Strategies: What is To Be Done?

CO2 levels continue to accelerate, far too little money is finding its way to technology solutions because the financial incentives continue to be ruled by the fossil fuel companies. Education clearly needs to be improved - the level of appreciation of the problem among voters is dismal, especially in the U.S. The scale of the problem is so large that only head-out-of-the-sand blunt confrontation with the grim future has any chance of motivating the large, immediate effort required. Here is a quantitatively detailed exposition of the problem of energy use and carbon and what the science is saying about the proposed solutions (Shu 2008). It was written by a highly accomplished astrophysicist at one time based at Berkeley and now at UC San Diego (as we all know, astronomers are very bright people, right? His work is worth a careful read). His bottom line is that there are only two viable energy sources that can hope to compete with fossil fuels at the levels to which our world has become accustomed - nuclear, and solar photovoltaics. However, this study by McElroy et al. 2009 disagrees, and uses wind flow fields as part of its analysis finding that China could meet twice its needs by using wind energy by 2030 if it revamped its rural grid and if feed-in to the grid was at only 7.6 cents/KwH in 2013 dollars. Will they take this direction? The original Science article is behind a paywall, but a good discussion is found here. Wind power has been increasing fairly rapidly in recent years in the U.S. as well.

Here's a nice summary of 13 important renewable energy breakthroughs in 2013. A good source of new technology in clean energy is Clean Technica's website.

Clean vs Dirty Carbon Sources
The steep fall in the price of natural gas in recent years has led to a major switch from coal to natural gas in our power plants in the United States. CO2 from coal fired plants now, in 2012, has dropped about 32% from its peak just before the Great Recession. Most of this is due to the switch to natural gas. Per kilowatt-hour of power, natural gas emits only 65% as much CO2 as does coal. This sounds encouraging, but it's had very little effect on the steadily rising levels of CO2 in our atmosphere (see right). Worse, the recent glut in natural gas won't last, according to the latest research. Fracking produces a spurt of gas early on, but the wells are quickly depleted. Even with the high pace of fracking happening everywhere now, peak gas is predicted to happen within the decade. We hit 400ppm CO2 in 2013. China and other countries far outweigh the switch to natural gas in the U.S. There's also the question of whether the switchover will remain profitable if natural gas prices rise with the increasing demand. Still, it's clearly better to continue to switch away from coal - the dirtiest fuel, not just in CO2, but in sulfate particulates, mercury, NO2, and other dangerous pollutants. ... or is it? New satellite data find that the leaks of natural gas to the atmosphere in the mining of natural gas, especially for fracked gas, is staggering, and completely nullifies any benefit of the switchover to natural gas . It is in fact WORSE to continue the switch to natural gas because of these leaks. Recall that natural gas (methane) is of order 20 to 100 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 over human-relevant time scales.

In 2012 - bacteria have been bioengineered to create a form of gasoline using CO2 in the atmosphere and other nutrients such as hydrogen together with sunlight. If this could be made into a commercial process on a vast scale, it could significantly reduce carbon emissions since the process is roughly carbon-neutral, i.e. it does not take fossil carbon and turn it into greenhouse gas, but simply cycles it through the bacteria, with the power source being sunlight. Why not just use solar panels directly into electricity? For one, this new process might (might) end up being more efficient. Also, gasoline has a spectacularly high energy density, and we already have the infrastructure to use it. So if this really can be made cheap and clean, perhaps bacteria farms on our roofs along with the solar panels, with little pipes going into 55 gallon drums which we then siphon into our gas tanks (it won't be that simple, of course). Another strategy is using carbon inanities and solar energy to create free oxygen and hopefully soon, carbon fuel (New Yorker article 2013). However, biofuel from corn makes no sense, and corporate interests in biofuel (and frying fat) from palm oil is behind a corporate waged "war" on the farmers of Honduras.

Here is a video from 2012 on a biocatalytic scheme for converting CO2 to usable fuel. I confess I have not listened to it yet, so have no opinion. It's possible this paragraph will disappear in the future if I find it not relevant or significant.

Alternative Energy
Solar power will be a major part of energy in the future. It provides two benefits; it generates electricity or useful heat, and it also shields the Earth from receiving that heating directly. Solar photovoltaic panels have been coming down dramatically in price, just as nuclear power plant costs have been skyrocketing. This has a lot to do with the abandonment of nuclear which is happening especially in Europe, but also in the U.S. Another advantage of solar is that it provides peak power at a time of day when demand is also peaking, so that solar panel energy flattens the demand curve. This is not just theoretical; Germany is already seeing this in a major way. Look at plunging solar panel costs over the past decades, at left. Rooftop solar, however, still accounts for only 1/4 of 1% of U.S. power generation (from the Energy Information Agency, cited here), and so hopefully has a long growth path ahead of it. That is, if the powerful utility companies don't use their political influence to roadblock the process. It's not clear, however, how long panel prices can continue to drop. They have begun to rise again, as costs of raw materials rise and profit margins have shrunk due to competition. In 2014, stocks of solar panel makers are falling as these forces converge. There are ingenious investigations into how to make use of already unnatural surface areas for solar panel use, such as building sides and windows, and even roadways (although this looks like a poor idea). It may even be advantageous to put solar panels over aqueducts and reservoirs. The panels not only generate electricity on areas not useful for other development, but reduce algae buildup and also reduce water loss due to evaporation. Here's a UCLA report on feasibility and trade-offs.

