Energy

The Weekly Carboholic

lunar eclipseAccording to an article in New Scientist, scientists from the University of Colorado – Boulder have calculated that a) there isn’t much volcanic dust in the Earth’s atmosphere and b) that may be contributing to global heating.

Generally speaking, volcanoes emit lots of stuff, including carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and lots and lots of ash. However, it’s been shown scientifically that the dominant climate factor in nearly all volcanic eruptions is the sulfur dioxide, a gas that combined with water vapor in the atmosphere to create sulfuric acid droplets. Those droplets are very reflective, and when combined with high-altitude ash and dust, they create very white clouds that cool the Earth down far more than any carbon dioxide emissions would heat it up. This effect was seen most recently with the Pinatubo eruption in 1991. But Robert Keen of CU-Boulder thinks that, since there haven’t been any major eruptions since 1991, the lack of volcanic dust in the atmosphere might be contributing to global heating. However, Susan Solomon of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado believes that the IPCC’s computer models correct for the difference in haze, and that there has been more haze in the air over the last 60 years – when there was a lot more heating instead of cooling as expected from haze – than in the 20 years prior to that.

Ultimately the data will determine who’s right and who’s calculations or models need to be updated.

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High oil prices don’t automatically mean a reduction in carbon emissions. As the Weekly Carboholic pointed out on February 20, high oil prices are actually leading to an increase in emissions from Canadian tar sands operations and U.S. Midwest refineries. Now there’s new information that supports the idea that high oil prices are actually increasing carbon emissions instead of decreasing them. Part of the reason is shifts to source of oil like tar sands. But another reason is that nations are transitioning away from expensive oil to cheap, but super-ultra-mega-dirty, coal.

Coal can be converted via chemical processes to oil. Nazi Germany is perhaps the most well-known example of coal liquefaction, as Germany has large coal reserves and was cut off from oil during World War II. These same techniques for coal conversion are used today around the world, but they have a huge cost. Not only do you have to mine the coal in the first place, coal liquefaction releases a LOT more carbon dioxide in the refining of a gallon of gasoline than the equivalent process of refining petroleum. And until carbon dioxide is assessed as a pollutant and either taxed or capped, the true cost of coal conversion will be borne by the atmosphere instead of by the energy users themselves.

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According to Time Magazine, increasing food prices due to the direct and indirect effects of global heating are already causing food riots around the world. Prices of staples (wheat, rice, corn, barley, potatoes, etc.) have increased 75% since 2005, and the increasing food prices are forcing aid organizations to slash the amount of food they can purchase and deliver – they simply aren’t capable of buying enough food at the current prices. And so riots over food prices and availability have occurred in Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mauritania, and India.

According to the article, food prices are being upward driven by the cost of oil, freak weather leading to poor crop yields around the world, and supply problems driven largely by U.S. corn ethanol subsidies, the last two of which may be impacted by global heating. After all, if the climatologists are right, then global heating will lead to harsher weather all around – colder cold snaps, hotter heat waves, more flooding and more drought – and crummy weather is bad for most farmers and most crops. And the U.S.’ misguided ethanol subsidies are a direct result of Congress (and the politically powerful state of Iowa) trying to improve energy security and reduce carbon emissions at the same time. All together it appears we’re already starting to see some of the effects of global heating predicted by both the Pentagon and the CNA Corporation in studies on the national security effects of global heating.

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In other global heating-driven conflict news, Canada’s National Post reports that Former U.S. Coast Guard Lt.-Cmdr. Scott Borgerson has claimed that the U.S. has to take the lead in addressing resource claims in the Arctic lest the region become a flashpoint for resource wars. Given that several of the nations around the Arctic are nuclear armed, conflicts over prospective natural resources under the rapidly retreating Arctic icecap could be bad.

According to the Post’s article, Canada is bulking up its northerly surveillance and military capabilities in order to enforce sovereignty claims over the Northwest Passage, something that the U.S. doesn’t presently accept. And Russia has already claimed a significant portion of the Arctic Ocean under existing international laws regarding territorial waters, although their claims remain to be scientifically verified.

Geologists know that there is oil under the northern reaches of the North American continental shelf – off-shore oil pads and rigs north of Alaska are proof of that. But geologists also suspect that there is a lot more oil in the deeper reaches of the Arctic Ocean as well. Given the potential for conflict over oil resources in the Middle East and both Central and South America, and given the intentions of autocratic regimes like Russia and Venezuela to use their energy resources to manipulate other nations into doing their bidding, the sooner the resource and sovereignty issues of the Arctic are resolved, the better.

7 replies »

  1. You know, Brian, I just hope I live to see the day when some of the news about our environment and our handling of carbon, etc. is kinda sorta positive. Of course there are small good things happening – I look forward to something big….

  2. I’ve found that I tend to report the innumerable little things here in the Carboholic because solving the global heating problem will require the combined actions of lots of little things. When big things happen, I generally try to give them their own post.

    Alas, there’s been a lot more little things recently than big things.

  3. Brian,

    One can expect food prices to get a lot higher from the present levels. The world grain supplies are really low…..another crop failure could spell disaster. Minneapolis wheat traded at $22.62/bu last week. Three years ago, the same wheat traded at $5/bu. Add the high cost of transport, and there’s going to be a 1970’s style pinch at the supermarket.

    Jeff

  4. By the way, the total power generation disaster in South Africa is leading to an astonishing demand for coal. Coal is cheap (relatively) and coal power stations are fast to build (relatively). With power demand in India, Africa and Asia rising fast expect a lot more coal plants.

  5. Regarding the amount of volcanic ash floating around, you should probably look at the global dimming phenomenon. Here’s a very good video I caught on PBS that talks about how scientists realized that about 4% less sun is getting to the Earth’s surface than normal and how this masks the severity of global heating.
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-2058273530743771382

    I also found a fascinating series of articles about the history of environmental management including how England tried to ban coal back in 1306 because of smog.
    http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com/offbeat-news/environmentalism-in-1880/888

  6. Oh, don’t worry about the food issue, Monsanto is here to save the day with their GMO’s that show rapidly declining yields year over year. And they’re just a few years away from sowing up the vast majority of the world’s food supply in their corporate patent offices.

    But if you think things look grim now, just wait until the Terminator gene breaks loose into the wild plant population like the Bt gene has done. Monsanto’s brilliant, genetic method of protecting their patents may well bring plant evolution to a grinding halt.

    Of course, some of the world’s food supply problems could have been alleviated if we had developed the third wold by teaching them first how to feed themselves. Instead we gave them industrial, export agriculture. Ethiopia could be feeding itself right now, but instead, its most fertile land is used to grow cut flowers for Europe; that money can then be used to buy food from other people…brilliant, fucking brilliant.

    Outside of the cereal grains, a family of four can pretty well feed itself off of the average, 1/4 acre suburban lot. Edible landscaping and intensive kitchen gardening are ideas that used to be common; they need to be brought out of the dust-bin of history. Every trip you don’t have to make to the grocery store not only reduces your bills, but it also reduces pressure on the food supply and has the tangential effect of lowering commodity agriculture prices. And your kitchen garden/edible landscape can withstand drought and rising fuel prices far better than agri-business farms can. Drip irrigation and mulching over 10,000 acres just isn’t feasible.

    Or we can go on depleting falling aquifers in the SW to grow produce that gets shipped 1,300 miles to an energy sinkhole of a grocery store that we have to drive to and from in our energy hogging SUV…in between watering, fertilizing, fungiciding, and pesticiding our vast expanses of sexless, deathless lawns. Granted, the biweekly mowing schedule does give us plenty of time to grumble about the rising cost of food.

    /end rant

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