his grandfather's engagement in the Civil War, with his own loneliness through much of his life, with his brother's clear and his father's apparent loss of belief, with his father's desertion of the town, with the hardships of people's lives, and above all with his feelings of hostility and jealousy towards Boughton, whom he knows at some level he has to forgive. Ames's struggles are illustrated by numerous quotations from the Bible, from theologians (especially Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion), and from philosophers, especially the athiest philosopher Feuerbach, whom Ames greatly respects."

This is a fairly well read book (#3,441 in Amazon Books), though this surprises me somewhat, since I am not sure I would have appreciated a book with so many religious quotations had I not myself been the son of a minister who was the son of a circuit-riding minister.

Growing up in a parsonage with a liberal, extremely well-read, intelligent, humble, thankful, trusting, minister father who constantly struggled financially, I immediately identified with John Ames in this novel.  Even 50 years ago a minister who simply wanted to work with his congregation to understand the teaching of Jesus and try to live them without judgment of others had stiff competition from those who preached the gospel of social and material rewards in this life and the fundamentalistic rantings of Radio/TV evangelist (John Ames: "You can spend 40 years teaching people to be awake to the fact of mystery and then some fellow with no moe theological sense than a jackrabbit gets himself a radio ministry and all your work is forgotten.")  

 Ames, a pacifist, struggles just a bit with his 7 year old son playing with guns, tanks, and the other symbols of war, much as I am certain (from his comments) that my father did when watching me in the same activities (I was 11 in 1956.)  My father also struggled with the economics of being minister of a relatively poor congregation during the mini-dust bowl days of 1950's West Texas.  In 1956 my father also faced health issues; he had an emergency stomach resection that year in Lubbock for hemorrhaging ulcers.  Blue Cross/Blue Shield refused to pay, citing "pre-existing condition" because he listed ulcers on his application for insurance over 10 years earlier. This emptied the savings account my parents had accumulated over the years (I personally have still not forgiven the Insurance companies for doing this to our family.)

Like John Ames, Rev John Floyd had a flow of books into our home.  My father received books weekly it seemed from the lending library of Brite Divinity school or the main library at TCU; he only had to pay parcel post rates. Looking back he was much better read than I ever will be. These are not men who have accepted a set dogma and preach the same thing Sunday after Sunday, year after year.  They opened themselves to new knowledge, new understandings, and new interpretations of scripture and daily strove to live as "good" men in terms of personal behavior, community example, parent, and spouse.  In the book it is suggested that John Ames' father opened himself to the extent that he sided with John's brother Edward in a more Spinozistic philosophy and moved with Edward to the Gulf Coast, leaving Gilead behind forever.  It seemed to me that there is a lot of symbolism in the decisions by various characters at various points to leave or stay in Gilead; I have my own interpretation and will leave you to arrive at your own.

Finally, an important bit of the book for which I had no correlative experience growing up; Lila.  Lila came into Ames' life by appearing, from place unknown, sitting in his congregation one Sunday.  Eventually Ames, who has been a lonely widower for years, marries Lila.  Her prior life is apparently was hard and tragic, but  Ames never ask her about her earlier life, and in fact does not dwell on it, accepting her for what she is, unconcerned with anything she may have been, leaving the reader curious about Lila, but respectful of Ames.

Beyond straight forward enjoyment of the narrative, reading Gilead raised many memories of my childhood as a preacher's kid, and that is good and satisfying.