Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Al Gore as Captain Planet

At the invitation of Eric Berger of SciGuy fame (if not fortune), your humble host agreed to attend a screening of the latest soft money political ad dressed up as a documentary on Global Warming called "An Inconvenient Truth" along with Phil, the ever lovely Natalie, Hunter, Matt Bramanti, and Jim, who still looks mighty familiar to me, even though neither of us can think of where we might have met. Afterwards we walked next door to the Epicure Cafe to discuss the movie and it's effect on any of us.

Alas, the effect on us all was pretty limited. No one really felt that thier lives or outlook was changed. I respectfully disagree with Eric, Al Gore was not a good choice for the narrator. He brings far too much political baggage along with him and he makes it very clear in the film in a number of places that he HATES and BLAMES Republicans and conservatives for the current situation as he percieves it and he REALLY hates the current administration. Much of the film comes off as sour grapes and he yet again appears to revel in the near death of his son and the death of his sister of lung cancer. Apparently in an attempt to make the audience feel sorry for him and to wrap himself in an armor of grief in order to make his position unassailable without making it look like someone was attacking his grief. Sorry, doesn't hold water with me. It didn't work for Shehan, and it won't work for him.

The movie ran for over 2 hours and it was not until the last 20 minutes or so that there was any discussion at all of how to address the problem. Much was made of the Kyoto Protocols, but the simple fact is than less than half of the signitory countries have attained the cuts they are treaty bound to meet. The US was at least honest enough with itself to recognize that there was no way that the US could meet the protocols and not severely damage the economy in the process. Some of the proposals he made were higher milage cars, more efficient appliances, and CO2 sequestration, a technology that is still in it's infancy. None of these proposals would have a large impact on the generation of CO2, 10-15% each at best. Nowhere in the movie was any serious look at Nuclear energy as a tool to reduce CO2 generation. In fact the only mention of nuclear energy was an image of a mushroom cloud and some cooling towers that looked suprisingly like those at Three Mile Island. But there was not a single use of the word "Nuclear" anywhere in his monologue. This is disheartening because Nuclear power holds the promise of massive reductions in CO2 production. There was also no discussion of other forces that impact global warming such as solar variability, land use changes, volcanoes, etc.

And that goes to the heart of the debate for me. I am not disputing that the global climate is inching upwards in temperature, and I am not saying it won't have impacts on the planetary climate. He mentions that the climate has been in a warming and cooling cycle for millions of years, but he then promptly changes the subject. But the simple fact of the matter is that even if we stopped all CO2 production (not possible but even if we did) we would at best merely delay the inevitable. The planet is already on the upward slope of another global heat wave, and has been for the last few thousand years, Humans may be accellerating it, but even if you subtract our influence it was still going up. What we really need is not just more CO2 reductions, we need something much more fundamental. We need levees for our cities, and we need to find other means to control our environment. And we do need to reduce our impact so that we will be able to buy time to do the other things we must do.

I have an idea, it is by no means fleshed out, and a number of you might think I'm nuts, but there is nothing technically infeasable about it that I can discern. The simple fact of the matter is that 99.9% of the energy that falls upon our planet comes from the sun. If we can find a way to control the energy being delivered from the sun, we will have control of the global temperature. How do you keep your car cool when it is sitting in a parking lot? You put shades in the windows to block out the sun. My proposal is a much much larger version of that same concept. There is a place between the earth and the sun known as the L1 Lagrange point. It is the point at which the gravity of the Earth exactly cancels the gravity of the Sun. At that spot, if something were left there, it would stay relatively motionless. If a rosette formation of large solar sails with only say, 10% reflectivity were placed just sunward of that lagrange point and was allowed to "hover", I.E. balance the reaction forces from the sunlight and solar wind acting on the sail with the gravity of the sun acting upon it, we could do exactly that, put a sunshade over the Earth. If the sail were designed with flaps that would allow rotation, much like a pinwheel, the light being reflected back at the sun could be further controlled while allowing the sail to be spun for stability. A central tower rising sunward with a mass at the end would be the control module and would have thrusters to aid in pointing, and would also serve as a tidal stabilizer. Think of a giant dandelion seed, with the sail being the feathery end, and the control tower being the seed pod itself, and you'll have a good idea of the configuration I'm envisioning. Other options to help sequester CO2 have been spoken of in the past such as seeding the southern oceans with iron to stimulate growth of phytoplankton, and injection of liquefied CO2 into oil wells which is not quite as easy as it sounds, CO2 has what is known as a triple point which is the temperature where all three phases can exist at the same time. The volumetric difference between the solid, liquid and the gaseous phase is very pronounced which makes handling it dangerous.

Some of these options have downsides, and/or difficulties. But the simple fact is that eliminating all CO2 production tomorrow will not prevent climate change. That change has been happening for millions of years before we arrived on this planet and will be happening long after we are gone. The human race has had a good run so far, if we are to extend that run, we will have to find ways of controlling our environment at levels we can only dream of today.

