by Peter A. Belmont / 2019-06-14
© 2019 Peter Belmont
The cause of and pathway toward averting the climate crisis are not well understood by most people, including most politicians and professors.
Among politicians and much of the media, there are two orthodoxies about the climate crisis.
Both are wrong.
Most Republicans and conservative media (the “climate deniers”) claim that there is no climate crisis. Democrats and liberal media, for the most part, claim that there is a crisis (the danger of a global average temperature rise of more than 1.5°C) and that it can be averted by the single means of reducing or eliminating human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs).
In my view, the climate deniers are horribly misguided, and I don’t care whether this springs from implacable ignorance, ideology, religion, or pure political corruption—or all four. They are dead wrong.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on Republicans, or at least surprised:
We are prey to a dismaying variety of hard-wired errors. We prefer winning to being right. At best, so the story goes, our faculty of reason is at constant war with an irrational darkness within. At worst, we should abandon the attempt to be rational altogether.(see here).
But lackadaisical kick-the-can-down-the road Democrats are also misguided. This essay hopes to explain how and why this is so. Time is short and emissions-reduction-alone is also dead wrong.
Pronouncements made ten, twenty, or thirty years ago to the effect that the climate crisis could be averted merely by (rather lackadaisically) reducing human emissions of GHGs continue to be recited as “slogans” or “mantras” by many people and by most politicians (of course excluding the climate crisis deniers) as if reducing emissions is still (if it ever was) a panacea.
The recitation of mantras and slogans is a lazy person’s substitute for becoming aware of changing circumstances and thinking.
Reducing emissions alone is not a panacea.
The first study, led by Thomas Gasser, used results from 11 Earth System Models, in conjunction with a simple carbon-cycle model to simulate different emissions reductions scenarios associated with the low emissions pathway, RCP2.6. (see here)
They showed that under all emissions reductions scenarios, even slashing emissions to less than 4 billion tonnes CO₂ each year, (greater than a 90% cut in current emissions) is insufficient to limit warming to 2°C.
If reducing emissions of GHGs—however speedily and however soon—is not enough to avert a 2°C—and of course a 1.5°C—climate crisis, what else can be done and what else must be done?
Besides emissions reduction, we also need to remove CO₂ from the atmosphere, and in vast amounts, and, as also with emissions reductions, as soon and as quickly as possible. Nothing is to be gained, and much is to be lost, by delay.
That said, working to reduce emissions has many positive aspects, and one of those aspects is educational: as more governments loudly proclaim their intentions to cut emissions, the general public has the educational experience of hearing the climate crisis talked about and seeing something done about it other than hand-wringing. Baby steps, but steps nonetheless. Working toward emissions-reduction has also helped to reduce the costs of non-fossil-fueled electric power generation, not a bad thing at all.
The Cause of the Climate Crisis
The climate crisis exists today because mankind has caused an enormous quantity of GHGs to be emitted into the atmosphere. The GHGs cause energy from sunlight—which before 1800 would have bounced back into outer space—to be retained on earth, heating air, earth, and water. The emission of GHGs has chiefly been caused by the burning of fossil fuels—coal, oil, natural gas, and peat.
To be perfectly clear: the crisis exists today because of the enormous amount of GHGs in the atmosphere today. And that enormous amount has been building since 1800, but more particularly since 1950 when the burning of fossil fuels “took off” sharply.
This means that the crisis is not caused to any significant extent by the (admittedly large and annually increasing) amounts of GHGs emitted each year; and the crisis cannot be averted merely by cutting back on human-caused emissions of GHGs, even by achieving zero-emissions.
The goal of achieving zero-emissions by any date, such as 2040 or 2050, is recited as a sort of religious goal, but even if achieved would not avert the daily worsening crisis.
If a state of zero-emissions were—perhaps by magic—to be achieved today, immediately and totally, the climate crisis would continue to get worse, because of the enormous amount of GHGs already in the atmosphere.
The GHGs in the atmosphere are like a blanket wrapping the earth. The blanket is very thick today, and each year it gets a little thicker, but the increasing warmth of the earth is due to the thickness of the blanket, and the pathway to averting a worse crisis is not to stop thickening the blanket but to remove the blanket, and this as soon and as fast as possible.
Why Zero-Emissions Has Become a Be-All and End-All for Crisis Aversion
There is a powerful mechanism in human thought and in politics which causes an idea once pronounced loudly enough and often enough to come to be regarded as an immutable truth. Such “immutable truths” (or “received wisdom”) become slogans, mantras, but do not for that reason become or remain true or useful. Once “programs” are established bureaucratically which are based on such mantras, bureaucratic momentum carries along the activities based on the mantras and they have a life of their own. And politicians and others who have “signed on” for a particular world-view are loathe to alter that view for fear of being regarded as “radical” or non-orthodox.
