Morality and Geoengineering


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


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?


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.


A 3-legged stool: The Climate Moonshot is A Healthy Climate by 2050


When President Kennedy declared in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade–he actually said we’d send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. A powerful campaign requires a good outcome.

A successful climate campaign takes us to a healthy climate. Imagine a world with a healthy climate. A world with stable forests, stable farmland, stable temperatures and stable sea level. Technically and financially we could achieve a healthy climate in a few decades. The whole moon program was just eight years. A healthy climate clearly requires new thinking, lots of innovation, and lots of manufacturing. It could be accomplished in 35 years. We don’t have to wait for a miracle technology.

A healthy climate is a stool with three legs. The legs are: 1) Energy transition from fossil fuels; 2) Carbon dioxide removal, and 3) Cooling the planet. Many people hope that cooling theHealthyClimateStool planet is optional, but without it our extreme droughts, floods, fires, and climate refugees will only get worse.

What is new is this: All three legs are required for us to leave a healthy climate to our children. And we can do all three at a cost below what the world spends on fossil fuel now. No major new technology is required. A lot of testing, experimenting and development is required, but the technologies and financing is available. What’s needed is creativity and alignment.

You may be thinking that if it’s that simple, something must be missing. What is missing is people saying they want a healthy climate. Human creativity and cooperation can produce amazing results, but we need a compelling vision, just as the moon program started with “Send a man to the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.”

You can see that a healthy climate is possible by asking what would it cost to fulfill each of the three legs using today’s technology. To replace fossil fuel energy crudely with today’s best-in-class wind, solar and storage would cost about $45 trillion, about 1% of global GDP or income over 35 years (UN). That’s a fraction of the 6.5% of GDP that we spend on fossil fuels now. We could shift our spending to do that and we probably will. Remember that technology always gets cheaper and more efficient, while fossil fuels continually get more expensive as the easy to reach stuff is used up.

The second leg, removing carbon dioxide over 50 years would probably take three times more, or 3% of GDP, and would require the amount of energy produced by solar panels covering an area equal to that used by coal mines now. Some say we would use safe nuclear power instead. We have technology for concentrating CO2, converting it to alcohol, and then converting that into anything, including plastics. Those plastics could be used for construction, or just buried back in the coal mines where most of the carbon started originally. What’s needed is a good economic model that motivates the innovation required to make it efficient.

The third leg, cooling the planet, can be done by a number of cloud modification techniques. One technique mimics how volcanoes cool the planet, but does it safely and slowly. These techniques need testing to demonstrate doing it safely, but the cost is estimated at a tiny fraction of 1% of GDP.

The first step to a healthy climate is to declare that we want it, knowing that we could have it.

Oil companies and historians say it will take at least 70 years just for the energy transition leg. But we have the money and the technology to make history and do it faster. When enough people say they want a healthy climate, then economists will figure out a way to put people to work delivering on it. Then millions of engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs will work tirelessly to make it so.

The innovation all starts with wanting a healthy climate, and then committing to build all three legs of the stool. Without all three, it’s like sending a man to the moon…and leaving him there.

Don’t be Fossil Fooled – It’s Time to Say Goodbye


Paul puts it together beautifully, and comes to the same conclusion I have–fossil fuels are over within 15-30 years.

He says: Given climate policy action is also now accelerating, fossil fuels are double dead. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “So long and thanks for all the energy”.

Paul Gilding

It’s time to make the call – fossil fuels are finished. The rest is detail.

The detail is interesting and important, as I expand on below. But unless we recognise the central proposition: that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end, and within 15 to 30 years – not 50 to 100 – we risk making serious and damaging mistakes in climate and economic policy, in investment strategy and in geopolitics and defence.

I’ve written previously about 2015 being the year the “Dam of Denial” breaks, referring to the end of denial that climate change requires urgent, transformational economic change. While related, this is different. It is now becoming clear we’ve reached a tipping point where fossil fuels will enter terminal decline, independently of climate policy action.

Given climate policy action is also now accelerating, fossil fuels are double dead. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “So long and…

View original post 1,874 more words

Renewables cheaper than cell phones?

Oil companies: What is your plan in case renewables continue to grow like cell phones and dominate the energy market gradually over 20 years? Can you match Saudi Arabia’s plan?

