Floods obliterate Wilmington, Norfolk, even New York. Millions of people relocate inland. America’s bread-basket — the world’s main producer of grain — returns to its Dust Bowl days. Hurricanes as wicked as Katrina regularly ravish the Southeast. East Coast weather imitates Ontario. Southern Europe swelters and then the North plunges into a deep freeze. Our global economy is shattered in one day. Sounds like the movie The Day After Tomorrow, which left scientists scoffing. Weather changes on a dime. Climate doesn’t. But it can change quicker than you might think.

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“It won’t happen on Tuesday at 2:52 p.m.,” says Doug Crawford-Brown, director of the Carolina Environmental Program. But, he says, the time frame “is stunningly short.” By 2100 the Earth will be a very different place, he says. Here’s why. In the mid-1990s, ice core samples from Greenland revealed that climate has severely changed throughout Earth’s history due to increased amounts of atmospheric greenhouse gasses. But some of these changes happened over a span of only fifty to one hundred years.

“This really scared people because climatologists thought climate changed subtly over centuries,” Crawford-Brown says. Now climatologists fear the worst could unfold within decades, drastically altering global civilization.

If we do nothing to curb carbon dioxide emissions from automobiles, homes, and industry, Crawford-Brown and many other scientists predict, global mean temperature will increase four to seven degrees Fahrenheit by 2060. If this happens, look out. Icecaps, which are already melting, will thaw even quicker. Ocean levels will rise. Already, rising waters have swallowed up small islands located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Satellite images show that Switzerland has lost 20 percent of its glaciers over the past fifteen years. The signs aren’t good.

Under the worst-case predictions, Crawford-Brown says, the resulting floods “will be enough to inundate North Carolina’s coast thirty or forty miles inland and displace half the East Coast by 2100.” Other calamities include the outbreak of infectious and malarial diseases that could creep north from the tropics, and more days of deadly heat and cold. That’s not the worst of it. Siberian and northern Alaskan permafrost is thawing, releasing methane — another greenhouse gas. This could accelerate global warming and cause ocean temperatures to rise, which would create a breeding ground for intense hurricanes, Crawford-Brown says. High water temperatures are already killing coral that are vital to Caribbean and Southeast Asian fish nurseries. Melting icecaps will also decrease ocean salinity. In 2005 scientists discovered that ocean temperatures were rising, which their computer models had predicted. Scientists fear that desalination and increasing ocean temperatures will eventually shut down the global oceanic conveyor belt. If that happens, northern Europe freezes and the United States gets much drier and cooler — in a hurry — imperiling mass agriculture that feeds much of the world’s 6.5 billion people.

Douglas Crawford-Brown: “If we continue to settle the way we do — with people in suburbs working thirty miles away and shopping twenty miles away — forget it. We're doomed high levels of energy use.” Photo: Jason Smith.

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Tom Meyer, professor of chemistry at Carolina, says that this sci-fi climate change seems a little extreme, but, “this has happened historically. Geological records are clear.”

Meyer says that atmospheric CO2 levels are now at 380 parts per million. “Most of the models say that when we reach four hundred fifty to seven hundred, the heat will build up quite dramatically.” And, he adds, we might not have until 2060. Meyer says that three factors are pushing us over the edge: industrial nations pumping out CO2, other nations imitating our industrial revolution, and global population reaching ten billion (ETA: 2100). More humans plus more energy use equals increased global warming.

Both Crawford-Brown and Meyer say that global climate change is the most urgent and complex issue of our time because it’s interwoven with energy consumption and fossil fuels. The big three: coal, natural gas, and oil. Global warming isn’t in doubt. But the severity and timeline of drastic climate change are.

“These are our best predictions,” Crawford-Brown says of the 2060 CO2 projections. “But there’s a lot that’s left out of the models.”

Such as the end of cheap oil and natural gas. Wouldn’t limited supplies of those fuels affect the models?

Tom Meyer: Three factors are pushing us over the edge: industrial nations pumping out C02, other nations imitating our industrial revolution, and global population reaching ten billion. Photo: Jason Smith.

Peak Oil

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Astrophysicist Gerald Cecil, the former project scientist of Carolina’s SOAR telescope in Chile, was reviewing global warming models for an undergraduate class in 2001 when a big red flag went up. Economists had advised the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that more than twice the world’s current energy consumption would come from oil in 2030, but Cecil was skeptical. “I recalled 1980 concerns that we were running out of oil,” Cecil says. “They talked about a thirty-year time frame.”

