February 28, 2014

Offshore Wind Turbines Can Tame Hurricanes. Yay, Right? Maybe.

Wind turbine hurricanesStanford University Civil Engineering professor Mark Jacobson (and team) have published an article in Nature Climate Change showing that a large cluster of offshore wind turbines -- about 300+ GW worth -- could significantly reduce the wind speeds and storm surges from hurricanes. BBC article & video. PDF of NCC article. From the abstract:

Benefits occur whether turbine arrays are placed immediately upstream of a city or along an expanse of coastline. The reduction in wind speed due to large arrays increases the probability of survival of even present turbine designs. The net cost of turbine arrays (capital plus operation cost less cost reduction from electricity generation and from health, climate, and hurricane damage avoidance) is estimated to be less than today’s fossil fuel electricity generation net cost in these regions and less than the net cost of sea walls used solely to avoid storm surge damage.

With the possibility that anthropogenic global warming is increasing the frequency and/or intensity of hurricanes (a still-ambiguous issue), this seems like a good thing. After all, these wind turbines are built to generate power, and the hurricane-dampening effect would be a pleasant side-effect. Reduced wind speeds and storm surges mean reduced losses of life, property, and resources. Good news, everybody.

But remember that the climate is a complex system with myriad interactions with the ocean, plant/animal ecosystems, aquifers, soil, and on and on. If hurricane impacts are reduced to below the pre-AGW norm, it's highly likely that we'll see some level of unintended cost to environmental systems that had evolved to be dependent upon periodic inrushes of water, high winds (think seed and insect dispersal), or other consequences of hurricane landfall.

If Jacobson et al are correct (and for now, this is entirely model-based -- so probably generally accurate, but with the potential for small-but-important errors), think of this as both an opportunity and a warning. Offshore wind turbines, built to generate electricity, may also have the capacity to measurably reduce the intensity of hurricanes approaching land. As attractive as this sounds, we'll have to be all the more alert to the possibility of upstream ecosystem disruptions.

July 10, 2012


(Note: an unfinished version of this post was accidentally posted previously.)


One of the more interesting panels at the 2012 Aspen Environment Forum was a discussion of whether "nature" was even still a viable concept. It's broadly accepted that humankind has had such a profound impact on the Earth that there remains no part of the planet yet untouched, no part of our ecosystems that hasn't been altered by human activity. Even Antarctic lakes kilometers under glacial ice are subject to human fiddling. The question is, is this a permanent change? Can we do anything to reverse the Anthropocene?

The debate got a bit nasty, as these are positions driven as much by emotion as by science. According to one perspective (call it the "Gardeners"), we face a choice between moderating/steering the Anthropocene versus unsuccessfully fighting against it; according to the other perspective (call it the "Re-Wilders"), it's a choice between reversing the Anthropocene versus surrendering to it (and "surrendering" is definitely the concept -- at one point, E. O. Wilson rather pointedly asked another panelist, Emma Marris, where she had planted her white flag). These appear to be hard-to-reconcile positions. It's easy to see the Gardeners' argument that "you can't step in the same stream twice," that reversing the Anthropocene is simply impossible; at the same time, it's difficult to refute the Re-Wilders' assertion that this would essentially abandon the natural world, as it gives an excuse for limiting efforts to push back against the Anthropocene.

This debate is relevant to my interests, of course, and I have sympathies for both points of view. But there's a fascinating element to the situation that hasn't receive enough attention: perhaps counter-intuitively, any effort to "re-wild" parts of the Earth would require significant levels of geoengineering.

Re-wilding wouldn't just mean leaving things alone, not if the goal is to do more than allow a mix of weakened native species and fast-growing invasive species to fight it out. Existing contamination isn't going to go away, at least not in human timescales. Broken ecosystems would eventually renew, but with new (and newly-adapted) species. Unless the Re-Wilder strategy is to wait until the Earth no longer holds any humans (whether due to extinction or exodus), any goal to re-establish a truly natural form of nature requires that we do so actively.

"Actively" means, primarily, figuring out how to restore and protect viable ecosystems, including the elimination of invasive species and the re-introduction of native plants and animals. This is a seriously complex subject, one that we're only beginning to understand. Re-creating a natural ecosystem means more than just shipping in some potted plants and zoo animals; everything from pollenating insects to soil microbes would need to be restored. Moreover, part of the present contamination of natural spaces comes from human-driven temperature increases, so a fundamental debate within the re-wilding movement would inevitably concern the question of solar radiation management geoengineering. If we don't try to return to pre-industrial temperatures, any ecosystem restoration is doomed; conversely, if we do try to shift temperatures back... well, we're just gardening.

And that's the underlying irony of this debate: the only way to truly re-wild the Earth would be to do active management. In fact, one could argue that a re-wilding strategy that just meant leaving parts of the planet alone without any attempt to clean up and restore ecosystems is even more of an example of "planting the white flag" than any active biosphere gardening might be. Saying "it'll get better if you don't touch it" only works if you don't mind waiting a few hundred thousand years (or more); it may feel good as an ideology, but it sucks as planetary stewardship. If we want to return our planet to pre-Anthropocene conditions, we'll have to get our hands dirty.

April 10, 2012

Okay, so what does that mean?

I realize I just sort of left that post hanging, with the only conclusion being something on the order of "You maniacs! You blew it up!"

There are three general scenarios that come out of that last post.

The first, and most likely, is that we (as a planet) keep doing what we've been doing until things get even worse and we get much closer to irreversibility.

The second, and the one I hope happens, is that this scares enough people that there's a "cigarette phase shift" -- a rapid change in public discourse such that something that once just scientists and hippies cared about becomes a mainstream opinion.

The third, and the one that I fear, is that this becomes seen as a trigger to try out untested and potentially ridiculously risky geoengineering programs.

Now back to your regularly scheduled quiet grumbling.

Not-So-Distant Early Warnings

In the middle of prepping for IFTF's 2012 Ten-Year Forecast event at the end of April, then traveling to Kazakhstan in late May. In the meantime...

US Experienced warmest March ever. Average temperature in the lower 48 states was 8.6 degrees above normal (although apparently not in California).

Or, in video form:

Unsurprisingly, permafrost in Siberia and northern Canada appears to be melting.

This is all something we've understood for quite awhile. A paper in Science in 1981 offered up a projection of temperatures, and the last 30 years has tracked closely (and slightly exceeded) the worst-case projection from that research.

Fortunately, there's something that can be done relatively quickly, relatively cheaply, and with relatively quick results: cut black carbon (mostly soot) and methane. It's not enough in and of itself, but would knock down temperature increases by 0.5°C, and give us more time to deal with the harder issues.

Of course, if the methane trapped under the permafrost is released, that plan gets a bit harder to accomplish.

None of this is news, in the sense of being an out-of-the-blue surprise. It's all stuff we've been talking about being a possibility for awhile. And it's now starting to happen.

February 13, 2012

Got the Time

I've been mulling something of late, and it hasn't left me in a tremendously good mood.

Take a look at these two sets of graphs:

The first one is from the US Energy Information Administration, a group within the US Department of Energy tasked with coming up with independent statistics and analysis on US and world energy use. This chart is from the "International Energy Outlook 2011" report, released last September. It shows the breakdown of fuels used to generate electricity, given fairly conservative projections of growth and changing energy mix.

It shows that, by 2025 -- a little over 10 years from now -- coal will provide 10,200 terawatt-hours (TWh) out of a total of 28,700 TWh produced around the world, annually. By 2035, it's up to 12,900 TWh out of 35,200 TWh.

The second graph is from an article by David Roberts in Grist last year, "The Brutal Logic of Climate Change." Based on work done by leading energy/climate researcher Kevin Anderson (former head of the UK's Tyndall Energy Program), it shows how soon we as a planet need to start reducing carbon emissions, and how rapidly they need to decline given different "peak emissions" points. That's to avoid a 2 degree C increase in global temperatures, now understood to be a potentially catastrophic level of warming.

Here, we see that if we have peak emissions of around 65 gigatons of CO2 equivalent in 2025, we have to be down to under 20 GtCO2e by roughly 2035, and to zero GtCO2 shortly thereafter. In energy terms, we'd have to go from this:


to this:


Basically, we have to replace over 21,000 TWh of electricity generation from coal and natural gas (yes, natural gas is less-harmful than coal, but still has a greenhouse impact) with an equivalent amount from some mix of renewable, hydro, and nuclear. And do it in 10 years.

Except it will have to be more than that, at least another 15,000 TWh more, because we'll have to replace all of the gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles on the roads around the world with alternative forms of transportation, all of which has to be electric (or human/animal-powered). And also add however much new power is required to run the various production lines day and night to make all of the needed photovoltaics, wind turbines, electric buses, and such.

For comparison, the world added... 15 TWh in solar in 2010.

Set aside issues of politics and economics, and simply look at raw logistics: is it even possible to undertake that kind of shift in 10 years?

As the second set of graphs above suggests, if we start before a 2025 peak, we'll have somewhat less carbon-based energy production we'd have to replace, and somewhat more time in which to do it. Not much, though -- even peaking in 2015 only pushes the deadline(!) out to 2050, if we're lucky (the red & blue lines in the graphs show alternative scenarios from the IPCC, none of which are very pleasant).

But given the current global political environment, it's difficult to imagine a real agreement to eliminate carbon emissions, taken seriously by all parties, showing up before the end of this decade.

So here are our three scenarios:

1) We manage to get a real global agreement in place within the next five-eight years, and spend the subsequent 25 or so years undertaking the largest industrial transformation imaginable. Politically implausible.

2) We don't get a real global agreement in place before 2025, and have to cut emissions by 10% per year (as Roberts notes, the biggest drop we've seen is 5% after the USSR's economy collapsed). Physically implausible.

3) Neither of those happen, and we start to see truly awful impacts, mostly in the developing world at first, all of which make the world politically more hostile and economically more fragile -- and make it more difficult to cut carbon emissions effectively.

This is why I think geoengineering is going to happen. Desperate people do desperate things, and when you hear sober scientists say things like population "carrying capacity estimates [are] below 1 billion people" in a world of 4 degree warming, it's hard to argue convincingly that the uncertainty and risks around geoengineering are worse.

Anyone who thinks that geoengineering is a way to avoid cutting carbon is an idiot. Geoengineering is a tourniquet, a desperate measure to stop the bleeding when nothing else can work in time. If Anderson's analysis is accurate (and, if anything, it may be optimistic), it's hard to see how we can avoid taking these desperate measures.

October 17, 2011


frozen thamesIf you follow the online climate discussion, you've undoubtedly run across the mention of something called the "Little Ice Age," a period in Earth's history -- generally considered to be between the 16th and 19th centuries -- where the much of the world cooled by 1-2° C, enough to trigger a wave of glaciation across the Northern Hemisphere. The Thames regularly froze over (the painting, at right, is of the frozen Thames in 1677), crops dependent on warm weather in China were abandoned, and in 1780, New York Harbor froze, allowing people to walk from Manhattan to Staten Island. There was significant evidence of cooling around the world, lasting for at least a couple of hundred years.

The Little Ice Age gets pulled into climate disruption arguments as an example of how "natural cycles" (solar cycles, volcanos, ocean changes, etc.) can cause major disruption, therefore anthropogenic climate change isn't real. Even setting aside the illogic of the argument, the Little Ice Age is often considered the leading example of the climate being naturally weird.

Or maybe not. Stanford geochemist Richard Nevle, at this month's Geological Society of America annual meeting, argued forcefully that the biocide of the indigenous population of North America (where the spread of European diseases killed off 90% of the 40-80 million native Americans within roughly a century) led directly to a massive reforestation event as trees regrew in areas that had been cleared for crops. The trees were generally cleared by slash-and-burn/"swidden agriculture" techniques, leaving evidence in the form of charcoal in the soil.

About 500 years ago, this charcoal accumulation plummeted as the people themselves disappeared. [...] Trees returned, reforesting an area at least the size of California, Nevle estimated. This new growth could have soaked up between 2 billion and 17 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the air.

Ice cores from Antarctica contain air bubbles that show a drop in carbon dioxide around this time. These bubbles suggest that levels of the greenhouse gas decreased by 6 to 10 parts per million between 1525 and the early 1600s.

Nevle argues that the composition of the CO2 in trapped bubbles shows clearly that the balance of carbon-13 and carbon-12 isotopes changed in this time period; plants tend to prefer C-12, so a surge in plant growth would correspond to a relative decline in the proportion of C-12/C-13 -- which is just what Nevle found. Natural variations, according to Nevle, could only account for about 1.3ppm of the 6-10ppm drop in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

Fascinating stuff, this. It has a few particularly interesting implications:

  • It shows how a relatively small change in average global temperatures can have a dramatic impact. If dropping 1-2° can put us on the edge of an ice age, imagine what an increase of 1-2°... or more... could do to the planet.
  • It also shows how big the challenge is to any scheme to pull carbon out of the atmosphere to fight global warming. A reforestation event amounting to an area the size of California managed to pull all of 10ppm of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; we're looking at having to deal with an increase measuring 50-100ppm by the mid-point of this century.
  • Finally (and apropos to the title of this piece) it's a real indicator of just how long we've been living in the Anthropocene. Human activity -- and the sudden lack of same -- makes a big difference to the environment.

  • August 22, 2011


    In many sustainability circles, "bioengineering" = "bad and scary," while "biomimcry" = "cool and useful." Biomimicry usually doesn't involve bioengineering, and in fact often relies upon completely non-biological processes to mimic biological effects. And it is, in fact, pretty cool and useful.

    I wonder if some of the negative reaction to "geoengineering" comes from its linguistic parallel to bioengineering. Such a parallel seems to suggest that there's a connection; I have attended more than one event where the two were lumped together, even though there's almost no material or process relationship. And since "bioengineering," by definition, involves the engineering and manipulation of biological systems, the immediate conclusion is that geoengineering must be operating with the same level of invasiveness, with similar risks.

    There's no doubt that some forms of geoengineering involves the direct manipulation of geophysical systems, and (in general) the term remains the most appropriate one. But there's a very wide variety of approaches and ideas that fall under the geoengineering umbrella. Some -- but not all -- of them actually intentionally mimic existing geophysical processes, with the intent of producing similar geophysical effects.

    A proposal, then: it might make sense to start referring to the forms of geoengineering that intentionally attempt to reproduce known geophysical processes as geomimetic technologies, or more generally, geomimicry.

    This idea has a couple of benefits. The first is a bit of reframing: talking about "geomimetic" proposals can counter some of the subtle negative connotations of "geoengineering." This isn't an attempt to make geoengineering seem benign, but an attempt to balance the discussion a bit more, so that we can make smarter decisions.

    The second is that it's actually a useful category. Right now, discussions of geoengineering are typically divided into discussions of "Solar Radiation Modification" (i.e., blocking a bit of incoming sunlight to hold temperatures down) and "Carbon Dioxide Removal" (i.e., directly taking CO2 out of the atmosphere). This is a pretty useful split, but still leaves us lumping together ideas like orbiting mirrors and cloud brightening above the oceans, or carbon capture at factories and attempts to boost mid-ocean algae blooms.

    Geomimetic technologies would be those that seek to replicate known geophysical processes, so stratospheric sulfate injection (which attempts to reproduce the high-atmosphere effects of a large volcanic eruption) is geomimetic SRM, while white-rooftop programs (which attempt to increase urban/suburban albedo by literally painting rooftops white) would be, um, let's call it infrastructure SRM. Similarly, large-scale tree-planting projects could be called geomimetic CDR, while CO2 scrubber towers would be infrastructure CDR.

    Language matters, and the terms we use to describe or categorize things can greatly shape how we react to them. I'm a strong advocate for research into all forms of geoengineering, not with the goal of immediate deployment, but to see which ones might have dangerous (and unexpected) side-effects that should bar deployment, no matter how bad things get. Having clearer labels on the processes, and using terms that are less likely to provoke an emotional reaction, will help us take a more thoughtful look at our options.

    October 14, 2010

    Terraforming the Earth, Taken Seriously

    #alttext#It's amazing what can happen in five years.

    Yesterday, October 13 2010, I delivered a talk on the political and ethical dilemmas surrounding geoengineering at the National Academy of Sciences. I spoke at a meeting organized by the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR), a group within the Academies that identifies issues needing more attention. With representatives from major research universities, big technology companies, and multiple government agencies in the audience, the meeting made it very clear to me that not only has the idea of geoengineering (or "climate engineering," in the current language) become a mainstream topic, it's being taken as a deadly serious possibility.

    That was definitely not the case not too long ago. In July of 2005, when I first wrote about geoengineering (referring to it, as in the title of this piece, as "terraforming the Earth"), it was not a mainstream topic, to say the least. If anyone outside of a small band of scientists and engineers gave a moment's thought to the idea of large-scale modifications of the climate, it was to laugh at it -- particularly the notion of putting mirrors into orbit (parodied beautifully in Futurama's "Crimes of the Hot" episode). Still, there was something about the concept that seemed to me to be worth watching.

    In 2005, I observed that many of the supporters of geoengineering saw it as a way to avoid having to change our technological, economic, and social systems in ways that would reduce (and eventually eliminate) anthropogenic carbon emissions. The actual climate scientists talking about the idea, though, saw it very differently: given the speed with which climate change was happening, the planet might hit a global crisis point before it was able to reorganize itself to move to a zero-carbon economy; in their view, geoengineering might allow us to forestall disaster long enough to deal with carbon. Geoengineering would enable carbon emissions reduction, rather than make it unnecessary.

    Today, while some supporters of geoengineering remain stuck in the "get out of carbon reductions free" mindset, the clear majority of people involved in the debates around climate engineering recognize that it's not a solution in and of itself. Moreover, although one of the fears about geoengineering has been that it might make people less likely to support carbon reductions -- the so-called "moral hazard" problem -- a couple of the speakers at yesterday's meeting referred to a recent Royal Society survey with surprising results: discussions of geoengineering actually make people, particularly climate skeptics, more likely to support carbon reductions, simply because geoengineering is seen as so extreme. (They didn't provide a link, and I can't find one at the moment -- if anyone reading this can point me to the relevant web page, I'd much appreciate it.) A substantial "public dialogue" process (PDF), organized by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), made it very clear that when people learn more about geoengineering, they in turn demand greater effort at carbon mitigation. While this public dialogue solely involved UK citizens, it's certainly suggestive of how other communities might respond. (Thank you Adam Burke for the pointer.)

    The rules of the National Academies meeting were such that while I'm free to talk about the various presentations and discussions, I'm not supposed to identify who said what. What I can say is that there's still quite a bit of debate about the efficacy and possible side-effects of various climate engineering projects -- yet even the ostensible proponents were quick to point out the likely drawbacks, and the self-identified opponents wouldn't rule out the possible need.

    Speakers wove together climate science, political concerns (from multiple partisan perspectives), ethics, and methods for wrestling with uncertainty. We had presentations from folks of the caliber of Ken Caldeira, Alan Robock, and Denise Caruso. And while there was plenty of debate, everyone in the room agreed on three big ideas:

  • Climate disruption is happening fast, and we are rapidly losing any chance we might have to avert its worst effects through carbon reductions alone;
  • Climate engineering needs a great deal more research (even making geoengineering research 1% of overall climate change research would be a vast increase), to identify both best options and techniques to avoid;
  • Because "desperate people do desperate things" (a line from my talk), there's a very real chance that someone will attempt to use climate engineering.

    (I added the "desperate people" line to my talk because, as much as we are all concerned about the ecological side-effects and global political repercussions of climate engineering, this is ultimately about people trying to save themselves from disaster; we can't forget that human lives are at stake. The line seemed to strike a nerve, and several of the subsequent presenters repeated it. One told me that it crystallized a core issue about geoengineering.)


    Beyond the three consensus points, most people in the room (although I wouldn't necessarily say everyone) agreed that geoengineering research and policy deliberations must be as transparent and open as possible. It would be very easy to interpret even the most altruistic climate engineering efforts as conspiratorial and anti-democratic, because of the sheer scale and global impact of the projects. Moreover, since ultimately we are all interested in the planet's health, voices beyond just a narrow set of scientists need to be heard. It would be easy to get this wrong, with disastrous results.

    This is the right time to address this issue. It does not yet appear that anyone has started to develop actual geoengineering tools, but the pathway to doing so is short. The moment we have a trigger event -- a series of repeated drought years, perhaps, or unprecedented set of storms -- there will be calls to do something, anything, to avoid catastrophe. For desperate people, willing to do desperate things, geoengineering will look like a very attractive option.

    The problem isn't that we don't yet know enough to be able to say "yes" to geoengineering with any certainty; the problem is that we don't yet know enough to be able to say "no," and mean it.

  • August 11, 2010

    A Response to Dale...

    [Dale Carrico, at Amor Mundi, wrote a thought-provoking piece on whether geoengineering should be considered "futurological greenwashing," covering aspects including the fuzziness of the concept, who's behind efforts to promote the concept, and its non-democratic nature. Chris Mooney (the original trigger for Dale's piece) wrote one response; here's mine.]

    Not everyone who writes or speaks about geoengineering has the same perspective, even those of us who approach it from a "futurological" point of view. But as geoengineering has moved from fringe fantasy ("space mirrors") to sober consideration, one thing has become abundantly clear:

    Geophysics doesn't care about politics.

    Climate systems are slow-change systems; we could stop putting any carbon into the atmosphere right this very second, globally and totally, and still see another 20-50 years of warming due to the carbon that's already there, and the thermal inertia of heat accumulated in the oceans. That translates into at least another 1° C of warming guaranteed, and potentially another 3° C. And 3° C translates into catastrophe.

    There's no doubt that continuing to spew greenhouse gases will make things even worse, so don't read that as a "nothing we do matters" argument. But it's very important to recognize that doing all of the right things, for all of the right reasons, may at this point no longer be sufficient to hold off disaster -- a disaster that will hurt most the people least responsible for its causes, least able to survive short-term shocks, and least able to adapt to long-term changes.

    So we need to ask ourselves what our options are to minimize harm. Unfortunately, the list of what's technically feasible and what's ethically palatable don't necessarily line up -- and some choices that are both technically and ethically attractive (such as radical emission reductions) are very likely insufficient at this point. So what do we do? We can't just hand-wave that question away: I increasingly believe that this will be the defining question of how we deal with global warming.

    The definition of geoengineering that I've been using for quite awhile is "intentional intervention in geophysical systems in order to alter the global climate." This comprises the three key elements: purpose -- geoengineering is something done willfully and with climate modification as the primary goal; scale -- geoengineering focuses on manipulation of complex geophysical processes; and scope -- the results aren't limited to or focused on a particular locality. This helps to clarify both what is and isn't geoengineering. Spewing carbon into the atmosphere via industry and transportation is certainly global and has complex effects, but the primary goal isn't to change the climate; cloud-seeding is intentional and complex, but local; planting trees is intentional and has a (very small) global impact, but is (arguably) not systemic manipulation.

    A science-fiction parallel that might illuminate is to think of it as terraforming the Earth. And yes, that's a massive and fraught endeavor.

    This definition does illuminate one surprising benefit, however. Because geoengineering operates at a global scale, efforts by the rich to save their own skins through (say) sulfate-injection to keep temperatures down would potentially do more to protect the poor nations than would more locally-focused adaptation efforts.

    Dale is absolutely right that geoengineering should be considered and (if embarked upon) managed democratically. The political and ethical questions that geoengineering prompts have long been the focus of my own writing on the subject -- hell, it's the entire reason I wrote Hacking the Earth. And there may be ways of handling it that are reasonably transparent and democratic; see A Survival Guide to Geoengineering, a piece I wrote for the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, or the video of my talk "Hacking the Earth Without Voiding the Warranty", to see some of the guidelines for trying to keep a democratic handle on something this massive.

    But here's the ugly truth: nature doesn't care about democracy, or who's right, or what's fair. And because of the slow-change aspect of climate, we can't wait until the worst effects are upon us to make a decision -- by then, it would be far, far too late. The scenario we may be faced with is one where doing something for the wrong reasons, run by the wrong people, may still save more lives than holding out for a more appealing option.

    This doesn't mean geoengineering is the right thing to do, or is wise, or will be cost-free -- only that there's a disturbingly high possibility that it's the least-bad of a set of very bad options.

    March 22, 2010

    Getting it Right

    Screen shot 2010-03-13 at 12.35.20 PM.PNG

    A Survival Guide to Geoengineering, my essay for Momentum, the journal of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, is now available online and via PDF. It's an exploration of what would be necessary to reduce the risks associated with geoengineering, if (or, sadly, when) it gets deployed. This essay served as the basis of the talk I gave at the State of Green Business Forum last month.

