Copenhagen Reminds Us That Global Warming is Inescapable


I picked up a copy of Scientific American
to read on my flight to Copenhagen, intrigued by the cover teases for a
“Portrait of a Black Hole” and “World Changing Ideas.” Settling into
the packed flight from Dulles, which also carried John Holdren , the president’s science advisor, and Jane Lubchenco, the director of NOAA, I opened up the magazine to find a feature article on “Methane: A Menace Surfaces.”
More than 20 years ago I addressed positive feedback loops between
climate change and the global carbon cycle in my dissertation and a
couple of subsequent scientific papers, so I couldn’t help but wonder
how this important, but previously arcane, topic would be handled in a
magazine aimed at a general audience.

The last time I had addressed this issue I relied on theoretical
calculations to estimate the increase in emissions of heat-trapping
gases from the Arctic tundra that could be spurred by future melting of
the permafrost, prompting concern about positive feedback loops that
would amplify the warming. Scientific American has pictures of the process actually occurring.

Calculations are still necessary to extrapolate from the observed
increases in methane emissions to the extra global warming that this
process could produce. Katey Walter Anthony,
the author of the Scientific American article estimates this at 0.3
degrees Celsius. That may not sound like a lot, but the problem with
positive feedback loops is that they amplify each other in a non-linear
way. So this amount of extra warming from just this one process could
spell catastrophe when combined with other positive feedback loops that
are also already beginning to occur, such as increased carbon dioxide
emissions from warmer soils and reduced carbon dioxide uptake by warmer

Fortunately, the article on “World Changing Ideas
actually contained a number of ideas that could prevent the world from
changing so much by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide.
Interestingly, the idea at the top of that list is not a new gee wiz
technology, but a way of financing purchases of available solar energy
systems to spur their widespread deployment.

Of course, spurring widespread deployment of clean energy
technologies is what the Copenhagen conference is all about. I haven’t
yet made it to the official conference center (registration was closed
on Sunday), but strolling around Copenhagen trying to reset my
biological clock I once again could not escape the reason I’m here.
While Copenhagen in December was chilly enough, I got a warm feeling
from the fact that the issue of global warming is ubiquitous throughout
the city, rather than just at the official conference venue. From huge
displays in public squares to the conversation my cab driver started
(when my legs gave out) about the mass protest that occurred here on
Saturday, its obvious that concern about global warming is no longer
confined to a few scientists making theoretical calculations about
feedback loops.


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