A Simple Approach to Climate Change


I was fortunate enough, thanks to Cory Doctorow’s entry on BoingBoing.net (possibly my favorite multi-contributor blog of all time), to catch Cory’s notes on a keynote speechby Dr. Saul Griffith at the O’Reilly ETech Emerging Technology Conference titled “Energy Literacy”, given on March 4, 2008.   In his speech, Dr. Griffith set out some simple steps that need to be done to stabilize the global climate and achieve a sustainable energy infrastructure.

Although this exercise involves some oversimplification, I believe the concept is straight forward and meaningful.  As Dr. Griffith explained, from a global perspective we need to:
1. Recognize that energy use equates to atmospheric carbon.
2. Choose the temperature at which we’d like to stabilize the earth.
3. Figure out how much carbon we can release annually to achieve that temperature.
4. Calculate how much energy use corresponds to that amount of carbon, and pay attention to the proportions of the different energy sources involved.
5. Figure out what energy sources and levels of use are needed to deliver the appropriate amount of atmospheric carbon.  Essentially we must address this as a set of engineering challenges.

At the individual level the steps are even less complicated:
1. Calculate your carbon footprint.
2. Learn what is permissible from a breakdown of global step 5.
3. Design a life with an acceptable carbon footprint and make the required adjustments.

Dr. Griffith made some important points.  First, although humans are using a lot of energy now, there is a great deal more available, including from renewable sources that produce less carbon than sources that predominate today.  Secondly, the oceans are not so acidified that they can’t absorb considerably more atmospheric carbon (though there are unquantified risks involved in the increased acidity).  Thirdly, even with a huge swing to green systems, global temperature is still likely to rise by 2 degrees Centigrade, corresponding to a level of about 450 ppm CO2.

From there he gave a detailed example of how he calculated his own carbon footprint, and what kind of adjustments he would need to make.  Those adjustments included a lot less travel, becoming mostly vegetarian, and buying one tenth as much stuff (but making it last ten times longer). 

Then he described what kind of effort we need to make to stabilize the climate at the point of being 2 degrees C warmer than today.  This he characterized as about the same effort as we have expended in the past 25 years, and requiring the application of huge industrial effort on the scale of siultaneously involving most of the Fords, Intels, and General Electrics of the world.  The way I understand it, we need to mobilize our efforts and resources in a way similar to what was done by the United States in World War II. 

Individually, Dr. Griffith points out we need to do the following things, but that it is possible to reduce our energy use by a factor of 10 by doing so:
1. Eat less and more healthfully
2. Exercise more (bike and foot)
3. Spend more time with family
4. Commute less
5. Do less business travel
6. Buy higher quality products

He also pointed out that, just as food containers have nutritional facts, products need to have consumption facts, and calorie counting should be paralleled by “energy counting”, in joules or kilowatt-hours, for example.

While I agree with what Dr. Griffith said, I also recognize that gaining the political and public policy commitments to doing this pose huge obstacles.  Convincing people, corporations, and governments around the world that this sort of thing needs to be done will be the first great hurdle, especially in a world where many still see science as some kind of religion, and not what it really is: knowledge.  Powerful memes of religion, in particular, will need to change markedly to support the required effort, and not all of them will in any case, putting an increased burden on the rest of us.   I also believe that decreasing population growth rates, and eventually total population, which Dr. Griffith did not mention, must play an important part in achieving sustainability.

It was refreshing, however, to read of someone pulling together and integrating facts so creatively, and using them to paint a challenging, scientific view of the world situation.  We need a great deal more of this sort of thinking, with increased detail, so we can understand both what to expect and what is needed as we work to achieve sustainability.

Please provide your constructive comments.  Thanks – Tim

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One response to “A Simple Approach to Climate Change

  1. Pingback: Sustainability and Product Quality Improvement « Tim Prosser’s Futuring Weblog

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