Where are we going (Climate-wise)?

Standard

Last month I was honored to attend the Forum on Solar Geoengineering (also called Solar Radiation Management or SRM) in Washington DC. It was a valuable gathering of 110 experts, reflecting significant technical progress and political change in the last year. With the new US administration, things could move quickly, forward and / or backwards. It’s up to us to make sure that things move towards success. To succeed, we must define success clearly and as something we want.

Image result for images of good bad climate

What would successful SRM achieve?

One of the panelists at the forum said that SRM success is staying below two degrees warming. That goal is arguably too vague to elicit specific and effective action. I think experts will agree that SRM actions as a whole have been indecisive and hesitant; actions consistent with a vague and unappealing goal.

As a parent, I’m clear that success is restoring a healthy climate for our children, and doing it before we lose much more of the beauty and glory of our planet. Although the IPCC may disagree with that goal, that is what I want, and what almost everyone I speak with wants, and what the clergy I speak with now demand. We have a moral obligation to give our children and grandchildren a climate close to that which we were given. If we don’t yet know how to achieve it then we are obligated to invent the methods required. Not knowing how to do it does not absolve us from that obligation to our children and grandchildren.

As an SRM outsider with children here’s what I want from SRM:

  1. Be prepared to cool the planet with SRM during the time during which carbon dioxide removal is operating.

Assume that we will implement carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and reduce atmospheric CO2 back to levels that have supported humans in the past, i.e. below 300 ppm. We should target achieving this by 2050, although it could take until 2100. Recent work confirms what Dr. Jim Hansen said in 2008, that CDR investment of about 1% of global GDP could remove the trillion tons of excess atmospheric CO2 in 20-50 years. This requires removing 50 GT / year, which scale could be achieved by any one of seven techniques, using direct air capture (DAC), or ocean processes (references forthcoming).

  1. Be ready to start SRM within 2-3 years—by 2020.

Waiting longer is too late, arguably criminal, given rapidly worsening climate trends from the arctic to the equator. We need the insurance policy of SRM. If we don’t provide that, our children should sue us for dereliction of duty—perhaps as part of “Our Children’s Trust” lawsuit. Insofar as we are the leadership for SRM, we are morally, if not legally liable. This is a harsh assertion, but arguably true.

This isn’t saying that we must implement SRM—implementation is now a moral decision. This community must prepare to implement SRM. As technologists, our obligation is to provide the tools. The humanists could in the end insist that SRM not be implemented, and that we should continue into the sixth extinction. If so, that will be their responsibility, and we will have provided options to save the planet. I consider that SRM veto most unlikely—after we’ve prepared the following data for consideration.

To be prepared, we must answer some critical questions:

  1. What are the best options for stopping sea-level rise, and for halting ice sheet collapse in Antarctica and Greenland?
  2. What are the best options for weakening the cyclones decimating the Philippines and other areas?
  3. What are the best options for stopping permafrost melt and a “methane burp”?
  4. What are the best options for restoring the Gulf Stream and other ocean currents?
  5. What are the benefits to society and nature of implementing SRM? We have dozens of articles about the risks, but precious little about the benefits. Given the public data, it’s no surprise that there is low public support for SRM.
  6. If SRM is required, what are the real options for implementing SRM quickly? What are the technical, financial, and logistical options? There is great fiction about that, but little policy work.

I am proposing that a “Climate Restoration” center be established in 2017 to host research to answer these critical questions which will allow progress towards restoring the climate. If you have a recommendation for where this could be hosted, or individuals and groups that might want to contribute funding, please contact me: Peter Fiekowsky pfieko@gmail.com

Our Plan B For the Planet

Standard

 

Image result for beautiful blue planet images

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
–Gloria Steinem

Restoring a healthy planet requires planning–and we didn’t plan well over the last 50 years. That has led us to the start of run-away climate change. Climate change now requires serious planning.

Planning involves looking at what could go wrong, and preparing for that eventuality. This is often discomfiting, especially when it involves the survival of our planet as we have gotten to know and love it. In the end, I find, after doing the planning, there is often joy–having a plan in hand for that feared circumstance that had put a knot in my stomach. And then that knot in my stomach is gone.

Plan B is a conversation we humans naturally avoid. When we plan a vacation, a marriage or a project, we focus on what we want to happen, and how to make it happen. In most cases we assume that when things just don’t work out, some responsible party, perhaps mother nature, will present a plan B we can invoke, and send us back out onto our next adventure. That is what we have collectively done with the climate.

When it comes to saving our planet, what is our plan B?
Twenty years ago our climate plan A was rapid emissions reduction. And since then millions of committed people have devoted themselves to achieving that. We thought that if perchance we were too slow reducing emissions, technology and biology would come to our rescue and allow us to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) was the designated plan B.