    The first part of the essay is a recap of the main issues around geoengineering -- the kinds of proposals out there, the uncertainties involved, and the political dilemmas. But the real focus is the list of five key steps that I believe to be mandatory to steer us away from the worst potential results of geoengineering:

    • Transparency
    • Ongoing international advisory group
    • A bottom-up "Ecoscientists without Borders"
    • Clear mechanisms for resolving disputes
    • Ban (with teeth) on non-state projects

    Interestingly, when I gave the talk in February going over these ideas, the last is the one that I got the most push-back on. I suspect that, once real mechanisms for monitoring and managing global climate systems are in place, non-state projects could be useful and warranted. For now, however, it seems clear that non-state groups acting independently are more likely to lead to inter-state disputes than any persistent moderation of temperatures or carbon.

    March 9, 2010

    Pushing Back Against the Methane Tipping Point

    (This is a long piece, but I'm putting it all on the front page because it's a massive issue.)

    A piece in the latest issue of Science shows that there's a considerable amount of methane (CH4) coming from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, where it had been trapped under the permafrost. There's as much coming out from one small section of the Arctic ocean as from all the rest of the oceans combined. This is officially Not Good.

    Here's why: methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, significantly more powerful than carbon dioxide. There are billions of tons of methane trapped under the permafrost, and if that methane starts leaking quickly, it would have a strong feedback effect -- warming the atmosphere and oceans, causing more methane to leak, and on and on. The melting of methane ice (aka "methane hydrates" and "methane clathrates") is probably the most significant global warming tipping point event out there. If we see runaway methane from underneath the Siberian permafrost, we could see temperatures increasing far faster than even the most pessimistic CO2-driven scenarios -- perhaps as much as 8-10° C, very much into the global catastrophe realm. To put it in context: rapid methane releases have been implicated in extinction events in Earth's geologic past.

    (Here's one piece of mitigating information: it's unclear how long this methane leak has been happening, or the degree to which the measured methane levels exceeds previous amounts. If we're lucky, this is actually a status quo situation, and we still have time before we reach a tipping point. But basing our strategy on "if we're lucky" is not very wise.)

    Because of this tipping point/feedback process, a runaway methane melt won't stop on its own. When I've written before about desperation as a driver for the rapid (and risky) implementation of geoengineering, this is precisely the scenario I had in mind. If this news holds up, and if it can be shown that the methane leak is actually increasing, then I believe that we are certain to engage in geoengineering, and probably will do so before we have enough good models and studies to suss out any unwanted consequences. We'd be faced with a choice between guaranteed catastrophe or terrible uncertainty.

    We'd probably try every geoengineering option available in the event of a methane runaway, but the one that most people would focus on would be the temperature management strategies: stratospheric sulfate injection, seawater cloud brightening, and (unlikely to happen but certain to get a lot of media attention) orbiting reflectors. But there's one more method we should consider. Understanding its potential requires a bit of science talk.

    I noted earlier that methane is a "significantly more powerful" greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. More specifically, it's at least 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2; some reports (such as the first piece I linked to above) cite it as 30x stronger, and I've been seen as much as 72x stronger. The difference comes from how the effect is measured over time -- methane and carbon dioxide leave the atmosphere at very different speeds. Although CO2 takes upwards of a century to cycle out naturally, methane takes only about ten years. Why the difference? Chemical processes in the atmosphere break down CH4 (in combination with oxygen) into CO2+H2O -- carbon dioxide and water. In addition, certain bacteria -- known as methanotrophs -- actually consume methane, with the same chemical results. These processes have their limits, however; an abundance of methane in the atmosphere can overwhelm the oxidation chemistry, making the methane stick around for longer than the typical 8-10 years, and the commonplace methanotrophic bacteria evolved in an environment where methane emerges gradually.

    These are pretty much the only two natural methane "sinks." There are a few small-scale human processes that can make use of methane (for the production of methanol for fuel, for example) and function as artificial sinks, but such efforts would be hard-pressed to capture methane released across two million square kilometers. So here's where we start to think big.

    Both of the natural processes are, in principle, amenable to human intervention. The oxidation of methane into CO2 and water is a well-understood phenomenon, and relies on the presence of OH (hydroxyl radical); upwards of 90% of lower atmosphere methane is oxidized through this process (PDF). But OH is something of a problem chemical, in that it's also a key oxidation agent for many atmospheric pollutants, such as carbon monoxide and NOx. Although we could produce OH to enhance the natural chemical oxidation process, the side-effects of pumping enough OH into the atmosphere to oxidize all of that methane would be unpredictable, but almost certainly quite bad.

    So what about methanotrophic bacteria? Such bacteria have long been recognized in freshwater areas and soil, and have had limited use in bioremediation efforts. Methanotrophic Archaea -- similar to bacteria, but a wholly different kingdom of organism -- were recently identified in the oceans; research suggests that methanotrophic Archaea may be responsible for the oxidation of up to 80% of the methane in the oceans. Methanotrophic microbes can also be temperature extremophiles, as they were among the various species found after the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed.

    We recently began to learn much more about how methanotrophic bacteria function, as a team from the Institute for Genomic Research sequenced the genome of the methanotroph Methylococcus capsulatus. The scientists discovered that Methylococcus has the genomic capacity to adapt to a far wider set of environments than it is currently found in. They also looked at the possibility of enhancing the microbe's ability to oxidize methane, although admittedly for purposes other than straight methane consumption.

    So here's the proposal: we need to deploy methanotrophic microbes at the East Siberian Ice Shelf. Methanotrophic Archaea appears to be best-suited for this task, but we don't know as much about them as we do about bacteria. If we need to modify the microbes (to consume methane more quickly, for example), we may need to work on Methylococcus bacteria, making them viable in extremely cold seawater. I suspect that working with the Archaea will probably be sufficient, but it's important to think ahead about different pathways. Either way, we should consider just how we could make use of methanotrophs to avoid a methane-melt disaster. Given the size of the region, we'll need lots of them, but that's one advantage of biology over straight chemistry: the methanotrophs would be reproducing themselves.

    We need to be aware of possible unintended consequences, but at this point, it's not clear how additional methanotrophs would pose a larger risk; moreover, a mass of methanotrophic organisms would undoubtedly be helpful for reducing overall atmospheric methane beyond the Siberian release. Nonetheless, there are some crucial questions we need to answer before we could consider deploying natural or GMO methanotrophs:

  • Is it physically possible? Could a sufficient number of methane-eating bacteria even be produced to counter a fast release of methane from the Siberian ice shelf?
  • Is it biologically possible? Would methanotrophic Archaea survive in the Siberian ocean? Could a species of methanotrophic bacteria be engineered to be able to do so (as well as consume large quantities of methane)?
  • What are the unrecognized risks? What are we missing in an initial risk analysis? Saying "we don't know the risks" doesn't, in and of itself, mean "we should not attempt this," it means "we need to do more research." Clearly, if the risks from enhancing the methane consumption and environmental adaptation capacities of a methanotroph could lead (through species-hopping genes or simple mutation) to even harder-to-manage problems than gigatons of atmospheric methane, this isn't an option. Boosting OH levels in the region would be the fallback position, as we have more experience with managing CO and NOx pollutants.

    If the frozen methane in the Siberian ocean is melting faster, our options are extremely limited. We'd no longer be in a position to stop the melting, even by ceasing all greenhouse gas production today; the temperature increases we're seeing now are the results of greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere decades ago. And when methane melts, it appears to do so quickly -- there are signs that past methane clathrate events took less than a human lifetime.

    This is why I think that methane melt would inevitably mean geoengineering. But if this is the case, the pathway I suggest here may be the best option. The engineering options are enhancements of common natural processes, as opposed to something that emulates extreme conditions (such as sulfate injection). At least with current understanding, there would be few downsides to a greater-than-expected growth of the methanotroph population -- it might even be helpful in mitigating atmospheric methane coming from other sources, such as cattle.

    A further advantage is that this is a process that could begin after we start to see significant methane output and could still have a measurably positive result. Using microbes for bio-"scrubbing" of methane from the atmosphere would work on methane that was a decade old as readily as methane fresh from the permafrost. We'd still see some effect from the methane that makes it to the atmosphere, but eventual removal would help to reduce that effect. This means that we still have time to get more certainty about the methane situation before we would need to use the methanotroph option; we don't necessarily have to rush past our better judgment in response. With a process of this magnitude, it's worth taking the time to get it right.

    If we are seeing the beginning of a runaway methane melt, we would be facing a problem of a scale with few precedents in human history. No society on the planet would be unaffected; if left unmitigated, it would continue to affect the lives of our children, and our children's children, and generations beyond that. And remember, this is a fast process -- simply pushing a bit harder to reduce carbon emissions will do nothing to stop it.

    Our choices are few, and the risk of not acting is (potentially) immense. We may well be on the brink of a new era in planetary management. Let's hope we're up to the challenge.

    (Some of this essay reproduces text from my initial methanotroph proposal on Worldchanging back in 2005. At that point, it was speculation -- now, it's something we need to seriously consider.)

  • February 2, 2010

    Living On (and Hacking the) Earth

    Last month, I was interviewed for the syndicated "Living on Earth" program (typically heard on NPR stations) on the subject of geoengineering. That interview was run this past weekend, and is now available -- with transcript -- at the Living on Earth website.

    (Direct link to the MP3.)

    YOUNG: What do you think is the likelihood that we might need a geo-engineering approach?

    CASCIO: I think it's more likely than not, unfortunately because...

    YOUNG: Now wait a minute, you spent all this time telling me how it's a disaster, now you're saying we might have to use it?

    CASCIO: Well, yes. It's because over the past few decades we simply have been ignoring the problem of global warming. We're in a situation where we simply no longer have the best option available to us. The best option would have been to deal with this 20 years ago.

    And so, what we're stuck with [is] a selection of less good options. Are we talking rapid decarbonization and what that's going to the economy? Are we talking about making major changes to our energy infrastructure? Useful, but again, disruptive. These other alternatives are so seemingly unpalatable. It's very likely that we're going to be stuck in a situation where we will feel ourselves forced to take radical action.

    Emphasis in that last paragraph on the "seemingly," btw.

    January 21, 2010

    New Fast Company: Vampire Loads, White Roofs, and the Quest for Efficiency

    Latest Fast Company is now up: Vampire Loads, White Roofs, and the Quest for Efficiency gives a shout-out to the newly-retired head of the California Energy Commission, Art Rosenfeld, and the benefits his policies have provided to California and, as other states adopt them and manufacturers adhere to them, the rest of the US.

    Rosenfeld was, until his retirement, the head of the California Energy Commission, a state organization that shapes the rules surrounding electricity production and use in California. During Rosenfeld's 30-year tenure at the CEC, he made energy efficiency the overriding driver of regulatory policy, creating rules for everything from refrigerators (which now use only a quarter of the power that their less-fancy 1970s ancestors did) to "vampire loads" (the power still consumed by devices when turned off) to--most recently--the power consumed by flat screen televisions, which by some reports now account for nearly 10% of the power consumption in California.

    And in doing so, is directly responsible for this remarkable fact: despite an explosion of consumer electronics, mobile gadgets, and personal computers of all types, energy use per-capita in California is the same as it was 30 years ago.

    There are a couple of ways to look at this data point. You could say "See! With all of the effort we put into efficiency, people just find ways to keep using that power -- things never get better!" Or you could say "See! Through increasing efficiency, we can keep improving our quality of life without increasing the impact we have on the world!"

    Which one is more persuasive depends on what kind of mood I'm in.

    December 25, 2009

    Cold War Over Warming Already Underway?

    Seems like it.

    Mark Lynas, who worked with the Maldives group at COP15, was literally in the room when the final negotiations took place, and wrote about it for The Guardian. The key section:

    To those who would blame Obama and rich countries in general, know this: it was China's representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. "Why can't we even mention our own targets?" demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia's prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil's representative too pointed out the illogicality of China's position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord's lack of ambition.

    China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak "as soon as possible". The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

    [...] With the deal gutted, the heads of state session concluded with a final battle as the Chinese delegate insisted on removing the 1.5C target so beloved of the small island states and low-lying nations who have most to lose from rising seas. President Nasheed of the Maldives, supported by Brown, fought valiantly to save this crucial number. "How can you ask my country to go extinct?" demanded Nasheed. The Chinese delegate feigned great offence – and the number stayed, but surrounded by language which makes it all but meaningless. The deed was done.

    I figured something like this would happen. I just didn't expect the signs to show up so quickly.

    December 17, 2009

    None More Black

    nonemoreblack.pngAn aerosol known as "black carbon," a primary component in soot, looks to be a key driver of anthropogenic global warming in tropical locations around the world -- most notably, in the Himalayan region. research, by NASA’s William Lau and collaborators, reinforces with detailed numerical analysis what earlier studies suggest: that soot and dust contribute as much (or more) to atmospheric warming in the Himalayas as greenhouse gases. This warming fuels the melting of glaciers and could threaten fresh water resources in a region that is home to more than a billion people.

    [...] Nicknamed the “Third Pole”, the region in fact holds the third largest amount of stored water on the planet beyond the North and South Poles. But since the early 1960s, the acreage covered by Himalayan glaciers has declined by over 20 percent. Some Himalayan glaciers are melting so rapidly, some scientists postulate, that they may vanish by mid-century if trends persist. Climatologists have generally blamed the build-up of greenhouse gases for the retreat, but Lau’s work suggests that may not be the complete story.

    He has produced new evidence suggesting that an “elevated heat pump” process is fueling the loss of ice, driven by airborne dust and soot particles absorbing the sun’s heat and warming the local atmosphere and land surface.

    Globally, black carbon looks to be the second most-important warming agent after CO2.

    Here's the twist: much of the production of black carbon comes from the combustion of biofuels and diesel, the two leading "greener" fuel technologies.

    Aerosols last for months in the atmosphere, as opposed to the decades that greenhouse gases can last. This is good, as it means that policies that reduce the production of black carbon can start showing positive results in a matter of weeks.

    November 15, 2009


    Superfreakonomics author Steven Levitt has been fighting against the myriad critics going after him for the many, many mistakes in (at least) the global warming section of the book. Interestingly, a phrase that keeps coming up in his rebuttals is "I'm not sure why that is blasphemy."

    Blasphemy. Hmm.

    What strikes me as interesting about the use of this term is that it (along with the use of "belief" and explicit references to "global warming religion") changes the frame of the discussion of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) to something for which faith overrides analysis. By claiming that AGW scientists are simply pushing their beliefs, AGW critics can position themselves in front of the general public and the traditional media as simply having differing beliefs, in a social milieu in which multiplicity of faiths is a Good Thing (™). Attacking them for not believing in AGW is akin (in this framing) to attacking them for being Presbyterian. You may disagree with their beliefs, they say, but they have every right to believe what they want.

    The parallel here is with scientific subjects such as evolution, the biological origins of sexual orientation, and the age of the universe, all of which have opponents who insist on framing all sides of the argument in terms of beliefs (you can probably add vaccinations to that pile, too). It's not just that they're faith based -- they insist that everyone else in the discussion is, too.

    There's some utility for them in this. If the discussion around AGW (or evolution, or vaccinations) was solely scientific -- with the use of relatively objective evidence, open analysis, and a willingness to learn from mistakes -- the disbelievers would quickly lose all standing. The scientific evidence for AGW is simply so overwhelming that the only way to perpetuate a "debate" is by playing the belief card. As long as AGW deniers and "skeptics" can keep the framing religious, they can maintain their perceived legitimacy.

    As far as I know, Steven Levitt does not adopt an explicitly religious view of the issues discussed in his book, and might even take offense at being lumped in with anti-vaxxers and creationists. But he's the one who has decided to frame his arguments in the language of faith and belief. The lesson is here is simple: pay attention to language. The messages and meanings underlying the terms chosen by interest groups can say more about them than they might intend.

    November 9, 2009

    New Fast Company: Multifractals in the Sky, With Power-Laws

    My latest Fast Company essay is now up. "Is the Atmosphere Simpler Than We Thought?" takes a look at some recent research claiming that the atmosphere demonstrates a multifractal power-law structure.

    McGill University physicist Shaun Lovejoy kept coming back to the idea, though, and he and his team found suggestive indications that there was a multifractal process at work. (Standard fractal systems involve a single exponent defining the "fractal dimension" of a system; multifractal systems involve a range of exponents, given the label "singularity exponent." Seriously.) The available data weren't clear though, because the readings were muddied by the effects of the very aircraft and instruments used to gather them. So Lovejoy looked up--to satellites. And digging through data from 1,200 consecutive orbits of the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission, the team came up with something pretty remarkable: very strong evidence that the atmosphere follows power laws and shows fractal behavior, visible at scales from under 10km to over 20,000km.

    When translated into climate system models, this would allow for modeling of behavior at millimeter scales -- a hundred million times more precise than current models, according to New Scientist. Woah.

    October 30, 2009

    New Fast Company: 350

    My latest Fast Company piece is up. 350 takes a look at the global movement to limit CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million.

    If this sounds like I think the 350 movement is a bad idea... I don't. I rather like the simplicity of the meme, and the target is--if difficult--smart. It's not saying "let's keep things from getting too much worse," it's saying "let's make things better." That's the kind of goal I like.

    But getting back to 350ppm requires more than a rapid cessation of anthropogenic sources of atmospheric carbon. It requires an acceleration of the processes that cycle atmospheric CO2. Planting trees is an obvious step, but it's slow and actually doesn't do enough alone. We'll also need to bring in more advanced carbon sequestration techniques, such as bio-char. The combination of the two would likely bring down atmospheric carbon levels, given enough time.

    Unfortunately, we may not have enough time.

    I have a habit (good or bad, your call) of trying to tease out the unexpected, and often unwanted, implications of big ideas. It can be frustrating for allies, because it sounds like I'm being critical. What I'm doing is trying to get people to recognize that choices, even good ones, have consequences, and the more we think through the consequences ahead-of-time, the better-off we'll be.

    June 14, 2009

    WSJ: It's Time to Cool the Planet


    In which I admit that I have become a reluctant geoengineering advocate.

    To their credit, the Wall Street Journal editors I worked with gave me absolutely no push-back about including numerous strident calls for carbon emissions elimination alongside geoengineering.

    To be clear, geoengineering won’t solve global warming. It’s not a “techno-fix.” It would be enormously risky and almost certainly lead to troubling unforeseen consequences. And without a doubt, the deployment of geoengineering would lead to international tension. Who decides what the ideal temperature would be? Russia? India? The U.S.? Who’s to blame if Country A’s geoengineering efforts cause a drought in Country B?

    Also let’s be clear about one other thing: We will still have to radically reduce carbon emissions, and do so quickly. We will still have to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, and adopt substantially more sustainable agricultural methods. We will still have to deal with the effects of ecosystems damaged by carbon overload.

    But what geoengineering can do is slow the increase in temperatures, delay potentially catastrophic “tipping point” events—such as a disastrous melting of the Arctic permafrost—and give us time to make the changes to our economies and our societies necessary to end the climate disaster.

    Geoengineering, in other words, is simply a temporary “stay of execution.” We will still have to work for a pardon.

    That said, I have no desire to wade into the fever swamps that the comments section for this piece will shortly become.

    April 16, 2009

    The Sea Level Rise Mystery

    Twenty inches per decade -- that's the estimate of how rapidly the oceans rose in the last interglacial period about 121,000 years ago, in research appearing in Nature. That's eight feet over 50 years, in a world just 2°C warmer than we are today.

    Not good.

    But one little detail bugs me: while we can make educated guesses as to what triggered the sea level increase (glacial melts, presumably), there's no way of knowing from the fossil evidence when that trigger happened. That is, how long between the prehistoric Antarctic ice sheet collapse (for example) and the resulting surge of ocean water actually making it to the rest of the world?

    It turns out that, due to some major currents and the sheer mass of the ocean, dumping megatons of ice (or rock, or whatever) into one part of the sea doesn't make the whole world's sea level pop up immediately. It will, eventually, but it takes time, potentially decades -- or even centuries.

    That was the conclusion of a 2008 article in the Journal of Geophysical Research modeling sea level increases resulting from Antarctic and/or Greenland glacial melts.

    According to this research, it takes a surprisingly long time for a massive glacial melt to actually increase sea levels outside of the initial melt zone. Here's the relevant quote from the New Scientist article at the time:

    ... the majority of Greenland's meltwater will stay in the Atlantic Ocean for at least 50 years, causing sea levels here to rise faster than expected. "The Greenland ice cap is much less of a threat to tropical islands in the Pacific than it is for the coasts of North America and Europe," he says. [...] Antarctic meltwater could be prevented from reaching much of the world for centuries due to strong currents in the Southern Ocean, says Stammer.

    Here's the link to my summary, with graphics, from last year.

    Basically: meltwater from Greenland takes a decade or so to hit the western Atlantic (i.e., US East Coast), and doesn't notably affect the Pacific at all in the 50 year model run. Meltwater from Antarctica -- although much greater in volume -- never substantially leaves the Antarctic Ocean for the same 50 year model.

    Obviously there would be eventual equilibrium, so this study doesn't contradict the paleo results of rapid sea level increases -- once the surge gets to a region, at least. But it does make the situation more complex. If those of us with our hair on fire about global warming make what we think to be well-substantiated claims about sea level increases coming from temperature increases, and nothing (seems to) happen, we'll be accused of "crying wolf," lying about the danger just to get our pet socialiberatheislamofascist projects through.

    But here's the problem: I haven't seen any follow-up work to the JGR article. Nothing backing it up, nothing rejecting it, nothing criticizing the model... It's like this study just kind of got ignored. Anyone out there know anything more?

    March 16, 2009

    Geoengineering: New Problems, Old Politics

    I've been writing about geoengineering since 2005, and have even published a short book on the subject (Hacking the Earth), looking primarily at the ethics and politics of the issue. The political aspects are, in my view, the most important, yet they've received little attention. Up until recently, my 2007 essay, The Politics of Geoengineering (and its follow-ups, Terraforming War and Global Climate and Global Power) offered the only detailed argument about the complexities and consequences of geoengineering efforts in a world of global rivalries.

    That's now changed, with the publication of Stanford Law professor David Victor's "The Geoengineering Option" (PDF) in the pages of Foreign Affairs. Victor's article is a detailed run-down of the various political drivers, dilemmas, and implications of geoengineering. His piece covers much of the same ground that I've written about, and little of it will be surprising to readers of my book; he even includes the possibility of hostile use of geoengineering technologies and the potential for non-state actors to get in on the fun, although he misses the liability issues surrounding implementation of geoengineering.

    Unsurprisingly, his conclusions are similar to my own:

    The scientific academies in the leading industrialized and emerging countries -- which often control the purse strings for major research grants -- must orchestrate a serious and transparent international research effort funded by their governments. Although some work is already under way, a more comprehensive understanding of geoengineering options and of risk-assessment procedures would make countries less trigger-happy and more inclined to consider deploying geoengineering systems in concert rather than on their own. (The International Council for Science, which has a long and successful history of coordinating scientific assessments of technical topics, could also lend a helping hand.) Eventually, a dedicated international entity overseen by the leading academies, provided with a large budget, and suffused with the norms of transparency and peer review will be necessary.

    Abundant research, deep transparency, and global cooperation are the only ways to deal with geoengineering safely.

    It's heartening to see that the kinds of ideas I've been hammering on for a few years now are starting to trickle out into the mainstream. I doubt that Victor has seen my work on geoengineering; what's happening is that the debates about geoengineering in the green blogosphere (where my stuff gets read) and the high-level debates in the academic punditocracy have started to converge. And because this is in Foreign Affairs, it's likely to become a topic of discussion in Washington, DC.

    One sign that this is underway is the announcement that DARPA -- the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- is hosting a colloquium on geoengineering at Stanford this week. Ken Caldeira will be there, of course, and I would be shocked if David Victor wasn't also invited. DARPA is a weird agency that is ostensibly under the Pentagon, but has historically supported a number of projects without clear military applications. Still, the very fact that a Department of Defense agency is looking at geoengineering is raising hackles, even among attendees.

    “The last thing we need is to have DARPA developing climate-intervention technology,” says Caldeira. He says he agreed to go to the meeting “to try to get DARPA not to develop geoengineering techniques. Geoengineering is already so fraught with social, geopolitical, economic, and ethical issues; why would we want to add military dimensions?”

    Unfortunately, we don't need to "add" military dimensions -- they've been there from the beginning. A technology with the potential to alter critical aspects of the global environment, with differential effects across regions, and not dependent upon a massive industrial base (so even available to non-state actors)? As I said in 2007, only partially tongue-in-cheek, no state wants to find itself facing a "terraforming gap." Wise or not, smart or not, geoengineering is a geopolitical issue, with all that entails.