A significant problem with solar photovoltaic's is how to store power for night time, and how to power our transportation, especially cars and trucks. A recent (2011) breakthrough in "flow battery" technology made at MIT is a hopeful sign. If it works as hoped, it may double the energy density of current batteries, and also

Germany - energy sources shifting to renewables

make possible the ability to "fuel up" at the pump with an oil-like rechargable electrolyte much like we have done with cars. Read about it here. A new all-liquid metal battery technology is also promising very high storage densities at relatively low cost. A new technology holds promise for solar cells that can be their own storage systems.

A new institute - the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis - has begun an ambitious program to discover the chemistry and engineering to create large scale fuel using sunlight, as plants do, but much more efficiently and on a grand scale. The goal would be to keep a carbon-fueled economy but not add further to greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.

Another way to use the sun is solar heating to drive "solar wind" towers. These vaporize water and drive powerful wind drafts to power turbines. FastEnergy Corporation is working on these, and has a design which looks promising in terms of its power delivery. These wind towers would work day and night and provide continuous power.

Beyond standard wind turbines, there are other ideas for capturing wind energy which may be more efficient, such as this Venturi effect design.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil and colleagues have looked at the progress of solar power and note that its contribution to global energy has been doubling every two years, and has been doing so for the past 20 years. Using nano technology and other advances, these are expected to continue for the near term. If this could somehow continue for many years into the future, by ~2027 we could be meeting nearly all of our energy needs using solar, while using only 1/10,000 of the solar energy which falls on Earth. That may still, to many, make too high an impact on land, as solar energy is fairly dilute. And again, the storage issue is a problem. But there's a much bigger problem with solar - and that is that is very energy-intensive to produce a solar panel and install the surrounding systems. In fact, up until now, it has COST more carbon to make a solar panel than the panel saves over its lifetime. This will remain for some years further - this is improving, but not as rapidly as needed. So far, solar still accounts for only a tiny amount of world energy production, but if we go on a massive all-out program to produce enough solar cells to completely "decarbonize" the economies of the world, solar power could likely be used to make more solar power. Why not use renewable energy to MAKE solar cells now? Because there isn't enough of it! Solar still outdoes wind, and making wind turbines too involves a great deal of energy - to mine, refine, manufacture, and install. This is not an argument not to do solar and wind, but rather, that the near term carbon benefit is much less than some solar promoters would like to believe.


Germany has been moving strongly towards renewable energy sources, even while right wing ideologues fight against any support for renewable energy. It can be done, and clearly it is not hurting their economy - the strongest in Europe by far. Still, the move has been heavily subsidized by the German government. In absolute terms, fossil fuel remains cheaper than any alternative energy source, as long as current fossil fuel costs allow treating our atmosphere as a free toxic waste dump.

Hydroelectric has been promoted as an important carbon-free energy source, but new research shows this is not the case. Dams built anywhere except the far north, and especially in the tropics (as is actively being done), bury enough vegetation to become a methane sources powerful enough to overwhelm the advantages of any hydroelectric power produced (Brown 2013), and the Brazil Institute for Space Research estimates the largest dams alone account for over 100 million tons of methane emission per year, accounting for fully 4% of all human-caused greenhouse forcing.

Efficiency, Energy Storage
Letting energy produce excess heat is wasteful. When we instead take excess energy and store it for later use without letting it go the usual entropy path towards waste heat, we need less energy generation. For example, regenerative braking slows a vehicle by letting the kinetic energy of the car be converted into electric charge in a capacitor or electro-chemically into a battery. Flywheels are being used for energy storage as well, storing energy as kinetic energy in the rotation of mass. Another idea which has had a recent breakthrough is using excess energy to compress air to very high pressure while preserving the heat content - "isothermal air compression".

There are plenty of ways that building energy efficiency can be improved. Vertical gardens, solar rooftops, solar water heating, venturi effect cooling. Many of these are briefly described in this new Cairo apartment/retail complex which will hopefully be completed by 2019. The designers claim 50% energy savings over conventional designs.

Nuclear Power
It's a measure of the lack of unbiased science-based thinking that the majority of those on the "green" side are so anti-nuclear, and that so many of the pro-nuclear people are also climate denialists or sympathizers with that camp. If we really intend to treat climate change and its dangers with the seriousness it deserves, by all the evidence, then we need to drastically reduce CO2 levels immediately. If we want to keep our energy production at typical industrial levels, this is not possible with mere conservation or adopting greener alternatives for power going forward, worthy as those goals are. We need massive plans to scrub existing CO2 out of our atmosphere before it further acidifies the ocean and raises temperatures. Nuclear power plants can produce large amounts of power in a single plant, something solar and wind cannot, requiring battery and transmission lines to funnel energy to any possible large-scale scrubber technology. While the carbon footprint of nuclear power is twice that of solar, and 6 times that of wind, it's less than 1/7 to 1/15 that of fossil fuels (Kleiner (2008) in Nature: Climate Change), and so deserves consideration. Kharecha and Hansen (2013, alas behind a paywall, but synopsis here) point out that nuclear power has killed only about 4,900 people since 1971, whereas the equivalent amount of fossil fuel power over this time span would have killed an estimated 1.84 million, or 370 times more, from health damage, accidents, etc. Nuclear has an advantage over renewables in that it can produce constant power, while solar and wind cannot and require (currently) inefficient and expensive battery technology to get around this issue. Still, the cost will be high; the historical evidence is that safety has not been given the priority it needs. Even now, it costs ~$3 billion to

