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Repair Manual
Global warming is a reality. Innovation in energy technology and policy are sorely
needed if we are to cope BY GARY STIX

Explorers attempted and and record heat waves edge to- house gases, including water va-
mostly failed over the centuries ward the apocalyptic: floods, por, carbon dioxide and meth-
to establish a pathway from the pestilence, hurricanes, droughts— ane, to prevent some of the heat
Atlantic to the Pacific through even itchier cases of poison ivy. from the received solar radiation
the icebound North, a quest of- Month after month, reports from escaping back into space,
❊ New reports pile ten punctuated by starvation and mount of the deleterious effects thus keeping the planet hospita-
up each month about
the perils of climate scurvy. Yet within just 40 years, of rising carbon levels. One recent ble for protozoa, Shetland ponies
change, including and maybe many fewer, an as- study chronicled threats to coral and Lindsay Lohan. But too
threats to marine cending thermometer will likely and other marine organisms, an- much of a good thing— in par-
life, increases in
wildfires, even more mean that the maritime dream of other a big upswing in major wild- ticular, carbon dioxide from
virulent poison ivy. Sir Francis Drake and Captain fires in the western U.S. that have SUVs and local coal-fired utili-
❊ Implementing James Cook will turn into an ac- resulted because of warming. ties— is causing a steady uptick in
initiatives to stem tual route of commerce that com- The debate on global warm- the thermometer. Almost all of
global warming will
prove more of a petes with the Panama Canal. ing is over. Present levels of car- the 20 hottest years on record
challenge than the The term “glacial change” has bon dioxide — nearing 400 parts have occurred since the 1980s.
Manhattan Project. taken on a meaning opposite to per million (ppm) in the earth’s No one knows exactly what
❊ Leading thinkers
its common usage. Yet in reality, atmosphere— are higher than they will happen if things are left un-
detail their ideas in
the articles that Arctic shipping lanes would count have been at any time in the past checked— the exact date when a
follow for deploying as one of the more benign effects 650,000 years and could easily polar ice sheet will complete a
energy technologies
of accelerated climate change. The surpass 500 ppm by the year 2050 phase change from solid to liquid
to decarbonize
the planet. repercussions of melting glaciers, without radical intervention. cannot be foreseen with preci-
disruptions in the Gulf Stream The earth requires green- sion, which is why the Bush ad-


Carbon emissions are heating the earth.

ministration and warming-skeptical omy. Worries over fossil-fuel supplies by failing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and
public-interest groups still carry on about reach crisis proportions only when safe- commit to reducing greenhouse gas emis-
the uncertainties of climate change. But guarding the climate is taken into ac- sions to 7 percent below 1990 levels.
no climatologist wants to test what will count. Even if oil production peaks Yet one of the main sticking points
arise if carbon dioxide levels drift much soon — a debatable contention given for the U.S.— the absence from that ac-
higher than 500 ppm. Canada’s oil sands, Venezuela’s heavy cord of a requirement that developing
C A R Y W O L I N S K Y ( p h o t o g r a p h) ; J E N C H R I S T I A N S E N ( p h o t o i l l u s t r a t i o n)

oil and other reserves — coal and its de- countries agree to firm emission limits —
A League of Rations rivatives could tide the earth over for looms as even more of an obstacle as a
p r e v e n t i n g the transformation of more than a century. But fossil fuels, successor agreement is contemplated to
the earth’s atmosphere from greenhouse which account for 80 percent of the take effect when Kyoto expires in 2012.
to unconstrained hothouse represents ar- world’s energy usage, become a liability The torrid economic growth of China
guably the most imposing scientific and if a global carbon budget has to be set. and India will elicit calls from industrial
technical challenge that humanity has Translation of scientific consensus on nations for restraints on emissions, which
ever faced. Sustained marshaling of climate change into a consensus on what will again be met by even more adamant
cross-border engineering and political should be done about it carries the debate retorts that citizens of Shenzhen and Hy-
resources over the course of a century or into the type of political minefield that derabad should have the same opportu-
more to check the rise of carbon emis- has often undercut attempts at interna- nities to build their economies that those
sions makes a moon mission or a Man- tional governance since the League of of Detroit and Frankfurt once did.
hattan Project appear comparatively Nations. The U.S. holds less than 5 per- Kyoto may have been a necessary first
straightforward. cent of the world’s population but pro- step, if only because it lit up the pitted
Climate change compels a massive duces nearly 25 percent of carbon emis- road that lies ahead. But stabilization of
restructuring of the world’s energy econ- sions and has played the role of saboteur carbon emissions will require a more

w w w. s c ia m . c o m SCIENTIFIC A MERIC A N 47
A U.S. senator has called global warming the “greatest hoax”
ever foisted on the American people. But despite persistently
strident rhetoric, skeptics are having an ever harder time
making their arguments: scientific support for warming
continues to grow.
1961–1990 Average (degrees Celsius)
Departures in Temperature from the

Instrument data Smoothed

Reconstructed data Error limits
0.5 A line of SUVs symbolizes high per-capita U.S. energy consumption.
But rising expectations pervade the developing world.
Many Chinese dream of trading a bicycle for a car.