    Geoengineering's Drawbacks

    Because I'm not reflexively opposed to geoengineering research, and because I increasingly suspect that some level of albedo-management geoengineering will be necessary simply due to climate disruption happening faster than previously expected, some people tend to assume that I'm a geoengineering advocate. I'm not -- but as I've noted before, I do believe that it would be less disastrous than climate-driven depopulation. Nonetheless, geoengineering is all-but-certain to have undesirable consequences, both politically (see next post) and environmentally.

    This week we got an excellent example of the latter.

    Using well-established data on the light-diffusing effects of aerosol particles, Daniel Murphy [at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Earth System Research Lab] calculated that the geoengineering scheme currently envisioned could reduce incoming sunlight by about 3%. That squares with data from the Mount Pinatubo eruption.

    The geoengineering scheme would also mean 3% less sunlight reaching flat photovoltaic collectors that generate electricity. But the aerosols would cut the available solar radiation even more to dish- and tube-shaped collectors that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight. Murphy's research shows that for every watt per square meter of sunlight diffused by the aerosols, as much as 5 watts per square meter would be made unavailable to mirrored collectors on the ground.

    This is a problem, but not a fatal one. Commercially-available photovoltaic cells remain painfully inefficient, so one of the best ways to increase the energy returned from a solar array is to use concentration. High-atmosphere particles tend to scatter light, however, and diffuse light doesn't concentrate as well as direct sunlight.

    There are a few caveats:

  • Solar isn't the only renewable option, and concentrated solar -- while the best energy-producer per square meter -- isn't likely to be the dominant form, at least once cheap solar plastics become more widely available.
  • Concentrated solar doesn't become useless, just less-efficient.
  • Most importantly, the leading proposal for stratospheric sulphate injection geoengineering would have it happen primarily at the poles; warming at the poles has a much greater feedback effect than equatorial warming, and is much more critical to prevent.

    Solar, concentrated or otherwise, isn't likely to be a critical energy source at the poles, so the reduction in solar efficiency resulting from stratospheric sulphate geo would be less important if the geo focuses on polar regions.

    Even if this turns out to be a minor drawback, it's an important indicator that no one response to global warming is perfect. Even carbon emission reduction has negative repercussions -- up-front expense in some cases, time required in others, and even the possibility of a short-term increase in warming due to the removal of atmospheric particulates (shutting down coal plants means more than reducing CO2, it also reduces soot and other pollutants -- yay for our lungs, but clearer skies mean warmer Earth). Still, geoengineering, because of its scale and the complexity of its subject, is highly likely to offer up more of these dilemmas.

  • February 10, 2009

    Hacking the Earth

    Hacking the Earth cover (final version)
      Update for visitors from Dot.Earth:

      This entry is largely about the book process, and not about the content, so I'll rectify that problem.

      Hacking the Earth is a collection of essays written between 2005 and early 2009 on the subject of geoengineering, as well as our broader responsibility for the climate and environment. This isn't a science text; while science is discussed, it's written for non-scientists to be able to understand and make use of.

      Instead, Hacking the Earth is fundamentally a book about how our culture and politics would both influence and be influenced by the consideration and deployment of geoengineering techniques. Issues of control, responsibility, liability, and cultural perceptions of risk loom large. It's not a book that tells you whether geoengineering is bad or good -- it's a book intended to give some depth to the debates.

      It's a short work, only about 115 pages, easily read in one sitting.

      Hacking the Earth came out in early 2009, and in the subsequent time, I've written a number of additional pieces about geoengineering. Probably most important is a new essay on management of the process, "A Survival Guide to Geoengineering," published by the University of Minnesota's institute on the Environment. In February, I gave a talk on the same subject for the State of Green Business Forum entitled "Hacking the Earth without Voiding the Warranty"; a video can be found here.

    Today my collection of essays about geoengineering, Hacking the Earth, goes on sale. It gathers together the major pieces I've written about geoengineering, here and at Worldchanging; I've edited most of them to bring the content up to date, eliminate the bloggier aspects ("such and such just appeared at this link"), and give it a bit more flow.

    This is my "have to have a book in print" stake in the ground, at least for now. It's sometimes surprising how important a print publication still is in many knowledge and analysis fields. It doesn't matter if it's widely read, it just needs to exist.

    This is also an experiment in publish-on-demand. Rather than go through a traditional publisher, I'm trying out This gives me a bit more control over the content, and allows me to put something about on a subject that probably won't be generating a lot of mainstream attention for another couple of years.

    If you decide to buy a copy, thank you. If not, thank you, too. I'm really curious about how well this model of book publishing works, in terms of both success and failure.

    I don't think I have any more geoengineering items lined up right now. Therefore, I declare Terraformingstock over for now.

    February 9, 2009

    Plan "G"

    Grist's David Roberts asked me to do an overview of my thoughts on geoengineering for Gristmill. The piece -- given the title "Plan B" -- has now been posted. Here's an excerpt:

    No matter what, we would have to continue with emission reductions, even if we don't work fast enough to escape serious problems. Carbon dioxide sticks around in the atmosphere for centuries; the more we add, even slowly, the longer the crisis will last. But we'd also have to decide on a more immediate strategy.

    The conventional response would be to focus on mitigation, building the kinds of projects needed to lessen the very worst impacts of global warming. Even in the best scenario, we'd still see disastrous events, and many deaths; in time, however, we'd learn how to deal with the new climate. Hopefully, we'd be able to do so before too many people died from heat waves, drought, opportunistic diseases, storms, resource wars, forced migration, and the like. But make no mistake: the mitigation scenario would still be catastrophic for many around the world.

    That's why the geoengineering option appeals to many: systems that cool the planet a bit over the short run could suppress many of the more disastrous effects of warming temperatures, even as we continue with emissions reductions. Geoengineering projects are generally within our current technological and financial capabilities, and most emulate well-known natural processes. The goal would be to give us time to make the social, political, economic and technological changes needed to stop building up greenhouse gases.

    If you've been reading my geoengineering essays over the years, this one won't come as a huge surprise. If you're still new to the subject, however, it's a decent summary of where my thinking is at this point.

    January 28, 2009

    New Geoengineering Study, Part II


    The article The radiative forcing potential of different climate geoengineering options is now out and available for download and discussion. As expected, it offers one of the first useful comparisons of different geoengineering techniques.

    (It should be noted that the accuracy of the measurements and predicted effects of the various proposals is likely to be moderate at best; the value comes from having a clear comparison using the same modeling standards for each approach.)

    In the paper, Tim Lenton and his student Naomi Vaughn, of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the University of East Anglia, UK, focus strictly on the radiative impact of geoengineering -- that is, how much heat absorption is prevented -- and don't examine costs or risks. The goal here is to help figure out the "benefit" half of the cost-benefit ratio. Lenton and Vaughn have another paper (to be published later this year) taking a look at the cost side, and that will be just as important as this one.

    Lenton and Vaughn split geoengineering proposals into two categories:

    • Shortwave options that either increase the reflectivity (or albedo) of the Earth or block some percentage of incoming sunlight. These include megascale projects like orbiting mirrors and stratospheric sulphate, as well as more localized and prosaic methods like white rooftops and planting brighter (=more reflective) plants.
    • Longwave options are those that attempt to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere in order to slow warming. These include massive reforestation projects, "bio-char" production and storage, various air capture and filtering plans, and ocean biosphere manipulation with iron fertilization or phosphorus.

    Lenton and Vaughn run the numbers on the likely maximum results from each of the methods, working under the assumption of simultaneous aggressive carbon cutting efforts. One thing that becomes immediately clear is that no form of geoengineering would be enough to avert catastrophe if emissions aren't cut quickly. Unfortunately, they also argue that even aggressive carbon emission cuts won't be enough to forestall disaster.

    So, what works?

    Here's the first cut analysis in a chart form:


    Most effective (again, strictly in terms of radiative impact) over this century would be either space shields, stratospheric injection, or increasing cloud levels with seawater. Any of these, alone, could actually be enough to counteract global warming along with aggressive carbon emission reductions.

    Next would be increasing desert albedo (essentially putting massive reflective sheets across the deserts of the world) or direct carbon capture and storage (ideally captured from burning biofuels). These would slow global warming disaster, but wouldn't necessarily be enough to stop it. Biochar, reforestation, and increasing cropland & grassland albedo come in third, half again as effective as the previous proposals; the remaining methods would be even less-effective, in some cases multiple orders of magnitude less-effective.

    And all of these proposals have drawbacks. Space shields would be ridiculously expensive absent later-stage nanofabrication techniques. Stratospheric injection alters rainfall patterns, and any abrupt cessation of albedo manipulation would be worse than what had been prevented. Laying thousands upon thousands of square kilometers of reflective sheets across the desert is an ecosystem nightmare, while reforestation at sufficient levels to have an impact -- and any kind of biofuel or cropland/grassland modification -- would be incompatible with feeding the Earth's people. Carbon capture has the fewest potential drawbacks, other than cost -- and the fact that it alone wouldn't be sufficient to stop disaster, only delay it.

    With the various drawbacks (which Lenton and Vaughn will examine in more detail later this year), why even consider geoengineering?

    The explanation comes as an extension of the "bathtub model" Andy Revkin talks about today in the New York Times.

    Imagine the climate as a bathtub with both a running faucet and an open drain. As long as the amount of water coming from the faucet matches (on average) the capacity of the drain, the water level in the tub (that is, the carbon level in the atmosphere) remains stable. Over the course of the last couple of centuries, however, we've been turning up the water flow -- increasing atmospheric carbon concentrations -- first slowly, then more rapidly. At the same time, one consequence of our actions is that the drain itself is starting to get clogged -- that is, the various environmental carbon sinks and natural carbon cycle mechanisms are starting to fail. With more water coming into the tub, and a clogging drain, the inevitable result will be water spilling over the sides of the bathtub, a simple analogy for an environmental tipping point catastrophe.

    With this model, we can see that simply slowing emissions to where they were (say) a couple of decades ago won't necessarily be enough to stop spillover, if the carbon input is still faster than the carbon sinks can handle.

    That said, our efforts at stopping this catastrophe have -- rightly -- focused on reducing the water flowing from the faucet (cutting carbon emissions) as much as possible. But the flow of the water is still filling the tub faster than we can turn the faucet knob (we're far from getting carbon emissions to below carbon sink capacity). Without something big happening, we're still going to see a disaster.

    The shortwave geoengineering proposals, by blocking some of the incoming heat from the Sun, are the equivalent here to building up the sides of the tub with plastic sheets. The tub will be able to hold more water, although if the sheeting fails, the resulting spillover will be even worse than what would have happened absent geoengineering.

    The longwave geoengineering proposals, by increasing carbon capture, are the equivalent here to clearing out the drain, or even drilling a few holes in the bottom of the tub (let's assume that just goes to the drain, too). The water will leave the tub faster, but you may have to drill a lot of holes to have the impact you need -- and drilling too many holes could itself be ruinous.

    According to Lenton and Vaughn's study, the longwave geoengineering proposals would be much more effective in the long run -- at millennium scales -- than shortwave, but the shortwave would have a more immediate impact. It's clear that a combination of the two approaches would be best, of course coupled with aggressive carbon emission reductions. Build up the sides of the tub and drill a few holes, in other words.

    Of all of the proposals, air capture seems to be closest to a winner here, but the costs (and technology) remains a bit unclear, and will take some time to get up and running in any event. That delay will mean pressure to use one of the shortwave approaches, too. My guess is that stratospheric sulphate injection will be cheaper at the outset than the cloud albedo manipulation with seawater, but the latter seems likely to have fewer potential risks; we'll likely try both, but probably transition solely to cloud manipulation (at least until molecular nanofabrication allows us to do space-based shielding). The various minor proposals -- reforestation, urban rooftop albedo, and the like -- certainly won't hurt to do, and every little bit helps, but alone are massively insufficient.

    Lenton and Vaughn's study is precisely the kind of research that is needed to better understand what the geoengineering options are. As I emphasize here at every turn, this doesn't obviate the need for aggressive reductions in carbon emissions. But it's looking more and more like simply changing our light bulbs, boosting building efficiency, and taking a bike instead of a car, while clearly helpful, will still be insufficient to avert disaster, and even a global shift away from fossil fuels wouldn't come in time to stop the water from spilling over the edges of the tub.

    Nature stopped being natural centuries ago. It's been in our hands, under our influence, for much longer than we've been willing to admit. We've got to get smart about how we're reshaping the environment -- and do so before it's too late.

    January 27, 2009

    New Geoengineering Study

    A number of people have sent me links to reports about a new geoengineering study to be released tomorrow (the 28th) in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an open-access science journal from the European Geosciences Union. I haven't seen the study itself yet -- I'll download it as soon as it becomes available -- but from what's been reported, it looks like a good attempt to grapple with the diverse effects from different geoengineering strategies.

    In the meantime, this piece at Grist gives you a flavor of environmentalist reaction to the study, while this post by Oliver Morton offers some of the scientific details.

    The quick conclusion from reading the various reports about the report is that no one approach to geoengineering is a magic bullet. A combination of programs, with some insolation-blocking (likely with stratospheric sulphates) and some carbon sequestration (through buried charcoal and "biochar"), seems the most reasonable partner to aggressive emissions reductions.

    It's increasingly hard for me to see a climate survival strategy that doesn't involve some geoengineering. Reports like this one are important tools in helping us figure out what we can do, carefully, and what's not worth the risk.

    December 11, 2008

    Climate Lawsuits Ahoy

    The combination of science & liability may end up getting a lot of press in the Carbondämmerung era. The parallel of big tobacco and big carbon has always been compelling to me, but the Guardian reports that Oxford University physicists have developed a way to determine whether a climate disaster has a human causation.

    The technique involves running two computer models to simulate the conditions that led to extreme weather events. One model includes human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases, the second assumes the industrial revolution never happened and that carbon levels in the atmosphere have not increased over the last century. Comparing the results pins down the impact of man-made global warming. "As the science has evolved this is now possible, it's just a question of computing power," he said.

    This seems like a decent way of telling whether a given event is greenhouse gas related, but won't pin the carbon on the emitter. It's possible that a more detailed process could narrow down the likely sources, but I'm dubious. I expect that the carbon lawsuits are likely to go the same route as the tobacco suits: lots of noise, lots of outrage, but very few convictions.

    October 15, 2008

    Resilience and the Next Disaster


    If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, have friends or loved ones who do, or simply enjoy the various products and services to be found around these parts, take heed:

    When the Big One hits, it won't be pretty.

    The US Geological Survey has put out a set of videos showing the shaking associated with a major earthquake on the Hayward Fault. There hasn't been a big one on the Hayward Fault in over 300 years, and it's overdue for a serious seismic event. The USGS videos cover quakes measuring 6.8, 7.0, and 7.2, with epicenters ranging from Fremont in the south to the San Pablo Bay in the north.

    Short version: if you live in the Berkeley hills... well, it's not pretty. No place is truly safe -- Santa Cruz seems to come out okay -- but some places are likely to be flattened, regardless of the precise epicenter. (It's worth noting that the location of the epicenter does not correlate to the worst damage -- in fact, a quake hitting at the Fremont location is actually worse for more of the East Bay than one centered in Oakland.)

    So what do you do to prepare? There are numerous good sources for earthquake advice and kits, but (as is my habit) I want to look at the broader picture.

    Survival in an earthquake, generally speaking, requires much of the same kind of practices as survival in a hurricane, in a terrorist attack, or any other form of shocking hit with long repercussions. It all comes down to resilience.

    Here are my key elements of a diverse system -- I'll explore each in more depth in the coming days (as my schedule permits):

    Diversity: Not relying on a single kind of solution means not suffering from a single point of failure. (Prepare for different kinds of problems -- needing to escape the house, needing to stay in the house, dealing with no water, etc.)

    Redundancy: Backup, backup, backup. Never leave yourself with just one path of escape or rescue. (Make sure you have multiple copies of critical documents and extra amounts of key medications.)

    Decentralization: Again with the single point of failure problem. Centralized systems look strong, but when they fail, they fail catastrophically. (Don't store your emergency supplies in one location -- spread them out.)

    Collaboration: We're all in this together. (Take advantage of -- and learn to use -- collaborative technologies, especially those offering shared communication and information.)

    Transparency: Don't hide your systems -- transparency makes it easier to figure out where a problem may lie. (Make sure key shut-off switches -- for gas, especially -- are readily identified.)

    Openness: Many eyes make all bugs shallow. Share your plans and preparations, and listen when people point out flaws. (You're safer in an emergency when everyone is safer.)

    Fail Gracefully: Failure happens, so make sure that failure states don't make things worse than they are already. (Think about what'll happen when disaster strikes -- what will fall, shatter, burst into flames, and what can you do now to prevent it?)

    Flexibility: Be ready to change your plans when they're not working the way you expect. Don't get locked in to a particular approach. (Pay attention to what's happening around you, and don't expect things to remain stable.)

    Foresight: You can't predict the future, but you can hear its footsteps approaching. Think and prepare. (Make sure you have your emergency kit ready before the emergency hits.)

    Resilience, people. That's how we deal with a chaotic world.

    September 24, 2008

    Methane: It's Not Just From Your Cheeseburger

    I noted at the end of August reports of methane "leaks" in the Arctic circle. The Independent has another report, offering more detail on the findings. Alex at Worldchanging put up a piece about it today, bringing a lot more attention to the risk.

    This is (potentially) huge. Potentially, because the reports remain spotty on some critical details. Most important question: is this coming from frozen methane hydrates? If it's not, the potential release of methane could be bad, but probably something we could deal with. If it is... we're in a lot of trouble.

    Here's why: according to (soon to be published) details about the region, that's 50 gigatons of methane that could be released. And methane, as has been reiterated time and again, is 23 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than CO2.

    Except it's not. It's actually worse. That 23x figure refers to the impact of a given quantity of methane over a 100 year period -- a standard way of comparing the effects of different gases. But methane cycles out after a decade, so a better way of comparing its impact is over a shorter time period -- say, 20 years. Compressed to two decades, then, the relative power of methane as a greenhouse gas is 72 times that of carbon dioxide.


    So that 50 gigatons of methane? That's the equivalent of 3600 gigatons of carbon dioxide, in terms of greenhouse effect.

    To put that into comparison: the Earth's atmosphere holds a total of about 3000 metric gigatons of carbon dioxide.

    This would more than double the concentration of CO2e in the atmosphere.

    So this is not just huge, it's really freaking huge.

    There's still nothing conclusive showing an overall increase in atmospheric concentration at this point, though, so hopefully that means that we haven't seen a catastrophic level of release (yet).

    As I said, we still don't know if this is the methane hydrates beginning to melt. If it is, then even going to zero CO2 emissions now won't do a damn thing. Ocean thermal inertia will keep the temperatures up undersea for a good while, even if we stopped all carbon outputs now. Thermal inertia alone would keep us warming on land for a couple of decades, too, after we zero out, but that's comparatively less catastrophic than the hydrates.

    Albedo-modification geoengineering (stratospheric sulfates, "space mirrors," that sort of thing) won't do much to change ocean temperatures in a short enough period to stop hydrate melts. At best, it would moderate atmospheric temperatures enough to stave off some of the most disastrous effects of a temperature spike. It seems highly likely to me that this is going to be a major point of political and scientific debate in the next few years, and we'll probably see some early attempts by early in the next decade.

    CO2 sequestration geo (iron or urea dumps in the ocean, bioengineered supertrees, that sort of thing) won't do a damn thing about methane, even if it worked.

    Probably the only possible geoengineering response with a direct impact on the methane would be some kind of in-situ methane conversion to CO2, either with chemistry or with methanotrophic bacteria.

    It's hard to imagine a geoengineering project gone wrong that would be worse than a methane hydrate melt; a big methane hydrate event appears to be connected to one of the largest extinctions in geological history (bigger than the KT event killing the dinosaurs). 90+% of all species gone.

    I've made it abundantly clear that I don't think geo is a good idea. It's a pretty damn crazy idea, in a lot of ways. But if this methane report is as bad as it looks to be, crazy ideas may be all that we have left.

    August 30, 2008

    Methane Trigger for Geo & Bio Engineering


    Methane (CH4) is 20-25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). We're quite familiar with one source of atmospheric methane -- enteric fermentation in cattle (see my innumerable posts about cheeseburger carbon footprints). But there's another source of methane that has the potential to be far greater in volume, and correspondingly far more threatening to the climate. It's the methane from bogs and marshlands that is trapped under the Siberian permafrost.

    Well, that was trapped. As the permafrost melts, the methane is now starting to leak out.

    Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is leaking from the permafrost under the Siberian seabed, a researcher on an international expedition in the region told Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter on Saturday.

    "The permafrost now has small holes. We have found elevated levels of methane above the water surface and even more in the water just below. It is obvious that the source is the seabed," Oerjan Gustafsson, the Swedish leader of the International Siberian Shelf Study, told the newspaper.

    The tests were carried out in the Laptev and east Siberian seas and used much more precise measuring equipment than previous studies, he said.

    And that's pretty much all that's been said, so far. It does seem to confirm Russian reports from a couple of years ago. But it's unfortunate that the reporters covering this didn't mention just how much methane is trapped under the permafrost in Siberia, because the amount is staggering.

    The most conservative estimates I've seen start at around 70 billion metric tons of methane -- the equivalent in greenhouse terms to 1.6 trillion metric tons of CO2. As a point of comparison, the total annual greenhouse footprint in the US is about 7 billion tons; globally, the annual footprint is about 30 billion tons.

    If this methane leak continues to increase, we may be facing a disastrous result that no amount of renewable energy, vegetarianism, and bicycling will help. This is one scenario in which the deployment of geoengineering is over-determined, probably needing to remain in place for quite a while as we try to remove the methane (or, at worst, wait for it to cycle out naturally over the course of a decade or so). It's also a scenario that might require large-scale use of bioengineering. As I wrote a few years ago, when the Russian reports started to come out:

    Chemical processes in the atmosphere break down CH4 (in combination with oxygen) into CO2+H2O -- carbon dioxide and water. In addition, certain bacteria -- known as methanotrophs -- actually consume methane, with the same chemical results. [...] It appears to me that what will be the most effective means of mitigating and remediating the gargantuan methane excursion from the Siberian permafrost melt would be using genetically-modified forms of methanotrophic bacteria, with greater oxidation capacity and the Archaea-derived resistance to extreme cold (these may well go hand-in-hand, as one way that deep sea methanotrophs survive the icy depths is through internal energy production from methane consumption). Given the size of the region, we'll need lots of them, but that's another advantage of biology over straight chemistry: the methanotrophs would be reproducing themselves.

    Is it a perfect solution? No -- it's unproven, with unknown implications, and (at the very least) would result in some levels of CO2 emissions (although with a far smaller greenhouse footprint than the original methane). But the leak of permafrost methane is one of those lesser-known stories that could end up determining whether we make it through this century or not. It's one of the reasons why I think that geoengineering is a near-certainty.

    Such fun.

    July 16, 2008

    More Geoengineering Coverage

    It's fascinating to watch the evolution of the mainstream media coverage of the geoengineering concept. I'm actually pretty pleasantly surprised: most of the articles I've seen have had an overall tone of caution about the proposals, even while recognizing that if we end up using geoengineering technologies, it's because things have gotten so bad that we're down to our last-ditch methods of avoiding disaster. The basics of the stories have been pretty consistent: we're in an even bigger climate mess than we thought, so real scientists have begun to consider options for climate modification that they might have dismissed in the past, simply to head off catastrophe; nonetheless, more research needs to be done. I haven't seen any news stories (as opposed to opinion pieces, or blog articles) that even imply that geoengineering would be considered a replacement for decarbonization, and I'm seeing fewer news articles that start from the perspective that such climate modification is inherently wrong, period.

    Greg Lamb's new article in the Christian Science Monitor, "Can we engineer a cooler earth?" is an example of the current model for mainstream coverage of the concept. It's not just that he quotes me in the piece, but that he does so without too badly distorting what I tried to say. It does make me sound like more of an enthusiast than I really am, but it gets the essential point across: we need to get our carbon emissions down, but the climate is changing faster and harder than even the most pessimistic models had predicted a few years ago.

    Blocking sunlight, adds futurist Cascio, “is at best a delay of the worst temperature-related consequences of global warming in order to give us more time for de-carbonization.”

    Any long-term approach to solving global warming, Thernstrom says, almost certainly will have three aspects: emissions reductions, geoengineering, and steps to adapt to an altered climate. “The question is, ‘What is the ratio among those three pieces?’ ”

    Schemes to slightly dim sunlight also wouldn’t solve the problem of ocean acidification, caused by airborne CO2 entering seawater. More-acidic oceans would harm coral reefs and upset ocean ecology, with possible far-reaching effects. Ocean acidification is “at least as big” a problem as that of CO2 in the air, Cascio says.