China and India together emit almost twice the carbon as the U.S., and mostly from coal, and new coal plants continue to be built.

build a 1 GW conventional light-water nuclear power plant, and takes over 10 years to get the permits and install. Given the urgency of climate mitigation, that's not good. What about security against agents from rogue organizations seeking to steal nuclear material for bombs? What about long term sequestration of radioactive by-products? These are problems which may have solutions (breeder technology for the waste issue, for example, are better than current light-water reactors), but I'm not sure anyone really yet has long term reliable answers to these questions. I'm open to be convinced for or against the wisdom of nuclear power. In 2013, several prominent climate scientists led by James Hansen wrote a letter urging greater use of nuclear energy as a carbon-limiting strategy, arguing that newer


designs can be much safer, and that without nuclear, it appears nearly impossible to prevent disastrous climate change in the fairly near future. For one thing, note that India and China dwarf the U.S. in carbon emissions, and they are rolling out new fossil fuel (mainly coal) power plants at a prodigious rate. Whether it is possible to scale up solar, wind, geothermal faster than new nuclear, is a question which needs a careful, technical, quantitative answer to. Solar and wind are distributed and easy to make more of. Nuclear power plants are complex and extremely expensive and not deployable easily. Especially the new designs called for, are at least a decade or two before deployment (if ever). However, to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere in a large scale way might require nuclear power, unless we develop the ability to make stable and inert forms of carbon in small-scale atmospheric scrubbers. If instead we require pumping vast amounts of CO2 into subterranean locations, these are likely confined to a small range of locations and the high energy required for the scrubbing may require concentrated power such as nuclear could provide. On the downside, nuclear power plants require a great deal of water as a coolant. This severely limits where they can be located. Possibly extensive modifications to the electrical grid may be required.

If safe nuclear power reactors can be designed, we have plenty of thorium to use for breeders to power a grid which could also be fed with solar from rooftops and parking lots, buildings, etc. The modern design of breeder reactor - the IFR, or Integral Fast Reactor - was judged by a panel of scientists in 2002 as the top nuclear reactor design and has major advantages over conventional reactors in safety, power efficiency, nuclear waste, and safety against nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism. That was over a decade ago, and nothing has been done to bring it to reality.

I'm starting a page with links to the increasingly fast-paced advances in non-fossil fuel energy solutions.

Geo Engineering
Large scale engineering of the planet is being considered, in order to fix the problems created by large scale engineering of the planet, engineering which we have already done via fossil fuel burning and cutting down most of the Earth's forests, etc. The wisdom of this can be questioned, of course. One idea is to reduce incoming sunlight by placing billions of occulting objects at the inner (L1) Lagrange point (Angel et al. (2007). The estimated cost would be several trillion dollars, with significant technological hurdles needing solution within a decade or two..

A related idea which avoids having to launch occulting objects from Earth is to nudge a suitable asteroid or asteroids into a proper orbit so that we can blast dust off of it and let the dust be a partial absorber of sunlight. This would seem quite dangerous to attempt and quite difficult to engineer (Bewick et al. 2012). Read more opinions here. There is precedent, in that there is a great deal of circumstantial evidence that comet impact(s) / debris associated with the Taurid Meteor Shower may have been the culprit which initiated the Younger-Dryas cooling 12,900 years ago which reversed the exit from the last great Ice Age and cooled the Earth for an additional 1000 years (Napier 2010 and references therein).

Some have also considered massive injection of sulfate aerosols into the upper troposphere or stratosphere to cool the planet. The quantities involved would be enormous, and would rain back out on a time scale of just a few years, so there would have to be continual injection of new aerosols. Massive fleets of jet-fuel powered aircraft would have to do the job. Basically, this would be like stoking massive volcanoes to produce explosive upward eruptions to high altitude continuously. Even so, it is expected to be cheaper to cool the planet than many other ideas. The large scale pollution would be a nightmare. The pall of haze and continual acid rain and ash fall would more resemble our post-apocalyptic movies (e.g. "The Road") rather than a solution to prevent an apocalypse. Other side effects would be enhanced acidification of the ocean from the sulfuric acid produced by interaction with atmospheric water vapor, and surface water acidification as well. We'd have to accept depletion of the ozone layer, which protects us and all plants from UV light from the sun. Least of the consequences, ground-based astronomy, of course, would be severely impacted.

Another idea is to outfit large ships to massively inject seawater into the atmosphere in an attempt to make clouds more reflective. As atmospheric scientist Tim Garrett points out, however, this neglects an important negative feedback - the cloud reflection would happen right over the ship, and this would in fact reduce the sea surface temperature and the very convective evaporation which feeds the clouds in the first place.

