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Research Centre at Royal Roads University
Updated: 8 hours 35 min ago

We should listen to a renowned scientist’s warning on climate change

Fri, 11/24/2023 - 07:58

Thomas Homer-Dixon

The Version of Record of this op-ed was published in the The Globe and Mail.

Human beings have a natural optimism bias. For most of our species’ history, this bias has served us well, helping us persevere in the face of overwhelming odds. But when it comes to the climate crisis, our natural optimism could be our undoing. Our collective response to the crisis has been marked by denial, delay and delusion – denial of the problem’s seriousness, delay in doing anything significant about it and delusion about the efficacy of those things we’ve finally gotten around to doing.

One person who has railed against these tendencies is the renowned climate scientist James Hansen. Throughout his long career, Dr. Hansen has developed a reputation for being consistently ahead of the scientific curve in his assessment of climate change and its implications, most famously in the summer of 1988 when, as director of the NASA Goddard Institute, he brought public attention to global warming in testimony to the United States Senate. Now retired from NASA and based at Columbia University, he’s still vigorously engaged in climate science and policy advocacy.

In recent years, Dr. Hansen has argued that the scientific consensus, as reflected in the voluminous reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), greatly underestimates the rate and magnitude of future warming. Earlier this month, he and 17 colleagues forcefully stated their case in a peer-reviewed paper, Global Warming in the Pipeline, published by a University of Oxford journal. I’d rank it as the most important scientific article I’ve read in the past decade.

If Dr. Hansen and his colleagues are right, the received wisdom of today’s supposedly informed climate cognoscenti – people such as David Wallace-Wells of The New York Times – is substantially wrong. Mr. Wallace-Wells and others tell us, with evident relief, that warming will likely peak somewhere around 2 to 3 C. The rapid decline in the cost of wind and solar power means we won’t burn all the world’s coal to get an an eventual rise in temperature of 4 C or even more. But Global Warming in the Pipeline shows that we don’t need to burn all our coal to get a 4 C rise in climate or hotter.

The paper makes two vital arguments undergirded by one striking empirical observation. The first argument is that Earth’s climate is much more sensitive to humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions than conventionally estimated. Taking into account feedbacks involving clouds, water vapour, snow cover and sea ice, “equilibrium climate sensitivity” – the eventual warming produced by a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere – is likely around 4.8 C, rather than the IPCC’s best estimate of 3 C.

Greater climate sensitivity means that far more warming is “in the pipeline” than conventional models predict. Indeed, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues estimate that the atmosphere’s current concentrations of greenhouse gases are already producing a radiative effect (what scientists call “forcing”) equivalent to a doubling of CO2 and that this effect, if not reduced, could readily double or triple the 1.2°C the planet is already experiencing.

The article’s second key argument is that until recently a significant portion of human-caused greenhouse warming has been offset by our aerosol emissions – fine particles in the air that reflect sunlight and cool the planet. This effect is now declining, as key sources of pollution are cleaned up. The authors call aerosol cooling a “Faustian bargain,” because payment in greater global warming is coming due as we reduce pollution from shipping, vehicles, industry and power plants.

Finally, the striking empirical observation is that Earth’s energy imbalance (EEI) has recently soared. This imbalance arises as our planet receives more energy from the sun than it radiates as heat back to space, because our greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere. The authors estimate that between 2005 and 2015, EEI averaged about 0.7 watts per square metre across Earth’s surface. From early 2020 to the middle of this year, they argue, it reached 1.36 watts per square metre, likely in part because lower aerosol emissions allowed more solar energy to reach Earth’s surface.

A 1.36-watt imbalance may seem trivial, but when added up across the planet’s entire surface, the total amounts to nearly a million Hiroshima bombs of extra energy injected into Earth’s atmospheric-ocean system – over and over, each and every day. Currently, most of this excess energy is melting the world’s glaciers and ice caps and heating the oceans, but it’s also supercharging the droughts, storms and heat waves now afflicting every corner of our world.

As Earth’s energy imbalance increases by about half a watt each decade, the authors argue, it’s accelerating Earth’s warming – from about 0.18 degrees C per decade between 1970 and 2010 to at least 0.27 degrees C per decade now. In a more recent commentary, Dr. Hansen and his colleagues go on to estimate that the world will at least temporarily cross the 1.5-degree C ceiling this coming year, in part because of the influence of El Nino, reaching about 1.7 degrees C of warming by 2030 and 2 degrees C “by the late 2030s.”

