The magnitude of climate change energy flows

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Some statistics from Oliver Morton’s book on photosynthesis illustrate just how massive the energy flows involved in climate change already are. Anthropogenic climate change has increased the amount of solar radiation being retained by every square metre of the planet’s surface by 1.66 watts. In total, that is equivalent to 850 trillion watts (terawatts, TW) of power.

By comparison, a large nuclear reactor produces about 1 gigawatt (GW) of output, 1/1000th of a TW. The total energy usage of humanity (power plants, vehicles, etc) is 13 TW. At any average moment, we are therefore experiencing about 65 times more climate change power than power intentionally employed by human beings. A comparison that may be even more startling is with the flow of heat from the Earth’s core outwards – the power that drives volcanism and continental drift. That energy flow is only 40 TW – one twentieth of the climate change we have already generated.

Of course, if we keep emitting at the present rate, we will increase the 1.66 watt per metre and 850 TW numbers considerably. It is vital to understand that these numbers arise from the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, not the amount we emit in any particular year. As such, all increases are effectively permanent, at least from the perspective of centuries. That is something to remember whenever somebody talks about ‘stabilizing emissions.’ Doing so only stabilizes the rate at which these energy statistics are increasing.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

2 thoughts on “The magnitude of climate change energy flows”

  1. We need it all
    Saul Griffith calculates what we need to do to keep the world we evolved in
    Posted by Adam Browning

    He calculated what’s needed to, in the eloquent words of James Hansen, keep the world we evolved in. The answer? Cut each individual’s carbon footprint to the bone via serious lifestyle choices. Then, dedicate an area the size of Australia to renewable energy production. And do so in the next 25 years.

    It’s not an either/or proposition. We need it all.

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