By Valerie Lapointe, video by Chencheng Zhao
Global warming sounds too cozy, says Seth B. Darling, a scientist at Argonne National Laboratory and a fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Molecular Engineering. He prefers the term “climate disruption” for the kinds of threats to coastlines, weather, food and water that the world faces. His recent talk, sponsored by the Chicago Council on Science and Technology, tackled looked at “Climate Disruption: What We Can Do Now.”
Darling and most other scientists link the cause of climate change to burning fossil fuels such as gasoline. They emit carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas linked to heating up the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide levels have increased 40 percent in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Here are excerpts from Darling’s talk at the Merchandise Mart.
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Why do you prefer the phrase climate disruption rather than global warming or climate change?
“I try not to use this term very often – global warming. When I hear the word warming, I picture something cozy and nice and what we are doing to the planet is not cozy or nice. The term that you hear more often is climate change, and I am not a big fan of this term either, because change is also often thought of as a good thing. And here in the middle of winter we might find ourselves wishing for some climate change. I like the term disruption because it emphasizes the fact that we are taking something that was pretty much stable and we are knocking it all out of whack. We aren’t just changing it – we are disrupting it.
So what effects are we currently seeing from climate disruption?
Glaciers are melting all over the planet, ocean acidification is happening, sea levels are rising. The planet is warming everywhere but it is happening most strongly at the poles. Sea ice is melting at the poles. When you melt sea ice, which is very bright and reflective then the sunlight is no longer hitting the ice. It’s hitting the ocean, which is not very reflective, so that sunlight is no longer being reflected into space, and you get more warming which melts more sea ice –it’s a runaway process. The permafrost that populates a lot of the arctic contains methane, which is a natural gas, and when you thaw it then it comes out and goes into the atmosphere. Methane is also a greenhouse gas. It’s about 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide so the climate warms up more, which melts ice. Oceans absorb more warmth, permafrost melts which releases more methane – another feedback cycle. These are some scary tipping points.
What is ocean acidification and what does it do?
A lot of the excess carbon dioxide being put into the air gets absorbed by the oceans, and when you put carbon dioxide into water you get carbonic acid, so we are actually making making the oceans more acidic. You can measure the pH of the ocean and it has been steadily decreasing over time as this happens. A more acidic ocean has all kinds of negative consequences [such as] coral bleaching. Coral reefs are dying. Corals can’t survive in more acidic water and coral reefs are one of the key bases of the marine food chain on earth. So that’s a scary phenomenon. Creatures that form shells – clams, oysters, lobsters – they cannot form their shells as easily in acidic water. The shells essentially dissolve so populations are shrinking.
How much sea level rise has already occurred?
The oceans have been steadily rising, by about 8 inches so far, because of us and will go much higher going forward. This is a two-fold issue. First you have the land ice that melts and ends up in the ocean, but the oceans are also warming up and when something gets warmer it expands. That is also causing sea level to rise. It’s been 8 inches already. It’s projected to be measured in feet by the next century and, if we don’t make some changes, it’s going to get really scary. If you melted all of the land ice on earth and you put it all in the oceans, ocean levels would be over 200 feet higher than they are today.
What else can we expect in the future?
The future with climate change is already happening. We are having more extreme weather than we have ever had before. There was a drought that just ended in the Middle East that was the worst drought that region had seen in at least 900 years. These kinds of things are going to happen more often – more droughts, stronger hurricanes. If one of these hurricanes hits a large population center, that’s a massive cost for all of us. We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars. And all of these things are bad for agriculture. Food is another big challenge we will have going forward as the population increases and food gets harder to grow. And food costs will rise in part because of this, another of the hidden costs of climate disruption.
What do you mean by the hidden costs of climate disruption?
Most of our energy today comes from fossil fuels. Almost all of it comes from coal, oil and natural gas. Why do we get almost all of our energy from fossil fuels? It’s cheap. When you flip a light switch, you don’t care where that energy came from. You just care how many cents per kilowatt hour you’re paying for it. So you know what you pay for your electricity bill, and what you pay at the gas pump. But you are actually paying a lot more than that, it’s just hidden from you.
So by hidden costs, you also mean unintended consequences?
Yes. One of the main contributing factors that sparked the Arab Spring [uprisings in 2010-2011] was a spike in food prices. So when you have shortages of food production that leads to instability, you have refugees moving across borders. This is a massive security problem, another hidden cost. Health is also tied to climate disruption. Vector born diseases – Zika, West Nile etc. – things that are carried by ticks and mosquitos are popping up in places they never were before because the climate is changing and so that means these diseases can spread further than they could before.
So what can we do?
Mitigation, adaptation and geoengineering. None of these options are great, but this is what we’ve got.
Mitigation. Put less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by getting our energy from somewhere else.
