5. AVOIDING COLLAPSE
The Cascade of Causes and Three Classes of Intervention.
One caution about medical mindset analogies. I have been inviting the reader to try thinking of our climate situation in somewhat the manner that we med school profs teach the medical mindset, outlined above. But there is one aspect which does not map: anything to which "Better luck next time" might be applied. Metaphors try to map one domain onto another, but the fit is never perfect.
The physician has a duty to each patient, to customize the best that medicine has to offer for that patient, not the average patient or some future patient. But the medical community also thinks in terms of what is good to prevent recurrences, or what would be best for the community. And some of those averaged aspects may not map very well.
Climate Change can kill civilizations. Too many societies have collapsed in the past for us to have much faith that a Good Shepherd will save us; the archaeology matches up with studies of paleoclimate, especially drought.
Excerpt of the last chapter of Calvin's 2021 revision of
Extreme Weather and What to Do About It.
THE TREATMENT PLAN
During the Second Industrial Revolution (1870-1920: industrial chemistry, radio, electrical power, cars, planes) a century ago, the American inventor Thomas Edison created the cross-disciplinary invention factory where scientists and abstract thinkers work cheek by jowl with machinists, electricians, and other hardware tinkerers.
We now need a four-year gathering of international experts on climate engineering, solving an urgent problem in an Edison-style “design shop.”
To warm up, the experts will probably evaluate the carbon dioxide removal proposals out there, if just to spot the common problems that would keep them from being big, quick, and sure to work.
Most CDR proposals have not yet had that kind of scrutiny, but none claim a potential sequestration rate that is high enough to actually start cooling us. That is why I emphasize we need a setting where experts can design their own. Quickly.
The 2020 Manhattan Project
My present concept of a Design-and-Prototype Initiative would bypass the initial years of consensus-building in the body politic, especially the U.S. Congress. It would immediately begin four years of design and field testing, getting the effort up to speed before the federal involvement finally arrives, allowing manufacture and deployment to begin in earnest. Having something vetted by experts ought to make it easier to vote for.
Those four years are reminiscent of the emergency design process during the 1942-1945 Manhattan Project. It gathered physics, math, chemistry, and engineering professors of varied nationalities at Los Alamos, New Mexico. That canonical example of a hurry-up design project ended up with two very different prototypes being built (gun barrel and the 4X more efficient implosion design), both of which worked.click here to see more...
I have been reminded that, to many people, “Manhattan Project” simply means “Atom Bomb.” I grew up during the Cold War looking at ground zero maps, serving on Civil Defense communications teams, and practicing hiding under school desks. But my reference to the Manhattan Project is about the project’s invention process, not its product.
Treatment plan for climate disease
Four years for research and simultaneous prototyping, field trials, etc. (the time frame for a Governors’ Initiative) sounds like a short time but recall how fast things were made to happen during World War Two (my other reason for sticking with the Manhattan Project analogy).
Manufacture and deployment would ramp up over the following five years. This type of rapid buildup is traditionally assigned to the military; DARPA might be appropriate to lead a Pentagon effort and would certainly wish to be kept informed. But how much can they do during the design phase without Congress supporting them?
Time, I suggest, to lean on a dozen tech billionaires, via a few governors doing the asking.
We now need cleanup complete (or at least good enough) in the next twenty years, though CO2 removal will still be needed afterward, if just to counter continuing emissions from less developed countries.
Only after 20% of the CDR project is built and working—say, 2027—would we be taking out as much CO2 each year as continuing emissions were adding. Only after that does the CO2 accumulation start to drop. Cooling finally begins.
Redoubling emissions reduction efforts might buy us a year’s advance to 2026 but, by themselves, reducing emissions will no longer fix our extreme weather problem, even though good for the environment if we survive the medium-term threats.
SRM does not have quite the lag-time problem as the CDRs, but safe-to-try SRM only applies (in my present view) to the 1% regional cooling the high Arctic, not to global cooling.
Timeline for Defeating Extreme Weather
To scope out this project, let us start by defining CO2 removal (CDR) in a way that avoids big words such as sequestration, or the unneeded distinctions between organic and inorganic carbon.
CDR simply means taking carbon out of the circulation loop—literally. It does not have to be forever, however nice that might be. It’s the excess CO2 overhead that overheats us. It’s the excess CO2 in ocean surface waters that threatens our food supply. How much CO2 do we need to sidetrack? That depends on how fast we want to accomplish the CO2 cleanup.
