Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 314 | Septiembre 2007


Latin America

Red Alert for Climate Change And a Possible Way Out

Like all other animals, human beings need energy to live. After finding it so abundantly and easily in the form of coal and oil, we’ve recklessly headed down that road nearly to the point of no return. Is there still time to avoid the collapse of our civilization? Only if we concentrate on reducing the population and use non-contaminating energy sources, argues this physicist.

Antonio Ruiz de Elvira

Nobody on the planet any longer questions that climate change is real. It is a direct consequence of the culture currently dominating 100% of the Earth’s population and of the development effort being made by different peoples to change their lives and—also in line with the reigning culture—access a reckless lifestyle based on wild, uncontrolled energy consumption.

Our planet’s history includes
about 20 climate changes

This planet has undergone many climate changes during its history—around 20 in the last 1.2 million years, during the changes between glacial and interglacial epochs in this geological stage. However, these and other climatic changes—with the exception of those caused by the impact of meteorites—have taken place slowly, over periods of around 4,000 years.

While the current change is comparable to the previous ones in magnitude, it is occurring within a 200-year period. The reason for this exaggerated velocity is that we are accelerating the rhythm of the Earth’s normal energy change from, say, 100 watts to at least 1,000 watts per square meter by burning the carbon it took nature millions of years to form.

We are all seeing and feeling the reality of climate change each and every day. Photos of our grandparents show them wrapped in layer upon layer of wool. In the twenties, our mountains were covered in ice, trees lost their leaves at the beginning of October and the old British saying warned us to “ne’er cast a clout till May is out.”

Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen navigated the Arctic in 1893 in a boat anchored in ice, swept by that ice’s currents from Siberia to Greenland. Although he got off midway to try to reach the North Pole, his companions reached Greenland in a journey that lasted two years, during which time they never saw a drop of free water on the way. It is now possible to sail to the North Pole in ice-free water during summer. Spain no longer has any glaciers and the little ice that remains in the Pyrenees is disappearing with every passing year. Alaska’s glaciers retreated by several kilometers last century. Do we need any more proof?

What happens to the earth’s
temperature if we quadruple the CO2?

The carbon dioxide concentration is currently 370 parts per million (ppm), having never previously risen above 280 in the last 1.2 million years. The CO2 in the atmosphere keeps the earth’s temperature at about 15°C, with the average ranging between 12°C and 25°C according to variations in the CO2 concentration and the geographical arrangement of the continents. CO2 acts like a woolen blanket, keeping the heat emitted by the Earth between the surface and the stratosphere for a certain time, thus increasing the temperature of the planet’s atmosphere. What happens if we sleep under a woolen blanket one summer’s night? And if we put another one on top? We’d end up boiling hot, wouldn’t we?

No direct theory can give us an exact answer to the question of how much the temperature will rise if we double or quadruple the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. It’s an enormously complex process. The only way to get an indication of the possible temperature rises is to establish different emission scenarios, which implies distributing the emissions of CO2 and all other gases in time and space. These emission scenarios are then combined with mathematical models for radiation and its absorption; the general circulation of the atmospheric and ocean currents; the interaction between these two fluids; and their interaction with the polar ice caps, the biosphere—which changes the soil’s reflectivity—and certain other processes.

Such scenarios and mathematical models offer us a range of predictions of possible sudden temperature rises affecting the planet’s surface, along with their geographical and temporal distribution. For an annual 1% increase in CO2 concentrations until it reaches 550 ppm, the models predict a 30% increase in the planet’s average global temperature (AGT), with a 1% margin of variation. And for an annual 2% increase in CO2 concentrations up to a level of 1,120 ppm, the models predict a 6% rise in the AGT, with the same margin of variation.

The human population exploded
around 12,000 years ago

The last natural warming of the glacial-interglacial cycle began some 17,000 years ago, probably when the sea level reached its lowest point and the methane deposits of the continental talus were exposed to the air. This warming and the consequent increase in CO2 lasted about 5,000 years until the climatic optimum was reached about 12,000 years ago. When the polar and mountain ice caps melted the sea level rose by about 120 meters. It has been documented that the Red Sea was separated from the Mediterranean during the glacial epochs, but as its level rose the sea passed through the Bosporus in an immense cataract that was very probably the phenomenon described in the Biblical legend of the great flood.

At the same time the thawing of the mountains of Iran and Turkey produced an avalanche of fertile mud down towards Mesopotamia, while the thawing of the Himalayas produced the same effect in the Indo and Ganges basins in India and the Yellow and Blue rivers in China. An abundance of water, high temperatures and fertile mud combined with the imaginative capacity of the new species, our human species, which had appeared on the Earth some 30,000 years earlier, to generate the enormous development of an incipient agriculture at the beginning of the deglaciation.

The systematic capture of solar energy through photosynthesis led to an explosion in the human population, a phenomenon previously unknown for animals the size of humans. The rise in the population continued until it reached the maximum level possible using this type of energy: some 600 million individuals until the Americas were also cultivated, when the photosynthesis-based population reached its natural maximum of around 800 million.