At the 2015 Paris climate summit, carbon dioxide removal graduated to part of plan A, as the IPCC announced that there is no viable pathway to a future healthy climate without CDR. With CDR now a required part of plan A, what is our new plan B?

What will our children do if the climate continues getting worse, and getting worse faster than almost any scientist predicted twenty, ten, or even two years ago? We are already seeing the collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, and the polar ice cap is nearly gone now. The Gulf Stream is beginning its collapse, and permafrost melting is increasing exponentially as polar temperatures soar 20-30° F. above normal. What if this evidence that our beloved planet is crossing the climate tipping points is real, not just a bad dream?

We are committed to giving a healthy climate to our children and grandchildren. Will we keep that commitment, and make a plan to keep it, based on science, not just hope?

Who is designing our Plan B?
When I ask climate experts these questions, they give me pained looks and tell me that they’re working hard to reduce emissions and to sequester carbon. In other words, “I’m already doing all I can. Someone else must make plans for the unthinkable.” That is, almost no one is designing our Plan B so far. It’s time for us to support them in that serious process.

Adapting to a warmer, less hospitable planet is not our only option. Elon Musk is planning a space colony on Mars, and many rich families are buying land at higher elevations and higher latitudes.

What about the rest of us? There are serious alternatives: Reflecting more sunlight into space during the day, radiating more heat out into space at night, and using the cold, deep ocean as a temporary heat sink while we repair our atmosphere with CDR. Although there are many practical ways to implement these methods, the idea of purposefully cooling the planet is new and profoundly uncomfortable. Scientists and investors tend to be conservative and particularly sensitive to public discomfort, and that means that Plan B, cooling the planet on purpose, gets practically zero funding, and practically zero planning so far.

Cynics label purposefully cooling the earth “geoengineering”, which has alarmist connotations. It’s revealing that they don’t also use the term for warming the earth–as we are currently doing.

Importantly, many of these cooling methods appear to be inexpensive to implement, roughly the cost of one or two large power plants to cool the whole planet. This means that the reason we’re not preparing Plan B is not lack of money–it’s lack of courage and boldness. We can fix that–we can summon up courage and boldness. And we should call the process “cooling”; the opposite of warming, rather than the frightening ‘g’ word.

Now is the time to expand our courageous leadership. We could continue hoping that our beautiful planet and civilization does not require a Plan B, but meanwhile some of us would be wise, and appreciated by our children, if we designed a suitable Plan B-and a Plan C, just in case.

Restoring the climate is an engineering project

Standard

It’s too expensive. That is the response when I ask scientists, “Should we restore a healthy climate for our children?”

If you’re not a scientist, that answer sounds cruel, implying that there is something more important than investing in saving the planet for our children and grandchildren. In fact, we can restore the climate for our children, probably by the year 2050, for less than we now spend globally on the military.

Getting to “Let’s restore the climate” from “It’s too expensive to restore the climate” requires distinguishing the paradigms in which successful scientists work from engineering project management. With that we can shift the frame for climate work from science to engineering.

The scientific paradigm for discovery is incremental. It sounds like this: “Let’s demonstrate milestone A, and then design the experiment for milestone B. Then demonstrate B followed by the design for milestone C, etc.” There arguably is no other pathway to discover quarks or breakthrough batteries.  Scientific discovery is generally resource limited but time unlimited–discovery takes time.

Project management operates backwards: Define the intended final result carefully, and then work backwards from the end result to the present time to set start times and budgets for the required sub-projects. Essentially that means we define success for milestone C, then design C’s development process. Then define success for milestone  B, and then design B’s process, and so on, backwards to the present.  After the milestones are defined, we estimate the budget. Important engineering projects are time limited, with relatively unlimited resources, the opposite of scientific research.

Consider an oil refinery. It costs whatever it costs, and while the teams work to reduce costs, seldom is a refinery cancelled due to costs—it is so vital to the corporation’s success that the money will be found. However it might be cancelled if it’s too late—because alternatives are likely to show up making it unprofitable.

This distinction of paradigms became clear to me recently when a former Secretary of Energy said that he wasn’t considering restoring the climate because it’s too expensive. From a scientist’s view that makes perfect sense–restoring the climate is far more expensive than any previous scientific endeavor, therefore we should work on the projects we have resources for now. Nevertheless, as a parent I was aghast at that statement: How could he say that it’s not worth 1-10% of GDP to save the planet for our kids? That’s a fraction of what we spent to win WWII.  Is he crazy? No, he’s not crazy, he’s a scientist, and one of the best.

