Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Who will pull us out of the climate change conundrum?

Every year since 1995, our leaders or their representatives met at the so-called Conference of Parties, debating climate change, global warming in particular. Over time, the conferences’ goal has become what is politically possible, not what is environmentally desirable. Hence, the emphasis has shifted from reducing emissions of carbon dioxide to helping nations adapt to whatever the future climate might look like. While adaptation is necessary for survival on a planet ravaged by the vagaries of global warming, it also means throwing in the towel against the fight to tackle climate change effectively.

The outcomes of these conferences clearly indicate that we are backing away from a disaster of our own making by surrendering to the whims of powerful people beholden to lobbyists, special interest groups and climate change deniers. Who will, therefore, pull us out of the climate change conundrum, so that our future generations can stay in a climate-safe planet? How can we remain hopeful while facing the growing, irrefutable evidence of devastating climate-induced changes around us?

On March 15, 2019, hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren all over the world, from the South Pacific to the edge of the Arctic Circle, answered the above questions, loud and clear. They skipped classes to protest what they see as the failures of their governments to take tough actions against global warming. Although most of the protesters are under the voting age, they nevertheless want to have a say in the politics of climate change. Hence, they are boldly challenging the stewards of “their” planet who have the ability to make the real differences needed right now with regard to climate change.

The protest was inspired by a 16-year-old Swede, Greta Thunberg, to express children’s frustration with older generations’ laissez-faire attitude towards climate change. She kicked off a global movement after last summer’s record heat wave in northern Europe and forest fires that ravaged swathes of her country up to the Arctic. Since August 10, 2018, she has been sitting outside the Swedish parliament every Friday, now known as Fridays for Future, protesting inaction by adults. She recently gave a speech to climate negotiators in Switzerland and told them, “I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”

Fridays for Future was also observed in New York City, where students at dozens of schools across the five boroughs stayed away from their classroom and took to the streets. They hosted multiple rallies in front of the City Hall, Columbus Circle, Bronx High School for Science, Columbia University, American Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere. All of them chanted, “Money won’t matter when we’re dead.” “Sea levels are rising and so are we.” “I’m not showing up for school because adults aren’t showing up for climate.”

They spoke about the importance of schools teaching students about climate change from a young age. “If we don’t learn about it, we might believe the things that are lies, that it’s a hoax… They can’t just leave a falling apart planet to us. We only have so much time to fix it, and we have to fix it while we still can, because by the time we’re in power we can’t fix it,” said the 13-year old Rachel Entin-Bell, who was protesting at the Washington Square Park.

The star of the protest was a 9-year-old kid, Zayne Cowie, who sat in front of the City Hall with his little sister on his lap holding a sign that says “Climate Strike”. “Climate change is happening faster than we can react. Well, we could react fast enough but nobody cares,” he said. Sadly, we are living at a time when a 9-year-old is more knowledgeable about climate science than the current occupant of the White House!

Starting in December 2018, following in the footsteps of Greta, Zayne opted out of attending Friday classes at his school and instead sit in front of the City Hall—rain, snow or shine—reading from the children’s book of verse “Goodbye, Earth.” The first two stanzas are:

The World is big and I am small.

One day I wish to see it all.

Pacific islands, northern Lights,

Himalayas, desert nights.

The World is big and I am small.

The Earth’s in trouble, hear her call.

Me and my nine-year-old peers

Have now lived through its hottest years.

Indeed, when children come out on the streets to protest climate change, we know that it is high time for adults to wake up and act decisively. Unfortunately, adults are caught up in their egotistic needs of power, accumulation of wealth, comfort and socio-economic status, leaving very little time to care about future generations.

Ironically, children like Zayne, Greta, Rachel and others are the first generation who are least responsible for the 410 parts per million concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, but will face most of the catastrophic consequences from it. They are coming of age when the window to ward off this nightmare scenario is rapidly shrinking.

Many older adults have been warning for decades that our future generations will suffer for our greed, selfishness and inertia from continued inaction. Now, those future victims are raising their voice to try and shape the agenda. They are the bastions of hope emerging around the world. Their message: No more business as usual. We need to act as though our future and the future of all life on this planet depends on what we do, because it does.

How did adults react to the protests? In New York City, 16 protesters have been arrested for blocking traffic in front of the American Museum of Natural History. They were charged for disorderly conduct. Shame on us, who are doing very little at addressing climate change, leaving the consequences to be dealt with by younger generations, yet arresting them for raising their voices against climate change.


The writer, Quamrul Haider, is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York

Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Political, Religious

Has U.S./Saudi relation outlived its economic and strategic significance?

An analysis by the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights (CDHR):

One of the world’s best kept secrets,the lucrativecontracts between the democratic America and autocratic Saudi Arabia, is crumbling due to varieties of reasons, including cunning manoeuvres (manipulations due to cultural differences and business practices,) to heightened tensions, to new energy sources and to a wide range of more stable, profitable and relevant economic and strategic options. From its formalised inception in 1945, the U.S./Saudi relationship has been based on mistrust and, on the Saudi side, lack of both viable protectors and concern for evolving human ingenuity with its consequential political, economic and social impacts.

Despite its original specific objectives – U.S. companies’ domination over Saudi oil and construction of the state’s infrastructure in exchange for U.S. government protection for the Saudi oligarchs – the contract was expanded to cover a wide range of political and strategic areas, which successive monarchs cleverly utilized to spread, strengthen and export their religious zealotry and political repression, which resulted in anti-American reactions in the Arab East and beyond.

However, due to its financial lucrativeness, the U.S./Saudi pact survived regional threats, such as Arab nationalism and the devastating economic and social fallout from the Saudi-led oil embargo in 1973. It also survived the traumas of the mortifying terrorist attacks carried out by mostly Saudi nationals on September 11, 2001 (9/11) – an event that not only permanently changed American society, but affected the international community.  Furthermore, the relationship could not escape the fallout of the unforeseen Arab masses’ pro-democracy and anti-autocracy uprising (the Arab Spring) where the U.S. and its Western allies had to take sides.

Due to economic and energy exigencies and fewer options for the U.S., the U.S./Saudi relationship weathered the battering events mentioned above. However, the accumulative fallout from these events has profoundly destabilised and exposed the tacit trade-off upon which the eight-decade old profit-driven pact was founded: sacrificing American democratic and moral values to protect a cruel system founded on social injustice, religious intolerance and a sectarian law (Shariah,) which considers the individual’s right to choose antithetical to God’s will, thus blasphemous.

Badly scarred and weakened by prior events, the U.S./Saudi relationship hit rock bottom after the gruesome murder of The Washington Post Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. Although unspeakable punishment for critics and human rights advocates is standard procedure of the Saudi regime, the brazenness of Khashoggi’s extrajudicial assassination generated unprecedented condemnation of the Saudi monarchy by foes and friends alike, including the Saudis’ closest ally, the U.S. Combined with ongoing U.S. support for the Saudi-led onslaught against Yemen, Khashoggi’s murder coalesced unparalleled anti-Saudi support globally, especially in the U.S. media, among the public and, more ominously, in the U.S. Congress, where a significant number of powerful bipartisan lawmakers not only condemned Saudi behaviour and branded the future king as “dangerous, unstable, crazy and a wrecking ball,” but further alienated the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government from each other.

In light of these developments, including destabilizing Saudi foreign policies, erratic leadership and unprecedented public denunciations by powerful American politicians, it is inconceivable that the U.S./Saudi relationship can be restored to its pre-Khashoggi-assassination status. 

Regardless of the future status of the U.S./Saudi relationship, the American government and businesses are in superior positions and have more profitable economic and strategic options to choose from now than they had during the Saudi-led oil embargo in 1973 and when ideologically inspired Saudi nationals attacked the symbols of American economic and military power in September 2001. On the other hand, the Saudi rulers are struggling to maintain economic and political stability resulting from a far-reaching decline in oil revenues, unprecedented discordance within the ruling family, costly regional conflicts and rising expectations of an increasingly restless population, most of which is below the age of 30.

