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Global Warming: An existential question

  • Having no alternative source of energy to completely satisfy a move away from fossil fuel, humanity is stuck in a dilemma
- GEHENDRA PURUSH DHAKAL

Feb 11, 2018-

The consensus that the global reliance on fossil fuel energy for economic development is causing excessive carbon emissions, specifically carbon dioxide (CO2), is undeniable. The main concern is the impact that CO2 has had, post fossil fuel era, on accelerating the rise in global average temperatures. Differing views on any given topic is inevitable and global warming is no exception. The paradoxical ramifications of either the proponents or the opponents of global warming being proven correct are profound. Thus, it is imperative that every opportunity is seized to engage in meaningful discussions and to develop appropriate contingencies.

 Climatologists can rely on one of two major temperature data sets in determining the average temperature of the planet. The first data set is the satellite readings of the planet’s temperature. The second data set is the compilation of temperatures 

from thousands of tracker stations around the world. The combination of near-surface land, air and sea surface temperatures determines the global average temperature.

Engaging both sides in the debate

According to proponents of global warming, sophisticated computer estimations (based on data sets obtained from tracker stations around the world) show significant rise in global average temperatures. For the opponents, the questions on estimations may be: a) Is the existing spatial distribution of tracker stations sufficient to capture representative temperature data sets from all seven continents? b) Are different data sets from seven continents assigned equal weightage in estimating global average temperature? d) What avenue(s) exist to minimise human and technology contacts for increased validity of data sets compiled? 6) If the recent estimates of computer models show cooler temperatures than recorded in history, then how reliable are its future predictions? Addressing a problem of this magnitude demands exhaustive and meaningful engagement of all stakeholders. 

The proponents are cautioning that unchecked carbon emissions accumulating in the atmosphere is trapping the heat from the sun and preventing its dissipation. Over time, the accumulated heat is warming the planet and its oceans evidenced by the erratic weather patterns, melting polar ice, gradual decline in the Great Barrier Reef, extended periods of droughts, increased frequency of wild fires and rise in sea levels etc., threatening incalculable fatalities on all species. Maintaining the status quo, it is argued, will render the globe a “frying” pan.

 

It is imperative that any approach to safeguard the planet be in solidarity. The immediate action proposed is a gradual reduction of carbon emission levels by shifting from reliance on fossil fuel to renewal energy (i.e. solar and wind). The use of renewable energy will eventually reduce CO2 levels to almost zero. Second, increased investments in R&D to innovate and develop efficient technologies should be actively pursued. Reduction in emission levels will result in minimisation of the carbon footprint, thereby gradually fostering a harmonious balance between the planet and its inhabitants.

 The opponents of global warming argue for ‘increased’ validity of data sets used to calculate global average temperatures. A case in point is the recently reported computer model estimate that was admitted to have a margin of error of 50 percent, (i.e. the planet is warming much slower than estimated.) That this error, it can be argued, could have been 20 percent, 80 percent or any other number further emphasises the need for increased validity of the data sets. Additionally, how do we reconcile these computer model estimates with the fact that global warming has paused since 1997 despite the rapid acceleration in fossil fuel use during the same period?

Historical records do not show any significant deviations from observed patterns and frequency with regards to hurricanes, wild fires, droughts, rising sea levels and melting polar ice. There is, however, evidence of polar ice formation exhibiting a puzzling effect of global warming. This lends some credence to the notion that the rise in the sea levels could be a natural phenomenon. El Niño effect can also account for erratic weather patterns that have important consequences for world weather, for example, increased rainfall, destructive flooding and devastating bush fires. 

An uphill challenge

Regarding energy, the ability of renewable resources in meeting all energy needs is fraught with high degree of uncertainty. A sentiment echoed by Bill Gates when he explained that renewable energy alone will not be able to meet the energy requirements and timely identification/development of alternative methods would be a ‘miracle.’ United States currently sources more than 60 percent of its energy from oil and coal and about 10 percent from wind and solar. Discontinued use of fossil fuel and coal will result in a huge energy deficit. Given this, it is not far-fetched to assume that any prohibition on the use of one source without creating viable alternatives to fill the glaring energy deficit, will lead to catastrophic consequences for a developed and technologically advanced country like the US. The plight of resource strapped underdeveloped countries would be unimaginable. 

That there exists a mutually reinforcing life support system between humans and plants deserves serious reconsideration prior to reducing global carbon footprint. Fifty percent of the oxygen on earth is produced by plants, trees shrubs etc. If the carbon dioxide level is reduced to almost zero, what inferences can be drawn about oxygen production and its content on earth? It is also known that CO2 enriched environment facilitates faster plant growth and provides higher yields, a potential source for skyrocketing agricultural production and addressing world food security concerns. Therefore, rather than almost at zero level, it becomes incumbent upon us to establish an optimum CO2 level in the atmosphere. 

The sense of urgency in reducing the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is palpable. However, our collective wisdom has yet to reach a level where we can begin to understand how “nature” maintains a delicate balance of complex interdependencies among and between all life forms and elements on the planet. Accelerated global warming may be one negative effect of carbon dioxide. What other, yet unknown but possibly more important, interdependencies exist between carbon dioxide and other elements? With so many unknowns, a zero carbon level environment could sterilise earth. Humanity has rarely been faced with such a predicament where a fundamental decisive intervention in the nature’s intricate balancing process can result in global annihilation. 

Finally, in absence of concrete evidence of rapid global warming, anticipating identification of a miraculous alternative energy source, looming significant energy deficits, limited wisdom on mechanism of perpetual balance in nature, and yet unknown “optimum” carbon dioxide level, humanity is rather inadequately equipped to deal with existential contingencies resulting from seizing CO2 from earth. Without resolving all these issues, austerity measures implemented have distinct ingredients to characterise the 21st century as the new Dark Age. As the way things are now, humanity has two choices: 1) Maintain a status quo on fossil fuel usage and take on possible rapid rise in global temperature with our stomachs full or 2) Reduce global carbon dioxide to near zero and survive in an apparently certain dark age with our stomachs empty.

- Purush Dhakal has a doctorate in international business

Published: 11-02-2018 08:36

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