Carbon capture and the climate crisis

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…]

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…]

Japan’s nuclear crisis makes it harder to prevent climate instability

The short-term human and economic costs of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami are staggering.

The long-term repercussions could be worse.

That’s because, even if the situation does not deteriorate any further, the fires, explosions, radiation leaks at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will  lead to greater scrutiny–and higher costs–for new nuclear plants.

That will make it harder to develop low carbon energy to replace fossil fuels and avert potentially catastrophic climate change. [click to continue…]

A global thermostat?

Global Thermostat sounds too good to be true: It’s a startup company that aims to address the threat of climate change by capturing carbon dioxide from the air, and then making productive use of it.

The CO2 could be used to help plants grow faster in greenhouses, as a feedstock for algae, for enhanced oil production, as an ingredient in bottling plants, as a natural refrigerant, or as a circulating fluid in a geothermal energy installation.

Prof. Graciela Chichilnisky

While Global Thermostat calls itself “a carbon negative solution,” its technology is in practice a form of geoengineering. It would appear, however, to be less risky than better-known geoengineering techniques such as  solar radiation management or marine cloud whitening.

“We’ve faced skepticism about the solution because it’s so radical,” says Graciela Chichilnisky, a co-founder and managing director of Global Thermostat. But, she says, a carbon negative solution to the climate crisis will be needed “to contain rising levels of atmospheric carbon because we procrastinated too long and carbon emissions reductions do not suffice.”

There are several reasons to take Global Thermostat seriously. First, it’s more than an idea–to test the idea, the company opened a pilot plant in October at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA. SRI is a big research institute, which works for governments, FORTUNE 500 companies and startups.

Second, its founders–Chichilnisky and Peter Eisenberger–have impressive pedigrees. A Columbia University professor, Chichilnisky founded a pair of successful tech companies, helped design the carbon market under the Kyoto Protocol and has advanced degrees including a PhD. in math from MIT and a PhD. in economics from Berkeley. (She’s also been involved in a series of lawsuits against Columbia alleging gender bias, but that’s another story.) Eisenberger, who  founded  the Columbia Earth Institute (before Jeffrey Sachs),  has been an executive at Bell Laboratories and Exxon, a physics professor at Princeton and vice-provost at Columbia. He has a PhD. in physics from Harvard. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering ready for prime time?

2010 has been a bad year for climate, and an even worse year for climate policy. But for that very reason, it’s been a good year for geoengineering—the notion that humans can deliberately manipulate the climate and cool the earth.

Official Washington is starting to take geoengineering seriously: The Government Accountability Office and a bipartisan task force of experts convened by the New America Foundation will soon report on geoengineering. Bill Gates has invested in geoengineering research. Environmental groups–notably Steven Hamburg, the chief scientist of Environmental Defense Fund–have engaged in the conversation. On a parochial note, at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference last spring, Stewart Brand talked about why geoengineering is important, to a rapt audience that included Bill Ford and Lee Scott.

David Keith

David Keith, a leading scholar of geoengineering who administers Gates’ $4.6 million grant with  with Stanford climate scientist Ken Caldeira, also spoke at Brainstorm Green. So I was pleased to have a chance to reconnect with him at the excellent annual conference run by the Society of Environmental Journalists at the University of Montana in Missoula.  I expected him to be pleased by the momentum gathering behind  geoengineering lately, but I was wrong.

“I think things are moving too fast,” David told me. “Research programs can be killed by spending too much money too fast.” Besides, he said, people need time to wrap their head around geoenginnering. (Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post recently described it as playing God with the weather. ) “This is a topic—the first time people hear about it, they have wild ideas,” he said.

As I’ve written before – see this, this and this – geoengineering raises a host of thorny ethical, political and governance issues. Who gets to control the earth’s thermostat? Who decides if and when to deploy geoengineering techniques? Which should be used?

At SEJ, David was on a panel with Dane Scott, director of the center for ethics at the University of Montana, and journalist Eli Kintisch, author of a recent book about geoengineering called Hack the Planet. They all seemed to agree that the technology to cool the earth now exists—either by reflecting sunlight back into the sky, an approach known as solar radiation management, or by capturing carbon dioxide from the air. (Keith has a for-profit startup called Carbon Engineering designed to do just that.) They also agreed that the moral ethical issues surrounding geoengineering are daunting. [click to continue…]

How to cool the planet

Take a step back from the daily to-and-fro about climate change, and it’s hard to find any reason to cheer.

Copenhagen was pretty much a flop. The Republicans somehow captured a 41-vote majority in the U.S. Senate. Climate scientists are under attack. We continue to emit CO2 into the air at what should be an alarming pace, and many experts say we can no longer avoid significant warming during this century. If you are aware of evidence indicating that we are going to get a global treaty to effectively limit greenhouse gas emissions anytime soon, I’d  like to see it.

-1Which is why we need to think seriously about geoengineering.

Jeff Goodell, the author of a terrific new book on geoengineering called How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix the Earth’s Climate, puts it this way:

Barring some kind of social miracle or political miracle, we’re not going to be able to reduce emissions enough to hit the targets that climate scientists tell us that we need to avert the risk of dangerous climate change… This is really a hard thing, reinventing our energy infrastructure. So where does that lead us? One of places it leads us to is geoengineering.

If you haven’t paid attention to geoengineering, it’s time to start. The term refers techniques to deliberately manipulate the earth’s climate to counter the effects of man-made global warming. Technologies could include but are surely not limited to  solar radiation management (shooting particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight), cloud seeding (spraying droplets of seawater into the air to thicken clouds) and ocean fertilization (stimulating the growth of phytoplankton to suck CO2 from the air). Crazy, scary, fascinating stuff, as I’ve written here and here. [click to continue…]

Is geoengineering inevitable?

Geoengineering, says scientist David Keith, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.”

But if you can’t avoid cancer, chemotherapy may be your best option. And, if it becomes evident that the earth can’t avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it is not merely possible that governments will turn to geoengineering.

Some people believe that it is all but certain.

Geoengineering, as you probably know, is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planet to counter global warming. It can take a number of forms, as the graphic below shows, some perhaps still to be discovered. Long a taboo subject, geoengineering is being talked about openly these days by scientists, environmentalists and policy thinkers.

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The National Academy of Sciences held a workshop on geoengineering in June. Influential books including SuperFreakonomics and Whole Earth Discipline, by longtime environmentalist Stewart Brand, argue that it’s time to take geoengineering seriously. A congressional subcommittee held its second hearing on geoengineering just last week.

Among those testifying was Keith, who directs the energy and environmental systems group at the University of Calgary and, interestingly, also leads a team of engineers who are developing a technology to capture CO2 from ambient air. I heard him speak a week ago during a six-hour workshop on geoengineering organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit known for its pragmatism. EDF invited me to attend, on the condition that I seek permission from the scientists before quoting them. [click to continue…]