    That last point is critical. Even if we manage to avoid a heat-related crisis with geoengineering, we'll still need to eliminate our industrial carbon emissions as quickly as possible to avoid ocean ecosystem collapse. I suspect that we'll come to see ocean acidification as a bigger problem than atmospheric warming, in fact.

    July 15, 2008

    Melting Icecaps and the Global Ocean (Updated)


    We're doooooomed, doooo-- wait a minute.

    If the Greenland icecap sees an even-more-significant melt, how soon do you need to pack your bags and head for the high country? Unless you live along the Atlantic coastlines of North America or Europe, you'll have a few decades, at least. And if the Antarctic icecap melts, we'll have even longer -- at least 50 years, probably much more. These are the surprising results of research undertaken by Detlef Stammer of the University of Hamburg, Germany, written up in "Response of the global ocean to Greenland and Antarctic ice melting," published in the Journal of Geophysical Research. New Scientist summarizes his findings thusly:

    ... the majority of Greenland's meltwater will stay in the Atlantic Ocean for at least 50 years, causing sea levels here to rise faster than expected. "The Greenland ice cap is much less of a threat to tropical islands in the Pacific than it is for the coasts of North America and Europe," he says. [...] Antarctic meltwater could be prevented from reaching much of the world for centuries due to strong currents in the Southern Ocean, says Stammer.

    Stammer's work covered a 50-year time horizon, mapping the progress of freshwater runoff through "boundary waves, equatorial Kelvin waves, and westward propagating Rossby waves." Stammer describes the volume of melting ice in his model as reflecting "enhanced runoff," although it appears from the piece that this ends up being a fairly conservative take on how rapidly the ice could melt. It does not appear from the model structure that increased meltwater volume would affect the overall global ocean current flows; however, the argument Stammer makes in the article (under-emphasized in the New Scientist summary) is that the cold freshwater flux would have a significant effect on salinity and surface temperature. The salinity and temperature changes, in particular, could have a measurable impact on the warm water flows keeping Europe warm, so once again we're back talking about localized "whiplash ice ages" (Stammer does not suggest this, but it follows).

    An even more important element (getting less play in the article, unfortunately) is the lack of significant sea-level increase in the global ocean in the first few decades of an enhanced Antarctic melt. Since the potential overall sea-level increase from Antarctic ice dwarfs the potential from Greenland, this is an important finding.


    One question that leaps out for me: if you have a cold freshwater flux cutting down on mixing and surface temperature, what does that do to ocean thermal inertia? My sense is that a flux of colder surface water, aside from all of the havoc it would wreak on ocean ecosystems, might actually slow the pace of overall global warming. I'd welcome more educated analysis on this.

    Stammer's work matches earlier, less complex, analysis, so there's a good chance it maps to reality. Even if the runoff flow is significantly greater than used in this model, we'll still see a slow wave of sea level increase, not reaching the Pacific and the Indian oceans for decades. In that sense, any delay of disastrous results is to be welcomed, since delays mean more time to figure out and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies.

    There's an important element of politics in this, too. The first places to be hit by Greenland icecap runoff-induced sea level increases would be the east coast of North America and (somewhat later) the west coast of Europe; the low-lying developing nations of the Pacific and Indian Ocean regions wouldn't be affected for decades. In fact, looking at the sea-level increase maps in the article, it looks like the North American east coast gets hammered pretty hard fairly quickly. I have no desire for my friends along the Atlantic coast to suffer, of course, but a direct threat to New York, DC, London and the like is more apt to bring a rapid response than would a more generalized threat that would hurt Tuvalu or Bangladesh first. Sad, but probably true.

    (Thanks to David Zaks for letting me read the article!)

    July 10, 2008

    What the Future Looks Like

    The Wilkins ice shelf, in Antarctica, is collapsing.

    This break-up is puzzling to scientists because it has occurred in the Southern Hemispheric winter and does not have characteristics similar to two earlier events that occurred in 2008, which were comparable to the break-up of the Larsen-A and -B ice shelves.

    "The scale of rifting in the newly-removed areas seems larger, and the pieces are moving out as large bergs and not toppled, finely-divided ice melange," said Ted Scambos from the National Snow and Ice Data Center who uses ASAR images to track the area.

    "The persistently low sea ice cover in the area and data from some interesting sources, electronic seal hats [caps worn by seals that provide temperature, depth and position data] seems to suggest that warm water beneath the halocline may be reaching the underside of the Wilkins Ice Shelf and thinning it rapidly - and perhaps reaching the surface, or at least mixing with surface waters."

    It's a floating ice shelf, so it won't raise ocean levels when it goes, but it's another startling indicator of environmental stress.

    July 9, 2008

    A Biking Dilemma

    Okay, it's a standard presumption that global warming is going to make major heat waves more likely, in more places, lasting longer. Moreover, because of thermal inertia and climate commitment (not to mention how stubborn traditional politics seems to be on environmental issues), we're going to continue to see warming temperatures for at least a couple more decades. In short, the kind of heat I've been seeing locally over the last week -- multi-day 110°+ temperatures -- may be an increasingly common event for some time to come.

    At the same time, you can't swing a dead climate treaty online without running into people who insist that a key solution for dramatic carbon reductions has to be vastly increased biking and walking. In principle, I agree (with the caveat that it's not always appropriate). But walking around a little bit today, I really started to wonder how much longer walking and bicycling will be considered viable transportation modes.

    Granted, the northern California fires have made the air particularly, um, particulate-laden, but the heat has been overwhelming. Walking even a short distance today felt deadly.

    I don't have an answer to this. I'm posing it more as an unanticipated dilemma: will one of the better ways of reducing personal carbon footprints see dramatic restrictions simply due to the heat?

    July 8, 2008

    Climate Signals

    What I've been reading:

    • Climate, Drought & Poverty: A Different Climate Change Apocalypse Than the One You Were Envisioning.

    Twenty-nine of 43 countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced some kind of civil war during the 1980’s or 1990’s. The economists Edward Miguel, Shanker Satyanath, and Ernest Sergenti discovered that one of the most reliable predictors of civil war is lack of rain. If you have a largely agricultural economy, when the rain goes so does the agriculture, which makes political and economic breakdown much more likely.

    • Class Warfare, Climate Warfare: Rich country, poor country, hot planet

    India is not a member of the elite "Group of Eight" conclave of rich countries meeting in Japan this week, but Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be attending anyway, bearing a succinct message on behalf of the developing world.

    From Reuters:

    "Climate change, energy security and food security are interlinked, and require an integrated approach," said Singh.

    The subtext, for those who are hoping that the G8 can hammer out at least the outlines of a new global climate change pact, is simple: Don't ask the developing world to cut back on emissions without ensuring continued progress in raising living standards for the billions of people who haven't yet had the chance to enjoy the perks of the Industrial Revolution.

    • Fire Water Burn: Access to water seen as potential flashpoint

    "More and more cities and countries see access to water as a security concern and a potential trigger of conflict," Lee said in a speech opening a series of conferences focussed on sustainable development.

    "Global warming can aggravate this by altering existing water distribution patterns, intensifying droughts and disrupting the lives of millions, as is happening in Darfur," he said, referring to the Sudanese region where conflict broke out five years ago.

    • Oceanic Acid: Acidifying oceans add urgency to CO2 cuts.

    Though most of the scientific and public focus has been on the climate impacts of human carbon emissions, ocean acidification is as imminent and potentially severe a crisis, the authors argue.

    "We need to consider ocean chemistry effects, and not just the climate effects, of CO2 emissions. That means we need to work much harder to decrease CO2 emissions," says Caldeira. "While a doubling of atmospheric CO2 may seem a realistic target for climate goals, such a level may mean the end of coral reefs and other valuable marine resources."

    • Political Chaos: Climate Change May Sap Military, Intel Chief Says.

    "Climate change will have wide-ranging implications for US national security interests over the next 20 years," Fingar noted, as he presented an open summary of a classified National Intelligence Assessment on the effects of global warming. But the biggest impact is likely to be overseas, where "climate change... will worsen existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions. [That] could threaten domestic stability in some states, potentially contributing to intra- or, less likely, interstate conflict, particularly over access to increasingly scarce water resources." America will almost invariably have to cope with the consequences.

    June 7, 2008

    The Carbon Footprint of Art

    Off to the NEAI spent the last few days in Washington, DC, a guest of the National Endowment for the Arts. Not many people know this, but design -- particularly architectural and built-environment design -- falls within the purview of the NEA. This last week, the NEA design group held its selection panel for the "Access to Artistic Excellence - Innovation" funding, and I served as the official "layperson" on the panel.

    (It turns out that NEA funding panels include one person from outside the discipline -- the "layperson" -- to ensure that the awards go to projects with appeal beyond the specialists.)

    I can't say anything about what we selected, of course; the recipients won't even know for a few months. I can say this, though: I was amazed at how many of the proposals included requests for support for travel. In some cases, the travel would be undertaken by guest artists from elsewhere in the world, coming to participate in a function of some sort (yes, I'm being intentionally opaque). In other cases, the travel would be undertaken by the award recipients, jetting around checking out some building or project. Whatever the focus, a majority of proposals submitted to the NEA for this award included some level of request for travel support.

    So when Maurice Cox, the newly-appointed head of this group at the NEA, asked if I had any suggestions about the ongoing evolution of this project, I had an immediate reply: "carbon footprint records." I suggested that the NEA, as part of the application process, ask applicants to make preliminary measurements of the carbon footprint of the travel they seek to have supported. There are dozens of websites out there that can do a quick & dirty calculation of the carbon impact of flying around (as I noted recently, the travel-plan-sharing site Dopplr just added carbon footprinting to its services, for example). All the applicants would need to do is enter the trips into one of these calculators and list the results.

    The numbers wouldn't determine the selection (for now, but I'm patient), but would make explicit the impact of the travel portion of a proposal. Many of these projects had an explicit 'green' theme; I have to expect that at least some of these applicants would have reconsidered the travel requests once they saw the carbon impact.

    Like the Cheeseburger Footprint concept, this is not meant as a stick with which to beat the impure, but simply as a lens with which to look at the unanticipated results of our actions. Art is important, and it was a massive honor to serve on this NEA panel; I would like to see more funding for the arts & design in the future*. But everything we do has consequences -- and the more we recognize those consequences beforehand, the better the choices we'll make.

    (*...and a note to my readers in the world of design: a recurring theme in this panel was "why don't more designers take advantage of this program?" They're giving money away to interesting projects, folks, and I know that some of you out there could come up with even cooler stuff than I saw this last week...)

    May 27, 2008

    Who Decides?

    Who gets to determine the "right" climate for the Earth?

    We may broadly agree that the current climate -- warming, with chances of apocalypse -- is decidedly not the right one. After abundant political posturing and nationalist histrionics, we'll eventually get to the heavy lifting involved in dramatically reducing our carbon footprints, slowing and stopping the warming. Unless the mitigation efforts begin in earnest immediately, we face the unhappy prospect of needing to engage in some manner of geoengineering to forestall global disaster.

    But as I've argued before, the politics of geoengineering will be at least as tricky as the science.

    It's important to recognize that, because the climate is a complex system, even seemingly simple adjustments can have surprising (and even counter-intuitive) results, results that can and will vary significantly around the world. And if those results aren't as good for some regions as they are for others, you can be certain that -- in a world already riven by environmental and resource collapses -- we'll see arguments and potentially even conflict over the matter.

    An article to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research underscores this point. In "Regional Climate Responses to Geoengineering with Tropical and Arctic SO2 Injections" (PDF), authors Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov examine the potential repercussions of the injection of megatons of sulfur dioxide particles into the lower stratosphere as a way of slowing global warming. (Important emphasis: not as a solution to global warming, but as a way of slowing its progress so that actual carbon-reduction solutions can be implemented.) In their study, Robock, et. al., simulate different scenarios of sulfur dioxide injection using NASA-Goddard Institute for Space Studies' ModelE atmosphere-ocean general circulation model, currently one of the most comprehensive climate simulations available.


    In their work, they come up with a few particularly interesting results: geoengineering without simultaneous mitigation efforts would be disastrous when (for whatever reason) geoengineering efforts end -- temperatures would shoot up rapidly (see above); most sulfate injection proposals would end up reducing monsoonal rainfall patterns across southern Asia and central Africa, potentially triggering famines; and -- perhaps most surprisingly -- sulfate injection geoengineering would lead to summer temperatures in the Indian sub-continent (and in small parts of north-central Africa) at least as warm as if not warmer than "business as usual" global warming scenarios.

    Let me repeat that last one: geoengineering by injecting sulfate particles into the lower stratosphere -- currently one of the leading proposals -- would effectively cool the Earth, except for summer in India, which would be as warm as or warmer than doing nothing at all.

    (Important caveat: Robock and his team use a slow-change "business as usual" scenario -- A1B, for you IPCC fans out there (PDF) -- for the underlying greenhouse gas levels. If we manage to use a geoengineering period correctly to get GHG reductions in place, this level of warming may be less.)

    Given that the most likely scenario calling for geoengineering would be one where disasters have already started to happen, and we realize that it's too late for new urban models, universal vegetarianism, and ubiquitous wind and solar to prevent global catastrophes. That is, it's a scenario where there would be significant pressure from much of the world to give this a try. As for India... well, that's where politics starts pounding on the door.

    It's not just the science that needs to be advanced before we start fiddling with geophysical systems -- we really need to work out the politics first, too.

    April 28, 2008

    Feedback, Tipping Points, and Hard Choices

    I have one thing to say: depopulation is not a global warming strategy.

    Here's what leads me to that (seemingly obvious, but apparently not) observation.

    We know these to be true:

  • Feedback effects ranging from methane released from melting permafrost to carbon emissions from decaying remnants of forests devoured by pine beetles will boost greenhouse gases faster than natural compensation mechanisms can handle.
  • The accumulation of non-linear drivers can lead to "tipping point" events causing functionally irreversible changes to geophysical systems (such as massive sea-level increases). Some of these can have feedback effects of their own, such as the elimination of ice caps reducing global albedo, thereby accelerating heating.
  • Because of the long, slow nature of carbon cycles, no matter what we do, we are committed to warming the planet for at least 2-3 decades beyond when we stop adding to greenhouse gases.

    We also know these to be likely:

  • The economic, environmental and social benefits accruing to early adopters of cleaner infrastructure and behavior can serve as a catalyst for faster adoption by lagging actors. In short, the first ones in demonstrate that the water's fine.
  • Many of the cleaner technologies, infrastructure and behavior have ancillary benefits, from quality-of-life to political rebalancing, that can accelerate their adoption.
  • Continued technological innovations could allow for faster mitigation of greenhouse gases, even potentially allow for the uptake of atmospheric carbon, accelerating the natural cycle of carbon from the atmosphere.

    So: we have a set of demoralizing forces at play, countered by a set of encouraging possibilities. What is the common element that would allow those possibilities to play out? Time.

    Time is what we need. Time is what we may not have.

    Climate and environmental sciences remain imperfect, but few of the improvements in our understanding have reduced the sense of urgency surrounding global climate disruption. On the contrary, much of the enhanced analysis has increased scientists' level of worry. Richard Clarke once famously described a subset of international security analysts running around Washington DC in 2000 and 2001 with their "hair on fire," trying to alert policy-makers to the potential for a terrorist attack in the US. Today, it's the geophysical scientists with their hair on fire, sounding increasingly desperate and shrill about delays in responding to climate meltdown. And they have good cause for alarm: even an enlightened transition away from business-as-usual energy, transportation and social systems may not happen fast enough to avoid catastrophe; certainly, the slow, mulish pattern we've seen up to the present won't.

    If it all comes down to time, we have two choices: move faster, or get more time.

    Moving faster is the approach preferred by nearly everyone making a study of climate and environmental changes. We know what we need to do, we know roughly what it will cost and how long it will take, and we know ways to make it happen to all of our benefit. Unfortunately, we apparently have bigger priorities at the moment, and will get to this climate thing when it really starts to make some noise (by which time, it will be far too late). It seems we're just not that good at thinking in terms of lagging cause-and-effect, and the need for long-term thinking.

    We could get lucky; positive feedbacks and "the water's fine" demonstrations may allow us to move faster.

    We could also get "lucky" in a not-so-lucky way: a clarity-inducing global disaster could trigger the necessary economic and political shifts without pushing us over the edge. Arguably, a series of even moderate natural disasters that could be convincingly tied to global warming (convincing at the political level, even if scientists remain cautious) might serve as a goad to get recalcitrant actors to move faster or suffer political harm (c.f., tobacco.) It wouldn't be so lucky for the thousands or millions of people suffering from these "clarity-inducing" disasters, of course, or for the thousands or millions who would suffer from subsequent disasters happening while we get ourselves in gear.

    Getting more time means slowing down the greenhouse gas-heat-feedback cycle, and that means geoengineering. Let me be clear: we don't know enough about how the various geoengineering proposals would play out to make a persuasive case for trying any of them, and I -- along with most geoengineering proponents I've interacted with -- want to see far more study before making any even moderate-scale experimental effort. This is not something to try today. The most important task for current geoengineering research is to identify the approaches that might look attractive at first, but have devastating results -- we need to know what we should avoid even if desperate.

    Make no mistake: I am not arguing that geoengineering, should it be tried, would be a replacement for making the economic, social, and technological changes needed to eliminate anthropogenic greenhouse gases. It would only be a way of giving us more time to make those changes. It's not an either-or situation; geo is a last-ditch prop for making sure that we can do what needs to be done.

    Claims that we shouldn't even talk about geoengineering, or give it any kind of meaningful research funding, while we're trying to get people to move faster smacks of Condoleezza Rice's infamous statement regarding contingency planning and the Iraq war:

    "It's bad policy to speculate on what you'll do if a plan fails when you're trying to make a plan work."

    No. Wrong. Sorry. The only rational, resilient, ethical approach is to prepare to deal with failure of one's preferred strategy before that failure occurs. I don't want us to have to engage in geoengineering. I want us to stop being such idiots and start to make real changes to our societies, our infrastructure, our lives. But I also know that we're getting awfully close to the point of being too late for those changes to have a meaningful impact.

    And if we're too late, millions, perhaps billions, of people will die. I will not accept the loss of so many lives as the only alternative to political leaders in the US and China getting their acts together. Depopulation is not a global warming strategy. It's a horrific, tragic result of the failure of strategy, the failure of imagination, and the failure of our capacity to fight to the last breath for our future.

  • April 22, 2008

    The Earth Will Be Just Fine, Thank You

    The grand myth of environmentalism is that it's all about saving the Earth.

    It's not. The Earth will be just fine. Environmentalism is all about saving ourselves.

    That may seem a bit counter-intuitive; after all, the Earth is certainly central to the rhetoric, the memetics of environmentalism. Most environmental discussions focus on ecological dynamics, with references to human beings typically limited to enumerations of the various insults we've visited upon the planet. Given the degree of culpability we bear for the current state of the planet, this is entirely appropriate.

    But the rhetorical focus of environmentalism on the planet obscures the fact that what human beings have done to the Earth pales in comparison to past disasters hitting our world, from massive asteroid strikes to super-volcano eruptions killing off 90+% of the Earth's species. In fact, over the course of our planet's lifespan it's experienced every form of (non-human-engineered) apocalypse on the Eschatological Taxonomy up to Class IV -- in comparison, humans have yet to unleash even a Class 0 Apocalypse. And in every case, the Earth has recovered, and life has once again flourished.

    We sometimes make the conceptual mistake of thinking that the way the Earth's ecosystem is today is the way it will forever be, that we've somehow reached an ecological end-state. But even in an eco-conscious world, or one devoid of humans entirely, natural processes from evolution to geophysical and solar cycles would continue. The Earth's been at this for a long time, literally billions of years; from a planetary perspective, a quadrupling of atmospheric carbon lasting 10,000 years (for example) is little more than a passing blip. The fact of the matter is that, no matter how much greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere or how many toxins we dump into the soil and oceans, given enough time the Earth will recover.

    But human civilization is far more fragile.

    Human civilization could not withstand and recover from the same kinds of assaults the planet itself has shrugged off in eons past. We remain entirely dependent upon myriad Earth services and systems, from topsoil and clean water to carbon cycles and biodiversity. Activities that undermine those critical services and systems quite literally threaten the survival of human civilization. The fundamental resilience of the Earth's geophysical systems simply means that, when we ignore our effects on the planet, we're simply making ourselves disposable, just another passing blip in the planet's long history.

    In trying to minimize the harmful impacts of human activities upon the global ecosystem, environmentalism supports the continued healthy existence of humankind.

    To me, this too is entirely appropriate. Despite its many flaws, I'm a big fan of human civilization. I marvel at our capacity to organize matter and information, at our ability to learn from mistakes and pass that learning down to subsequent generations. Civilization -- writing, cities, trade, the whole lot of it -- makes us unique on this planet and, as far as we can tell so far, in our part of the universe. Destroying that through malice or negligence is the worst form of crime, and the height of tragedy.

    Part of a focus upon civilization, however, is the recognition that we do not exist in isolation, that we are dependent upon an enormous variety of complex systems. As a result, our continued existence requires the continued success of those systems. In order to save ourselves, we have to minimize actions which damage and disrupt the environment.

    Like any social movement, environmentalists argue over tactics and goals, and some eco-activists will disagree with my characterization of the purpose of environmentalism. But the reality is that -- at least with current technologies -- there's nothing that we can do to truly put the planetary biosphere at existential risk. It will recover from what we now do, albeit in a different form than today. But what we can do is so violate the integrity of the planet's ecosystem that the Earth can no longer support us.

    Critics of environmentalism often claim that eco-activists hate humans, that we value the Earth more than we value ourselves. With very few exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmentalism is fundamentally about making sure that human beings, and human civilization, can continue to thrive on our home planet for centuries, millennia to come. Environmentalism, in its demands for respect for nature, ultimately demands that we respect ourselves.

    Happy Earth Day -- and Happy Civilization Day.

    March 25, 2008

    Peak Oil vs. Global Warming

    Could we avoid the worst ravages of global warming because we run out of oil?

    Not since King Kong vs. Godzilla have we seen a monster fight of this magnitude. Disaster vs. Disaster! Things Fall Apart vs. The Center Cannot Hold! Category I Apocalypse vs. Category I Apocalypse! Best of all, NASA's James Hansen serves as referee.

    In the first corner, we have Peak Oil, the premise that we'll soon (or perhaps already) have reached the maximum production of petroleum, and that remaining reserves are far lower than generally acknowledged. The result: ever-rising fuel prices, global conflict over dwindling resources, and possibly even social and economic collapse if peak oil hits faster and harder than expected. Even the moderate-case scenarios show declining petroleum access by the 2020s -- and all while China and India are ramping up a car economy.

    In the second corner, we have Global Warming, the result of greenhouse gases -- particularly CO2 from human sources, such as burning petroleum -- trapping heat in the atmosphere. We're now at 385 parts-per-million and rising (up from 284ppm in the pre-industrial era). Climatologists generally consider 450ppm a tipping point into unrecoverable disaster, although there are now some signs that the already-past 350ppm would be a safer maximum. Among the actions required to avoid global warming disaster: a dramatic reduction in the consumption of fossil fuels.

    In the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, the "business-as-usual" scenario, which posits that society keeps going as it has, and fossil fuel consumption continues to grow at its current pace, results in an atmospheric CO2 concentration of over 950ppm by the end of this century. That's not likely to happen, of course -- the effects of global warming (sea level rise, drought, pandemic disease, dogs and cats living together, etc.) would make such steady growth untenable. Technology change would play a role, too, as would shifts in population. But the biggest reason why it wouldn't happen is a simple one:

    There isn't enough petroleum in the ground, in any form, to make it possible.

    That's the argument that James Hansen and his colleague Pushker A. Kharecha make in an article posted to the science website (I've been informed that the article went up about six months ago, but hasn't received much attention.) In "Implications of “peak oil” for atmospheric CO2 and climate" (PDF), Kharecha and Hansen assert that the effort to keep atmospheric carbon levels below 450ppm may be greatly helped by basic limits on the amount of available oil. Because of peak oil forcing limits on petroleum consumption, a reasonable phase-out of coal ("developed countries freeze their CO2 emissions from coal by 2012 and a decade later developing countries similarly halt increases in coal emissions. Between 2025 and 2050 it is assumed that both developed and developing countries will linearly phase out emissions of CO2 from coal usage"), active measures to reduce non-CO2 forcings (including methane and black soot), and draw-down of CO2 through reforestation, would limit CO2 to below 450ppm. This doesn't require the most aggressive peak oil scenarios, either -- simply using the US Energy Information Administration's estimates of oil reserves is enough. Using more aggressive numbers, atmospheric CO2 peaks at 422ppm.