All of these "sun shade" ideas share a big flaw - they do nothing to address the rate at which we're adding CO2 to the atmosphere and therefore indirectly, into the ocean. Ocean acidification and its effects on ecosystems will continue even if we artificially reduce warming via sun-shading. In fact, if somehow such schemes were really effective and actually significantly COOLED the oceans, they would absorb atmospheric CO2 more efficiently and perhaps make ocean acidification worse. Such geo-engineering ideas would seem to be non-starters. The villain is CO2 and we simply need to pull it back out of the atmosphere and ocean and store it safely elsewhere if we are to have a future with stable coastlines and liveable temperatures.

Here's a good 90 minute lecture from a NASA scientist on geo engineering ideas and their drawbacks.

As bad as the 'sun shade' ideas may seem to be, the need to halt the polar thaw immediately may require we do them anyway, to prevent a transition to runaway ice cap melting and drowning of most coastal cities around the world over coming centuries, and the rest of the effects. Once those tipping points are passed, it becomes too late for gradual transitions. In fact, each year brings new climate studies which suggest it may well already be too late.

Carbon Removal from the Atmosphere
Reversing CO2 levels in the atmosphere is urgently needed. CO2 levels need to drop from the current 400 ppm (2013) to no more than 350 ppm to forestall the worst consequences (350 ppm may be too optimistic, given the recent observations of more dramatic ice loss and the increased vulnerability of Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheets. Some scientists are now saying we need to return to 280 ppm immediately before we can halt the changes. We have not even begun - CO2 levels continue to rise. 2013 saw the largest CO2 emissions of any year in human history. In the recent past, CO2 levels have been continuing to accelerate upward. There was a temporary drop in the rise rate during the global "Great Recession centered on 2009, but it has bent more sharply upward heading out of that period. China has become the strongest CO2 emitter, although there is some hope given their funding for renewables as their populace becomes more restless and insistent on fixing their appalling air quality, see 2013 study. The emerging countries, however, remain the worst offenders, with India now about to overtake Russia as the 3rd largest emitter (China is #1 and the U.S. is #2). Where to put the massive amount of CO2 needing sequestration? We don't have a solution for that now, as even optimist Elon Musk has said here.

First let's consider if we might make good progress by simply reversing the degradation of natural processes of CO2 removal. Forests and other vegetation soak up CO2 of course, and deforestation over the past century has contributed a significant amount to atmospheric CO2 rise. However, re-planting forests is calculated to compensate for only 3-6% of current CO2 emissions (van Minnen et al. 2008, and Strengers et al. 2008). In the Pre-industrial Age, the removal of CO2 by regrowth of forests was significant to global temperatures. However, human-generated CO2 emissions are so vast today that forest regrowth can have only a relatively marginal effect.

Is there any progress on geo-engineering atmospheric CO2 removal? A stumbling block to the chemistry of removing CO2 from the atmosphere via artificial photosynthesis has recently been solved by chemists at the University of Illinois, and with further work, may become a hopeful strategy for producing fuel from CO2. Prospects for making a significant dent in CO2 levels are another matter, as the sheer amount of CO2 needing removal is so vast. We have a strategy for scrubbing CO2 out of coal plant effluent by combining calcium carbonate with CO2 to make calcium bicarbonate (Rau 2012). However, no one to my knowledge has tackled how to apply this chemistry to the atmosphere as a whole, (the end product, calcium bicarbonate, might be put into the ocean. Calcium bicarbonate exists only as an aqueous solution at normal conditions. There is also the technology for drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere and using it to make carbonates - limestone rock (Belcher et al. 2010) - a process which happens naturally by ocean life. Carbonate-forming organisms operate too slowly to counteract our CO2 emissions, and may not operate at all in a too-acidic ocean. There are other major problems to be overcome, such as the large amount of energy required in the process, scaling up to the levels needed to affect our atmosphere, sourcing calcium, and cost, among others. Given that we've injected an additional 1.2 trillion tons of CO2 anthropogenically over the past 250 years, to remove this the Belcher et al. process would require creating ~2.4 trillion tons of CaCO3. At a density of 2.71 g/cc, this amount of calcium carbonate would produce 8x10^17 cubic centimeters of rock, or a cube the height of Mt. Everest (30,500 ft on a side) from sea level. To instead drop current CO2 atmospheric levels by 50 ppm would required a cube of calcium carbonate of 22,180 ft on a side; the height of the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. At current production rates of ~33 billion tons of CO2 per year, it requires an additional cube-shaped mountain 7,200 ft on a side every year. This is going to require a lot of calcium. Calcium is common, but mostly it is found as - calcium carbonate! Destroying CaCO3 in order to make CaCO3 is highly questionable. Still, there is an emotional benefit to this end product We could take a cue from the ancient Egyptians - there is something satisfying about visualizing ex-oil company executives conscripted to toil under the hothouse conditions on Earth building the Great Carbon Pyramids - pyramids of calcium carbonate (or "bricks" filled with calcium bicarbonate, which makes more sense) miles high, sufficient to clean up our atmosphere. And, at wages comparable to those of the poor souls who built those Great Pyramids at Giza, Egypt. I'm sure that when it becomes yet more obvious what has been done to Earth, it will be little problem finding people who would donate land to watch such a project.

