June 26, 2013 – Vol.18 No.15
THE CLIMATE ACTION PLAN AND THE TEMPERATURE PLATEAU.
by Bruce Mulliken, Green Energy News.
A delicate balancing act in the atmosphere: A planet being keep cool by air pollution vs a warming planet from greenhouse gases.
At least he doesn't need the approval of Congress. Nor does he have to battle through another election. President Obama has laid out his Climate Action Plan. It's not a planet saver in itself, but it's a significant step in the right direction and the best he can do under the nasty political circumstances.
Major points in the plan include allowing more renewable energy to be built on taxpayer-owned, Federal properties including military bases and federally-subsidized housing; developing fuel efficiency standards for heavy duty trucks (light-duty vehicles are already under new regulations to meet almost 55 mpg by 2025; developing new standards to double energy efficiencies in homes, businesses and industry; launch initiatives to reduce greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide; and the centerpiece of the plan: regulate carbon pollution from power plants. (This effectively means you, coal.)
Environmental groups, trade associations, politicians and others (including Walmart for its build-out of renewable energies) rallied behind the President and his plan.
Global warming skeptics, as expected, said why bother? The planet is no longer warming despite the steady rise in carbon dioxide. So, whatever warming in the past has taken place, it can't be us. (More on this below.) And besides, targeting coal would be damaging to the economy, they say.
(Nothing is simple with energy. The coal issue, as always, adds many complications to cutting carbon emissions. The U.S has abundant coal resources, so it's hard to ignore. Coal burning has already been cut back with cheap and cleaner burning domestic natural gas from fracking, which of course has issues of its own. Now there's also the new business coal has found: exports. So, even if (to the extreme) coal was banned in the U.S. altogether, U.S. mined coal would just end up in Germany or Japan or wherever. Whether it's burned here or burned there, it still adds to global carbon dioxide emissions. Hard to get rid of, coal is.)
Back to the climate skeptics. They are correct in saying the planet hasn't warmed in the last 15 years or so. And the President is also correct in saying the 12 of the warmest years on record were in the same15 year period. What gives? Well, we're on a kind of temperature plateau at the moment. This isn't the first plateau either. Look at the century and a half temperature graph to see there's been many plateaus along the way. Temperature hasn't increased along the steady hockey stick curve of carbon dioxide. But why?
Let's go back those 15 years ago when I had the pleasure to meet and chat with Dr. James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in NYC and leading climate scientist. He was speaking at a global warming seminar held in a U.S. Senate office building in Washington.
The topic of his presentation that day was about pollutants, like sulfates from vehicles and power plants. He felt that these pollutants, in creating a layer of smog or haze, could have a cooling effect on the planet by reflecting sunlight into space, changing the Earth's albedo as it's known. That made sense to me. After all ordinary clouds reflect sunlight, why wouldn't manmade haze? (It's cooler on cloudy days if you hadn't noticed.)
Hansen even chuckled at my morbid quip. I said,"If that's the case, why don't we remove all the pollution control equipment from cars and power plants? We'd save the planet, but the pollution would kill us."
The current temperature plateau just happens to coincide with the dramatic industrial growth in not just China but all of Asia. This is going on at the same a time when heavy US industry has continued its decline and while both the US and Europe have put strong controls on industrial and vehicular air pollution. In other words, the older industrial economies, like ourselves, have cleaned up their act while the new economies have yet to do so.
A new study from the UK Met Office reinforces Hansen's 15 year old position. They think that clouds over the Atlantic, created with particles of air pollutants may have cooled off the ocean enough, during the period following World War II, to suppress hurricanes. Now that the air is cleaner with pollution controls and less dirty industry, the ocean is warmer and the hurricanes are back.
So, there may be delicate balance in the atmosphere. Air pollution, as well as clouds created from it, will reflect sunlight and keep us cool. But then, carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases act as insulators to trap heat from the Sun that reaches the surface. Which force wins out, which is the stronger, the cooling cloud cover or the warming gases, needs to be studied.
Eventually, for reasons of human health, Asia will have to do something about its air pollution and manmade cloud cover. Until then Asia's pollution may keep planetary average temperatures on a plateau.
(But fixating only on the global average temperature might be a mistake anyway since it's local, or regional, long term temperature changes that create the problems that we have to cope with and pay for now.)
And what happens if they clean up air pollution without cutting greenhouse gas emissions? Global temperatures soar. But if they clean up air pollution by shifting to zero and low carbon emission energy? The air gets cleaner, greenhouse gas emissions stay in check and possibly drop and we begin to cool off. So the Climate Action Plan is the correct one: Cut carbon emissions. The world has to do this. All of us.
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