Operating inside the science paradigm, he decided sensibly to work next to improve electric vehicle batteries, since that would incrementally move us in the right direction towards reducing emissions. It won’t save the climate–only massive carbon dioxide removal can do that, but it’s important progress.

In the science paradigm we handle milestone A and then plan to handle milestone B–unless the project is cancelled first. With the collapsing of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, the stalling of the Gulf Stream, and expectation of 7-30 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century, the project (saving civilization) may indeed get cancelled if we don’t treat restoring the climate as an urgent engineering project.

Note that WWII was largely an engineering project where the generals had good estimates for the resources needed to win, and got those resources. Similarly, we now have initial estimates for what it will take to restore the climate for our children, and we will raise those funds if we discuss the climate as an engineering project and start now.

We can restore the climate. Now is the time to shift climate work from the incremental scientific research project that climate deniers have insisted on since 1980, to the engineering project that we owe to our children. We will find the funds, just as we found funds to win WWII.

 

Where do we put a trillion tons of CO2?

Standard

Earlier I posted briefly about seven techniques that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere, each of which could scale to 50 GT / year, and cost less per year than the US military budget. That rate is high enough to allow us to restore old CO2 levels within 50 years, even if the energy transition gets stalled.

Where do we put that CO2? Can it be sold?

Putting away that carbon is the field of carbon sequestration, which should be a long article, but the useful answers are brief.

The simplest sequestration method, and one with rapidly growing support, is to pump the CO2 down into basalt rock formations where the CO2 gets securely converted to carbonates, essentially limestone, within two months to two years. The key results on this were published last summer. I had conversations with the authors in November where they confirmed that it should be fairly easy to scale to 50 GT / year. More details on this later on.

The ocean is the context for the next set of sequestration methods that can be scaled to 50 GT / year. To put this in context, remember that the formation of oil deposits millions of years ago occurred by sequestering vegetation (including plankton) underwater where it anaerobically decomposed into oil and coal—so this is quite natural. In several methods, plankton and seaweed are grown, and the detritus sinks into the deep ocean where it stays, for hundreds of years up to millions of years. In another method, alkaline rocks are added to the ocean, where they combine with carbonic acid, and then fall out of solution. The carbonic acid is what CO2 turns into when it dissolves in water, so this becomes a CO2 pump from the atmosphere into the ocean, and down to the ocean floor. Greg Rau, on this list, is probably the world’s top expert on that, and can provide corrections and references.

The third set of sequestration methods is for commercial use in infrastructure. Remarkably, markets for carbon could make an impact on the 50 GT / year target. Blue Planet has successfully commercialized techniques for converting CO2 into limestone for use as the aggregate used in paving roads and in concrete for large buildings. I learned about this just two weeks ago. The global market for aggregate is the equivalent of 20 GT CO2 per year, at prices from $5-$50 / ton CO2 equivalent. There are other commercial uses for CO2 and carbon, but currently they are relatively small. The commercial advantage of using atmospheric CO2 is transportation. Carbon is cheap, but shipping heavy aggregate is expensive, so when clean aggregate is needed, creating it out of thin air is sometimes advantageous.

The purpose of all this is not to recommend one method over another, although probably every person reading this has a strong preference for one or another. The purpose is to show that there are a good number of reasonable methods to sequester the trillion tons of CO2 that we’ll remove from the atmosphere in the next several decades. I do suggest that readers expect that several, if not all of the methods will be implemented, so that you don’t get too worried before the science and engineering is done.

There are many other methods of sequestering CO2, many of which are being done already, including biochar, expanding forests, agricultural practices which increase carbon in soils, and pumping CO2 underground into sealed reservoirs in which it may or may not be converted permanently into carbonates. These methods do not appear to be scalable to 50 GT / year, so although they’re valuable, they’re unlikely to be among the critical methods.

At this stage of the Healthy Climate Project, where the world’s climate leaders are becoming fluent in the vision and narrative of restoring a healthy climate for our children, sequestering CO2 in basalt fields has been the most effective story because it is easy to visualize at scale, has been done successfully (recently and for billions of years), and it is quite inexpensive. The other methods will surely take much of the market, but each one has hurdles to cross.

Healthy Climate News- Seven technologies that could scale

Standard

Last month I spent a delightful day at the Carbon Dioxide Removal / Negative Emissions Technology  workshop at Berkeley, put on by Wil Burns, one of our original members. He had a crowd of 130 people there from all over the country, with presentations on various technologies for carbon dioxide removal (CDR).

The key take-aways were that we have lots of options now for CDR that can scale up to 50 GT / year, at a cost of less than 1% of global GDP.

