Technology (alone) can’t stop global warming

Blog #79 4-18-21 CaliforniaGeo


Trends That Deserve Watching- 

California continues to set unwelcome records that focus our attention on increased risk.  In 2020 we experienced a drought year that helped burn a record 4 million+ acres of wild lands, including the largest single fire ever recorded here.  Our most recent 7-year drought ended in 2015 and probably helped weaken and kill millions of forest trees via expanded bark beetle infestations.

So now, more of us are watching weather and climate than ever before.  How high will rural fire insurance climb?  Will it remain affordable?  How many more will die at home by wildfire?  Will we be forced to evacuate from the path of a wildfire?” 

Describing weather is a today or this week phenomenon.  Everyone knows about weather forecasts.  Computer modeling makes this and longer-term forecasting possible.  But there are new forecast reports that respond to relative risks.  Take for example the HDWI (Heat, Drought, Wind Index).  It combines the short term forecasted temperature with the current measurement of drought, and the expected wind velocity—three things that combine to increase the risk of a spreading wildfire on natural terrain.

 The map at left features the HDWI for a specific date, but this map does not express the level of fuel moisture.  In a forested environment with heavy fuels, this condition helps identify the risk of uncontrolled wildfire to burn hot and spread quickly.  Thus, if you’re in such a fire’s path, you may be forced to evacuate to guarantee survival.

I live in the NE quadrant of California, close to the Nevada border, and I remember the conditions on the date (above).  It was an unseasonably warm 74° here at 3,500 feet and there were moderate velocity winds from the north—which are usually dry ones.

For April 2nd, the darkest section of the HDWI was the upper midwest (repeated in the next map).  At that time, Wisconsin was on fire.  The average rural fuel density per acre might be lower than California’s national forests, but, if ignition occurs and winds are strong in populated areas, conflagrations could overpower municipal fire departments.

The conditions that threaten us are tied to  climate change.  Many people refuse to believe it, but atmospheric carbon is now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years, courtesy of the Industrial Age and our continuing growth of emissions.  The greenhouse effect is warming the atmosphere and ocean temperatures are rising.

Warmer oceans produce more clouds that deposit increased rainfall—but not along historic storm pathways.  The atmospheric jet stream has long been known to steer worldwide weather and it is bending from historic norms.  We have followed the effects of the eastern Pacific’s El Niño and La Niña weather patterns for years.  But we now see major changes on the U.S. east coast as well.  The flow of the (formerly dependable) Gulf Stream has weakened.  There are more super storms than  usual and the incidence of Arctic Vortex cold air is more frequent.  It most recently penetrated as far south as Texas and left disastrous ruin in February, 2021.

Policy Changes-

Electricity brought to homes and businesses still comes from a variety of fossil sources.  Most states have policy or regulatory targets for increasing the proportion of electricity on their grids by renewable sources.  California’s renewable targets are 33% in 2020 (achieved in 2018) 50% in 2030, and 100% in 2045.  There is a major move to electrify new buildings and retrofit older ones to minimize on-site emissions of carbon.  Increasing grid renewability, plus more home renewable electricity delivers a maximum opportunity for slowing global warming.

The HVAC Equipment Providing Electrification-  

With the exception of fully passive solar designs for buildings’ interior heating and cooling needs, home electrification will occur through refrigerant compression—better known as heat pumps.  Heat pumps (HPs) do what their name implies—they move heat from one place to another for the benefit of your building, just like your refrigerator does.  Except the heat pump works in two directions.  It provides heat when desired and can remove it, too.  

The most common version of a heat pump is known as an air-source unit.  It concentrates and delivers heat from or rejects it to a reservoir of outside air.   The lesser known type is the ground-source (aka “geo”) heat pump.  It performs its work against an underground reservoir with narrower swings in temperature.  Outside air temperature can swing widely over each day-night cycle.  When building temperatures decrease enough approaching a winter night, the thermostat tells the air-source HP to pull heat from air that is now cold and getting colder.  At such times, a ground-source HP is still working to concentrate from a source that could be 15-to-20 degrees warmer than outside air.  That delivers greater efficiency (less electrical consumption for the same heat production).  This comparison also works during summer cooling.  It’s challenging to push away unwanted indoor heat into 95° outside air in mid-afternoon.  Sending it into hot water production and the rest underground to 70° dirt takes less electrical energy.

The Carbon Equation-

We know that stopping carbon emissions is the key to halting global warming that’s changing our worldwide climate.  Electrification through heat pumps is a clear path to help, but there’s another powerful variable needing attention.

