Asset Management / Temperature

Could it be this simple to solve global warming?

When you look at global warming as an engineering problem, you can tunnel right through politics, greed, biases and even science.

By Paul Studebaker

I find myself newly optimistic about the future, and it’s not just because my oncologist thinks I might survive cancer, or that I’m retiring soon to, among other things, ride around North America on epic motorcycle camping trips. It’s because Béla Lipták has again shifted from convincing us all that global warming is real to telling us genuinely practical ways to mitigate it (p. 38). And, as always, he explains it using his comprehensive knowledge of process control.

When you look at global warming as an engineering problem, you can tunnel right through politics, greed, biases and even science. But you do have to have an engineering understanding, and the more you understand, the smaller the problem becomes.

Over the past few years, among other things, Lipták has shown us that all the energy used by everything people do on earth—electric, fossil, everything—is roughly equivalent to the solar energy that could be captured with today’s technology from a 40-mile-square (1,600 square mile) area in the Sahara desert. That’s how powerful the sun is, and I feel it today because I woke up to temperatures below 30 °F and a world covered by inches of snow, and by mid-day, it is 50 °F and all the snow is gone. The atmosphere and all that mass of concrete and earth was heated, and all that frozen water was melted by a couple of hours of low-angle sunlight.

We're barraged with so much energy that a tiny fraction of the Earth’s surface receives more than enough to power everything. We’d all be burned to a crisp were it not for the fact that almost all of that energy is reflected, convected and radiated back into space, some immediately, the rest at night. The Earth and its atmosphere retain just a tiny fraction, which keeps us, on average, at just the right temperature.

However, it seems that due to increased CO2 and other greenhouse gases, we’re keeping just a tiny bit more of that tiny fraction than we need, and the Earth is warming up. We’ve focused on ways to stop adding greenhouse gases, and removing them with approaches from planting trees to synthesizing gasoline from them.

But as Lipták reminds us this month, the problem is the heat balance.

If this were the turn of the 20th century and global warming was the smell of horsecrap, today’s solutions would be like trying to reduce or eliminate horsecrap by outlawing horses. Obviously, instead, we could get better at disposing of horsecrap, or develop horse diets that reduced the amount of horsecrap or made horsecrap smell better.

In addition, we could invent automobiles, which would require us to ignore the complaints of horse riders, breeders, traders, stable-keepers, haymakers, groomers, farriers and veterinarians, and subsidize construction of the smooth roads and infrastructure required by wheeled, liquid-fuel-powered alternatives that, it turned out, most everybody preferred (with apologies to the Amish).

Of course, unlike horsecrap, our slightly out-of-whack heat balance doesn’t have a single source, and bringing it back on setpoint will be quicker and more painless using a multi-prong approach from restoring desertification to incentivizing electric vehicles, and maybe even more and better nuclear plants. And it will likely benefit from technologies we haven’t heard about yet, so we need to help people find those and bring them to the table.

But I am optimistic and confident that, providing my oncologist isn’t disappointed, I’ll be around to see a better planet, on the path to a comfortable future for my children's and the following generations. And that, just like horses remain welcome almost everywhere they won’t be run over by the cars that replaced them (again, apologies to the Amish), I’ll be able to buy gas for my motorcycle. There’s no way to charge an electric where I’m planning to pitch my tent.