Between the year-long drought and Gov. Rick Perry campaigning for the presidency, global warming has become a big topic in Texas these days — and the head of the University of Texas Energy Institute, Raymond Orbach, is wading into the debate with a new paper aiming to debunk eight "myths" about climate change.
The paper, "Our Sustainable Earth," appears in the forthcoming issue of Reports on Progress in Physics, a British journal known for encouraging (relatively) simple language from its contributors. In it, Orbach summarizes existing scientific evidence to argue that humans bear responsibility for climate change and an 80 percent reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions by 2050 is needed to stabilize global temperatures. Otherwise, he writes, "current global temperature rises will continue, and even accelerate" as greenhouse gas concentrations keep rising.
Orbach got the idea, he says, when he was reading about eight myths about global warming on a UT campus website. "When I started looking at literature, I noticed that there was warming beginning in 1980," he says. (Indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that temperatures across the United States have increased by 1.5 degrees since the 1970s.)
Among the "myths" that Orbach tackles: that the earth has been cooling since 1998, that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are maxed out and water is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide anyhow, and that climate change can be attributed to natural climate variability.
Orbach clearly is wading into politicized territory. On the campaign trail, Perry has pronounced himself a "skeptic" that humans cause global warming. This week, the Houston Chronicle reported a Rice University professor's accusations that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality deleted some references to climate change and human impacts on the environment in a scientific paper about Galveston Bay.
"No, I don't anticipate any blowback," Orbach says. "I think our governor has a right to his opinion, and I think I have a right to mine. And I think the debate between the two limits is very healthy. ... What I think the governor has done is to express his personal opinion based on the evidence that he's seen, and that's the democratic process. Everyone has a right to look at the same data and form their own opinions. The problem has been that people somehow interpret this as a political issue and it's not. It's really a question of looking at the evidence and making up your own mind."
A number of other prominent Texas scientists, including the state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, also believe that humans are causing climate change, in contrast to a number of state officials.
Asked why the message that humans are causing climate change has been difficult to communicate, Orbach said that a major issue is that it seems simply too expensive to fix. The current remedies, he said, "are economically not viable, and as a consequence I think people are reluctant to try to go through the processes that are so expensive and so deleterious to the economy in order to respond to climate change. ... Countries are not going to destroy their economy" to prevent climate change.
However, he also laid out what he argues is a potential solution, involving carbon sequestration in saline aquifers under the Gulf and geothermal technologies — though he acknowledges more studies must be done to prove its feasibility. Right now, Orbach says, "People are not going to spend 30 percent more on their energy just to capture the carbon dioxide" from a coal plant, so they can store it underground and out of the atmosphere.
Asked about the climate consequences to Texas, Orbach said: "It's not Texas. It's the globe. We are part of, as [Buckminster] Fuller said, Spaceship Earth. ... If the sea level rises, the people in Corpus Christi are going to get awfully wet. There are consequences everywhere."
However, he added that he would also like to "turn that on its head and say there are opportunities for Texas in light of these dangers, that we can take advantage of."
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