Geo-Engineering – Science for the End of Days

When you bring up drastic measures to address global warming you often get blasted for playing with fire. The problem is that we have been playing with fire since we discovered fire and the build-up of carbon dioxide is the result. One unintended impact of so many human activities is carbon dioxide buildup. It’s too bad that we can get so exorcised with ideas that intend to reduce atmospheric CO2 buildup when we are in such denial about all the activities that create buildup.

Nonetheless, I do understand the warnings inherent in so many “scientific” endeavors that have become famous for their unintended consequences.  You do not want to be the scientist remembered for introducing  Killer bees  to the Americas.

And you probably would not want to remembered for suggesting bringing Cane toads to Australia was the solution to a bug infestation.

So, when scientific thinkers start suggesting large scale geo-engineering projects to keep the small blue planet a congenial place for the kind of life that has evolved here, the discussion that follows has to include some concern that we may be fooling with some systems that operate in ways that we don’t understand and that the long term consequences could be disastrous.  If the cure is worse than the disease you might want to try living with the disease, right?

Despite those reservations and concerns, some folks are starting to suggest that when large scale extinctions are underway,  it may be time to start thinking more about geo-engineering.

I am not keen on this idea of liming the oceans to fix both the increasing acidity of the oceans  and to give the oceans a boost in their capacity as carbon sinks for a number of reasons.  One is that the creating of the lime takes a significant amount of energy, so this approach does not appear to be an elegant solution where some component or facet of the problem itself becomes a solution, this one is simply a means of hitting two problems with one energy-consumptive solution.  It’s a twofer.  I will give it credit for that.  It works on ocean acidification and carbon sequestration at the same time.

Maybe we can figure out how to unring the killer bee and cane toad bell once we come up with the geo-engineering solution to global warming?

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The Idea

  • First, you heat limestone to a very high temperature, until it breaks down into lime and carbon dioxide.
  • Then you put the lime into the sea, where it reacts with carbon dioxide dissolved in the seawater.
  • The important point is that when you put lime into seawater it absorbs almost twice as much carbon dioxide as is produced by the breaking down of the limestone in the first place.
    This is a brief description of the idea. If you prefer we also have a detailed description and a slideshow presentation on the process for you to see.
    The idea works like this:

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    Strategies for Success and Survival

    There is a lot of discussion back and forth between environmentally-aware folks who disagree on how we should proceed.  James Hansen has been a consistent scientific voice warning us that change is required and he has been muzzled at times.

    Dr. Hansen has signed on to the idea that we have to get atmospheric carbon dioxide down to 350 ppmClimate Progress has an open letter to Dr. Hansen about this idea.   Climate Progress appears to think that 450 ppm ought to be the target.

    This is a hard discussion to follow for those of who do not have a phd in some related field.  I think we have to keep in mind that it is likely there is a cost benefit analysis that comes into play.  The cost on responding to droughts, famines, floods, hurricanes has to be weighed against the cost of aggressive climate action that will reduce the impact and cost of the natural disasters that attend global warming. Yes, but it's a dry heat.

    The human cost of death and suffering that goes along with climate change can’t even be quantified in this discussion.

    I think that we might be wise to err on the side of caution and go after the problem of global warming with the kind of zeal that some folks have for going after the potential danger of “terrorists.”

    Change is coming.  President Obama is in the wings.  It is encouraging to be engaged in an active discussion about what level of carbon dioxide should be the target instead of listening to policy makers equivocate about the problem of global warming.

    I think we have to walk some kind of tightrope to keep up pressure and enthusiasm for change without resorting to the kind of conflict that will reduce our effectiveness.  I think it will become clear in time if the magic number (if one exists, because global climate is an amazingly complex system) is 350 or 380 or 410.  If we find out the magic number is 300 and we have organized around lower cost number like 450, our cost-containment strategy just went out the window.