Two different rhythms
that must be adjusted

The reason for considering that the human population reached its natural maximum is easy to understand and relevant to our thesis. The planet’s cultivatable surface plus the energy available through photosynthesis isn’t great enough to support any more human beings, and the life of those that do exist is limited to survival. There are currently 7 billion of us and we’re heading toward 10 billion. The reason for this explosion is the enormous injection of energy into our crops. The planet had stored this energy that has led us to heaven on Earth for millions of years in the form of coal and oil, but it was obtained at the price of an accelerated CO2 emission, with the amount of this gas increasing exponentially in the atmosphere since 1850.

The reason is obvious: implementing a system that supplies energy to all human beings based on the energy captured some 300 million years ago by photosynthesis then stored in the subsoil as coal and petroleum is a totally inefficient process. By extracting these two vectors—we use the word “vectors” to refer to substances that store potential energy that is later turned into kinetic or work energy—at a rhythm much greater than its original accumulation and burning them to obtain kinetic energy, human beings are releasing an additional amount of CO2 into the atmosphere that the Earth’s system cannot absorb at the same rate.

In fact, the amount of CO2 is currently increasing by some 6 gigatons (billion tons) a year—the equivalent of about 1.6 ppm—in a still-accelerating process. The basic mechanism for absorbing CO2 is its capture by the ocean through the waves’ action, which is much slower than the rate of human emissions.

Resolving this problem requires considering various scenarios or hypotheses. The first, which is being discussed in all the world’s decision-making centers, is to try to stop the concentration of CO2 levels from passing the 550ppm mark. For this to happen, CO2 emissions must first drastically drop so that they amount to no more than 2 gigatons per year by 2040 and then continue to be reduced throughout the 22nd century. Exceeding the 550 ppm mark would probably have disastrous consequences as the climatic system’s positive feedback schemes would block any reversal of the temperature rise.

The planet’s warming will lead to
the collapse of our civilization

How important is the temperature rise in terms of our current civilization’s socioeconomic scheme? Although little is said about it, or it is ignored in the socioeconomic treaties, the current situation is based on an essentially unstable equilibrium of the social agents. The system is based on confidence in future development.

One example from Spain is enough to illustrate this. The total indebtedness of Spanish families is currently equal to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). In other words, the Spanish economy is based on the idea that the GDP will have an annual surplus (generation over debt) of 0.05 over roughly the next 20 years in order to pay off the debt over that same period. If for any reason that were not to happen, the families would find it impossible to pay. The financing scheme is based on the expectation that the future will produce more than the past, rather than a system in which capital is accumulated then ploughed into production.

But with no added energy, Spain—like 90% of the planet’s population—can only produce photosynthetic products. The rest of the production and services results from the constant injection of energy from oil and coal deposits. This energy currently cannot be converted directly into food, whose production requires fertile soil and water.

One immediate consequence of the planet’s warming is the displacement of the precipitation zones, along with a substantial change in species that can be cultivated in accord with the winter/summer temperature ranges. The current warming would eliminate rain from Spain, which would lead to the collapse of our civilization.

Like the Mayan civilization’s collapse,
only this time on a global scale

The collapses of civilizations have never been directly caused by the climate, but it is very probable that one cause of the Roman Empire’s final collapse was the reduced harvests in northern Africa, the empire’s main granary. It is well known that one reason the Mayan civilization in the Yucatan collapsed was a very extensive period of drought in that peninsula. For hundreds of years the Mayans extended cultivation to lands that increasingly depended on rain instead of stable irrigation systems, as with the first lands they cultivated. This allowed the population to increase over and above the amount of water that could be supplied by irrigation tanks and canals.

A drought that lasted 70 years meant that while the valleys could still be irrigated, it was impossible to cultivate lands higher up. The inhabitants of those lands migrated down into the valleys and the social conflicts derived from wars and more or less peaceful invasions finished off a scheme that, like all social schemes, is meta-stable. In physics, a meta-stable state is one with a minimum of local energy that is unstable when the system is subjected to perturbations over a certain magnitude.

If we don’t stop the climate change, it will produce disruptions similar to those that affected the Mayan civilization, but this time on a global scale, derived from environmental changes that are too quick for human beings to adapt to. The only possibility is to drastically reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere by eliminating carbon combustion as a source of energy. However, energy is essential for our life and a life of luxury similar to that being lived in today’s Spain requires a supply of energy on the order of 32,500kw/h per person per year.

The sun’s inexhaustible energy

Could we use a form of energy other than carbon fossil fuels? In the latitudinal bands between 500 S and 500 N, around 800 watts of energy fall on each square meter of the planet’s surface during the six central hours of the day. This region has a total surface of about 200 million square kilometers, of which two fifths (80,000 square kilometers) is exposed land.