Columbia University professor Klaus Lackner is working on a method of using inexpensive resins formed into artificial "trees" to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere. He's made some impressive claims along the way. This review article (Goeppert et al. 2012) includes a description of Lackner's ideas and his (optimistic?) estimates: $200/ton of CO2, and with some new ideas and economies of scale, perhaps as low as $30/ton. However, there's good reasons to think the total cost of large-scale atmospheric CO2 removal may be higher (Lackner had joined a private venture to try to turn this into a commercial enterprise, and unfortunately that means that details are scarce. In 2012, that enterprise was discontinued). We put 33 billion tons of CO2 into our atmosphere every year (and rising rapidly). At $200 per ton of CO2, we can remove 50 ppm CO2 from the atmosphere for ~$21 trillion (Hansen 2009, quoted in this Yale article). But as of 2014, we now need to remove 52 ppm to get back down to 350 ppm. However, ~310 ppm may be necessary in order to return sea ice levels to mid 1980's values (Hansen et al. 2008 - even this may be too optimistic, since sea ice has since collapsed much more dramatically than had been anticipated in 2008. Regardless, we are making ZERO progress on lowering emission rates.) This is $13 trillion less than US military and health care spending from 2000 to 2009 ($34 trillion). Once fully industrialized, Lackner estimated in 2008 that the cost could drop to ~$25 per ton of CO2. In fact, this estimate appears far too rosy according to a panel which studied the issue in 2011 - their estimate was that chemical means for pulling CO2 from the atmosphere would cost about $600/ton. In a paper published in the National Academy of Science in 2011 (House et al. 2011), they estimate that the 400,000 joules of energy required to remove 1 mole of atmospheric CO2 and sequester it, would cost $1,000 per ton of CO2. That equates to about $100 trillion to remove 50ppm of CO2. Obviously, there's a big gap here which must be clarified. A layman's news article (National Geographic 2011) interviews many on this issue.

About half of the CO2 we emit is absorbed by the ocean and land, and half stays in the atmosphere. If we accept Lackner's estimate, we can remove a quarter century worth of CO2 from our sky for what the US spends on health care, in less than two years. About $4 trillion. This is comparable to what the U.S. alone spends on the military since 2000 (mostly over oil! How insane is that?). What to do with the CO2 captured remains a problem however, as does the energy source to accomplish this vast enterprise. This enormous amount of bicarbonate might be put into the ocean. It would not acidify the oceans as strongly as raw CO2 does. Other consequences are not well studied yet, so far as I can tell. In any event, this is far more CO2 than we could possibly make safe economic use of (commercial CO2 trades at ~$5/ton right now), especially on a planet whose population must shrink.

Here's a web links page on removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.

There is also research on additives to livestock feed which will reduce their methane production, with some success.

Atmospheric CO2 Sequestration by Plants
Let's consider if we might make good progress by simply reversing the degradation of natural processes of CO2 removal. Forests and other vegetation soak up CO2 of course, and deforestation over the past century has contributed a significant amount to atmospheric CO2 rise. However, re-planting forests is calculated to compensate for only 3-6% of current CO2 emissions (van Minnen et al. 2008, and Strengers et al. 2008). In the Pre-industrial Age, the removal of CO2 by regrowth of forests was significant to global temperatures. However, human-generated CO2 emissions are so vast today that forest regrowth can have only a relatively marginal effect. Sequestering carbon through afforestation and reforestation in the tropical, temperate, and polar regions is estimated to be able to store 1.1-1.6 Gt/yr of carbon including both soil and above-ground biomass (IPCC AR5). This compares to 9.5 Gt C/yr (9.5 billion tons of carbon per year) from CO2 alone from human fossil fuel burning producing, and does not include carbon release from methane. Given that the IPCC warns the tropical reforestation value is probably high, and accounts for most of the total, this corresponds to about 11% of current human carbon emissions which can be taken up by a massive global campaign to plant trees. Given the increasing drought over land, it's not clear that such trees could be properly cared for, but it's still a worthwhile goal.



