End of the beginning?
November 29, 2018 by Denis Pombriant
Perhaps now that 13 federal agencies have issued a major new scientific report on the dangers of climate change, “The Fourth National Climate Assessment,” we can get over diagnosing the problem and begin fixing it. 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 other 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 so 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 the planet in what’s now the Yucatan peninsula 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 lack of food or 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 is not to physically obstruct sunlight. Its action is physical-chemical. Radiant energy striking a CO2 molecule is absorbed as heat rather than being reflected. 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.
All is not lost though, this knowledge positions us to begin fixing the problem. The debate is over with people who can express true skepticism about the conclusion that CO2 is the culprit in climate change. That means we can’t expect to continue burning fossil fuels if we want the situation to improve.
Photosynthesis has been around for billions of years. Plants use it to take carbon out of the air and to make sugars 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 is, 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. 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. 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 and the latest report should give us the impetus we need. But strangely, the report comes up short on practical efforts to reverse the process.
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 but we really need to figure out how to remove some of that carbon.
There have been numerous proposals for mechanically removing carbon from the air but the sticking point is always what to do with it. Many 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 CO2 future generations could have big problems.
This brings us back to photosynthesis. Green plants make carbon compounds that don’t automatically fly off into the atmosphere. But our challenge 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 doesn’t grow anything or grows very little. Early 20th century researchers hypothesized that was because the ocean waters lacked one or more key elements for life. In the late 20th century, 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 but the smallest fish eat plankton. When plankton die about 20 percent sink to the ocean floor where they accumulate and over millions of years 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. We 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. We call it the age of sustainability.