Sunday, September 15, 2019

Climate Change: When we collectively don't know what we are doing, we should fear for our future!

In 2014 in TreeHugger (which claims to be "the leading media outlet dedicated to driving sustainability mainstream") an article appeared with a bragging headline The UK has more offshore wind power than all other countries... combined. The article began: "I don't think the UK gets enough credit for its pioneering work in offshore wind power."

On Friday BBC News reported:

    Sulphur hexafluoride, or SF6, is widely used in the electrical industry to prevent short circuits and accidents.
    But leaks of the little-known gas in the UK and the rest of the EU in 2017 were the equivalent of putting an extra 1.3 million cars on the road.
    Levels are rising as an unintended consequence of the green energy boom.
    Cheap and non-flammable,
SF6 is a colourless, odourless, synthetic gas. It makes a hugely effective insulating material for medium and high-voltage electrical installations.
    However, the significant downside to using the gas is that it has the highest global warming potential of any known substance. It is 23,500 times more warming than carbon dioxide (CO2).
    It also persists in the atmosphere for a long time, warming the Earth for at least 1,000 years.
    So why are we using more of this powerful warming gas?
    The way we make electricity around the world is changing rapidly.
    This has resulted in many more connections to the electricity grid, and a rise in the number of electrical switches and circuit breakers that are needed to prevent serious accidents.
    "As renewable projects are getting bigger and bigger, we have had to use it within wind turbines specifically," said Costa Pirgousis, an engineer with Scottish Power Renewables.... 


In other words, the alternative energy sources that we pride ourselves on using might be worse for the Earth's future than the coal-fired power plants we shut down. The SF6 problem should be a critical lesson on the "successful failure" of society in addressing Climate Change. Wikipedia tells us: "More than 10,000 tons of SF6 are produced per year...."

When should we have learned about SF6? We can be certain that in 2007 a publication by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chapter 2 Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing Section 2.10 Global Warming Potentials and Other Metrics for Comparing Different Emissions (on page 210) begins: "Multi-component abatement strategies to limit anthropogenic climate change need a framework and numerical values for the trade-off between emissions of different forcing agents." That Section offers Table 2.14 excerpted below...

...which begins by listing chemicals in the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer (a protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer). The list gives the global warming potential of those substances and many, many more including SF6,with Carbon Dioxide serving as the baseline for comparison.

Again, that was in a 2007 publication. In 2009 Nature reported the news US environment agency declares greenhouse gases a threat: Decision paves the way for climate regulation by the Obama administration. In 2010 we read California Limits SF6, World's Most Potent Greenhouse Gas. In 2013 The New York Times told us that Department of Energy’s Crusade Against Leaks of a Potent Greenhouse Gas Yields Results. Regarding Europe, in 2012 we may have read NGO coalition demands ban on super greenhouse gas.

Wow! In theory science would tell us we should be proud of our efforts to limit SF6. But, in fact, the environmental community screwed up.

Let's ignore everything that was discovered prior to 1970. We know that in the late 1970's a Congressman from Tennessee, Al Gore, started hearings on the subject of global warming. In 1993 the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres published a study Atmospheric sulfur hexafluoride: Sources, sinks and greenhouse warming which told folks:

    Model calculations using estimated reaction rates of sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) with OH and O(1D) indicate that the atmospheric lifetime due to these processes may be very long (25,000 years). An upper limit for the UV cross section would suggest a photolysis lifetime much longer than 1000 years. The possibility of other removal mechanisms are discussed. The estimated lifetimes are consistent with other estimated values based on recent laboratory measurements. There appears to be no known natural source of SF6. An estimate of the current production rate of SF6 is about 5 kt/yr.

So in 1993 we were told "an estimate of the current production rate of SF6 is about 5 kt/yr." Uh...but Wikipedia tells us (fully footnoted) that in 2012 the number was 10 kt/yr. All indications are there has been a significant production growth since then, partly if not mostly because of the green energy shift.