Can your technology scale up to remove 50 GT CO2 / year?

  1. DAC- Global Thermostat, Inc. (Menlo Park): Yes
  2. DAC-Carbon Engineering, Inc. (Vancouver): Yes
  3. DAC-CDR trees (Ariz. State Univ): Yes
  4. Marine Permaculture Arrays (Brian von Herzen): Yes
  5. Ocean Alkalinization (Santa Cruz): Yes
  6. Ocean Iron Fertilization: Yes
  7. OTEC (Alan Miller): Yes

We spent the morning of the conference looking into BECCS (Bio-Energy and Carbon Capture and Sequestration). This is an area of CDR which is receiving a lot of attention in the last few years. Getting energy from biological sources, such a corn, switchgrass, sugar cane, and even trees has obvious appeal. In fact almost half of the US corn crop is now used for this purpose, growing corn for ethanol used to replace some usage of gasoline.

With all that positive attention, the downside of BECCS is that it cannot scale beyond about 2 GT CO2 / year—just 5% of what we need. In addition, achieving even that CDR potential requires giving up large areas of agricultural area to energy production—potentially at the cost of growing food for the world’s expanding population. The fundamental reason for the limitation is that plants are at best 1/100 as efficient, per acre, at producing energy as are solar panels. And solar panels don’t require water, fertilizer, planting, and harvesting.

Another popular technology, biochar got an excellent mention from Brian von Herzen (one of the Healthy Climate founders). Biochar, like BECCS has great potential in certain situations, especially for reducing pollution by shifting the burning of rice chaff from in the fields, to biochar ovens which are clean, produce energy, and then provide biochar (sort of like charcoal) which is used as a very effective soil enhancer.  Biochar doesn’t make it on the list above because its global potential is about 1 GT / year of CO2.

In summary, we have seven excellent candidates for doing CDR at scale. Yet the two CDR technologies now getting the most public attention, BECCS and Biochar, are valuable and attractive, but simply don’t scale, mainly because they are limited to the amount of the earth’s surface area that we’d be willing and capable of committing to that purpose.

We are making great progress—just in the last month!

A Healthy Climate for our Children: Too Expensive?

Standard

Children

Dr. Steven Chu, Nobel Laureate and former US Secretary of Energy, last Saturday addressed 150 climate activists at the Citizens Climate Lobby California Regional Conference in Berkeley. He provided remarkable insights, but not much good news.

Dr. Chu’s big contribution to the climate right now is advising on R & D for fast-charging batteries that will let you charge your EV in 5-10 minutes while you hit the restroom and buy some coffee. He explained that such an advance would accelerate the transition to EVs, and since transportation now produces more emissions than any other category, that is the most leveraged climate work he could find.

After his talk I asked him why he is dismissing work on carbon dioxide removal (CDR), since that’s the only way to leave a healthy climate for our children and grandchildren.

His response was simple, “It’s too expensive.” He went on to explain, “There was a 2011 paper that said that using conventional CDR methods would cost $600 per ton of CO2 to remove.” He admitted that there are demonstration plants that do CDR for 1/10 that cost, but he suspects that the technology isn’t perfect.

Think about that. Our leadership says that it’s too expensive to save our planet. Dr. Chu wasn’t the only one to say that on Saturday. Earlier in the day, Representative Jerry McNerney, the only member of Congress with a technical PhD, and a former wind turbine company owner, spoke to us and answered almost identically when I asked him the same question.

Now, you could conclude that that Dr. Chu and Dr. McNerney don’t value our children very much, but that would be clearly wrong if you met either one for more than a minute.

Dr. James Hansen wrote in 2008 that it would cost $20 trillion to remove the excess CO2 from our atmosphere. I point out that if you did that over 50 years, it would require the equivalent of half of the US military budget. So you might conclude that these very bright and highly committed scientists decided that investing the equivalent of half the military budget is too high a price for leaving a healthy climate for our children. Don’t conclude that. They probably have never before considered, with their analytical minds, what it would take.

Until now, they simply haven’t asked themselves what it would cost to save the climate. It will cost about 1% of global GDP over 20-50 years using technologies demonstrated in pilot plants in Menlo Park, CA and Vancouver BC. Even if that 2011 paper is correct, and we end up using the old CO2 absorption technology that is used in submarines and spacecraft, the cost would be 10% of global GDP, about what we spend on healthcare. I’m confident that Dr. Chu and Dr. McNerney would agree that such expenditures would be worthwhile.

What will it take for our leadership to think seriously about restoring the climate for our children and grandchildren?

