What the Science Says
Here is the multi $trillion question: "How do we proceed so that the data so far collected can help us to mitigate the effects of climate change?" The answer is both very simple and extremely complicated.
At the science level, the data show us that greenhouse gases and associated feedback mechanisms are now responsible for reversing what would be a natural cooling trend and adding a heating component that is raising the temperature of the atmosphere, land, and ocean. These same data indicate clearly that continuing this trend has the potential to create very damaging impacts on civil society and human health and well-being, as well as damaging the economic infrastructure if left unattended. We also know that there are points along the trend that create an inevitable level of impact that cannot be turned around for a very long period time. These include sea level rise sufficient to destroy large segments of the coastal infrastructure; loss of freshwater supplies due to inundation of freshwater aquifers and melting mountain ice caps; disease vector insects and pest insects will increase their invasion across previous cold temperature barriers to dispersion, and much more. Once these events have occurred they cannot easily be reversed, nor is it easy to adapt to them.
Science can also predict what the consequences of climate change related decisions will be. In fact, we know that in the recent geological past (125,000-115,000 years ago) temperatures about the same as today's or a little warmer caused 6-9m sea level rises. The next closest analogue of today's CO2 levels had temperatures on the order of 3-40C higher than we are experiencing now, implying that with enough time for the feedbacks to mature, we would also experience that much warming and sea level rises of up to 20m or more. The science also tells us that the time frame for recovery, once we reach given sea level increases, is on the order of millennia - assuming we reduce the greenhouse gases to pre-industrial levels.
At the engineering level, the mechanisms to reverse this global warming are also at hand. The data show us that the main sources of the greenhouse gases that are initiating the warming are the use of fossil fuels, inappropriate agricultural practices, deforestation, energy inefficiency, and carbon emitting industrial processes such as smelting and concrete manufacturing. We have the mechanisms to make the transition to carbon-free sources of energy including nuclear, wind, water, solar and newish technologies such as fuel cells on a commercial scale, and battery storage improvements. Engineering techniques can be combined with agricultural practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save money. No till planting, for example, saves time and money as well as being helpful for reducing greenhouse gases. Wasteful deforestation practices as well as substitution of other products for wood construction and burning is also well within known engineering competence. Energy saving and efficiency practices are also known and can be implemented using known practices. Concrete can be produced without using coke and can also be used as a repository for captured CO2. Smelting processes can be done with electrical power, which, if from a carbon-free source, eliminates almost all the CO2 release. The combination of these things will eliminate excess greenhouse gas emissions. I must comment that removal of CO2 from the atmosphere is one area of engineering and technology where our capacity is currently not up to the task, so we need more research and development in carbon removal from the atmosphere.
We know enough to be able to define both the nature of the problem, the underlying causes, the potential danger, and with a little more research and development in CO2 capture from the atmosphere, we know how to fix it.
Now what? The scope of the problem is global, so the solutions must be global as well. Is there an official role for science and technology beyond this stage? We, the scientists and engineers, understand what needs to be done. But are we in a position to undertake the task of "doing it?" No organization has been officially tasked with solving global warming. The United Nations established The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) whose "main aim is the stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interferences with the climate system." The framework sets no binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries and contains no enforcement mechanisms. As such it is currently a failure, we are already beyond the threshold of safe greenhouse gas levels. The IPCC is in an advisory role. The Paris Agreement is voluntary. Everything else is fundamentally voluntary and self-imposed at levels ranging from regional and national to personal. It may well be that a voluntary global initiative will take hold sufficiently to solve the problem, but that is not obvious yet. There are now literally dozens of sources for information on what to do, suggestions for programs to undertake, methods of adapting to impacts, and even geo-engineering solutions that could form a temporary stop-gap for correcting delays in implementation that are too prolonged.
As a general question to those who feel a solution to global warming and its attendant climate change impacts is needed, what further roles should we as scientists and engineers take in implementing the solutions? How would we undertake them?
Science Myths vs Truths
This compilation of myths and truths is from the Skeptical Science website. They add the following acknowledgement as well: "Many thanks to Dr. Jan Dash, Director of the UU-UNO's Climate Portal for writing many of the one line responses in 'What the Science Says', with some edits by John Cook."
The article compiles nearly 200 climate change/global warming myths.
