I’m writing this to explain how I ultimately broke through my climate change pessimism and have become hopeful.
I used to look at the climate situation and see a hopelessly impossible set of governance problems.
Now, I see a desperately urgent set of tractable governance and engineering problems.
That’s a big improvement.
TL;DR: We already bet everything. The odds are long. Time is short. But we can do this.
The axioms of climate pessimism:
Walk through some pessimism with me for a couple pages, and I’ll show you an optimistic mission.
By now, I think a lot of lay people who follow climate science, like me, take these as axioms:
- By farming animals, harvesting trees, and burning fossil fuels, our species has been modifying the climate for thousands of years, causing several positive feedback loops (ice albedo, methane release, further deforestation by fire, etc) to kick in that increase global warming.
- It is not reasonable to believe that, as a society, we will change our behaviors quickly. As a group, humans will likely continue to engineer the climate at current rates (population adjusted), by the same methods they are currently doing it, for many years.
- Even if we could reduce emissions drastically (switching to 100% renewable energy in a generation, etc.), in a few years time, the positive climate change feedback loops we have kicked off will probably cause enough warming to sustain themselves.
- If the climate continues to warm, then resources like food, water, and housing will become increasingly scarce.
- When resources become scarce, people go to war over them.
- In wartime, society will use all of its resources to solve for security. No resources will remain to apply to reverting climate change.
Once you get there, the next question you have is:
Q: How much time do we have?
The short answer is: not much.
If we don’t take drastic action, we will probably lose all of our arctic sea ice within a few years, and that will start a downward spiral that we probably will not be able to revert. Follow this link to read about that particular arctic catastrophe.
Whatever we are going to do, we need to implement it within a few years to mitigate that and avoid huge suffering.
I differ here from the IPCC consensus. I believe that the latest IPCC report was optimistic — it assumes we will be doing some climate engineering (BECCS , oddly) — and it doesn’t appear to take into account some of the latest research on methane emissions.
One thing is certain — the longer we wait to act, the more warming we will see, and the more people will die. Humans might stick around for a long while if we do nothing, but in an increasingly desperate and violent world.
If I stopped there (which I did, for a while) I would have stayed pessimistic.
So…what are we going to do?
Assuming you want our species to last for more than a few generations, you have to answer two sets of questions:
Can we change our behaviors as a society to reduce carbon emissions quickly? And, if we do reduce emissions quickly, will the positive feedback loops break, allowing us to avoid the hothouse pathway to another PETM-type scenario?
My answer to that set of questions is: probably no.
If we cannot subtract from our current climate engineering behaviors in the short term, then, can we add one or more climate engineering behaviors to delay global warming? If so, can we implement anything at all before conflict gets so serious that we cannot implement anything at all?
My answer to that set of questions is: probably yes.
That puts me in the camp of climate engineering. This is what I believe:
The time to accept our role as engineers of the earths climate is now. We have been in that role — we are in that role — and we will remain in that role for the duration of our species existence, whether we like it or not.
And that is hugely liberating.
Reasonable people may disagree with me. I absolutely love to read and listen to Charles Eisenstein, and I want to work towards the miracles he seeks — but I don’t believe we can get there without going through another stage in our existence.
I still strongly support efforts to convert humans to renewable energy and sustainable agriculture — that must be done — but I don’t think that will be enough to undo the changes we have made to our planet. That’s my position.
The problem with the solution
We are going to have to play our best hand without accurately knowing the odds. Time’s up and we have to bet our lives.
We didn’t do the research before we started clearing forests and farming animals. We didn’t do the research before we started burning fossil fuels. We didn’t know we were gambling with our climate (with a few exceptions).
Today, we know we are gambling —and we need to change the game — we need to officially become engineers of the climate, whether we want to or not.
We are in a race against time — we must perform research that has been discouraged by both sides of the climate debate in the past.
I’m done with the problem statement. I’m done with pessimism. I’m onto the work.
Let’s take a look at our hand.
We don’t want to play this hand until we complete more risk assessment. Here are the most promising prospects, in my estimation, for buying our species a bit more time:
Climate Engineering Tactics
Solar Radiation Management
- Stratospheric Aerosol injection — Injecting a tiny fraction of the sulfur dioxide that we currently inject into the lower atmosphere, but (ultimately) into the stratosphere. This could cool the planet. This is the fastest and most likely effective method of reducing global temperature that I’ve heard of. The primary credible risk is ozone layer damage — that threat is being tested in 2019, I hope. Some other risks need to be assessed but likely do not outweigh the advantage of slowing arctic thaw. Further delay of this research is a potential threat to our species. If this can be implemented without damaging the ozone layer, and if we can avoid ozone layer damage from other pollutants (we have shown that we can regulate CFCs in the past) then we could implement this, and it might be our most effective weapon. Read David Keiths book on the topic for an intro.