He searched for information on the longevity of oil supplies, and stumbled onto the concept of peak oil — the moment when oil can be extracted from the ground no faster. Once that happens, less and less oil will be available on the market. Prices shoot way up — not only gas prices, but prices for food, clothes, shelter, plastics, and just about everything else — because oil is integral to their production and distribution.

“As I got deeper into it, I started to switch fields,” Cecil says. “I could not in good conscience expend my efforts solely on astrophysics when I saw this massive problem that few people recognized.” As first steps, he has developed two undergraduate energy courses and is finishing a book, Out of the Oil Trap, in an attempt to quantify an understudied subject.

He wants to make something clear: there is no big pool of oil in the ground. “It’s distributed throughout pores in only a restricted range of rock types,” Cecil says. Oil depletion, then, is not like pouring gasoline from a can. Instead, he says, think of a straw sucking on a milk shake.

“If you pull too hard, the milk slurps as it mixes with air,” Cecil says. “There’s a disconnection, and you actually end up drawing less fluid. You have to pull it with a slow, steady tug so that it connects by pressure and pulls itself out.” Similarly, oil is stranded if pumped too fast. This is why the flow rate of an oil reservoir is key, he says, not how much crude oil it holds. He says that a large volume of oil remains underground, but after peak oil, it will take longer and longer to get it out.

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For example, American oil discoveries continued to increase until they topped out in the 1930s. After that geologists discovered smaller and smaller oil fields in the lower forty-eight states each year. Thirty years later American oil production peaked at nearly ten million barrels daily. But since 1970 the extraction rate has decreased steadily. Today, Texas oil wells produce just a few barrels a day — a mere trickle — but the fields still contain about 10 percent of the original recoverable oil. Global oil discoveries crested in 1964, when easily accessible oil gushed from gigantic pressurized fields around the Persian Gulf, Cecil says. Later discoveries throughout the world paled in comparison, forcing non-OPEC nations to develop expensive and sophisticated ways to drill horizontally, under water, and under ice floes. “All of this effort affects the flow rate from discovery to delivery to the consumer,” Cecil says. The other problem, he says, is that there are many kinds of oil. The light, “sweet” stuff was easier to find and produce. Right now companies are recovering heavier oil, which is tougher to refine, and this also affects prices.

Cecil points to the work of industry experts such as geologist Colin Campbell and energy investment banker Matt Simmons. They underscore that at least thirty-three of the forty-eight major oil-producing nations outside the Persian Gulf, including OPEC members such as Indonesia, have declining flows. Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil producer, is now injecting massive volumes of expensive desalinated water into three huge but aging fields. Water repressurizes the fields’ fluids to maintain high flow rates, Cecil says. The Saudis have been using it for years to stabilize the world oil market when production elsewhere goes awry.

Saudi Arabia, which is notoriously secretive about the decline rates of its fields, says it can increase the overall flow of oil to meet increased demand. The Saudis, though, haven’t released field-by-field justification of this statement for decades and, in fact, they are mostly just reworking old oil fields to squeeze out more oil, not bringing large new fields on line. This, Cecil says, will bring on peak oil faster, and the decline rates will likely be even steeper than projected, which are typically between 4 and 7 percent annually. Cecil says that if there’s a 7 percent decline rate, which was typical in North Sea oil fields that used water injection, then within 15 years, oil will be flowing from today’s fields at half its present rate. “This,” Cecil says, “is a very big deal.”

Gerald Cecil: “I think the big picture is absolutely overwhelming. But this is something that could energize every department on campus.” Photo: Jason Smith.

When will oil peak? Cecil says it’s a tough call, but thinks we could decline permanently from present near-peak rates within five years. Because of this, Cecil says, global warming trends should be lower than expected — “unless we go absolutely nuts with coal, or have somehow missed a major feedback in the regulation of atmospheric CO2.”

Crawford-Brown isn’t so sure. He says, “I’m always a little bit skeptical of arguments about us running out of stuff because, to our detriment, we seem to be very clever at coming up with new things.”

Oil companies, for instance, say that they have new recovery technologies ready to leave the lab and enter the field. But the faster we pump out the oil, Cecil says, the harder we’ll fall after peaking. They also say that massive tar-sand deposits in Canada and Venezuela, and later, shale from the United States, will delay any peak beyond 2030. Tar sands are a mixture of clay, sand, water, and bitumen — a hydrocarbon. But you can’t stick a pipe in the ground to hit a bitumen gusher, Cecil says. It has to be strip-mined in large amounts to produce a relatively small volume of crude oil. It’s an expensive and intensive process. Cecil’s research shows that projections from Canadian tar-sand developers won’t come close to replacing the declining flow of conventional crude oil. Neither will oil from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, should drilling there proceed. Cecil says that oil prices likely will spike sharply instead of climbing gradually.