Irrespective of the current U.S. Administration’s disputes with countries like China, Mexico and Canada over “tariffs and imbalanced trade,” the American economy needs global markets and natural resources, without which the American standard of living could plummet and U.S. influence economically, politically and militarily could be overcome by undemocratic competitors like expansionist China. This potential possibility can be avoided if seen for what it is, a race against time. There is no shortage of opportunities for American companies’ ingenuity and investment in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where untapped human potential and natural resources abound.

The deterioration of the U.S./Saudi relationship is representative of a larger gloomy future for the Middle East. Caught up in raging self-inflicted violence, political instability, social unrest, rampant corruption, unwillingness to operate within globally recognized and practised business and political norms, the Middle East (with the exception of Israel) is not only becoming an increasingly undesirable region for business, but a global pariah. 

Dr Ali H Alyami, Director of CDHR

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Political, Technical

Welcome to the age of climate change

Our planet is under tremendous stress now. During the last week of January, major cities in the US Midwest and Northeast were colder than some regions in Antarctica. Temperature in Minneapolis dipped as low as negative 32 degrees Celsius, with the wind chill reaching negative 47. Grand Forks in North Dakota has seen the lowest wind chill at negative 54 degrees. As many as 21 cold-related deaths have been reported so far.

Temperatures during the first week of February rose on average by a whopping 40-50 degrees. However, the reprieve is going to be short-lived as the frigid temperatures are expected to return later this month.

Although the scientifically challenged US president wants global warming to “come back fast”, someone should whisper into his ears that extreme cold spells in the Northern Hemisphere are caused, at least in part, by global warming. Under normal circumstances, cold air mass sits above the poles in an area called the polar vortex. Emerging research suggests that a warming Arctic distorts the vortex in the North Pole, so that instead of staying where it belongs in winter, closer to the Arctic Circle, the air moves down south into continental United States. Hence, the brutal cold spells. With the rapid warming of the Arctic, the effects of the polar vortex could become more frequent and severe, bringing about more intense periods of cold snaps and storms.

While we are trying to stay warm, down under, Australians are getting baked by record-breaking heat. Over two days in November, temperatures exceeding 40 degrees in Australia’s north wiped out almost one-third of the nation’s fruit bats, also known as spectacled flying foxes. Scores of brumbies—Australian wild horses—in the Northern Territory have fallen victim to the January heatwave, which soared to a high of 47 degrees. They died from starvation and dehydration. More than a million fish have perished in a river in New South Wales as the water temperature surpassed their tolerance limit.

Last summer, many nuclear power plants in Europe halted operation because overheated river water could no longer cool down the reactors. And like many Asian megalopolises, Bangkok is choking on air pollution. Water cannons are used to alleviate the smog that has shrouded the city for weeks.

A series of droughts with little recovery time in the intervals has pushed millions to the edge of survival in the Horn of Africa. Bangladesh is staring at an unprecedented migration problem as hundreds of thousands face a stark choice between inundated coastal areas and urban slums.

California saw its most ruinous wildfires ever in 2018, claiming more than 100 lives and burning down nearly 1.6 million acres. There have even been freak blazes in Lapland and elsewhere in the Arctic Circle. There is ample data to suggest that climate change is the biggest driver of out-of-control wildfires. In colder regions, an unusually warmer climate leads to earlier snowmelt and, consequently, spring arrives earlier. An early spring causes soils to be drier for a longer period of time. Drier conditions and higher temperatures increase not only the likelihood of a wildfire to occur, but also affect its severity and duration.

Typhoon Mangkhut with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour roared across the Philippines and China in September 2018, triggering landslides, extensive flooding and killing some 100 people. The ferocity of the typhoon matched that of Hurricane Florence on the other side of the globe that pummelled the Mid-Atlantic Coast of the United States just four days earlier. The wind speed was 130 miles per hour and the hurricane claimed 36 lives.

Cutting-edge research by climate scientists indicates that the intensity of hurricanes and typhoons is closely connected to global warming. Higher sea levels due to melting of glaciers and Greenland’s ice sheets and warm water give coastal storm surges a higher starting point. Additionally, because hurricanes and tropical storms gain energy from water, their destructive power intensifies. Moreover, as the Earth has warmed, the probability of a storm with high precipitation levels is much higher than it was at the end of the twentieth century.

