Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hack the Planet - Surviving Global Warming

With every year's scientific measurements and observations, the reality of our planet's slowly-rising temperature becomes more undeniable: glaciers are melting, the polar ice is melting, ocean temperatures and levels are rising, atmospheric water-vapor is rising, and the average "coldest" temperature - especially in cold parts of Earth - is rising. So far, the "mean" (average) rise for the whole planet is only about 1.5° F, but the average coldest temperature in some places is up by 5 - 10° F. The science behind climate change is pretty solid, but it's boring, and way beyond the scope of a blog entry (at least, one by me!).

By now, pretty much everybody knows what the "doomsday" scenario is - if you ever sat through Kevin Costner's "Waterworld", then you know the Hollywood version. In real life, the ocean might, at worst, rise by something like a half-meter to a meter (roughly 20" to 3 feet) by 2100. Which is 90 years away. So, it's worth doing something about now - like moving from dumping hundreds of billions of tons of CO2 into the air - but we're not all going to be growing gills and living on boats, either.

So the likely "worst case" scenario is going to involve a long, boring (to most people) shift away from burning coal and oil for power - which is a waste of good oil in any case - to energy sources for buildings, cars and industry that doesn't dump as much exhaust into the air (and prop up Middle-East autocracies, for that matter). Sure, a lot of the world's poor will be adversely affected - since a lot of them live in coastal areas that already flood a lot (read: Bangladesh, India, parts of Africa), but if you're reading my blog, well, that's more of a moral issue than it is something that's going to ruin your life, personally. Not that I don't care, or you shouldn't, but if the sea does rise 20" over 90 years, I have no doubt that the world's middle class isn't going to suffer horribly.

That brings us to the outlier scenarios - the ones that are really unlikely to actually happen, but which make for a lot more interesting thinking! Sort of like the "zombie apocalpse" - sure, I know it's not really gonna happen, but I love every variation on that theme, from "28 Days Later" to "I Am Legend". So - what are these outlier scenarios? I thought you'd never ask ;-)

One of the things that makes climate change so hard to predict, is that the environment has so many variables, and lots of them interact. And sort of like a snowflake (or any other fractal), the closer you look, the more variables there are. On top of that, sometimes two or more different variables affect each other in what's called a "positive feedback loop", so that as variable A increases, it increases variable B. And as variable B increases, it pushes A up even more - until you get some crazy runaway affect that goes unchecked until some other fact - call it variable C - intervenes. Then the whole system - in this case our climate - settles into a new stable pattern... maybe unlivable for us, but still, stable. Look at Venus (depicted above/right) - you could melt lead on the surface, but it's stable. The whole shebang is called a non-linear system, since a small change in A (like, 5%) might lead to a much larger change in B, and in A itself, much much higher than 5%. In a linear system, on the other hand, if A increases by a certain amount, B increases by some other amount - and if you increase A again, B increases by the same amount again. So non-linear means "harder to predict" for our purposes.

Okay - so there are some different feedback loops we know about. One of them is the melting of polar ice and glaciers. Ice is really shiny and white - so it reflects a lot of sun back into space. But when ice melts due to rising temperatures, the darker ocean (or land) that's left behind soaks up more sunlight than the ice did - which raises the temperate a little bit more. Which melts more ice, and so on. Another feedback loop is frozen tundra, aka "permafrost"; it turns out that there are literally billions of tons of CO2 gas and methane (which is even better at trapping heat). Permafrost gets its name because (duh), it's usually frozen. But in the past decade, some of the permafrost in Siberia, and Canada, Alaska, etc., has started to permanently thaw - see photo - which releases all that frozen gas. And the newly-liberated gas goes straight into the atmosphere, which raises the temperate a little bit more. You can see where that's heading.

The upshot of all this is that, while scientists are pretty confident it'll take centuries for it to really jack up the temperature, they're not 100% sure. So it's just barely possible that some tipping might might be reached in 10 years, or 20 years, or maybe even it already happened. Let's say it's happening right now - and that a combination of thawing permafrost and a melting antarctic polar cap starts increasing our world's temperature at a rate of about 1° F every other year, or ten degrees over the next 20 years. That would be a catastrophe, as crops failed, coasts flooded, and mass migrations of people started heading towards the poles (and most of the world's rich people live in the very spots that everybody else is going to be heading for). Do I panic yet? Not really...

