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Introducing a Landmark Paper on the Feasibility of Using Wind, Water and the Sun to Provide All of Our Energy Needs

By Karl Schwartz

(NASA, Satellite image of the retreating arctic icecaps)
Ice is melting faster than new ice is being created, as greenhouse gases

Greenhouse gases come from natural sources, but today the major source is human activities, primarily from electricity generated by burning coal, oil and natural gas. 

These and other emissions are warming the planet and are already altering our way of life. The process is accelerating and could reach a tipping point in our lifetime – prompting conscientious scientists to propose alternative ways to generate power.

Here’s the thing about Carbon Dioxide (CO2) – once it enters the atmosphere it lasts and lasts - 50 to 200 years. Because it has a very long “shelf life” it’s prone to accumulation. Getting the levels back down will take a long, long time – generations, but only if we earthlings can change our ways.

Methane (CH4) is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States from human activities – such as the extraction of natural gas.  The atmospheric shelf life of CH4 is 12 years; notably its greenhouse effect is 21 times higher than CO2 (EPA)

Thus, the paper by Jacobson and colleagues seems the most important scientific proposal of our time.  However, the feasibility of the plan depends on public awareness of the dangers and costs of our continued dependence on fossil fuels – as no elected official will call for sweeping changes to an energy infrastructure without broad public support.

That the warming of our planet is taking place is evident by atmospheric and ocean measurements, satellite imagery, and by the number and intensity of extreme weather events. There is, “…near unanimous scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions generated by human activity will change Earth's climate”  (McMichael et al. 2006).

Still, despite Sandy-like events, obstacles remain to public awareness about the causes and implications.  These include reporting bias by the mainstream media, disinformation campaigns seeking to discredit scientists, the unaccounted for impacts and costs of fossil fuels and prevalent myths about the causes of climate change. 
On Reporting Bias

A recent example of reporting bias was a failure by the mainstream media to adequately report a new milestone for our planet:
The global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the primary driver of recent climate change – has reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history, according to data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.   

Notably, 350 ppm (also not widely reported) has been cited as a likely tipping point for climate change acceleration.  Further, the media did not report on the comments made by NASA scientists on what this means for our way of life (NASA.gov).

On the Hidden Costs of Fossil Fuels

When weighing the merits of a new energy policy it’s important to consider the true costs of doing business as usual – such as what it costs to rebuild our homes or of shielding coastal communities (Bloomberg, seawalls for NYC) from future damage due to extreme storms and rising sea levels. 
As noted, virtually all scientists attribute climate change to human activities. The costs associated with global warming include crop damage from heat waves and droughts, the increasing number, size and intensity of wild fires, flood and wind damage from extreme storms (Sandy, tornadoes, derechos) and the spread of infectious disease as the range of insect vectors increase.

These costs are not added to the price of gas when we fill up our tanks, or deducted from the profits of the fuel industries… but these related events cost the public dearly nonetheless – increasingly. We are, in effect, subsidizing the fossil fuel industry when paying to repair or prevent damage from extreme weather events.

On Who to Trust

The energy industry understands the importance of public perception on what regulations may or may not govern their activities. These prosperous companies can afford to run ads again and again (today even on NPR “public” radio) describing only one side of the story – their side- so that regulations and incentives will favor their business plan and profit objectives. 

In contrast the views of scientists must be tested (not just opinions held), and the prevailing scientific theory or prediction must be consistent with new facts that emerge from different research groups affiliated with recognized scientific institutions. 

Regarding the scientific evidence on climate change, here are a few statements from the peer-reviewed published literature to consider:

The  Arctic sea ice may disappear in 20–30 years unless global warming is abated (e.g., Pappas, 2012). 

Above a certain temperature, a tipping point is expected to occur, accelerating the loss [of the ice] to complete elimination (Winton, 2006).

The Arctic is undergoing striking changes in climate. Regional near-surface air temperatures are rising at two to four times the global average rate (Screen and Simmonds 2010).

The summer of 2010 was the warmest in the previous 600 years in western Russia (P > 0.99) and probably the warmest in western Greenland and the Canadian Arctic as well (P > 0.90). These and other recent extremes greatly exceed those expected from a stationary climate, but can be understood as resulting from constant space-time variability about an increased mean temperature (Tingley, 2013).

Surface temperature reconstructions of the past 1500 years suggest that recent warming is unprecedented in that time (Marcott et al., 2013).

