Global warming: Beyond a reasonable doubt

  1. Roast, or idle boast?

2. Ultimate cooker

3. See rising sea level

4. Know for sure?

5. What to do?

Fossil fuels are still the primary source for electric power. Department of Energy .





Evasive action needed
If global warming is unprovable but highly likely, what should we do about it? In the simplest terms:

Burn less stuff.

Use energy more efficiently.

Switch to alternative energy sources that don't use combustion.

Find ways to store more carbon in living things.

Power lines and towers run toward the camera.All of these ideas are important, but none is particularly new. Visit our bibliography for some "what-you-can-do-now" suggestions.

In our search for innovative solutions to global warming, The Why Files found three that might be helpful on the large scale.

Trade, baby, trade
A market is slowly forming in the "right" to emit carbon dioxide. Modeled on the "cap-and-trade" arrangement that has reduced utility sulfur emissions and acid rain, the new market has already logged 65 trades for at least 1,000 metric tons of carbon, says Judy Greenwald, director of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

Pollution markets work like this: If I can find a way to cheaply reduce emissions at my power plant, I can sell that reduction to your plant, which can't find cheap reductions. Ideally, such markets will find the cheapest reductions, but they require careful monitoring to ensure that the reductions are not, in the Enron "energy market" tradition, simply flim-flam.

Most of the first carbon dioxide trades are called "verified emissions reductions." Under these, the selling company reduces its emissions, and sells the reduction to another company that wants, for one reason or another, to reduce emissions.

A second and more promising form of trade helps comply with upcoming requirements to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, says Greenwald. The United Kingdom and Denmark have both capped emissions, forcing companies that must exceed the caps to buy reductions from other companies.

Woman stands near row of three SUVs and one van in a parking lot, arms held out in bewilderment.
Talk about global-warming machines! This Whyfiler is aghast at a row of gas-guzzling SUVs (OK, one's a van, but you get the picture).

Caps are controversial, but necessary, she says. "A lot of people like trading, but don't like caps, but you can't have trading without caps, because it's the cap that gives the emissions reduction value."

Emissions caps are included in the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, accepted by many countries but rejected by the U.S. Ironically, she notes, "It was the U.S. that proposed the 'cap and trade' regime [at the Kyoto negotiations] in the first place."

The Kyoto targets will start taking effect in 2008, she says, at which point emissions trading could be a major factor in controlling carbon dioxide.

Intelligent investment
A second approach would promote green electricity sales with a "renewables portfolio standard." The standards, already in existence in 12 states, requires utilities to derive a growing percentage of their output from renewable sources, such as wind, geothermal, biomass or solar.

The idea is, again, to use market forces to find the cheapest reductions first. The Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, supports a proposal to provide 20 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020.

As we write, the U.S. Senate energy bill includes a 10-percent renewable electricity provision, says Marchant Wentworth of the UCS. Because the House version lacks such a provision, the issue is before a conference committee.

Curiously, one state with a successful renewables standard is Texas, where, in 1999, Gov. George W. Bush signed legislation requiring that 2,000 million watts of electricity come from renewables by 2009.

Things are going so swimmingly in Texas, says Wentworth, that the goal will be met in 2002, largely because so much wind is available. However, he notes that President Bush's Department of Energy opposes the renewables portfolio.

Close-up of worm-shaped ocean-floor bacteria. The National Science Foundation supported extremophile sampling at Loihi, a submarine volcano near Hawaii, in 1999. Microbial mats, including a newly seen jelly-like organism surrounding the 160¬ĚC vents, were collected for study; such samples might contain a bacterium that quickly eats carbon dioxide. NOAA.

Send in the bugs
If you followed the quest to sequence the human genome, you may recognize the name Craig Venter. Until recently, he headed Celera Genomics, the startup that tied the federally sponsored Human Genome Project in completing a first-draft description of the human genome.

Venter, an iconoclastic scientist with a record for success, is devoting some of his time and money to finding a biological solution to the greenhouse crisis. Specifically, his Institute for Biological Energy will search for microbes that can quickly convert carbon dioxide to organic molecules.

The plan is to look at the seafloor and deep in the Earth for members of the kingdom Archaea that convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into complex molecules.

No bugs in our hot-off-the-presses global warming bibliography. Promise!




  The Why Files  

There are 1 2 3 4 5 pages in this feature.
Bibliography | Credits | Feedback | Search

©2002, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.