I like to devote this piece to a very important issue of our time – and perhaps it will continue to be so in the future. We all know it – there is hardly a single day passes that does not have some sort of news on the warming climate of our planet Earth – and all the consequences associated with it. Not to speak of colossal amount of scientific literature – sponsored by different international and national organizations, universities and research institutes, private entities, etc. One can literally get drowned by them – with very little clues on how to make sense – of the many details they present in totality. It is not only the literature, but also the complex nature of the issue – many interactive systems and processes are embroiled in it. Unless one has made himself or herself a profession of climate scientist – it is very unlikely that one can ever be able to spend time or effort – to be fully cognitive of many details. Yet the conclusions they present are corroborative and compelling founded on consensus. This piece is only an attempt to throw a little ray of light on the issue – but I will try to capture some of its essential elements – including examining them through a different angle.
Writing this piece relied on: Several WMO and UNEP researches under the umbrella of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change): 2019 – The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate; 2013 – IPCC 5th Assessment Report (AR5) of different Working Groups; Government of Canada: 2019 – Canada’s Changing Climate Report (CCCR); Harvard Business School: 2018 – Climate Change in 2018: Implications for Business; US Global Change Research Program (USGRP): 2017 – Climate Science Special Report; National Academies Press: 2013 – A Review of the Draft 2013 National Climate Assessment; US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP): 2008 – Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate; R Bradley 2015 – Paleoclimatology: Reconstructing Climates of the Quaternary, Elsevier; and a WIDECANVAS piece posted earlier: 2019 – Entropy and Everything Else.
The importance of this issue deserves it to be looked into – from longterm sustainability perspectives. Therefore, it only makes sense that this piece must start by describing our deep understanding of the climate first – including the paleoclimate, because to understand the present – one needs to know how the climate of the Earth was in the very distant past. Next, laying down the synoptic facts of contemporaneous climate science observations, I will briefly outline the future projections and uncertainties. This will be followed by energy balance and Entropy associated with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. One outcome of the warming climate is the rising of sea level – the science and the consequences of it were discussed earlier in: Sea Level Rise – the Science, and Sea Level Rise – the Consequences and Adaptation. I will prevent myself from citing numbers – because they are rather fluid – constantly changing as new observations continue to pour in – or as prediction models and routines are getting more robust and sophisticated. Unlike many of our colleagues in the broad environmental science category, I will mainly focus on the physics of climate dynamics and warming.
Our solar system as a member of the Milky Way galaxy system is subject to the effects of causes that happen beyond its boundary – like the Asteriod impacts that rattled the Earth in the past. Such episodes, especially the catastrophic impacts – by their very nature impose new conditions on the existing processes that take many years to adjust or balance out. Additionally, Earth's dynamic position in the solar system - the changes in its axial tilt and orbital trajectory - affect energy gain and climate. The climate system – comprising of 5 interactive subsystems evolves in a balancing process. The subsystems can be grouped into three: the Fluid System of atmosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere; and the Solid System of lithosphere; these two systems sustain the Life System – plants and animals known as the biosphere. The cryosphere, comprising of the frozen water lies at the boundary between the solid and fluid systems with glacial and interglacial periods that occurred all along the history of the Earth. Most of the information about these three systems is common knowledge now – but for the sake of completeness, let us have a brief look into the characteristics and the delicate dynamic balance of these interactive systems. The balance is delicate, because the thresholds are often very narrow – when it comes down to sustenance and survival of the entities using them.
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The Fluid System
The Solid System
The Life System
Let us attempt to understand some key important paleoclimatic characteristics briefly.
The Climate of the Present Time
Let us attempt to see this aspect of climate change very briefly – because news media, climate science research and other outlets are full of stories nearly everyday.
The Climate of the Future
This is the most difficult and somewhat intriguing aspect of climate science. A high confidence in projecting the present to the future is not something easy to achieve. Let us attempt to see why so – by delving briefly into different aspects of this part of climate science.
