A Healthy Climate for our Children: Too Expensive?



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.