The Problem with Global Warming

02/21/2007 |

By Lewis Tagliaferre

No doubt you probably read about the latest updated report on global warming or saw it discussed on television news. Few could have missed the summary report released by the U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If you are shivering in some of the coldest weather of this winter, it may seem unimportant right now, but that could change.

There seems to be a growing consensus among scientists that something harmful is happening with the weather (and that it is likely to be caused by reliance on burning fossil fuels - oil, gas, and coal - including heating and cooling buildings). Combustion creates lots of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide (CO2), plus various other toxic pollutants to be emitted into the atmosphere that anyone can see on a typical day in most large cities. This pollution is suspected of causing a greenhouse effect in the upper atmosphere where excess heat is being trapped. Its greatest impact seems to be at the north and south poles, with resulting accelerated melting of the icecaps that have taken thousands of years to build up. Another fear is destruction of the protective layer of ozone that insulates the earth from biologically harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted from the sun. Ozone levels over the northern hemisphere have been dropping by 4 percent per decade. Much larger declines have been seen from space over approximately 5 percent of the earth’s surface around the North and South Poles.

Consequences of this trend bring forecasts of some serious threats to habitats in the affected areas. Melting icecaps could raise the ocean levels, flooding low-lying coastal plains (including some very densely populated areas). A rising ocean level could be serious for the United States, where half the population lives within 50 miles of the shoreline. Climate changes could upset agriculture or even stimulate massive animal migrations. The timetable and extent of all this is uncertain, but authors of the report indicate that the trends soon may be irreversible if nations do not take action to curtail further global warming. In second and third installments, additional details on the consequences and possible strategies for mitigating global-warming impacts are scheduled for release in April and May, respectively.

The problem with this doomsday forecast by a couple thousand renowned international scientists is that some respected scientists disagree. The basis of their argument is that correlations, no matter how probable, do not necessarily prove causation. Everyone seems to agree that global warming and CO2 concentrations are connected, but not all agree that the cause is manmade - at least not entirely. For example, cores deep-drilled into the arctic tundra have disclosed that the earth likely has experienced a series of warming and cooling cycles in the past on a fairly regular schedule that were accompanied by like changes in CO2. Critics also wonder how much of the motivation for the warnings about global warming is politically or economically driven. A group of some 45 countries has been organized by France into a new effort to stifle expanded combustion of fossil fuels, with the United States, China, and India noticeably absent for good reason.

These countries rely heavily on use of fossil fuels for conversion of energy into their gross national production (GNP), as do most industrialized nations. Environmental protection laws have helped tremendously to reduce air and water pollution in America, and energy-efficiency measures have greatly improved productivity, but China and India are far behind on both scores. Consequently, they rely on rapid growth in fossil-fuel combustion to provide the economic growth needed to support their exploding populations. In addition, some economists claim any curtailment of fossil fuels will assure that the most undeveloped countries will continue suffering from all the ills created by sluggish economies and lack of technology that requires increasing fossil-carbon energy use.

U.S. policymakers have been reluctant to adopt any measures to reduce greenhouse gases that would slow down economic growth. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman reportedly warned against “unintended consequences” that he says might result if the government requires economy-wide caps on carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels. “There is a concern within this administration that the imposition of a carbon cap in this country would lead to the transfer of jobs and industry abroad to nations that do not have such a carbon cap,” Bodman says. “You would then have the U.S. economy damaged and, potentially, even worse emissions.” Only in his recent State of the Union message did the President agree there might be a problem with global warming. His recommendations to Congress included raising the mileage standards for autos and increasing research and development of alternative- and renewable-energy sources... plus cleaner-coal technology.

Coal is our most abundant fossil-fuel resource. Some experts forecast we have enough to last more than 200 years. But, coal is dangerous to mine and dirty to burn - although not as dangerous or dirty as it used to be. Burning coal is used to generate more than half our electricity, but applications for new plants are receiving strong opposition. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that a typical conventional coal power plant produces the following emissions each year:

  • 3,700,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2).
  • 500 tons of small airborne particles.
  • 10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide (NOx).
  • 720 tons of carbon monoxide (CO).
  • 220 tons of hydrocarbons.
  • 170 pounds of mercury.
  • 225 pounds of arsenic.
  • 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and trace amounts of uranium.

The federal program to research and demonstrate clean-coal technology comes with significant challenges. “Clean coal” is the term for coal chemically washed of minerals and impurities - and sometimes gasified - before burning. The exhaust flue gases are treated with steam to remove sulphur dioxide, then reburned to make the carbon dioxide in the flue gas recoverable. The carbon dioxide then can be captured and stored, possibly in abandoned oil fields, instead of being released into the atmosphere. Opponents often state that clean-coal emissions are not reduced; they are merely transferred from one waste stream to another. This is the technology’s largest challenge, both from the practical and public-relations perspectives. Although it is possible to remove most of the sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter from the coal-burning process, carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions are more difficult to remove. Technologies to capture and store CO2 have not been deployed commercially due to high cost. Some prominent environmentalists, such as Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Clean Energy Program, believe that the term “clean coal” is misleading: “There is no such thing as clean coal and there never will be. It’s an oxymoron.” ( So, if the local utility company offers you some choices in the source of your power, you can be an informed customer. If there are some clean renewable options offered (such as solar or wind generation) and you believe it is important to reduce global warming, perhaps you will pay a little more for the assurance that you are helping to preserve the earth for future generations. If the use of fossil fuels helps assure the competitive costs of your operations will not be threatened today, then perhaps global warming will not be your biggest concern. The bottom line either way: There will be some people who agree with you. Here is a plus: You may keep up with state-federal partnerships for clean energy at (

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