"First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."
--Mahatma Gandhi

Policy and Legal Solutions
Politically, there are very obvious steps which can and need to be taken immediately. The oil and mining companies will continue to cause environmental damage as long as they don't have to pay for it. Treating our life-giving air and water as an free open sewer cannot be justified. These externalized costs must be converted to true costs. This issue is a vast and pervasive flaw in the laissez faire paradigm. What would fossil fuel companies have to charge for their products if they were forced to pay for the loss of a significant amount of the 217,490 miles of the Earth's existing coastline property?... the costs of insurance premiums caused by escalating weather extremes? ...the costs of the wars to be fought over food and water as climate zones shift too rapidly for agriculture to adapt to? The cost of destroying the ocean's ecosystems through acidification by CO2? ... the list is very long. What is the worth of the 670,000 Chinese people who die every year from fossil fuel generated pollution? What if those costs were then returned, dollar-for-dollar, directly to those who will suffer those costs - all of us, and our children? This would provide overwhelming incentive for ALL people to drastically cut CO2 emissions and scale up non-fossil energy sources such as solar, wind, and perhaps nuclear. Again, this "carbon tax-and-dividend" strategy (and here) has the unique virtue of motivating ALL peoples to reduce carbon burning - not just giving the problem over to some techno wizards who will fix our problems for us. It also minimizes the opportunities for government shenanigans with the tax money. Compare this to the fossil-fuel industry favored "Cap and Trade" idea, which issues permits to pollute and allows corporations to make money by selling these permits, variations of which are already in place and which has accomplished essentially nothing. How tax-and-dividend would work is fairly simple. People would see steeply rising costs in everything requiring carbon energy, but they would also get a large check in the mail every month. They would be financially motivated to spend that new money on things which were less impacted by the carbon tax. Like it or not, the world is motivated importantly by financial gain. So here, rather than spend $10/gallon on gas, they might decide to take some of their check and buy a bike, or running shoes, or at least get a hybrid or fuel efficient car. British Columbia has already instituted this policy (albeit with a tax rate far too low as an ultimate solution) and the government which instituted it was re-elected to another term. Their ~25 cents/gallon tax and dividend has resulted in a 13% drop in sales of refined oil products. Latin America is moving forward with carbon taxes as well, although the proceeds are not dividend'ed back to the populace. We in the U.S. in fact continue to follow the opposite policy - tax credits and subsidies for fossil fuel corporations total $7 billion per year - as if they needed help to pull in more profits - profits which were 20 times higher than this subsidy figure in 2011. What does this say about our political system? This is what it says (Princeton study 2014). Worldwide, it's much worse - total government subsidies in 2012 for fossil fuel companies were a staggering $1.9 trillion dollars, according to the International Monetary Fund - almost 300 times more than in the U.S. Politicians are not going to be persuaded by appeals to reason, appeals to the future of our children. They've compromised their integrity and therefore have no genuine self-respect left that they might be inclined to protect, by making the tough moral choices. That leaves us with a very difficult situation.

Some large institutional investors, responding to pressure, are divesting their portfolios of fossil fuel corporation stocks. Money talks, and this is a good strategy, especially since it has its own "positive feedback" built in: The more the stock prices go down, the more investors are interested in abandoning a losing position. The XLE Energy ETF declined 23% in value from mid 2014 to mid 2015. In mid 2015, the entire country of Norway joined the boycott of coal investments. Earlier, universities such as Stanford, U. Washington, U. of Maine divested from coal and some other fossil fuel corporations.

Next; consider; if the larger problem is a planet living beyond its carrying capacity, how wise is it to provide tax credits for adding more population, as we do in the U.S.? The rationale for the credits was the easing the economic burden of raising children. But we could motivate reducing the population burden on all of us by instead imposing an additional tax on families with more than one child.

The country of Bolivia in 2011 passed a set of constitutional laws granting Mother Earth legal rights. It will establish 11 new rights for nature. They include: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered (source). Neighboring Ecuador was actually the first country to grant rights to Nature, in 2008, but its history since then has been difficult, and in fact the main organization in charge of advocating for Nature's right, the Pachamama Alliance, was shut down by the Ecuadorian government at the end of 2013, and exploitation of the Amazon by oil companies and others continues. I think giving rights to Nature herself would be difficult in the U.S., as Nature would require human actors on her behalf. However, what SHOULD be achievable (in a better political environment) is the passage of a constitutional amendment giving rights to all citizens present and future, to a clean environment in harmony with their pursuit of life and happiness for all.

There are no doubt many more policy changes we could make. These political solutions do not require brilliant people to make difficult scientific breakthroughs, they "only" require political courage. Our system is clearly not very good at electing people with intelligence, political courage, and integrity. But that's an even tougher problem, perhaps, than climate.

Update Jan 31, 2013: A new poll of 1000 voters finds they favor a carbon tax on the fossil fuel companies 4 to 1 over cutting government spending (poll). The poll is small, and there is a temptation to think "let's tax the other guy" isn't going to mean they'll raise your fuel costs (which, of course, they will), so I'd like to see a more realistically presented poll taken of a larger sample to confirm this. Still, it's encouraging.

Update 2014: How to effect policy change? Should we calmly negotiate with our congress people, patiently reason with them about the dangers of climate change? This large-scale study of nearly 1800 bills of congressional legislation in 30 years (Gilens and Page 2014) , and (interview with lead author here), show that average citizens has no influence on what Congress does. Here's their key conclusion: "Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism." We're not a democracy now, we're an oligarchy, it would seem.

These aren't an excuse for hopeless collapse into inaction (as some would claim). It should be a call to think outside the usual paradigm in new ways.

With rational persuasion and "writing your congressman" so unpromising, some students have taken a novel and hopefully promising strategy - suing the government basically for negligence over our future. The case is being brought by young people from California, using a principle believed to underlay the constitution. The organization formed, called "Our Children's Trust" is suing the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy and Defense under the historic “public trust doctrine” for failing to devise a climate change recovery plan. In their legal brief, they argue, “Failure to rapidly reduce CO2 emissions and protect and restore the balance of the atmosphere is a violation of Youth’s constitutionally protected rights and is redressable by the Courts.” It is a historic case, but appears doomed unless it somehow is heard by a very sympathetic court. No plaintiff using any similar strategy has ever prevailed. More on this story is here. The excellent website put up by journalist Bill Moyers includes a page with brief reactions from many prominent environmentalists and scientists on what can be done about climate change.