The current crop (2019) of Democratic Presidential Hopefuls are vying with each other to announce plans for averting the climate crisis and—as far as I’ve noticed—they are all basing these plans on the “received wisdom” that the crisis can be averted, and “in time” !!, merely by reducing emissions of GHGs to zero by 2050. And, as a matter of political reality (so different from actual reality, of course) what else can they say? After all, almost everyone who believes that there is a climate crisis also believes that emissions-reduction alone is the sole and the sufficient mechanism for turning around the crisis.
On June 13, I attended a seminar at Columbia University Law School at which professors and bureaucrats discussed the enormous complexity (and difficulty)—political, economic, social, and engineering complexity and difficulty—of achieving anything close to zero-emissions. In a two-hour presentation including a question period, scarcely a word was uttered about any mechanism for crisis aversion other than emissions reduction. A book was promoted which, in 1100 pages, discusses the legal ramifications of the very numerous pathways towards GHG emission reduction. So complicated! Seemingly 10,000 details!
To me it all felt a bit like medieval theologians arguing about how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. Such earnestness! Such energy expended! And all missing the point.
The Two Paths Toward Climate Crisis Aversion
Two principal mechanisms for averting the climate crisis have been realistically put forward:
• GHG emissions reduction, and
• removing CO₂ from the atmosphere.
In addition is the important third effort:
• reversing the melting of summer sea ice in the arctic.
Path One: Emissions Reduction
As noted above, emissions-reduction alone cannot solve the climate crisis problem. That does not mean that emissions-reduction is a bad thing.
For one thing, most obviously, reducing emissions of GHGs makes the GHG “blanket” grow slower, even if it continues to grow and even if emissions reduction does nothing to reduce the pre-existing parts of the “blanket”.
Emissions-reduction may also be a valuable thing to do for reasons unrelated to the climate crisis. After all, to stop burning coal is also to stop putting toxic mercury into the atmosphere and to stop the many environmental damages due to coal mining. And to stop searching for and producing and transporting oil and natural gas will avert many environmental disasters such as oil spills, gas-pipeline and well-head leaks of methane, and the poisoning of ground waters by fracking-liquids. Emissions-reduction by cutting back on the burning of fossil fuels is all to the good—if, as widely assumed, the environmental costs of producing and installing and using wind-powered and solar-powered electric power generation are less than the costs of fossil-fueled electric power generation. And nowadays, “green power” is frequently said to be cheaper than fossil-fueled power and getting cheaper daily, even in face of the enormous governmental subsidies that continue to be paid to the fossil-fuel producers.
And, of course, reducing annual increments to the GHG “blanket” that surrounds the earth will tend to reduce the need for the second means of crisis aversion—removal of CO₂ from the atmosphere.
Path Two: CO₂ Capture
The topic of CO₂ capture, other than from stack-gases of fossil-fuel burning enterprises, has received little attention.
Especially important, the topic of “direct air capture” (DAC) of CO₂ has received little attention.
DAC means running machinery that sucks in air, separates out CO₂, removes the CO₂, and in some fashion transforms the CO₂ into an (ideally) inert substance (that is, no longer a GHG in the atmosphere).
Often the possibility of achieving DAC has been denied. And until recently, the only proposals for DAC have been for commercially viable DAC..
Of course, the reason that most R&D has gone into commercially viable DAC is that governments have been trapped in the “emissions-alone” mindset and have been unwilling to spend money on DAC R&D. (As we know, the federal government of the USA is unwilling to spend money even on emissions-reduction.)
Not all proposals for DAC make sense from a climate-crisis-reduction standpoint. Some companies want to take CO₂ out of the air only to produce from it a new fuel—which new fuel will in its turn be burned and release CO₂. To be sure, burning such “new fuels” will not release “new” CO₂ into the atmosphere, but it will not reduce atmospheric CO₂ either. At best, if all fossil fuels were replaced by such manufactured-from-CO₂ fuels, and if the energy to perform this production were all “green”, such a program would stabilize the GHG “blanket” but would not reduce it.
The evident requirement for climate-crisis-reducing DAC is that the removed CO₂ be rendered inert (we might call it “inert-DAC”) . One method is to manufacture stone from CO₂
Why has DAC not received attention to date?
There are at least two reasons that, to date, conversations about direct air capture have been muted. First, climate scientists have hoped global carbon emissions would come under control, and we wouldn’t need direct air capture. But most experts believe that ship has sailed. That brings up the second issue: to date, all estimates suggest direct air capture would be exorbitantly expensive to deploy.(see here)
It is possible that mechanisms for DAC have been invented or will soon be invented that are commercially viable, but what if they are not? The fight against the climate crisis should be fought on a war footing, and no-one ever said that fighting wars was required to pay for itself!
Looked at in another way, performing DAC is rather like building and running sewers and sewage treatment plants, neither of which is cheap in the world-wide aggregate. We do these things in the interest of public health, a matter of cleaning up our harmful effluents, and performing DAC would certainly be done for that sole reason—because excessive CO₂ in the atmosphere, that is above 300 ppm, is harmful to all life on earth.