Scoping a big project can be done without waiting for better numbers. Let us begin with the fastest cleanup that I can imagine, were everything to turn out just right. You might think up something quicker, or say that some part of my simplified cleanup cannot be done as fast, but bear with me until we get my fastest possible estimate done. I am going to outline the scoping procedure so that you can run your own calculation. Any architect will recognize the procedure.
Unlike present efforts, now we must start with an evaluation of tolerable risk—the risk of waiting until later—what we have been doing for a half-century already. In my scoping evaluation, we need to clean up all of the excess CO2 (about 140 ppm of the soon-to-be 420 ppm) by the year 2040. (Try, if you like, running the calculation below with a 2030 or 2050 goal; that will give you an idea of why I picked the year 2040 for cleanup complete.) Once this time to completion is established, one then works backward to see how big the project needs to be for achieving that goal in such a time frame (Fig. 2).
If 2040 is the goal, then what built capacity would we need so that its annual production (in GtCO2/yr) would achieve enough CO2 removal and storage by 2040? After the completion date and the size is established, we can worry about costs and tradeoffs.
• Suppose that one looks up the amount of CO2 in the air. There is currently a CO2 excess of 140 parts per million (420 ppm, minus the baseline 280 ppm). We also know that an 8 GtCO2 addition is needed to bump it up 1 ppm, so we decide that we must remove about 1,200 GtCO2 from the air’s total of about 3,600 GtCO2. That means removing 60 GtCO2/yr (containing about 15 GtC/yr) for the project period of twenty years. When ballparking, one uses rounded-off numbers, so as to not imply precision ; the weight conversion factor is really 0.27, but I’m rounding off and using 0.25.
• But that’s too simple, since there is a constant exchange of CO2 between the air and the ocean surface waters, what is called equilibration in chemistry . There’s a carbon reservoir (mostly dissolved organic carbon, soon to become CO2 again) of 1,000 GtC in the surface layer of the ocean, of which about 270 GtC is excess, soon to become +1,200 GtCO2. That doubles the needed instantaneous cleanup to 2,400 GtCO2. Allowing 20 years for doing this, you’d think that -120 GtCO2/yr capacity might do the job. A mere -40 GtC/yr.
• Note that, whether we remove the CO2 from the air, or by sinking blooms from the ocean surface into the thousand-year depths of the ocean, either way we still clean up the atmosphere’s excess CO2.
• But we forgot to include 20 years of continuing emissions of +40 GtCO2/yr (probably more, as CO2 grew by 20% between 2015 and 2019) during the project period. Annual emissions have been down to -33 GtC in recent years, but I will stick to -40 for the future year when we finally get moving. That’s +10 GtC/yr.
• Hold on. That +10 GtC/yr is the approximate rate that natural processes such as downwelling currently sink carbon from surface waters into deep ocean storage (whose reservoir size is about 38,000 GtC), which takes -10 GtC/yr out of reach of the atmosphere. Put another way, continuing emissions are cancelling out nature’s major long-term process for taking excess CO2 out of circulation. So, we are back to needing -120 GtCO2/yr.
• However, we are not ready to go and must allow at least five years to design and prototype. So, divide 2,400 GtCO2 by 15 years rather than 20 and we are up to needing about -160 GtCO2/yr.
• We must also allow for deployment time, for ramping up that capacity rather than starting at full strength. If we do that ramp over five years, it puts us up to needing closer to -200 GtCO2/yr operating between 2030 and 2040.
• Next, allow some extra time for things going wrong. More experienced project planners, I am told by architect friends, would likely double that -200 GtCO2/yr estimate to provide a safety margin, just as they do for strength when building bridges.
Now that our projection has soared from the initial -120 GtCO2/yr up to -400 GtCO2/yr, you can see why there is such a range of estimates for a cleanup. It mostly depends on what you include or leave out. For example, I have left out future increases in annual emissions of CO2. Try extrapolating the 1990-2020 to 2040 and go back and run the new numbers.
Cooling’s start would be delayed until after 2027, and its influence on taming extreme weather would likely be delayed into the 2030s. That would seem to be the biggest and the fastest that we can act over the next twenty years, even with a really ambitious project.
. . .
Even if we sank all the excess from air and surface ocean (that 2,500 GtCO2) into deep ocean, it would only increase the dissolved carbon in the ocean depths by 1.6%. The emissions that are already sunk into deep ocean stay sunk for more than 1,000 years (6,000 might be a better estimate).
It comes back up very slowly, requiring quite a few passes through the surface ocean before making it back into the atmosphere to again contribute to the insulating blanket in the air overhead. The water circulation time for “ventilating” the depths underestimates the true storage time. From radiocarbon dating of deep water, the slowest fraction takes 12,000 years to become atmospheric CO2 again via bacterial respiration.