Rich countries (including soon-to-be rich countries, like China) don't have any interest in seeing a global catastrophe like this, and - this is the key part - they have lots of money. Look at how much the U.S. alone spends on its military every year (about $700 billion). Granted, that's like 40% of the world's total "defense" (cough) spending, but either way, the planet could - in a pinch - cough up a half-trillion USD a year for a decade if we really needed to. And in our hypothetical runaway-warming scenario, we'd really need to.

Past mega-projects that were done in a hurry - things like the "Manahatten Project", or the Apollo program to put men on the moon in 10 years, would pale in comparison to the effort that would go into a last-ditch "save the world" project. And there are things that we could do to cool the planet down quickly - they're what scientists call "geo-engineering". For a long time, climate scientists didn't even want to talk about geo-engineering, since they were afraid that would make people, and governments, lazy about changing their coal & oil habit by making it seem like there was some technological "fix" down the road. Where the scientists were wrong, of course, was in thinking that humans wouldn't be lazy about changing anyway. This is where "hacking the planet" literally would happen. We might:
  • Paint a huge area of uninhabited land with reflective white or silver paint, to do what the glaciers and polar caps were doing before (reflect sunlight)

  • Intentionally dump tons of sulfur compounds into the air, continuously, to help block the sun's rays from reaching ground (where they would warm it up).

  • Build thousands (or tens of thousands) giant CO2-scrubbers that would operate night and day, pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, and then compressing it into a liquid, and storing it - someplace. Maybe pumping it down into the empty oil-wells that started a lot of the mess in the first place

  • Genetically engineer some super-algae or super-plant that grows ultra-fast, and so uses lots of CO2. Plants suck CO2 out of the air (during photosynthesis) in order to get the carbon, which makes up most of the plant. So, imagine some super-kelp or algae that we'd grow in an area of ocean the size of the Mediteranean sea, busy sucking CO2 out of the air. Even better if the plant is engineered to sink to the sea-floor when it does, taking the carbon with it.

  • Build thousands of "cloud generators" that take water-vapor, and shoot it high enough into the air that clouds would form. This would help, because clouds are white - and reflect sunlight. On the downside, there would be a lot fewer nice "picnic" days...

  • Deploy a set of enormous, orbiting reflective mylar sheets. These would have to be either very huge, or very numerous, in order to reflect enough sunlight away to have any effect. Depending on where in orbit we put them, we'd have a whole new set of shadows drifting across the sky, but on the plus side, they wouldn't involve us mucking about with the make-up of the air or the sea. Downside is never a perfectly sunny day again, until we fix the long-term problem and can take them down.
The problem with all these is that they're stop-gaps. That is, these all treat the symptom, but not the underlying problem - which is that humans like to burn stuff, and we burn a LOT of it. And no matter how far-out some of these sound, if push comes to shove, we'd probably end up using a combination of them to keep the Earth's temperature in check, while we finish our transition from burning stuff for energy to some other source. Whether the other source is solar, or fission, or fusion, or magic pixi dust doesn't really matter, as long as it's cheaper and less risky than the geo-engineering projects.

The only real scenario I can see where we're all gonna die (except me, of course!), is if our civilization falls while in the middle of viscious warming circle, where the Earth ends up like Venus (and the surviving humans would be underground in Antartica with nuclear-powered air-conditioning). And that would mean some all-out global war that destroys our ability to do a mega-project (like, an all-out nuclear war, or a bio-war that kills off enough people, etc), or else some other unlikely catastrophe, like a killer asteroid or solar flare - in which case, our goose is pretty cooked anyway. And the odds of us having two planet-threatening disasters at the same time, one of which prevents us from handling the other one, seem pretty low. I'm not losing any sleep.

If things do start getting toasty, though, definitely look into property in Canada, anywhere near the Rocky Mountains, or the Urals, or Finland, anywhere that's cold and not right on the beach, really. New Zealand might be good - the last thing you want is a horde of fleeing refugees from central America or South Asia over-running your "global warming last stand", and New Zealand has high mountains, is cold, and far, far from anywhere else.

Okay, so, none of that is very likely to happen. Yes, the planet is warming, and yes, we (as a species) need to change our energy sources, but it's looking like we've got decades to get the transition done before "we're all gonna die!", so it'll probably be boring, and most of us will be dead of old age before it's done. But you just never know....