Now, to be clear, some prominent climate scientists vehemently disagree with Dr. Hansen and his team, especially with their claim that warming is accelerating – Michael Mann at the University of Pennsylvania being one. Ultimately, the dispute will be adjudicated by nature itself, as the warming rate is revealed in coming years.

But betting against Dr. Hansen would seem foolish, even if our optimism bias inclines us to do so, given his track record and the worldwide evidence of a spiralling climate crisis we’ve seen this past year.

So, it’s worth unpacking the broader implications of the paper. I believe there are four.

First, if Dr. Hansen and his colleagues are correct, warming will melt the world’s great ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland much faster than the IPCC currently predicts, possibly entailing a rise of multiple metres in sea levels within the expected lifespan of coastal infrastructure being built now – that is, within the next century. Coastal communities should start planning for this change now.

Second, heating this century is likely to overwhelm many nature-based solutions to climate change. Fires and droughts will kill tree plantations intended to absorb carbon, while heating will weaken biological processes that practices such as regenerative agriculture must exploit to sequester carbon in soil.

Third, the most dangerous aspect of the climate problem is the long lag between emissions and full climate response. This lag facilitates denial, delay and delusion, and so increases the likelihood that some nations will ultimately attempt to “geoengineer” the atmosphere under emergency conditions – perhaps by using fleets of large aircraft to dump huge quantities of reflective sulfate particles into the stratosphere – with potentially catastrophic side-effects.

Lastly and most fundamentally, if James Hansen and his team are right, humanity’s responses to the climate crisis must be far more radical than currently planned. Incrementalism is now a waste of resources – and of time.

Read Article in The Globe and Mail

The post We should listen to a renowned scientist’s warning on climate change appeared first on Cascade Institute.

Categories: G1. Progressive Green

Navigating the Polycrisis: From Understanding to Action

Mon, 11/20/2023 - 09:18

How can individuals from across the globe and a variety of sectors – civil society, governance, academia, grassroots movements, business, journalism, etc. – better understand and respond to the polycrisis?

The Cascade Institute's Dr. Thomas-Homer Dixon joined Ruth Richardson, Executive Director of the Accelerator for Systemic Risk Assessment (ASRA) at the United Nations Foundation, and Ayan Mahamoud, head of the Socioeconomic, Policy, Research and Marketing Department for the Centre for Pastoral Areas and Livestock Development at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Eastern Africa, to discuss how to support scholars, practitioners, vitally, those on the frontlines of the polycrisis, in this 90-minute webinar hosted by Asher Miller from the Post Carbon Institute, and supported by the Omega Resilience Awards and The Liminality Network.

Recording below:

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The post Navigating the Polycrisis: From Understanding to Action appeared first on Cascade Institute.

Categories: G1. Progressive Green

Canada needs to dig deep to become a world leader in geothermal technology

Sat, 11/11/2023 - 12:53

Rebecca Pearce and Ian Graham

The Version of Record of this op-ed was published in the The Globe and Mail.

Rebecca Pearce is a geophysicist and science lead of the ultradeep geothermal project at the Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. Ian Graham is a physicist and resident fellow at the Institute.

Carbon emissions from burning coal, oil and natural gas are propelling a stunning rise in global temperature: The four months through September were 0.44 C warmer than the same months just eight years ago, at the start of the last major El Niño cycle. In 2024, we’re likely to cross the critical 1.5 C ceiling – a level of warming that scientists say will entail catastrophic consequences – and stay close to or above that threshold thereafter.

The global transition from fossil fuels to zero-carbon energy will require a massive increase in electricity production from renewable sources. Wind and solar power will be essential contributors. Yet weather-related blackouts, challenges in financing offshore wind in Europe, and Alberta’s moratorium on new renewable projects show that relying largely on wind and solar is risky. The world needs additional sources of green electricity to meet skyrocketing demand.

This is why a worldwide race for next-generation geothermal technology has begun – and why Canada needs to get serious about joining, lest it fall to the back of the alternative-energy pack.