    Kharecha and Hansen present five scenarios, using a variety of estimates of peak oil timing and pace.

    Peak oil emission in the BAU scenario occurs in 2016 ± 2 yr, peak gas in 2026 ± 2 yr, and peak coal in 2077 ± 2 yr (Fig. 3a). Coal Phase-out moves peak coal up to 2022 (Fig. 3b). Fast Oil Use causes peak oil to be delayed until 2037 (Wood et al., 2003), but oil use then crashes rapidly (Fig. 3c). Less Oil Reserves results in peak oil moving to 2010 ± 2 yr (Fig. 3d), under the assumption that usage approximates the near symmetrical shape of the classical Hubbert curve. In the Peak Oil Plateau case, oil emissions peak in 2020 and remain at that level until 2040 (Kerr, 2007), thereafter decreasing approximately linearly (Fig. 3e).

    The difference between Kharecha and Hansen's business-as-usual and the other scenarios points to the importance of limiting coal and other greenhouse gases. Peak oil isn't going to save us from global warming by itself. We'll still have to make major changes to how we live, how we build, how we generate energy, etc. -- all of the imperatives we've had to reckon with for awhile.

    And peak oil itself, despite its global warming benefit, remains a real problem. While the "doomer" peak oil scenarios seem to me to be overwrought and simplistic, it's true that our society is thoroughly dependent upon fossil fuels, and an abrupt reduction in availability would be traumatic. As I noted in The Big Picture: Climate Chaos, the intersection of global warming and peak oil means that we have overwhelming reason to move away from fossil fuels as energy sources as rapidly as possible -- and that solutions in one arena can help in the other.

    It will be interesting to me to see how both peak oil watchers and anti-global warming activists take this report. I suspect that some oilers will dismiss it as not big news, since they already knew that society is going to collapse before we reach the worst of global warming; others might take it as an indicator that trying to deal with peak oil by producing liquid coal fuels (or similar fossil substitutes) is a bad idea, as it would eliminate the one slight benefit of peak oil conditions. I hope that climate watchers might have a generally more positive response, relief that the worst-case scenarios are even less likely than before. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that more than a few global warming-focused activists will see this report -- despite coming from Hansen -- as an attempt to reduce the urgency of the need to deal with anthrogenic carbon emissions.

    What this report tells us, however, is that we can't simply focus on one crisis -- no matter how large and looming -- without taking into consideration the other key drivers of change. The onset of peak oil will alter how we deal with climate disruption, rendering climate strategies that don't take peak oil into account of limited value. Similarly, the fact of global warming must shape how our economies deal with a permanent oil crunch.

    For both issues, the kinds of strategies most likely to succeed are those based on the precepts of an open future: innovation and experimentation; transparency and shared knowledge; and collaboration and shared responsibility. It's a future worth fighting monsters for.

    January 28, 2008

    Notes for "Battlefield Earth"

    batearth.pngForeign Policy has just published a substantially updated version of my article "Terraforming War," on the potential strategic/military use of geoengineering, under the title "Battlefield Earth." As it is not FP policy to put links in articles, I thought I'd go ahead and add a list of links not previously appearing in the earlier version of the article. (Updated January 30.)

  • "A start-up company called Climos and the government of India have each begun to prepare tests of “ocean iron fertilization” to boost oceanic phytoplankton blooms"

  • Project Popeye: Amy Lewis, "Controlling the Weather," for, 2000.

  • Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025: Col Tamzy J. House, Lt Col James B. Near, Jr., LTC William B. Shields (USA), Maj Ronald J. Celentano, Maj David M. Husband, Maj Ann E. Mercer, Maj James E. Pugh, presented to US Air Force in August, 1996

  • "One proposal would pull cooler water from the deep oceans to the surface in an explicit attempt to shift the trajectories of hurricanes..." I'm told by Philip Kithil, the founder of Atmocean (the leading group looking at pulling cooler water to the ocean surface), that their research now shows that this process won't shift hurricane paths.

  • 1977 Environmental Modification Convention: US Department of State, signed in May 1977, entered into force October 1978

  • January 22, 2008

    Six Degrees

    six-degrees.jpgSix Degrees is the National Geographic Television program that flew me to Colorado to talk about cheeseburger footprints while wandering around a cattle ranch and a burger joint. The show now has a time and date: Sunday, February 10 at 8PM eastern and 9PM pacific time.

    I was told by the producers that my segment is included in the show, but looking at the website for the program, I'm baffled as to how something as goofy and lightweight as cheeseburgers fits in with dire scenarios of destruction and catastrophe.

    I'm of two minds about the value of extreme catastrophe scenarios. On the one hand, they fall into the realm of the possible, and underscore the potential risks of not doing anything. On the other, they aren't certainties, and help to reinforce the argument that climate disruption arguments are fear-mongering. As it stands now, the website for the show doesn't help the positive case.

    The site explores risk scenarios in graphic detail, but only offers as responses to these disasters a link to "Call2Recycle" (sorry, but recycling your cola cans isn't enough) and an exploration of geoengineering proposals. I'm the last person to talk about the over-use of geoengineering as a topic, but come on. No discussion on the site of redesigned cities, new models of infrastructure, ubiquitous solar power, and the myriad solution spaces that are neither token responses nor top-down climate management.

    I hope the show is better than the site.

    December 29, 2007

    Terraforming War

    dr_strangelove_war_room_generals.jpgNo nation that sees itself as a great power is going to be willing to risk having its climate and environment completely in the hands of another nation. Research into methodologies for geoengineering will happen simply out of self-preservation -- after all, nobody wants to fall victim to a "terraforming gap."

    I am increasingly convinced that, whether we like it or not, geoengineering is going to become a leading arena of environmental research and development in the coming decade.

    This is not because geoengineering -- the intentional large-scale manipulation of geophysical systems in order to change the climate and/or environment -- is the best way to deal with global warming. It's most decidedly not. The more we examine the initial proposals, in fact, the more we find that the risks outweigh the benefits. While we can't rule out a breakthrough discovery making this strategy safer, for now, its only environmental value appears to be as a desperate, last-ditch effort to head off catastrophe. Nonetheless, for many nations, this last-ditch possibility would be enough to warrant further research.

    But as the observation at the top of the page suggests, geoengineering could be seen as having another kind of value: as a tool of international power.

    When I wrote the above comments in March of 2007, it was in response to an observation by Dr. Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist who has gained recent attention for his discussions of geoengineering. In an interview with the Christian Science Monitor, he'd noted that uncoordinated work on intentionally altering the climate could lead to a "geoengineering arms race," with countries working on different -- and conflicting -- temperature and environment agendas. In such a situation, it seemed to me, great power nations could start to see geoengineering as another arena for competition. I elaborated a bit on the idea in October, when talking about the Politics of Geoengineering, citing the possibility of climate manipulation technologies being used as a tool of quiet warfare.

    The more I think about this possibility, however, the more it seems like a disturbingly plausible scenario.

    Rumors abound that the militaries and intelligence services of a variety of great power countries have, in the past, worked on dubious approaches to weather control. The idea of a geoengineering arms race may superficially parallel this line of thinking, but it's actually a very different concept. Unlike "weather warfare," geoengineering would be more subtle and long-term, and would have nothing to do with steering hurricanes or inducing local droughts; moreover, unlike weather control, we know it can work, since we've been unintentionally changing the climate for decades.

    Geoengineering as a military strategy would appear to offer a variety of benefits. Research can be done out in the open, taking advantage of civilian work on anti-global warming geoengineering ideas. If my argument that nuclear weapons and open-source warfare have made conventional warfare essentially obsolete is correct, climate-based warfare would offer an alternative non-nuclear weapon, one that would be out of the reach of non-state actors. And the more we learn about how human activities alter the climate -- in order to alter those activities -- the more options might open up for intentionally harmful manipulation.

    But wait: if global warming and climate disruption are, well, global, wouldn't "harmful manipulation" hurt the manipulating country, too?

    Not necessarily -- or, at least, not to the same degree. The effects of global warming can vary dramatically, depending upon local geography and economy. Weather effects like hurricanes and heat waves depend on regional preconditions. The resilience of local technological and social infrastructures will also prove critical for determining how well regions handle climate disruption. For many of these reasons, many specialists worry that the regions hit the hardest by global warming will be in the developing world.

    More importantly for this argument, it's for these reasons that some nations may believe that they can deal with global warming better than their competitors, or even benefit from it -- that, in the words of Vladimir Putin, it "wouldn't be so bad." Putin may have been joking, but a number of Russian scientists presenting at the 2003 World Climate Change Conference in Moscow seemed to make the same argument. Moreover, as this recent article in El Pais documents (English summary here, Google translation here), Russia's doing nothing to reduce its carbon emissions, and is instead building more coal-fired power plants; the only reason that it's in compliance with the Kyoto treaty is that its economy has declined relative to 1990. Given Putin's hardline propensities, if he thought that Russia would be harmed less than its competitors (or even benefit), would he be willing to reject the idea of taking advantage of that situation?

    Lest I appear to be picking on Russia, one could make a similar argument for most great power leaders, if they saw the same opportunities. Much as Cold War nuclear strategists (parodied in Dr. Strangelove) could argue with a straight face about "winning" a nuclear war by having more survivors, advocates of a Global Warming War might see the US or Europe as better able to "ride out" a climate disaster than (say) China or the nations of the Middle East. It's awful to imagine, but that's why early nuclear strategists like Herman Kahn talked about "thinking the unthinkable."

    In this scenario, even passive resistance to action against global warming could be seen as a mode of terraforming warfare.

    How realistic is this idea? It depends. Given the high likelihood of further research into geoengineering projects for purely anti-global warming reasons, it seems almost certain to me that military or government officials in more than one country will come to similar conclusions about the technology's potential as a weapon. Actual weaponization of geoengineering methods would (one hopes) be slowed or stopped as more information comes in about unanticipated results of geoengineering tests, cost and/or efficiency, and the irrationality of believing that variations in the impact of climate disruption would be enough to alter balances of power.

    One hopes. But it's hard to go wrong by assuming that someone in power is going to want to take advantage of a new way of "winning," no matter how difficult or irrational.

    Welcome to the era of the Earth itself as a weapon.

    October 13, 2007

    Solving the Climate Crisis

    sunset.jpgWith Al Gore and the IPCC wining the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, lots of people are talking about global warming. The remaining holdouts and dead-enders continue to bray about hoaxes and imaginary disputes, but by and large the dominant focus of conversation about climate disruption boils down to a simple question: what do we do about it?

    A simple question, but not a simple answer, in part because there are multiple possible responses, and they're not necessarily mutually-compatible. They cover three broad categories: Prevention (actions that reduce the risks of global warming or soften its eventual impact); Mitigation (actions directed at reducing the harm of global warming, and as possible reducing its sources); and Remediation (actions intended to reverse global warming and its effects). Each of these entails its own set of political, economic and environmental risks.

    One of the reasons why the answers are not cut-and-dried is an aspect of global warming that, as yet, still does not receive the kind of mainstream attention it deserves: climate commitments. It turns out that, no matter what we do, we are committed to a certain amount of continued warming and climate change. Moreover, the longer we wait to start acting seriously, the more of a commitment we'll build up.

    Much of this commitment comes from the physics of climate change. There is an enormous amount of lag in geophysical systems. We see that in particular in the delay between actions that increase or decrease climate forcings and the resulting climate impacts. Some of that lag comes from how long it takes for certain chemicals to cycle out of the atmosphere, some comes from how warming itself changes natural cycles, and much of it comes from the thermal inertia of the oceans -- the slow pace at which ocean temperatures change. Climate scientists generally describe this climate lag as being around 20-30 years -- so, even if we were to cut off all additional carbon emissions right this very second, we'd still see another two to three decades of warming.

    That's if we're lucky. If, in that 20-30 years, the rising temperatures start triggering climate feedback effects (such as large-scale methane emissions from melting permafrost, or the reduction of the polar ice cap causing more heat to be absorbed by the dark water), problems could continue even past the 20-30 year mark. And, of course, we're not going to cut off all additional carbon emissions any time soon, so that 20-30 year countdown hasn't even started.

    It should be clear at this point that the longer we wait, and the more of a climate commitment we build up, the more likely it is that we'll see feedback effects.

    So with that, here are the three key solution arguments for climate disruption:

    Continue reading "Solving the Climate Crisis" »

    October 12, 2007

    Good Work, Al!


    Original photo by Robert Leslie

    August 29, 2007

    The Problem of Cars

    smartcar-enlarged.jpgEven among many of the generally tech-friendly and realistic bright green types, the automobile remains an irritant. It's not simply that the petroleum-powered internal combustion engine is an ecological disaster; the automobile, historically, has been a catalyst for many of the more damaging developments in our social geography, from the spread of suburbia and exurbia to the elimination (in many locations) of light rail lines, and continues to enable the proliferation of economic and social institutions of dubious long-term benefit (such as big-box retailers). In many ways, the automobile is the canonical example of a trigger for long-term, unanticipated and undesired results. If we think of the car in this way, it's clear that even shifting entirely to electric cars, biofuel cars, or cars that ran on pixie dust, would still enable many of the larger social pathologies that damage our climate, ecological, and social systems.

    At the same time, the typical solutions offered in response -- remaking urban design, increased bus and rail use, increased walking and biking -- have significant drawbacks. The first is expensive and slow, and the latter two impose significant limitations to what one can accomplish over the course of the day. I sometimes think that calls for everyone to give up cars are sufficiently unrealistic that they may actually be counter-productive: if the only alternative under discussion is to completely rebuild our cities and make everybody walk to the bus stop, cars will remain firmly in place as the dominant transportation model.

    It doesn't have to be that way. I have from the outset considered it a strength of the bright green philosophy that it values workable idealism, and recognizes the futility of telling people that the only way to solve problems is to make their lives viscerally worse. Moreover, one of the cornerstone concepts of bright green environmentalism is a recognition of the strength of distributed solutions over centralized technologies. Telling people just to give up cars is a startlingly old green concept for the new green generation.

    To be clear, I'm not dismissing urban redesign and greater access to public transit & walking out of hand; the former is a terrific medium-term goal, and the latter is certain to be part of the solution to the looming climate disaster, especially as better urban designs make non-car transit more efficient. But demands for the immediate adoption of these approaches seem blind to the underlying reasons why the automobile culture is so deeply entrenched in Western society, and why it has become so attractive to nations seeing rapid economic development.

    [This is a personal issue for me. Right now, I live some distance from my once/twice-weekly workplace, the Institute for the Future; because of the current housing market, selling our place and moving in closer isn't an option. If I take public transit, I must ride BART to a Cal-Train station, and take that to Palo Alto (fortunately, IFTF is just a block from the station there). If I time it just right, it will take no less than two hours -- longer, of course, if there's a delay and I miss my transfer (which happened the very first time I took the route). If I drive (my hybrid, naturally), it typically takes me 90 minutes, and can take as little as 75 minutes if the traffic is completely clear. Still a very long commute (fortunately, it's not daily), but with greater flexibility as to when I can leave and which route I can take if there's an unexpected delay. For now, I tend to swap back and forth between the two modes of transit.]

    One way of re-examining this subject is to stop thinking about cars as "cars," and to start thinking about them in terms of the services they offer. This sort of abstraction is commonplace in the business consulting field -- it's not a carpet, it's a floor covering service. Surprisingly, that simple shift in perspective can sometimes elicit novel ideas. But it's important that new services that replace the old can replicate or improve upon the capabilities of the previous model.

    Thinking about cars in this way, I would argue that a car is a way of providing:

    • Personal mobility. The most obvious characteristic of the automobile, personal mobility means more than simply getting from one place to another. It encompasses: range and speed (being able to travel for great distances in a reasonable amount of time); carrying capacity (being able to carry items too large, bulky or awkward to carry by hand any significant distance); destination flexibility (being able to travel to one's exact destination, and to change destination along the way); and operational flexibility (being able to use the car for both short and long-range travel, to carry very little or a large amount, and to change uses mid-stream).

    • Personal expression. Perhaps less obviously important, personal expression is in reality a key element of how drivers choose their vehicles. While this may seem like a superficial issue, consider: in a world where home ownership is out of reach for many people, the automobile becomes the biggest investment one will personally make -- the desire to have the car reflect one's personality (through color, design, or brand) is a near-inevitable result. As we move to urban models of higher-density shared buildings, such desire for personal expression via automobiles may actually increase.

    • Independence. This is related to the previous two, and can best be summed up as: being able to use the car in a way that is not contingent upon the desires and needs of others. Total independence is not possible, of course (at the very least, one is supposed to obey traffic laws), but superficial independence -- being able to choose the radio station, to travel at any time of day or night, to be as messy or as neat as one wishes -- clearly is.

    Thought of in this way, it's easy to see why urban redesign, public transit and walking/biking are having such a hard time replacing automobile use for most people. There are exceptions; for some people, these substitutions may be entirely adequate. But even people getting around fine without a car in San Francisco, New York, or London will acknowledge how overwhelmingly abundant cars are in those cities, and they aren't just the cars brought in by people from the 'burbs.

    There are more innovative alternatives, and these offer some promise. Car-sharing allows many of the benefits of car use without the trappings of ownership. Limited-range micro-cars (think the Reva or Zap) remain personal transportation, but are much smaller and have a much smaller footprint (as they're often all-electric). Both fall short of being a total replacement for today's autos, however, for a somewhat subtle reason. Most of the time, such alternatives would actually be fine. They're perfect for the regular, predictable travel that we tend to undertake, and the running around town that makes up the majority of our vehicle trips. But for the outlying uses, such as the unexpected need to drive somewhere at 3am, take a longer-than-usual trip, or carry something especially large -- the alternatives fail. And since the outlying uses, while uncommon, are still relatively frequent, many people hesitate to give up the ability to accomplish them readily.

    So, what would work to replace car culture as it is currently manifest but still perform the services that the modern automobile offers?

    Here's one scenario that comes to mind:

    Cars as LEGO.
    I back out of the parking shed, slowly -- I know that the p2p nav system wouldn't let me continue if there was another car coming, but I have old habits. The car, a 2017 Honda Civic M, is still a bit weird to drive. It feels like it's missing half the car: no real front-end to speak of, and a trunk that barely qualifies for the name. It's roomy on the inside, though, and I know that the safety measures are top notch (they meet race car specs).

    Normally, I'd just drive from home to the train. Plugging into the train is one of the times that the law requires that drivers give up control to the nav system; it's not that people can't maneuver the cars into the slots, but that careful human drivers are just a lot slower than navs. Getting several dozen cars into and out of train slots in a one-minute stop is a real trick. Apparently BART hired theme park designers who know just how to get people on and off roller coasters most efficiently, but the basics are the same with most platooning systems, whether on trains or freeways.

    BART's going to have to add some more platoon units to their trains; lately, I've had to wait for two or three trains to pass through before getting a slot. It's worth the wait. No parking worries at the station, and I can drive to work easily once I get to Palo Alto. At the end of the day, I can pick up a return train or just head home directly. Unmodded, though, the Civic M just barely gets freeway speeds, so I tend to stick with the train.

    Today, I'm going for a mod. I need to make a quick run out of the area to visit my mom, and the train station near where she is doesn't yet have rail platoon roll on/roll off setup. Getting to San Luis with the car as it is would take way too long, so I'm going to pick up a "go pack" -- an engine & battery booster kit. That'll get me up to freeway speeds and give me the range I need.

    I pull around the corner to where the Shell station used to be. Gas stations are hard to find these days, but they're still around -- by law, there's one every 200 miles along major highways to support legacy drivers and vehicles still requiring petroleum, and bigger towns usually have one or two. Most gas stations have been converted into modding stops: drive in, select the desired modification packs, let the system plug them in, pay and go. Takes about as much time as gassing up an empty tank used to, and competition between vehicle modification service providers (VSPs) keeps the prices reasonable. In this case, the mod stop is out of basic go packs, and I don't see a need to step up to the "sport utility" pack. Fortunately, there's another VSP just down the street.

    Although every car maker still has its own set of nameplates and designs, the mod pack system is blissfully standardized. The go pack I get plugged into my Civic M would work just as well on a Micro-Prius or a Volvochev Daytripper convertible. Most car makers' warranties include a lifetime retrofit guarantee, which I suppose is strong motivation for adhering to the mod pack standard. The range of mod options is pretty good, regardless; I could, if I wanted, even get a truck mod installed, but that requires some post-mod safety checks, and I've only needed the added carrying capacity once or twice.

    The nice thing about the mod system is that, when I'm done, I just drop the mod off at a convenient VSP. The mods are geotagged so the owner (who may or may not be the original VSP) knows where they are and which vehicles are using them. A sorting algorithm at the VSP asks the car's nav for destination info in order to offer up an appropriate unit needing to head back home. It's not unusual for high school students to make a bit of money on the side taking a truck mod out to collect wayward go packs that haven't made it back home in awhile.

    Some people who need daily access to a longer range or heavier cargo capacity buy permanent mods, but most of us just either do one-time rentals or discounted service plans. In a way, it's kind of like treating a car like a mobile phone.

    What's really cool is the hacker community that has sprung up around this system. I've seen all kinds of home-brew car mods in MAKE: amphibious packs, emergency relief systems (turning the car into a mobile power supply and communication station), even a "swarm charge" kit that'll let you share power from your car with another vehicle in a platoon. Now I just need one that'll wash the car for me.

    There are plenty of nits to pick in this scenario. It's tech-heavy, and would require some infrastructure replacement, although not necessarily to the same scale as the urban redesign model (but neither would it prevent or slow a redesign). Getting car makers to agree on a standard mod design would be a nightmare, and would be almost as hard as convincing drivers that it's okay to go without the massive trunk or room for 14. It would work best with electric-only vehicles, but (with some changes) would likely be okay for plug-in hybrid, H2 fuel cell, or possibly even biofuel vehicles.

    The biggest objection is likely that it would do nothing to alter the existing suburban/exurban-automobile model. That's true, but at the same time I would say that it's an enabler for that kind of change, opening urban life up to people who otherwise wouldn't consider it. Smaller vehicles are easier to fit into denser environments, and roll-on/roll-off train systems would make rail commuting much more accessible to people with destinations beyond a reasonable distance from a station. Personal mobility, personal expression, and independence remain satisfied, but so too are the needs of a denser, more energy/carbon-conscious urban environment.

    August 14, 2007

    I've Got A Fever... And The Only Cure... Is More Calvin

    emissions 1900ffBW copy.jpgI'm packing to head off for a few days (it's ostensibly a vacation, so I'll only be working part of the time), but I thought that this was something that should be at the top of your web reading list.

    Bill Calvin, emeritus professor of neurobiology at the University of Washington, is putting the finishing touches on his latest book: Global Fever. David Houle at EvolutionShift got to interview him, and both the interview and the pieces of his book that he has put online are well-worth checking out:

    The timetable is really 2020? That means that we must truly accelerate efforts on all fronts. What can we do as individuals?

    You can’t enjoy the long run unless you do the right things in the short run. We’ve only got a decade to make a big dent in fossil fuel use or deploy new carbon sinks in equivalent numbers. Anything slower means a disaster for today’s students.


    Climate change is a challenge to the scientists but I suspect that the political leadership has the harder task, given how difficult it is to make people aware of what must be done and get them moving in time. It’s going to be like herding stray cats, and the political leaders who can do it will be remembered as the same kind of geniuses who pulled off the American Revolution.

    What does a neurobiologist know about climate change? A whole lot -- Calvin's specialty is the evolution of human intelligence, and it turns out that past climate changes have been very important in the development of the human brain. He explores this topic in a book entitled A Brain for All Seasons: Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change. Bill Calvin is remarkably prolific; just skimming through his website can be mind-boggling. He may well be the smartest person I've ever met.

    (Oh, yeah, disclaimer time: I first met Bill Calvin about 12 years ago, and we are still in sporadic contact.)

    Bill has a variety of solutions in mind, but he's adamant that this is such a big and immediate problem that deeper, more culturally-transformative changes (like redesigning urban life) simply won't be fast enough to help us avoid disaster. This runs somewhat against the WorldChanging canon, but I have a stark suspicion that he's right; of course, it doesn't hurt to be redesigning urban life at the same time as we strong-arm encourage people to drive hybrids.

    The last big climate change helped to make us smarter; let's hope that we're smart enough to deal with this new one.

    August 6, 2007

    Crimes Against the Future

    reddykilotrial.jpgThis week's Newsweek contains an article ("The Truth About Denial") that, on the surface, offers a good look at the politics of global warming pseudo-skepticism. When you read between the lines, however, it becomes increasingly clear that we've hit a phase transition in the politics of global warming, and -- especially when coupled with this week's Time story on the fragility of the recovery of New Orleans -- how close we are to treating the carbon-emissions industries as enemies of society. In short, the tobaccofication of carbon is imminent.