1000 1200 1400 1600 1800 2000
This “hockey stick graph,” from one of many studies showing

J E N C H R I S T I A N S E N , S O U R C E : I P C C T H I R D A S S E S S M E N T R E P O R T ( g r a p h) ; R I C H A R D M I C H A E L P R U I T T D a l l a s M o r n i n g N e w s / C o r b i s ( S U Vs) ;
a recent sharp increase in average temperatures, received
criticism from warming skeptics, who questioned the underlying
data. A report released in June by the National Research Council
lends new credence to the sticklike trend line that traces
an upward path of temperatures during the 20th century.

A prerequisite for life on earth, the greenhouse effect occurs when infrared radiation (heat) is retained within the atmosphere.

F R E D E R I C J . B R O W N A F P / G e t t y I m a g e s ( C h i n a) ; L U C Y R E A D I N G - I K K A N D A ( i l l u s t r a t i o n s)
1 Most solar energy
reaching the earth is 3 Like a blanket, 4 Human activity has
SUN absorbed at the surface atmospheric green- increased the amount
house gases absorb of greenhouse gas in the
and reradiate the atmosphere and thus
heat in all directions, the amount of heat
including back to returned to the surface.
the earth In consequence, global
temperatures have risen


ATMOSPHERE 2 The warmed surface emits

infrared radiation


tangible blueprint for nurturing further
economic growth while building a decar-
bonized energy infrastructure. An oil
company’s “Beyond Petroleum” slogans
will not suffice.
Industry groups advocating nuclear
power and clean coal have stepped for-
ward to offer single-solution visions of
clean energy. But too much devoted too
early to any one technology could yield
the wrong fix and derail momentum to-
ward a sustainable agenda for decarbon-
ization. Portfolio diversification under-
lies a plan laid out by Robert H. Socolow
and Stephen W. Pacala in this single-top-
ic edition of Scientific American. The
two Princeton University professors de-
scribe how deployment of a basket of
technologies and strategies can stabilize
carbon emissions by midcentury.
Perhaps a solar cell breakthrough
will usher in the photovoltaic age, allow-
ing both a steel plant and a cell phone
user to derive all needed watts from a
single source. But if that does not hap-
pen— and it probably won’t— many tech-
nologies (biofuels, solar, hydrogen and
nuclear) will be required to achieve a
low-carbon energy supply. All these ap-
proaches are profiled by leading experts
in this special issue, as are more radical
M C I N T Y R E A P P h o t o / N a t i o n a l P a r k S e r v i c e ( t o p) ; R . D . K A R P I L O A P P h o t o / N a t i o n a l P a r k S e r v i c e ( b o t t o m)

▲ Then and now: Sunset Glacier in Alaska’s Denali National Park, shown covering a mountainside in
ideas, such as solar power plants in out- August 1939, had all but vanished 65 years later when photographed during the same month.
er space and fusion generators, which
may come into play should today’s seers grams needed to cultivate fossil fuel al- fuels for transportation, both without
prove myopic 50 years hence. ternatives. The current federal policy meaningful checks on carbon emissions.
vacuum has prompted a group of eastern A steady chorus of skeptics contin-
No More Business as Usual states to develop their own cap-and-trade ues to cast doubt on the massive peer-
p l a n n i n g in 50- or 100-year incre- program under the banner of the Region- reviewed scientific literature that forms
ments is perhaps an impossible dream. al Greenhouse Gas Initiative. the cornerstone for a consensus on glob-
The slim hope for keeping atmospheric Fifty-year time frames are planning al warming. “They call it pollution; we
carbon below 500 ppm hinges on ag- horizons for futurists, not pragmatic pol- call it life,” intones a Competitive Enter-
gressive programs of energy efficiency icymakers. Maybe a miraculous new en- prise Institute advertisement on the mer-
instituted by national governments. To ergy technology will simultaneously solve its of carbon dioxide. Uncertainties about
go beyond what climate specialists call our energy and climate problems during the extent and pace of warming will un-
the “business as usual” scenario, the U.S. that time, but another scenario is at least doubtedly persist. But the consequences
must follow Europe and even some of its as likely: a perceived failure of Kyoto or of inaction could be worse than the
own state governments in instituting international bickering over climate ques- feared economic damage that has bred
new policies that affix a price on car- tions could foster the burning of abun- overcaution. If we wait for an ice cap to
bon — whether in the form of a tax on dant coal for electricity and synthetic vanish, it will simply be too late.
emissions or in a cap-and-trade system
(emission allowances that are capped in MORE TO EXPLORE
aggregate at a certain level and then The End of Oil: On the Edge of a Perilous New World. Paul Roberts. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.
traded in open markets). These steps Kicking the Carbon Habit. William Sweet. Columbia University Press, 2006.
can furnish the breathing space to es- An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore. Rodale, 2006.
tablish the defense-scale research pro-

w w w. s c ia m . c o m SCIENTIFIC A MERIC A N 49