Geothermal power taps thermal energy radiating from the Earth’s interior to the surface, conducted through subsurface rocks and fluids. We can access this heat by drilling into hot rock and channelling heat-bearing water back to the surface through a production well to generate electricity. Today, we can do this only where natural reservoirs of hot water lie close to the surface – generally less than five kilometres deep – but the true prize lies eight to 15 kilometres down in hard rock with supercritical temperatures, where there’s enough energy to potentially meet the world’s future electrical needs thousands of times over.

Deep geothermal plants would generate non-intermittent baseload power with minimal greenhouse emissions, and they’d be highly resilient to the effects of climate change, unlike wind, solar and hydro facilities. They could be built nearly anywhere, including close to or even within cities. And because they’d have a high power density – producing thousands of watts per square metre of land occupied – they’d cause far less ecological damage than wind, solar or hydro.

Around the world, governments and energy companies are starting to see these advantages. State-supported R&D projects are under way in the United States (Utah FORGE), Japan (the Beyond-Brittle Project) and Iceland (the Deep Drilling Project). Until recently, the Canadian government’s support for geothermal projects has consisted mainly of investment tax credits and research within government laboratories, but in October, Canada took a big step forward with the announcement of a $90-million investment in Alberta-based Eavor Technologies Inc. by the federal government’s Canada Growth Fund.

Yet Eavor’s proprietary closed-loop process is only one of several emerging geothermal technologies in which Canada should be a global leader. And were it not for the few pioneering Canadian projects such as DEEP Corp., Tu Deh-Kah, Swan Hills Project, Alberta No. 1, and Kitselas Geothermal Inc., all of which are tapping relatively shallow heat, hardly any of our own geothermal resources would be under development.

Canada can do far better. Workers in our fossil-fuel and mining industries already have a wealth of expertise in drilling and subsurface resource extraction, and in Western Canada, we have a ready-made labour force that can be employed in this new industry almost immediately, with little or no retraining required. We also have a huge variety of geological settings, with regions of good geothermal gradients in hard, granitic rock with nearby populations that would benefit directly from renewable heat and electricity plants.

But to get to the front of the deep geothermal pack, Canada needs to do two things, now.

First, we need to set up one or more test sites focused on hard-rock drilling to depths with supercritical temperatures. These sites would allow industry to collaborate with scientists from Canada’s national laboratories and universities to experiment with new drilling technologies. The initial aim would be to drill quickly – and thus economically – into hard rock that’s hot enough to produce electricity at a reasonable return on investment, at locations where such heat is relatively close to the surface. Candidate locations include the southern Northwest Territories, northwestern Alberta, and British Columbia’s coastal range. As drilling methods improve, we’ll drill deeper into even hotter temperatures, until we’ve developed the ability to harness deep geothermal power anywhere on the planet.

Four novel drilling methods that offer the possibility of reaching great depths – percussive, plasma, microwave and water-jet – are generating lots of excitement, not to mention investment into research and development. But modified conventional drilling techniques have so far been the most successful. The FORGE project, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has used optimized rotary drilling to achieve a penetration rate of 60 metres an hour – roughly 10 times faster than is typical in hard rock at the depth FORGE is drilling. Canada already boasts some of the world’s best conventional drilling operators and laboratories, so we can get to this technological frontier quickly and then help advance it.

Second, we need to develop clear national and provincial regulatory frameworks that enable easier review, approval and monitoring of geothermal projects. Outside of British Columbia and Alberta, such projects fall into ill-fitting regulatory frameworks governing exploitation of groundwater or oil and gas. This ambiguity discourages investment by venture capitalists and power companies.

These two steps would de-risk emerging technologies, attract investment and ultimately make Canada a leader in harnessing deep geothermal energy – a technology we could then sell around the world.

At the Cascade Institute, we estimate that setting up and operating a Canadian test site would cost around $200-million, with most of the initial investment necessarily coming from federal and provincial governments. That might seem like an impossibly steep sum. But it’s less than one-hundredth of the $30-billion the federal government is spending on the Trans Mountain pipeline. And geothermal is an investment in the future, not the fading past.

The world’s deep geothermal future can bear a maple leaf, but only if Canada aggressively supports a bold and diverse program of geothermal research and development – and soon.

Read Article in The Globe and Mail

The post Canada needs to dig deep to become a world leader in geothermal technology appeared first on Cascade Institute.

Categories: G1. Progressive Green

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