Coming up short

In his book, Cecil shows what sort of energy upgrade we will soon need from alternatives. For this, he developed a web tool, the U.S. Energy Simulator, which can plot exponential increases in alternative forms of energy, not to mention fossil fuel growth, decline, or stability. For instance, the United States currently gets about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors, according to the Department of Energy. The simulator can plot that, and increase it year by year until 2040. The tool then breaks down the information into useful units, such as how many nuclear plants we will have to build. Cecil’s program makes it clear that replacing fossil fuels will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, without changing the way American society functions — people consuming much less stuff, especially gasoline. He says that as oil supplies begin to decrease per capita, we will become much less mobile, eventually relying on slower, less convenient, and more expensive electric cars. And, he says, this electricity will increasingly come from solar, wind, and most of all nuclear energy.

For smaller communities, such as those in North Carolina, another alternative is biomass — generating energy from landfills, hog waste, wood chips, and other renewable sources. Such projects are under way across the nation, but the short-term problem remains the same — we need liquid fuel.

Cecil’s research shows that other fuel alternatives, such as hybrid technology, ethanol, and biodiesel, are not long-term solutions if society remains structured as it is today. He researched the topic and co-authored a paper in which he calculates that America’s entire corn crop could produce enough ethanol to fuel just 7 percent of this nation’s automobiles. And ethanol’s energy ratio — how much energy is put into its creation compared to how much energy it will produce — is so bad that production depends on three billion dollars in state and federal subsidies. Cecil adds that massive ethanol production — which uses coal, largely imported oil, and natural gas — would degrade the environment, including global warming. Using more land for mass agriculture is also problematic because tilling soil is a major CO2 contributor. On the other hand, ethanol and methanol can be made from other biomass, such as wood chips and sugar cane, so they could provide a slice of the energy pie, especially for smaller communities. As for biodiesel — fuel made essentially from new or used vegetable oil — Americans used about sixty-five million gallons in 2005. But that’s a mere drop in the tank: it only takes about a dozen typical gas stations to sell that much gasoline in a year. The jump in alternative production would have to be enormous, so biofuels barely register on Cecil’s energy simulator.

Cecil’s energy outlook doesn’t include hydrogen, which many people assume has the most potential. Hydrogen, though, has to be chemically extracted from substances, such as water or coal. Extraction consumes significantly more energy than is released when hydrogen powers a fuel cell. Meyer, who has followed hydrogen’s journey for years, says that fuel cells are still very expensive, and a hydrogen-based economy will take years of research and development, not to mention tons of money.

Coal and natural gas can be liquefied to make car fuel, although such liquefaction facilities pollute worse than typical coal plants. Another problem is that domestic supplies of natural gas peaked in 1973, and the infrastructure to distribute them between continents is almost nonexistent, Cecil says. “The constricted flow of natural gas is also not reflected in most global warming models,” he adds. If global production of natural gas peaks, could our cumbersome coal infrastructure be ramped up to quench our energy thirst? Although it’s abundant, coal is like oil — there are different grades. We’re just about out of the best stuff, and we’re mining lower quality brown coal instead. Brown coal yields less energy, which means we need more of it. And it’s dirtier than the pure black kind, Cecil says.

It’s easy to see how we got into the twin troubles of peak oil and global warming. It’s not so easy to see the way out because, as Cecil points out, we chose to move from wood to coal and then to oil. Each transition was to cheaper and more convenient fuel. This time we have to move away from fossil fuels out of necessity, and it won’t be cheap or easy.

Coal has been with us since Englishman Abraham Darby decarbonized it to make coke in 1712. Oil entered the mainstream around the same time that German Karl Benz invented gas-powered automobiles in 1886. And thanks to the free market and a bit of ingenuity, American industry rose swiftly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Vast factory lands consumed urban centers. Henry Ford installed the first moving assembly line in 1913 and began churning out cars. Machine labor replaced manual labor. After World War II, dirty cities, a swelling population, and cheap oil helped create suburbia and superhighways. Driving became our way of life.

Today, China — with its 1.3 billion people — is on the same path. Picture Shanghai’s many bicycles filling the streets. No more. China banned bikes on Shanghai’s main roads to make room for millions of cars. China also wants to build more than five hundred coal-fired plants. India wants more than two hundred, and the United States has plans for seventy-two more.


