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What's With This Green Machine - Part II

This is the 2nd of a series of short articles that will profile the potential impacts of science-based knowledge on our lives and humanity’s future from the quest to deal with climate change and our ultimate need for national energy independence.

Our previous article on this topic promised to explore the science behind what we call the “Green Machine” to better understand the tidal wave of “green” we now inhabit via the media.  So, here we go. 

The latest online Wired Magazine has published 10 “Inconvenient Truths” about what it means to be green with one titled, “Climate Change is Inevitable: Get Used to It” which I especially recommend.  They conclude that the climate is changing and will continue to do so, and we need to adapt to it while working hard to try and minimize it.  It’s an old story on planet Earth, but with a new science and technology insight twist.    

Climate change is a research topic too complex, broad and evolving to deal with here, but the global warming element associated with green house gas effects, is not.  It’s something we really need to understand and be able to discuss with anyone.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration story is that, “many chemical compounds found in the Earth’s atmosphere act as “greenhouse gases”…and allow sunlight to enter the atmosphere freely.”  However, “when sunlight strikes the Earth’s surface, some…is reflected back towards space as infrared radiation (heat).  Greenhouse gases absorb this…and trap the heat in the atmosphere.  Over time, the amount of energy sent from the sun to the Earth’s surface should be about the same as…the energy radiated back into space, leaving the temperature of Earth’s surface roughly constant.”  It’s also important to know that if greenhouse gases actually decreased or disappeared, life on Earth’s surface would experience an extremely uncomfortable average temperature of  –18 deg Centrigrade.    “Many gases exhibit these “greenhouse” properties [and] some occur in nature such as water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, while others are exclusively man-made”.  The last three gases listed above are also produced by human activities and are tending to increase, and there’s the rub. 

So how can we determine to what degree greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide and methane, are just naturally varying or are driven by human activity?   That’s where ice cores come in.  A just-reported study in Nature, was based on recent ice cores drilled in Antarctica at depths that date back 800,000 years or 8 glaciary-interglaciary climate cycles.  Analysis of sealed gas bubbles in the ice samples allows recording of carbon dioxide and methane levels in the atmosphere at that ancient time.  These samples, plus ice cores from more recent times, allow us to understand the correlation between climate change on Earth and the overall carbon cycle (page 2, Fig. 2) consisting of mass carbon movement between the Earth and the atmosphere.   Historically, the direct relationship between the level of these two greenhouse gases and indirect temperature indicators (isotopes of oxygen) from ice cores was confirmed.  Also, reviewing ice core samples extending from the present back 800,000 years we see that the two gas levels have never been as high as today.  These data provide a precious window that helps us see where we’ve been and helps predict where we’re going.  

Representatives including state regulators, business leaders, environmentalists, and labor advocates are meeting in Salt Lake City this week to determine methods for reducing greenhouse gases by capping carbon emissions.  The Western Climate Initiative wants to roll back greenhouse gas emissions 15% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels.  They want to establish a cap-and-trade program for carbon by setting a total emission limit and those entities that exceed their assigned pollution cap could purchase carbon credits from other entities whose emissions are lower than their cap.  This activity is one of the first to actually implement such a program in the U.S. and is a trailblazer.  Determining if entities should pay for carbon emission credits is a major discussion topic. We will keep our eye on this during implementation and hopefully be able to assess its projected effectiveness in slowing global warming.  We look forward to your thoughts, so please join the discussion in the comments.

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