My No. 1 best-selling book

It’s not just Republicans who ignore or deny the reality of climate change. Yesterday in Cushing, OK, President Obama spoke about an oil pipeline and said, according to The Times:

As long as I’m president, we’re going to keep on encouraging oil development and infrastructure, and we’re going to do it in a way that protects the health and safety of the American people.

Uh, no. There’s no way to safely burn coal, oil and natural gas — unless we find a way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

That’s why I wrote my ebook, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis. Eventually, we need to stop burning fossil fuels. But there’s no evidence that we’re going to do so anytime soon. So we need to think differently about the climate crisis, and to explore alternative solutions. Part of the answer will be to find ways to capture, recycle and reuse CO2.

In Suck It Up, you’ll meet the pioneering  scientist-entrepreneurs and the well-to-do investors, including Bill Gates, who are developing technology to capture CO2 from the air. Published as an Amazon Kindle Single, the book takes about an hour to read and costs $1.99. It’s free if you are an Amazon Prime member and you own a Kindle.

Some people have asked whether they can read the book if they don’t own a Kindle. The answer? Yes! Suck It Up can be read on a variety of platforms including on a PC, on a Mac, on an Android phone, on a Windows phone, on a BlackBerry, or even on the Web.  If you can read this blog you can read the book.

As for my claim about hitting best-seller status, it’s true, although misleading. Here’s the proof:

The “trick” here is that Amazon publishes dozens, if not hundreds, of best-seller lists. This one lists best-sellers in Environmental Economics. The truth is, sales of the book have been disappointing, perhaps because the climate issue is so far from the center of the political agenda. Fortunately, I didn’t write this book to make money. I wrote it to spread an idea that matters and to provoke conversation.

That conversation has begun.Matt Wald, the veteran energy reporter at The New York Times, wrote about the book on the paper’s Green blog. It was excerpted by YaleEnvironment360, by GE’s Ecomagination website and on Grist. In  a blogpost at Forbes, writer Greg Unruh called it “a must-read for sustainability professionals.” Other reviews have been good.

But like most authors, I’m not satisfied. I’d like more readers and more conversation. So please check out the book, tell me what you think and help spread the word. Are you listening, Planet Money or Ira Flatow?

Suck It Up: My book about climate change, geoengineering and air capture of CO2

I’m pleased to let you know that my book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, is being published today as an Amazon Kindle Single. Please buy the ebook here for just $1.99.

The book reflects two years of reporting and my best thinking about three topics that matter: climate change, geoengineering and a technology called direct air capture of CO2. It explains why we’ve made so little progress (none, actually) in dealing with the climate threat, and how that might change. Part of the answer is to look for ways to recycle and reuse CO2.

I’m going to print the introduction to the book below, but first a word about the publishing process. As the newspapers, magazines and book publishers that traditionally support long-form journalism are struggling, exciting new outlets like blogs and ebooks are opening up. I’m the publisher as well as the author of Suck It Up, with a big assist from Amazon, which has selected the book as a Kindle Single.

The Kindle Single allows writers to tell stories that are longer than a magazine article and shorter than a book. Suck It Up is about 17,000 words long, the equivalent of 60 to 70 double spaced typewritten pages. It’s intended to be read in one or two sittings, and it’s priced so the ideas in it will spread. If you don’t own a Kindle, you can read the book on your smart phone, iPad or laptop. Just download the free Kindle software here.

I’d like to sell lots of copies of Suck It Up not just because I think it’s a good read about an important topic, but because I want to make the ebook business model work. It’s an exciting new platform for in-depth reporting.

So, please read the intro, check out the book and if you like it, help me spread the word through social media or the old-fashioned way–tell a friend about the book. [click to continue…]

“Rethinking CO2″ at Yale Environment 360

I’ve been a devoted reader of  YaleEnvironment360, an online magazine that offers excellent reporting and solid analysis of all things environmental, since its launch in 2008.  So I’m pleased that this week I wrote my first story for the website.

