Global warming, population, nuclear power

Jim Whitehead (
Wed, 30 Apr 1997 14:20:28 -0700

Last week I attended an extremely interesting lecture at U.C. Irvine by
James Hansen, Director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, on
global warming, which was hosted by the Earth Systems Science research
group on campus. Dr. Hansen testified before Congress in the 80's several
times on the issue of global warming, and most subscribers to this list
probably first theard about global warming from to the media attention
surrounding this testimony. In the audience was Nobel Lauriate Sherwin
Roland, who co-discovered the ozone hole, along with most of the faculty of
the department. So, there was no lack of informed brainpower in the

Some of the data shown were astounding. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere
continues to grow exponentially, and is directly generated by human
activity (anthropogenic is the term they use). One fascinating chart
showed CO2 concentrations over the past n (I forget the exact number, but
it covered at least the last 5,000 year) thousand years, much of which was
garnered from CO2 samples from ice cores in the Antarctic (ice traps little
bubbles of air, and is dense enough to prevent diffusion of CO2), in which
there were direct correlations between CO2 concentrations and known ice
ages (less CO2 during an ice age) and then, at the end, a near vertical
line showing CO2 since 1950. Now, we're still taking hundreds of parts per
million here, but CO2 has a strong effect in little amounts. We're now
receiving, on average, appx. 2 watts per square meter more energy than we
ordinarily would, and a drop of 7 watts/meter^2 was sufficient to cause the
last ice age. There is increasing evidence and scientific consensus that
climactic warming is occurring globally, and this warming is directly
related to the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses. The
counter argument of natural variability is increasingly not able to
describe observed facts. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, the volcano of the
century, was only able to express a one year damping effect on global

The conclusions, for those who believe in the scientific process, are
inescapable. If current trends continue, the earth will warm over the next
100-200 years to the point it was at when dinosaurs roamed the planet,
somewhere between 2-7 degrees warmer on average. This will cause numerous
dramatic climactic changes, with many unknown effects, some positive, some

Now add in the data from another recent lecture at UCI by Joel Cohen,
author of "How Many People Can the Earth Support?" While he doesn't make
any prediction of the Earth's final upper population (he correlates the
degree of certainty of a population prediction with its lack of realism) he
does point out that all models show the Earth's population rising
dramatically in the 21st century, perhaps to 8 billion, perhaps to 10
billion, perhaps more. Much of the population rise will occur in
underdeveloped countries, primarily those located in Africa.

The collision path of these two trends, in my opinion, is a recipe for
human suffering unlike any ever experienced in the 20th century, and this
has been a very good century for human suffering.

Of course, world politicians are, for the most part, asleep at the switch
(although Clinton and Gore are at least aware of the issue -- see>). Developing countries
(like Brazil) still assert their right to produce as much CO2 as the
developed world, and many of the areas most likely to be affected by
population growth don't have governments strong enough to institute any
form of population control.

What can be done? Well, this is a fine question. In fact, I predict this
will become one of *the* big questions addressed in the 21st century as the
pace and severity of serious storms (such as the recent flooding in North
Dakota), drought and famine, and coastal flooding finally make people
realize that global warming is the cause.

For global warming, one step that should be taken is the reduction of
anthropogenic carbon dioxide production. Which means a reduction of
combustion wherever it takes place, such as in power plants, internal
combustion engines, burning wood, etc. Which makes nuclear power look very
attractive. Sure the waste is a bummer, but so is global warming. For
more information on nuclear power, see the very informative PBS Frontline
Web site on their program on nuclear power, at:
<> Solar doesn't
cut it -- we already use more energy in a year than falls as sunlight in a
year. We should definitely use it more, though.

Another step is the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere -- nobody seems to
have investigated this at all. Projects like growing trees and burying
them on a large scale (if the trees decompose, the CO2 goes right back into
the atmosphere), large-scale degeneration of CO2 into O2 and carbon
(requiring lots of non-CO2 producing energy). Like most of these problems,
a little work now produces big benefits downstream.

More than this, I don't know. To my mind, this is the biggest problem
getting people mobilized. Even if you believe there is a problem, there is
no obvious blueprint for action. Plus, there seems to be a mindset among
those working on global warming that large scale engineering solutions
cannot have any effect on the problem, which strikes me as just plain wrong
-- if people created this mess, they can uncreate it. One reason might be
that most people do not think in terms of multi-billion dollar projects,
but that is exactly the scale required to impact a system as large as the

Anyway, a somewhat random post, but one which does tend to put some
perspective on the problems we're trying to solve in the computer industry,
or the issues facing Washington (like who slept in what bedroom). Plus, I
was definitely surprised at the consensus among those present at these two
talks over the rough shape of things to come. *Nobody* refuted the
assertions about global warming or the general trend of increasing
population growth.

Very scary.

- Jim

A good source of information on global warming can be found at: