Tag Archives: NASA

How to defeat that dastardly coal

The world's ballooning use of coal guarantees that hot air will continue to rise

The world’s ballooning use of coal guarantees that hot air will continue to rise

To the extent that oil pipelines and drilling operations degrade the land, foul the water, spoil the air and otherwise compromise the environment all creatures big and tiny cohabit, people are right to worry and protest vigorously to their elected representatives when preventable infringements occur.

But the lunacy that now attends nearly every public debate about oil and gas – that these fossil fuels are somehow anthropomorphically evil, and that all who have truck with them are necessarily curtseying before killers – threatens to eclipse a far bigger and more concrete problem.

If we insist on making villains out of inanimate objects, we’d best start by recognizing that the real enemy of the global environment isn’t crude oil or shale gas or even Alberta bitumen; it’s coal. And, since the beginning of the century, use of this cheap, dirty energy source – the one that essentially powered the Industrial Revolution on two continents – has been rising, especially in emerging economic powerhouses, such as China and India, with vast populations to support.

According to the December 16, 2013, bulletin of the International Energy Agency (IEA) – a self-described “autonomous organisation which works to ensure reliable, affordable and clean energy” for its membership  – “tougher Chinese policies aimed at reducing dependency on coal will help restrain global coal demand growth over the next five years,” but coal will still “meet more of the increase in global primary energy than oil or gas, continuing a trend that has been in place for more than a decade.”

The IEA also predicts that while demand for coal in North America and Europe will flatten over the next five years – the result of tougher environmental regulations, among other factors – the effect will likely be temporary as the price differential between coal and oil will vastly favor the former. Moreover, “for the rest of Asia, coal demand is forecast to stay buoyant. India and countries in Southeast Asia are increasing consumption, and India will rival China as the top importer in the next five years.”

Indeed, observed IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, “like it or not, coal is here to stay for a long time to come. Coal is abundant and geopolitically secure, and coal-fired plants are easily integrated into existing power systems. With advantages like these, it is easy to see why coal demand continues to grow. But it is equally important to emphasize that coal in its current form is simply unsustainable.”

No kidding. NASA scientist James Hansen has called this black rock “the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” That might be overstating the case just a bit, but there’s no denying the fact that coal-fired plants are atrocious polluters. The short list of toxic byproducts from your average burner might make you faint: mercury (a bonafide nerve poison), nitrogen oxide (which can turn your lungs into soup) and sulphur dioxide (which can, given enough time, stop your heart cold).

Then there’s cobalt, lead, arsenic, particulate matter. chromium, zinc, manganese, and radionuclides. And, let us not forget coal’s particular facility for producing greenhouse gases.

According to Greenpeace (which should have, by now, earned some mainstream  street cred), “coal fired power plants are the biggest source of man made CO2 emissions. This makes coal energy the single greatest threat facing our climate. . .Coal is the most polluting of all fossil fuels and the single largest source of global warming in the world. Currently one-third of all CO2 emissions comes from burning coal.”

And, don’t for a minute, get fooled by “clean-coal” claims of carbon, capture and storage technology. It doesn’t exist and probably won’t in any affordable manifestation for several years, even decades.

The inescapable fact is that burning fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) is warming the planet. But not all such fuels are equal in their deleterious effects on the land, water and air we share with all living things.

Unless we are prepared to dismantle our societies, remove ourselves from our various grids, and find several million caves in which to dwell and from which to hunt beasties and gather berries, we’d better use the less harmful fuels at our disposal to wean ourselves from one that really will kill us sooner, rather than later.

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Go ahead, blame it on the weather

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Let us just finally admit, with one pitiful sigh, that we are, in fact, responsible for the walk-in freezers we’ve installed in towns and cities across much of the country.

We’ve certainly had better starts: milder temperatures, sunnier skies and drier conditions to mark the new year. We’ve even had lights that stayed on and airports that remained open.

But all that was before the dreaded polar vortex debuted in our lives and on the late-night TV comedy circuit of 2014.

“Good to have you with us folks – and by ‘with us’, I mean still living,” funnyman Stephen Colbert quipped this week. “It was so cold on New Year’s Eve, that the ball went back up.”

Watch out, he warned, for the “polar vortex” and its “thunder snow. . .Frankly, I’m not sure that those are weather terms, or finishing moves from ‘Mortal Kombat’.” When the thaw begins, he cautioned, the forecast calls for “Partly cloudpocalypse with a 20 per cent chance of rain-a-geddon.”

A somewhat more sober analysis appears on CBC’s website:

“The polar vortex refers to winds that whip around the polar ice cap, trapping Earth’s coldest temperatures there. Its deterioration with global warming, however, can send arctic weather south into areas as far away as the southern U.S. and Europe, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists. ‘When the polar vortex. . .breaks down, this allows cold air to spill south, affecting the eastern United States and other regions,’ says NOAA’s Dr. James Overland. ‘This can result in a warmer-than-average arctic region and colder temperatures that may include severe winter weather events on the North American and European continents.’”

It’s that phrase – “its deterioration with global warming” – that will stick in the craw of every climate change denier from Hibernia to Fort McMurray.

Nevertheless, according to a piece this week for Climate Central, “Such weather patterns, which can feature relatively mild conditions in the Arctic at the same time dangerously cold conditions exist in vast parts of the lower 48, may be tied to the rapid warming and loss of sea ice in the Arctic due, in part, to manmade climate change.

“The forecast high temperature in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Monday was in the 20s Fahrenheit – warmer than many locations in Georgia and Alabama. That fits in with the so-called ‘Arctic Paradox’ or ‘Warm Arctic”, Cold Continents’ pattern that researchers first identified several years ago. Such patterns bring comparatively mild conditions to the Arctic while places far to the south are thrown into a deep freeze.”

Of course, scientists have been predicting the intensification of traditional cold snaps in North America for at least a decade. In fact, in 2004, NASA had this to say in an article entitled, “A Chilling Possibility” posted to its website:

“Global warming could plunge North America and Western Europe into a deep freeze, possibly within only a few decades. That’s the paradoxical scenario gaining credibility among many climate scientists. The thawing of sea ice covering the Arctic could disturb or even halt large currents in the Atlantic Ocean. Without the vast heat that these ocean currents deliver – comparable to the power generation of a million nuclear power plants – Europe’s average temperature would likely drop 5 to 10°C (9 to 18°F), and parts of eastern North America would be chilled somewhat less. Such a dip in temperature would be similar to global average temperatures toward the end of the last ice age roughly 20,000 years ago.”

All of which bodes well for the bottom lines of those who manufacture the excellent Snow Goose line of outerwear. As for the rest of us. . .not so much.

Still, perhaps this is just the kick in the pants the Fraser Institute thinks we need as we set about dismantling governments and collecting the wood from their paneled offices for kindling. There’s nothing like an encroaching ice age to clarify the mind, gird the loins, and fortify the soul.

It’s even possible – if only just – that we’ll finally start taking responsibility for the various hardships we like to blame on everything and everyone except the person in the frozen mirror.

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