Essay Questions for Astro 7: Planetary Climate Science

Each question can have no more than 4 students doing that question. First come/ first dibs! I'll add your name below the question when you tell me. Email me your preference. You MUST print your essay and give me the hardcopy. I need a paper copy to mark on. Don't email me the essay. The essay should most importantly cover the subject well - that's what I will look for. Length is secondary. The worst, is to blather on and on with little content, trying to meet some sort of length criterion. Think about a scientific journal article. The authors must pay ~$200 per typeset page to the publisher. (yes - PAY, not BE PAID!) and so there is motivation to be clear, concise, and complete in the minimum length necessary to do the job.

1. You MUST cite references to each significant piece of data or conclusion
2. You MUST email me what your essay is before you do it. If you wait till the last second and then just do a random essay without emailing me first for confirmation - it won't count. Decide early, start early. It's a test of your time management skills too.
3. Read carefully the question. Confine yourself to things worth saying; interesting calculations, interesting points and conclusions that I have not said in class or in my web/powerpoint material.
4. All essays must be written on computer and printed and given to me personally. Don't email me the essay, and no hand-written essay will be accepted.

5. The Due date is 1 week before the final exam. No exceptions. Late submissions will be given only half credit.

If you can identify a really interesting and appropriate essay question that I haven't thought of (and that can't simply be copied out of a wikipedia entry), let me know and I may let you write about it instead, and also give you credit for coming up with the question in the first place.

1. Planting trees is a strategy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. I want you to write about all the difficulties that this would entail. I want you to number and list all of problems tree-planting would entail in attempting to accomplish the goal of removing 50 ppm of CO2 from the atmosphere. Be sure to give a ranking (your own, if necessary, and reasons for your ranking) of the degree of difficulty for each problem you identify. Start with the most difficult problem first, and #2, #3 etc should be progressively less severe problems in your judgment. If there's some solution to the difficulty, include that. Then, compare tree planting to building machines to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, if you can find information and comparisons.

2. Can You Find ANY Plausible Explanation for Global Warming Other than Human-Caused? Find one plausible explanation for global warming which includes the conclusion that human activities are a minor fraction of the climate forcing that we are seeing. It must be an explanation which has not already been solidly debunked by scientists. That means you cannot go to the list of denialist arguments and pick one of those, as I've detailed they have all been shown to be wrong. Other debunked claims (e.g. found on and likewise. It must be a credible idea which has not been debunked to get full credit. Surprise me and find one! Don't say "Natural variation" - that's code for "we don't know, so maybe it isn't us" - which is NOT an explanation! Afterwards, go directly to Stockholm and collect your Nobel Prize!

3. Oak Trees to Remove 50ppm of CO2: Do some web research and calculate how many oak trees (those stout, stately oaks you see on old hillsides as you drive through oak grasslands in California) it would take to suck 50 parts per million of carbon out of the total atmosphere in 20 years, all other things being held constant. You'll need to figure how much carbon is in a tree, how much weight a tree gains from youth to middle age, how much of that weight is carbon (vs water or other things) and how much carbon in the form of CO2 is in our atmosphere currently, and the current parts per million of CO2 we now have. Some googling ought to uncover these things. Make reasonable estimates for quantities you can't find exact figures for. Show your calculations. (this is only worth half credit - I already did most of the work for you. You still have to show original work on oak tree relevant computations)


4. Why Do Climate Denialists Believe What They Do? Find 5 people who do not accept that global warming is real and human-caused, and interview them carefully to find out why. Write down the reasoning cited by each person. Don't debate with them (at least, not until they've explained their reasons!).


5. Identify a New Strategy for CO2 Reduction: Find a new strategy for reducing CO2 emissions which I have not yet included in my 'strategies' webpages and powerpoints, and give at least a page of detail on what it is and how it works.


6. Methane from Livestock, and How it Will Change: Find out how much methane is produced by domesticated livestock (i.e. not by wild animals) and compare numerically it to other sources of methane emission, and also to the total methane currently in the atmosphere. Find too how that is projected to change into the future. I want a graph vs time showing this (Excel produces nice graphs, or you can use other software, or perhaps find it already on the web).


7. Removing 50ppm CO2 from the Atmosphere. Calculate how much energy is required to take 50 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 out of our atmosphere. I'm not asking about preventing an additional 50ppm from going in (i.e. scrubbers at coal plants), I mean taking out what is already there in the atmosphere. You are to assume that to prevent disaster we need to do more than simply stop adding more CO2, we have to remove what's there - quickly. This is a chemistry question. Find a chemical process which can do what we want, and then calculate how much energy it would require to do it. Express that in terms of tons of uranium assuming the power source will be nuclear. Show your calculations, be quantitative, be careful.