Oil companies tell their valued investors that it will take about 70 years to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, locking in a disastrous 4 to 6 degrees of global warming. I’ve heard an earnest oil official say, in despair about the climate, “We need an energy system as cheap as cell phones”.

There is an energy system as cheap as cell phones that could replace 80% of fossil fuel usage in 20 years. If that transition has even a 10% chance of happening, investors should demand to know how the oil companies are planning to maintain their shareholder value in that scenario.

That energy system is, of course, renewables. Wind and solar at utility scale now cost about $2 per watt to build, and costs are falling 10% per year. At today’s costs, replacing 80% of all fossil fuel usage with renewables will cost about $20 trillion dollars, including storage*.

If we spread that investment out over 20 years, it is $1 trillion per year, which is just 60% of annual global cell phone business revenue. That $1 trillion is also what oil companies invested in 2013 to develop roughly the same amount of new oil and gas energy capacity**.

Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said last fall: We’re at 1% wind and solar: How do we get from 1% to 80%? The answer, as the cell phone industry demonstrated 25 years ago, is by growing to 5% market penetration per year, and then continuing that pace for 20 years.

Wind and solar penetration now is the same as cell phone penetration was in 1990. Remember what your phone looked like in 1990? How about in 2000, when penetration was 30%? Solar growth rates now are about the same as cell phone growth was in that decade.

In 2015 wind and solar will have increased their market penetration by another 1%, and if we keep the doubling rate for just five more years, by 2021 they will be replacing 5% more of the fossil fuel market share every year. Maintaining that 5% rate for fifteen years gets us to 80% replacement of fossil fuels by 2035.

If you’re an oil executive, delivering on that transition  looks impossibly difficult when compared to the transition from coal to oil, or oil to natural gas. There are thousands of new technologies required now, compared to the earlier shifts from steam engines to internal combustion engines, and then to turbines, which each took 70 years to mature.

The world has 6 million engineers now and the internet. Yet it’s hard for someone with a career in a conservative command-and-control company to imagine that army of engineers and entrepreneurs working independently to deliver a meaningful result. Especially not a result like replacing in 20 years the result of 100 years of painstaking conventional energy development.

Does that sound like the 20 year cell phone revolution? Or the 20 year revolution in photography ending with Kodak declaring bankruptcy in 2012, thereby redefining the phrase a “Kodak moment”?

Is a transportation transition really possible? By 2020 battery electric cars will have 300 mile ranges and will cost less to buy, and far less to operate than conventional vehicles. Charging stations appearing everywhere already allow electric cars to cross the country. That transition may be inevitable. 

Jet fuel can be generated now from biowaste or sunlight, but that could take 15 years to scale up. It only contributes 2% of emissions, so it’s not critical to the rapid transition.

How about heating? Ground source electric heat pumps are already cost effective in much of the US, and costs are falling.

What about the grid–Who will pay to upgrade our grid? The utilities will. We grant utilities monopoly status to allow them to invest heavily in infrastructure, assured of getting a return on that investment. Utilities will upgrade their grids as they are obligated to. Some will raise prices, and some will lower prices. Which way prices go depends mainly on how aggressive their public utility commissions are.

This scenario isn’t guaranteed to happen. Wind and solar could stall and stop following the market penetration curve of cell phones, despite the similar costs, and global market conditions. Much of the world’s population which could not afford wired phones in 1990 did adopt cell phones (we’re up to 7.2 billion cell phones and 7.2 billion people now). Similarly, much of the population which cannot afford grid electricity is rapidly being powered with solar and wind microgrids at steadily decreasing costs.

Renewables provide lower cost energy in most parts of the world now, and are providing about 60% of new generating capacity globally. There is no distinct reason for their growth to stop.

Oil companies are betting the farm on their prediction that the transition to renewable energy will occur at the same pre-globalization pace as the transition to petroleum did 100 years ago.

What will our oil companies do if wind and solar continue their ten years of exponential growth for five more years, and then displace the incumbent fossil fuels, as cell phones did?

Call to action:

If you are an oil shareholder, demand an answer to the question: What is your plan in case renewables continue to grow like cell phones and dominate the energy market gradually over 20 years? The process of answering that question will wake up the oil companies, and they will wake up our policy makers***. 


* Note: This assumes 17 TW total global energy usage and replacing 80% of fossil fuel energy (80% of total energy) at $1.50 per watt, plus the equivalent of 2 billion Tesla battery units at $3500 each.

