Consistent falsehoods promoted through American media and politicians notwithstanding, the theory of human-caused climate change has attained widespread acceptance throughout the scientific disciplines. While there are a handful of legitimate climatologists who are skeptical about Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), that is, people who have doctorates in atmospheric science or meteorology, they are far outnumbered by proponents of the idea that human activities are causing serious problems for our climate. The most prominent of these skeptical climatologists were identified in an article for Popular Technology in 2010. Each writes or speaks publicly on the topic, and each of them are pretty much constantly caught for their false claims, misleading interpretations, or neglected data, by other researchers in the field. Amusingly, these particular skeptics have a strong tendency towards publishing papers in journals that aren’t necessarily related to climate science (which must make the review process a bit easier on them), and then proclaim to the media that their papers reached conclusions that contradict the prevailing global warming theory, while crossing their fingers in the hopes that no reporter will find out that those papers did no such thing.
For the rest of the climate scientists, it’s obvious that Arrhenius’ original 1896 hypothesis concerning greenhouse gases and their eventual effect on the planet was pretty much on target. Anthropogenic global warming remains a heated topic for skeptics and proponents alike, but the main arena these days is in the mushy, gooey sphere of politics, rather than the hard world of solid fact. And as Republicans have known since the grand old days of Edward Bernays, people vote with the heart, not with the brain. One wonders if Democrats will ever catch on to that… but I digress. Among the greatest of concerns for climate scientists in North America is that their funding is directly related to whichever political party happens to be in control, and, indeed, there have been rumblings that Republicans intend to defund climate research should they attain power again.
Luckily, there are still agencies looking to do something about our current situation, both on this side of the Atlantic and t’other. The Royal Society is releasing an issue of their Philosophical Transactions this September, which is dedicated to exploring some new proposals in dealing with CO2 levels at present and future. The main subject is geoengineering, a concept that people find either laughable or terrifying, and pretty much nothing in between. Ideas range from increasing the albedo (the brightness/whiteness/reflectivity) of clouds, plants or house rooves, to injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce surface temperatures, to my personal favorite, the direct removal of CO2 from the air itself in a process called “air capture”.
The air-liquid contactor system proposed by University of Calgary professor Geoffrey Holmes and Royal Society member David W. Keith, implements known technologies used in cooling towers worldwide in a completely new way. By forcing outdoor airflow to contact spaced sheets of thinly cascading, highly concentrated NaOH(aq) (sodium hydroxide in water), the CO2 in the air is effectively stripped out via the chemical reaction
CO2 + 2Na+(aq) + 2OH–(aq) –> Na2CO3(aq) + H2O
Na2CO3 is sodium carbonate, a commonly used chemical both at home and in industrial application. The paper addresses concerns about the cost of air capture technology, deemed excessive by the American Physical Society in their earlier reports, by stressing that it can in fact be cut by as much as through use of the different materials and design suggestions. At estimations of a mere $60/tonne of CO2 converted, it’s certainly an improvement.
With fossil fuel consumption expected only to rise for the foreseeable future (neglecting, of course, any oil and gas shortages and extinction of same supply), humans are only going to be adding more and more CO2 into the atmosphere. Mitigation techniques like carbon sequestration, and alternative energy supplies like solar panels, will be an important part of dealing with our long-term energy plans. I don’t expect the vast majority of humans to suddenly stop consuming as much energy as they do now, unless they are essentially forced to. By that point, I expect we will have long passed the threshold of what the IPCC considers a safe level of CO2 in the world’s air. Removal of that gas may yet be one of our best chances at stabilizing what is quickly showing itself to be an increasingly wobbly, open loop control problem.