The story is about how carbon dioxide can be removed from the air, a technology I reported on last fall for FORTUNE and that will be the subject on my forthcoming book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis. The ebook will be published next month as an Amazon Kindle Single. I’ll have more to say about it (and the ebook publishing model) when the book is released.

The YaleE360 story is headlined: Rethinking Carbon Dioxide: From a Pollutant to an Asset.

Here’s how it begins:

With global greenhouse gas emissions still on the rise, despite decades of talk about curbing them, maybe the time has come to think differently about the climate crisis. Yes, we need to burn less coal, oil and natural gas, but clearly fossil fuels are going to be around for awhile. So why not try to clean up the mess they make?

That’s what a handful of prominent scientists are trying to do by developing technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the air. These scientists have launched start-up companies and attracted well-to-do investors — most notably Bill Gates — along with venture capital and, most recently, the attention of Wall Street. They say their technology does not need government support, though it would help. What it needs, above all, is a mindset that regards CO2 not simply as a pollutant but as a valuable commodity.

Nathaniel “Ned” David, the chief executive of a startup called Kilimanjaro Energy, puts it this way: “The single largest waste product made by humanity is CO2. Thirty gigatons a year. It’s immensely valuable, and today we just blow it out the tail pipe. What if there were some way to actually capture it, use it, and make money?”

You can read the rest here.

Writing the story gave me the opportunity to reconnect with Roger Cohn, the editor of YaleE360, who was a classmate of mine at Yale in the 1970s (although we didn’t know one another then.) Roger, who went on to report for The Philadelphia Inquirer and edit Audubon magazine and Mother Jones, has done an excellent job with the Yale site.

A last thought: If you write a blog or host a radio show (or know someone who does)  I’d like to get the word out about the book, which explains why we’ve failed to deal with global warming and why air capture of CO2 could be a promising, market-based response to climate change. I’ll be attending the first scientific conference devoted to air capture in Calgary, Alberta, on March 7-8. More to come, soon.

Making sense out of Durban

So what the heck happened in Durban? Is the world closer to dealing with the problem of global warming? Or not?

If, like me, you aren’t a devotee of the UN climate negotiations, reading the headlines isn’t much help.

From the glass-half-full crowd: Progress at end of Durban Cop17 climate talks (LA Times). Reason to smile about Durban climate conference (Eugene Robinson in the WPost). Climate deal salvaged after marathon talks (The Guardian).

From the pessimists: How the world failed to address climate change–again (Michael Levi at The The Durban climate deal failed to meet the needs of the developing world (The Guardian, again). COP out (South Africa’s Cape Times).

COP out strikes me as about right. To gain some insight in what happened, and why, I called David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the author of an excellent new book called Global Warming Gridlock and one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding global climate politics. David has followed the UN process closely since its beginnings in the early 1990s, and he has become convinced that it is the wrong way to deal with the climate threat.

David Victor

Durban didn’t change his mind.

“In terms of substance, they have not really achieved much,” David says. “They’ve agreed to have negotiations about what they might agree to in the future.” [click to continue…]

The business of cooling the planet

Global Thermostat's demonstration plant

The risk of disruptive climate change grows every day. John Holdren, the White House science advisor, said last year that we have three options: Mitigate, adapt, suffer. If we don’t mitigate (meaning reduce emissions), we’ll have to adapt (move to new places, develop new crops, build sea walls). If we do neither, we’ll suffer. But, as regular readers of this blog know, there’s a fourth option–geoengineering.

Geoengineering is term used to describe planetary-scale technologies that are designed to counteract the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. I’ve been fascinated with geoengineering for about two years, and this week FORTUNE will publish my story, The Business of Cooling the Planet, about three startup companies that want to save the planet by capturing carbon dioxide from the air.  This topic is so important that I’m planning to expand the story into a short e-book in the next couple of months.