    Since the late 1980s, this well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change. Through advertisements, op-eds, lobbying and media attention, greenhouse doubters (they hate being called deniers) argued first that the world is not warming; measurements indicating otherwise are flawed, they said. Then they claimed that any warming is natural, not caused by human activities. Now they contend that the looming warming will be minuscule and harmless. "They patterned what they did after the tobacco industry," says former senator Tim Wirth, who spearheaded environmental issues as an under secretary of State in the Clinton administration.

    The Newsweek article goes on for six damning pages. Few readers will be surprised that this was not (and has never been) an honest effort to make sure that the climate field respected a scientific process of considering all plausible explanations. This was, from very early on, a conscious effort to obfuscate, undermine and delay (pun intended) any and all official efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Scientific accuracy didn't matter, only resistance to any government activity.

    Those of us who have been following this issue closely will come away from the article having learned little that's new, but what's remarkable about the piece is that something this dismissive of the global warming deniers (let alone the denialist position) is the cover story of a mainstream news magazine. This isn't just another piece reaffirming the reality of global warming as science; it's a brutal evisceration of the corrupt industry that emerged through the efforts of ideologues and crony capitalists. The companies and think tanks involved in the denialist effort come across not as defenders of their beliefs and industry, but as people willing to say and do anything to protect the accumulation of short-term profits, the future (and the world) be damned.

    Whether or not Katrina could be indisputably linked to global warming, it has become the iconic global warming event in the public mind -- a climate 9/11, if you will. When New Orleans is hit again (and it will be), the ineffective projects from FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the sundry contractors hired to rebuild hurricane defenses will be brushed aside, and the city will be hit all the harder. (Ironically, because the poor residents of New Orleans are still largely unable to rebuild their homes and communities, they may end up being spared this second hit if it comes in the next few years.) When that happens, or when we have a big hurricane hit on a city that isn't even as prepared as New Orleans (such as, say, Washington D.C.), this emerging recognition that the carbon industries have been working to prevent us from acting against global warming -- in effect, working to harm us in the name of maximizing profits -- is likely to take on even greater vigor.

    For the global warming denial industry, congressional hearings will be the least of their worries. In a post-Katrina II America, aware that some of the largest companies and the most influential think tanks worked hard to make sure that attempts to mitigate climate disruption were stopped, the perpetrators of this crime may face far greater trials. It couldn't happen to a more deserving bunch.

    July 30, 2007

    The Carbon Footprint of Talking About Carbon Footprints

    It's a legitimate question: by flying me out to Denver and driving me around the state for much of the day, did National Geographic TV end up substantially compounding the very problem I talk about with the cheeseburger footprint story?

    Let's do the math. According to Terrapass, my flight out to Denver and back ran about 867 pounds of CO2, total (per passenger). In the course of filming in a variety of locations, we drove two vehicles -- a standard pickup truck and a minivan, carrying a sum of six people and a huge amount of gear -- about 250 miles apiece. According to EPA estimates, pickups and minivans of appropriate size and vintage emit anywhere from 8 to 12 tons of CO2 over the course of driving 15,000 miles; call it 10 tons for easy math. 20,000 pounds of CO2 for 15,000 miles equals 1.3 pounds per mile, so 500 miles equals 666.7 pounds of CO2. That brings us to 1533.7 pounds for transportation alone; add in the incidentals of the day (power to charge the camera batteries, meals, and such), and we can reasonably estimate 1,600 pounds of direct CO2 emissions as the result of the day's activities.

    Or, to put that into more familiar terms, that's about 160 cheeseburgers, a bit more than the average American's annual consumption.

    Was it worth doing? I think so. I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't thought the costs were worthwhile. Shows like Six Degrees get more viewers even on a lousy night than have ever read the Cheeseburger Footprint post, or have seen its various appearances in the blogosphere. Clearly, the meme is a good one -- I apparently stumbled across the right combination of cultural icon and environmental provocation -- and I'm still getting press inquiries about it. I expect that, when the show comes out in February, I'll get another flurry of emails. Depending upon how the material is presented, it may even end up as the hook used in promos and criticized in reviews.

    Having worked in the TV industry for a couple of years in the late 1990s, I was sufficiently familiar with the sausage-making that goes into filming a TV show that I wasn't surprised by much of the NGTV day. Incessant retakes, technical flubs, material shot that would likely never even be considered for use, and the knowledge that at least six hours of filming would result in 3 minutes of screen time -- none of these were alien to me.

    What I did find distressing was the nagging sense that I never really told the story right, that I had left off important parts, or that in the course of speaking extemporaneously about the subject, I'd messed up some numbers. I don't mind looking goofy for the show, I just don't want to come across as a fool.

    July 19, 2007

    "Geome Engineering"

    atmocean.jpgThe latest Popular Science focuses on a variety of techno-fixes for environmental disruption, from home wind and solar to more eco-friendly laptops. Of particular interest, however, is a set of articles given the amusing description of "Duct Tape Methods to Save the Earth." One of the methods is a bit of biotech to make trees that can out-compete rain forest trees in lumber markets, but the other three are essentially ways to make local- and regional-scale changes to a geophysical system in order to mitigate environmental damage. In essence, these three are small-scale geoengineering projects. That's a bit of an ungainly (and arguably contradictory) name, so I've elected to refer to these methods as "geome engineering."

    [You won't find other references to this concept, however. In looking for the right term to talk about a consistent geophysical region of the size these methods affect, I came across this chart of ecological land classification at Wikipedia. After checking the links and references, I realized that what I needed was the geophysical (or abiotic, in the language of the chart) equivalent of a biome, an ecologically consistent region of plants, animals and soil organisms. In parallel to a biome, then, I've conditionally opted for the term "geome" (but would, of course, welcome suggestions of a more accurate existing term).]

    The three geome engineering projects described by Popular Science are artificial wetlands, insulating blankets for glaciers, and wave-driven cold-water pumps for hurricane-prone ocean regions.

    Each of the three takes a different approach to the problem of environmental protection. The artificial wetlands attempt to repair a damaged biome by using an artificial matrix as a base for local plants and animals; the matrix material floats, and allows the plant roots and tendrils to reach the water. The insulation blankets for glaciers attempt to protect a threatened area by slowing the warming-induced melting of glaciers; for now, the use of the blankets is limited to ski resorts in the Alps -- but in the tests, the blankets led to an 80% reduction in glacial melting.

    The last of the three, the wave-driven cold-water pumps, are to me the most interesting, as they are meant to mitigate the impact of hurricanes by lowering ocean surface temperatures by pulling colder water from 650' down. Warm oceans are the engines for hurricane strength; the designer, Phil Kithil, wants to cut hurricane power by cooling the water.

    Dropped from the deck of his ship, spools of barrel-width flexible tubing will unravel to form 650-foot-long cylinders. These are topped by buoys that bob up and down with each passing wave and drive pumps that draw cool, nutrient-rich water up from the deep ocean. Bigger waves mean more cooling, and, conveniently, big waves precede hurricanes. "So we get cooling only when we want cooling," Kithil says, "when there's a hurricane on the horizon."

    Preliminary studies by Kithil's group Atmocean have shown a measurable reduction in sea surface temperatures in limited trials; a larger test, with pumps spread out over a one-third-square-mile section of ocean, is set to commence in August. The test will look not only for a reduction in water temperature, but also any indication of harm to marine life. There is actually a possibility of the system being beneficial to marine ecosystems, as the cooler water would contain nutrients that would promote the re-growth of plankton killed by warming oceans.

    The attractive aspect of geome engineering is that, because the effects are more limited, the risks are likely to be similarly limited. The costs are lower, too, making it plausible that lower-income nations could use some of these techniques for ecosystem remediation, geophysical protection, and damage mitigation.

    July 18, 2007

    Footprint Database

    fpco2e.jpgSo the folks who asked about milk's footprint run what might come to be a useful listing of the carbon footprints of a variety of everyday items. It's in the UK, so some of the examples aren't entirely universal (a train from London to York, for example), but it's a good start. As of today, they have 21 items (including... well, you know).

    The Fishergate Environmental Panel Visual Index

    Milk's Hoofprint

    I was asked in email if I'd calculated the carbon footprint of milk, along with the footprint of a cheeseburger, and I realized that I had most of the figures I'd need already in hand.

    [Caveat: In order to fully calculate the carbon footprint of milk, I'd need to have numbers on energy consumed in growing cattle feed for dairy cows, processing the milk (pasteurization, bottling, etc.) and transporting the results; however, the main carbon impact will be from the methane produced by the cattle, so that's where I'll focus.]

    This calculation should be reasonably straightforward -- a first pass estimate would be

    (Amount of methane produced by a milk cow in a year) / (Amount of milk produced by a milk cow in a year)


    (242 lbs of methane)* / (19,951 lbs of milk)** = 0.012 lbs of methane per lb of milk

    1 gallon of milk = ~8.5 lbs, so

    1 gallon of milk = 0.102 lbs of methane


    1 unit methane = 23 units of CO2 in terms of greenhouse impact, so

    1 gallon of milk = 2.35 lbs of CO2 equivalent

    Add in a pound of CO2 equivalent for processing and transportation (as a very crude figure), and that ends up to be about 3.35 pounds of CO2 equivalent per gallon of milk. Call it three-and-a-half pounds of CO2 equivalent per gallon of milk.

    Or, in metric:

    1 liter of milk = 282 grams of CO2 equivalent in methane. With transport & processing, call it about 400 grams of CO2 equivalent per liter of milk.

    As with the cheeseburger figures, these are very fuzzy numbers, and the actual amount will vary on the basis of how much carbon is produced farming and transporting cattle feed, collecting and pasteurizing the milk, and trucking the gallons to your local grocery store -- along with how much milk a given cow produces (which can vary considerably).

    Repeat after me: everything we do has some level of a carbon footprint. The achievable goal is to make smart choices about what kind of footprint we'll make, and what we'll choose to avoid. The first step in making a smart choice is understanding one's options. So drink milk. Eat a cheeseburger. Heck, drive a big truck. But don't do it without accepting the consequences.

    * Methane amount: (in kilos, 1 kilo = 2.2 lbs)
    ** Milk per cow:

    June 2, 2007

    Third Order Effects

    Elephant Seal RIPThe equation is simple, but the results are profound.

    Warmer oceans trigger larger and larger algae blooms along the North American west coast, and this year's bloom is massive. Such large algae blooms release domoic acid, which acts as a toxin, poisoning the fish and shellfish that feed on the algae. In turn, the birds and sea mammals that feed on the fish get poisoned by the concentrated acid. This year, sea life along the California coast appears to be dying in record numbers.

    Sea life including elephant seals, such as the two found dead on the beach at Pajaro Dunes, where I'm visiting with my wife's family this weekend. Researchers from the Long Marine Lab at UC Santa Cruz came out to retrieve the bodies today, and I ended up helping them (as seen in these photos at Flickr). They told me that, although the seals will need autopsies, domoic acid poisoning is the likely culprit.

    The algae population increases or "blooms" every year as the ocean waters warm but this year's bloom seems early, extensive and "very, very thick," said David Caron, who teaches in the biological sciences department at University of Southern California.

    "In five years of study I have not seen a bloom this large at this particular time of year," Caron said.

    Human activity, particularly nitrogen from fertilizer waste and global warming, contribute to the size of the algae blooms. This will, in time, come back to haunt us.

    Loading the Big One

    Many scientists agree that increases in algal blooms in California and around the world are caused by a combination of factors, including agricultural run-off, oceanographic properties, and global warming. [...] Scientists first saw domoic acid poisoning in 1998, when over 70 sea lions died in one weekend. "We thought at the time that it was linked to the fact that it was an El Nino year, but we've seen it every year since then," says Frances Gulland of The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California. "It's a big mystery."

    In the last five years, over 1000 animals have died from domoic acid poisoning, and there has been an increase in the number and extent of harmful algal blooms that produce the compound.

    "Sea lions eat the same foods we do, but more of them – foods like anchovies, squid, salmon, and mussels – we may see the effects of domoic acid in them before we see it people," says Gulland. Researchers are already seeing signs of serious health problems, such as miscarriages and epilepsy, in sea lions. "Sea lions may be an early warning sign for humans," she says.

    It's not (yet) every day that one gets to pick up the body of a "canary in a coal mine."

    April 25, 2007


    The argument isn't over about the utility of carbon offsets (although the various argumentative parties have since wandered off to other subjects), but my take is that, on balance, they do a little bit of good and -- more importantly -- train people to think in terms of the carbon footprints of their actions. Most of the offset providers, however, deal with the big impacts: a year's worth of energy, a trans-Atlantic flight, that sort of thing. But what about smaller purchases? How hard would it be to provide carbon offsets for one's everyday life?

    Think of them as micro-offsets, in parallel to the various micro-finance projects underway across the developing world.

    Micro-offsets offer a chance to do something big by doing something very small. Imagine a small amount -- say twenty-five cents to a dollar -- that could be added to the price of commonplace consumer products and services, from cheeseburgers to phone bills, in order to pay for a carbon offset. Importantly, such fees would be optional, but even a small amount would likely pay for more carbon than was actually produced by the product or service. The multitude of tiny amounts, added together, would be used to purchase traditional carbon credits, probably by an offset aggregator.

    This idea is starting to appear in various forms. Chris Messina, for example, talks about "Carbon Offsetting Web 2.0," optional fees for web hosts and other web service providers, tacked on to (over-)pay for the carbon footprint of the energy used for the servers & such. Messina's idea demonstrates the utility of the micro-offset concept: by adding on to existing subscription services, consumers don't need to pay yet another bill; the price is low enough (Messina suggests around $1/month) that it's well within what a growing number of people would feel guilty enough to pay; and the offsets purchased by these fees enough to cover not just the server footprints, but ancillary carbon costs for the service providers. Imagine if Second Life -- or World of Warcraft -- made this kind of offer.

    It's likely that online shopping systems of all sorts, not just subscriptions. would be simple platforms for micro-offsets; imagine every purchase at Amazon or eBay including a checkbox that reads, "Add $.50 to my bill for carbon offsets."

    But if you're going to be tagging an extra amount onto the price of something to pay for its carbon, why not just institute a carbon tax?

    Because no matter how useful such a scheme would be, there are few politicians willing today to stand up and say, "I want to impose a carbon tax!" The political will simply isn't there. That doesn't mean the social will isn't, however. We've seen plenty of examples of companies, communities and individual making decisions about environmental sustainability that go far beyond what Washington DC has been willing to do. Similarly, the existence -- and, hopefully, success -- of micro-offsets would be an existence proof that people are, in fact, willing to pay a bit more to shrink their carbon footprints.

    Micro-offsets offer a bottom-up way to get people to pay more attention to their greenhouse gas impacts, and not just in the obvious, marketing-friendly shape of hybrid cars and compact-fluorescent bulbs.

    The main downside of the basic micro-offset concept is that the offset cost is not tied to actual carbon impact; as a result, they don't provide the information transparency that would allow people to easily change behaviors. There's no reason why micro-offsets couldn't be linked to carbon impacts, of course -- once we get carbon labels that let people make informed choices. In the meantime, basic micro-offsets could still provide value. As they became more common, they would lead to both a small overall carbon footprint reduction, and a large step towards a carbon-conscious society.

    April 22, 2007

    Earth Day Essay

    I've gone ahead and contributed an essay to WorldChanging's "Earth Day" series, a brief set of scenarios based on the matrix shown above. It's very much a high-level view of potential Earth futures, and is meant more as a provocation to discussion than as a complete picture of Things To Come.

    Here's a sample:

    Geoengineering 101: Pass/Fail

    2037: The Hephaestus 2 mission reported last week that it had managed to stabilize the wobble on the Mirror, but blurbed me a minute ago that New Tyndall Center is still showing temperature instabilities. According to Tyndall, that clinches it: we have another rogue at work. NATO ended the last one with extreme prejudice (as dramatized in last Summer's blockbuster, "Shutdown" -- I loved that Bruce Willis came out of retirement to play Gates), but this one's more subtle. My eyecrawl has some bluster from the SecGen now, saying that "this will not stand," blah blah blah. I just wish that these boy geniuses (and they're all guys, you ever notice that?) would put half as much time and effort into figuring out the Atlantic Seawall problem as they do these crazy-ass plans to fix the sky.

    This is a world in which attempts to make the broad social and behavioral changes necessary to avoid climate disaster are generally too late and too limited, and the global environment starts to show early signs of collapse. The 2010s to early 2020s are characterized by millions of dead from extreme weather events, hundreds of millions of refugees, and a thousand or more coastal cities lost all over the globe. The continued trend of general technological acceleration gets diverted by 2020 into haphazard, massive projects to avert disaster. Few of these succeed -- serious climate problems hit too fast for the more responsible advocates of geoengineering to get beyond the "what if..." stage -- and the many that fail often do so in a spectacular (and legally actionable) fashion. Those that do work serve mainly to keep the Earth poised on the brink: bioengineered plants that consume enough extra CO2 and methane to keep the atmosphere stable; a very slow project to reduce the acidity of the oceans; and the Mirror, a thousands of miles in diameter solar shield at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun, reducing incoming sunlight by 2% -- enough to start a gradual cooling trend.

    I have to say, I really had to restrain myself from turning each of these into lengthy stories -- but the Earth Day essays all seemed relatively brief.

    April 15, 2007

    Nitrogen Strategies

    One of the projects I'm juggling right now is serving as facilitator and moderator of an online discussion board and wiki, run by the Monitor Institute for the Packard Foundation, on the subject of strategies for dealing with Nitrogen pollution. For the first two weeks, participation was limited to a small group of academics and government specialists; the wiki has now been opened up to the Internet community at large. Here's the invitation:

    The David and Lucile Packard Foundation invites you to be part of an online collaboration to create strategies for reducing nitrogen pollution. Please join at

    An increasingly dangerous threat to our environment and human health, nitrogen pollution is degrading water quality and coastal ecosystems, contributing to climate change and posing a variety of health risks. Despite its rapid growth and harmful consequences, the problem of nitrogen pollution has received relatively little attention, except in areas suffering the consequences. In response to this gap, the Packard Foundation is exploring opportunities for philanthropic investments to make a significant contribution to solutions.

    Since the most robust strategies for addressing a problem as complex as nitrogen pollution can not be developed by Packard alone, the Foundation has launched a public forum for collaboration. Everyone with an interest in reducing nitrogen pollution is invited to join and work together to create effective strategies for addressing this pressing problem.

    The forum will be live and open to public participation through May 10th.

    Packard will make the full product of this forum available to the Foundation’s Trustees at its June Board meeting and the Foundation staff will use the product of the site in developing a recommended strategy for the Trustees to consider. Once the forum closes, the outcomes of this work will be available to the public, archived online and protected under a Creative Commons License.

    Thank you in advance for participating in this important collaboration.

    [Instructions for signing up in the extended entry]

    Continue reading "Nitrogen Strategies" »

    March 29, 2007

    Christian Science Monitor on the Ethics of Geoengineering

    Today's Christian Science Monitor has a thoughtful article on the morality of geoengineering as an option for confronting climate disaster. It's a decent overview of the current thinking on the subject, although it doesn't mention a couple of topics I think are worth calling out, namely, the use of bioengineering as a way of boosting carbon uptake in the ecosystem, especially with regards to methane, and Richard Branson's Climate Challenge, which is the first blatant geoengineering competition. I also get a couple of quotes in the piece.

    (I spoke with the article author, Moises Velasquez-Manoff, for over an hour; the two quotes he used represent a very small part of the conversation. I think I come across as a bit more of an advocate of geoengineering in the article than I really am, but by and large I think I'm represented reasonably well.)

    The most interesting comment comes at the end, from Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University:

    "You could imagine some kind of arms race of geoengineering, where one country is trying to cool the planet and another is trying to warm the planet."

    That possibility is another reason why the development of geoengineering technologies is essentially inevitable. No nation that sees itself as a great power is going to be willing to risk having its climate and environment completely in the hands of another nation. Research into methodologies for geoengineering will happen simply out of self-preservation -- after all, nobody wants to fall victim to a "terraforming gap."

    It's hardly a good reason to pursue geoengineering, but it's a powerful one, and further underscores the absolute need for people who see responsibility and precaution as paramount to be part of the conversation.

    February 15, 2007

    Open Source Terraforming

    Whether we like it or not, geoengineering -- a process I've taken to calling "(re)terraforming the Earth" -- is now on the table as a strategy for dealing with onrushing climate disaster. This isn't because it's a particularly good idea; as far as we presently know, the potential negative impacts of geoengineering projects seem to significantly outweigh any benefits. Nonetheless, (re)terraforming has drawn an increasing amount of attention over the past few months. One key reason is that, if it could be made to work, it wouldn't just moderate climate change -- i.e., slow it or stop it -- it would actually serve as a climate change remediation method, reversing global warming.

    The cynical and the insipid apparently believe that pursuing the geoengineering option would allow us to avoid making any changes in technology or behavior intended to reduce greenhouse gas output. This sort of logic is wrong, utterly wrong. For any plausible geoengineering project to succeed, we'd have to have already stabilized the climate. As it turns out, the brilliant and clearly-needed advances in technology and changes in behavior supported by those of us who proudly wear the label "bright green" will do exactly this, reducing, even eventually eliminating, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. We need to do this as quickly as possible. As the saying goes, if you want to get out of the hole you're in, the first thing to do is stop digging.

    But none of the bright green solutions -- ultra-efficient buildings and vehicles, top-to-bottom urban redesigns, local foods, renewable energy systems, and the like -- will do anything to reduce the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. The best result we get is stabilizing at an already high greenhouse gas level. And because of ocean thermal inertia and other big, slow climate effects, the Earth will continue to warm for a couple of decades even after we stop all greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming our civilization into a bright green wonderland won't be easy, and under even the most optimistic estimates will take at least a decade; by the time we finally stop putting out additional greenhouse gases, we could well have gone past a point where globally disastrous results are inevitable. In fact, given the complexity of climate feedback systems, we may already have passed such a tipping point, even if we stopped all emissions today.

    In other words, while stopping digging is absolutely necessary, it won't actually refill the hole.

    I'm hopeful that eliminating anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will be enough; if more optimistic scenarios are correct, ceasing to emit additional greenhouse gases in the next decade or two will be sufficient to avoid real disaster. This would be a wonderful outcome, and not just because we would have dodged the global warming bullet. Many of the best steps we can take along these lines are distributed, incremental, collaborative, and quite often make use of open systems and standards: all very good things, with larger social implications than just for climate moderation, and the heart of what Open the Future is all about.

    But if we learn that we've already passed the climate disaster tipping point, if we want to avoid a civilization-threatening outcome, we'll have to figure out how to refill the hole -- to reduce overall temperature increases, or to remove methane, CO2 or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. And that means that we'd have to look at geoengineering.

    Or, to be more accurate, we'll have to keep looking at geoengineering. As it happens, the "(re)terraforming to fix global warming" genie is already out of the bottle. It happened just last week.

    On February 9, 2007, Virgin Corporation honcho Richard Branson announced that he would give $25 million to the winner of the "Virgin Earth Challenge:"

    The Virgin Earth Challenge will award $25 million to the individual or group who are able to demonstrate a commercially viable design which will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least ten years without countervailing harmful effects. This removal must have long term effects and contribute materially to the stability of the Earth’s climate.

    Reaction in the green blogosphere has been cautiously optimistic, with most responses noting a comparison to the "X-Prize" for private space flight, and some observing that air travel, such as that provided by Virgin Airways, remains a big source of greenhouse gases. Much to my surprise, however, none of the major green blogs noted the most significant aspect of this competition:

    This is explicitly a call for geoengineering projects.

    The Virgin Earth Challenge isn't simply looking for better ways to reduce or eliminate new greenhouse gas emissions, it's looking for ways to remove existing CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere -- that's what "net removal" means. This competition seeks ways to make an active, substantial change to the Earth's geophysical systems. Richard Branson is underwriting terraforming, and given that the consensus new mainstream environmentalist position is to be solidly anti-geoengineering, the lack of reaction to what is essentially the "Terraforming Challenge" is a bit surprising.

    But if we're already looking at geoengineering, and may potentially need to consider it as a necessary path to survival, how can we do it in a way that has the best chance to avoid making matters worse?

    I've already given away the answer in the title: open up the process.

    I've long argued that openness is the best way to ensure the safe development and deployment of transformative technologies like molecular nanotechnology, general machine intelligence, and radical human bioenhancements. Geoengineering technologies should be added to this list. The reasons are clear: the more people who can examine and evaluate the geotechnological proposals, the greater the likelihood of finding subtle flaws or dangers, and the greater the pool of knowledge that can offer solutions.