It will take you. Talk to your friends and community about your commitment to giving a healthy climate to our children. It will probably take a while for them to shift their thinking from “We can’t do it” to “It’s possible, and as a humanity, we’re obligated to find the pathway to have it happen, and then navigate there.

Ask your friends and colleagues if it’s worth 1% of global GDP to give our children a healthy climate—getting the excess CO2 out of our atmosphere.

Two degrees warming is no longer viable. Zero degrees is.

Standard

We have a moral imperative of leaving our children the same healthy climate that our parents gave us. With 2016 global temperatures averaging 1.2°C warmer than pre-industrial averages, common knowledge is that we have missed the window of opportunity–that we have already morally failed. Common knowledge is wrong here.

If you are hopeful that a miracle might happen and our planet at least won’t pass the 2°C tipping point that scientists warn us about, you are ignoring the science. Even if we stopped all emissions next year we would exceed the 2°C threshold. It’s counter-intuitive, but there is nevertheless a pathway to zero degrees warming. However it requires thinking outside the box. Reducing emissions, even as an emergency will not do it.

First the bad news: Global temperatures rose about 0.25°C in 2016, and such increases are likely to continue because of the “Pacific decadal oscillation”, increased GHG levels, and the melting of the Arctic ice cap. Temperatures in the arctic this winter are 20°C (36°F) above the old normal, so new winter ice is not forming, and the bright white ice will not be reflecting the sun and keeping it cool next summer.

No amount of emission reductions will save our climate at this point. IPCC reports say this, but it is seldom discussed in the press. The IPCC makes it clear that achieving the Paris goals of keeping warming below 2°C will require some amount of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) from the atmosphere. How much should we target? Can we in good faith target any less than that required to give our children a healthy climate?

We know that getting CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels of less than 300 ppm will get us back to 0°C warming, eventually. Most people respond  to that fact and say, “We can’t do that–it’s too hard. It’s hard enough just to stop burning fossil fuels.” It is also well known that large volcanoes cool the planet for a couple years after they erupt. After the Krakatoa eruption in 1883, the following year there was ice skating on the Thames River in London. To that most people say, “We can’t do that cooling–it’s too dangerous.”

It’s time to think outside the box. The first step for getting outside the box is to notice that you’re thinking inside a box. “We can’t do it” is in the box, as is “zero emissions”, and “we’re up against fossil fuel companies”. Set that box aside, and simply ask, “If we did give our children a healthy climate, how would we have done it?” The answer to that question is surprisingly simple.

Getting our planet back to 0°C warming requires carbon dioxide removal–getting CO2 levels back down to about 300 ppm, and probably cooling the planet while we’re doing that. Cooling may be needed to prevent our environment and civilization from collapsing before we finish the CDR. It’s just those two things, both of which we know how to do.

Emission reductions relate to the CDR action, but it’s shocking to realize that while we will need to remove about 150 ppm of CO2 from the atmosphere to get back to 300 ppm, creating a “wartime mobilization to reduce emissions” would produce only about 15 ppm reduction compared to our current path–1/10 of what is needed. That same investment in CDR could get us back to 300 ppm by 2050. Saving the climate is no longer all about energy, it’s about CDR.

Dr. James Hansen reported in 2008 that doing the needed CDR with industrial methods over a period of 30 years would cost about 1% of global GDP. So we know that part is possible, especially with advances over the last 10 years.

Cooling the planet is possible too. Researchers such as Harvard’s David Keith report that “aerosol cooling”, duplicating the cooling of the Krakatoa eruption (which would now allow Thames ice skating in the winter), would require redirecting the sulfate pollution from just a handful of large coal plants to the upper atmosphere, where those sulfates reflect enough sunlight to cool the planet, restore the ice caps, restore normal weather patterns, and even halt most sea-level rise. Schemes for doing that globally estimate the cost at about $1 billion per year–the cost of one large power plant per year.

Doing industrial CDR as Hansen suggested and aerosol cooling have not been seriously considered until now because they were not required to achieve our goal of 2°C. So suggestions of using industrial CDR or aerosol cooling have been interpreted and scorned as attempts to justify prolonging our use of fossil fuels. This has been horribly frustrating for the scientists involved, who just want to leave a healthy planet for their children.

When we get out of the 2°C box, and set a goal of 0° warming, new perspectives on old facts are possible. Massive CDR has been dismissed by experts saying, “When you’re in a hole, the first thing is to stop digging.” A new analogy suitable for zero warming is, “If the whole boat is leaking, build and run big pumps while you’re fixing all the leaks.”

If the whole boat is leaking, build and run big pumps while you’re fixing all the leaks.