Global warming models factor in CO2 increases from coal, but the models vary quite a bit because of unknowns, such as the rate of thawing permafrost, possible cloud cover, and atmospheric water vapor. These and other factors could speed up or slow down global warming. And, as Cecil admits, the peak oil situation is a physical scientist’s nightmare, due to scattered data that researchers such as Campbell and Simmons are only now piecing together. In light of the unknowns, researchers focus on what they do know. Ninety-eight percent of the world’s mountain glaciers are melting. Even if we cease all CO2 emissions right now, the Earth’s mean temperature will still rise another degree, according to scientist Bob Corell’s Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. He says that would cause the entire Arctic ice mass to melt. Adding a few more degrees could do even further damage. And scientists say to avoid that, we have to limit CO2 emissions.

Scientists are researching and developing clean-coal, zero-emissions technology, but so far the newest coal-fired plants still produce CO2. Back home, Chapel Hill’s biggest single CO2 emitter is the university’s cogeneration plant, which produces one-fourth of UNC’s energy. In most energy plants, heat is an unused by-product. But Carolina’s award-winning plant captures heat to create steam for electricity and chilled water for air conditioning. The facility, built in 1992, gets more than twice the energy from a pound of coal than standard plants do. It also has the best pollution controls available.

Meyer, former associate director of research at Los Alamos National Laboratories, believes that American and European researchers are close to finding affordable ways to intercept CO2 before it enters the atmosphere. Once captured, the CO2 must be stored. The United States and Europe are testing underground aquifers for that.

In the short term, Meyer points to high-temperature superconducting technology, which is already making high-powered transmission lines two hundred times more efficient. Right now the United States loses 10 percent of its electricity — three hundred million kilowatt hours each year — due to resistance problems of copper and aluminum wires.

At Carolina, Meyer has delved into renewable energy research in green chemistry. The goal is to shine sunlight on water to make oxygen and hydrogen. “If you do that, you can run them through a fuel cell to make electricity,” he says. The problem is that a glass of water doesn’t absorb visible light. Meyer is trying to create an energy interface that can rip apart the water molecule to produce energy. “This has a long-term future,” he says, “and will probably have a slice of the action.” But, he notes, a slice won’t cut it.

Nuclear power can be a more substantial piece. Although few people like it, many scientists, including those contacted for this story, believe that nuclear is back on the table because it’s the cleanest, most cost-effective alternative to fossil fuel. A chunk of uranium the size of a golf ball stores as much energy as 2.3 million pounds of coal, and it releases no CO2. The United States shied away from nuclear power after the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, when the fear of catastrophic meltdowns was rampant. Other countries, though, embraced nuclear, including France, which gets 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear reactors. Although nuclear reactors create miniscule amounts of waste, disposing of leftover uranium and plutonium has always been problematic. But spent fuel rods can now be recycled so that almost no waste is left. Nuclear weapons, though, can still be made from the waste. “We would need a new nuclear order that would have designated nations as manufacturers of nuclear fuels and the same countries would take back the spent fuel rods,” Meyer says. “And this makes things even harder.” But, he adds, the Department of Energy has announced plans for a new Global Nuclear Energy Initiative for such controls.

If we want to limit nuclear energy, or abandon it altogether, can the world conserve enough?

Your carbon footprint

Crawford-Brown leads the United States chapter of the Carbon Reduction Program (C-Red), which calls for a 60 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2025. It’s an ambitious project based on a 2003 British government goal of the same reduction by 2050. Scientists at Britain’s East Anglia University say that the reduction would keep CO2 levels from doubling the pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This, Crawford-Brown says, could hold off or lessen the worst climate-change scenarios while alternative energy sources and sustainability practices take hold.

As part of C-Red, Crawford-Brown and Carolina students assessed plans for Cambridge University’s new off-campus research center and proposed energy-efficient changes, such as parking space reductions, alternative transportation, free buses, energy-efficient buildings, water recycling, and energy-efficient boilers and other equipment. The students also worked out financing plans to show how green initiatives save money in the long run.

Chapel Hill and UNC were the first in this country to sign on to the C-Red program, and Carolina students are now evaluating emissions here. They say that 27 percent of town emissions come from transportation, 33 percent from commercial development, and 40 percent from residential areas. Crawford-Brown says that the heating and cooling of homes account for 80 to 90 percent of residential energy use. So the first step, he says, is to separate legitimate need from obsession. “UNC Hospitals must run kidney dialysis machines,” he says. “But there are illegitimate needs, like my son wanting to keep the upstairs eighty degrees in the winter so he can wear beach clothing.”

Lowering the winter thermostat to 65 degrees and upping the summer AC closer to 80 can make big differences, Crawford-Brown says. It helps to turn off appliances and lights and to use high-efficiency light bulbs — but not nearly as much as monitoring HVAC units and filters. Insulation, double-glazed windows, energy-efficient appliances, solar water heaters, and even photovoltaics are all initial steps. The next one is getting people out of their single-occupancy vehicles.

