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Oregon coast, thanks Ryan!

An Engineer’s Perspective on Climate Change


Our modern civilization needs reliable and continuous power. Those who do not have it need it, those of us who do have it need to keep it. Neither solar nor wind power can meet the current demands no matter how many batteries you can connect. Take away the subsidies and then explain how that is more economical. Natural gas and new modern smaller scale Nuclear plants are the most ecologically sound power sources. At least until we have widespread fusion plants. Coal is never going to be clean enough and should be avoided if reasonable and economical alternatives exist.

Planting trees and fertilizing the oceans would be beneficial if it can be done economically. Conservation is great but it is not enough to meet current demands and prospective increases. Start on the trillion trees projects. And pick the right trees. Start a project to collect and refine data on fertilizing the oceans with iron. Figure out what happened with experiments already done, come up with a few more smaller-scale experiments to verify the results and scale that up if it looks good. This will enhance the ocean's food chain and reduce CO2.

The sea level has been rising since the last glacial retreat. First, it was rapid, now it is about 1 inch per decade and has been for a long time. It is not accelerating to a significant degree. There are however many coastal areas that are routinely flooded during special events. These need to be protected. The building at or close to the existing sea level is a dumb idea and should be self-insured. Stop government subsidies for flood insurance. The owners need to bear the consequences. New Orleans, San Francisco, Houston, and the Netherlands et al have been fighting this for a long time. Build better levees, or move away from low lying areas.

Climate change is a serious challenge to our modern society. However, there is no reason to panic despite what the media headlines and “climate alarmists” are saying. They are promoting “clickbait”, spreading fear and apocalyptic projections without regard for the societal ramifications. Others have referred to this as the greatest SCAM in the history of the world. The real challenge is how we are going to deal with this. Rather than panic and clickbait, let's solve the problems if they are really there. Do real in-depth studies with transparent data and recommendations. Knock off the sensationalism and “The sky is falling Chicken Little behaviors.” When you have identified a real serious problem hire the engineering firms to fix it.


Let’s recap. A long time ago, as in the Archean Era, about 2.5 billion years ago, the Earth’s atmosphere had a lot of CO2 and little if any free oxygen (O2). The exact composition is unknown but current estimates put it around 70% CO2 and less than 10% O2. My guess is a lot less than 10% for O2. This seems to ignore the Nitrogen N2 which is the majority of gas in the atmosphere now.

Cyanobacteria created the free O2 in the earth’s atmosphere using photosynthesis, H2O, and CO2. No complex life could evolve until the percentage of free O2 became significantly higher. Oxygen is so reactive, that free O2 is pretty rare in the makeup of most planet atmospheres. This is the primary discriminant, free O2, in the latest European satellite instruments that are searching for life among the numerous exoplanets.

In the analysis of other planetary atmospheres, the presence of O2 is considered to be a likely indicator that some kind of process, presumably photosynthesis resulting from simple plant life, is keeping the atmosphere supplied with O2. Otherwise, O2 gets combined with other elements like hydrogen (H2O water), iron(Fe2O3, FeO kind of rare, and Fe3O4), carbon (the famous CO2), silicon (SiO2 quartz), and almost anything else to form various oxides. Note that Earth is unique among the solar system planets having a significant amount of O2 in the atmosphere. The moon is about 40% by weight of Oxygen but it is locked in various oxides. It is reasonable to say that the main, if not only reason Earth has any O2 and so little CO2 in the atmosphere is due to the effects of photosynthesis. Indeed, it took a long long time to free up the O2 we have. Since plants must have CO2 as one of the reactants for the photosynthetic process it is not really very helpful to call CO2 a pollutant. it is a necessary requirement for life on earth. CO2 must remain above 280 ppm or plants begin to react to less than necessary CO2 to properly function.

Coal is an interesting part of this in that all the coal on earth was formed from trees and similar plant life. At the time trees and the related plant life evolved there were no bacteria and bugs that could digest the lignin. It took millions of years for those life forms to evolve that could digest the lignin in the dead trees. So all the coal in the ground and the Carbon in that coal used to be in the atmosphere. All the billions of tons of Carbon locked in coal was CO2 in the atmosphere so long ago.

