Today's environmental zeitgeist
has swept the planet like California wildfires spread on Santa Ana winds.
While scientists have largely accepted global warming as a reality
for recent memory, it is only in the last two decades that statistical evidence has
made the case for global warming nearly irrefutable. However, the linkage
of climate change to industrial production through the common denominator
comprised by the unassuming carbon dioxide molecule always seems to strip global warming and
climate change out of the scientific or observational sphere and into the
political one. Of course, physical processes cannot be stripped and re-allocated,
just as identities cannot be changed nor facts suborned. Yet perceptions
are the tumblers on the secret workings of the giant locks of human progress.
And so while nations that even the United States might be guilty of occasionally
looking condescendingly down upon accepted global warming as essentially settled
science, the antediluvian George Bush administration
successfully stiff-armed the world's collective scientific weight to stand firm
behind the industries belching carbon dioxide into the air to drag its feet on
carbon emissions policy reform and to do so for nearly his entire term.
Then on 2006, the
administration and finally President George W. Bush stated
publicly that global warming was real and was manmade. And that was the
final floodgate of resistance to a whole new existential paradigm washed away.
A few short years later we are already in a new era, a green revolution, that
has exploded out of test tubes and off lecture circuits and into mainstream
culture and everyday life.
Today, it is not at all clear that any actions on the part of
the planet as a whole is even capable of reversing the changes that will result from the present
concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere. Many climate
pessimists think it's too late to come back from a perilous brink we already
find ourselves on. We all realize that even if that is so it is arguably
better to do all we can. Some
observations being now made are in fact very disturbing and could portend
dramatic consequences to past actions that we cannot correct nor change.
The main harbinger that the planet may be beyond the tipping point of
irreversible change comes from the dramatic ice melts observed in recent years in the
Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. Dramatic annual reduction in the areal
extent of the ice sheets is now coupled with proof that the Arctic sheet is also
thinning dramatically from melting of its underside. Already summertime
passage of merchant vessels through both northwest and northeast passages point
to nautical holy grails never before achieved in the history of sailing.
This is not a fortuitous record but one that clearly demonstrates that the
Earth's climate is indisputable in flux.
Scientists point to two dramatic positive feedback loops in
global warming that are presently occurring that lend credence to the concern
that there is a tipping point beyond which climate changes are irreversible and
dramatic that we may have already reached. One of these positive feedbacks is in the
aerial reduction of the expanse of sea ice.
Ice and snow are highly reflective whereas open ocean water is absorptive.
Much of the sun's radiation is reflected off of ice surfaces and back into space whereas it is nearly
all absorbed as heat upon striking the open water. So, as ice melts in response to rising carbon
dioxide concentrations and increased atmospheric retention of heat, more of the sun's energy is retained by the oceans
rather than being reflected into space, thereby creating a positive feedback
complicate things a bit, vast reservoirs of carbon in the form of volatile
hydrocarbons like methane in frozen peat bogs of the northern slope are
sequestered in the soils only because of permafrost and cold conditions.
This greenhouse gas, 22 times more harmful than carbon dioxide, is released from
warming of the bogs and swamps where it is presently sequestered, leading to
increased greenhouse gas concentrations as a function of warming, thereby increasing retention of
planetary heat by expansion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Most climate change models anticipate greater destabilization
and more pronounced effects of climate change at the polar regions, which is
what is in fact being observed. Since the Earth is a
complex system that is not immediately responsive to changing atmospheric
compositions, it is likely to take the planet a long time to equilibrate into
whatever new state it might eventually develop. The melting of the ice
caps would have the effect of boosting the heat in the world's oceans and have
dramatic effects on weather and eventually climate.
It is unlikely that even at a planetary level that vast
changes in contemporary industrial production could reverse the climate
instability and planetary warming presently underway. Certainly a
residential switch from grid electric to solar power is not going to save a
portion of a glacier from melting. Still, the planet's future for better
or for worse will require energetic alternatives to fossil fuels. Oil is a
finite commodity, so irrespective of how bad its combustion is for the planet,
it is only going to be around for a few more decades, anyway. No amount of
planetary hand-wringing is likely to stop societies and individuals from using
internal combustion engines, so long as they can afford the gas. So, unless carbon sequestration and scrubbing
technologies are able to remove CO2 from smokestacks and exhaust pipes,
individual efforts to have green households is likely to be overwhelmed by
indirect carbon footprints from transport fuel consumption and coal-powered
electricity likely to have been used to produce the goods in the first place,
and more dramatically from the reduction in rain forest and the release of
methane from arctic bogs.
Green engineering revolves around three basic principles to
me, or core aspects. Each project must take these three poles into
consideration in order to define the advantages and disadvantages and whether a
change is worthwhile and appropriate or not.
1) Resource, energy,
and waste optimization. The
first principle of green engineering is that everything is finite and all
reasonable projects must include responsible-use criteria that value thrift,
conservation, and maximum utility.
2) Carbon neutrality is a tangible and useful
measure of personal environmental sustainability and is fundamental to
comprehensive green engineering. It can be clearly shown that an
individual's carbon footprint is infinitely smaller than the products of
deforestation, fires, and the vast emissions of coal-burning power plants.
So, carbon neutrality is more of a global marketing component of green
engineering rather than conveying an advantage.
3) Economic viability is fundamental to any
sustainable policy. Green engineering must not only be helpful to the
environment inasmuch as environmental help is defined, but it must also make
While secret corporate research teams and government think
tanks and garage entrepreneurs work on such vital large scale green-engineering
processes like controlled nuclear fusion, carbon dioxide scrubbing, carbon
sequestration, photo-voltaic optimization, and work out all the infrastructural,
political, and socio-economic boundary conditions and operational framework, it
remains for the individuals by dint of their examples to lay the paving stones
for the progression of our own future, for better or for worse.
On to the nuts and bolts. . . how do I plan for an
environmentally sustainable household? Or how do I adapt my existing
household to reduce my carbon footprint? See Household Engineering.