We know that the cost of solar electric generation has fallen dramatically ever since the need for solar-power was recognized and made part of the emissions-reduction “mantra”. When New York State Governor Cuomo promises to reduce GHG emissions by 80% by 2050, he is helping to reduce the costs of solar and wind-power by essentially promising that NYS will purchase lots of these things. More power to him (pun intended).
And if states and nations will also commit to promoting inert-DAC, then more mechanisms will be invented and costs will also fall.
And, of course, if all of this is done, then the enormous now-existing world-wide subsidies for fossil-fuel discovery, production, and use could—and should—be removed and subsidies be put in place to encourage emission reduction and inert-DAC.
If the climate crisis (warming above 1.5°C) is to be averted, the USA and the world most commit to massive CO₂-inert-DAC ; and if they do so, it may be hoped that cheaper methods of inert-DAC will be invented, whether or not commercially viable.
But, today, the nations are still trapped in “emissions-reduction-only” thinking, and many are aiming at holding the atmosphere to a terribly dangerous concentration of 450 ppm CO₂.
Reversing Melting of Arctic Sea Ice
In addition to all other efforts, it is important to reverse the melting of summertime sea ice in the arctic. The reason is simple: when that ice is melted, the sea-surface there is black and absorbs the sun’s heat whereas when the ice is present, the sea-surface is white and reflects the sun’s heat. Reversing this melting will (a way is known) tend to reduce global warming.
If the entire Arctic ice pack should melt, scientists predict that we’d see an “unmitigated disaster.” Without the planet’s Arctic heat shield, the ice-albedo feedback loop would quickly usher in an additional half-degree Celsius of warming worldwide, and with it, widespread global damage. That would lead to more rapid melting of the Arctic permafrost, releasing vast amounts of methane — a greenhouse gas that, for its first 20 years in the air, traps 84 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
Climate-Restoration and Eco-System Restoration
People are beginning to talk about ”Climate Restoration”, by which they mean returning the earth to the GHG “blanket” of an earlier and non-crisis period, say, restoring an atmosphere of 300 ppm CO₂, down from today’s disastrous 413 ppm.
Climate Restoration is the global endeavor to return the Earth’s climate systems to the safe and healthy state in which humanity and our natural world evolved. This requires returning atmospheric CO2 to safe levels of less than 300 parts per million (ppm) and restoring sufficient Arctic ice to prevent permafrost melt and the resulting disastrous methane emissions. It is possible and it is achievable, both technically and financially.(see here)
Climate Restoration is already a big, an important, an expensive, and possibly a complicated undertaking. But it is as nothing to what might be called Eco-System Restoration which would be a project to return the earth to a condition something like it was in a healthier time, where humankind was not poisoning the air, earth, and water, and killing off our partner species on earth as we are today.
It probably implies a large reduction in the size of the human population (over time, of course, and after a lot of teaching and revision of social and religious thinking).
It implies changes in farming practices, away from chemical-intensive farming and toward organic farming if that is still possible (global warming has increased farming-harmful insect life in some places rendering organic farming difficult or impossible in those places.) It implies different methods of soil handling to render the agricultural soils more CO₂ absorbent.
Frankly, I have no idea of all that this loose concept implies other than to say that it is worth thinking about.
If humankind should get out of the grip of the climate crisis more-or-less intact, it is possible that we would by then have realized that we are a part of the natural order, not apart from it, and that we should learn to live as a cooperative part of nature. Some of the world’s religions—Jewish and Christian at any rate—are based on teachings developed thousands of years ago when humankind walked much less destructively on the earth and the idea of humankind dominating the earth seemed to make sense. With our vast overpopulation today, it is time for religious leaders to say that there is a new dispensation—that humankind has already grown to, and grown beyond, a fair idea of “filling the earth” and should begin to back off from that idea as quickly as possible, and back off as well from the use and production of all the chemicals and plastics with which we are now killing ourselves and the earth.
Conclusion—And How To Pay For It
Keep your eyes and your thoughts on inert-DAC. We (the USA) may need to spend $1T or much more in the next few years developing and putting into operation inert-DAC powered by non-fossil-fueled electric power. If so, so be it. It will be money well spent.
The USA has spent far more than that already on senseless and non-productive wars in the Middle-East and on tax-cuts and tax-avoidance for the very wealthy and wealthy corporations. The money for climate “defense” is available.
Adding to the mountain of statistical evidence showing the severity of U.S. inequality, an analysis published Friday found that the top one percent of Americans gained $21 trillion in wealth since 1989 while the bottom 50 percent lost $900 billion.(see here)
It is time for Americans to realize that the “defense” that matters if humankind is to survive intact is climate-crisis aversion, not war fighting and the further widening of income and wealth inequality.