The Sun-Earth System – Entropy and Energy Balance
An application of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics would indicate that the Entropy of the Earth has been increasing since the birth of our solar system, and will continue to increase in time. This subtle but inevitable Natural process is destined to warm up the Earth and cause it to become unlivable at a certain time, but perhaps far – far in the distant future. Let us attempt to see how the warming of Earth’s climate is tied to the net gain of Entropy in simple terms – relying primarily on a piece posted earlier, Entropy – and Everything Else.
The third one-way contribution is human made – with the net addition of energy and in changing the composition of the Fluid System - that enhanced the trapping of atmospheric radiation by high concentration of GHG. It is derived from fossil fuel use, that primarily started with the rapid industrialization. While this human innovative use was responsible for our prosperity and civilization – its adverse effects were either ignored or not considered significant, but the damaging consequences started to become clear during about the past ½ century. The adverse consequences are multiple in terms of intensity, frequency and instability – and it seems some of them are already beyond control. When people cry out by witnessing the changes that affect them – one cannot but realize the wisdom – of the necessity for finding ways to limit the human-made one-way contribution – together with suitable adaptation strategies to face the consequences.
Despite these facts, one cannot afford not to notice the paleoclimatic cycles and trends in climate change. Is our present planetary warming has anything to do with the past trends and cycles of the Holocene? If the answer is yes, then it is reasonable to conclude that human-induced causes are an exacerbating factor – not the sole cause. This answer should not deter us to act, however. One important reason is that over thousands of year of evolution – and our way of livelihood, especially during the past few centuries – have made us very vulnerable to the exceedence of the narrow thresholds we got used to.
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As we see suggestions in nearly every discussion, the action should be in terms of positive climate interventions – such as gradually but slowly phasing out massive dependence on fossil fuels, as well as limiting the industrial emissions. These are important concerted necessities, not trade-off choices. Three energy sources in harnessing of the Natural existence - that we know and are already in various phases of implementation all around the world are: (1) the solar power using photovoltaic panels, (2) the wind power, and (3) the hydropower (rivers and streams, tide and waves). They seem to be the only ones that do not add to the net one-way contribution to the Sun-Earth energy balance. They are also the ones - that just extract energy without really consuming any source materials. However attractive they are – the feasibility of such measures must examine local adverse impacts, if any. Deflecting Sun’s radiation away from the Earth – may appear as an interesting research topic – but it hardly qualifies as a practical and full-proof option that can encompass all.
Finally, warming climate as a global problem – simply on the premise that interacting players – the Fluid, Solid and Life Systems do not know or care about the confines defined by the national boundaries and jurisdictions. But as with everything else that humans have eyes on – politics has its hand on twisting and convoluting the challenges of – global responsibilities, consequences and mitigation. Let us attempt to see some scenarios of interests and conflicts through a lighter vein: Melting Arctic Ice - Global warming is such a beautiful gift of Nature! It’s time to sharpen our skill to open the Northern Route, and exploit the treasure trove of minerals in the polar areas. Flooding Coastal lowlands – let’s get away from those filthy overcrowded areas – our mountains and midlands are sparsely populated and are ready for sale. Technology to Deflect the gift of Sun’s energy – The peoples of cold polar and sub-polar Scandinavia, Russia, Canada and northern USA: hold on, we are freezing down here and it’s very depressing; we need more sunshine. The Equatorial peoples: good idea, it’s very hot down here. The peoples of middle countries: hold on, what will happen to our beautiful seasons?
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Let me finish this piece by quoting Einstein (1879 – 1955): the measure of intelligence is the ability to change. Indeed the modern human history is an evolving canvas of change and adaptation – but there is a price to pay when the past changes leading to the adverse consequences are not fully appreciated or ignored. And the cost of the price may be painful, even lethal – more for the vulnerables than others. That does not mean that all should not act collectively. Awareness must lead all changes to sorting out smart choices to cope with the global challenge – at the same time realizing that any mob mentality on such an important popular issue, first of its kind of humans’ own making – has the potential to mislead responses. The reality of interwoven dependence and complementarities of the Fluid, Solid and Life systems – must be the foundation on which longterm sustainable options should be built upon.
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- by Dr. Dilip K. Barua, 15 December 2019