Update Summer 2015: I expect the conspiracy of silence on how serious and immediate is our climate danger will insure that no policy commensurate with the scale of the problem will be enacted. People take their unconscious cue to how serious a situation is from how people around them react. The media, with their "false balance" and focus on selling ads from corporations, has the largest blame. My own recommendation is to bypass our "leaders", and educate enough citizens on how dire is the science to enable the organizing of a massive march on Washington DC to (peacefully) shut down business as usual, until they draft and pass a meaningfully severe carbon-tax-and-dividend law, and enact severe trade sanctions on any trading partner country which does not do the same, particularly China, India, Russia, and the European Union. Short term economic growth should be given no consideration. The science shows we're determining sea level and climate on Earth for thousands of years into the future, by our inaction right now.

You may think that President Obama's stated plan for clean energy is "bold", or a "game changer". But in fact, it has only a tiny 6% effect even on the US emissions, let alone the world's. Climate scientist James Hansen, fresh off a dire new warning about global sea levels, had harsh words for the slow, incremental progress that’s formed essentially the entirety of America’s climate ambition to date. “We have two political parties, neither one of which is willing to face reality,” Hansen told the Guardian. “Conservatives pretend it’s all a hoax, and liberals propose solutions that are non-solutions.”

Two new legal decisions are encouraging. In the state of Washington, children (with help) have successfully petitioned for the state Department of Ecology to use the best climate science in setting CO2 emission limits. The Superior Court agreed, and has directed the Department of Ecology to respond to how they will implement this decision. And, 866 private citizens in the Netherlands have successfully sued the government for negligence in climate action, requiring the government to lower CO2 emissions by 25% in the next 5 years. It has inspired similar legal actions in Belgium and Norway. Unfortunately, the U.S. Constitution does not include environmental protections for its citizens, a legacy of a time when the environment was there for our taking, to make a nation out of it.We need a new amendment to our Constitution - guaranteeing the right of all citizens to environmental commons unspoiled by private interests. Here's my first draft of a hoped-for 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution...

A Proposal for the 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
Congress shall permit no laws denying the rights of present and future citizens to safe commons, including air, ground water, river water, and natural forest. The Congress shall permit no laws which interfere with the existence of a natural environment in long term harmony with the right to life and the pursuit of happiness for all present and future citizens.

The outright lies spread by the fossil fuel interests and right wing ideologues should be criminal, and Senator Whitehouse of Rhode Island thinks they can be prosecuted under the RICO anti-racketeering laws already in place, exactly as was done for the tobacco industry in 2006. Whether this will happen, is unlikely.

The Problem is Deeper...
The urgency of reducing population can't be overstated. Bradshaw and Brook (2014) (described briefly at 1hr 23min into this presentation), and also described very readably in this article by J. Duscheck 2014) did simulations of human population assuming a 1-child-per-family policy were enforced worldwide starting now (current fertility worldwide is about 2.3 per family). This is perhaps the most humane way one could impose population controls. Yet it is completely inadequate to save us from disaster: global population peaks in ~2045 and then starts to decline, but by the year 2100 is still no lower than 4 billion. The volume and lifestyle of the human species is far beyond what Earth can sustainably support without wiping out key ecosystems to commandeer their habitat and resources, or worse. Seabirds of all species have declined by 70% since 1950, and amphibians (frogs, toads, salamanders..) population declines are so steep that at current rates they will be extinct soon, and disappear from half their current habitats in only 1 or 2 decades (Adams et al. 2013, described here). We are crossing tipping points not just in climate, but other key system capacities identified by environmental scientists ... not surprising at this late date. Here's what may be surprising to you... Efficiency increases, better insulation, more renewable energy sources, etc etc... might only make the deeper problem WORSE - not better. Despite huge improvements in the technologies of efficiency and steep drops in the cost of solar panels, the rate of CO2 and methane release is not only not decreasing, not only is it not staying the same, not only is it not trending upward merely at a constant slope - it's actually accelerating. Developing Asia is the biggest reason, but another reason is that we are taking those savings and simply using them to indulge in additional uses which further desecrate the planet that must support us. The problem is the cult of growth.... growth on a finite planet, the cult of growth per se as the primary Standard of Good. David Owen, among others, points out this fatal flaw is in our very culture itself. Technology has only delayed the inevitable. It will not, of itself, save us. Even reducing the carbonization of the world's energy by 50% in 50 years, combined with a collapse of industrial civilization and destruction of most of our accumulated wealth, will still result in rising atmospheric CO2 (Garrett 2012). Only maturity can save us, and judging by the level of the debates going on, our maturity does not appear to be evolving fast enough. It's an alarmingly pessimistic point, because it

From "Growing Within Limits (GWL)" van Vuuren et al. 2009 for the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Trends since the first GWL assessment was published in 1972. The green line shows their model fit to observed data (purple dots) and shows we are on an "overshoot and crash" trend, vs. the blue curve which follows a maximum sustainable (w/o crash) path initialized to 1972 values - for population, energy use, non-renewable resource use, and pollution. The green tracks turn down (even pollution turns down) when humans suffer large de-population.