Adaptation is something we are going to have to do no matter what. We are already seeing the changes of climate disruption so we have to prepare and adapt, that involves planning for storm resiliency, maybe moving people from low lying regions to higher ground – cities like Miami, New York City, Tokyo are all low lying. In some cases, you can build sea walls. In some cases, like in Miami, that isn’t an option because it’s built on porous rock. So we are going to have to adapt, but you can’t completely adapt yourself out of climate disruption.
Geoengineering means using the entire Earth as a giant experiment. We’ve already done this by putting all the carbon into the air, but we would try to use the same tactic to try and get it back, basically trying to use science to fix what we have already caused, like spraying aerosols into the air to reflect more sunlight back into space. But I can guarantee that all of the currently proposed geoengineering solutions would have massive negative consequences that could very well be worse than the problem we are trying to fix in the first place.
What about U.S. energy consumption versus energy consumption in the developing world?
We are very selfish here in the United States. We use more energy per capita than anyone else but, now, developing countries like China are becoming larger emitters than us and we are yelling at them, but we don’t stand on very firm ground. We have a great opportunity in the developing world where you have billions and billions of people whose per capita energy consumption is currently low. They’re going to be using more energy, we can’t tell them not to use it, it’s their right to use it just like it’s our right to use it. And a lot of that energy is doing things like saving lives and improving the quality of life, so it’s important that they use that energy. But they don’t have the kind of infrastructure we do with regards to fossil fuels so there is an opportunity here to ensure that they get their energy from renewable resources.
Where else can we get our energy from?
There is enough energy from the sun hitting the surface of the earth in one hour to power the entire planet for a year, which sounds really impressive except, of course, you can’t capture all the energy hitting the earth. So what’s feasible? What can you get? Two percent, let’s say, which is about the current amount of land covered by roads in the U.S. – a lot of land. You can’t convert sunlight to energy with 100 percent efficiency. There are fundamental losses – the best you can do according to the laws of thermodynamics is about 30 percent and you can buy a commercial solar panel for your rooftop today that does it at about 20 percent, so solar panels work really well. They are approaching the limits of what’s even possible. I’m going to be more conservative than that and say 12 percent – then the feasible solar energy supply is two times larger than the total projected global energy demand in the year 2050. In fact, it’s larger than the projected in the year 2100, this is for all intents and purposes an inexhaustible energy supply and it’s not surprising that the solar energy supply is larger than wind or biomass because those are just solar energy going through extra steps. The reason the wind blows is because the sun shines and you get convection [to create wind]. Biomass that’s plants using sunlight, using photosynthesis, making chemical fuels and other things. Extra steps. It’s not going to be as efficient. Solar has to be a huge piece of our power supply going forward, because it’s the only renewable that can give us as much as we need. So, yes, let’s do wind and hydropower and geothermal everywhere you can. But solar has gotta grow like crazy.
How do we get to a world powered by renewables when most energy comes from fossil fuels today?
The cheapest energy source you can have is energy efficiency, and that is using less energy, which is the first thing we should do. We should all have better insulated homes, low flow faucets, drive high MPG cars, use public transit.This doesn’t solve the problem but it gets us a little of the way there. We do it first because that is the cheapest way. We are already paying the hidden costs of energy in a bunch of ways, so one way to help this is by using a carbon tax to put the real price of all this in front of the consumer and let the market take care of it. Take an internal cost and make it visible. Another way to get to that is a cap and trade system [ for carbon emissions] and letting the market take care of it. We have the Paris Accords with all the countries agreeing to put caps on their energy consumption.
So the Paris Accords were a huge step forward?
As exciting as it is that the world finally came together on this issue and agreed to reduce emissions dramatically [last year], more dramatically than ever before, that’s just a sign of optimism, even if all the goals set in Paris are met, and that’s an “IF,” we need to get even further to solve this problem.
So our best bet in terms of renewable energy is solar?
Solar is a way to get away from centralized energy generation and you can spread it out to a more democratized form of energy, where you can make your own energy for your home or your business. This is a positive development from a security standpoint and for the stability of the grid itself. If the power plant goes down, you have tens of thousands of people without power, but if you have individualized generation then you don’t have that problem. Solar and wind however are not completely reliable energy sources, the wind does not blow all the time the sun does not shine all the time and, right now, since it’s a small source of energy for us the variability isn’t a huge deal. But when it becomes a bigger piece of our energy puzzle… that’s when you need another technology – energy storage and batteries.
How can we overcome the politics of this issue?
It’s become a political issue when it’s not a political issue. It’s science. Whether you believe it in or not, it’s happening. No matter your political affiliation, the one thing we can all agree on is that we want our children’s lives to be better than ours and that is a future we are putting at risk by disrupting our climate