More Thoughts on Global Warming

When I went to the HPAC web site to get the link to the article contrasting the efficiency and carbon footprint of various chilled water cooling technologies that I discussed in my previous post, I noticed that a comment had been attached to the article.

The opening line was With the latest developments in “Climategate” (UK) and “Climategate-USA”, the IPCC pulling its 2035 Himalayan prediction, etc, why is this topic of ANY relevance? (emphasis by Mark, the person posting the comment).  Here is the comment in its entirety.


I would have to say that I had a fairly strong reaction to the opening line and discourse that followed.

For one thing, if you read the article, you discovered that despite the allusion to climate change issues implied in the title, its actually a very well written, easy to read, “here’s how you do it” guideline for performing an engineering analysis that, among other things, looked at the carbon footprint of a number of different aproaches to generating chilled water rather than a discussion about environmentalism and saving the planet.

And, having been the benefactor of Jerry’s mentoring for my whole career and being fortunate enough to count him as a friend, I guess I was a bit upset that Mark didn’t realize what a gift he had been given in the context of the content of the article. That aside, Jerry’s probably more skeptical than not about climate change; he’s all about energy efficiency; always has been and always will be. And, since he had clients who were concerned about both efficiency and climate change, and, since there is a relationship between energy efficiency and emmissions, he was happy to perform the analysis for them.

After stewing about it for a while, I decided I would post a comment in response to Mark, more in an effort to juxtaposition a different perspective next to his for consideration rather than to change his mind as it would seeem that its already made up. Developing my comment turned into a thought process that took a while and connected a bunch of ideas that had been running around in my head for a couple of months or longer.

In other words, it turned into a sort of essay on the topic and, when I posted it, it never showed up. I suspect that’s because its too long or a moderator somewhere is trying to work their way through it thinking “the little button says “Add New Comment” not “Write New Novel”.

That said, organizing my ideas into written words helped me connect a few dots and gave me a few insights. So, for what ever they are worth, I thought I would share them here. What follows is my response to Mark’s comment. In the next post, I’ll get back to the technical stuff I usually blog about, I promise.

Hi Mark,

I ran across your comment when I went to the HPAC site to copy the link to the article you reference and send it to some folks I work with and share it on my blog. I guess you could say that your thoughts “gave me pause” but ultimately helped me think through and connect some ideas that have been running around in my head for a while now, which I will share below, so thanks for that.

I think the point of the article is perhaps contained in your closing line where you say “as engineers we should strive to design systems that are efficient and cost effective”. Jerry’s article simply contrasts a number of different ways to provide chilled water cooling, a utility that is in common use for many campus HVAC systems and postulates that if in fact the ACUPCC intends to achieve climate neutrality, then the impact on the climate of various technologies for making chilled water might be worth considering.

Thus it seemed to me that the point of the article is to provide a well written, readily understood explanation of sound engineering principles applied to the exploration of a number of different approaches to providing chilled water cooling. I would hope that any of us, when asked to provide counsel to a client regarding the best approach to providing new prime mover capacity to serve an expanding chilled water cooling requirement, would be able to perform such an analysis and, based on the local variables, provide sound advice regarding the most cost effective, efficient approach to solving their particular problem, including advice on the potential climate impact if that was of interest to the client.

For those of us without the breadth of experience or depth of knowledge necessary to do so, Jerry’s article provides insight, resources, and a framework for emulating the example he generously provides.

With regard to CO2 as a pollutant, I believe if you explore the definition of pollution in the context of the environment, you’ll find that it is generally considered to be some process or action that makes the local environment unwholesome or unfit for use.

In human terms, at some point, with perhaps a limiting case being to consider what might happen if you were to place a plastic bag over your head, CO2 concentrations above a certain threshold make the local environment unwholesome or unfit for use. Thus, I would postulate that in human terms, CO2 is in fact a pollutant and we humans, and generally, all living things, are to some extent polluters or at least “alterers” of our local environment.

Ted Taylor and Charles Humpstone explore this concept in detail in their book, “The Restoration of the Earth”. In it, they postulate that in the context of the preceding, the thing that sets man apart is that “changes to their environment by non-human species are controlled or offset by other living species or by forces that are local to their origin and effects; changes by man are not.”

For instance, if a beaver continues to raise the height of its dam in the name of its own interests, it becomes more vulnerable to predators as the territory it must cover to eat expands and/or the dam becomes vulnerable to collapse from hydrostatic pressure. The process is cyclic but self limiting.

In contrast, after the first dam collapse, or perhaps before if we think about it enough, humans would figure out how to prevent the collapse in the first place and come up with a way to over-power the predators while we were at it, all of which would rely on technology.