The capacity factor of 20% for solar, and 32% for wind is similar to the efficiency factor of electric vehicles compared to gas, and to the efficiency of heat pumps compared to combustion. To make calculations easy, we consider that they cancel out. If double the capacity is required, the transition will cost about the same as the cell phone transition and take two more years to achieve.

**Annual new oil and gas capacity consists of replacement of the 5% annual decrease in production of existing conventional wells, plus 1% increase in total consumption. Over 20 years the path could look like this, assuming current technology and growth patterns:Converting US to wind and solar by 2035 graph

Replacing US fossil fuel usage with renewables: Data here. The global transition could have a similar pace: With some regions faster and some slower.

***The natural policy for a rapid transition is the steadily increasing price on carbon that oil companies generally promote.

Despite that, oil companies still promote a 70 year transition and the corresponding 4-6 degree warming. That grim future evokes desperate calls for coercive cap and trade policies that oil and other companies dread. Caps are disliked because they leave future prices uncertain, which makes wise investing difficult and thereby slows progress.

The future is unknown. It depends on our collective actions. Oil company planners understandably call a rapid transition to renewables “highly unlikely”.

Oil companies almost unanimously call for a meaningful, rising price on carbon, yet they don’t present such a scenario. It could look like the transition above, providing huge opportunities for well capitalized energy companies.

Consider a fast-transition scenario to be an insurance policy. When you buy insurance, you don’t list every reason that you might need or not need insurance. You look at the recent past, think of a handful of scenarios, and assess the probability of something happening. If the probability is more than 1 in 1000, you usually buy the insurance.

Oil company planners may think there is only a 1% chance that renewable energy could continue to grow on the cell phone curve, thereby avoiding catastrophic climate change. Like any other catastrophic insurance policy, a plan for even an “unlikely” rapid transition would be wise for them, critical for their shareholders, and incredibly valuable for humanity.

The stories we tell about possible futures profoundly affects the actions we take. Discussing and illustrating a possible happy-ending rapid transition option could lead to sensible market-friendly policy and better planning by all.

This story arguably can only be usefully told by oil companies. Neither President Obama nor Angela Merkel would be listened to, neither would the present author. Even  the Saudi Oil minister, when he discusses this scenario is ignored. So this essay is an acknowledgment of the authority that our oil companies have accumulated.

Oil companies should discuss a rapid transition option. By encouraging a steadily increasing carbon tax that is investment-friendly, they will leverage their financial power into future profits. 

Let my people go–Gain freedom from fossil fuel


Are we enslaved to fossil fuels? If so, how would we know, and how do we free ourselves from that taskmaster?

Passover is a celebration of freedom, and at the Passover Seder (traditional meal), we tell the story about the Israelites exit from enslavement by the Egyptian Pharaoh 5000 years ago. In the liberal Jewish tradition, we look each year for current day enslavements for us to break free from. In my youth it was Jews being persecuted in the Soviet Union, and more recently issues of sexual enslavement get mention.

Preparing for leading our seder last night, I proposed that the underlying theme be freedom from fossil fuels. It sounded awkward and everyone I asked said it sounded like a bad idea. We did it anyway. It turned into an interesting conversation.

We might suspect that we’re enslaved when the fossil fuel industry tells us that we can’t survive without them. People engaged in the renewables industry know that wind and solar are doubling their new capacity every two years. Now that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels in much of the world, that growth will continue, if not accelerate, leaving us free of our fossil fuel owner in 15-25 years.

Why don’t people discuss that future? Perhaps because we are slaves to the fossil fuel industry. When Exxon and Shell tell us that it will take us 70 years to free ourselves, we believe them. Investors, policymakers, and news reporters assume that is the true future. But why are we believing them? Shouldn’t we listen to the renewables industry, the industry that is actually taking action?

In the renewables industry, there is currently a strong focus on storage. This is an important milestone because storage is only needed when wind and solar exceed 60%-80% of total electrical generation. The rush to invest there tells us that the renewable industry is expecting renewable electrical generation to reach those levels in the next ten years.

Free yourself from the fossil fuel taskmaster. Let go of oil company stories that we can’t live without them, and that we must keep subsidizing them, and even add new subsidies for the CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) that they hope will keep us in their hands for another 10-20 years.