    As I put it in my 2003 essay for the final Whole Earth magazine (and the source of this blog's name), "Open the Future,"

    Opening the books on emerging technologies, making the information about how they work widely available and easily accessible, in turn creates the possibility of a global defense against accidents or the inevitable depredations of a few. Openness speaks to our long traditions of democracy, free expression, and the scientific method, even as it harnesses one of the newest and best forces in our culture: the power of networks and the distributed-collaboration tools they evolve.

    Broad access to... [transformative] tools and knowledge would help millions of people examine and analyze emerging information, nano- and biotechnologies [and geotechnologies], looking for errors and flaws that could lead to dangerous or unintended results. This concept has precedent: it already works in the world of software, with the "free software" or "open source" movement. A multitude of developers, each interested in making sure the software is as reliable and secure as possible, do a demonstrably better job at making hard-to-attack software than an office park's worth of programmers whose main concerns are market share, liability, and maintaining trade secrets.

    [...]The more people participate, even in small ways, the better we get at building up our knowledge and defenses. And this openness has another, not insubstantial, benefit: transparency. It is far more difficult to obscure the implications of new technologies (or, conversely, to oversell their possibilities) when people around the world can read the plans.

    The idea of opening transformative technologies is controversial. One argument often leveled against it is that it puts dangerous "knowledge-enabled" technologies into the hands of people who would abuse them. Fortunately, such a charge isn't likely to apply in any significant way to discussions of geotechnology, largely because the industrial capacity required to take advantage of these technologies is well beyond most countries, let alone super-empowered individuals and small groups. Another criticism of the open approach attacks it for undermining the market. But concerns about proprietary information and profit potential are hard to fathom with terraforming -- there would be no plausible way to limit access to climate change remediation only to those who pay for it. Ultimately, the downsides of making potential geoengineering methods open are tiny, while the benefits are massive.

    It's not entirely clear if an open source approach for terraforming technology would be allowed within the Virgin Earth Challenge rules. The "terms and conditions" appear to require secrecy during the development process, but leave open the possibility of a variety of licensing conditions afterwards. Presumably, this would include open source/free access licenses. This is better than nothing, but the secrecy-during-development requirements should have an exception for open source competitors. The value of the "many eyes" approach is enhanced if it isn't limited to after-the-fact analysis. Discovery of a flaw requiring a redesign is less costly -- and less likely to be ignored -- if it happens early in the development process.

    Let me be clear: I am not calling for geoengineering as the solution to global warming. We know nowhere near enough to make (re)terraforming a plausible or safe option. Our best pathway to avoiding climate disaster remains the rapid reduction and elimination of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. But I am calling for us to learn more about geotechnologies. Like it or not, we've entered the era of intentional geoengineering. The people who believe that (re)terraforming is a bad idea need to be part of the discussion about specific proposals, not simply sources of blanket condemnations. We need their insights and intelligence. The best way to make that happen, the best way to make sure that any terraforming effort leads to a global benefit, not harm, is to open the process of studying and developing geotechnological tools.

    It may well be the best example yet seen of the importance of opening the future.

    January 27, 2007

    We Win the War; Now the Fight Begins

    bigmike2.gifBruce Sterling's Viridian Note #00487, sent today, is something of a victory announcement for the Viridian movement. The idea -- the truth -- that the planet is in the midst of an extraordinary climate disaster is no longer a fringe notion, and is no longer something that we have to spend our time repeating. Now comes the effort to do something about it, and that effort will not be easy.

    (((We are winning because we were ahead of the curve: we Viridians were an avant-garde who understood, almost ten years ago, that something like this was bound to happen. That does not make us the proper people to actually carry it out. First, we don't have the scale, the resources, or the ability. Second, and let me be very clear to you here: the primrose path to sustainability, even it is construed as sexy, trendy and stylish, will be dark and thorny. Behind Corporate Green is its darker, bloodstained cousin, Khaki Green, and we'll be seeing a lot of that. Sustainability will be a comprehensive revolution in the tenor of daily life. There will be blood on the hands of the people who bring it about. Not because they are bloodthirsty. But because there is so much blood.)))

    (((Genuine climate mayhem is underway. It is intensifying fast. People are going to die: of heat, of disease, freezing, starving, drowning and dying of thirst. Not in mere tens of thousands as they did in the Paris heatwave, but in hecatombs. We have a global climate crisis. A real one, not a futurist speculation. People are going to make agonizing sacrifices in increasingly frantic efforts to ameliorate that and redress that crisis. Then, next year, they will discover that the situation is vastly worse than then imagined, and the spillage of blood and treasure and sacred honor that they thought would surely help is a fraction of what was necessary.)))

    This isn't a "mission accomplished" celebratory note; it's more the stunned realization that after a decade of pounding one's fists against a stone wall, that wall has now started to crumble.

    This new reality is something that the environmental movement had better adjust to quickly. Any green group still banging the drums about trying to "wake us up" to the danger will quickly become irrelevant. The conversations now need to be about how do we handle this in a smart way, with solutions that don't make matters worse, and don't put more power into the hands of the people, the companies, and the movements that brought this disaster to begin with.

    Take geoengineering. Treehugger notes today that the Bush administration is now lobbying for "smoke and mirrors" options for blocking sunlight. As someone who has written in abundance on the topic, this galls me. Geoengineering is a last-ditch option; any proposal that it be an early choice is dangerous. Fortunately, the remaining years of this administration are insufficient for any real re-terraforming effort to launch.

    That said, I do support academic research into geoengineering methods. Not because I want to see them deployed, but because when pressure mounts to do something big, we need to be able to show precisely why the more obvious options are bad ideas, and -- as may be necessary -- to be able to choose the least-bad options when all the good options are gone. Even if the Bush plans for geoengineering are slowed or stopped, the topic will re-emerge, especially if, as Bruce says, the situation is vastly worse than then imagined.

    This is the moment that we've been waiting for. The tipping point has passed, and the voices calling out for real solutions are growing louder by the day. Those of us who have been working on, writing about, thinking about how to deal with this crisis need to step up and be heard. If we hold back, or if we continue to fight the war we've already won, we run the risk of seeing our futures determined by those most culpable for this disaster.

    January 17, 2007

    Funny Numbers

    Please read the updated and complete version of the cheeseburger footprint story, found here.

    This is, I hope, the last post on cheeseburgers for a long while.

    I need to address a couple of issues here about the numbers used in the Cheeseburger Footprint articles. The first will clarify the one moderately controversial assumption. The second is to acknowledge and rectify a math mistake.

    But before I begin, I want to say this: the Cheeseburger Footprint is about much more than raw numbers. It's about how we live our lives, and the recognition that every action we take, even the most prosaic, can have unexpectedly profound consequences. The article was meant to poke us in our collective ribs, waking us up to the effects of our choices.

    It just happens to turn out that the effects are even more dramatic than I first thought.

    Three per Week?!?
    Of all of the numbers tossed around in the Cheeseburger Footprint posts and audio bits, the one that draws the most attention is the assertion that the average American eats three burgers every week. That's an extraordinary number, if you think about it, and since it's an average, for every one of us that rarely or never eats a burger, someone must be gobbling them down like candy. Where does that number come from, and (perhaps more importantly) is it accurate?

    My reference for that figure was an article in the Economist, but other sources include Google Answers (ascribing it to a Dr. Kathleen Aicardi) and The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (as cited here). But you'll notice in all of these, the 3/week number is offered as an assertion; I couldn't dig up a direct research or study reference for the number.

    It turns out that the claims for burger consumption in the US are all over the map, and 3/week -- or about 40-45 billion burgers -- seems to be at the high end. Eric Schlosser, in Fast Food Nation, is at the other end of the spectrum, claiming 13 billion in the US annually. It's not hard to find groups asserting 15 billion, 25 billion, 30 billion, etc. -- there really doesn't seem to be a hard number for this.

    100,000 SUVs?
    Now I have to admit a math error. A reporter asked about the 100,000 SUVs number, whether I mean the annual output or something different, and in going back to double-check my notes I found something that made my heart sink. In my calculations, I left out a step, and the 100,000 SUVs parallel is wrong by a large margin.

    The real number -- if we stick with the 3/week assumption -- is closer to 13 million SUVs. Even if we cut that by two-thirds to go with the Fast Food Nation number, the American cheeseburger habit still puts out every year the equivalent to the annual greenhouse gases of over 4 million SUVs

    Here's the math, so that my calculations are clear. The kg/burger value is from the original Cheeseburger Footprint post, and is the low end of the range. A Hummer H3 SUV emits 11.1 tons (imp.) of CO2 over a year; this converts to about 10.1 tonnes, so we'll call it 10 to make the math easy:

    300,000,000	citizens
    * 150 		burgers/year (~Economist, Dr. Alcardi)
    * 2.85 		kilograms of CO2-equivalent per burger
    / 1000		kilograms per tonne (metric ton)
    = 128,250,000	annual tonnes of CO2-equivalent for all US burgers
    /10		tonnes of CO2-equivalent per SUV
    =12.8 million SUVs 
    300,000,000	citizens
    * 50		burgers/year (~Fast Food Nation)
    * 2.85		kilograms of CO2-equivalent per burger
    / 1000		kilograms per tonne
    = 42,750,000	annual tonnes of CO2-equivalent for all US burgers
    /10		tonnes of CO2-equivalent per SUV
    =4.3 million SUVs

    In my original post, the calculations I used missed the step of multiplying by the number of burgers per year -- the final results shown at the time actually amounted to the output if everyone only ate one cheeseburger a year. So I was off by anywhere from a factor of 40 to a factor of over 100. Whoops -- my apologies. Things are much worse than we thought.

    But does that really matter? These are all pretty fuzzy numbers to begin with, and even these revised values are themselves likely to be off by a significant margin. And how many people would be thinking, "4 million? That's different, then. A hundred thousand SUVs, that's nothing." These are big numbers either way, and both 100K and 12M SUVs offer stark comparisons for our cheeseburger footprint.

    Ultimately, this is about awareness, not math. Too few of us recognize the climate and environmental impact of our day-to-day activities, and if the cheeseburger post woke some people up -- as it seems to have done -- then it's accomplished its task, even if the real numbers are far worse than initially thought.

    But a mistake is a mistake, and I apologize for mine.

    January 15, 2007

    Cheeseburger Steamroller, Redux

    The final hurrah -- for the moment, at least -- of the Cheeseburger Footprint phenomenon: my full-length monologue (not really an interview when the interviewer can't get a word in edge-wise) for Treehugger. They liked it enough to want to put the whole thing up.

    Jamais Cascio on the Footprint of a Cheeseburger (Audio)

    They even grabbed the Carbon Facts panel I hacked together last week as illustration...

    Let me know what you think.

    January 8, 2007

    The Cheeseburger Syndrome: Carbon Transparency

    carbonfacts_sm.jpgThe "Footprint of a Cheeseburger" post continues to reverberate around the web, and not just in the so-called "Green Blogosphere." I have an interview about the story coming up that might make it to national radio. The Cheeseburger Footprint popped up on business sites, on hamburger and foodie sites -- heck, it even got linked to by a well-known slavering right-wing website Which Shall Not Be Named or Linked (I've read too much Lovecraft and Stross to take that risk), with readers there wondering if I was serious.

    For the record: yes, I was serious.

    That doesn't mean that the post wasn't a bit tongue-in-cheek. It was, ultimately, an attempt to take a remarkably prosaic activity and parse out its carbon aspects. After all, we're all increasingly accustomed to recognizing obvious, direct carbon emissions, but we're still wrapping our heads around the secondary and tertiary sources. This is another example of a recurring theme for me: we're good at cause and effect, not so good at cause...
    ...and effect. Exercises like this one help to reveal the less-obvious ways that our behaviors and choices impact the planet and our civilization.

    I doubt that we'll have to go through this process with everything we eat, from now until the end of the world. As our societies become more conscious of the impact of greenhouse gases, and the need for very tight and careful controls on just how much carbon we dump into the air, we'll need to create mechanisms for carbon transparency. Be they labels, icons, color-codes, or arphid, we'll need to be able to see, at a glance, just how much of a hit our personal carbon budgets take with each purchase.

    Will information alone make a difference? Probably not; after all, nutrition info panels on packaged foods didn't turn us all into health food consumers. But they will allow us more informed choices, with no appeals to not knowing the consequences of our actions.

    January 6, 2007

    Updating Geoethics

    As it's been a year and a half since I wrote Geoethical Principles, I've had some time for my thinking to evolve. Over the next week, as I can, I'll be updating the Geoethical Principles document, probably adding it as a permanent side-link.

    OtF Core: Geoethical Principles

    (Jon Lebkowsky, over in the conversation with Bruce Sterling at the Well, reminded me of one of my favorite and most difficult posts over at WorldChanging, one that's worth bringing over here. It's an exploration of "geoethical principles" -- the values we'd need to hold, and to hold tightly, should we ever be faced with the need to engage in geoengineering. Originally written in July of 2005, here it is in its entirety:)

    The pace and course of global warming-induced climate disruption is such that, even with an aggressive global effort to cut greenhouse gas output starting today, temperatures will continue to rise for two or three decades. If the effect of rising temperatures hits a "tipping point" resulting in far-more-radical changes to the Earth's ecosystems than one might otherwise expect, we may be forced into using riskier, planetary-scale engineering projects to mitigate the changes and return us to "Earth-like" conditions. In Terraforming Earth, I looked at some of the proposals for large-scale reversals of temperature increases and CO2 buildup; In Terraforming Earth, Part II, I looked at the complexities of bioengineered adjustment instead of geoengineered mitigation.

    But whether we end up taking the mitigation or the adjustment course, we will want -- need -- clear guidelines to help us make the right choices. Such guidelines would, for some, seem like common sense; indeed, their use would not be to tell us what to do, but as a consistent metric against which to test proposals. These principles would not tell us whether a given strategy would succeed or fail, but whether the strategy would be the right course of action.

    As an explicit parallel to bioethics, these guidelines would be known as "geoethics."

    Bioethics are the guidelines against which biomedical researchers and practitioners measure their own difficult decisions. While the concept is by no means new, it was first formalized in 1979, in a book entitled Principles of Biomedical Ethicsby Tom Beuchamp and James Childress. Beuchamp and Childress conceived four core principles: autonomy, the personal responsibility over our own lives, and the ability to make decisions for ourselves; non-maleficence, essentially "first of all, do no harm" (a notion derived from Hippocrates, but not actually part of the Hippocratic Oath); beneficence, a positive obligation to advance the welfare of others; and justice, the allocation of healthcare resources according to a just standard. These have become widely-accepted core principles for many working in the medical practice and medical research fields.

    Like bioethics, the term "geoethics" is not new; unlike its biological cousin, there is no consistent definition of what geoethics covers, let alone its core principles. The closest I've found comes, not altogether surprisingly, from a WorldChanging ally. Mike Treder at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology posted recently about the 1st Annual Workshop on Geoethical Nanotechnology. Treder defined geoethics thusly:

    "Geoethical" means widely agreed-upon principles for guiding the application of technologies that can have a general environmental (including people) impact, much like bioethical principles (autonomy, beneficence, nonfeasance, justice) guide the application of curative technologies that specifically impact one or more patients.

    Suggestive, but still vague. How is "technology" defined -- would cars be included? Highways? Cities? Fire? What about practices that are not explicitly technological, but demonstrate an observable environmental impact (such as deforestation, agriculture, and mining)? How much of an environmental impact is enough to be covered? Subsequent literature searches (detailed below*) only muddied the waters further.

    The upside of this lack of consistency is that we can define geoethics and geoethical principles for ourselves without too much worry about disagreement with an established definition.

    I will propose a draft definition of geoethics, along with some suggested principles, but I'm looking for input (in the comments, preferably, but in email, too) from the larger WorldChanging community as to the phrasing and value of the concept.

    Proposed phrasing:

    Geoethics is the set of guidelines pertaining to human behaviors that can affect larger planetary geophysical systems, including atmospheric, oceanic, geological, and plant/animal ecosystems. These guidelines are most relevant when the behaviors can result in long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes in planetary systems, although even transient, local and superficial alterations can be considered through the prism of geoethics. Geoethical principles do not forbid long-term, widespread and/or hard-to-reverse changes, but require a consideration of repercussions and so-called "second-order effects" (that is, the usually-unintended consequences arising from the interaction of the changed system and other connected systems).

    Proposed core principles:

  • Interconnectedness -- planetary systems do not exist in isolation, and changes made to one system will have implications for other systems.
  • Diversity -- on balance, a diverse ecosystem is more resilient and flexible, better able to adapt to natural changes.
  • Foresight -- consideration of effects of changes should embrace the planetary pace, not the human pace.
  • Integration -- as human societies are part of the Earth's systems, changes made should take into consideration effects on human communities, and the needs of human communities should not be discounted or dismissed when considering overall impacts.
  • Expansion of Options -- on balance, choices made should increase the number of options and opportunities for future generations, not reduce them.
  • Reversibility -- changes made to planetary systems should be done in a way that allows for reconsideration if unintended and unexpected consequences arise.

    Going into a bit more detail:

    Interconnectedness is a recognition that the various planetary systems have deep and sometimes subtle cross-dependencies. Changes directly affecting a given system cannot be assumed to be neutral with regards to other systems; changes to (say) surface reflectivity, such as in the urban heat island effect, can in turn result in changes to rainfall patterns, influence the level of atmospheric ozone and particulate matter, and help determine the degree to which light from the Sun is absorbed.

    Diversity is an argument against monocultures arising directly from and as an unintended consequence of human activity. Direct monocultures include commercial forest stands; unintended monocultures include the proliferation of aggressive invasive organisms (e.g., "weeds") after environmental shifts open up new niches. Monocultures make ecosystems less able to survive shocks.

    Foresight is not a new concept at WorldChanging, even if expressed in somewhat different language. Ecological and geophysical changes tend to be slow, in human terms, and it's important when considering the implications of proposed actions to think in terms of the planet's pace, not just society's pace. An example would be the (as of now uncommon) recognition that global warming involves slow but relentless changes, such that quick shifts in human behavior will have no noticeable immediate effect.

    Integration is an explicit counter to the "die-off" line of thinking that places the needs of human societies below all other systems on the planet. Not only does the "die-off" argument result in ecological disaster as desperate societies try to grab remaining resources, its logic leads to the argument that (a) since human society is inherently unsustainable, and (b) since the planet, given sufficient time, can recover from any environmental burden we place on it before we die, there's no reason to be cautious, and we should do as we like with no concern for the future. Seeing human societies as part of the planet's systems, and as worthy of preservation and protection as any other part, allows for a longer-term perspective.

    Expansion of Options encompasses "sustainability," but is a larger concept. This means more than simply finding a sustainable balance of use and preservation; expansion of options means actively seeking behaviors that return more resources to the planet than they take, that emphasize renewal and reuse, and that provide a growing, diverse basis for future innovation.

    Reversibility is an attempt to capture the idea that, where possible, we should bias towards those choices that allow for reconsideration if unanticipated and undesirable consequences arise. Reversibility will not always be an option -- indeed, when matched with the Foresight principle, we may not recognize a problem until well after the option of reversal has passed. But when reversible options are available, they should be given special consideration.

    These principles and the statement of geoethics are obviously works-in-progress, and need greater refinement, elaboration and vision. I welcome and encourage suggestions and argument.

    Jamais Cascio, July 26, 02005

    * It turns out that a clear and consistent statement of geoethics is difficult to find. A USC seminar on Environment and Ethics defines it as "the idea of applying a range of moral principles according to the context of a given situation." In Peripheral Visions: Towards a Geoethics of Citizenship, authors Eve Walsh Stoddard and Grant H. Cornwell assert that "[by] a geoethics of citizenship we are suggesting a project of seeking understanding quite literally through the triangulation of different points of view." Ethicist Martine Rothblatt, in Your life or mine; how geoethics can resolve the conflict between public and private interests in xenotransplantation, looks at geoethics as a global set of rules to balance private and public interests in issues such as cross-species transplantation of tissues. Czech economists Vaclav Nemec and Lidmila Nemcová (DOC) propose geoethics as

    a new discipline (in both Earth sciences and applied ethics) in order to help in decision making whenever ethical dilemmas occur in problems connected with the sustainable use of non-renewable mineral resources (mainly in the fields of geology, mining activities and energy resources).

    As this variety suggests, although the term "geoethics" has been floating around for well over a decade (Nemc and Nemcová claim to have used it since 1991), there is no agreement as to what it means.

  • December 22, 2006

    The Footprint of a Cheeseburger (Updated!) (Updated Again!)

    Please read the updated and complete version of the cheeseburger footprint story, found here.

    I wondered a couple of days ago what the carbon footprint of a hamburger might be. It's the kind of question we'll be forced to ask more often as we pay greater attention to our individual greenhouse gas emissions. Burgers are common food items for many people; it's said that the average American eats three burgers per week, or about 150 burgers per year. What's the global warming impact of all that? I don't just mean cooking the burger; I mean the gamut of energy costs associated with a hamburger -- including growing the feed for the cattle for beef and cheese, growing the produce, storing and transporting the components, as well as cooking.

    The clues provided by my friends Martin Kelly and Kim Allen sent me looking in the right direction, but then I stumbled across an absolute treasure: Energy Use in the Food Sector (PDF), a 2000 report from Stockholm University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, looking at the life cycle energy use associated with... a cheeseburger! This highly-detailed report covers the myriad elements going into the production of the components of a burger, from growing and milling the wheat to make bread, to feeding, slaughtering and freezing the cattle for meat -- even the energy costs of pickling cucumbers. The report is fascinating in its own right, but it also gave me exactly what I needed to make a relatively decent estimation of the carbon footprint of a burger.

    Based on a variety of sources, the researchers conclude that the total energy use going into a single cheeseburger amounts to somewhere between about 7 and 20 megajoules -- the range comes from the variety of methods available to the food industry.

    The researchers break this down by process, but not by energy type. Here, then, is my first approximation: I split the food production and transportation uses into a diesel category, and the food processing (milling, cooking, storage) uses into an electricity category. Split this way, the totals add up thusly:

    Diesel -- 4.7 to 10.8 MJ per burger
    Electricity -- 2.6 to 8.4 MJ per burger

    With these ranges in hand, I could then convert the energy use into carbon emissions, based on fuel. For electricity, I calculated the footprint using both natural gas and coal; if you're lucky enough to have your local burger joint powered by a wind farm, you can drop that part of the footprint entirely.

    Diesel -- 90 to 217 grams of carbon per burger
    Gas -- 37 to 119 grams of carbon per burger
    Coal -- 65 to 209 grams of carbon per burger

    ...for a combined carbon footprint of a cheeseburger of 127 grams of carbon (at the low end, with gas) to 426 grams of carbon (at the high end, with coal). Adding in the carbon from operating the restaurant (and driving to the burger shop in the first place), we can reasonably call it somewhere between a quarter-kilogram and a half-kilogram of carbon emissions per cheeseburger. (But see below...)

    Or, over the course of a year, between 37 and 75 kilograms of carbon emissions from the average American's cheeseburger habit.

    If each of the 300 million Americans hit that "average" burger consumption, we're looking at 75,000-150,000 tonnes of atmospheric carbon annually from burger consumption alone -- that's the equivalent of the annual carbon output from 7,500-15,000 SUVs.

    [But see below...]

    (Update: I was reminded in email (thanks, Geoff!) that this should also include the methane emissions from cattle. So, let's add that.)

    A typical beef cow produces approximately 500 lbs of meat for boneless steaks and ground beef. By regulation, a beef cow must be at least 21 months old before going to the slaughterhouse; let's call it two years. A single cow produces 114 kilos of methane per year in eructations and flatulence, so over its likely lifetime, a beef cow produces 228 kilos of methane (not including the methane from its manure). Since a single kilo of methane is the equivalent of 23 kilos of carbon dioxide, a single beef cow produces 5244 CO2-equivalent kilograms of methane over its life. If we assume that the typical burger is a quarter-pound of pre-cooked meat, that's 2,000 burgers per cow. Dividing the methane total by the number of burgers, then, we get about 2.6 CO2-equivalent kilograms of additional greenhouse gas emissions from methane, per burger, or about 5-10 times more greenhouse gas produced from cow burps than from all of the energy used to raise, feed or produce all of the components of a completed cheeseburger!

    At 2.85-3.1 kg of CO2 (equiv) per burger, then, that's 428-465 kg of greenhouse gas per year for an average American's burger consumption.

