Global climate change: Mother Nature or mankind?

It’s always baffled me that an issue as important as our environment could become just another political pawn.

There’s so much riding on whether or not humans are truly destroying the Earth that one would think politicians and the public would be able to come to a consensus. But no, now it’s just another he-said/she-said debate in the halls of Washington and around the dinner table… until you step into the lab.

“There are natural climate cycles but the current CO2 increase is not part of it,” said Susanne Neuer, Senior Sustainability Scientist at ASU. “The Earth has gone though changes much hotter than we have today. There are traces in the geological record where there was no ice anywhere in the Polar Regions. If all land ice currently bound on the continent is melted, the sea level would be 70 meters higher, and there have been much larger changes in sea level than that,” said Neuer.

In college-level Psychical Geography courses, students are presented with evidence that the Earth has undergone extensive heating and cooling cycles throughout the course of its history. According to temperature data, the period we’re living in now is “unusually warm” with record droughts and wildfires.

http://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-last-time-co2-was-this-high-humans-didnt-exist-15938

This is partially due to the fact that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere recently reached its highest point in at least one million years. If you look at the history of Earth’s CO2 levels on the graph below, you’ll see that the spike in CO2 over the last 150 years is very insubstantial when compared to previous concentrations of the gas.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 6.04.25 PM

Components of Earth’s atmosphere over the last five billion years. Photo from a GPH 111 course at ASU. 

This is not to say that mankind is not affecting its atmosphere adversely, but rather there are far more factors to consider in climate change than just CO2. Yes, admittedly the last time CO2 levels in the atmosphere were this high, humans did not yet inhabit the planet. But the fact that we are still here proves it wasn’t the CO2 level that was making life for humans unsustainable at that time.

Remember: multiple factors.

What should be most worrying to people is that these factors are, for the most part, out of human control (at least for the next hundred years or so.)

Without wishing to get too deep into another subject matter, according to the Kardashev theory, Earth is currently a Type 0 civilization. This means we haven’t yet advanced far enough technologically to harness the power of all the weather events on our planet. Scientists predict human beings will be able to do so sometime early in the 22nd century.

http://hplusmagazine.com/2014/07/29/will-humans-achieve-a-type-1-civilization-by-2100/

Until then, we must tread very carefully with the ecosystems of Earth, because they ultimately have more power over us than we do over them.

Neuer outlined the build-up to where we are now environmentally and explained where we’re headed as an industrial world. “Since [the Industrial Revolution] CO2 has increased at unprecedented levels – which is what’s really scary,” she said. “The CO2 level was at 180 parts per million during the last Ice Age, and should be at 280 parts per million now. Today’s CO2 levels are at 400 ppm, more than 40% higher. That was a rise that happened only in the past 150 years or so. We’re already seeing the effects of what we’ve done to our planet.”

According to Neuer, the ocean is taking up 90 percent of the planet’s heat and swallows up 30 percent of the CO2 released by fossil fuel burning into the atmosphere. In other words, it plays large and important role in our climate.

Neuer went on to explain how methane, while often talked about in the climate debate, is not as harmful as carbon dioxide. “Most methane disperses in the atmosphere, and the little that doesn’t is transformed into CO2,” said Neuer. “CO2 creates a greater impact than methane does because it is a so much more abundant greenhouse gas.”

Neuer cited her own research as evidence to support her claims. “In my own work I’ve seen surface-ocean warming and reduction of pH, which comes from CO2 being taken up by the ocean,” she said. “Reduction of pH, so-called ocean acidification, hurts sea life with carbonate shells or skeletons, such as corals.

“When this happens, the ocean currents get disturbed and don’t flow naturally anymore, which is what caused the dramatic weather events shown in the movie The Day After Tomorrow, but on unrealistically fast time-scales.”

Neuer says it’s predicted in some model calculations that this disruption could come to a head in the next 200 years if we don’t get our act together.

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The graph shows the multiple elements in our atmosphere causing climate change. Photo from a GPH 111 course at ASU. 

Nancy Selover, State Climatologist for Arizona, took time to comment on the significance of record-breaking high and low temperatures so often reported on.

“We’ve seen trends towards hotter records more than colder records,” said Selover. “I look at the trends in terms of climate and try to stay out of the political side of the issue because we can’t attribute what’s causing it to a single thing. If you want to actually change the temperature of the globe then you should want to know how to pull the carbon back out of the atmosphere.”

Selover went on to explain that there are thermometers placed all over the globe to measure climate, including instruments on top of buoys to get a reading on temperatures over the oceans. But she says that there are areas of the globe that are either inaccessible or too inhospitable for humans to install temperature-scanning devices.

Despite some areas going unrecorded, Selover insists that scientists still receive an accurate reading of overall global temperature shifts. “Not every singe place responds the same,” she said. “When you take a global average you take an average of hot and cold data. People are going to notice what’s going on where they live.”

Selover explained that what people notice is more local in terms of temperature change, and that they don’t get too panicky about global climate swings. “The Earth is always changing in terms of its climate and it’s impossible for it not to,” she said. “People would like for temperatures to stay the way they are now because that’s what we’re used to, but average temperatures won’t stay the same forever.”