Let’s not take ourselves off the hook.  We earthlings – growing in number and appetites - have a fondness for what’s big, fast and easy.  Arguably, the energy companies are merely supplying what we desire. We need to consider the scale and energy-hungry human activities that take place continuously worldwide:

The human population growth of the last century has been truly phenomenal. It required only 40 years after 1950 for the population to double from 2.5 billion to 5 billion. This doubling time is less than the average human lifetime. The world population passed 6 billion just before the end of the 20th century.  Present estimates are for the population to reach 8-12 billion before the end of the 21st century. (University of Michigan, Lecture)

(NASA, satellite image from space)

There’s an urgent need for scientists to engage the public more, and to be given a voice in the mainstream media to explain the key findings and to address the myths that foster public confusion and government inaction.
Here are some myths about the causes of climate change along with evidence-based responses:

  • Myth: That climate scientists are falsifying the data to win funding – “Climate Gate:” 
On one of two independent reviews of the charges, Sir Muir Russell writes:

“Nothing that you have seen calls into question the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change.   … These disinformation tactics contribute to the public’s increasing confusion regarding the causes of climate change.”
  • Myth:  That our planet is in a natural warming cycle and therefore there is no need to change our energy systems:
On this, ScenceTimes writes: “past climate change actually provides evidence for our climate's sensitivity to CO2.”
  • Myth:  That cold weather and snow events disprove climate change:
On this, ClimateCentral.org writes: “Looking at high and low temperature data from recent decades shows that new record highs occur nearly twice as often as new record lows.”
  • Myth: That the cycle of the sun is causing climate change:
On this, Skeptical Science writes: “An analysis of solar trends concluded that the sun has actually contributed a slight cooling influence in recent decades” (Lockwood 2008).

Finally to the landmark paper, Jacobson and colleagues summarize their analysis nicely:
“This study represents the first effort to develop a plan for an individual state to provide 100% of its all-purpose energy from WWS and to calculate the number of WWS energy devices, land and ocean areas, jobs, and policies needed for such an infrastructure.”

Here experts in their fields have published for peer review an innovative plan to meet the energy needs of an entire state, making use of existing technologies – a plan that will not contribute to global warming or generate harmful air and water pollution. 

It’s an approach that can make New York State a healthier place for the citizens to thrive and work – that can be a model for the world – a model that is urgently needed to help protect and preserve our way of life.  

Some of what you will learn by reading the paper:

  • How many wind turbines are needed off the coast of Long Island to generate 40% of the state’s energy needs
  • How many jobs the conversion will create for residents of the State
  • How energy generated by WWS during low demand can be stored for use when demand is higher
  • Why natural gas extraction is not a suitable bridge fuel
  • How the methane and natural gas footprint of natural gas compares to oil as a transportation fuel 
  • Why shale gas formations have larger methane emissions and therefore a larger greenhouse gas footprint than do conventional sources
  • Why liquid biofuels (e.g., corn for ethanol) are not a good answer
  • Why nuclear power and coal with carbon capture are also excluded 
  • The temporary role of solid biofuel and how to ensure reliability of the electric power grids
  • How when sulfur dioxide emissions from coal are considered, the greater air-pollution health effects of coal become apparent
Peer debate will follow this paper, which will be constructive and science-based.  Will the media follow the competing arguments adequately and present them in a fair way?   

There’s reason to doubt that any such plan could be implemented on a timely basis without improved public education on this very serious matter… the reason for this piece.

Examining the feasibility of converting New York State’s all-purpose energy infrastructure to one using wind, water, and sunlight

Mark Z. Jacobson, Robert W.Howarth, Mark A.Delucchi, Stan R. Scobie, Jannette M.Barth, Michael J. Dvorak, Megan Klevze, Hind Katkhuda, Brian Miranda, Navid A.Chowdhury, Rick Jones a, Larsen Plano, Anthony R. Ingraffea
Stanford.edu: http://stanford.io/1896hjF

References / Acknowledgments

Alana Balogh for her helpful comments and recommendations

EPA Overview of Greenhouse Gases http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html

Univ of Michigan: Population Growth  over Human History http://www.globalchange.umich.edu/globalchange2/current/lectures/human_pop/human_pop.html

Public perception on the warming of our planet by the Brookings institute: http://bit.ly/1duoTYC

NASA scientists react to 400 ppm carbon milestone   http://climate.nasa.gov/400ppmquotes/

Independent Climate Change Emails Review
From cce-review.org on Climate Gate: 

Lenton,  2012, Arctic Climate Tipping Points, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3357822/?report=classic

On global warming – do your own homework because the media is sleeping: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?linkname=pubmed_pubmed&from_uid=23579678


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