That’s some good news, finally.
Alas, there is at least one more missing actor: the warming effects of the other excess greenhouse gases (GHGs). Cooling things off is, after all, our goal. Rather than separate cleanup projects for each of the excess GHGs, we can just remove some extra CO2 to counter the methane et al heating effects. Methane is gone in several decades, so after the CO2 excess is done, we will still be removing CO2 and adjusting the annual amount. Yes, that means we would be regulating the atmosphere's CO2 concentration.
But how much more CO2-sinking capacity do we need now? The quick way of estimating that is from the pie chart of GHG proportions as converted into equivalent CO2 (eqCO2) warming in the short run. CO2 is three-quarters of the warming emissions, so a 33% increase in the annual amount of CO2 removed might cover that base.
There went our safety margin. Time to scale up again to more than 500 GtCO2 removed annually.
. . .
Note that I am trying to show how fast a big CO2 cleanup could conceivably be done, allowing you to supply your own judgment about whether we should accept greater risks to order to save money, exactly what the city does when it refuses to put in a new traffic signal at a somewhat hazardous intersection. “Sticker shock” will cause some legislators to propose scaling things back by removing lesser amounts each year, so here are some data for what that buys.
• If we reduce our goal to removing only 58% of the excess over twenty years, to meet the 350-ppm goal of Hansen et al (2008), that only gets us back to the 1988 levels which had already caused major trouble.
• Removing 75% of the excess gets us back to the CO2 levels of the 1970s before the El Niño patterns changed and the overheating ramp began.
• Removing all of the excess takes us back to the CO2 levels of about 1800 as the first Industrial Age (steam engine to railroads) accelerated. But that 280-ppm level was already at the all-time high for the ice ages, and so not necessarily safe or stable.
Each year of additional delay in getting started could see major economic hits (think 2020 Covid-19 pandemic); it also means paying for a bigger plant capacity when we finally begin (try running that calculation for a 200-ppm CO2 excess at the start). There might be a poorer economic base for taxation then, because of further disruption by extreme weather or resource wars. Furthermore, the additional battering during construction years reduces the probability that our efforts will eventually succeed.
Evaluate any serious climate fix proposal with this scoping approach to see if it is big enough, quick enough, and also sure-fire: able to be protected from terrorists, extreme weather, and economic crashes. There are lots of good ideas around for the long term—that’s after we reduce the extreme weather—but few inventors or government planners have been paying attention to the more immediate extreme weather threats that serve as spoilers.
Different criteria now apply, and speed is not merely nice but necessary for the climate emergency.
. . .
One would think that removing the global excess of CO2 should be a big international endeavor, like cleaning up the plastic floating in the ocean’s eddies, with costs shared according to contributions.
But think how long that it would take skilled diplomats to get either cleanup project up to speed. Thanks to a half-century of ignored scientific warnings, there is now no time left in which to do the organizing in the usual way, let alone sort out the cost-sharing.
We have already sped past that last exit on the freeway to Hell. We must back up. With a fast train coming down the tracks, one should not stand around awaiting a diplomatic reply to the most recent bargaining round on cost-sharing.
The implication: big industrial countries will each have to independently undertake their own crash program, welcoming observers and foreign collaborators but not waiting for them.
After another decade, treaties for the long term can fill in behind, with international climate commissioners then drawn from those who have already been participating in getting things done. It’s a job for experts, just as the U.S. Congress decided when establishing the independent agencies such as the Federal Reserve Board. (Just try to imagine Congress setting interest rates and bank reserve requirements on the fly—as they used to do.)
The biggest of the recently reviewed “negative emissions” proposals would sink less than -3 GtCO2/yr, which contains 0.8 GtC/yr. Therefore, they would not counter the +40 GtCO2/yr of continuing emissions, let alone draw down the excess CO2 and eventually cool things off. Size matters.
Two current CDR proposals that seem big enough for the present situation are 1) quickly doubling our forests, and 2) plankton farms that sink both the new living plankton (and the 300-fold greater amounts of dissolved organic carbon) to the deep ocean for thousands of years.
Both proposals are currently viewed as flawed (one might take essential nutrients like phosphate out of circulation too), but a working group of experts should be able to design something better in a few years, such as wind/wave-powered systems that mimic, on a large scale, natural ocean upwelling and downwelling.
Figure 1. The need for a bailing bucket is just like our current need for CO2 1removal.
Figure 2. Scoping the cleanup project.
Governors’ Design Initiative
to Repair Climate
to Repair Climate
At the risk of some repetition, let me conclude the presentation with the “executive summary” of a “Manhattan Project 2.0.”
