Transcript

Global melting point with John Russell

Matt Smith:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. I’d be your host, Matt Smith, and I’m joined today by Dr. John Russell from the Department of Civil Engineering and Physical Sciences. Thank you for joining me, John.

Dr. John Russell:

Good morning, Matt. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Matt Smith:

Firstly, I’d like to ask you, you’ve got a background of an engineer, but you’re also researching global warming and the global climate. Can you tell us a bit about the history of the global climate?

Dr. John Russell:

Yes. Well, I’ve made a study of it through my own personal interest and obviously the interest of being north of the divide, an area where we’re undergoing enormous change due to climate change and drought conditions. Basically, if we look at the last thousand years, there has been a variation of plus or minus half a degree centigrade. And that has provided unique conditions for us to really hone our agriculture and hone the way which our civilization works.

If we go back to the last 10,000 years, the Holocene period, the variation there was plus or minus 2 degrees. So obviously there was more variability, but that enabled us to instead of roaming and being hunter/gatherers to actually observe that some plants will be there year after year and then we became stable and then we had animals and husbandry and then we had the basis of instead of roaming, being settled, and developing the basis of our civilizations. So, temperature and climate variability are very important to the history of our civilizations. Homo sapiens have never had it so good and the temperature is absolutely critical to the way in which we organize ourselves in what we do.

So that was 10,000 years. We’ve had plus or minus 2 degrees. If we go back over the last 500,000 years, the variation has been plus or minus 5 degrees, that’s with the glacial and the interglacial periods where there is significant variation. As Al Gore put it, “I’m standing here in Chicago on a beautiful spring day on the grass. Back during the glacial times there was 1 mile of ice over me.” And then if you could imagine that the Neanderthals, they’d lived through these periods and it is a bit of a joke, but as my students sometimes say, “Oh you’re a bit of a Neanderthal.” I take that as a complement.

Matt Smith:

So that really means that you're just going to survive the ice age when it comes again?

Dr. John Russell:

If there's enough Neanderthals there. [Laughter] That's right Ned.

Matt Smith:

So clearly, the earth has been through changes before and it’s going to go through change again. Are humans having an effect on it, maybe increasing the rate of climate change?

Dr. John Russell:

Matt, you’re asking the key questions and that all I need to do as an engineer is really to look into the literature. Yes, humans are having an effect. It’s to a varying degree and of course there are the sceptics. But from the information that I have looked at and satisfied myself is that since the Industrial Revolution, it’s indisputable that there has been a temperature rise up to 0.7 °C or thereabouts. Over the last 12 years, these have been very hot years and they seemed to have plateaued out and this could be due to a number of more subtle factors.

And we’re looking at those particular subtle factors now. Things like the dimming which is caused by the brown clouds which basically reside just to the east of China and India. These are the industrial clouds – smog, miles thick. And they actually dissipate themselves as they move across the northern Pacific. So what you have is a heating and a cooling effect.

This is being analyzed now in some detail, as to what’s the net effect? Is it heating or is it cooling? And one of the statements is that basically each year we burn what took a million years to actually accumulate as fossil energy on this earth. So there is that aspect and also there’s the other aspect of sure, we've had climate change before and when I look at the figures from the Vostok cause which were put them in Antarctica and they wrote the papers in 1999 with all that wealth of information. The actual statements of change was about 2 degrees in 5,000 years. That was the right change.

Matt Smith:

That is without human interference?

Dr. John Russell:

Without human interference. Yup. That’s it. And now what we’re saying is that the theories that we could have 2 degrees change within, say, 200 years.

Matt Smith:

Yeah. That’s quite a difference.

Dr. John Russell:

That’s significantly different. I have the sense that the seriousness of the situation is that already experimentation is taking place in these areas to actually try and dim the insulation, the incoming solar energy which is coming to the earth.

Dr. John Russell:

Obviously, it’s something which you can’t do openly, but we know, with the book I have here, Climate Wars by Gwynne Dyer. He went and visited the military establishments in Britain and in the United States and they are certainly up with the information and they are planning the various scenarios, about what might happen in the future if we do go through these temperature changes.

The most frightening issue about this, the author claims from his interviews with the people in the key areas, the defense areas, is that there will be a confusion with climate change. When I say confusion, it’s going to confuse us who eat the products, that basic confuses nature.

And we’re seeing that already in the agriculture everywhere, in my research north of Indigo and the crops are not getting watered the same way and the farmers are very upset with the way in which they manage it. This means that there could be an enormous food shortage and we’re starting to get into that particular mode now. The reserves and then the world are very small with their population picking up all the time.

So the first thing that these nations find, and not only the poor nations find there’s not enough food to go around and then if that really exacerbates the situation. We find then basically that nations become more insular, perhaps they become more insular and less likely to cooperate.

Matt Smith:

Yeah. There’s going to be a number of follow-on effects, but it’s going to affect really every aspect of life. It’s going to affect the economy because prices of food would go up. It would affect trade and relations and population control as well and land usage and there’s really no one way to attack a problem like that from, is there? There’s no one solution for it at all.

Dr. John Russell:

There is one thing that has to happen and that’s really so that the infrastructure now head the way in which we perceive things and do things. That needs to be transformed into a new level of human being. But that is not easy to do and that’s the major role of this university and all universities in the world and hopefully leaders in this business.

Matt Smith:

What do you see as some of the key problems in how we’re treating the climate at the moment and do you see any solutions to our climate change problem?

Dr. John Russell:

All of us have high hopes upon what might happen in Copenhagen in December when the nations get together to actually look at this issue. I particularly have high hopes since Obama was elected President of the United States and basically the approach that he is taking on this matter.

