The Political Science of a Solar Eclipse

Path of places in Oregon the total eclipse will be visible August 21, 2017

Solar irradiance on land is about 1000 watts per square meter at sea level on a clear day, like when the moon is not in the way. On the 21st of this month here in Oregon, solar irradiance is going to suddenly drop to about 1 watt per square meter in places like Salem, Warm Springs (momentarily not so warm), and Prineville. Weather will change for a bit, but climate will not. The solar eclipse will help some politicians escape the confusion between the two. Some will be left behind.


Climate trends, which are the result of capturing solar energy for eons, don’t care about the big shadow heading to Eastern Oregon along Hwy 26. Lately, we’ve been capturing lots of energy here. So much you wish we could get more cooling from more solar eclipses, but the President can only do so much. As luck would have it he’s impeded by an inability to notice the temperature unless it soaks his polo shirt with a camera too close. The Presidential schedule is so packed with different ways to protect his optics he would have no time to look out the window anyway. So we’re on our own. The next one comes to Oregon in 2169.

This brings up an interesting question: What does a solar eclipse tell us about climate change? Well, for one thing, if the sun dims, we cool off, like resolving a fever. And like after the eclipse goes away, the fever kicks in again. If we want the climate to not get so hot (strangely some politicians act like this can’t be happening – they’re in their own mental eclipse), the options are few. Worse than that, if you find something that actually works (so far no one has) it would take more than an election cycle to even get started on it.

Worse than that it takes a lot of explaining to describe how long it actually does take to get a dip in Earth’s fever. Scientists are struggling to explain this. Here’s how they are trying. They invent a way to cut the sun’s irradiance (termed “radiative forcing” when it happens in the upper atmosphere) by reducing it to, say 3.6 watts per square meter up there, or, to get even more relief, to 2.0 watts per square meter. It’s called Solar Radiation Management SRM (managers can do anything). Chemicals launched to the upper atmosphere do the trick (sulfur dioxide aerosols, untested, and risky). For now let’s just explain how long it takes to break the fever if SRM of some kind is done.

SRM is a “thought experiment,” so to get theoretical answers you need more than imagination. Scientists trying to explain how various solutions could work use computer-based models of Earth’s climate and economic systems, and have reported their results, “Response Times for Various Strategies.

What you get are big answers

On the one hand, if you intervene by cutting solar energy to eclipse what is heating the Earth, it takes a couple years to achieve the best theoretical outcome. By the way, sulfur in the atmosphere will resume acid rains; and that’s not the only drawback.

If instead, you model a cost of carbon at $1000/ton (gets you better rain), and compare the result with historical rapid infrastructure changes, you get a “rapid mitigation” response time of 30 years. No relief in less than 30 years, even for the “1%-type” politicians cheering the President’s string of tweets.

The way things are going, expect a 2-generation delay and a bad life for a long time. What this means: if we were to do something seriously effective on climate (2x better than the Paris Agreement, the one the United States just un-signed), benefits would show up when your babies born this year are in mid-career. That’s best case.

Note that sea level rise goes on forever. Shoreline eclipse does not stop. Taxpayers get to move their own beach dachas while paying the bill for relocating Navy bases. After the solar eclipse passes across Oregon it leaves lasting impressions in living memory. This is the last time in at least 2 generations we will have gotten any relief from solar driven climate.

Our eclipse offers a chance to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of pointing to physical reality without open arguments in Salem about what’s happening outside and why. The hard work of saving everybody you met on the trip to see the eclipse and everyone else you know, and everyone you will never know, starts when the sun comes back on the 21st. If nothing else, the eclipse can help put an end the convenient but insane political disbelief about global things not happening. It happens. Crop loss claims in eastern Oregon have been surging since 2000. No end in sight.

Oregon Crop History from 1948 to 2016
Ref: Private research by Tracy Farwell – no public reports found

In Oregon and on the West Coast we have the densest carbon sink on the planet. Part of it is the smoke diming the view of the Moon transiting the Sun – the part that’s burning. Call it “eclipsing the eclipse,” because you will notice its getting in the way. We would do well to keep our world-class forests sinking carbon in huge amounts until the next eclipse, if possible. But how?

Try to find a president precedent

Looking back in the history of political science, has there been a problem that required 30 years to solve it, and how was it polled, debated, resolved?

How about business administration – is there a way to hedge against 30 years of uninterrupted climate damage?

If you are a systems engineer, when have you seen a system with a 30-year response time, and how do you make sure your control settings are successful?

Given the time it takes to get a desired climate response, like halting the average Earth temperature at 2 deg C above the 1850 baseline, it’s worth noting that if we take 30 years to figure out what to do, it’s now a 60-year problem. When the Sun comes back through the haze on the 21st, ask yourself when was the last time you voted for an eclipse, or generations worth of climate damage?

The arrival of the climate challenge was not a democratic event. Answering it soon would be a good idea. Answering it fairly and effectively would be a good goal. Getting our economic base on a collaborative and sustainable path, at this scale within the required time, to cut off climate pollutants and tune our forests for maximum carbon retention (grow more, stop the megafires), is more likely accomplished here than almost anywhere, because our resources, political will, clean business alliances*, clean energy policies, and progressive culture promise a real answer to “what do we do when the Sun comes back.” First, ask the right question. Those unable to do so need to step back, way back.

* PGE is committed to standing down from investments in fossil energy generation while proposing affordable long-term renewable energy supply for its ratepayers (revised proposal to Oregon PUC in 60 days).

PS. This is an open letter to Rep. Kurt Schrader, Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, who is requesting unelected deciders at FERC to approve more planetary destruction without delay because trickle down dirty revenue from Jordan Cove LNG, well outside his own district, is being lost.

Written by: Tracy Farwell, Engineers for a Sustainable Future,