reveals how much deeper we must change as human beings before we can even begin to hope to save ourselves. And we have no time to do so. Nay sayers to this are fond of pointing out the premature predictions of Malthus and Stanford's Paul Erhlich and the '70's environmentalists. Ingenuity, the agricultural revolution, and technology advances have indeed delayed the day of reckoning. But they cannot change the very culture of unlimited growth. Remember Nolthenius' First Law - People Learn the Hard Way. Technology and physics are easy - it's just figuring out how Nature's physical laws work. It doesn't (typically) engage psychological motivations to lie to ourselves and lie to others. Truly growing up - that's hard. In the film "The Day the Earth Stood Still" an emissary from the other intelligently populated planets of the Galaxy comes to save the Earth - by removing humankind. At the last moment, we're saved when he is persuaded that "only at the precipice do we (humans) change". There's some truth in that. But that is precisely why we may not have a Hollywood ending. The time scales over which the planetary climate system changes ~50-100 years, rapid though it is on cosmic and geologic time scales, is slow compared to the average politician or voter's ability or willingness to pay attention. Climate change happens on a very unfortunate time scale - too short for us to ignore if we wish a future for our children and their children, but too long to get the average person to insist on policy solutions today. We are not in planetary thermal equilibrium - the same solar heat is coming in but we cannot emit it back to space fast enough to be in equilibrium. We are the bug on the iron skillet. The flame is on, but the heat has not yet come to equilibrium with the mass of iron (and the bug). Turn off the flame and the temperature of the iron skillet under the bug will STILL continue to go up for some time. Another analogy; imagine you've just left your car on a San Francisco street at the top of a hill... and locked your keys inside and forgotten to set the parking brake. You turn and your car is just beginning to creep downhill. If you rush back, and put every ounce of strength into pushing, and ask an onlooker to break a window and open the door and set the hand brake immediately, you might avoid disaster. But if you hesitate, thinking that's too expensive or drastic, the car soon is soon moving too fast for you to stop, and even though it may be another block before the car actually causes a head-on collision, or kills a mother and baby, or slams into a cable-car... disaster is inevitable because the tipping point of your ability to change things was crossed the moment you hesitated. The CO2 already emitted will take over a century to be fully felt, and as ice melts, permafrost methane enters the atmosphere, the Arctic polar cap disappears, the oceans further acidify, killing vast ecosystems, sea level rise accelerates in earnest, and positive feedbacks further accelerate the process, it will almost certainly go well beyond what the conservative modeling of past IPCC reports indicated, due to their neglect of known positive feedbacks. Physics does not afford us the luxury of waiting until this is too disastrous for human society to ignore. Most human-created disasters - wars, even most environmental disasters - do not have this long time period between the time for necessary action and the time when consequences are seen. Our behavior so far indicates that when finally a critical mass of people appreciate that we're at the precipice - it will be far too late. Nor do we appreciate the full magnitude of the necessary action required. If you think that buying more electric cars, or planting some trees, or transitioning to renewable energy at today's pace, or switching from coal to natural gas, is all that we need to heal our planet, then you are wrong. We need far more drastic action. And only an immediate change in our value system itself might succeed. It may require a political revolution - not just as individuals, but as a planet-wide society. Can we?

The 21st Century
Climatologist Michael Mann talks of the "Six Stages of Climate Denial". What we appear most likely to do is what we must not do - and that is to transition seamlessly from complacency that

Despite the rise in renewable energy as solar gets cheaper, CO2 emission rates have actually accelerated from 1.5% per year in 1975-2000, to 3% per year after 2000 (log plot at left), and the linear graph at right shows no hint of dropping as of 2013. CO2 annual emissions from fossil fuel use and cement manufacture, based on data of British Petroleum concatenated with data of Boden et al. (2012) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648.g00. Important to note that these rise rates are on top of a much larger base than that of renewables, which account for only a few percent of global energy production. This is why they overwhelm current deployment rates of renewable energy

someone somewhere is doing something about it, into panic and paralysis that the future has already slipped away, and to do so while adamantly refusing to give any thought for taking the dramatic world-wide action necessary to have a chance for a relatively normal future for our children's children. This is what is so hard to watch - the steadfast refusal to consider making climate change our #1 priority, replacing political "leaders" with new people with a backbone to impose national and global policy solutions (i.e. solutions with the force of law). There is honor, after all, in doing hard work against a tough foe, even if you ultimately fail. But to complainr about one's lifestyle and the comforts of the immediate moment, while dooming the future (and here) - there is no honor in this. Even the Post Carbon Institute is acknowledging the myths that facile promoters of renewable energy are engaged in. This reality will dawn on more and more as time goes on. How strong will be the resolve to do the right thing, by people who realize they have already betrayed future generations so starkly? The first result of facing what we have done is going to be a sense of shame and lowered self-respect. Unfortunately, low self-respect is a very poor foundation from which to expect someone to morally rise to the occasion. Instead, I fear those in power will bury their awareness even more blatantly than they already do.

Paris 2015
There's increasing acceptance among the populace that climate change is real and human caused, and unlike before Copenhagen, when the bogus "climategate" was lapped up by media, this time it was the expose' of Exxon's climate scientists in the 1970's showing indeed the climate disaster that Exxon's business model would create, and Exxon's response - to ramp up funding to climate denial mouthpieces. Still,, the agreements in Paris, all countries agreeing to eventually try to keep temperature rise to +2C, just like in Copenhagen, have no teeth - no enforcable sanction against countries who do not fulfill their agreements. Promises only, which we've seen before. And the emissions agreements, if followed, only produce +3.5C, even with the modelling which does not include perhaps all relevant amplifying feedbacks identified in the last few years.


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