Karl Sears: We must learn to innovate our way out of climate disaster

(David Zalubowski | AP file photo) Ten-year-old Harper Phillips of Denver waves a placard as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks to several thousand people at a climate strike rally on Friday, Oct. 11, 2019, in Denver. The rally was staged in Denver's Civic Center Park.

Many excellent climate change related articles have been published in The Salt Lake Tribune this past year, touching on most of the dire predictions that civilization will face if we are unable to wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Last December I contributed a commentary that focused primarily on the threat of rising sea levels and increased ocean temperatures that will eventually destroy most coral beds unless mitigated.

According to a World Atlas article, at least 52 countries around the world, with a total population of 62 million people, will be directly affected by rapidly rising sea levels. At least 10 could even disappear, affecting many more individuals, Bangladesh being one of the largest. Now the most vulnerable folks are those living on the thousands of low-lying coral atolls from the Maldives to Hawaii, and some have already been abandoned.

A disturbing fact was presented in the September edition of National Geographic, which focused on warming of the Arctic region and its ill effects on the climate. This salient factor is related to the rapid thawing of permafrost in the Arctic, which contains billions of tons of methane and carbon dioxide.

The most concerning is a process called “abrupt thaw,” which present climate models have not taken into account. About 20% of the permafrost is undergoing this process, which results from immense deposits of ice imbedded in the tundra that melt and fill the crevices in the permafrost with enough water that results in pooling, sometimes to the extent that even lakes are formed. The standing water accelerates greenhouse gas levels, releasing considerable amounts of methane, which is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide in heat retention.

The most recent IPCC climate change reports did not take into account the emissions from “abrupt thaw” because “climate models aren’t yet sophisticated enough to capture that kind of rapid landscape change.” At the request of National Geographic, two scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory made rough calculations that add in emissions from “abrupt thaw.” To halt temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C (the IPCC goal), we’d need to “zero out our own fossil fuel emissions at least 20% sooner — no later than 2044, six years ahead of the IPCC timetable.”

We have certainly witnessed major concern by the world’s youth as they have mobilized to initiate climate policy change, with young champions such as Sweden’s Greta Thunberg leading the way. Yet, in spite of all the genuinely sincere worldwide efforts and commitments, my belief is that this goal is unattainable due to our widespread dependency on fossil fuels. We simply cannot wean ourselves completely from this dependency within the desired time frame. However, we certainly must accelerate our effort to do so.

In addition to personal commitments, it will require political will as well, an effort neglected by our country’s present administration, which is led by a scientifically illiterate president who surrounds himself with yes men and is supported by Republican sycophants — many of whom get considerable financial support from the fossil fuel industry.

This is a country that values and promotes entrepreneurial spirit. I am confident that if we fully harness the capabilities of our best and brightest scientists and engineers, we can make considerable progress in mitigating the deleterious effects of climate change by simply improving the technologies that already are showing the most promise (e.g., solar, wind, electric vehicles, etc.). Improvements are needed, and mass production required to lower costs down to a range more affordable for most folks.

Personally, I drive an SUV. As a sportsman, I value the space it provides for all my equipment. But, even at 20-25 mpg, it’s still a gas-guzzler. I would love an affordable alternative that is more environmentally friendly. Hopefully, the strict mileage standards that California wants to maintain for the vehicles of the future might provide that alternative. It is hard to believe that the present administration is relentless in sabotaging that effort which appears even the car companies would like to retain.

Another interesting and disturbing revelation in the National Geographic issue was that the United States and Canada control nearly half the Arctic coast, but until now have virtually ignored the Arctic north and its strategic importance as “climate change melts its icy armor.” Russia has far more ice-breakers that any other country, and China is also investing heavily in them as well, partnering with Russia to “extract resources and establish trade routes.”

By contrast, the U.S. has only one heavy icebreaker, used mostly in Antarctica. This strategic lapse by the U.S. is a subject for another day.

Karl Sears, Ph.D., is a retired chemist with numerous publications and patents. He lives in Heber City.