Tired of the climate debate? Good, let’s do something about it. We’re spending way too much time debating the causes and far too little talking about fixes. The great thing about discussing fixes is that it offers hope, it makes you feel good. Debating origins and causes gets us nowhere and leaves us tired and frustrated. So, enough with diagnosis and debate, let’s look at some real solutions.
I started following the climate issue in the 1970’s and at the time there was great concern over what might happen, but no one really knew if the change would result in a new ice age or one of considerable temperature increases and severe storms like we have today.
Looking back, the lack of precision was understandable. In many earlier climate events in earth’s history the upshot was climate cooling. Major events like volcanic eruptions cause a great deal of particulate matter to be blown into the stratosphere where it can serve to block out solar radiation and cool the planet. This happens naturally all the time, adding matter to the atmosphere increases the blocking. It’s called the albedo effect, a natural tendency to reflect solar radiation back into space due to things like glaciers and cloud cover. So, when a volcano erupts it adds to the albedo effect causing cooling.
Typically, cooling doesn’t last long, maybe a year or two under today’s conditions. But greater catastrophes have happened such as when an asteroid hit what’s now the Yucatan peninsula 66 million years ago ending the age of the dinosaurs. At least part of the explanation for their partial demise (birds are thought to be direct descendants of the Therapods) was starvation. As plants couldn’t get enough sunlight to grow, herbivores starved and eventually so did carnivores. All species suffered but dinosaurs suffered most giving an opening to a perky family of wooly pests now called mammals.
But this time is different, CO2’s action on the atmosphere does not physically obstruct sunlight. Its action is physical-chemical. Solar energy striking a CO2molecule is absorbed and re-radiated as heat rather than being reflected as light. Another difference, particulate matter eventually settles out of the atmosphere, but this doesn’t happen with CO2. Instead it lingers in the environment remaining for many centuries. Of course, green plants remove CO2 to make the living biomass on which we all depend. But there’s a great deal more carbon than plants can process at the moment.
All is not lost though, this knowledge positions us to begin fixing the problem. The debate and the time for credibly expressing skepticism about whether CO2is the culprit in climate change is over. Some people will continue the debate but the smart money is on moving past a stale finger pointing game towards making solutions.
Photosynthesis has been around for billions of years. As noted, plants use it to take carbon out of the air and to make sugars and starches that compose structural parts of plants and provide food for the rest of us. It’s a good system and life as we know it rests on photosynthesis’s shoulders, so to speak.
In addition to making our food, photosynthesis also made the organisms that died and became fossil fuels — that’s why we call them fossils fuels to begin with. But it takes millions of years to make fossil fuels by natural processes so the fuels we have now are, for all intents and purposes, unique in the history of this planet.
As you might imagine untold numbers of things have lived on earth over billions of years and while their fossils are indeed numerous, they are also finite, and it is possible to consume all of them. In 1859 we started pumping oil in Titusville, PA and in that year the US consumed half a million barrels of crude oil, mostly as lamp oil. Today the US consumes almost 20 million barrels per day. That’s a lot of fossils.
We’re already in the end stage of that consumption. Coal is still plentiful but very polluting. Oil is different but only in degree. They’re both running out, too. We live in a time when emissions created when we return carbon to the atmosphere are cooking the planet. So, we have a kind of perfect storm in which our energy source is both running out and killing us. These twin issues ought to be enough to convince people to change the energy paradigm to renewables. But strangely, we talk almost exclusively about whose fault it is instead of what to do about the problem that all os use face.
The signal idea of the effort to “do something” about climate centers on emissions. The Paris Climate Accord focuses on emissions, car makers try to engineer cleaner cars, and most people capable of being convinced agree that coal fired power plants should be curtailed though we seem to continue building them, especially in Asia.
Focusing on emissions, though a good start, might not be enough. We already have so much carbon in the atmosphere that it’s changing climate, killing coral reefs and causing both drought and flooding. Limiting emissions might slow the progression to catastrophe but we really need to figure out how to remove some of that carbon if we want to avoid disaster.
There have been numerous proposals for mechanically removing carbon from the air but the sticking point is always what to do with it once it’s captured. Some solutions propose pumping CO2 into old oil wells where it will hopefully stay put. But experience with natural gas fracking shows that even deep rocks can shift, and gasses can escape into the environment. If that were to happen with stored CO2future generations could have big problems. And even if those scenarios don’t happen (a big if) we still need to deal with the fact that natural gas and petroleum come from porous sedimentary rocks, so some leakage is virtually guaranteed.
This brings us back to photosynthesis. Green plants make carbon compounds that don’t automatically fly off into the atmosphere. Our challenge then is to keep green plants from being consumed or decaying back to their starting materials like CO2. There’s also the problem of finding places to grow green plants because most of the arable land on the planet is already spoken for.
But the ocean is wide open. Every school child knows that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is ocean; however, much of that water grows little or nothing. Early 20thcentury researchers hypothesized that was because the ocean waters lacked one or more key elements for life. In the late 20thcentury, oceanographer John Martin concluded the missing element was iron. Martin showed that minute quantities of iron added to seawater could induce green plankton growth.
Think of green plankton, or phytoplankton as it’s called, as the grass of the sea. On land, herbivores eat grass and carnivores eat herbivores. In the ocean, big fish eat smaller fish, and the smallest fish eat plankton. When plankton that isn’t eaten by small fish or whales die about 20 percent sink to the ocean floor where they accumulate and over many millions of years, they form new petroleum.
Multiple experiments over the last few decades have shown that it’s possible to stimulate phytoplankton growth in the ocean through iron fertilization and with a big enough effort, to sequester a large amount of CO2. Enough to change the emissions picture.
This is not the only way to capture carbon, but it is a very attractive one because all the energy needed would come from the sun and it requires very few added inputs other than a ground up old Chevy or Toyota now and then.
Climate change seems like a daunting and unsolvable problem but that’s mostly because no one is doing much to combat it. With even an initial effort to focus on solutions, the problem will look more manageable.
To get to a better place we should quit diagnosing and arguing about the problem. Enough of us know climate change is caused by man-made pollution and while skeptics might have a right to their skepticism, that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress discussing solutions. We’ve been accumulating ways to fix climate change for decades already. They’re in the shadows, waiting to be re-discovered and applied. Added together not only will they save the planet, they’ll usher in a new era of progress and wealth creation. I call it the age of sustainability.