Besides raising the sea level, climate change is also modifying oceans in different ways. According to a study published in Nature Communications in January 2019, as climate change gradually heats oceans around the globe, it is also making the ocean waves stronger and more deadly.

Climate change is ravaging the natural laboratory in the Galápagos Islands, one of the most pristine and isolated places in the world, where Charles Darwin saw a blueprint for the origin and natural selection of every species, including humans. Today, because of the more frequent El Niño events that have come with warming of the seas, the inhabitants of the islands are trying to cope with the whims of natural selection.

Welcome to the age of climate change! These are just a few examples of multiple weather-related extremes occurring all over the world. They beg the question: Can human beings survive the climate crisis? The answer depends on what we do in the next 10-20 years. It will determine whether our planet will remain hospitable to human life or slide down an irreversible path towards becoming uninhabitable.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “If what we agreed in Paris would be materialised, the temperature would rise more than three degrees.” He is finally seeing eye-to-eye with the mainstream scientists and essentially declared the 2015 Paris Accord a dead deal.

If global temperature indeed increases by more than three degrees, summer heat would become unbearable. In particular, temperatures and humidity levels in cities that are already scorching hot would rise to levels that the human body simply cannot tolerate, researchers warn. More importantly, it would trigger a positive greenhouse effect feedback that would eventually push our planet, according to Guterres, “dramatically into a runaway climate change….” Once the runaway greenhouse effect starts, then Paris-like accords, conferences of parties, rulebooks for adaptation to climate change, or going cold turkey with fossil fuels won’t be able to reverse the situation.

Runaway greenhouse effect is not a “Chinese hoax.” Several billion years ago, Venus was cooler than what it is now and had an abundance of water in oceans overlain by an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The current hellish condition on Venus where the surface temperature is a blistering 460 degrees Celsius was caused by runaway greenhouse effect.

Thus, without a significant adjustment to how we conduct our lives, the possibility of Venus syndrome is quite high. In this scenario, our planet would still keep on spinning, but as the fourth dead ball of rock devoid of life.


Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Economic, Environmental, International, Technical

COP24: All noise, no signals

Climate change has become a political football in the last 20 years. The “un”-stable American genius once mocked climate change as a Chinese hoax. Now he believes “something’s changing,” but it is “not man-made.” Other heads of state and government talk and act as if climate change will follow whatever is agreed upon by them at various conferences. However, they do not realise that the Earth’s climate system is highly complex, and complex systems do not respond to whims.

Since 1995, when the first Conference of Parties (COP) took place in Berlin, world leaders or their representatives met 24 times to address the burning issue of global climate change. At these conferences, they debated about steps that should be taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, ignoring other greenhouse gases, some of which are more potent than carbon dioxide. Some of them argued that atmospheric data is incomplete and computer models used by climate scientists are only as reliable as the data fed into them. Others contended that we are trying to measure small changes in a large, complex system and extrapolating those changes into the future is always tricky. The conferences usually ended without any unified strategies to mitigate the dangerous impacts of climate change. In the meantime, our planet is heating up, causing extreme weather-related events that would create, in a very short order, a new planet, still recognisable, but violently out of balance.

The recently concluded COP24 held at Katowice, the coal capital of Poland, was attended by thousands of negotiators representing different countries as well as scientists, students, environmental activists, business groups, non-governmental organisations and journalists. Conspicuously absent were heads of state of some of the countries, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, China and India, which emit carbon dioxide in copious amounts. Many activists from developing nations hardest hit by the impacts of climate change were denied visas to attend the conference. Some attendees deemed undesirable by the Polish authorities were either deported or forcibly kept away from the conference site.

As expected, disagreements at the conference weren’t really about climate change and global warming. Rather, they were about protecting the national interests of the industrialised countries. To that end, they interpreted scientific results in a way that would bolster, instead of undermine, the support of their political base. Others, including delegates from Bangladesh and small island nations that are least responsible for causing global warming but most vulnerable to its devastating effects, urged the participating nations to adopt a collective action plan to keep the overall temperature rise below two degrees Celsius before the end of this century.