    Glaciers of the Himalayas in Retreat

    It’s difficult to find a silver lining for this impact of global warming. The outlook for the glaciers of the Himalays is grim. They are in retreat. The increase melt is creating runoff disasters and the long term outlook is for the fresh water source for a billion people to wane. There is nothing to do here except stabilize global climate through radical change in the way we live. I think Bill McKibben is correct in setting the target at 350 ppm for CO2. I don’t know how we get there, but I think we are looking at global disaster if we don’t. As Bucky Fuller said, we can afford to do anything that we have to do.

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    In the Indian Himalayas, You Can Hear Climate Change Before You Can See It


    In the Indian Himalayas, you can literally hear the glaciers melting.

    Indian Himalayas

    The river that rushes through the Lahaul-Spiti Valley is fed almost entirely by melt from the surrounding glaciers. The sound of the river’s rapids has never been this loud. The level of the water has never been this high. In other words, the glaciers have never receded this quickly.

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    Petro Fuel Costs Have Dropped Dramatically

    It makes a person wonder if this is a good time to burn cheap petrol instead of investing in a more sustainable energy infrastructure. So why should you think about creating your own contribution to the grid? Ryan Stuchard at Climate Biz News has some reasons. Nice work, Ryan.
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    Five Reasons You Should Consider Generating Your Own Green Energy

    Is this really the best time for your company to be thinking about generating renewable energy onsite?
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    The Elegant Solutions

    You don’t need to stick a “clean” adjective on to Solar Power like you do with Coal Power. Even though there is no doubt that construction of these facilities has impact on the environment just like construction of a coal fired power plant, there is a difference in fueling the power plant. When the sun shines on this small blue planet, a solar plant starts creating energy. There is no need to scrape the tops off of mountains and dump the fill in the valleys and watersheds as you have to do to fire up a coal power plant. No matter how you treat the emissions of coal fired plant so that you can declare it a clean coal power plant, there is no way to pretend that each morning coal simply falls from the sky to fuel the plant.

    We have to be looking at these systems wholistically.

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    Solar baseload outshines ‘clean coal’ — and it always will

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    tower spain1

    Concentrated solar thermal power — aka solar baseload — remains hot. The Daily Climate has a nice update:

    All told some 60 plants are either under construction or under contract worldwide — with most in either Spain or the United States — for a total capacity just north of 5,700 megawatts

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    The Brown Cloud is an Interesting Story

    At least it is interesting in so far as it is complicated story of rampant pollution with complex impact on the living things here on the small blue planet.

    The AP has carried a story this past week about the Asian brown cloud and UN concerns that this toxic cloud of pollutants could cause more problems with our food production on this little world.

    This is really an old story.  The smog of Los Angeles a generation ago was probably not very different from the Asian brown cloud.  Brown clouds are also reported with regard to Phoenix and Denver. The Denver link goes into how the brown cloud was reduced and that’s a good story.

    The real lesson of the Asian Brown Cloud is that there really is no such thing as my backyard and any attempt to control growth and industry that does not see the world in it’s reality as one ecosystem, an amazing environment that has the capacity to support an amazing diversity of living things, really a Gaia organism of unimaginable complexity, is doomed to failure.

    You can’t live in a pristine environment and consume products made in China and not be intimately connected to the Asian Brown Cloud.  There is no free lunch.

    The brown cloud is a complex story.  Clouds of soot can offset global warming by letting less sunlight reach the ground and then less heat builds up in our troposphere.  That’s a good thing, right?  Well, maybe.

    If the clouds of soot are composed of particles that cause many people to die due to pulmonary and cardiac disease, then maybe this is not the solution to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  It’s just a different paradigm of death and toxicity related to unsustainable human activities.

    Mini Nuclear Power Plants? Can This Be a Good Idea?

    It’s really hard for me to feel positive about nukes because we have no viable plans for dealing with the waste that, for all practical purposes, lasts forever.  Add in the fact that the waste is deadly and can be the basis for terrorism, mayhem and extortion and my interest really wanes.  But maybe I am wrong about all that?   Maybe there is a way to produce electricity/power with nukes that we will have to use?

