The first and second laws of climo-dynamics

Amidst war, instability and terror, the most powerful people on Earth have gathered in Paris to discuss the effect human beings are having on the Climate.

In my opinion this is cause for rejoicing!

Many groups express doubts that the leaders and their teams will do ‘enough’ to stop the Earth warming by 2 °C. And I agree.

However I am not worried because I think that progress in this field is controlled by the immutable Laws of Climo-dynamics – the climate equivalent of the laws of thermo-dynamics.

The first and second laws of thermo-dynamics

The first law of thermodynamics is essentially a statement that every physical process which actually occurs must conserve energy.

This allows us to identify some processes as being impossible. For example, the amount of power that a solar panel can supply is limited by the amount of energy in the sunlight which falls upon it.

However some physical processes which are possible according to the First Law simply do not happen. For example, a cup of hot tea always cools to the temperature of its surroundings – it never spontaneously warms up to a temperature above its surroundings.

This reality is the content of the second law of thermodynamics. The second law explains that there is a quantity called entropy – and processes which occur spontaneously only ever cause an increase in entropy.

Together, the first and second laws of thermodynamics tells us which processes are energetically and entropically possible. And thus they identify processes which will occur spontaneously.

The first and second laws of climo-dynamics

To understand what will happen in the Climate Talks, we need to understand the analogous laws of Climo-dynamics

In particular we want to know whether the laws of Climo-dynamics permit a transition to an economy based on renewable energy.

For most of the 20th Century, such a transition was technologically impossible. But somewhere towards the end of the last Century, a transition to a renewable-energy economy  became technologically possible.

What changed was subtle. New materials enabled giant wind turbines, and new battery and fuel-cell technologies enabled cars that could work without hydrocarbon fuels. And solar panels enabled renewable electricity generation on a colossal scale.

So a transition to a renewable energy economy has been technologically possible for a couple of decades now. What has held up the transition has been the second law of climo-dynamics.

What is not widely understood is that the individuals and countries in this drama cannot act freely any more than the atoms and molecules in a gas.

A change – no matter how technologically favourable – can only occur when it is politically possible.

But once a change has become both technologically and politically possible, it becomes inevitable.

And this is – I believe – where we are right now. There is widespread acknowledgement of the reality of the problem, and solutions exists at prices which are on the edge of economic viability.

What will happen next?

Back in 2012 I wrote:

I do feel that people’s consciousness is changing, and it does seem inevitable that we will – eventually – begin to face up to this problem. At some point in time, the graph [of annual carbon emissions] will peak – and we will begin to move beyond the carbon age. Let’s hope it is sooner rather than later.

Friends,  Le jour de gloire est arrivé. It seems that ‘sooner’ is ‘now’. News reports indicate that annual carbon emissions may have peaked, and I look forward in my lifetime to seeing the rising trend of atmospheric CO2 concentration begin to slow.

During the Cuban  Missile Crisis, humanity stood collectively on the brink of apocalypse. But we stepped back.

I think that Climate Change represents a threat of equivalent magnitude, but I believe that we are again about to step back from the brink.

Amidst war, instability and terror, political reality changed, and we are finally facing up to the technological and political realities of climate change.




3 Responses to “The first and second laws of climo-dynamics”

  1. philip andrews Says:

    Fascinating perspective. Many thanks. Date: Tue, 8 Dec 2015 09:05:10 +0000 To:

  2. Edmond Hui Says:

    Such a wonderful and evolving story. What you need is a forum where you can communicate with the public, who really need to have an understanding of these things. Maybe NPL can host and you can do a series of evenings and communicate these simple and important ideas that inform our daily lives. Somewhere where there might be free Wagon Wheels and Caramels.Twice a year would be good.

  3. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Ed: :-). IT’s been one year now, and I am have caught my breath. Now I am thinking of ‘the next thing’. More soon I hope.

    All the best to you and yours this Christmas


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