Mr. Taylor and Mr. Humpstone further propose that it’s the human ability to think and apply technology that allows us to survive, but also allows us to upset the balancing act that would otherwise exist. And that because of that, technology is something we cannot set aside if we are going to survive; that it’s almost as much a part of our make up as the genetic factors that have caused our bodies and minds to develop to their current state.

Sort of a “Catch 22” there; to survive, we need technology, but if we aren’t careful with it, we can alter things beyond the natural environments capability to deal with them, or at least deal with them in a way that allows us to survive.

I personally think this is an interesting if not scary concept that has some validity. And if that’s true, then I also think it means we have more than just a technical and financial responsibility to embrace as we apply technology; there are ethical issues to consider. I think this is the point Bill Coad (past president, ASHRAE) makes in his article “Energy Conservation is an Ethic” (ASHRAE Journal, vol. 42, no. 7, July 2000). In that article, Bill says:

“[We need] to practice our profession with an emphasis upon our responsibility to protect the long-range interests of the society we serve and, specifically, to incorporate the ethics of energy conservation and environmental preservation in everything we do.”

Given the preceding, I’ve concluded that the activities of humans may very well have contributed to global warming. Some of this is simply based on observations I have made. I travel a lot for my job and as a result, spend a lot of time looking out of airplane windows. As I do that, especially going cross-country on a clear night, I’ve often been struck by the fact that there is seldom a point in time where this not a cluster of light or two that is visible with wandering dots of light magically moving between them; evidence of our current civilization and its consumption of resources I would argue.

And it would seem to me, given the fossil fuel consumption (among other things) driving the lights (which represent a fraction of what the fossil fuels are actually driving) that it would be impossible for the activities of humans not to have some sort of impact on the environment. Whether that impact triggered some sort of global warming cycle or simply contributed to it is up for debate. But it sure would seem like we are at least contributing to it.

Another interesting thing you notice at altitude is how incredibly thin our atmosphere is. Perhaps the ultimate perspective on that are the pictures of earth from the moon, which I realize have become a bit of a classic environmentalist cliché at this point. But that said, if you spend some time reading things that the astronauts say (i.e. the highly technical, test pilot types who have witnessed that perspective with their own eyes), they all inevitably, at some point, in some way, comment on how beautiful yet fragile the planet appears.

“If I could use only one word to describe the earth as seen from the moon, I would ignore both its size and color and search for a more elemental quality, that of fragility. The earth appears “fragile,” above all else. I don’t know why, but it does.” (Michael Collins, “Carrying the Fire”; a great book in general with a very readable insider/technical perspective on the space program but also with some very thought provoking more holistic insights in Chapter 14, which is where the quote is from.)

For me, all of these concepts, combined with:

• Lessons and knowledge shared with me by mentors who have concerned themselves with efficiency and environmental issues,

• Lessons from parents and grandparents who farmed and as a result had a strong connection with the interplay between human activity and the earth and the ability for each to sustain the other, and

• Lessons from spiritual teachers and religious leaders who point out that we (humans and individuals) are actually a part of something that is much bigger than any of us, something that connects everyone and everything,

… have caused me to endeavor to live life and work in the engineering profession I love in a way that is mindful of the impacts my activities might have on the environment, that is to say on all things because we all are connected by it.

But, then again, I’m probably just one of those environmental crazies out here in Oregon; when I’m not hugging trees, I’m probably trying to save salmon or something like that.

But that aside, I’m truly thankful for your assertion that “as engineers we should strive to design systems that are efficient and cost effective.” In practicing what you preach, you do the profession an honor. And who knows, if it actually turns out that there is something to all of this planet saving, environmental foolishness, your practice may have, in some small way, reduced greenhouse gas emissions and had an impact on global warming.

David Sellers
Facility Dynamics Engineering
Portland, Oregon

David Sellers
Senior Engineer – Facility Dynamics Engineering

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3 Responses to More Thoughts on Global Warming

  1. Hi, David.
    Great post! FYI – HPAC Engineering now has your comment posted on their website at www. hpac . com.

  2. Hi Michael,
    Yeah, I just noticed that. I guess posting a “Novel” instead of a “Comment” was O.K. after all.

  3. Tom says:

    The problem seems to be the difference between creature comfort and stagnation and decline due to fear of global warming. Following the global warming ideology for years and finding its flaws so apparent that the problem as caused by humans does not exist. What exists is a political scam to control and continue to decimate the “undesirables” by stopping their advancement and growth. Pretty serious charge, but other than the greed of professors and scientists who falsify eveidence for grants by political powers, this is about control. So the global warming people have to rethink their stance and decide if they truly are going to fly in the face of all evidence that there is no appreciable human caused global warming.
    Now lets get back to energy efficiency and cleaner environmental growth by stopping real pollutants, not falsified ones such as DDT and CO2. Both of these causes have already killed millions of poor people.

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