    If so, then this article from the Guardian is talking about a possibility for a grid of the future that does not rely on combustion of fuels that produce more greenhouse gases.

    I think it is worth the read and some consideration:

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    Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes

    �13m shed-size reactors will be delivered by lorry

  • The Observer,
    Sunday November 9 2008
  •, Sunday November 9 2008 00.01 GMT
  • Article history
  • Nuclear power plants smaller than a garden shed and able to power 20,000 homes will be on sale within five years, say scientists at Los Alamos, the US government laboratory which developed the first atomic bomb.

    The miniature reactors will be factory-sealed, contain no weapons-grade material, have no moving parts and will be nearly impossible to steal because they will be encased in concrete and buried underground.

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    Hope for the Future

    The United States elected a smart guy and progressive thinker to be President for the next four years.  This has to be a good thing.  The less than smart guy we have been suffering with the past eight years has destroyed his political party for the time being.  Now we see how much of the damage can be undone.  Two wars and a world-wide financial crisis.  George W. Bush has always figured out a way to go Arbusto and he brought his unique talents to bear and turned this country into the United States of Arbusto.

    But he is leaving and his sidekick/mentor Dick Cheney is required to leave with him, so here we go, a new day.

    Barack Obama has chosen Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff.  Rahm is a guy who makes things happen.  We will have to see if he is pragmatist and can help Barack with a progressive agenda.

    If he is a committed free-marketeer, as some think, and can keep our economic train on that set of tracks then Barack is going to be the first African-American Herbert Hoover.

    If there was ever a time for Keynesian economics, this is it.  We need to seize the opportunity of the economic downturn to gear up a major public works project with a focus on energy independence,  sustainability, a re-tooling of our transportation system to reduce the power and profits of the oiligarch.   The economic swing that would follow would allow the market economy to retool to a sustainable model, a human model.  This will only work if there is regulation and/or tax policy that makes it happen.  The glory days of the idea that free markets are self-regulating should be over.  Anyone who spouts that sad story should be immediately forced to convert all of their economic assets into Enron stock.

    Oh, on the wish list – Barack should ask Nobel Prize Economist Paul Krugman to sign on for a one-year stint as Economy Czar.


    Who knows, but it’s an interesting read.
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    Scientists say a rock can soak up carbon dioxide

    Scientists sample a stalagmite of carbonate minerals in an undated photo

    NEW YORK (Reuters) –
    A rock found mostly in Oman can be harnessed to soak up the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide at a rate that could help slow global warming, scientists say.

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    Seeking the Elegant Solutions

    Our solutions to our population and environmental demand problems can be elegant instead of catastrophic.  We don’t have to go to war to control petrol reserves, Methane Moleculewe could re-tool our fuel economy to run on fuels we can develop, capture, and benefit from without bombing anyone, intelligent or otherwise, on the small blue planet.

    Methane Gas Capture

    The way that we bring the planet into balance is through elegant thinking, elegant being.  We currently have a problem with the buildup of certain gases in the atmosphere that are causing the planet to heat up with disastrous consequence for many living things.  An elegant approach to this problem is to look at the capture of one of these gases, methane, and it’s use as a relatively clean fuel.  It burns much more cleanly than gasoline or coal in terms of other greenhouse gases, so the capture of methane is a twofer.  We reduce the atmospheric buildup of a powerful greenhouse gas and we burn it in place of less clean fuels, thereby producing less other greenhouse gases as combustion byproduct when we burn methane instead of gas, diesel, or coal.

    This is happening.  At various places around the small blue planet methane is being captured as a fuel instead of being emitted as a potent greenhouse gas.  Here are some examples:

    The solution to our environmental problems is to find the solution within the problem somehow.    Here is a thought from a great thinker and problem-solver:

    When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

    R. Buckminster Fuller