Getting all 7 billion of us crew on spaceship earth to stop using fossil fuels and stop burning our forests is hard. We’re making progress, but programming the whole human race is just not easy. The fact that the IPCC has been meeting for 22 years, and emissions are just now flattening illustrates that.

On the other hand, organizing a few hundred or thousand people to build “big pumps” is something that can be done quickly. The Manhattan project that developed nuclear weapons in six years in WWII, and the Apollo program, sending men to the moon in eight years are good examples of organizing smaller teams to achieve outcomes that large ones can’t.

What might it look like to get our planet back to zero degrees warming?

The following is speculative–it is based on good science, but today’s good science will look quaint in another decade. There are several important technical concepts to have this make sense.

  • The “moral hazard” of CDR taking the pressure off society to reduce emissions is now solved: Switching rapidly to renewables is now simply good business. The energy transition is underway, and has its own momentum now. Reaching 80% emission reduction by 2050, as planned by the Paris agreement now appears likely. It will require continuing invention, creativity, and courage, but its story is pretty much written. Bloomberg now reports that the cost of wind and solar energy are falling to half the cost of generating electricity from coal and natural gas–around the world. Electric car prices are falling rapidly, and are already competing with combustion engines. By 2025 electric cars will be far cheaper, more reliable, and more fun than conventional cars. The construction of fossil fuel infrastructure is grinding to a halt as conservative businessmen gradually realize that the future will not look like the past. In our boat analogy, we’re fixing the leaks. It will take 20-30 years, but it’s cheaper to fix them (switch to renewables) than tolerate them, so they’re getting fixed.
  • We have known how to do CDR since early submarines 100 years ago. The method is called Direct Air Capture (DAC). Current DAC methods cost about $50 / ton of CO2 in total capital and operating costs, and the experts expect those costs to fall to $20 /ton in mass production. There were reports in 2011 that DAC costs, using mature (WWII) technology were $1000 / ton. Then media reports left out the “mature technology” limitation, causing confusion and despair.
  • Recent reports show that sequestering CO2 by injecting into basalt fields results in permanent sequestration as the CO2 gets converted to carbonates, like limestone, in 2-20 months, in the presence of groundwater. Interviews with the scientists indicate that these CO2 injection wells are designed to operate for 40 or more years before getting “full”, and only about 5000 wells are required to sequester all the excess CO2 in the atmosphere over that 40 years. The construction cost of these wells is $2-$10 million each, so $50 billion will build the needed wells, and their operating costs are minimal, 5-10% of the CDR costs.
  • There is about 1 trillion tons of CO2 that need to be removed, to get back to 300 ppm CO2. If emissions continue to increase, as oil company shareholders hope, then we may have 2 trillion, but I use one, because it’s a rounder number. At a DAC cost of $20 / ton CO2, removing the CO2 will cost about $20 trillion dollars. If we do this over 40 years, that is $500 billion per year, globally. This is a fraction of the US military budget, and 1/10 of what we spend buying fossil fuels now, globally.
  • We might build 10 CDR-Sequestration plants on top of basalt fields, with energy available locally from solar, wind, geothermal, or even next-generation nuclear. These CDR “farms”, might be 10 km (7 miles) square, in windy areas so that there is a constant flow of fresh CO2.
  • Paying for these plants would be achieved with a government “price support” for CO2, guaranteeing the some competitive price for producing the CO2. The price will decrease as technology and competition between farms reduces the prices.
  • The sequestration must be done, or closely monitored by governments, who represent the people. Fortunately sequestration appears to be inexpensive, so the added cost of government bureaucracy is not burdensome. Experience has taught us that large companies will be obligated to cut costs rather than insure that the planet is protected. Imagine Koch Industries or BP contracting CO2 sequestration for us.
  • Aerosol cooling will probably be needed. As temperatures increase, damage to our planet and society is rapidly becoming severe, with major governments becoming unstable (e.g. US, EU, China). Sea-level rise is already causing a drop in coastal real-estate values. If we don’t do aerosol cooling, the likelihood of society having the resources to do the required CDR over the next 30-50 years is in serious doubt. This of course cannot be proven. Collapses are nonlinear, and mostly unpredictable. It is important for climate leadership to guide society beyond our instinctive fear of “turning down the planet’s thermostat”.

The barrier to zero warming is commitment, not technical

The serious work on Kennedy’s moonshot started after Kennedy declared that we were going to send a man to the moon. Funding and serious research was set up after, and in response to that declaration.

