13 October 2014

In Search of Climate Solutions

So what would constitute a climate solution?

Even if rich countries somehow achieve zero emissions, the developing countries attempting to modernize are likely to continue burning their own coal and oil. (They already emit more than half of the yearly total).

Some will surely continue doing this for many decades, so we must continuously bury equivalent amounts of carbon dioxide elsewhere. Any “climate solution” that does not handle out-of-control emissions is unworthy of the name.

The obvious climate fix is to clean up the 43 percent carbon dioxide excess, taking it out of circulation to reverse the overheating and most of sea level rise. And then continuing to counter the out-of-control emissions. An emergency cleanup of the atmosphere is also the only intervention that stands a chance of reversing ocean acidification.

And unless we clean things up in the next decade or two, as today’s cute toddlers grow up, we stand a good chance of losing any ability to keep climate from spiraling into irreversible disaster. Like rotten teeth, climate disasters can become pretty ugly. Many of us will not survive the population crash.

What we need is a paradigm shift. The old one is plainly inadequate, dangerously so.

Most suggestions for what to do about climate were not created by the climate experts. They were carried over from the excellent 1970 environmental agenda and given new urgency.

Indeed, most climate scientists consider climate repairs as outside their expertise, someone else's business. The low emission scenarios they endorse are simply the low end of the scenarios crafted by the economists—which, for the mid-century time frame, are about as effective as a placebo drug.

Nonetheless, climate scientists are going to be the most knowledgeable people available to critique a climate repair proposal. Some cautions, however: Ph.D. scientists’ training is not about giving timely advice. Instead we’re supposed to take the time to be dead sure.

We are seldom trained in crisis management, where decisions must be made in a hurry, balancing the time it takes to investigate further with the time window within which you can still act effectively. We are, however, excellent critics.

But as my medical school colleagues emphasize, he who hesitates to act until dead sure of the diagnosis can wind up with a dead patient.  Curiously, a carbon dioxide cleanup is seldom mentioned by anyone. Ever wonder why? Scrubbers that remove carbon dioxide from the air are standard on submarines. But to clean up the planet’s air, massive amounts of new power would be needed to run enough of them. It would have to be clean power; run them with fossil fuels and the effort will just make things worse. That much clean power takes decades to build.

Given the increasingly extreme weather, our civilization could be in deep trouble by the time massive scrubbers began scrubbing.

Nature’s scrubbing system mostly uses leaves and algae to remove carbon dioxide from the air. Photosynthesis releases the oxygen from the CO2 molecule while incorporating the carbon into sugar and such.

The obvious strategy is more leaves and more algae. Freeman Dyson laid out the reforestation strategy in 1977. But with the accumulation since then, planting more forests has become too little, too late. To do the job, we would need to quickly double the world’s forests –and then prevent them from rotting and burning. Currently, we cannot prevent this from happening even in rain forests like the Amazon. 

Fire and drought are not a problem in the ocean. Algae can, in 24 hours, double and redouble their numbers. But the prospects for fertilizing enough blooms of algae have not looked good.

Only about one-fourth of the new life manages to settle into deep waters before decomposing. Removing the excess carbon via settling alone would require a four-fold increase in productivity for 20 years in all the oceans, 71 percent of the earth’s surface. Not likely.

Perhaps you see now why cleanup possibilities are seldom mentioned by the experts. Only fans of the apocalypse (remember Aum Shinriyko?) could like our present situation. We are just about out of repair options capable of quickly resetting our climate–but not entirely.

William H. Calvin is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington’s medical school in Seattle and the author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change  (University of Chicago Press, 2008). The latest version of the CO2 cleanup was a finalist in MIT's 2013 climate contest.

September 2014    WCalvin@UW.edu      faculty.washington.edu/wcalvin
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