Thoughts about Global Warming by Jones Beene
Date: Saturday, April 24, 2004 @ 11:33:25 GMT
Topic: General

Earth Day... did you do your part, or with all the other significant world problems we face, was it a yawner this year?

More to the point of how we can help mother-earth... let's think about what is the real threat towards our ecosystem from human 'progress'... is it the increasing level of carbon dioxide, CO2? Well, that is the standard reflexive pronouncement coming from environmentalists... but I'm not so sure that it is as accurate as it should be, nor are they as helpful (with accurate solutions) as they should be.

The interaction of mankind with the environment is a tricky dynamic situation, and generalizations are risky. The generalization that CO2 is responsible for global warming is starting to show some severe logical-cracks from a closer scientific perspective... And the chant of 'carbon neutral' should perhaps not be the correct mantra for the future or the environmental movement.

First... Don't get me wrong... global warming, or really any substantial change to the ecosystem has few redeeming values. Not a good thing at all - except in the unlikely event that it somehow forestalls an approaching ice age, as some have suggested based on the recent anomaly in the solar-cycle. But that is very unlikely, therefore, it might be wise for all concerned to clarify the *real* culprit, in order to better prepare a future plan of action - which may or not be linked to CO2 directly.

I think a better candidate for the main culprit behind global warming, the most obvious but always overlooked candidate - which is related to CO2 but is NOT the same beast by any means... is *thermal pollution* and this phrase is not at all a tautology for 'global warming' as it must be considered in the context of 'avoidable heat rejection' or more simply, 'thermal efficiency.'

Wait! you say, why split hairs. Power plants and automobiles spew out both these two potential candidate-culprits in excess, so what's the big deal? Besides, hasn't *thermal pollution* always been considered an 'effect' and not a 'cause'?

Well, it is a 'big deal' and one needs to be very specific with this terminology, because the range of solutions to the problems are quite different, depending on true identity of the culprit. For instance, if thermal pollution is more to blame for global warming than is CO2 specifically, then the *wrong* partial solution is going nuclear. Why? (Here is one more argument for J.R.'s wind-energy activism)

From the perspective of attacking thermal pollution we need to look at "heat-REJECTION," and not so much at the heat source. Nuclear energy may or may not be more ecologically-sound from the perspective of heat-source... it certainly doesn't release CO2, and all the experts now agree that nuclear puts less radioactivity into the environment than burning coal or petroleum, due to the small but ubiquitous uranium content of fossil fuels, especially coal (natural gas has some radium but less total radioactivity).

But nuclear is not so good (in fact it is terrible) from the perspective of *heat-rejection* ... partially because of the unfortunate past choices we made in thermodynamic engineering these monstrous plants, combined with the inherent limitations behind harnessing that kind of power.

Whereas the newer natural gas power plants can produce electricity at near 50% efficiency (heat ---> electricity), nuclear remains stuck at about 30-33%. Therefore with nuclear, every gigawatt of electricity releases more than 2 gigawatts of thermal pollution, twice that of natural gas. Automobiles are even worse - releasing five times their power to the environment in the form of thermal pollution.

Consequently, when you take the (correct) perspective of looking at heat rejection rather than CO2, then nuclear can look twice as bad as natural gas, even though it releases no carbon. OTOH solar doesn't look so great either because it is only 15% efficient (or less, on average) and puts out 85% thermal pollution. When our biota uses solar power, in contrast, they are more efficient and reduce carbon and we are better off ecologically with almost any greenery than by substituting inefficient solar panels, and we might even be better to put up mirrors to reflect thermal pollution back into space rather than using solar panels on earth - from the thermal pollution perspective. Wind power, however, is good from this perspective because it reduces thermal excess energy.

Besides missing the boat on the identity of the true eco-culprit, some environmentalists have blown-it on the issue of "carbon-uptake", which has been often misrepresented, even by well-meaning environmentalists. Because they have previously been so convinced that CO2 is a bad thing, environmentalists have consistently misrepresented the ability of the ecosystem to deal with CO2 by bio-uptake.

But here is the real kicker... the biosystem could easily deal effectively with increasing CO2 by using more of it... except for one big issue ... ta da ... THERMAL POLLUTION. Basically, it is a little appreciated fact that most CO2 is consummed, not by crops and forests, but in the sea, and COLD oceans are more productive than warm oceans. Cold water holds more CO2 per unit volume, and cold ocean organisms consume more CO2 per unit volume... it's as simple as that.

ERGO when we let a nuclear power station dump its thermal pollution directly into a cold ocean, and that is exactly what happens most of the time... we get a double whammy. The plant is inefficient and must dump twice its power output equivalent into the ocean, but even more devastating is the fact that the warmed-up ocean can now remove less CO2 than before.

These are two things to consider together which are seldom properly weighted... the ability of the oceans to remove CO2 efficiently and the ocean warming effect of locating nuclear plants sited on the shoreline.

OK, my conscience is now partially soothed over the fact that I didn't get out this year to help clean-up a shoreline, but instead may have done some small part for Earth Day (I hope) by getting a few people thinking about some of these issues in a new light, so to speak.


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