    (Second Update: More details on methane output from ruminants like cattle, courtesy of the EPA. The government estimates for methane output from "enteric fermentation" is a bit lower than the number cited in the Telegraph article, but when we add in the methane from manure -- which is about a third of that from cattle gas -- the overall numbers I've used still roughly work out.

    And to add the necessary correction: adding in the methane, the overall CO2-equivalent emissions from all the cheeseburgers consumed in the US (assuming the average of 3/person is accurate) roughly equal the greenhouse output of 100,000 SUVs.

    Obviously, these are all estimates, and will vary considerably by individual cow, feed type, and other environmental conditions -- but assuming my sources are correct, these methane outputs should be roughly accurate, enough to trigger a good conversation, at least.)

    December 20, 2006

    Carbon McCredits

    Dear Lazyweb,

    What's the rough amount of greenhouse gas emissions that go into a typical hamburger? I mean the entire process of raising, feeding, killing, packing, shipping, grinding and distributing the beef, from barnyard to bun. Extra points for including the effects of the lifetime methane output of the cattle.

    It seems to me that the calculation would have to include:

    • What portion of a beef cow goes into a single typical burger?
    • A cow's portion of the energy consumption of ranch over the cow's lifetime.
    • The energy required to grown and ship the feed for a cow over its lifetime.
    • Energy required to "process" the cow to turn it into hamburger.
    • Shipping the raw (and likely frozen) burger to a restaurant.
    • Energy needed to cook the burger.

    We can leave aside the energy costs of the bun and produce, at least for now.

    The underlying question is this: how many "carbon credits" would one need to purchase per burger to offset this greenhouse gas output?

    (I'm not necessarily looking for someone to give me all the answers, but pointers to good resources for where I could find the answers myself would be appreciated.)

    November 27, 2006

    Terraforming the Earth, Now In the Spotlight

    globalwarmingfuturama.jpgGeoengineering -- aka planetary engineering, aka (re-)terraforming the Earth -- has once again popped up into the public limelight. The latest issue of Wired has an article about Nobel-prize-winner Paul Crutzen's proposal to spray sulfur particles into the high atmosphere over the arctic, reflecting sunlight and cooling the region, allowing icepack to reform. Coincidentally, the November 16 issue of Rolling Stone (of all places) has a profile of Dr. Lowell Wood, former nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Wood has proposed a sulfur-seeding plan essentially identical to that of Dr. Crutzen. The idea that we may have to engineer the planet to avoid climate change disaster is taking off.

    I wrote about geoengineering for my Futurismic column at the beginning of October, and it's a subject I've been following for a few years. The potential methods abound, from orbiting solar shades to bioengineered plants or microbes slurping methane or CO2. They're all big, expensive, and hold the potential to be cures even worse than the sickness. We know so little about the complex interrelationships of our geophysical systems that a clumsy intervention could easily lead to catastrophe.

    Unfortunately, global warming is coming on so fast, and the effects have the potential to be so devastating, that we will almost certainly see someone -- a dramatically-affected country, for example, or as Bruce Sterling suggests, a well-heeled tycoon with a rocket fixation -- attempt some measure of geoengineering.

    Asserting that it's a bad idea won't stop a desperate effort. If global warming gets as bad as it could (and there's an all-too-great chance that it will), human civilization will not go quietly. We'll try everything we can think of to forestall climate disaster.

    Dismissing the notion because it's wrong to conduct a planet-wide experiment in climate engineering neglects the fact that we're already conducting a planetary climate experiment, only we've lost the lab notes, don't have a control, and got massively drunk the night before. We've dumped massive amounts of garbage into the atmosphere with little consideration of the long-term results. Now we get to see what happens.

    If a geoengineering attempt is (as I suspect) highly likely in the next decade or two, we damn well should know a bit more about what we're doing. We need to have a major research project already underway to figure out which re-terraforming options are likely to have the best results at the least-disastrous costs. We need to be able to warn people off of the really terrible options by being able to point them to the less-bad (and potentially helpful) alternatives. Fortunately, this will require a great deal more knowledge about geophysical systems, knowledge that will prove beneficial even if we manage to avoid the more desperate solutions.

    To paraphrase Stewart Brand, we are as planetary engineers, so we may as well get good at it.

    November 3, 2006

    RAIDs Against Global Warming

    microshades.jpgThis has "duh... why did we think of this before!" written all over it: a "redundant array of inexpensive disks" to cool the Earth.

    Everyone with a bit of sense knows that the only way to combat global warming-induced climate disruption is through aggressive action to boost energy efficiency, shift to non-carbon energy production, and change our urban systems to increase lifestyle efficiency. Problem is, because of thermal inertia, we may already be too late to avoid catastrophic levels of planetary warming. We could well face a scenario in which our best efforts to cut carbon emissions end up still not happening fast enough to avoid a "tipping point" disaster (choose your apocalypse here: methane clathrates melting; complete collapse of ecosystems; heatwaves, wildfires and droughts killing millions; all of the above). That's why some of us argue that, on top of aggressive action (etc.), we need to look into plans for emergency cooling of the planet -- geoengineering, or as I like to call it, terraforming the Earth.

    I've covered this idea before. What's new is the plan from Roger Angel at the University of Arizona. He's taken the tried-and-true solar shade concept -- a big umbrella between the Earth and the Sun blocking a small percentage of sunlight, enough to cool us down by a degree or two -- and given it the 21st century twist: Instead of a single solar shade thousands of miles in diameter, he proposes putting up (literally) trillions of tiny, 2 foot diameter microshades, acting as a distributed array of cooling. Such an approach would be cheaper than the single megashade, more robust (a nasty accident might damage hundreds or more, but have little overall impact on the swarm), and within our current technological capacity. No Moon base or asteroid capture required.

    The lightweight flyers designed by Angel would be made of a transparent film pierced with small holes. Each flyer would be two feet in diameter, 1/5000 of an inch thick and weigh about a gram, the same as a large butterfly. It would use "MEMS" technology mirrors as tiny sails that tilt to hold the flyers position in the orbiting constellation. The flyer's transparency and steering mechanism prevent it from being blown away by radiation pressure.

    How do we get 'em up there? Not with a rocket -- too expensive for that many (even at a gram apiece, the whole cloud would still weigh a total of 20 million tons). Angel proposes using 20 electromagnetic launchers (railguns, essentially), launching a stack of flyers every five minutes for ten years. Okay, that part sounds a bit sketchy, but make it 200 railguns and once an hour for ten years... or every five minutes for one year. And while the energy for launching this massive cloud of microshades would best come from renewable sources, Angel calculates that even the worst-case (coal power) scenario is that the disks would mitigate the effects of a thousand tons of carbon for every ton of carbon produced in powering the launchers.

    It wouldn't be cheap -- amortized over its lifetime of about 50 years, the system would cost about $100 billion per year... or roughly the cost of the Iraq war. But considering the planetary devastation that would result from a climate tipping point (remember, melting methane clathrates look to be responsible for the worst mass extinction in Earth's history, even bigger than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs), it's a bargain.

    September 5, 2006

    Raising a Wind Turbine

    turbinesunset.jpgSt. Olaf College, a small private university in Minnesota, recently decided to add a 1.65 megawatt wind turbine to the campus power grid. Minnesota is well-positioned to play a major role in the wind energy economy, and St. Olaf leapt at the chance to get a bit of energy independence. Moreover, the turbine will let St. Olaf College play an important role in local emergency response:

    Because we can go off the grid during peak periods, Xcel Energy (our new electricity provider) avoids building additional power plants. Because we can generate our own electricity at any time, St. Olaf has also become the most significant civil defense site in Rice County . And we are the standby site for Northfield Hospital in the event of a catastrophic event that compromises its power supply or its capacity.

    The turbine should start generating power in the next couple of weeks, as the final wiring is completed. A blog has followed the construction of the tower, and has now assembled a short time-lapse movie of the process. If you've ever wondered how a major wind turbine is built -- or just want a sneak preview of what the world of energy will look like in the very near future -- this video clip is worth a download.

    (Thanks for the tip, Anya!)

    July 28, 2006

    Nature as an Information Economy

    pajaro_sunset_060306.jpgA Friday afternoon thought experiment.

    The natural world was once thought of solely as a provider of resources for production. Wood, oil, water and other raw materials held value inasmuch as they were part of the industrial production cycle. This is a consumption perspective, one in which the natural world only has value if it contributes directly to the short-term economy. This is the industrial economy vision of nature.

    A more nuanced perspective holds that the natural world is a provider of ecosystem services, ranging from clean air to soil formation to pollination. The ecosystem services concept doesn't deny that nature provides raw material for industry, but asserts that the sustained value of the services provided by nature can greatly exceed the short-term value of the raw materials. (A 2005 study from the Canadian Boreal Initiative demonstrated that Canada's forests are worth roughly C$37.8 billion in resource extraction, but C$93.2 billion in service provision; the study (PDF) is also an excellent primer on how ecosystem service value is calculated.) This is the service economy vision of nature.

    But what happens when we think of nature as an information economy? By this, I mean thinking of nature not just in terms of the value of physical products or processes, but in terms of the value of the information about and derived from the natural world. We're not accustomed to thinking about nature in this way, but doing so has some interesting -- and, I think, useful -- implications.

    Traditionally, we think of the value of a forest in terms of resources such as lumber or in terms of services such as oxygen creation through photosynthesis. We can also think of a forest in terms of information such as the plant DNA or the forest's role in various natural cycles such as storm mitigation, carbon sequestration, and habitat creation (in essence, how an ecosystem provides its services). Similarly, we can think of the value of water as deriving from its immediate use, from its sustained availability, and from the knowledge of characteristics such as location, volume, evaporation cycles, cleanliness, etc.. Arguably, ecosystem information has even greater potential value than immediate use or sustained services, in that the information can be used as the seed of new products, services and information, as well as to enhance the industrial and service economic value of the ecosystem and/or protect the ecosystem against industrial and service economic losses.

    What makes the the information economy model different from industrial and service economies are two big factors: replicability and non-uniformity. Replicability means that information, especially digital information, can be copied without reducing its use value or its availability to the original possessor of the information. Biological aspects of an ecosystem clearly meet this condition, through the existence of DNA and built-in (if slow) copying mechanisms such as seeds. I can give you the "information" from my tree without losing value, even while you gain new value. Non-uniformity means that information has its greatest value in the context of other, different, kinds of information. Information can compete, leading to a "survival of the fittest" paradigm (a core concept of memetics), and can combine, leading to new kinds of information. In terms of ecosystems, diversity improves survivability, while uniformity increases vulnerability to threats (think here of monocultures).

    The difference between industrial, service and information economies becomes important when we think about the implications each model has for how we work with the global ecosystem.

    If we think about nature purely in terms of resources and consumption, the underlying model is competition over scarcity. Each participant in the economy has an incentive to over-consume in order to gain an advantage over competitors (or to avoid being penalized when others over-consume), and while cooperation is possible, it's not a given. The "Tragedy of the Commons" is the classic example of this paradigm.

    If we think about nature purely in terms of services, the underlying model is sufficiency. Every participant in the economy gains a benefit from the maintenance of the system, but the cost of maintenance is borne by individual actors. "Free riders" gain the benefits of the system without paying the cost of maintenance. The result is that the system is typically in a state of bare sustenance, with participants acting to keep it going only when the alternative is system collapse. Ecosystem services are here considered a "public good."

    If we think about nature in terms of information, however, the underlying model is abundance. Participants in the system create the most value for themselves not by hoarding or by passivity, but by adding more information into the system. The greater the amount and diversity of the ecosystem information, the more that can be done with the knowledge.

    Sadly, the industrial economic concept of ecosystems still dominates; the ecosystem services concept is gaining ground among environmentalists, but has yet to take root (so to speak) in the popular mind. The ecosystem information model would need much more development before we could consider it an alternative approach, but it has a couple of things going for it: as the overall information economy continues to expand (especially as fabrication systems start to bring information economy patterns into the world of physical objects), we'll be more amenable to thinking about other aspects of the world in this way -- it may even prove to be a useful method of integrating ecological principles into the economy; and as we are forced more and more to bring climate disruption and environmental collapse to the forefront of our planning and politics, more of us will realize that we need more information about and from the ecosystem to be able to manage the situation successfully.

    There are undoubtedly many holes in this idea, and I'd be more than happy to have them pointed out.

    (Photo: Pajaro Sunset, Jamais Cascio © 2006)

    June 1, 2006

    Sustainable Cities

    sffromspace.jpgSustainlane's Warren Karlenzig is now blogging for the organization, and the opening of his site coincides with the release of Sustainlane's 2006 US Cities Ranking. The top cities include Portland (#1, up from #2 last year), San Francisco (#2, down from #1), Seattle (#3), Philadelphia (#4) and Chicago (#5); New York hits #7, Austin #14, and #50 is Columbus, Ohio.

    Responses are predictable. Places near the top (e.g., Chicago, Oakland) trumpet their ranking, while places near the bottom of the list (e.g., Fort Worth , Columbus) complain.

    Although the exact rankings vary from the 2005 list, the overall thrust is pretty similar: big coastal/blue state cities generally do well, middling size/red state cities generally do poorly. The relative proportion of density, politics and history as underlying dynamics undoubtedly varies from city to city.

    This list is related to but the same as the ranking that Sustainlane released a few months ago, the top ten cities best able to withstand an oil crisis. The same cities show up on both lists, albeit in different orders -- the top ten oil crisis cities have nine of the top ten sustainable cities, with New York #1 for oil crisis.

    The rationale behind the creation of lists like these is as much boosterism as it is education. While it's certainly important for the residents of a given urban area to know how well their city will do in a changing environment, Sustainlane quite explicitly wants to see cities competing for sustainability ranking in the same way they do with their sports teams. Imagine if the local news had a sustainability/environment segment as long as the sports segment. (The corresponding mental image of fans gathering for pre-sustainable-list-release tailgate parties is muted by the realization that few hybrids actually have tailgates.)

    For me, the biggest question arising from a list like this purely practical: what do you do about it?

    That may seem like an odd question coming from me; after all, how many dozen articles did I write for WorldChanging talking about how cities can be more sustainable? But speaking in terms of big picture issues and ideas, while extremely useful, can be pretty frustrating for the people employed to turn ideas into action. I've seen this with pretty much every consulting job I've been on: clients excited by the possibilities and frustrated by the implementation.

    It's all well and good, for example, to say that cities need strong public transportation systems. But how does a city that has built itself around the hub-and-wheel suburban road network, with streets sized for cars (not buses) and structured for quiet neighborhoods (not mixed use) make that happen? I'm not saying that they can't, only that it's a hard problem, and those of us who believe passionately in the need for greater sustainability and in the importance of urban centers need to recognize the implementation challenge.

    In an ideal world, a listing like this one, showing where ranked cities are succeeding and where they're falling short, would have a corresponding document for each city, outlining the concrete steps that could be taken, given the geographic, financial, and/or political conditions unique to the location. This would be an enormous amount of work, and by no means am I criticizing Sustainlane for not doing this, too. But at the end of the day, while civic leaders may be thrilled or annoyed by where their cities have fallen on the list, these emotions are not enough. They need to have an answer to their inevitable, and entirely appropriate, question:

    What now?

    May 26, 2006

    Compute Green (or, Even Web Journalism Isn't Fast Enough)

    In mid-April, PC World asked me to write an article on green computing for their online version; by late April, the article was done. By early May, the piece had been edited; and on May 22, the final version (which isn't identical to my final copy, but close enough to be familiar) appeared at the PC World website:

    Green PC

    It's a lightweight piece on using less power and avoiding toxic components, and while it's a bit more "here's what you can buy" than I would have otherwise wanted (and a pithy paragraph on what's coming down the road is nowhere to be found), it's not bad.

    Problem is... it's obsolete.

    EPEAT is the just-announced new standard for green computing and other electronic equipment. Joel Makower gave us the rundown last Sunday at WorldChanging:

    IEEE 1680, as the standard is known, is the first U.S. standard to supply environmental guidelines for institutional purchasing decisions involving desktop and laptop computers and monitors. It offers criteria in eight categories -- materials selection, environmentally sensitive materials, design for end of life, end-of-life management, energy conservation, product longevity and life-cycle extension, packaging, and corporate performance. (Download the standard here in PDF.) The new standard will encourage manufacturers to design their products to be used longer, be more energy efficient, easier to upgrade and recycle, and contain fewer hazardous materials.

    This is good news all around, even if it does make my just-published article look a bit slow. Of course, if the article had gone up when I was done writing it -- on a blog, say -- it would have been timely, and easily updated when the new standard was announced. Back in the print days, a less-than-a-month turn-around from author to reader would have been impressive for a tech monthly. Today, even the compressed publishing model of online magazines can be ponderously slow.

    May 12, 2006

    Development Intensity: First Draft

    In trying to figure out an answer to yesterday's question -- what's the relationship between quality of life and energy efficiency? -- I discovered that getting a good answer may be more difficult than I had hoped. Although metrics such as Gross National Happiness and the Genuine Progress Indicator offer tantalizing perspectives on the measurement of quality of life and non-economic development factors, their application has been (as far as I could find) fairly inconsistent and far from global. As a fall-back, I took a look at the United Nations Development Program's Human Development Index, part of the annual Human Development Report. The HDI combines measurements of literacy/education enrolment and life expectancy along with purchasing-power-parity-corrected GDP; it doesn't include any measurements of pollution or environmental sustainability, "happiness" or comfort, or creative or innovative output. Although it's a bit more complex than GDP alone, I'm afraid that it still puts too much emphasis on classical economic activity.

    The most recent UN HDI came out in 2005, and covers the year 2003; as a fortunate coincidence, the most recent data on international energy use from the US Department of Energy also goes up to 2003. I ran a direct comparison between the 2003 HDI value and the gross energy consumption per capita figure from the DOE, then plotted the results. Here's the 2003 chart, grouped by the UN's broad development ranking (high, medium and low):


    (click for larger version)

    As a broad rule, energy use per capita increases along with development, hardly a surprise. The handful of countries that fall well outside of this pattern are, for the most part, oil-rich nations (UAE, Saudi Arabia, etc.) that have very high per-capita energy use along with mediocre development scores. This tells us, essentially, that countries with more active economies tend to have better health and education levels, along with higher energy use.

    Looking at a few select countries over a multi-year period, the story gets slightly more complex. Australia, Canada, Sweden, the US, Japan, the UK, Mexico, Brazil, China and India are familiar figures from the various efficiency and intensity explorations I assembled at WorldChanging. The following chart shows the HDI to energy comparison for 1997, 2000 and 2003, with the spot size based on how much "development" each state got per unit of per-capita energy.


    (click for larger version)

    For the low and medium developed countries, the relationship is pretty straightforward: more energy=more development, with higher development levels more "costly" in energy required.

    The highly developed nations are a bit more of a jumble. All six of the selected countries rank very close to one another in terms of HDI. Japan and the UK (#11 and #15 on the HDI list, respectively), along with Canada (#5), seem to follow the general rule that a higher HDI means more per-capita energy use. Australia (#3 on the HDI list), Sweden (#6) and the US (#10) tell a different story; Australia and Sweden both use less energy per person than the US, while still ranking higher. Moreover, Australia and Canada are both trending up in per capita consumption, while Sweden and the US have sharp downward trends.

    What does all of this mean?

    In and of itself, not a lot. Aside from confirming some already-expected results, the figures at the high end are too closely tied to GDP -- and too noisy -- to tell us much that's new. Still, it's a good baseline to work from, and as I bring in metrics around use efficiency (energy/GDP) and other quality of life metrics, we can refer back to these charts to help us find the surprises.

    May 11, 2006

    Lifestyle Efficiency

    This post over at WorldChanging, along with this article at New Scientist, got me thinking -- not about the presentation of information, but about energy.

    By and large, I think most of us would agree that a simple total BTU consumed measurement by nation (the image used by New Scientist as an example) is only superficially useful; big countries will easily use more energy in total than smaller countries, even if the smaller countries are more wasteful.

    The next more complex version is energy use per capita. This is better, but still misses quite a bit. What do they do with that energy?

    "Energy intensity" seems to answer that by comparing energy use not to population, but to GDP. In these posts at WorldChanging, I called this value the "use efficiency of energy," as it tries to show how much use-value you get out of a given amount of power. I know that some environmentalists dislike intensity/use efficiency as a metric, as it makes the US position a bit more ambiguous -- yeah, the US uses a lot of power, but the US does a lot with it, too.

    But GDP sucks as a metric, for a variety of reasons. I've played around a bit with using slight modifications (such as purchasing-power-parity valuations), but it struck me today that it's simply not the right category to examine. We should, instead, look at standardized quality-of-life metrics as the point of comparison to energy use. Lifespan, healthiness, availability of health care, leisure time, Internet access, creative work publications, education levels, voting percentages -- the variety of factors that tell us not whether a society is wealthy, but whether the society is thriving. Most of those metrics wouldn't aggregate in a population-linear way (as GDP more-or-less does), so we'd probably need to compare not to raw energy consumption, but energy consumption per capita.

    There's undoubtedly quite a bit of room for debate about how to measure these various quality of life factors, but the goal is uniformity/standardization, so even if they combine in somewhat weird ways, as long as the combination is consistent across countries being studied, it's okay.

    I haven't actually started this study; it just occurred to me today. But I'm wondering if any of you know whether (a) it's already been done, or (b) there's some Very Good Reason why it wouldn't work...

    May 2, 2006

    Climate, Cancer and Changing Minds

    Can smoking cause lung cancer? Yes. Is any given case of lung cancer caused by smoking? No way to know. The complexity of cause-and-effect is such that, while we can be certain of a strong connection between smoking and lung cancer, we can't be certain that this connection will be true of individual cases. There are plenty of people who smoke who never develop lung cancer; there are numerous cases of lung cancer in people who never smoked and never lived or worked with smokers. These examples don't undermine the scientific conclusions, only reinforce the difficulty of charting precise causal relationships in a complex environment.

    The same can be said of the relationship between climate disruption and weather disasters such as strong hurricanes or the massive floods in Europe over the last week or so. Can global warming cause weather disasters? Yes. Is any given disaster caused by global warming? No way to know. This parallel between the smoking-cancer connection and the global warming-weather disaster connection is worth keeping in mind as we look for ways to communicate the dangers the planet faces to broad audiences.

    It's not hard to find thoughtful observers lamenting the difficulty of getting people to understand what's happening to the climate when the cause-and-effect relationships are complex and slow-moving, and when scientists are so cautious. You'll find few if any reputable scientists who will say that global warming caused Hurricane Katrina last year. Carbon industry lobbyists and their dupes pounce on that scientific caution about a given example as a sign that the broader connection between global warming and weather disasters is uncertain.

    But it wasn't too long ago that cigarette lobbyists and the psuedo-skeptic crowd made the same kinds of claims about smoking and cancer. For awhile, that worked, and it wasn't hard to find politicians and citizens willing to accept the industry's perspective. But as the public grew more comfortable with the idea of a complex, long-term result from current behavior, and the evidence grew for the big-picture smoking-cancer connection -- even while the cause-and-effect for a given example could be no more certain -- the culture (in the US) shifted, and the cigarette industry lobbyists stopped trying to undermine the science and started trying to hold off lawsuits.

    The public response to global warming isn't quite at that point yet, but we're moving in that direction. The carbon industry voices trying to plant doubt about climate science are dying down, replaced by voices arguing, in effect, that global warming's not that big of a deal, can be adapted to more readily than stopped, and that we should, in effect, just lie back and enjoy it. They are still fighting any suggestion that weather disasters are linked to global warming, however, as they need to hold that line as long as possible. Once it falls -- once the public becomes willing to accept that global warming can cause weather disasters, even if any single disaster can't be definitively traced to atmospheric carbon overload -- the gates are open to lawsuits and economic ruin for the companies that enabled the environmental ruin.

    The people at the forefront of the effort to build a public consensus around fighting global warming should study the history of the anti-smoking fight. Somehow, the anti-smoking movement managed to convince a broad majority of the American public that a complex problem, without certainty in individual cases, and with a cure still a long way off, needed to be stopped as rapidly and as aggressively as possible. What did the smoking crusaders do right, what did they do wrong, and what could we do better in the new media environment? How did they trigger the necessary cultural shift? Was there a catalytic moment, or was this an avalanche of pebbles, an overwhelming multitude of small, personal changes?

    Bruce Sterling -- among many others -- has long compared the carbon industries to the smoking industry, in terms of how the public mood can change. One year, doctors are happy to advertise for your product; the next, you're reviled as a source of misery and decay. Oil companies aren't quite there yet, but it's not far off. The broad disgust leveled at the out-going ExxonMobil CEO's retirement package -- which begun before the recent run-up of gas prices -- is just one example of how the public mood is shifting to see these industries as criminal and dangerous. It may well be that the avalanche is already underway.