The fact is collectively we folks living in the "first-world" countries who are responsible for Climate Change have attempted to embrace solutions through technology changes. But we don't know what we're doing. Based on history, when given 100 years Western Civilization figures out new complex things pretty well. The problem is we have less than a decade to avoid major climate impacts.

That is why this writer embraced the much maligned piece in The New Yorker by Jonathan Franzen What if We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped? Franzen's pessimism has been attacked by the environmental community such as How to live with the climate crisis without becoming a nihilist in the LA Times written by climate scientist Peter Kalmus.

Kamus writes:

    Faced with this reality, it may be tempting to say, “We’re doomed,” as Jonathan Franzen recently suggested. ...No matter how bad it gets, we must keep doing everything we can to keep it from getting worse. ...Today, despite all the grim climate news, I actually feel more optimistic than ever. People are waking up! Maybe there’s a bit of panic, but that’s a sensible response and a good place to start. I’m hopeful we’ll see broad climate mobilization and systems transformation at a pace and scale I wouldn’t have dared dream of even a year ago. Together, we’re on our way to becoming those billion climate activists.

But Kamus misrepresents Franzen who wrote:

    If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

In Kamus' world you erect thousands of wind turbines full of SF6 which, as they age, will leak more and more of a substance that is 23,500 times more damaging than CO2 and which won't break down for at least a millennium. Then you can be shocked and frustrated.

In Franzen's world you know we don't know what we're doing when we attempt to alter entire industries  to limit Climate Change. But you'll support continuing to make efforts based on current information within the limits of our economy, culture, and knowledge.

At the same time, you are putting more effort into planning on adaptation as Franzen explained: "There may come a time, sooner than any of us likes to think, when the systems of industrial agriculture and global trade break down and homeless people outnumber people with homes. At that point, traditional local farming and strong communities will no longer just be liberal buzzwords. Kindness to neighbors and respect for the land—nurturing healthy soil, wisely managing water, caring for pollinators—will be essential in a crisis and in whatever society survives it. A project like the Homeless Garden offers me the hope that the future, while undoubtedly worse than the present, might also, in some ways, be better. Most of all, though, it gives me hope for today."

It is those people planning for "whatever society survives" and teaching their kids the same may be the only hope.

About Climate Change, including the SF6 BBC story, the news has been...depressing? Consider this list from Harper's Magazine: "New studies confirmed that the current warming period is without precedent in the past two thousand years. Permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is thawing seventy years ahead of schedule, nitrous-oxide emissions from Arctic permafrost are twelve times higher than expected, and it was feared that existing models may underestimate underwater glacial melt by two orders of magnitude. Wildfires ravaged the Arctic, a meltwater lake appeared at the North Pole, and a European heat wave caused the loss of 12.5 billion tons of Greenlandic ice in a single day, as well as record- high temperatures for several countries, including Britain, where the warming climate has enabled the arrival of the black bee fly (Anthrax anthrax), the Jersey tiger moth (Euplagia quadripunctaria), and the purple heron (Ardea purpurea). Only 38 percent of remaining tropical forests have a sufficiently wide latitudinal range to allow animals to move to cooler regions as the earth warms. A U.S.–Russian team found that even a mild warming scenario will increase the habitable area of Siberia several times over. The “early warming” period, from 1915 to 1945, was caused by external factors and not, as previously thought, by natural changes in ocean temperatures. Climate change was expected to make staple crops less nutritious and to lower the global availability of protein by a fifth, and may alter the mating calls of male weakfish. The Great Atlantic Sargassum Belt is now a recurring feature of the ocean."

The chart above from the BBC asks "Why should we worry about SF6?" Actually, it is futile to worry about any one factor in the inevitable. Let's stop pretending we know what we are doing, do what we can, and plan for our kids to adapt.

The 21st Century Climate Change Black Death is happening now.
                                                                                                          If you're new to this blog here's the link to the listing of the 30+ previous posts in the Blog regarding Climate Change and the Environment.

This post is a part of a series:  climate change black death surrounds us 

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