The best indicator of climate change is no longer a fractional-degree change in global warming. Now we have at least five major shifts in extreme weather requiring faster action than can be achieved through more effective emissions reduction.
Climate action now must shift from prevention to repair. We should clean up the excess CO2 by 2040. But, just to protect the cleanup project, another temporary protection project may need to move quickly to address the loopiness of the jet stream, perhaps by shading the Arctic until global cooling kicks in.
Both projects may need four years of design and field trials before deployment. Congress is likely to be slow, given the 2020 elections in the U.S., but a Governors’ Design Initiative to Repair Climate could now orchestrate those design-and-prototype years for CO2 removal, largely funded by the many tech billionaires who are already familiar with doing big design projects quickly. The Design Initiative could also build support in Congress, with constituents approvingly pointing to specific designs fresh from the experts.
The current public discussion about the climate crisis only focuses on reducing our yearly CO2 emissions via greener fuels and little personal efficiencies. It’s a diet, another “Use Less,” and it seems to have much the same success rate as food diets. Emissions reduction is a long-term strategy; it omits such considerations as how civilization will survive while the current plan plays out. A fossil-fuel diet by itself is insufficient to the task: too little, too late.
Fix the cause and you fix the problem? Not anymore. Focusing only on emissions reduction is very outdated, suitable only for a half-century back, when scientists first began warning, every year, that our only planet could seriously overheat.
The emissions-reduction prescriptions might have worked had they been widely implemented fifty years ago. But the CO2 overhead has instead increased from 320 ppm to 420 ppm, more than triple the excess CO2 present in 1965 when White House science advisors first considered the threat.
But now the new extreme weather demands a short-term survival strategy in addition to sensible preventative measures such as emissions reduction.
Currently, we are simply slowing our approach to chaos—a little. The current prescriptions are now painfully inadequate because they omit any notion of climate repair, such as a cleanup of the excess CO2.
We can do better. And, as it turns out, we must quickly do much better for two reasons. We are approaching coastal high water much faster than we are re-locating people inland. And because Phase Two of climate disease has already set in. Now we are being battered by a shift in five types of extreme weather which will increasingly limit our abilities to repair climate—even to get organized to try.
It might take four years to get the U.S. Congress up to speed. That’s four years that we don’t have, not anymore. We need to get moving on climate repairs—this year.
That escalation in extreme weather is what we are really up against, not just the slow rise in average global temperature and sea level.
Extreme weather shifts now create a new urgency and an even larger policy gap. Because of the thousand-year natural storage time of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, reducing emissions will not suffice.
This new climate instability is why things have become so urgent; it is what makes much of our present climate discourse sound outdated, yesterday’s version of the big issues commanding our attention. The 2018 IPCC Special Report says that carbon dioxide removal strategies (CDRs) are now needed.
For the next few years, we need a Governors' Design Initiative, with a finance committee of tech billionaires, to design and prototype CO2 removal while national governments get up to speed to handle deployment.
This is what gets us started. Better designs will replace them in another decade, just as U.S. building standards are revisited every three years by experts, so that recent buildings are more earthquake resistant than those built to high standards twenty years ago.
So, in judging what climate action shortcomings we can tolerate, remember they might be short-lived. The need to start big is now urgent. We now need to take some chances because we were so slow to take overheating seriously. A familiar situation occurs in medicine when a patient delays consulting a physician about that lump.
While it seems like common sense, emissions reduction is a mere band-aid for an injury that now requires a dozen stitches. We need to start with expert planning and prototyping—essentially, a Manhattan Project 2.0 for taking the excess carbon dioxide accumulation out of the air.
The most effective action you can currently take as an individual is not cancelling your fossil-fueled vacation but rather insisting on a CO2 cleanup. You repeatedly make your elected officials aware that you expect them to organize a big cleanup. And quickly, before the next election.
Even without another surprise shift in extreme weather, big-and-quick carbon dioxide removal is now our survival strategy. Our situation is now the equivalent of having to prepare for a great war, already looming on the horizon. Clearly, we are starting late but there are still possible ways of fixing the problem—if we treat this as an emergency. There is nothing hopeless about our situation, as some commentators are beginning to suggest—ones who have been led to believe that emissions reduction is the only game in town.
Our new situation is risky—but properly focused actions that shadow the high Arctic and remove CO2 can greatly improve our chances. Doing something big should bring hope to the public during the 10-15 years it will take to begin reducing extreme weather.
There are effective actions we can still take to repel the extreme weather invasion, if we only get our act together in a hurry. Like war, it is risky—but properly focused actions can greatly improve our chances.
The trip to hell is not a sure thing.