After two weeks of acrimonious debate, it was déjà vu—failure to produce a substantive framework for policy which would offer coherence and consistency as to how the global community should cope with the long-term challenges of climate change. The only noteworthy piece of document that COP24 produced is a Rulebook for putting the 2015 Paris Climate Accord into practice. Suffice it to say, the guidelines outlined in the Rulebook could be portrayed as stopgap measures, for they only treat the symptoms and neglect the underlying root causes of climate change. Therefore, they won’t be enough to stop global warming from reaching critical levels.

There are other takeaways from the conference, too. For the umpteenth time we were reminded—this time by the UN Secretary General—that “climate change is the defining issue of our time, and we are at a defining moment.” His statement was rephrased by Poland’s President who said that “climate change constitutes one of the gravest threats of our time.” British environmentalist Sir David Attenborough was one of the few moral voices who mentioned that besides human activity, human inaction is also responsible for climate change. He warned that our inaction would lead to “the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world.”

Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United States “noted”, but did not “welcome”, the scientific evidences related to climate change. Supported by the host country, where almost 85 percent of electricity is produced from coal, they expressed reluctance to phase out the use of fossil fuels.

The only heartening takeaway from COP24 was the participation of the new generation including school-going children. In particular, Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old Swedish girl and one of the speakers, castigated the world leaders accusing them of abdicating their responsibility to address adequately the problems arising from climate change. She did not mince words in pointing out that “our biosphere is being sacrificed so that rich people in countries like mine can live in luxury.”

Greta’s speech should motivate us to set aside zero-sum game thinking, and think more about how to work together to achieve a greener world. Specifically, we have to fully transition to renewable energy, draw down carbon dioxide, relocate the displaced millions, farm and grow more sustainably, and rejuvenate Earth’s ecosystems. Most importantly, we have to build a society that seeks balance between human and ecological needs, thereby ensuring that we, our future generations, and other species can survive and live well. Failure to do so would result in a disaster of epic proportions.

Achieving the above-mentioned goals would require cooperation between nations on a much grander scale than envisioned at COP24. The Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992 is a good example, although not an ideal one. Nevertheless, the summit produced several agreements on climate change, deforestation, species protection and sustainable development. Participants also published a massive document called Agenda 21, which outlines thousands of ways to solve many of the world’s environmental problems caused by climate change.

Finally, in physics, there is a phenomenon known as “resonance” that is produced by sympathetic vibration. For example, when we turn the knob of a radio to tune to a station, we are changing the frequency of the electrical circuit of the receiver to make it equal to the transmission frequency of the radio station. When the two frequencies match, there is resonance and we can hear clearly broadcasts from the station. If the frequencies do not match, we hear only noise. At COP24, there were nearly 200 participating nations operating at discordant frequencies. Hence, there was no resonance, only noise without any discernible signal.

Quamrul Haider is a professor of physics at Fordham University, New York.

Advanced science, Bangladesh, Economic, Environmental, International, Technical

Harnessing the Solar Energy absorbed by ocean waters

solar_energy

The world’s oceans constitute a vast natural reservoir for receiving and storing solar energy. They take in solar energy in proportion to their surface area, nearly three times that of land. As the sun warms the oceans, it creates a significant temperature difference between the surface water and the deeper water to which sunlight doesn’t penetrate. Any time there’s a temperature difference, there’s the potential to run a heat engine, a device that converts thermal energy into mechanical energy.

Most of the electricity we use comes from heat engines of one kind or another. The working principle of such an engine is very simple. It operates between two reservoirs of thermal energy, one hot and one cold. Energy is extracted from the hot reservoir to heat a working fluid which boils to form high-pressure vapour that drives a turbine coupled to an electricity-producing generator. Contact with the cold reservoir re-condenses the working fluid which is pumped back into the evaporator to complete the cycle.