Dr. Selover was also adamant about there not being enough done in terms of cleaning up the atmosphere, and that all the money and research seems to be going towards prevention. “If they said ‘Let’s stop burning fossil fuels and clean up the air to avoid respiratory issues’, it could be done in way less than 100 years,” she said.

Selover says that removing CO2 from our air would have a more immediate impact than waiting for the CO2 to dissipate on its own. “You can’t just say ‘We need to stop putting CO2 up there.’ We also need to be cleaning it up,” she said.

Happily, research professors have been working on CO2 removal methods very similar to what Dr. Selover described. The Center for Negative Carbon Emissions at ASU experiments with carbon-removal methods, which include algae growth and “capturing” carbon in rocks.

Steve Atkins, Senior Engineer at the CNCE, has been working with his colleagues on technologies that remove carbon in different ways.

“I’ve been primarily focused on building direct air capture devices,” Atkins said. “They capture CO2 from the atoms in the air. At the Center we have something called an Ionic Resin Exchange Membrane, and basically what it does is collect CO2 from the atmosphere.”

According to Atkins, by feeding CO2 to algae they’re able to grow and eventually be converted into bio fuels. “Algae needs CO2 to grow better and faster. It’s how a lot of greenhouses pump elevated levels of CO2 into their structure,” he said.

“The overall goal is to be able to capture CO2 from the atmosphere at a low cost,” said Atkins. “We’re aiming to do this at a cost that is below what everyone else can do. We’re looking at 100 dollars per ton of CO2 that’s captured.” Atkins says that a secondary goal is to demonstrate that the process is scalable and economically viable. “We need to demonstrate this technology at a commercial scale,” he said.

The Center’s plan is to scale the project up to about one ton of CO2 removed from the air per day. But to do this they’d have to produce and deploy the devices that facilitate this process at the same rate that the U.S. produces automobiles. “We mass-produce so many other things in this country. We can do this too,” said Atkins.

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An artist’s impression of the CO2 ‘scrubber’ designed by Klaus Lackner. Photo from telegraph.co.uk.

According to the Center, the impact on the environment will come with the mass production of this machine. “Worst-case scenario, we would need 100 million of these devices out there to reduce carbon levels,” said Atkins.

That may sound like a lot of machines to build and have taking up space, but remember that there are 165 thousand cars produced around the world every day. The difference is, instead of producing carbon dioxide like cars do, these machines will actually consume it.

Now for the million-dollar question: Will any of this save us? Or is it too late to make a change?

“It is conceivable that at 400 ppm we’ve already exceeded the concentration needed to cause catastrophic climate change,” said Atkins. “To get back, we’d have to go negative – that is, we’d have to extract CO2 from the air, not just reduce or eliminate CO2 emissions.”

But are we at least going in the right direction? Atkins doesn’t think so. He says he’s pessimistic about the political and financial side of this issue.

According to climatologists’ calculations, in order to reach emission goals, 80 percent of the Earth’s oil has to stay in the ground. Atkins sees that as contrary to oil companies’ plans and financial interests. “We’ve made some progress in the fossil fuel industry but only a few coal plants have closed, and generally for financial, not environmental, reasons,” he said.

Perhaps the most foreboding thing about global climate change is that despite all of our technology, there is no timetable available. “I don’t know when we’ll know for sure whether or not we’re too late to stop the two degree global temperature increase that will lead to an irreversible climate shift,” said Atkins. “But I do think that climatologists are being conservative with their estimates. I think we’re going to find out sooner than most people think.”

Former CBS President Andrew Heyward visits Cronkite School

Former president of CBS Andrew Hayward visited the Cronkite School on Tuesday to discuss the challenges facing the next generation of journalists.

Excited ASU students were given the opportunity to ask the veteran journalist questions ranging from the future of newspapers to how television news will innovate to keep pace with the internet. During the hour-long discussion, which was also open to the public, Heyward outlined his vision for the future with hints of both optimism and warning.

“Prior to the 1980s, newsrooms didn’t have to be profitable,” said Heyward. “They were ‘loss leaders’ that added prestige to the network. After that period there were all sorts of corporate changes. What’s harder now than it was even 10 years ago is the tremendous financial pressure that the newsrooms have. They are expected to do more with less.”

Despite these harsh realities, Heyward’s message wasn’t all bad. “The good news is it’s become significantly cheaper to produce and distribute news.”

Journalism is a far more welcoming field than it once was, according to Heyward. He said it offers a lot more reward for individual talent than it used to. As students scribbled furiously to keep up with Mr. Heyward’s rapid speaking style, he went on to say that journalists are no longer expected to fit into the cookie-cutter mold that was standard for old newsrooms.

In Heyward’s view, online startups like Vice, Vox and Buzzfeed are the future of print journalism. He believes that Vice is the most impressive of the three because they use old-fashioned reporting methods to craft their stories. “Something that’s very important to remember is it’s much easier to chase viewers away than it is to attract them,” he said. “You have to protect your core while going for more.”

