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Forum addresses global warming

Tim Lowenstein’s warning about global warming to the Binghamton University Forum was urgent and to the point: “The longer we wait to act, the more damage to the climate and the more costly the fix.”

Lowenstein, a professor of geological sciences and environmental studies at Binghamton, has the credentials to issue a climate change warning. He has not only found that high levels of carbon dioxide caused high temperatures during the Eocene Epoch, the warmest period on Earth over the past 65 million years, but he also determined the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere during the era.

“The Eocene is an important reference point for future global warming because over the next 100 years, the burning of fossil fuels may lead to CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere that are close to those found in the Eocene,” Lowenstein said at the forum held Jan. 13 in the Anderson Center Reception Room.

Lowenstein took forum members back 65 million years by first discussing the discovery of various fossils from the Eocene Epoch. For example, palm tree fossils and crocodile bones were found in what is now Wyoming, he said. Palm tree fossils were even found in Canada, unusual for a plant that cannot tolerate frost.

“That must mean climate was a lot warmer back then,” he said. “And it was at least 10 degrees warmer in the Eocene than it is today.”

By examining rocks that were former lake deposits in the Green River Formation of Wyoming and Colorado, Lowenstein and Binghamton colleague Robert Demicco also discovered that the mineral nahcolite would form when the atmospheric CO2 levels exceeded 1,000 parts per million (ppm). That is less than three times today’s CO2 level of 380 parts per million.

This is worrisome, Lowenstein said, because the Eocene CO2 increased over millions of years, allowing life to easily adjust to changes. The current buildup of CO2 has taken place over a much shorter period of time and the continued burning of fossil fuels by a growing population has caused the CO2 levels in the atmosphere to rise from 280 ppm in 1850. Meanwhile, 11 of the 12 warmest years on record have occurred between 1995-2006, Lowenstein said.

“This rapid rate of global warming will be too fast to allow many plants and animals to adjust to the changes,” he said. “People in wealthy countries can afford to adjust, but poorer countries will not be able to make the changes necessary to keep pace with rising sea levels or changing crops or modifying lifestyles.”

Finding ways to stabilize CO2 in the atmosphere is key, Lowenstein said.

“There’s no one solution to global change and global warming,” he said. “But there’s a long list of things that can be done. We need to make a huge effort to get serious about conserving energy and improving efficiency.”

Lowenstein presented options such as driving fuel-efficient cars, using more efficient appliances, telecommuting, recycling and composting, and praised the University for being named one of the nation’s

11 green campuses by the Princeton Review. He also stressed the need for the use of fossil fuel alternatives such as wind-generated energy and solar power, but said they are not yet available on a scale to replace fossil fuels.

A short-term solution offered by Lowenstein was carbon capture and storage, a technology that captures CO2, transports it and stores it in liquid form in underground rock formations or the deep ocean. Carbon capture and storage is now being tested at plants in Oklahoma and North Dakota, Lowenstein said.

“This technology would at least allow us to continue to use fossil fuels until our alternative energy sources could be developed on a large enough global scale,” he said.

Getting people to think more about the global health of the planet is imperative, Lowenstein said.

“I’m hopeful that with smart leadership and technological innovation, we may be able to hold down CO2 in our atmosphere to levels that will not do major damage to the biosphere,” he said.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08