- Marine Cloud Brightening Project — Enhancing the albedo of clouds to lower global temperature. IMHO, one of the more reasonable approaches, given enough time and money to implement it. If it doesn’t work, then we can stop it, and we return to our previous state fairly quickly. We would have to build a huge network of ocean fan platforms and some really intelligent control systems to turn them off and on strategically to manage cloud brightness without too many negative side effects. That would take a long while to implement. Still, a good candidate for future work.
- Ocean Iron Fertilization — If we implement this on a massive scale, we could get some carbon capture and cooling out of this. And…it’s fast to implement. It will most definitely cause chaos in the oceans (sorry most marine life, we already signed your death warrant a few times before we did this). The most prominent experiment in iron fertilization was successful and promising, but it apparently embarrassed and upset a few people. Research has been slow but we’re learning. It needs to be accelerated. COP forbade iron fertilization, but that is probably unenforceable pragmatic advisement.
- Simply planting trees at unheard of scale could work. It would take a long time, though, dozens of years, and it will be expensive. There are a few programs out there that want to plant a billion trees, but none that aim to plant a trillion — so there really isn’t anyone with the ambition and the realistic plan required. I assume we would cut trees down faster than we could plant them anyway, but it makes sense to try to keep trees in protected areas, and to ultimately plant as many as we can.
I don’t see us scaling anything else up in time to do much good in the short term (Carbon Capture machinery, BECCS tech that the IPCC report suggests, using synthetic biology to accelerate CO2 absorption, etc. probably all come at later stages).
But…more greenfield innovation is needed. We probably need to do something about the insect apocalypse. I have not read of any good solutions to that — other than just reducing global temperatures and switching to sustainable agriculture. There is plenty to advocate for, there.
Becoming a climate engineering optimist:
The mission to understand and take control of the climate, to the extent possible, is as big as it gets — the most important mission humans will ever take on.
That mission will give humanity a chance to complete a parallel mission — the switch to renewable production.
And if we can knock both of those out, then I think we can expect our grandkids to survive into old age.
Implementation is (probably) not the problem. The actual implementation of Stratospheric Aerosol injection and Ocean Iron Fertilization programs is probably something that any industrialized nation could manage in a year or so.
The problem right now, is rapidly assessing risks. Within each tactical initiative, specific methodologies and protocols will be riskier than others. There is a lot to learn — and when we find issues — to work around.
For my part, I’m looking for ways to directly support research into Stratospheric Aerosol injection and Ocean Iron Fertilization this year. I hope that the research comes back positive and that these strategies can be implemented in time to prevent the arctic sea ice from melting entirely, potentially causing massive methane hydrate release.
I will support efforts to implement them if and when I am satisfied with my understanding of the research and the risks involved.
How do you get started?
I intend to work on advocacy and outreach —not a lot of people understand the situation today. This is me, dipping my toe into that, today.
I will donate time and money to specific researchers this year if I can find the right contacts.
I will continue to read research papers and dig into the problems — you never know — I might see something that other people have not — maybe even open an avenue of research — that would be a lifetime achievement.
That’s my journey to optimism and mission orientation and it feels GREAT. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss this.
If you are new to this topic, then I recommend reading up:
Paul Beckwith is an amazing educator
Through Paul Beckwith’s channels I have found most of the tools I use to educate myself on climate science, from research tools to relatable visualizations. Paul is the best guy to start with, IMHO. Here are the last ten minutes of an interview in which Paul is asked about the climate engineering methods I find most interesting. And a frank and honest discussion between Paul and a couple other folks that might give you an idea of what scientists are discussing in an unfiltered way.
How to talk about Climate Engineering
It used to be that if you mentioned this climate engineering stuff, both academia and industry would ridicule you for life. It still scares the crap out of a lot of people to even discuss research.
These days, you will see climate engineering strategies featured in your run of the mill IPCC reports. So, better informed academics are going to offer rational discussion. Outside of that group, you are likely to get highly emotional flak when bring up climate engineering, so, that’s a thing you may have to deal with.
You have to be able to cite your sources. The links in this post could be a good start.
You need to be able to discuss what trade-offs are worth making. No trade-off is worth massive depletion of the ozone layer. No trade-off is worth a massive methane hydrate release into the atmosphere in the arctic. Our species might not have that much time no matter what we do, so short-term quality of life is important to consider in every case.
I have been warned that “geoengineering” is a term that has largely been co-opted by people who believe the contrails that airplanes leave behind are part of an insidious secret conspiracy. So…I’m not going to use the term “geoengineering” going forward, and I won’t engage people who want to talk about chemtrail conspiracy theory.
Enjoy and appreciate nature
Finally, I will recommend that if you have similar conclusions to mine on the topic of climate change, that you add appreciation of nature to your daily life.
David Brin once said that when children perform scientific experiments, their wonderment is a finer, more true appreciation of Gods creation than a wrote prayer or words extolling his greatness without really *appreciating* his great works.
I still have my day jobs, and my other volunteer efforts, but I’m making a concerted effort to make study of climate science a daily thing, and to genuinely appreciate nature daily as well — soaking it in and hardwiring happiness into my brain. I hope you do the same. :)