People bemoan the lack of legislation and action for dealing with the climate. Why is it that we can spend hundreds of billions of dollars to fight wars halfway across the world, but not a few billion for critical clean-energy infrastructure? It’s commitment. We call ourselves the land of the free–so defending our freedom is a commitment that we engage in with hardly a thought. We have not committed to restoring a healthy climate for our children, so it’s no wonder that taking actions for our children’s world is fraught with arguments. If we want to give our children a healthy climate, thinking it is not enough. We need to declare it publicly, and the former presidents of the United States have the moral authority to do so.

Writers and citizens should call on President Obama, the Clintons, Bushes, and Jimmy Carter to declare our commitment to restoring a healthy climate for our children. Declare our commitment to restore zero warming by 2050 on Earth Day, April 22, 2017.

 

Morality and Geoengineering

Standard

Morality is not something I pitch. Preaching morality always reminds me that the politicians who railed loudly against Clinton’s immorality, and impeached him—to my knowledge each of them were ultimately shown to be having or dealing with illicit affairs at the time.

My moral equivalent is this: “I’m committed to leaving a world I’m proud of to our children.  We could restore a healthy climate with zero degrees warming. You can count on me for having that happen.”

The planet is now on its way to two degrees warming, and no amount of emissions reduction will save it. But carbon dioxide removal and cooling could, with confidence, bring us back to zero warming, and a healthy climate. Carbon dioxide removal and cooling are commonly called geoengineering technologies.

Regarding geoengineering, I’m happy to say that “serious research and testing is needed.” That leaves in the unsaid that there are issues which the research needs to resolve—of course there are—all new technologies need serious research and testing.

I’ve never found a way to say this next part well: “Geoengineering will have consequences, just as all engineering does. Not doing geoengineering has consequences too, and climate science tells us that many meters of sea level rise and a 6th mass extinction on our planet are predictable consequences of not pursuing geoengineering.”

The consequences of geoengineering have been studied to the degree that the scientists with expertise are confident that removing carbon dioxide and cooling the planet can be done well overall, much as the 1960’s moonshot was done well overall after serious research in the first few years.

People understandably worry about the unintended consequences of geoengineering and restoring the climate. These fears are based on historical technology development, such as fossil fuel energy, which ended up leading us to global warming. Popular mythology says that global warming was an unintended consequence of fossil fuel technology. What is not well known is that global warming was a known effect of fossil fuel usage, well understood from 1896.

In the late 1970’s there was significant research being done, especially at Exxon, and enormous progress was made in clean energy development. Predictions made by Exxon in 1980 of the warming we would have in 2000 in the business-as-usual scenario were amazingly accurate, since we indeed took the business-as-usual path.

In the early 1980’s the US, under President Reagan, eliminated subsidies for the blossoming renewable energy sector, in favor of profits for incumbent energy company shareholders. This decision was made with full knowledge (and perhaps denial) of the consequences—which consequences would not need to be dealt with by decision makers of that time.

We can again choose faith, optimism and the status quo as Ronald Reagan chose. We have full knowledge (and perhaps denial) of the consequences of doing that and not pursuing geoengineering. The predictable results of taking that path are too horrible for most people to imagine, which may explain why we don’t imagine and discuss it. That said, Americans will probably suffer far less than countries closer to the equator, such as Syria, so we may come out on top.

Or we could choose while considering current science as administrations before Reagan did. The science is clear, and the choice is clear. We can pray for a good outcome while we take conservative, business-as-usual actions, or we can create a future we want, based on science, as Kennedy did with the moon program.

Choose for our children. Choose a zero degrees warming future. Create a demand for the healthy future that we all want for our children.

A short recipe to achieve a healthy climate by 2050

Standard

Let’s say you wanted to leave your children a planet with a healthy climate by 2050. How might you do it?

Given that the climate is already messed up, we need more than just ending fossil fuel emissions. At best that will leave us with two degrees of warming–three times worse than now: We already have 60 million refugees and frequent 500 year droughts, 500 year floods and superstorms.

If we also remove the excess carbon dioxide that we added in the last 50 years, and remove the excess heat that has accumulated, then we can end up with a healthy climate again. We can do this by 2050, spending less than we spend now each year purchasing fossil fuel. This is the “three-legged stool for a healthy climate”: Energy transition, CO2 removal, and cooling. Leave out any leg, and we don’t get a healthy climate. We can’t say how much of each will be needed, because there are too many variables and too much unknown. We do know that we need all three.