The FORTUNE story begins by describing how Microsoft founder Bill Gates became an expert on climate and energy:

One of the cool things about being Bill gates is that if you are curious about something, you can find smart people who will teach you whatever it is that you want to know. About five years ago Gates decided that he wanted to learn about climate change, so he arranged for two of the world’s leading climate scientists, David Keith of the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution, to organize a series of seminars. Since then, Keith and Caldeira have recruited scientists, energy experts, economists, and policy wonks to deliver about a dozen detailed presentations to Gates. He prepares by doing hundreds of pages of reading, some quite technical; the ensuing discussions, which last three or four hours, can be intense. “Bill has the intellectual curiosity of a very bright graduate student,” Caldeira says, “but a graduate student whose time you are not supposed to waste.”

This is no academic exercise. Gates has been convinced that the risk of global warming is worse than most people think. He can see that the world’s governments have failed to curb the emissions caused by burning coal, oil, and natural gas. In June 2010 he put together a coalition of business leaders, including GE’s Jeff Immelt, to urge Congress to invest more in clean-energy research, but that’s not happening. So the Microsoft billionaire and philanthropist has stepped into the breach to become the world’s leading funder of research into geoengineering— deliberate, large-scale interventions in the earth’s climate system intended to prevent climate change and its repercussions.

Since 2007, Gates has given about $4.6 million of his money to Caldeira and Keith for geoengineering research. Intellectual Ventures, a private company funded in part by Gates, has explored such technologies as building an 18-mile-long hose, tethered by balloons, that would spray tiny particles into the stratosphere to block the sun’s rays. Gates has even attached his name to a patent application for ocean-churning technology designed to sap the strength of hurricanes, which appear to be getting fiercer because of global warming.

The story goes on focus on three startup companies that are working on

A straightforward, albeit audacious, way to cool an overheating planet: Build many thousands of big machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

The companies are Carbon Engineering (in which Gates is an investor), Global Thermostat and Kilimanjaro Energy. They are all a long way from making any money from carbon dioxide removal, and indeed there are many skeptics who say the costs of pulling CO2 from the air are so high that it will never make business sense. [click to continue…]

It’s time for the US to study geoengineering

Can we mimic volcanoes and cool the earth?

Geoengineering — deliberate, planetary-scale efforts to counter the impact of climate change — is so controversial that a high-powered 18-member Washington task force that spent almost two years studying the idea couldn’t decide what to call it.

Most want to rename it “climate remediation.” A few want to stick with geoengineering. But all agreed that, whatever you call it, the U.S. government should begin “a coordinated federal research program to explore the potential effectiveness, feasibility, and consequences of climate remediation technologies.”

In a 33-page report released today in Washington, the task force of the Bipartisan Policy Center emphasized that climate remediation is not a substitute for managing the risks of climate change through mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, most of them generated by burning fossil fuels). It also says that no geoengineering technology is ready for deployment.

But, the group said, it’s imperative that governments, scientists and engineers learn more about geoengineering because the risks of climate change are increasing.

Mitigation measures currently being considered, regardless of their pace of efficacy, will not be able to return atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels for centuries…

Although we do not know exactly how much the climate will change or how fast, globally disruptive or even catastrophic results are possible…Global climate change could unfold in ways that would be very difficult to manage

In plain language: what we’re doing (or not doing) now to deal with climate change isn’t working, and the consequences of those failures are likely to be disastrous.

“I’m not sure we would have had a consensus recommendation on research if mitigation efforts were going great guns,” said Stephen Rademaker, co-chair of the task force and a former assistant secretary of state during the Bush II administration. [click to continue…]

Suck it up: an unorthodox climate solution

A machine to capture CO2 from the air

Nothing anyone is doing has accomplished anything meaningful to prevent climate change.

Sorry to be so blunt about it, but it’s true. Greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, hitting record levels despite the CFL bulb, the Prius, EcoMagination, solar and wind power,  the EU’s carbon-trading scheme, etc.  Nice tries don’t matter to the atmosphere.

The only thing that’s curbed carbon dioxide pollution on a scale that’s meaningful is the global recession.

This is why—unless and until scientists discover a breakthrough in clean energy or political leaders impose a global fossil-fuel tax or carbon emissions cap—we need to thing seriously about geoengineering.

