When the climate debate started some sixty years ago, launched by Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring, it was a fairly simple two-sided affair: climate believers who followed the IPCCs warnings, and climate deniers. Now that climate deniers, despite a boost from Trump, have been forced out by the growing evidence of accelerating climate change, climate believers have taken over the battlefield, divided into doomsayers vs. climate adapters vs. climate fixers – and the latter supporting either climate modification or climate restoration.
Which is the better strategy? And are the doomsayers right and should we give in to fatalism and forget it all?
Doomsayers made themselves loudly heard last year, and among the dire warnings, An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity published last fall, stands out as a (burning) example. As the UK Guardian reviewer put it, this “shocking book” by Wes Jackson and Robert Jensen, calls for society to be “better prepared for inevitable collapse”. Or as the authors write:
“We humans have made a mess of things, which is readily evident if we face the avalanche of studies and statistics describing the contemporary ecological crises we face. But even with the mounting evidence of the consequences for people and the ecosphere, we have not committed to a serious project to slow the damage that we do.”
Indeed, a serious accusation: that we are not committed to “a serious project”…But is that really the case? I will try to show here that there are many committed people and many serious projects that hold the promise of a real turnaround.
But tragedy is the business of fiction and unsurprisingly novelists continue to turn out suspenseful climate fiction. This year the climate debate heated up with the publication in January 2023 of an arresting “climate novel” by Stephen Markley, one of the most watched rising literary stars since his debut novel “Ohio” – termed a “masterpiece” by NPR – made waves five years ago. His new work, aptly titled The Deluge, was immediately hailed by Stephen King who called it “A modern classic…if you read it, you’ll never forget it. Prophetic, terrifying, uplifting.’
The movie industry, not to be left behind, is coming out next week with Extrapolations which features A-list actors fighting the big climate change issues: species extinction, geo-engineering and corporate ecocide.
Apocalypse? Inevitable collapse? This is the question
As a Bloomberg article pointed out last year (12 January 2022): “There’s too much carbon in the air to hit the climate goals” and “the world needs to cut emissions fast to hit the Paris Agreement goal” – specifying that cutting by “about 20 percent over the next five years” was needed to limit global warming to 1.5° celsius. That was according to UK Met calculations, and yes, those calculations are one year old as I write.
On March 2 this year, the news came out, carbon emissions, far from being cut, have increased by 0,9% in 2022. The source of information? The International Energy Agency. Here’s how this carbon increase played out (screenshot from the IEA report):
Looking at the above, Europe and China did relatively well compared to the rest. Still, all this looks very abstract, and most of us, faced with numbers such as these are left numb – despite all those commendable efforts from novelists, Hollywood, or environmentalists.
This general lack of awareness – call it public indifference – underpins politicians’ lazy approach to climate policy-making. We may fail to achieve the Paris climate goals and even if we don’t, there will still be too much carbon left in the air and the climate won’t be fixed.
Climate adaptation: potential and limits
An optimistic approach – also espoused by the United Nations and the IPCC – posits that this doesn’t matter and that we can adapt to a warmer world as long as the 1.5° celsius increase is respected.
But, even assuming humans can survive in a warmer climate (not a given), adaptation comes with a host of unsolved problems concerning the animal world (species go extinct) but also humans (yes, some could go extinct too).
As coastal towns and small island states are flooded, and large swathes of agricultural lands are turned into deserts, wave upon wave of climate refugees is unleashed on the few livable parts remaining in the world. In short, expect to witness a population crisis unlike anything we’ve ever known, with millions (perhaps even billions) of our fellow humans facing sub-par living conditions and slow, excruciating death.
As a minimum, climate adaptation means rewriting all the rules of geopolitics worldwide and adopting a new economic model that rejects any action that causes carbon or methane emissions. Back to the neolithic age? Perhaps not, but a variant of it for sure.
Many believe it need not be this way, that climate mitigation is still possible. In 2015, the World Bank came up with “five ways to reduce the drivers of climate change”:
For those who are incurable optimists, the big question is not whether we should adapt to a warmer world but whether we can either:
- restore the climate to pre-industrial levels (and thus solve all our climate-related problems) or
- modify the climate to slow down the warming process and gain time
Let’s take a quick look at both possibilities, starting with the second one, climate modification.
Climate modification a.k.a. solar radiation management (SRM): Will it gain time or is it a dangerous distraction?
On the face of it, climate modification a.k.a. “solar geo-engineering” or solar radiation management (SRM) looks to environmentalists like the perfect non-solution, a geeky trick to gain time and maybe solve the problem later.
With aerosol sprays or some other techy trick to form an umbrella against the sun, it smacks of bioengineering that all climate activists hate. And it could have devastating and unpredictable consequences on the environment – threatening the very balance of nature.