So Rudd’s over there, he is talking to Brown about these matters, but then you have the “reality strikes home” in the sense that for the developed countries, 85% of the carbon that's up there, is that we have reaped the benefit from that. We are the developed countries.

China and India are basically holding back, right? Because they see that they have poverty and they have other issues which they need to address. I think there is no question that particularly China is playing and will play a remarkably responsible role in these areas because they’re aware of really what’s at stake. So answering your question in a way - this issue, this situation that Homo sapiens or humanity has in front of it now, it can be resolved politically, socially and economically. We can do all that; we have all the skills. It’s a question of getting it together and that process is not an easy process when you know that the Doha Round of Trade Talks to get trade equably amongst various nations, it has taken seven to nine years and it's not resolved now.

So the thing is on something far more significant than that, right? Like Kyoto Phase II of Copenhagen - the allocations of emissions on who pays for what. So the thing is that’s the difficulty, that’s the major difficulty, and since then I’ve noticed that things have really moved on a treaty to the extent that a New Scientist in February, about 25% of the whole publication, was devoted to basically Plan B.

Plan B is, “Look, socially, economically, and politically, this is a massive task which we can do, but we haven’t got the time.” It appears we haven’t got the time because we need to do significant things now to achieve a target of 2 degrees; otherwise, we get into areas of tipping points which is spelled out in lots of the literatures…

Matt Smith:

Yeah. It will be potentially too late by then.

Dr. John Russell:

Yup. I think we had a taste of it here in Australia - down in the southeast of Australia, we had the fire storms which we never experienced before and although about seven or eight years ago they had massive fires in the peatlands in Indonesia and if we get to 3 degrees the projections are, and these are the scientific projections, that large areas of the Amazon could be lost. Soon as those things happen, it is a long time before you can retreat back to where you were.

Matt Smith:

Can I ask you, where does an engineer come into this? What sort of things are you looking at?

Dr. John Russell:

Engineers, in their profession, they are generally associated with getting things done. We have enough engineering know-how and now to actually correct the situation, but the scale is enormous. We haven’t got enough civil engineers or mechanical engineers. We need one million 2 megawatt wind turbines by about 2030. We just haven’t got the capability to put those in and that's one-seventh of the power that we need. Alright?

And there are things which we are doing now unintentionally which can save us time. As an example, after the war, the actual temperature dropped about a half-degree centigrade for about 40 years and basically that was rebuilding after the war. That was particularly the sulfur dioxide that was being given off by the coal power stations, particularly based in Europe and North America called dirty sulfur coal.

That caused dimming off the solar radiation coming down to earth. But also, there is a downside to that which we realized it would have some acid rain. What happened was that as soon as that was identified, governments then were able to internationally decide to put scrubbers on their stacks and scrub out the sulfur dioxide.

That occurred and then the whole issue of acid rain started to turn around. That problem turned around. But what happened was that basically then you see the actual temperatures starting to rise because sulfur dioxide, when it’s up in the lower stratosphere, that’s about 10,000 meters, basically then it’s a very good dimmer, effectively dimmer.

Matt Smith:

Yes. It’s a bad solution to a very serious problem. Yes. Well, it would be like putting the cane toad in Queensland, really.

Dr. John Russell:

Yes. That’s right. To overcome a particular problem. So what I did, at the New Zealand Conference, I advocated at that stage, basically to be provocative and mischievous, to switch off the scrubbers in the Northern hemisphere and that would buy us half a degree centigrade. But also, it would turn us into ossification of our forests and the woodlands. It’s basically a threat. This is serious business. Alright?

And the other issue was to do something, which is being suggested by others, is to use American Naval Cannons to actually fire sulfur dioxide capsules up from the Southern hemisphere. It also can be done through now right through aircraft. The aircraft fly in the large stratosphere and we need to put some sulfur in their exhaust. I wouldn’t mind betting that some of these things are being tried now, but not sort of mentioned.

We may be able to control or limit the temperature through these means, but we have to keep our CO2 down. We have to stop fossil fuel because there is the second aspect, the acidification of the oceans and that you’ll only be too aware that basically we’re on the brink now of turning the oceans, our deep oceans, to a stage where their PH gets lower and that means in the krill, which is the beginning part of the food chain for our great oceans. They will have difficulty in forming their outer shell. CO2 has to come down one way or another.

That’s when you get into engineering. We can do that with various types of cars. We can do it by changing our consumption of electricity, reducing all those issues and by wind power and numbers of other processes that I’ll get back to you what I said before, it’s in us, you and the same with me, the way in which we consume our share and we have our amount of emissions which at far-end exist in other people and mostly other parts of the world.

Matt Smith:

So it all starts at home then?

Dr. John Russell:

Yeah. It does start at home. This is a problem with us as human beings. I can see the abyss. I can see that my grandchildren will be having such difficulty on this earth if they survive. But I’m not really doing it as if it’s a major danger right now. When I come to my investments, I know oil is good and I know gold is good, and I say, “John, what are you doing? You should be investing in the Hepburn wind turbines, which they put up,” to which I thought, “Oh yes.” So then I invested in them because that’s where community investment in the correct direction is going.

So I think that, the wiring in our head, the conditioning in our head, I think that’s the major issue that we need to work towards. Well, we’re starting that transformation here at La Trobe. We’re doing a lot of good work in that area, but it’s a long, long hole, and then we get into the time machine. And that’s why geo-engineering, I think, is basically we’ll see more and more of it. Not so much coming of age, but reluctantly being considered and then trialed to buy some time.

Matt Smith:

Dr. John Russell, thank you for your time today.

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