By Michael P. Farrell
Subtle signs of global warming have been detected in studies of the climate record of the past century after figuring in the cooling effects of sulfur emissions from volcanoes and human sources. According to the December 1995 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the earth's surface temperature has increased by about 0.2°C per decade since 1975. The panel projects about a 2° increase in global temperature by 2100. The IPCC report states that pollutantsgreenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and fluorocarbons that warm the globe and sulfur emissions that cool itare responsible for recent patterns of climate change. "The balance of evidence," states the report, "suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate." This human influence stems largely from fossil fuel combustion, cement production, and the burning of forests, and it could intensify as populations grow and developing countries increase energy production and industrial development. Two facts have caught the attention of the news media and public. First, 1995 was declared the hottest year in the 140-year-long record of reliable global measurements. Second, recent years have been marked by an unusually high number of extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, blizzards, and floods. In the 1990s, the world has become more aware of the prospect and possible impacts of global climate change.
In the late 1950s, global climate change was an unknown threat to the world's environment and social systems. Except for a few ORNL researchers who had just completed their first briefing to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) on the need to understand the global carbon cycle, the connection between rising carbon dioxide concentrations and potential changes in global climate was not common knowledge, nor were the consequences of climate change understood. It would not be until almost 15 years laterthe mid-1970sthat a comprehensive Department of Energy (DOE) research program was established to study the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on the world's climatethe first global climate change program. DOE provided the leadership of the program.
Why does DOE have the lead? Energy and the environment are inextricably linked. The main source of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases is human activities (anthropogenic sources) with the majority coming from power generation. From a small national program, DOE and laboratory leadership brought the question of global climate change to the forefront of the international research community. Today, seven years after the congressional testimony during the sweltering summer of 1988, the U.S. Global Change Research Program is nearly a $2 billion enterprise encompassing 12 U. S. agencies examining the full range of global change issues. DOE remains a dominant participant in this research enterprise.
According to measurements taken at the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere is steadily rising. This increase is a concern because atmospheric carbon dioxide keeps heat radiated from the sun-warmed earth from escaping into space.
But what prompted this buildup of a large, multiagency U.S. research program in global change? One of the major drivers took place in June 1992. Beginning in the late 1980s, there was a growing international consensus that the world had a problem of unprecedented proportionsa strong possibility exists that the world's climate may changebecoming warmer by most calculations. The world was now ready to act as more than 200 nations participated in the historic United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which included the Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Dave Reichle, Paul Kanciruk, and I were delegates at the conference. Two decades of research experience working with DOE to understand global climate change proved to be a valuable commodity at the convention. ORNL's analyses of global carbon dioxide emissions, sources and sinks of the global carbon cycle, energy efficiency alternatives, and the effect of climate change on ecosystems were all part of the fabric of understanding that led to the conference.
Almost all the countries at the conference, including the United States, signed a treaty that called on all nations to work together in an unprecedented effort to protect the global environment. Specifically, the industrialized countries were urged to take the lead by stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000.
Unraveling the consequences of rising atmospheric greenhouse gases is not a task for a single institution or individual principal investigator. Unlike most research programs addressing complex issues that tend to be highly competitive, understanding the causes and effects of rising carbon dioxide concentrations requires collaborative interdisciplinary efforts. ORNL's global climate change researchers have been fortunate over the past 20 years to work with the best and the brightest both within ORNL and with private and university-based research groups. Our research successes have depended on many other projects and analyses conducted by interdisciplinary teams of researchers. Out of these collaborative efforts, however, ORNL can take pride in research findings, products, and understanding that have emerged from studies centered at the Laboratory. In brief, among our major contributions, we have:
From these past successes comes the hope of transferring our capabilities derived from research on global change issues to new challenges resulting from sustainable development goals. New methodologies such as industrial ecology, life-cycle assessment, and economic ecology evaluations should help ORNL develop opportunities to guide the development of sustainable communities in which people prosper while using less energy and materials.
This special issue of the Review provides in-depth coverage of ORNL's recent efforts to help the government understand and stave off the global warming threat. The Laboratory is analyzing data on various countries' greenhouse emissions and projecting effects on global warming of emission increases as energy use rises and of emissions decreases if restrictions are imposed, as described by Fred Stoss in his article "Managing Global Change Information." Computer models of future climate during global warming are discussed in John Drake's article "Predicting Climate Change."
The question of whether use of biomass fuels as a substitute for fossil fuels could be an effective strategy for reducing net emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is explored in Janet Cushman, Gregg Marland, and Bernhard Schlamadinger's article "Biomass Fuels, Energy, Carbon, and Global Climate." They suggest that partial use of fast-growing forests for fuel wood to replace coal could reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations over the long term.
Through partnerships with utilities, the automobile industry, the building industry, and developing countries, the U. S. government hopes to achieve more efficient production and use of energy. Increased efficiency in buildings and transportation should help reduce greenhouse gas emissions to target levels.
ORNL's work in support of these goals is also described in this special issue. In his article "Electric Utilities and Energy Efficiency," Eric Hirst writes about "demand-side management" efforts by electric utilities to influence the amount and timing of customer electricity use, reducing electric bills and carbon dioxide emissions at the same time. In an article on ORNL's research in transportation technology, Jim Pearce et al. explore our efforts in developing clean, safe, efficient, and intelligent transportation vehicles and systems to cut use of fuel, loss of life, and greenhouse gas emissions. In the section "Saving Energy in Buildings and Appliances," Carolyn Krause writes about efforts of ORNL's Buildings Technology Center to improve the energy efficiency of buildings through better roof construction, development of computer software to analyze home energy use and recommend energy efficiency measures and identification and repair of leaks in air ducts that lead to energy losses. Additional articles by Krause and Bill Cabage discuss design and testing of energy-efficient, environmentally friendly refrigerators and heat pumps (including GAX systems and triple-effect chillers).
Internationally, ORNL is playing a role in the U.S. effort to help foreign countries control their greenhouse gas emissions as they increase their production and use of energy. This role is discussed in the article "Promoting International Deployment of Greenhouse Gas Technologies" by Marilyn A. Brown, Julia S. Kelley, and Melissa K. Voss. Also, ORNL is helping developing countries conduct "integrated resource planning" as they increase their production and use of energy to minimize costs and adverse health and environmental impacts. This work is covered in Larry Hill's article "Power to the People: Integrated Resource Planning in Developing Countries."
Today, ORNL's Center for Global Environmental Studies works closely with other Laboratory programs, centers, and divisions to help identify and coordinate the range and depth of the Laboratory's scientific expertise. This is a highly collaborative effort among ORNL organizations that uniquely qualifies the Laboratory to take up the challenges of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. Our interdisciplinary knowledge and skills in the natural, physical, and social sciences are laying the foundation for expanded focused research into the problems of global change. We believe that global change should continue to be a hot area of research. Research results and technology developments described in this issue of the Review should enable ORNL to participate in the global change research agenda for the next 20 years.
Michael P. Farrell is director of ORNL's Center for Global Environmental Studies.
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