It’s not too late to change the climate picture

Raging fires and extreme temperatures in the West plus rising sea levels impacting the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico and a hyperactive hurricane season in the Atlantic basin are enough to make a sane observer wonder if we’ve tipped over the climate edge.

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We have, but in a good way. That might seem like so much whistling past the graveyard on a moonless night. But climate now has our attention and we can begin to take action.

Americans have often waited for the worst to happen before mobilizing to combat a mortal threat and this time is no different. It’s not a flaw in ourselves or our culture; believe it or not it’s a feature of democracy.

Fifty-one percent is the minimum needed to take power in a democracy but in most, and America falls into this category, big minorities can make a lot of noise and disrupt the majority’s well laid plans. You only have to look at the US Senate where any member regardless of party can filibuster an idea to death. Sixty votes is the required minimum for ending a filibuster and when proponents of a measure can’t raise this super majority, a proposal, a bill dies.

Because direct action by the US in a large range of issues starts with a bill that passes both houses of Congress before hitting the president’s desk (where it could be vetoed), it takes much greater public sentiment to push a bill into law. Our greater society reflects this: action happens when a super majority supports an initiative. Today Pew Research says that about 68 percent of Americans see climate change as a real problem to be dealt with.

The current climate debate is a case in point, but it is hardly the only one and it is not exceptional. Ninety years ago, the nation was climbing out of a severe economic downturn, the Great Depression. It had participated in and suffered from the First World War. You might say that the US had relatively few casualties in that conflict, but more than 116,000 Americans died in the hostilities. But only when you compare that to the 1.7 million Russians, more than 900,000 members of the British Empire, and nearly 1.4 million French, do you get that perspective.

American sentiment, based on fatigue from the Depression and long memories of WWI set the country against involvement in another European war. One poll taken at the start of hostilities in September, 1939 found that 94 percent of Americans were against becoming involved.

Japan attacked the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941 and President Roosevelt signed a congressional war declaration the next day. Previously neutral Americans flooded armed services recruiting offices. Within a week Hitler declared war on the US and the battle was joined.

The US response to the climate catastrophe now unfolding mimics the pattern of delay and indecision we saw before Pearl Harbor and in many other instances in US history. Majorities without high degrees of public sentiment and support go nowhere, but with them America can focus its energies and resources to a high degree.

So where to next?

The Green New Deal?

We’re at that point with climate change. In the coming months, assuming a new administration in Washington, you can expect a transformation in the US response to the climate challenge but what should happen first? What might the plan look like? Here are some thoughts.

First, don’t look for some huge overarching legislation to emerge, consensus rarely arrives as a monolith. The Green New Deal contains many good ideas but also some clunkers. It is named in tribute to the original New Deal instituted by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great Depression but there’s a key difference between the two.

Roosevelt knew he couldn’t push a comprehensive bill through congress and, frankly he didn’t even know what such a bill should look like. In his first inaugural address FDR called for “bold persistent experimentation.” The thinking was that we should try things, discard what didn’t work, and reinforce approaches that did.

They called the New Deal alphabet soup because it spun up agencies like the NRA (not the gun guys), CCC, WPA, PWA, TVA and many others. Each agency or administration was a more or less standalone attempt to stimulate the economy by putting jobs and therefore money into the hands of destitute citizens who would spend it thus reviving the economy. Some worked, some were quickly replaced.

So don’t look for a monolithic solution to climate. Instead look for bold experiments because there are several moving parts to consider and each has a very different but complementary set of solutions. They include carbon capture, emissions reduction, renewable energy and the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. We’ll look at each in coming articles.

Carbon Capture

Carbon already saturates the environment acidifying the oceans and fouling the air, absorbing sunlight and heating the planet. Some carbon needs to come out.

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Lowering emissions is a favorite hobby horse but if there’s already too much carbon in the environment, and there is, then limiting emissions only means slowing the increase. Like overfilling a glass of water, slowing the pouring still gets the table wet. We need more.

Our primary job right now is to capture carbon from the environment and sequester it for millions of years. Green plants can do this but mother nature needs some help.

Fossil fuels are the remains of microbes and plants that captured carbon hundreds of millions of years ago and kept it out of sight all that time. All that happened more or less accidentally, we need to re-run that playbook on purpose and with gusto now because we need to remove at least on trillion tons of carbon from the environment and put it into safe keeping.

But don’t expect this to be the result of some new industrial process. Removing carbon from the environment is work for plants, not machines. There are a lot of ideas for industrial processes and some prototypes in the marketplace that do this, but most suffer from one flaw. They capture carbon dioxide gas and, without treatment, try to sequester it underground. But gasses are notorious for seeping out of containment. It’s what they do.

The fracking boom produced a lot of natural gas but one of its side effects is to release methane unexpectedly through resulting cracks in underground rocks. Go to YouTube and you’ll find plenty of videos of gas contaminating drinking water. You know this is happening because kitchen faucets light on fire.

Carbon dioxide won’t burn but it will return to the atmosphere thus putting us on a treadmill. If it seeps into your home, it will kill you. Catch and release works well for trout but not for carbon.

Carbon Sequestration

Taking carbon out of circulation for millions of years is our holy grail, not simply reducing emissions. Little green plants that occur naturally in the seas, called phytoplankton, do this exceptionally well and over time their dead bodies sink thus removing their carbon. The grass of the seas, phytoplankton also feed the smallest fish and the largest creatures like baleen whales.

As green plants, phytoplankton use the energy from sunlight to make their food and the materials that make up their bodies. When they sink to the ocean’s bottom they accumulate and eventually make the crude oil our civilization has relied on for hundreds of years.

Experimental results show that plankton can be farmed like any other crop, but in the ocean with the benefit of absorbing carbon from the environment. The fertilizer implicated in this farming is simple iron that can be added to ocean water in dilute solutions enhancing the lifecycle.

Farming plankton is a far superior solution compared to planting trees that might live for one or two centuries and then rot giving their carbon back to the environment. It’s also better than developing industrial processes that would require a great deal of energy. Farming plankton makes sense, but it also challenges us to innovate the solution that seeds the oceans. Like the original moonshot, farming plankton requires invention and a bit of bold, persistent experimentation. It’s also eminently feasible.

Of course, we’d need some legislation too and probably some support from the United Nations to get the process working. So this is ultimately a political issue but one that 68 percent of Americans would likely see value in.

Next time we’ll look at reducing emissions which is far easier because, spoiler alert, the world is running out of fossil fuels including petroleum, natural gas, and coal.

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

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