Climate 'Urgency' Declaration Comes With Ideas for Change

U.S. energy secretary tells Copenhagen about experimental technologies.

December 14, 2009, 6:33 PM

COPENHAGEN, Denmark, Dec. 15, 2009— -- There is a "fierce urgency needed for a couple of decades" if dangerous global warming is to be controlled, U.S. Energy Secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu said Monday at the international climate talks, and he poured out what seemed a cornucopia of ideas and innovative technologies to accomplish that goal.

They ranged from more conventional projects, such as a new promise by the United States and other wealthy countries to spend $350 million over five years to help poorer countries develop non-polluting energy, to the more daring such as a newly invigorated ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) that would encourage out-of-the-box thinking so advanced that, as he put it, we need to "be ready for some failures."

ARPA-E, he emphasized, is modeled on the Defense Department's famous DARPA program that was responsible for many space-age military marvels that were so advanced in their time, such as the Blackbird spy plane, they often remain top secret for years.

One of the new energy marvels in development he described is an enormous liquid battery -- like a swimming pool -- that for complex reasons of chemistry and molecular physics can hold unheard of charges "of tens of megawatts" for very little cost and, storing energy during off hours, could "power a whole building -- even whole communities."

Noting that special research funds were only able to grant a small fraction of the fascinating applications submitted, Chu said "there's a lot of pent-up innovation out there" among inventors he said were eager to help humanity wrestle with global warming.

Chu spoke in Copenhagen's vast Bella Center convention complex in a room jammed with delegates, NGO members and world press, all linked by teleconference to Beijing, London and Dublin from which he also fielded questions.

In the front row sat Harvard's climatologist John Holdren, President Obama's chief science advisor, and eminent marine scientist Jane Lubchenco, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Climate Change Talks Include Technologies for Change

Their presence together emphasized the fact, gaining only slowly in public awareness, that global warming of the atmosphere is only half of the climate change crisis: "Just one of two evil twins," as Lubchenco puts it.

The other is the increasing acidification of the oceans due to the fact that invisible CO2 emissions not only trap infrared heat in the atmosphere but are also absorbed in the oceans where they combine with H2O to form carbonic acid.

Scientists report the oceans 30 percent more acidic than 200 years ago when humanity started burning large amounts of coal, and say the new acidity has been found to cripple sea life in many ways.

In conversation with ABC News after Chu's talk, Lubchenco reflected on the fact recognized among marine scientists that reversing ocean acidification is an even bigger and longer-range problem than lowering CO2 concentrations in the air.

"It would probably take centuries," she said, for a drop in atmospheric CO2 to be reflected in a lowering of ocean acidity.

"The way to deal with the problem is to lower CO2 emissions, and stop the increase in ocean acidification as soon as we can," she said, but noted that "it seems we're stuck with this acidification we've got for some time."

And unlike global warming, for which imaginative last-ditch "geo-engineering" efforts have been dreamed up, such as launching thousands of heat-reflecting mirrors into space, no one seems to have even imagined a way, however wild or complex, that the vast oceans might have their acidity reduced by some extraordinary "ocean-engineering."

Sobering science-based news also came from another jammed gathering in a nearby meeting room in which former Vice President Al Gore, the foreign ministers of both Denmark and Norway, and the premier of Greenland were making a presentation.

They told of new studies that now estimate the enormous Arctic Ocean, which covers the top of the planet, has a 75 percent chance of being completely ice free due to human-induced global warming in the next five to seven years.

Climate Change Talks Include Technologies for Change

Three years ago, most scientists estimated that wouldn't happen for another 50 to 100 years at least.

The Bella Center is a constantly swirling small city from dawn to midnight, populated by delegates from 192 nations, journalists from all corners of the earth and countless members of climate-related NGOs.

The start of the second and final week of the climate summit has brought a surge of thousands of new arrivals -- journalists and representatives of NGOs from around the world -- so large that the Danish organizers have been caught off-guard.

One of America's most prolific journalists specializing in climate change, Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press, was kept waiting outside with hundreds of his colleagues "for seven hours and 20 minutes," he told ABC News late in the afternoon, after he finally got in past security.

It appears that, even with years of preparation, the Danish and U.N. organizers of the climate summit could not foresee the growing concern worldwide that would build with scientists' new findings in 2009 of global warming's accelerating advance.

Underscoring those findings, and the source of his phrasing about the urgency, Chu ended his presentation with a quote from fellow Nobel laureate Martin Luther King, delivered in New York in 1967, during the Vietnam:

"We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today," he quoted from his podium. "We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late."

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