Small wonder that environmentalists are generally up in arms and against it. Yet, incredibly, some highly respectable scientists are espousing climate modification.
— Robert Hunziker (@Robert_Hunziker) March 10, 2023
To summarize: You have three contending groups here. On one hand, climate modification supporters received a push from the White House announcing (October 13, 2022) the funding of a five-year research plan to fight climate change by utilizing geo-engineering by spraying fine aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away. And some experiments have already started.
On the other hand, you have a growing group of scientists dead set against any such experimentation. They have issued a declaration supported by several hundred well-known, high-level academics, social scientists, and natural scientists: We Call for an International Non-Use Agreement on Solar Geoengineering
He’s the author of Democracy in the Woods: Environmental Conservation and Social Justice in India, Tanzania, and Mexico, editor of Climate Justice in India and co-founder of the Climate Justice Network. pic.twitter.com/Tf5CCDXaaX
— Solar Geoengineering Non-use Agreement (@SolarGeoeng) March 10, 2023
Then you have the third group mulling it over. Remarkably, among them, as Hunziker points out, you find one of the world’s leading climate scientists, James Hansen of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. And this is what he said:
“We have no right to ban the right to search for a solution for the mess we created… The fact that major international climate assessments are ‘always a few decades behind’ when it comes to estimating just how hot it will get makes more research even more urgent. […] While we fully support research into SRM approaches, this does not mean we support the use of SRM. Uncertainties in how SRM implementation would play out in the climate system are presently too large to support implementation.”
This sounds reasonable except for one glaring problem: Is more SRM research possible without any experimentation? Not likely – even if one were to set up small-scale tests with rigid criteria to protect the environment. It would still be very difficult to define in advance of a test exactly what the necessary protection measures should be.
So, as environmentalist journalist Robert Hunziker notes in a recent article, what is known about SRM is that it (1) would not by itself slow the buildup of greenhouse gases and (2) it would not stop ocean acidification, which, as he says, are “two crucial negatives that must be dealt with in an orderly manner”. In other words, SRM does not address the core issues and, at best, amounts to a distracting delay.
Conclusion: Scratch SRM research (or at least put it on hold) and move to the next option, climate restoration.
Climate restoration: Peter Fiekowsky’s big idea
In May last year, Peter Fiekowsky’s groundbreaking book on how to solve the climate crisis came out, with a title that leaves us with no alternatives: Climate Restoration: The Only Future That Will Sustain the Human Race.
As Hunziker said in his glowing review, this is “a bold idea; it is a fresh idea; it is new to the scene as an adjunct to Net Zero by 2050.” Indeed, climate restoration adds to the Net Zero strategy. Far from being a distraction, it complements it.
Here is how. Because the point is this: Even if we stick to the Paris climate goals and reach Net zero emissions by 2050, we will not have solved our climate problem. We will still have one trillion (that’s 1,000,000,000,000) tons of CO2 polluting our atmosphere.
This is not trivial: It means that the current public health problems we are already suffering from will go unresolved.
It is a well-known fact now that air pollution currently kills 10 million people every year and over 90 percent of people everywhere in the world breathe in polluted air. This also adversely affects children’s health and development and has recently been found to be linked to cognitive impairment and dementia in older people.
This is where the Fiekowsky four solutions come in: Four ways to pull out carbon from the air and restore the climate to pre-industrial conditions. Because his book, far from being apocalyptic and depressing, is both positive and constructive, offering a way to fix the climate and return to pre-industrial levels which are most congenial to human health and wellbeing.
These four solutions are based on existing technology, they essentially mimic nature and are economically feasible and scalable. He has calculated it would only cost $2 billion a year to implement them.
Each of the four strategies is discussed at length in four separate chapters, pgs. 83-162. And you’ll be introduced to a fascinating gallery of climate scientists (like oceanographer John Martin or Victor Smetacek), activists (like Brian von Herzen), and entrepreneurs (like Russ George), and even a few rare birds that are all three, like Brent Constantz (more about him below) and Fiekowsky himself.
Fiekowsky is a renowned MIT-educated physicist and engineer, serial entrepreneur, social innovator, and longtime philanthropist engaged in fighting poverty before turning to the climate. He has worked at NASA and the Fairchild/ Schlumberger Artificial Intelligence Lab in Palo Alto; taught at MIT; and developed his own machine vision company, Automated Visual Inspection LLC (AVI). He holds 27 patents and is on the board of Climate Capex, a fintech company focused on tripling the rate of investment in solar projects.
