The Venus Syndrome (Part One)

If you've been keeping score, just during the past week:

1. Oil experienced the biggest one day price increase, ever, and ended up at a record high of $138.54/barrel. G8 oil ministers kicking off the next summit in Japan begged OPEC to increase production.

2. Our monthly unemployment rate saw the largest jump in 22 years.

3. The International Energy Agency reported that a sum of $45 trillion (not billion, but trillion) was needed to combat global warming.

4. The U.S. Senate killed the global warming mitigation bill.

5. The Copenhagen Consensus Center, involving a blue-ribbon panel of economists, including five Nobel Laureates, listed global warming as #30, and last, of 30 world priorities.

6. The Huffington Post expanded to include the Green Section.

Let's see now, on the one hand, the feared dual hammer of Peak Oil and Global Warming is already showing evidence of affecting our lives. Yet, our decision-makers are continuing to do nothing.

Actually, as would be expected, things are a bit more complicated than that. For example, the congressional legislation was passed on to next year because Democrats felt that the current bill was not good enough, and that Scandinavian organization was founded by the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, who has become famous for panning climate change.

Thus, from all indications, global warming has become almost believable... yet not compelling enough for decision-makers to take any truly preventative steps. Most would say that the problem is the ole USA, with China and India comfortable in being excluded from the Kyoto Protocol, for why should they be concerned when we--the largest carbon dioxide polluter--do not wish to be cooperative?

Clearly, President George W. Bush and VP Dick Cheney are a prime reason why our nation is so recalcitrant, although industry barons generally also feel that coal, our dominant energy resource, surely can't be as bad as the liberal environmentalists make it out to be. I don't think that the need to maximize profits is a major reason why corporate boards are generally lukewarm on global warming and opposed to something like the carbon tax. The primary reason is that this group, while some do show concern, likes to think that there is no cause for alarm at this time.

Charles Krauthammer, an avowed agnostic on the Greenhouse Effect, is typical of this currently ruling group. His National Review Online article of May 30, 2008 paints the problem as a liberal conspiracy. He could well be right, but I'm of the opinion that something must be done now or it could become too late.

I've tried in sundry ways. I participated in forty years of sustainable energy and environmental R&D, and remain quasi-active in an effort on biological hydrogen production. But I needed to try other mechanisms, so last year I applied the 'Einstein writing to FDR to build the atomic bomb' model by enlisting a few media colleagues in an attempt to get President Bush to take this problem more seriously, and, hopefully, surprise the world by taking a leadership role in the then upcoming G8 summit scheduled for Germany by proposing a post-Kyoto strategy for climate change. First, we couldn't find an Einstein, so we thought a message from top corporate officials would suffice. Well, we started with General Motors and got nowhere. What could you expect from a company that has a global vice president like Bob Lutz on staff? He has been quoted to say that climate warming is a crock of sh*t, or something similar. Scratch this strategy.

Well, pure logic was not working, so I tried something even more offbeat--FEAR! I wrote a book (SIMPLE SOLUTIONS for Planet Earth--see box on the right), with Chapter 5 on The Venus Syndrome. What are some strategies?

What about sea level increase as a scare tactic? If all the ice melts, the oceans will rise by about 250 feet. Wow, that should strike terror into decision-makers. Yeah, but this could take milennia to actually happen. Yes, it could be up to a meter by the end of this century, but that's an extreme high, and the more probable tenth of an inch every few years can safely be ignored. We will feel sorry for those poor souls living on threatened atolls, but will not get too excited about something so infinitesimal at our coastline. Anyway, our authorities will more probably build walls around coastal cities rather than cut out fossil fuels, something known as the Iron Lung Syndrome... which is to treat the symptom, but avoid the root of the problem.

Ah, but it turns out that there is another greenhouse gas, methane, that shows promise for becoming the doomsday gas. Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon and is most of natural gas. Cows burp and flatulate this gas, while biomass generally also produce some in the decay process.

We have all been schooled to plant trees. When you plant trees, what happens? They eventually die, and, yes, the carbon dioxide is returned into the atmosphere, but, worse, the decomposition process also produces some methane. There was even a recent German study that seemed to hint that growing trees produced more methane than we thought, so the greening of lands might well actually hurt our environment. Stay tuned!

So what's the big deal? Well, one molecule of methane is from 20 to 60 times worse than one molecule of carbon dioxide in causing global warming. This miniscule amount of methane in our atmosphere already has half the potency of carbon dioxide in warming our globe.

Let's take the case of our planetary neighbor. Venus is mostly carbon dioxide at a surface temperature of almost 900 degrees Fahrenheit. Could you imagine a scenario where sufficient methane contaminates our atmosphere to really cause trouble? Methane tends to oxidize into carbon dioxide over time. Ergo... the potential for an atmosphere and surface temperature on Earth like Venus.

We tend to ignore the ocean in our scientific analyses. Did you know that there is more combined mass in the bacteria, viruses and archaea in the ocean than in all the larger life forms (fish, trees, you) in the ocean and on land? You probably never even ever heard of archaea. The scary thing is that marine microorganisms at the surface expire, drop to the bottom of the ocean, and in an absence of oxygen, are converted into methane and other compounds, which, because of the pressure and temperature at depth, generally become trapped in ice as marine methane hydrates. It is said that there might be twice the energy in this methane at the seabed than all the known coal, oil and natural gas. Let me repeat: TWICE AS MUCH ENERGY IN METHANE IN METASTABLE EQUILIBRIUM AT THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN THAN ALL THE KNOWN COAL, OIL AND NATURAL GAS DEPOSITS, WHICH ARE RATHER SAFELY RESTING DEEP UNDERGROUND.

Over our geologic history, every few tens of million years, our planet naturally heats up. This is accompanied by heightened carbon dioxide and methane levels, or more probably, these gases caused the temperature rise...just like today. Some scientists have speculated that the primary cause might well have been a rather sudden release of marine methane hydrates into the atmosphere. You can read those books on the right for details.

Tomorrow, Part Two of THE VENUS SYNDROME will appear, providing a tale from the future on what might happen to Planet Earth if methane goes haywire.


Patrick Takahashi is a former special assistant in the U.S. Senate, professor of engineering and emeritus director of the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute at the University of Hawaii.