As an engineer and considering the problem at hand, Climate Change, the media, and so many research teams seem to be screaming on a daily basis that the Climate is changing, That it is happening because of CO2 that humans have poured into the environment as a result of various human activities, power production, transportation, and agriculture being the biggest items.

But is this the only way climate changes? Only because of CO2? Not at all. There are many reasons why the climate can change and prior to the arrival of humans on the scene, the climate did change and quite dramatically. Volcanoes, Orbital changes even the motion of the solar system cycling through the galactic plane have an effect on our climate.

Climate is changing. But I am not convinced it is happening solely based on human-generated CO2 and I do not think there is sufficient real evidence that the rate of change is a problem. I am skeptical of the accuracy of the data and analysis. Some have suggested that NASA, NOAA and any host of authoritative publishers of climate data are misrepresenting the facts, bending the data, or outright lying to us for any one of a multitude of reasons. For the sake of this article let’s assume the climate is changing, warming, and that it is due at least partly to human activity.

Without trying to be exhaustive, here are a few inputs to the global climate.

  1. The sun’s irradiance apparently has changed by around 20% (brighter) since the earth formed and that we can actually measure. Some claim a Grand Solar Minimum is starting this year. This is going to resemble the “Little Ice Age” from the medieval period and if it happens, we might want all the CO2 we can get in the atmosphere to keep us warmer if that actually helps.
  2. Much has also been made of the effects of the various orbital influences. Among these are the Milankovitch cycles.
  3. The Earth’s axial tilt. This is the reason we have seasons on Earth. This angle affects the climate. Mostly by influencing which parts of the earth get more sunlight during different stages of the year. I believe the cycle is approximately 25,772 years, as reported by Wikipedia. (Updated)
  4. Another cosmic influence is thought to be the (solar system’s and hence) earth’s motion through the galactic plane, cycling from above to beneath on some timeline that escapes me right now. It is thought by some that this has an influence on the cosmic rays received by the atmosphere and hence the formation of water droplets, a process known as nucleation. This is the well known cloud-chamber effect.
  5. Humans. Ah yes, the elephant in the room. Humans generate a lot of CO2. Billions of tons each year. But just to be clear, CO2 is not, and I repeat not the most significant greenhouse gas. Water vapor, H2O is far more significant. CO2 is not the biggest contributor to the overall greenhouse gas effect. One reason for this is that the absorption ranges for the sun’s energy reradiated back to the atmosphere overlap between CO2 and H2O. It is also well known that the absorption range for H2O is much much wider than the relatively narrow band that CO2 has.

Liquid H2O is covering about 70% of the earth’s surface. The amount of water vapor in the air is always in flux ranging from 0 to 100% humidity. But suffice it to say that the amount of H2O in our atmosphere is not really very amenable to human efforts to control or moderate it. We can do something about the CO2 however.

Now, let us think about natural climate change and see if we need to adjust any of our assumptions with respect to this idea. We know that climate has been different in the past. Both the global temperatures and CO2 levels varied without input from humans. Apparently there were at least 4 periods of glaciation. There is evidence of snowball earth in the past. Some have theorized that CO2 was what brought the earth out of this snowball condition. We have been in this relatively warm and stable period since the end of the last glacial period about 10–12 thousand years ago. If we consider our current situation as “the climate is changing” we might want to inquire as to how much of this current change is due to human activity and how much might be natural.

If someone suggests the current “climate change” is 100% anthropogenic I would have to disagree. I would also disagree with someone claiming it to be 100% natural. But consider this. Let’s just say for the sake of simplicity that it’s 50–50. Trying to moderate the current climate change by regulating the human CO2 might not be sufficient. It is quite likely to be a rather ineffective control. The natural part of climate change will still be in effect. I suggest that trying to affect the other factors solely by trying to control the CO2 levels is not going to work. We might need to consider additional ways to influence our climate. Presumably, ones that have a faster response and more precise effects. They should also be easily reversible if it comes to be that we need to readjust our goals.