BTW, George Will apparently agrees with my assessment of Al Gore's motivations.


Blogger TxGoodie said...

Interesting post. I haven't seen the film and likely won't, but I bet I'd agree with your POV just hearing about it. Thanks.

June 13, 2006 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Natalie said...

The sunshade idea is clever, but I think it would have to be absolutely enormous to have any noticeable effect. L1 is close to the Earth (~.99 AU), so the shade would have to be of the same order of cross-sectional magnitude as the Earth itself.

My scratch paper tells me that a 10%-reflective shield which could deflect 1% of the radiation headed for the Earth would have to be 4000 km across! (It scales as the square root of the percentage: .01% requires 400 km, .0001% requires 40 km, etc.)

June 15, 2006 1:51 AM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

Natialie, I had not done the scratchpaper analysis when I wrote this, and I thank you for doing so. In fact I thought of it Sunday evening and mulled it between breaks Monday trying to punch major holes in it. I became concerned about size being a problem as well which was why I suggested a whole formation of them not just one. I had already put the text of my review onto the blog both here and over at LST but had left them as drafts until Tuesday morning and I had to jump in tuesday morning and edit them both to put it in. If 10% refectivity is not high enough, it can always be increased. By your own math, an increase to 100% reflectivity would require an equivalent of only 1265km diameter to achieve the same 1% reflection (pi*2000^2= 12566371 sq. km. at 10% reflectivity or 1256637 sq. km at 100% 1256637/pi=400000 the sq. root of which is 632.5 km radius or 1265km dia.). And I'm not sure we need 1% anyway, it is probably going to be closer to half that or less. And my concept was for not just one, but a fleet in a rosette or torus configuration, since there is more area in the outer edges of a circle than there is in the center, you would get more bang for your buck so to speak. Additionally, having several small shades instead of one large one makes it more resistant to catastrophic failure and easier to build and service. Putting them in a ring formation additionally cuts down on the sunlight falling on the earth off-axis, much of which occurs at the higher latitudes where the ice sheets are located.

Another aspect of this that I thought of after I posted was the ability to piggyback a very large interferometer array onto the sails. an optical or radio (or both) telescope of such a size would make the HST look like one of gallieo's antiques.

June 15, 2006 8:13 AM  
Anonymous The Dude said...

Interesting concept, the sunshade idea. On the other hand, let's consider that if the earth does continue its' upward temperature trend and it comes to dangerous levels, there is plenty of unoccupied land further away from the equator than we are here in Houston. At any rate, I'm not convinced that temperatures are going to reach dangerous levels in mine or my kids' lifetimes. That's probably a selfish way to look at it, and I'm not saying that looking at ways of controlling our environment is a waste of time. My point is that worrying about rising temperatures is, to me, almost akin to the old "stop plate tectonics" parody. I have plenty of challenges in life to keep me occupied, and controlling the earth's temperature isn't high on my list of priorites. Alternative fuels and/or alternative methods of producing the same fuels we use now are much more important to me. Speaking of which, have you looked any more at thermal depolymerization? I can find very little in the way of negatives concerning that particular technology. Thanks for the comments on the movie, Rorschach. I'm kinda like txgoodie above: I doubt if I'll see the movie, but your point of view on the subject seems pretty much in line with my own, anyway.

June 18, 2006 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean you wasted your time and money to watch this

Some people have a lot of spare time and spare change in their life

June 23, 2006 1:04 PM  
Blogger Rorschach said...

Anon, I might point out that had you read the links, you would have learned that the Chronicle paid for the ticket, not me. I personally never would have spent a plug nickel to support Algore's campaign. As to the spare time issue, it seemed like an opportunity to strike a blow for those of us who felt the green movement had gone off the reservation a bit and therefore worth it.

June 25, 2006 10:55 AM  
Anonymous The Dude said...

Good point about CO2 levels is made here.

* Activists and zealots constantly shrilling over atmospheric carbon dioxide are misdirecting attention and effort from real and potentially addressable local, regional and planetary problems.

Remember: Water vapor and carbon dioxide are major greenhouse gases. Water vapor accounts for about 70% of the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide somewhere between 4.2% and 8.4%. Much of the wavelength bands where carbon dioxide is active are either at or near saturation. Water vapor absorbs infrared over much the same range as carbon dioxide and more besides.

... and my major problem with Algore's whole global warming schtick in general:

Humans have only been trying to measure the temperature fairly consistently since about 1880, during which time we think the world may have warmed by about +0.6 °C ± 0.2 °C. As we've already pointed out, the estimate of warming is less than the error margin on our ability to take the Earth's temperature, generally given as 14 °C ± 0.7 °C for the average 1961-1990 while the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) suggest 13.9 °C for their average 1880-2004. [my bold]

July 04, 2006 6:43 AM  

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