- "Climate's changed before"
- "It's the sun"
- "It's not bad"
- "There is no consensus"
- "It's cooling"
- "Models are unreliable"
Nuclear Power Plant Myths
This article was published in the Argonne National Laboratory Feature News section and was reproduced with permission from the American Nuclear Society.
Myth # 1:
Americans get most of their yearly radiation dose from nuclear power plants.
We are surrounded by naturally occurring radiation. Only 0.005% of the average American's yearly radiation dose comes from nuclear power; 100 times less than we get from coal, 200 times less than a cross-country flight, and about the same as eating 1 banana per year.
Myth # 2:
A nuclear reactor can explode like a nuclear bomb.
It is impossible for a reactor to explode like a nuclear weapon; these weapons contain very special materials in very particular configurations, neither of which are present in a nuclear reactor.
Nuclear energy is bad for the environment.
Nuclear reactors emit no greenhouse gasses during operation. Over their full lifetimes, they result in comparable emissions to renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar. Nuclear energy requires less land use than most other forms of energy.
Myth # 4:
Nuclear energy is not safe.
Nuclear energy is as safe or safer than any other form of energy available. No member of the public has ever been injured or killed in the entire 50-year history of commercial nuclear power in the U.S. In fact, recent studies have shown that it is safer to work in a nuclear power plant than an office .
Myth # 5:
There is no solution for huge amounts of nuclear waste being generated.
All of the used nuclear fuel generated in every nuclear plant in the past 50 years would fill a football field to a depth of less than 10 yards, and 96 % of this "waste" can be recycled. Used fuel is currently being safely stored. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the equivalent scientific advisory panels in every major country support geological disposal of such wastes as the preferred safe method for their ultimate disposal.
Myth # 6:
Most Americans don't support nuclear power.
In a survey conducted in September 2013, it was found that 82% of Americans feel nuclear energy will play an important role in meeting the country’s future electricity needs, and half believe this importance will increase with time. In addition, 84% of respondents favor renewing operating licenses for nuclear power plants that continue to meet federal safety standards, and 77% believe that nuclear power plants operating in the United States are safe and secure, a four percentage point increase from last February.
Myth # 7:
An American "Chernobyl" would kill thousands of people.
A Chernobyl-type accident could not have happened outside of the Soviet Union because this type of reactor was never built or operated here. The known fatalities during the Chernobyl accident were mostly emergency first responders. Of the people known to have received a high radiation dose, the increase in cancer incidence is too small to measure due to other causes of cancer such as air pollution and tobacco use.
Myth # 8:
Nuclear waste cannot be safely transported.
Used fuel is being safely shipped by truck, rail, and cargo ship today. To date, thousands of shipments have been transported with no leaks or cracks of the specially-designed casks.
Myth # 9:
Used nuclear fuel is deadly for 10,000 years.
Used nuclear fuel can be recycled to make new fuel and byproducts. Most of the waste from this process will require a storage time of less than 300 years. Finally, less than 1% is radioactive for 10,000 years. This portion is not much more radioactive than some things found in nature, and can be easily shielded to protect humans and wildlife.
Myth # 10:
Nuclear energy can't reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
Nuclear-generated electricity powers electric trains and subway cars as well as autos today. It has also been used in propelling ships for more than 50 years. That use can be increased since it has been restricted by unofficial policy to military vessels and ice breakers. In the near-term, nuclear power can provide electricity for expanded mass-transit and plug-in hybrid cars. Small modular reactors can provide power to islands like Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Nantucket and Guam that currently run their electrical grids on imported oil. In the longer-term, nuclear power can directly reduce our dependence on foreign oil by producing hydrogen for use in fuel cells and synthetic liquid fuels.
- National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements No. 92 and 95
- CDR Handbook on Radiation Measurement and Protection
- P.J. Meier, "Life-Cycle Assessment of Electricity Generation Systems and Applications for Climate Change Policy Analysis," 2002
- Nuclear Energy Institute
- K.S. Krane, Introductory Nuclear Physics, John Wiley and Sons, 1988
- Progress Towards Geologic Disposal of Radioactive Waste: Where do We Stand?, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD report, 1999
- Nuclear Energy Institute survey, 2013
- Chernobyl Forum reports 20-year findings, offers recommendations, Nuclear News, Oct-05
- United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission
- K.S. Krane, Introductory Nuclear Physics, John Wiley and Sons, 1988