Ten years ago, Fiekowsky became a climate activist, with several major initiatives:
- the Foundation for Climate Restoration, launched in 2017 to create the understanding and policy needed to further climate restoration; the Foundation has been instrumental in the adoption of climate restoration as a goal by both the Vatican and the United Nations (it hosted the First Annual Global Climate Restoration Forum at the UN in 2019);
Climate restoration is of utmost importance for the Earth’s future. Thus, I invite all nations to adopt more ambitious national targets to reduce emissions. #SeasonOfCreation
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) September 16, 2020
- The Climate Restoration Safety and Governance Board (CRSGB) to ensure that climate restoration projects are not only successful but also safe, legal and ethical with faith and indigenous leaders vetting projects;
- Methane Action (MA), a nonprofit to implement solutions to help reduce methane to pre-industrial levels;
- BlueDotChange.com is implementing what may become the first climate-restoration success: restoring atmospheric methane levels by 2030
- The Stable Planet Alliance is working to frame the next set of UN Development Goals under the umbrella of achieving a healthy, sustainable population by 2100.
Is climate restoration THE solution?
Climate restoration has started and ocean re-seeding and rewilding projects are multiplying around the globe – with some of them winning recognition by the United Nations – for example, the 10 pioneering initiatives flagged in a ceremony last December.
But some of the other solutions proposed may not yield results as swiftly or as smoothly as Fiekowsky predicts – in particular carbon capture.
While the technology exists for DAC or direct air capture, the economics so far have eluded everyone, including oil-producing Norway which has tried it for decades, since the mid-1990s.
This week, the New York Times reported a remarkable story about a building in New York City trying out carbon capture technology as a way to turn itself green. The two giant gas boilers in a 30-story apartment tower in Manhattan were retrofitted to capture the carbon dioxide emitted, liquefy it and then truck it to a nearby concrete factory where it is mixed with cement and “sealed into concrete blocks, where it can’t heat the atmosphere”.
Expectations are that there is in fact a ready market for “green” concrete. A younger generation of architects is interested in using “greener” materials for their buildings and nearby New Jersey recently passed a law providing incentives for lower-carbon concrete.
But it’s not yet an open-and-shut case: For now, carbon capture has not been approved by the city as a solution that complies with its new climate law, Local Law 97 (passed in 2019 and establishing penalties on polluting buildings). The carbon capture technology didn’t exist when the law was drafted and therefore, the New York Department of Buildings, which enforces the law, said it “has a number of questions, such as how to verify the emission reductions claimed by the Grand Tier.”
Still, it is an important step forward: It is known that the most significant increase in emissions in the United States last year came from homes and buildings. And potentially, some 50,000 structures in New York are concerned and could turn to this new tech, making the city into a “laboratory” to test the effectiveness of this new greening technology. Local Law 97 is demanding, aiming to cut greenhouse gas emissions from large buildings 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.
But while in this case, carbon capture tech appears to have a market with a clear use in the concrete industry, it is still not a mainstream solution.
Aside from eventual bureaucratic red tape and practical difficulties to measure exactly how much carbon is actually captured and put away, it is open to greenwashing accusations. The manufacturing process of concrete is a well-known carbon emitter and it remains to confirm whether applying it to existing buildings actually helps draw down overall carbon levels.
In fact, all carbon capture and usage storage tech – whether applied in the building industry, fertilizers or food processing – is viewed with deep skepticism by environmentalists. Ironically the tech is also used to pump it in old oil wells and oil reservoirs to force up more fossil fuels. Unsurprisingly, climate activists view this as deeply unethical, that it allows fossil producers to continue to produce.
So for the majority of climate activists, Fiekowsky included, the first priority remains to reduce CO2 emissions. But, he argues, carbon need not be just captured from the air: Synthetic limestone can also be easily produced and replace the rapidly depleting sources of sand and rocks needed for making concrete.
In his book, he reports on the extraordinary work done by Blue Planet Systems founded by Dr. Brent Constantz, a Fulbright Scholar. Dr. Constantz discovered the basic process used by corals to form their skeletons in the 1980s, upon which he based modern biological bone cements which are found in orthopedic operating rooms worldwide.
In 2007, Dr. Constantz launched his efforts to address climate change by sequestering anthropogenic carbon dioxide in building materials. In 2012, he brought a new discovery of basic biomineralization to a scalable solution: synthetic limestone.
And synthetic limestones meets the “three crucial criteria” that Fiekowsky sees as essential “for real climate restoration solutions: They are permanent, scalable, and financeable.” And as he notes:
“Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) is now becoming big business. Can profitable CDR companies play a meaningful role in restoring the climate? Only if their methods fulfill the three criteria I’ve outlined.”
It will take time for the world, politicians and the business community in particular, to understand and fully accept those three criteria, but they are essential for “real climate restoration solutions”. And with all the hype and confusion around the climate debate, let’s hope that understanding comes soon, in time to save us from the doomsayers’ “apocalypse”.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Detail from Peter Fiekowsky’s book cover