At URI, climate expert offers solutions to global warming

By Peter B. Lord | The Providence Journal

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — For three months scientists have warned about the perils and dimensions of global climate change in special presentations at the University of Rhode Island. This week a Princeton University scientist described possible solutions — a broad spectrum of responses rather than any single action.

Engineering Prof. Robert Socolow and ecologist Stephen W. Pacala, codirectors of the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton, which is a 10-year, $20-million research program, have developed the “stabilization wedge” theory designed to cap carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere at current levels.

Socolow, speaking Tuesday at URI’s Honors Colloquium on Global Environmental Change, said increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide could be fought with a series of individual responses, each designed to remove one “wedge” from the graph showing rising CO2 levels.

The wedges include improved energy efficiency, removing carbon emissions from electric power production, reducing methane emissions, planting more trees and other vegetation to take up carbon and replacing gasoline-driven vehicles with electricity-powered ones.

Socolow said he has been criticized by some for not proposing steep cutbacks in carbon emissions that cause global warming, but that he fears crash programs would cause “terrible mistakes.”

“We should do far more than what the people in the Senate imagine,” Socolow said. “But less than what some greens want.”

Socolow also takes issue with some, such as NASA scientist James Hansen, who contend that the world is fast approaching a point of no return when it comes to climate change.

“This is a risk management problem, not a threshold problem,” Socolow said.

URI Provost Donald H. DeHayes introduced Socolow as the key person in the country developing solutions to global warming. While work on environmental issues is often depressing, DeHayes said, Socolow’s work offers reasons to be hopeful.

Socolow said there is 3,000-billion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, 800 million more than just 100 years ago. At the height of the last Ice Age, he said, there was 1,500 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Socolow said he still believes there is some headroom that would allow for more CO2 increases, but the only ethical thing to do would be for developed countries to cap or reduce their emissions, so the poorest countries have some space to grow and create more emissions of their own.

Burning fossil fuels creates 30 billion tons of CO2 annually. About 8 billion tons is removed by the oceans and 7 billion tons taken up by plant life on land, so about 15 billion tons is added to the atmosphere each year. That additional CO2 is what Socolow wants to prevent.

People in developed countries should be limited to 4 or 5 tons of CO2 annually, Socolow said. But it takes very little to reach that level. You could do it by driving an economy car 10,000 miles or flying 10,000 miles a year or heating one house.

People need to become carbon literate, he said, so they can do more to reduce their emissions.

“I tell climate scientists that never in history has the work of so few led to so much being asked of so many,” Socolow said.

Three factors that give him hope, Socolow said, are that the world’s energy systems are terribly inefficient now so they can be improved, carbon emissions have just begun to be priced, and most of the world’s infrastructure that will be in place 50 years from now has yet to be built.

One big roadblock in the United States, he said, is that most of its coal-powered power plants are old but they’ve been paid for, so utilities are reluctant to replace them with modern plants that burn more efficiently or use cleaner fuels.

“Just when the world is bringing on new technologies, we’re there nursing our old plants,” Socolow said.

 

For more information on the Princeton carbon research, go to: http://www.princeton.edu/~cmi/resources/

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