On the innovation issue, Heyward explained the concept of a “social scanner.”  In much the same way as one would use a police scanner, newsrooms and broadcast stations can use a social scanner to form a two-way relationship with their audience by digging into social issues and other hot topics. “Local news has been floundering because their style is too formulaic. Wildfires and court cases only really interest those whom are directly affected by them. Running stories like that are easy, so in a way it’s reaching for the low-hanging fruit.”

In Heyward’s experience, there is a perception in the newsroom that being a reporter is an annoyance that one must simply get through, and that being an anchor is the big prize. He said in order to really improve the position that journalism is in, we have to create the mindset among professionals that being an anchor is the boring/unfulfilling role and that reporting is where the exciting, meaningful work is done.

“If there were more transparency in the process of news gathering/reporting between the professionals and their audience, it would increase journalist’s credibility and ease the perception that all journalism outlets are biased,” said Heyward.

In perhaps his most profound observation of the night, Heyward said that a journalist’s job is not to reveal truth, it’s to discover facts. This carries legitimate weight when you consider that what’s true to one person may not necessarily be true to someone else, so in order to cut through the bias, ignorance and personal perceptions, journalists must find the actual facts.

It’s difficult to tell exactly where journalism will go in the coming decades – even Andrew Heyward will confirm that. But there’s one thing he knew for sure: millennials are fortunate enough to be born at the most exciting and transformative period of journalism in centuries. Before departing the stage Heyward looked at the crowd and said, “I envy you.”

The irrigation challenge in America’s Southwest

After California Governor Jerry Brown announced mandatory state-wide water restrictions in April, reducing our wet footprint seemed to finally become a topic of household discussion; not only in California, but across the nation. But with California grabbing all the water-related headlines, it’s made it difficult for less-populated states like Arizona and New Mexico to gain ground in the national water conservation discussion.

The entire Southwest is being effected by drought, not just the Golden State. It’s important that we as Americans give proper attention to the situation in Arizona, New Mexico and West Texas, which together are home to approximately 10 million people. Arizona in particular has an interesting irrigation system in place, known as the Central Arizona Project.

The CAP is a fresh-water canal that winds its way through the state, providing drinking/irrigation water to approx. 5 million of Arizona’s 6.7 million residents. Built in 1985, the CAP is a 336-mile system of aqueducts that divert water from the Colorado River and Lake Havasu. It serves as the “largest single resource of renewable water supplies in the state of Arizona” according to its website, http://www.cap-az.com.

Canals like this are a brilliant example of how we can keep the American Southwest inhabitable for generations to come, but only if we manage to sustain them. The reduction of water levels in the Colorado River has been a primary concern for the CAP, and its members are working to limit the use of river water by the people in the region.

The electrical plant which provides power to the CAP (thus enabling the CAP to pump water to its consumer base) has recently signed an agreement with the EPA to reduce its pollution output in order to remain open until 2044; after that, the CAP’s consumer base may have to pay higher rates in order to keep the canal system pumping water and thus providing power. The CAP’s annual report for 2014 is available here.

The canal cost the state of Arizona $4 billion to construct, and while that is a hefty sum, it’s an investment in the future. Citizens of Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and California would be wise to contact their representatives and advocate for the construction of a canal on par with what Arizona has built. And with the five states listed above having a combined budget of $293.6 billion for 2015, it’s fairly evident that they could carve out enough money to build canals of their own (perhaps even conjoin them to create a sort of manmade mega-river, similar to the Colorado.)

If more states that rely on water from the Colorado River (especially those in the southwest) could construct a system of aqueducts on the same level as the CAP, then the next generation of Americans born in that region would need not worry about the source of their fresh water. All it takes is a slice of the state budget and voter initiative on the part of those who call our beautiful deserts home.

Governor Doug Ducey (R-AZ) and his office was unavailable for comment regarding the future of the CAP. To contact the Central Arizona Project with any questions or concerns, call (623) 869-2333 or email them at info@cap-az.com.

Sources:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._state_budgets

http://www.cap-az.com/index.php/public/annual-reports

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_population

The Startup Illusion

A truly insightful post with very solid advice. As someone who doesn’t fit well into the mold of traditional schooling, it’s inspiring to hear from someone who has been through similar struggles.

TechCrunch

[tc_contributor_byline slug=”Noah-Benesch”]

In 2005, Steve Jobs delivered his now-famous Stanford Commencement Speech, wherein he explained that attempting to attend a four-year university had been a poor choice. The school was astronomically expensive and “[he] had no idea what [he] wanted to do with [his] life and no idea how college was going to help [him] figure it out.”

Jobs’ statement seems to resonate with today’s youth; more and more students are dropping out in search of startup stardom. In fact, in January 2014, the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) reported that more than 40 percent of full-time college students fail to earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Granted, not all drop-outs leave their university in the pursuit of entrepreneurship. However, I know first-hand that many do.

I am an entrepreneur. I founded my own startup and we are currently developing a mobile application that…

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