2022 to 1978: Looking Back and Looking Forwards

Friends, it’s been two years since I retired, and since leaving the chaos and bullying at NPL, retirement has felt like the gift of a new life.

I now devote myself to pastimes befitting a man of my advanced years:

  • Drinking coffee and eating Lebanese pastries for breakfast.
  • Frequenting Folk Clubs
  • Proselytising about the need for action on Climate Change
  • Properly disposing of the 99% of my possessions that will have no meaning to my children or my wife after I die.

It was while engaged in this latter activity, that I came across some old copies of Scientific American magazine.

Last year I abandoned my 40 year subscription to the magazine because it had become almost content free. But in its day, Scientific American occupied a unique niche that allowed enthusiasts in science and engineering to read detailed articles by authors at the forefront of their fields.

In the January Edition for 1978 there were a number of fascinating articles:

  • The Surgical Replacement of the Human Knee Joint
  • How Bacteria Stick
  • The Efficiency of Algorithms
  • Roman Carthage
  • The Visual Characteristics of Words

and…

  • The Carbon Dioxide Question

You can read a scanned pdf copy of the article here.

This article was written by George M Woodwell a pioneer ecologist. The particular carbon dioxide question he asked was this:

Will enough carbon be stored in forests and the ocean to avert a major change in climate?

The article did not definitively answer this question. Instead it highlighted the uncertainties in our understanding of the some of the key processes required to answer the question.

In 1978 the use of satellite analysis to assess the rate of loss of forests was in its infancy. And there were large uncertainties in estimates of the difference in storage capacity between native forests, and managed forests and croplands.

The article drew up a global ‘balance sheet’ for carbon, and concluded that there were major uncertainties in our understanding of many of the physical processes by which carbon and carbon dioxide was captured (or cycled through) Earth’s systems.

Some uncertainty still remains in these areas, but the basic picture has become clearer in the subsequent 44 years of intense study.

So what can we learn from this ‘out of date’ paper?

Three things struck me.

Thing#1

Firstly, from a 2022 perspective, I noticed that there are important things missing from the article!

In considering likely future carbon dioxide emissions, the author viewed the choices as being simply between coal and nuclear power.

Elsewhere in the magazine, the Science and the Citizen column discusses electricity generation by coal with no mention of CO2 emissions. Instead the article simply laments that coal will be in short supply and concludes that:

“There is no question… coal will supply a large part of the nation’s energy future. The required trade-offs will be costly however, particularly in terms of human life and disease.

Neither article mentions generation of electricity by gas turbines. And neither makes any mention of either wind or solar power generation – now the cheapest and fastest growing sources of electricity generation.

From this I note that in it it’s specific details, the future is very hard to see.

Thing#2

Despite the difficulties, the author did make predictions and it is fascinating from the perspective of 2022 to look back and see how those predictions from 1978 have worked out!

The article included predictions for 

  • The atmospheric concentration of CO2
  • CO2 emissions from Fossil Fuels

Click on image for a larger version. Figure from the 1978 article by George Woodwell. The curves in green (to be read against the right-hand axis) shows two predictions for atmospheric concentration of CO2. The curves in black (to be read against the left-hand axis) shows two predictions for fossil fuel emissions of CO2. In each case, the difference between the two curves represents the uncertainty caused by changes in the way CO2 would be cycled through (or captured by) the oceans and forests. See the article for a detailed rubric.

The current atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is roughly 420 ppm and the lowest projection from 1978 is very close.

The fossil fuel emissions estimates are given in terms of the equivalent change in atmospheric CO2, and I am not exactly sure how to interpret this correctly.

Atmospheric concentration of CO2 is currently rising at approximately 2.5 ppm per year, and roughly 56% of fossil fuel emissions end up in the atmosphere. So the annual emissions predicted for 2022 are around 2.5/0.56 ~ 4.5 ppm /year, which is rather lower than the lowest prediction of around 6 ppm/year.

The article also predicts that this will be the peak in annual emissions, but that has yet to be seen.

The predictions did not cover the warming effect of carbon dioxide emissions, the science of which was in the process of being formulated. ‘Modern’ predictions can be dated to 1981, when James Hansen and colleagues published a landmark paper in Science (Climate Impact of Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide) which predicted:

A 2 °C global warming is exceeded in the 21st century in all the CO2 scenarios we considered, except no growth and coal phaseout.

This is the path we are still on.

From this I note that the worst predictions don’t always happen, but sometimes they do.

Thing#3

The final observation concerns the prescience of the author’s conclusion in spite of his ignorance of the details.

Click on the image for a larger version. This is the author’s final conclusion in 1978

His last two sentences could not be truer:

There is almost no aspect of national or international policy that can remain unaffected by the prospect of global climatic change.

Carbon dioxide, until now an apparently innocuous trace gas in the atmosphere may be moving rapidly toward a central role as a major threat to the present world order.

 

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