How much in carbon emissions is being saved with higher mileage vehicles, electric vehicles, renewably generated electricity, and the use of carbonless equipment like heat pumps?  Now, how much carbon is released from previous storage (in wood) by catastrophic wildfires?  We could be generating more greenhouse gas by wildfires than we have been saving through policy and technology efforts.  De-carbonization in one segment of our society may be partially or fully compromised by our increasing failure to control wildfire.

If it were true that we are gaining more carbon from climate change enhanced wildfires than we are saving—that would suggest that we are already in a non-virtuous loop.  We would be already losing the battle against permanent climate change.  Current policy and technology would not have prevailed.


There are at least two areas of hope that could change our climate trajectory.  Neither will be easy, and both require a societal acceptance that has been difficult to this point and could become more so.  Citizens don’t particularly like change, especially when they don’t control it.  This is true in politics (elections and policy) regulations (land-use and zoning) and economics (jobs, the social safety net, and taxation).  And it should be recognized that distrust of institutions of government has been heightened lately, which makes government leadership toward solutions to problems more difficult.  Two areas of hope I suggest are as follows.

We have already been moving toward more renewable electricity.  Technology for society’s energy (without carbon) is a choice we have.  The focus is often on new buildings for carbon savings.  It should be recognized that nearly all of the present building stock is a candidate for retrofits of carbonless technology.  This first hope is a driving force of possibility,  It is countered by a restraining force of society’s naysayers.  Such people are suspicious of change orchestrated by government and authorities, and such sentiment is often aided by those whose business interests are threatened by policy changes.

A second area of hope takes us back to the subject of wildfires.  They are dependent on three basic elements to keep going—fuel, heat of ignition, and oxygen.  We have no way of minimizing or removing oxygen from forests.  We have likely done most of what we can to reduce human-caused ignition (though arson is always a separate challenge).  The one area left is fuel.  We can manage forest fuels better than we have to reduce the spread and severity of wildfires.  Overall, we could save lives, developed property, net carbon emissions, wood for lumber, and a large portion of today’s technological suppression air force which deploys at high expense in these emergencies.

Mark Twain once opined that “whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin’.”  His comment was centered on long-simmering water wars in the western Great Basin.  Forest management has been affected by similar disagreement for decades.

Before a Smokey-the-Bear, “fire suppression at all costs” management policy by government land management—it was Nature herself that cleared the undergrowth with frequent thinning by fire.  Ladder  fuels near the ground were reduced or eliminated by periodic low intensity burns, and natural competition enhanced the placement of more wood biomass much higher above the forest floor on older trees where thicker bark and reduced ladder fuels could keep more fire out of forest crowns.

There have been fire management approaches applied in the last 40 years whose results mimicked Nature when it came to fuel densities and soil protection.  But there has been a solid core of citizens who oppose such management.  Some don’t believe it can work.  Others attach suspicion that such management is just an excuse to expand logging, and there are those who insist fire management and overall eco-responsibility are incompatible goals.

We can bank more carbon in a healthy forest which doesn’t release as much of it in a year’s worth of wildfire than it ingests through photosynthesis.  There is no way we can balance carbon with the current growth of frequent wildfires—to say nothing of the risk to human life and property. 


There are several natural phenomena at work here.  Electrification of buildings, more electric transportation and renewable electricity are key players, as are better forestry practices.  All  could reduce global warming by greenhouse gas.

We know the temperatures are rising, everywhere.  We’ve measured yearly increases in carbon in the atmosphere.  We can see ice caps melting and calving off into the sea, and sea level rising.  We can count increased superstorms, hurricanes, and tornados that take lives and cause damage.  But there is another sleeping giant that represents all loss of control over global warming.

Most of the earth’s land mass is concentrated above the equator and at high latitudes where millions of acres of permafrost reside.  If the atmosphere warms enough, this permafrost will thaw, and it will release copious methane (a gas with 80+ times the greenhouse warming potential of carbon dioxide) from muskeg bogs now frozen.  The potential quantity of methane released upward will dwarf all the existing landfill methane we experience at present.  And at that point, global temperatures could “free run,” without our ability to slow or stop them.  No amount of our effort at  that point can make a difference.  Our fate will be sealed.

The sooner we can electrify, the better.  The sooner we can reduce carbon emissions toward zero, the better.  The sooner we can practice better forestry, here, and across the globe including the Amazon, the better.  And the sooner we can defeat the climate skeptics, the naysayers, and the forces of economic self-interest—the better chance we’ll have at maintaining the climates that have supported our cultures and societies for millennia.

—Bill Martin