Here’s the recipe for achieving that healthy climate by 2050:

  1. Define a healthy climate. Likely: “Restore the polar ice cap to its 1990 size.” This simple, vivid measure gives us stable sea level and the normal weather patterns from before 30 years ago.
    • Jan 1, 2016
  2. Have some experts such as Dr. James Hansen and the president of the Sierra Club say they want a healthy climate goal. A healthy climate would be better than the two-degree bad climate we speak of as a goal now. Really. Have them publish op-eds in a few papers, and call for the President to declare a national goal of a healthy climate before 2050. Build the demand for a good outcome: a healthy climate.
    • Feb 10, 2016 March 30, 2016
  3. Have a million people sign a declaration / petition asking for a healthy climate national goal. Promote it on social media and in letters to the editor in newspapers around the country.
    • March 31, 2016 May 1, 2016, after Earth Day
  4. Have President Obama declare a national goal of a achieving a healthy climate by 2050, and establishing a Climate Solutions Council which will ensure the integrity of climate solutions research–their efficacy and side-effects. This may operate like the FDA, doing no research of its own, being accountable to Congress.
    • Earth Day, April 22, 2016 June 13, 2016–Obama often makes climate speeches the week before the CCL DC conference.
  5. Start the Climate Solutions Council, staff it
    • July 1, 2016 Oct. 2016–a few months after Obama’s speech.
  6. Institute a steadily increasing carbon fee and dividend to encourage a rapid transition to clean energy, especially as crude oil prices drop due to shrinking demand.
    • August 1, 2016 March 1, 2017 (after the election)
  7. Develop a US funding mechanism for carbon dioxide removal (CDR). I have a former US Treasury economist setup to work on this when we’re ready.
    • Dec 1, 2016 Dec 1, 2017
  8. Have the National Science Foundation, DARPA, CIA, and other institutions fund research and testing for carbon dioxide removal and cooling

Now with the serious science being done, fossil fuel usage dropping, and financing for CDR in place, we watch while people develop rapidly improving technology for achieving a healthy climate by 2050.

***Updated March 14, 2016. We’ve had progress and learned a lot; I’ve updated dates.

We could achieve a healthy climate-Why target two degrees?

Standard

Two degrees or zero degrees increase.
Which climate future would you choose to give to our children?

Goals matter

Leaders use specific goals to align collective action to achieve a desired outcome. Given human ingenuity, a well designed challenging goal pulls for its own fulfillment. This has been the basis for leadership and management for decades, if not millennia.

For decades, our climate leadership has been pointing us to a goal of no more than a two degree increase, roughly three times more warming than we have now. With a heroic concerted effort the recent Paris climate summit achieved remarkable results to get us close to that goal.

You probably know about today’s 1000 year storms, floods, droughts and 60 million refugees escaping lands with failing crops.  Picture three times worse in your mind. It’s hard to imagine–is that what you want? Is that what we want?

Why are we not collectively targeting what we want? What is it we want? Is it physically possible?

Most experts agree that the our climate goal optimistically should be restoring the climate to close to what it was during the development of civilization, especially the last few hundred years for which we have good records. There are many ways to quantify that goal; One of the best is the restoration of the polar ice cap–it’s simple to visualize and measure and corresponds with stable sea level and previously normal weather patterns. Call that a healthy climate.

We could achieve a healthy climate.

A geologist friend recently told me, “I’m not a climate expert, but all you need to restore the ice caps is a couple large volcanoes. That happens over and over through geologic history.”

Realistically it’s not that simple. The UN tells us we’d have to invest 1% of global GDP in clean energy production, mainly wind and solar, and the National Academy of Sciences tells us we’d have to invest another 1-2% of GDP into carbon dioxide removal, and we’d have to cool the planet with refinements of the methods that volcanoes have used for eons. Given that we now spend 6% of global GDP on fossil fuels, we could afford this and still come out way ahead.

Why two degrees?

If we could achieve a healthy climate, then why are our experts and leaders leading us to a two degree climate disaster? Is it a conspiracy, or is it something else, maybe outdated science?

Over the last few years, when I propose to climate experts and leaders that we could achieve a healthy climate if we wanted, almost to a person they get upset with me and say, “We can’t discuss that. If people thought it might be doable, then we would fail to convince the climate deniers to take action. We need a climate Pearl Harbor to trigger WWII scale action.”

What if that is not true? What if people, and society, actually act on doable, inspiring goals? Was President Kennedy an effective leader when he declared that we could land a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade? Kennedy could have threatened us with disaster if we didn’t keep up with the Soviets, but he didn’t do that. Maybe Kennedy knew something about the science of leadership and action that our climate scientists are now ready to learn too.

Time to change our tune

We can achieve a healthy climate by 2050, as measured by restoring the ice caps to their 1990 size, and it would cost less each year than we now spend on fossil fuel. I give calculation details here. Even if we fail, and restore the ice caps by 2060 or 2070, that outcome is surely better than the two degrees that we are girding for now.

Tell President Obama that you want a healthy climate.