I have seen some ideas such as adding Sulphur Dioxide aerosols to the atmosphere might help to cool it. If this is less expensive than moderating our CO2 output, effective and reversible is it not a better solution? We could help plants by having a higher CO2 concentration but keep from overheating the planet with a suitable effective and efficient scheme.

It is pretty much a no-brainer that humans should reduce the consumption of fossil fuels. But this comes with a few caveats. The first and most significant is that alternatives to power generation from fossil fuel consumption must be economical and contribute less to the CO2 going into the atmosphere. And this has to coincide with an increase in overall power production. It is not fair to deny developing countries the electric power they need to improve their standard of living. Solar, Wind, and Nuclear will have to be competitive with Coal, Gas and whatever other fossil fuel usages are most attractive to developing countries and this includes wood-burning stoves for cooking. Deforestation for cooking fuel and agriculture are two of the biggest factors contributing to human environmental changes. It should also be noted that Solar, Wind, and Nuclear are subsidized and this makes calculating the competitiveness of each against fossil power sources more difficult.

Overall, recent advances in smaller modular nuclear power plants might eventually make them more attractive. The advent of Fusion power is still some (about 30?) years away as it has always been. If fusion power ever becomes widely available, attractively priced, and of course competitive to operate, and safe then we are all saved! That’s a big list, easy to say, but not so easy to implement.

In general, what is the best level of CO2 we should aspire to for our environment? 300 ppm. Lower? There is a point, about 200 ppm at which photosynthesis stops working. Plants find it difficult to produce enough nutrients and begin to suffer. In fact, greenhouses sometimes resort to adding CO2 to their air to promote better growth. Would it be helpful to debate and set some kind of target allowance of CO2? And I do not consider the IPCC debate or reports good enough. That is a political process that has already demonstrated a serious lack of credibility and fact-checking. I want fact-checked and studious, serious debate where all parties are heard and complete discussions are published. Kind of like the Federalist Papers back in the days of ratifying our Constitution.

I have also heard it argued that there is no reason to think that the current climate environment is optimum. Assuming other things to be unchanged would it not be better for agriculture in general to have a higher level of CO2 for the plants to thrive? Could we increase global food production if we have higher CO2? I am pretty sure no one thinks a colder climate would be better but is a warmer environment really so catastrophic?

Fix the climate models to improve their predictions.

All of the climate models over-predict warming. Why is that? Is it because if they did correct the discrepancies their work would be finished and their funding dry up? Is there another reason they have not tested the models to see how they can be improved? I am sure an unbiased and independent review of the various models might come up with a few recommendations on exactly how to fix the inputs and assumptions inherent in the models.

Don’t panic, be cool.

We are not in such a dire situation no matter what the headlines, high school students or anyone else might suggest. If anyone is truly panicked over the rising sea levels, move. I have not heard of a general trend of people moving away from relatively low lying areas of the coasts. And if you insist on staying, the Dutch and a few Army Corps of Engineers guys from Lousiana, Texas and other states have been holding back the sea with good results for quite some time now. If you really are sweating this out, get some like-minded friends, hire a handful of Dutch consultants and invite them to give you a complete rundown on what it will take to protect your favorite beachfront areas. And keep in mind, the seas might be rising, but the land could also be subsiding. Sea level is a worldwide value. Given that minor variations might be possible due to variations in the local gravity, rising seas in one place should translate to rising seas everywhere.

There are suggestions that if one were to allocate 50 billion dollars to the improvement of the environment the money would be better spent on ensuring reliable and clean freshwater supplies for the humans not already so endowed. I know of no proposal for reducing CO2 that would have a better outcome than that of better more universally available clean water.

I had collected up a large number of references and citations. However, it is fairly easy to select any of the text in question and Google it to find out more. And before anyone freaks out and goes into a long-winded rant. Keep in mind that a good debate is supposed to be a learning experience. If your mind’s made up, nothing I write, claim or reference will change it. If you are still interested in more facts or alternative points of view, read some of the opposition articles. Know your enemy so to speak. There are sometimes even more than two sides to a story.

Written by

Engineer and veteran, 13 years of Design Engineering, 20+ years in Software Engineering, Go enthusiast. I read a lot, write some too,

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