8. An Economy Based on Contraction, Not Growth: Address the issue of lowering the entire human footprint on the ecology of our planet. Do some research and think some thoughts and address the feasibility of basing an economy not on growth, but instead on contraction - contraction of the number of people and the quantity of "stuff" we all consume. Is this possible, without a long term Mega-Depression and a world which more resembles a post-apocalypse . Can you create jobs and who would pay good money to create value in such a world? There is to be no monetary inflation in this scenario. i.e. you can't have an economy based on fiat money printed up regardless of the value for which that money represents a medium of exchange.


9. Financial Conflicts of Interest - nuclear engineers and nuclear scientists vs climatologists who conclude global warming is real and human-caused. Compare the degree of financial conflict of interest that these individuals and their professional societies have. For example, how financially at risk are nuclear engineers in publishing studies which show nuclear power is not safe enough to be privately insurable (assuming that is the case, and I am not saying that it is the case), vs. climatologists who might have a financial interest in seeing non-fossil fuel energy sources spread through society. This must be documented and/or well-reasoned. Note, I am not accusing nuclear engineering society members with scientific fraud, nor climatologists. I'm wanting you to show with evidence and good reasoning if, and how much, financial conflict of interest there is in these two groups. Another example; if you find that many of the prominent leading climatologists on the AGW scientific papers also sit on the boards of directors of e.g. solar panel companies or wind turbine companies or hold a great deal of stock in these companies, this is significant. And, if you can make a case that the dwindling or disappearance of the nuclear power industry because of safety or economics would be detrimental to the livelihoods of the members of The American Nuclear Society, then this too is significant. Are these two different scientific groups equally at risk for financial conflict of interest? Why or why not?


10. Do Boreal Forests Really Heat the Earth, not Cool it? Look for and assess any criticisms of the Bala et al. 2007 study linked and described in class and in the "Strategies" PowerPoint, showing that clearing high latitude forests actually cools the climate by increasing the reflectivity of the ground. Is it really true that we will have a cooler planet if we cut down all high latitude forests? They sequester carbon too, not just absorb solar radiation. See the PowerPoint "Strategies" around page 22 for links to relevant references to get a start. I want to know what's been done more recently to assess these. Can you find any papers which reach the opposite conclusion of Bala et al.?


11. Climate Denial Tactics - A Live Example: Listen to this recent ~50 minute long radio program on local radio station KSCO with local climate "skeptic" Nick Herbert (not a climate scientist) and having now, in Astro 7, the benefit of knowing how real scientists reason and assemble data and conclusions, list and detail as many fallacies, logic errors, and slanders w/o evidence as you can. Take good notes (as I did) when you are listening. (hint: might want to take some blood pressure meds before embarking on this one!)
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12. Positive Climate Feedbacks in Global Climate Models: Pick a particular global climate model (GCM) or models, and carefully find out what positive climate feedbacks have been explicitly included or NOT included in the model(s). Carefully cite the references you find which show that. You may need to go to the research center's website itself. For example, the National Center for Atmospheric Research climate models, or NOAA models. Also, find if those feedbacks listed were included in the IPCC AR5 results - in other words, did these feedbacks get added to the computer model AFTER the studies which were the base source of the IPCC AR5? Don't take my word for it that, e.g. "methane thaw in the permafrost is not included in AR5... ", etc.


13. This is for the mathematically inclined... Atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett at U. Utah shows that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have gone up with GDP as a power law. Go to his 2012 paper here, and his figure C1, and use this to produce a new graph for the future of CO2 atmospheric levels until the year 2200, with assumptions of GDP growth of 2%/year, 3%/year, and 1%/year (3 different curves, in other words). Include hardcopy graphs in your essay, and comment too on what traditional economists think is "acceptable" GDP growth rates as far as a "healthy" economy (traditional economists... meaning those who give no consideration to the effects on Earth systems).


14. How to Build Ports w/o Stable Coastlines? At temperatures only slightly higher than current, paleo evidence indicates the permafrost will all melt, and Greenland will completely melt as well as West Antarctica. For many centuries or millenia, sea level will rise rapidly enough that stable coastlines will not exist. How will be built ports to enable shipping and ocean-going transportation in such a world? Is this problem solvable, and how?


15. The classic studies by Mischel et al. in the late 1960's and 1970's at Stanford University on Delayed Gratification showed that children who cannot exert will power and project the future's greater reward, in later life show lower intelligence and a wide variety of other measures of lowered life success. Find out if the follow-up studies showed the political orientation of the grown-up children and give the details on what you find out on that.

16. Listen to this 75 minute video lecture by retired geologist Gary Smith. It's chock-a-block filled with the same standard climate denialist bogus claims that we've seen for many years. Note that even after all of these have been thoroughly debunked for all of these many years, they pretend otherwise. So, listen to this lecture and jot down the lies and debunk them as briefly as possible in your essay. (check and their concise debunkings, and my own list as well - they're good starting points). And note too - this lecture takes NO QUESTIONS from the audience at the end (perhaps smarter audience members embarrassingly demolished his case?)