Eaarth—Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by @BillMcKibben—A New World (3)

This is the third and last post in a series on the first chapter called A New World of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth.

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” James Joyce’s Ulysses

6. The curveball—positive feedback loops

One of the complications with the chain of causation that was shown in the second post on this chapter is that some of the effects of climate change, as seen in the first post on this chapter, are unleashing processes that accelerate the processes behind climate change and make it worse. The book gives three examples which illustrate this process of acceleration:

Figure 1. Melting sea ice

This feedback loop occurs when the increasing global temperature of the atmosphere causes the Arctic icecap to melt. Right now, the icecap reflects the sunlight back, but with the icecap gone, the ocean beneath the icecap will absorb rather than reflect light and increase the temperature of the ocean. This heat will transfer from the water to the atmosphere and feed back into the cycle of increasing global temperatures.

Figure 2. Permafrost becomes perma-gone

This feedback loop occurs when the permafrost or tundra, in areas near the Arctic Circle like Siberia, starts to melt and release the methane trapped within. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, and releasing this feeds ever-higher concentrations of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, intensifying the cycle.

Figure 3. Forest fires

The structure of this loop is similar to the last one, but it is forests that are storing greenhouse gases in the form of CO2. However, higher temperatures and increased severity of thunderstorms mean that forest fires are more common. The forest fires release CO2 into the air, but they also destroy the trees that absorb CO2 from the air in the first place.

The real end result that I am concerned with is the destruction of the ocean food chain. We all have become increasingly aware of the collapse of certain fish stocks in the ocean, but at the very bottom of the food chain are phytoplankton.

(WARNING: Spoiler alert!) The whole premise for the movie Soylent Green made in the year 1973 was that in the year 2022, environmental catastrophes would continue in magnitude until the phytoplankton start to die off, and the government in increasing desperation moves to the one food resource that is in abundance: people, due to increasing overpopulation. They are manufactured postmortem into Soylent Green which is sold as a new and revolutionary foodstuff. Charlton Heston plays a New York detective who uncovers a plot to prevent this secret from being known to the public.

I irreverently thought of this movie recently when I found myself mistakenly in the pet food aisle of our local supermarket and saw on display a box of “People Crackers” that were geared towards dogs as a response to the “Animal Crackers” which human beings love to consume.

The quote I began this post with comes from James Joyce’s Ulysses, but rather than history being a nightmare from which one should try to awake, the dystopic future represented by Soylent Green is the nightmare from which we should try to awake. However, awakening has its costs and these are addressed in the last section of the chapter.

7. The price of action and the price of inaction

The cost of mitigating the risks of climate change comes down to the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There are several ways to do this:

a) reducing consumption through conservation measures,

b) increasing storage of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere (a process called carbon sequestration), or

c) switching to energy sources that do not create as much greenhouse gases.

Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases by government regulation does represent a cost to corporations, especially those in the industries that extract, refine and produce petroleum products, with indirect effects on the economy as a whole. This is a legitimate question to be raised, but it must be balanced by the effects on the economy as a whole of inaction or insufficient action.

To illustrate the difficulties of just one of the strategies, let’s say the third one, one must use the concept of EROI, or Energy Return on Investment. How much energy does it take to produce a certain amount of energy? EROI measures this by taking the usable energy acquired and dividing by the energy expended to acquire it.

For example, in an oil well, you must drill the well and then extract the oil. But with shale oil, you have to break the shale apart in a process called fracking, and then extract the oil. This fracking process itself costs energy, so the EROI is only 5.2:1 as opposed to a 20:1 ratio for a simple oil well.

The above chart is taken from Murphy, D.J.; Hall, C.A.S. (2010). “Year in review EROI or energy return on (energy) invested”. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1185: 102–118.doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05282.x.

If you take a look at the above chart, anything to the left of the 20:1 ratio, the standard for fossil fuels that are easily extracted, is LESS ENERGY EFFICIENT. You can see that wind power is on par with oil, but solar panels have an EROI of somewhere between 2.5 and 4.3:1, and are thus much less energy efficient at this stage. Therefore the economics of energy extraction as expressed by this graph show that solar power cannot replace fossil fuels. However, if solar panels become slightly more energy efficient, they would be more efficient than extracting fossil fuels from tar sands.

Bill McKibben feels that the global economic crisis that started in November 2008 has distracted the world’s governments from the global environmental crisis that is in actuality of much greater potential impact. This topic opens up the next chapter of Eaarth called “High Tide”.

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