The idea of building an engine to harness energy from the oceans, mainly to generate electricity, by exploiting the thermal gradient between waters on the surface and deeper layers of an ocean is known as OTEC—acronym for Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion. With OTEC, the hot reservoir is an ocean’s warmer surface water with temperatures, which can exceed 25 degrees Celsius, and the cold reservoir is the cooler water, around five to six degrees, at a depth of up to one kilometre. The working fluid is usually ammonia, which vaporises and condenses at the available temperatures. This is analogous to choosing water as the working fluid matched to the temperature differential between a fossil-fuel-fired boiler and a condenser cooled by air or water.

The maximum efficiency of a heat engine operating between reservoirs at 25 and 5 degrees Celsius is 6.7 percent. This means efficiency of an actual OTEC engine will be much less, perhaps 2-3 percent. But low efficiency isn’t the liability it would be in a fossil-fuelled or nuclear power plant. After all, the fuel for OTEC is unlimited and free, as long as the sun heats the oceans.

The greater is the temperature difference, more efficient an OTEC power plant would be. For example, a surface temperature of 30 degrees would raise the ceiling on efficiency to 8.25 percent. That’s why the technology is viable primarily in tropical regions where the year-round temperature differential between the ocean’s deep cold and warm surface waters is greater than 20 degrees. The waters of Bay of Bengal along the shores of Bangladesh, a country that enjoys a year round warm, and at times very hot weather, have excellent thermal gradients for producing electricity using OTEC technology.

The world’s biggest operational OTEC facility, with an annual power generation capacity of 100 kW, was built by Makai Ocean Engineering in Hawaii. Tokyo Electric Power Company and Toshiba built a 100 kW plant on the island of Nauru, although as much as 70 percent of the electricity generated is used to operate the plant.

The US aerospace company Lockheed Martin is building an OTEC electricity generating plant off the coast of Hainan Island in China. Once operational, the plant will be able to generate up to at least 10 MW of power, enough to sustain the energy requirements of a smaller metropolis. India is building a 200 kW plant, expected to be operational before 2020, in Kavaratti, capital of the Lakshadweep archipelago, to power a desalination plant. Other OTEC systems are either in planning or development stage in Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and several countries along the Indian Ocean, mostly to supply electricity.

Like any alternative form of energy, OTEC has its advantages and disadvantages, but the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Among the advantages, the one that stands out is its ability to provide a base load supply of energy for an electrical power generation system without interruption, 24/7/365. It also has the potential to produce energy that are several times greater than other ocean energy options, such as waves and tides. More importantly, OTEC is an extremely clean and sustainable technology because it won’t have to burn climate-changing fossil fuels to create a temperature difference between the reservoirs. A natural temperature gradient already exists in the oceans. The gradient is very steady in time, persisting over day and night and from season to season. Furthermore, the desalination technology as a by-product of the OTEC can produce a large amount of fresh water from seawater which will benefit many island nations and desert countries.

However, recirculation of large volumes of water by OTEC power plants could have negative impacts on the aquatic environment. In particular, the introduction of nutrient-rich deep waters into the nutrient-poor surface waters would stimulate plankton blooms that could adversely affect the local ecological balance. Additional ecological problems include destruction of marine habitats and aquatic nursery areas, redistribution of oceanic constituents, loss of planktons and decrease of fish population.

Since OTEC facilities must be located closer to the shores due to cabling constraints, they could have significant effect on near-shore circulation patterns of ocean water. As a result, open ocean organisms close to the shores will be especially affected because they are known to have very narrow tolerance limits to changes in the properties of their environment.

The biggest drawback of OTEC is its low efficiency. This implies that to produce even modest amounts of electricity, OTEC plants have to be constructed on a relatively large scale, which makes them expensive investments. It’s the price we should be prepared to pay to curb global warming. Industry analysts however believe that in the long run, low operation and maintenance cost would offset the high cost of building OTEC facilities.

The current effort, as agreed in the 2015 Paris Accord, to keep our planet lovable is like taking one giant step backward before trying to move one step forward. If technology for OTEC and other eco-friendly renewable sources of energy are fully developed and globally commercialised, it would indeed be one giant step forward in mitigating global warming. They would also equip communities worldwide with the self-empowerment tools that are required to build an independent and sustainable future.

 

The author, Quamrul Haider, is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.