Monthly Archives: October 2020

Geoengineering (Climate Week #6)

Geoengineering represents several technological or large-scale approaches for offsetting the effects of climate change. Rather than conventional mitigation approaches that result in lower greenhouse gas emissions (such as switching to electric vehicles or investing in renewable energy), geoengineering approaches represent far more technical or radical interventions intended to stop climate change.

Broadly speaking there are two basic approaches:

  1. Greenhouse Gas Removal – removing greenhouse gases (but especially carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere. Methods for doing this include capturing gases as they are released, use giant air scrubbers to directly capture greenhouse gases from the air, or planting huge numbers of trees. The end result is less greenhouse gases in the sky, and lower average temperatures.
  2. Solar Radiation Management: making the Earth more reflective so that light from the sun bounces back into space. You can use artificial snow or reflective materials to protect ice sheets, paint roofs and buildings reflective colors, add reflective aerosols to the upper atmosphere, or even use reflective objects in space to reflect light away from the Earth. The end result is less solar radiation being absorbed by the Earth, and lower average temperatures.

You can probably guess that pretty much every geoengineering approach (with the exception of afforestation, planting huge numbers of trees) is controversial, with many detractors. Criticisms include geoengineering approaches being poorly studied, some approaches are currently expensive, some proposals have unknown negative side effects, some of these approaches have massive consequences for international relations, and pursuing geoengineering instead of climate mitigation could give polluting nations and companies an excuse to keep polluting.

Geoengineering isn’t a panacea – but, like I’m going to be saying for the rest of my life, climate change is dire enough that any and all solutions need to be on the table.

There are over a dozen geoengineering approaches already proposed, from relatively conventional like afforestation, to the truly sci-fi idea of adding orbital mirrors to reflect sunlight. But, whether conventional or radical, I’m going to be evaluating each approach for its effectiveness at stopping climate change and how easily it could be used at large scales.

Why Write About Climate Change? (Climate Week #5)

Why write about climate change in the first place?

My goal is to find a solution to climate change, whatever it takes. I could do that by closing my website entirely, giving up on writing, and just spending my time on learning, research, and scientific experiments. Writing about any problem (including climate change) doesn’t automatically lead to the problem being solved.

So if writing =/= solving, and my goal is to solve climate change… why write about climate change every week, or at all? Lots of people have written about climate change already. What’s the point?

At a basic level, it’s a way of keeping myself accountable, and make progress every week.

Climate change is really complicated. There’s a lot of ground you could cover if you wanted to become an expert – something thousands of scientists have dedicated decades of their life to doing. I don’t think that’s achievable for me in the next decade, or really necessary.

If someone wanted to only understand the parts necessary for solving climate change, that would be difficult, but doable – as long as they kept at it for weeks on end, and only focused on the absolutely most important parts.

Writing about climate change every week forces me to start the week saying “By the end of the week, I need to learn about climate change and share something about it with the world” That doesn’t necessarily mean saying something new or revolutionary – I’m learning about the problem as I go, there’s a lot to talk about.

Then again, it also doesn’t mean thousands and thousands of words every week if that isn’t necessary – different weeks will have different amounts of learning, and they say brevity is the soul of wit. What’s important is writing about something related to the goal of stopping climate change – the science, the solutions, and the logistics/process of getting this done. Even the politics, if that comes up (it probably will).

It doesn’t have to really long. It doesn’t have to be about the same thing every week. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to represent some amount of progress towards finding a solution to climate change. I can correct errors later, add stuff on later, or even combine the things I write if I write about two parts of a topic separately. As long as progress is made every week.

Also, one of the words of advice I’ve seen about learning over the years is that the best way to learn and remember something is to teach others. Reading about a topic is easy. Taking what you learn about the topic, remembering the important parts, and turning it into an understandable lesson is harder – but worth it, if you want to be a person who can solve problems. And climate change is a problem that needs to be solved, just as much if not more than all the other problems out there.

So that’s why I’m writing every week about climate change.

Alright. Back to work.

Iron Fertilization (Climate Week #4)

“Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age.” Or at least, that’s what oceanographer John Martin said in 1988 about a radical and bizarre way of stopping climate change: dumping iron in the ocean. This is one of several geoengineering solutions to climate change, solutions that deliberately alter the environment to fight climate change.

To understand what iron has to do with climate change, you need to understand that most photosynthesis (the process plants use to take carbon dioxide out of the sky) doesn’t happen on land. The majority (50-85% depending on the estimate) actually happens in the ocean, done by microscopic algae called phytoplankton. These “wandering plants” take nutrients from the water, and carbon dioxide from the air, in order to make more phytoplankton. Then, the phytoplankton are either eaten by other marine creatures or sink to the ocean floor, preventing the carbon dioxide being released back into the atmosphere.

Iron is a necessary nutrient for photosynthesis – and it’s often the limiting nutrient. It turns out there are large parts of the ocean (HNLCs, or High Nutrient Low Chlorophyll zones) that have all the nutrients for phytoplankton growth, except for iron. While iron naturally enters the ocean through volcanic eruptions, upwellings of nutrient rich water, and iron dust from the land, the iron doesn’t have to be natural in origin to be effective.

The basic plan is this: take huge amounts of iron, in a form easily dissolved in water such as iron sulphate. Use ships to dump large amounts of this dissolvable iron in otherwise nutrient rich water. Large scale algal blooms are created, taking huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere into the deep ocean.

Give me a half a tanker of iron and I will give you another ice age.

How much iron would be required to actually make this work? How much would it cost? Would doing this cause ecological damage or other unintended consequences? Could it actually be effective at a large scale? Could there be a way to do this artificially on land, without risking damage to the oceans?

I’ll explore those questions in later posts.

It’s an unusual, even radical solution. And there are many people who not only dislike technological solutions to climate change on general principle, but who also don’t like that iron fertilization takes carbon dioxide out of the sky before we learn how to stop emitting it – potentially giving humans permission to pollute even more and make the problem worse.

Considering the dire situation we’re in with climate change, I think we need all options on the table – including the radical ones.