The current yield of photovoltaic cells is over 10%, but let’s be conservative and call it 10%. This means that we can obtain 80 watts per square meter from this land and 80 million watts, or 80,000 kilowatts per square kilometer. If we assume that the cells work for six hours a day—three before and three after the solar midday—and 365 days a year, that gives us a total of 175 million kilowatts/hour per square kilometer of land. Given that we have a total of 40 million square kilometers, we can obtain 7 quadrillion kilowatts of energy. Using Spain’s current consumption rate, this provides energy for 215 billion people. And given that it’s unreasonable to think in terms of a total planetary population of over 10 billion, we would only need 5% of that energy; in other words, 5% of 40 million square kilometers, which equals 2 million square kilometers or four times the surface area of Spain. And this for a population of 10 billion people living with an annual energy consumption similar to the current consumption rates for Spain. So we have more than enough resources to cover world energy needs without having to burn fossil fuels.

We can and we must change
the development trends

The energy that reaches us from the sun can be captured in many different ways: as photosynthetic energy, thermal energy and its derivative aeolian energy or the electricity produced by photovoltaic cells and converted into hydrogen as a storage vector.
Can we do it? Let’s look at the Spanish case. Spain currently has an installed electrical capacity of around 50 gigawatts (GW). The current cost of one GW of photovoltaic cells is 6 billion euros, or the equivalent of the Spanish government’s highway budget for three years. Earmarking just half of that budget to the cells would give us 1 GW of photovoltaic capacity every six years. Given that such investment levels would considerably lower the manufacturing cost of photovoltaic cells and that their yield is increasing substantially, it is reasonable to assume that a modest investment could provide 10 GW of photovoltaic energy in 20 years. Simultaneously, developments in the other sustainable energies I’ve mentioned increase our conviction that a slight change in the emphasis of industrial development could replace the current generation of electrical energy with a sustainable scheme within 20 years.
Doing so just implies adjusting the directions of development, not changing its sense or nature in any way. And not only that: investing in the development of completely new technologies is equivalent to re-launching the economy in a productive direction, generating quality jobs that can be maintained over time. Can we do this? I’m sure we can, and we must. Although a number of high-tech businesses are developing in today’s Spain, the number is small in business volume terms compared to companies whose most advanced technology is limited to placing one brick on top of another.

The enormous amount of money Spain received from its colonies on the American continent was essentially invested in nonproductive activities such as wars and real estate. So when the mines were played out, the Spanish economy sank into misery, despite the fact that in the midst of that misery the country hung on to those colonies for 200 years. Investing in bricks doesn’t generate the development needed to maintain a country’s economy over time. The ideas about wealth currently floating in the Spanish atmosphere, including both past and present Treasury Departments, aren’t based on intellectual activity, which is the only thing that really produces maintainable wealth, as ideas change with time.

Two cultural memes we must review and reject

Combating climate change is both necessary and immensely useful for launching specific countries and humanity as a whole in the direction of real development. It is our duty and will be our pleasure to do so.
As we’ve seen, climate change is derived from human society’s savage burning of coal and oil. Like all other animals, we humans need energy to live and after finding these two fuels, we have recklessly advanced along that road nearly to the point of no return. Because we had a source of energy we found without effort, we’ve given free rein to population growth and the rapid destruction of the very environment we need to live. After finding that energy, we should have controlled its use, but the dominant culture forced us to exploit it.

What is a culture based on? Richard Dawkins has coined the word “meme” as the social equivalent of the biological gene. The choice of a series of alternatives generates a social line of advancement. During a long stage of human life in which there was no energy other than that derived directly from photosynthesis or indirectly from the metabolism of photosynthetic vegetation, the possibility of extracting useful energy determined the number of animals or people. People acted like work tools or as soldiers for this systematic theft.
In both cases, the population growth was useful and became culturally valuable and a meme developed that, because it was accepted as exogenous to the social system, came to be codified as an obligatory commandment in one of those books that part of the planet’s inhabitants considers sacred: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” The existence of the growing availability of energy means that this cultural meme has generated a totally unnecessary overpopulation.

At the same time another cultural meme has developed in the form of a craving for possession over and above one’s basic needs. Given that guaranteeing individual and family survival made it necessary to have other people available as tools, the possession of that and other equivalent wealth turned into an additional cultural meme.

The availability of energy has also led to the development of an idea of consumption and accelerated pace of life that is totally unnecessary, but is maintained nonetheless and propagates the world’s population. To satisfy these two cultural memes, the simplest and quickest—and also the most contaminating—form of energy is sought out instead of focusing efforts in two opposite directions: reducing the population and using other, non-contaminating energies.

If we want to survive

Human survival today is based on a consideration that is different from the one that was relevant thousands of years ago. More than needing human beings as labor, we need human brains to create ideas. Instead of a wealth derived from an immediate form of energy, we need sophisticated energy in increasingly technological forms. The survival of each and every one of us now depends on the survival of society as a whole, on our capacity to put the brakes on climate change. And this will only be possible by rejecting those two ancient cultural memes.

Antonio Ruiz de Elvira is Professor of Applied Physics at the University of Alcalá in Madrid, Spain. This article first appeared in the spring 2007 edition of the University’s journal Quórum.

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