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Politicians are considering a carbon tax, but that always raises the question of oil subsidies. U.S. oil companies reported billions of dollars in record earnings in 2005, but the government still subsidizes oil exploration and production. The government also gives incentives to small businesses that buy sport-utility vehicles, but not high-efficiency cars. In essence, the government subsidizes people to use more fuel. Why? “It’s political,” says Mort Webster, a public policy professor who specializes in climate change policy. “Oil and auto industries have access, money, and influence.”

Plus, cheap gas and driving are rooted in the American conscience as inalienable rights. Stripping oil subsidies — raising gas prices in the process — is political suicide, Webster says. His research shows that more policymakers are talking about tradable carbon permits. Here’s the idea: a country sets a goal to reduce emissions, and it sets a limit to the amount of CO2 each company can emit. If a company prefers to reduce emissions even further, it can choose to emit CO2 amounts that fall below the mandate and sell a permit to another company, which is then allowed to emit more CO2. Together the two companies meet the reduction goal. Such CO2 cuts would likely not come close to 60 percent, Webster says, but it’s important to steer policy in the right direction. Policymakers move slowly because they typically look ten or twenty years into the future, he says. That’s problematic because coal-fired plants have a fifty-year life span and, as for global warming and climate change, we’re talking about a century of constant policy assessment.

Also, the government relies on companies to invest in technologies purely on their own. “We ask them to be nice guys, and do this,” Webster says. This is fundamentally flawed, he believes. Companies need incentives. But, Webster says, the government should not subsidize one thing — such as ethanol — and not others. “History shows that whenever governments try to pick winners, they always get it wrong,” he says.

The government currently subsidizes some alternatives, Meyer says, such as wind power. And government subsidies are critical to the push by utility companies to consider constructing more nuclear plants, he adds.

Mort Webster: “History shows that whenever governments try to pick winners, they always get it wrong.” Photo: Jason Smith.

Big houses, long commutes

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Carolina researchers agree that the federal government should lead the way on global warming and peak oil, but they also agree that these issues have deep roots that all of us should understand. Our sustainability nightmare began with the American dream — suburbia. At the turn of the twentieth century, cities were crowded and polluted, which caused public health problems. The government subsidized cars, oil, and highway construction. Banks gave better mortgage deals for suburban development. “We subsidized our way into sprawl,” says Philip Berke, professor of city and regional planning and chair of environmental studies. From an economic standpoint, it made sense. Environmentally, the problems keep popping up.

“If we continue to settle the way we do — with people in suburbs working thirty miles away and shopping twenty miles away — forget it,” Crawford-Brown says. “We’re doomed to high levels of energy use. Redesigning our communities is the ultimate answer.” (see Endeavors, Winter 2004, “Made for Action.”)

Berke believes that we should concentrate commercial and residential areas together and then provide mass transit if none exists. “There’s a notion that transit is expensive,” he says. “Well, so are highways.” Transit-oriented developments would justify alternative forms of transportation, he says.

There are favorable trends. Since 1990, city centers of Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham have gained popularity. Some towns are building up instead of out. And, according to Berke, more than one million Americans have moved into planned new urban communities, such as Southern Village and Meadowmont in Chapel Hill. Cecil says that a local agriculture component would help sustain new and old communities.

Philip Berke: “There’s a notion that transit is expensive. Well, so are highways. … We subsidized our way into sprawl.” Photo: Jason Smith.

Also, Berke says, education is essential, starting with elementary school-age kids. As for the rest of us, we’ll likely have to adjust our lifestyles. For example, when it comes to peak oil, Cecil says, “the easiest way to adapt in the short-term will be to carpool.”

Ultimately, our entire transportation system will have to be reconfigured, he says. The final part of his book addresses such massive changes. “We need much more efficient ways to move goods — by barge or train,” he says. Not by truck. “We’ll have to transport people by trains, bikes, and much better cars than even hybrids.” We’ll have to develop better housing and working patterns to lessen transport time and energy. Air travel, Cecil thinks, will once again be only for the rich.

“I think the big picture is absolutely overwhelming,” Cecil says. “But this is something that could energize every department on campus in a common-sense way. As in, ‘here’s a really tough problem to tackle. What do we do? Let’s have a significant impact on the community.’”

Cecil adds that the best way to pitch all of this might be to ask ourselves what sort of world we want to leave for our children and grandchildren. “It’s not a world that’s going to get easier; it’s going to get harder. We must be vigilant about our energy use for decades to come.”