A good place to start is with a recent report from the GAO, Congress’s research arm, called Climate Engineering: Technical Status, Future Directors and Potential Responses. It offers solid information and glimmers of optimism for those of us looking for a way out of the climate crisis. [click to continue…]

Biochar: Too good to be true?

Agricultural residents and converted biochar

Would you like to curb or even reverse global warming? Help feed the world? Generate renewable energy?

Biochar is the answer, say its most fervent advocates.

If only life were so simple.

Biochar, alas, isn’t ready yet to be a meaningful solution to the climate crisis, or a way to enhance agricultural productivity at scale. But it’s an intriguing substance that has been around for thousands of years, and the production of biochar may prove to be one of the  technologies that governments and business deploy to deal with the threat of climate change. As, potentially, a carbon negative technology, it’s worth a look.

Biochar, for those of you who haven’t heard of it, is a charcoal-like substance that is created today by pyrolysis of biomass. In layman’s terms, biochar is made by taking organic material, like agricultural waste, heating it to very high temperatures, and allowing it to decompose in the absence of oxygen.

Jonah Levine

To learn about biochar, I met recently in Boulder, Colorado, with Jonah Levine, who is a co-owner of his own small biochar business and, until recently, was an executive with a startup called Biochar Engineering.   Jonah, who is 30 and lives near Boulder, got involved with biochar when a friend asked him to organize a conference on the technology in 2009 at the University of Colorado. A passionate environmentalist, he had previously worked as a wildlife biologist and as an engineer advising utilities on how to incorporate renewable energy into the grid.

Now he’s bullish on biochar.

“I feel like like I’m watching the beginning of an industry,” Jonah says. “Within a  decade, I feel this will be a functional business space.” [click to continue…]

Brighten clouds, cool the air, save the planet!

John Latham

In 1990, a British cloud physicist named John Latham wrote a letter, [PDF, download] to the journal Nature, in which he suggested that injecting tiny droplets of water into marine clouds to increase their reflectivity might be a way “to inhibit or neutralize global warming.

And then? “Nothing happened for 10 years except for a couple of angry letters saying it was a horrible thing to play God and why didn’t I go knock on the door of the president and tell him to stop burning fossil fuels,” Latham recalls.

But as greenhouse gas emissions kept growing,  Latham’s odd idea gained traction. It spawned a succession of peer-reviewed scientific papers, sparked debate in the scientific community and eventually led to the organization of a loosely-knit group of international scientists who now want to see if brightening marine clouds might actually be a feasible way to slow down or stop global warming.

“We’d like to move towards a limited area field experiment,” Latham says. [click to continue…]

Dumping iron: probably not a cool idea

Did you notice that President Obama didn’t say the words “climate change” or global warming” in his 7,000-word State of the Union speech? He described government support for clean energy as

an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people

Partly this is repackaging, and not in a good way.  Partly it’s a recognition that we’re utterly failing, here in the U.S. and globally, to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. (See the chart at the end of this blogpost.) That’s not something the president wants people to think about. It’s actually not something that anyone wants to think about–not environmentalists, because it leads to a sense of hopelessness, not free-market ideologues, because it’s a glaring example of market failure, not the press because, well, climate change has become an old and depressing story,.

But ignoring the threat of climate catastrophe won’t make it disappear.

So, sooner or later, as people come to see the threat, scientific and political attention will turn to geoengineering—deliberate intervention in the climate system to moderate global warming. By coincidence, on the day after the president spoke, scientists at UNESCO published a guide to one of the early approaches to geoengineering, a technique known as ocean fertilization or iron fertilization. The idea here is that  sprinkling iron dust atop the oceans will stimulate plant growth and suck large quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air.

Ocean fertilization has been bruited about for decades. “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age,” a scientist named John Martin said back in the 1980s. The technique attracted some notoriety more recently when a couple of U.S-based startup companies, Climos and Planktos, were created to explore the idea. (I wrote about Climos for in 2008.)

Unfortunately for advocates of ocean fertilization, UNESCO’s 20-page report delivers mostly discouraging news. [click to continue…]