Transforming climate change from an acute to a chronic problem provides a better frame of reference and more options.
Transforming a stubborn problem from an acute emergency to a chronic challenge does not provide a permanent solution but often the results are indistinguishable from one. The conversion gives us a different frame of reference, a different approach. In a nutshell understanding a challenge as chronic means we’ve found a way to live with it. For instance, we’ve never actually cured AIDS but beginning in the mid-1990s with the arrival of HAART or highly active anti-retroviral therapy, we’ve drastically reduced the AIDS death rate see chart. Treating AIDS today is not hopeless, but it is something a patient must stay on top of daily.
AIDS is only one example and medical science has many others. For instance, while many anti-cancer organizations still fund research for cures, many practitioners are aggressively using a variety of therapies to ensure that cancer is something that their patients die with but not from. The same is true for almost any disease for which patients take daily medicines for years and many have become common maladies rather than life shortening sentences including high blood pressure and diabetes.
Treating climate change can be like this. But to do so requires some up front analysis. We know that there’s too much carbon in the air right now and that adding more will irreparably harm the environment we leave to our children. Nonetheless, there must be a point in history where increased atmospheric carbon was tolerable for the ecosystem. A point where there was more carbon in the air than there was at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a common reference point for CO2 measurements, but less than today. In the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s the amount of atmospheric carbon was increasing annually yet the impact on the environment was at least tolerable.
There were fewer major weather events, growing regions produced bumper crops, and the amount of fresh water falling as rain and snow was adequate for most needs. Reducing the atmospheric carbon load by one trillion tons would be a step in the right direction and would be a good goal. Whether that’s enough we won’t know until we try, but how do we get to that point?
A new green revolution
If removing carbon from the environment is the goal then the tried and true approach is to let green plants do the job. Green plants can use the sunlight falling on the earth each day as their energy source. It’s abundant, free, and inexhaustible for our purposes. But since most of the earth’s land surface is already in use either as wilderness, growing regions, deserts, or places people live, we’ll need to invent additional growing regions, which isn’t as hard as you think.
Deserts need irrigation if you expect to grow anything in them. That’s always posed a challenge and the problem is magnified if the solution requires producing fresh water from the sea; desalination costs a lot of energy. However, there’s enough available renewable energy including wind, solar, and geothermal to produce an adequate amount of electricity to do the job. Capturing all of that energy isn’t free either but it has two counter advantages. First, it would create a new industry and the jobs that go with it. Second, it will enable humanity to grow enough food to feed the estimated 10 billion people scheduled to inhabit earth by mid-century. That’s equivalent to adding another China and another India to today’s population.
As a practical matter, we’ll also need to look to the seas as another source of carbon absorption because it will cost less energy to capture carbon there and because it will also generate food for a hungry planet. There are huge swaths of the oceans that would be deserts if they weren’t so wet. The middle of the oceans are blue because there’s little photosynthesis going on there.
Oceanographers have traced the lack of plant activity to insufficient iron in the seawater. Iron functions like a vitamin, a co-factor in the lifecycle of tiny marine plants called phytoplankton. In experiments, when scientists add small quantities of iron to seawater, plankton can bloom turning the water from blue to green and absorbing a great deal of carbon dioxide in the process. About 20 percent of the plankton sinks to the bottom of the ocean when it dies taking its absorbed carbon with it producing a natural sequestration effect.
Plankton that doesn’t sink forms the bottom of the ocean’s food chain. The smallest fish eat it and so do baleen whales and other animals. So growing plankton in the ocean may also provide a way to promote additional sea life including the species humans depend on for nutrition.
There are many good reasons to consider using photosynthesis on land and in the oceans to absorb the excess carbon in the environment. On land it could generate additional food supplies that the planet needs. In the ocean photosynthesis can absorb carbon, broaden the food pyramid and sequester carbon on the sea floor where it can remain for millions of years.
There are currently international laws and treaties that prohibit the kinds of processes needed to promote photosynthesis in the sea. The Law of the Sea regards iron fertilization as dumping a pollutant, for example. So beyond the good intentions of the Paris Climate Accords, which only seek to reduce carbon emissions and not remove them, we need a strategy for removal. That strategy will take many forms. It will include moving away from fossil fuels that are depleting daily and it will require us to use the means at our disposal to recapture carbon.
Most importantly successfully dealing with climate change will require us to reimagine the challenge to treat it as a chronic condition that we can control with diligence, hard work, and new technologies.