Emissions reduction has now become what, in medicine, is called an adjuvant, a supplementary treatment that may be ineffective by itself but augments a more effective treatment. Think booster or amplifier. The familiar example is chemotherapy, ineffective for larger tumors but, following their surgical removal, often effective against the smaller remnants.
Might this be the time to reframe the climate problem, a paradigm shift that better focuses on what really matters—and their closing windows of opportunity?
More solutions that aren’t
Recapturing some of the fossil CO2 in smokestack fumes, burying it in old natural gas wells, is just another emissions reduction scheme called “Carbon Capture,” one that still allows additions to the accumulating blanket of CO2. I consider it a nonstarter because, to run the extraction process, it takes a lot of power, reducing the power available to the grid. To make up for it, they must burn additional coal. The coal companies would sell a lot more coal per gigawatt available to the grid.
If one instead burns new crops of wood or switchgrass with recapture, it prevents some of the atmospheric CO2 earlier captured by photosynthesis from returning to the air in five-to-fifty years, the way it eventually would via bacterial decomposition. But notice the lag time issue: with 50% recapture now, the proponents would accelerate the addition of the other 50% to our CO2 blanket. It’s a bad as a forest fire.
But even if it passes technical muster, that scheme is unreliable even in a ten-year timeframe. Should a famine threaten, food crops will take priority over growing switchgrass and trees. The land and water requirements for growing the switchgrass also mean that it cannot be scaled up to meet the “big enough” test. All smokestack capture methods are too small, too slow, and too unreliable for the immediate task. We need Big, Quick, and Surefire. All three. Not someday but now.
It follows that we must remove the excess CO2 from the air on a large scale if we wish to escape the very serious consequences: not only a series of economic crashes that make lenders reluctant to lend again for fear of not getting their money back, but serious death spirals involving resource wars, famine, epidemic disease, and genocide.
We now need a new plan for how to get ourselves out of this mess. And we had better get it right this time, not producing just another low-ball understatement of the actions needed, with no safety margin considered.
Emissions reduction and sustainability are still important for the post-cleanup world; those too young to vote might focus their efforts there. Others should consider focusing their efforts on promoting quick climate repairs. Legislators will need public pressure to ever get around to doing something effective.
W. H. Calvin (updated 2018 CO2Foundation.org pamphlet #1.)