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Suck It Up: A book about climate change, geoengineering and air capture of CO2

 

Editor’s note: Marc Gunther is a long-time advisory board member and contributor to TEC. Congratulations to Marc on the publication of his new book!

I’m pleased to let you know that my book, Suck It Up: How capturing carbon from the air can help solve the climate crisis, is being published today as an Amazon Kindle Single. Please buy the ebook here for just $1.99.

The book reflects two years of reporting and my best thinking about three topics that matter: climate change, geoengineering and a technology called direct air capture of CO2. It explains why we’ve made so little progress (none, actually) in dealing with the climate threat, and how that might change. Part of the answer is to look for ways to recycle and reuse CO2.

I’m going to print the introduction to the book below, but first a word about the publishing process. As the newspapers, magazines and book publishers that traditionally support long-form journalism are struggling, exciting new outlets like blogs and ebooks are opening up. I’m the publisher as well as the author of Suck It Up, with a big assist from Amazon, which has selected the book as a Kindle Single.

The Kindle Single allows writers to tell stories that are longer than a magazine article and shorter than a book. Suck It Up is about 17,000 words long, the equivalent of 60 to 70 double spaced typewritten pages. It’s intended to be read in one or two sittings, and it’s priced so the ideas in it will spread. If you don’t own a Kindle, you can read the book on your smart phone, iPad or laptop. Just download the free Kindle software here.

I’d like to sell lots of copies of Suck It Up not just because I think it’s a good read about an important topic, but because I want to make the ebook business model work. It’s an exciting new platform for in-depth reporting.

So, please read the intro, check out the book and if you like it, help me spread the word through social media or the old-fashioned way–tell a friend about the book. 

 

INTRODUCTION

This book may depress some people. It shouldn’t. To the contrary, I’d like to stimulate a conversation about new ways to think about global warming, the most daunting problem facing humanity. To start, we need to face a grim reality: Governments, businesses and environmentalists have failed miserably to deal with the threat of climate change.

This June will bring the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, officials negotiated a treaty—it’s known as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—in which they agreed to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere “at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Some 192 countries, including the United States and China, ratified the convention. Since then, annual global emissions have grown by nearly 45%. Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are rising steadily. The risks posed by climate change grow every day.

In the U.S., climate regulation appeared tantalizingly close just a few years ago. More than a dozen FORTUNE 500 companies, including GE, Ford, Shell and Duke Energy, joined with influential environmental groups to form the U.S. Climate Action Partnership to press Congress to “enact strong national legislation to require significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.” In 2008, presidential candidates Obama and McCain supported legislation to cap carbon emissions.  But President Obama made the economy and health care his priorities, and the Republicans morphed into implacable opponents of climate regulation. A weak cap-and-trade bill barely cleared the U.S. House of Representatives and never came to a vote in the Senate.

What’s maddening about the lack of progress is that we know what to do about global warming–or at least we think we do. Back in 2004, physicist Robert Socolow and ecologist Stephen Pacala, both of Princeton, wrote an influential paper in Science: They argued that energy efficiency, nuclear power, low-carbon fuels, avoided deforestation and other current technologies that they called “climate wedges” could be deployed right away to stabilize emissions.

“Humanity,” they wrote, “already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century.”

Since then, Socolow is among those who have been dismayed by the resistance to climate action.

“I know no one who predicted that the climate change message would be rejected on a scale that it is now,” he says. “Scientists and environmentalists interested in getting climate taken seriously have failed beyond their wildest imaginations…We are losing the argument with the general public, big time.”

This no accident. But the reasons why climate regulation has failed are not widely understood. Yes, the recession made it hard for Congress to pass a costly scheme to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Yes, fossil-fuel interests spent a fortune opposing cap-and-trade. Yes, partisan media like Fox News gave a platform to climate skeptics and the mainstream press found it hard to sound an alarm about an invisible, sl0w-moving threat.

But the obstacles that stand in the way of a climate regulation are bigger than any of that.

One is the need for a global solution. Had Congress acted to put a price on carbon, as the European Union has, that would have been a good start–but only a start. CO2 emitted anywhere spreads everywhere. To curb greenhouse gas emissions, Canada will have to stop extracting oil from the tar sands of Alberta. Brazil will have to decline to exploit rich oil deposits off its Atlantic Coast. China will have to stop building coal plants. Governments all over will have to support nuclear power plants, allow wind turbines to spoil some ocean views, and put solar arrays in beautiful desert places. We’ll all have to spend more money for energy, because it’s expensive to capture emissions from coal plants or build the batteries for electric cars.

A second fundamental obstacle is this: The costs of mitigating emissions will be felt immediately but the benefits — essentially, reducing the risk of climate disasters — won’t be felt for years. Governments find it hard, for obvious reasons, to impose costs on people today to generate uncertain benefits in the future.

Finally, there’s the thorny question of how rich and poor countries will share the costs of financing a transition to a low-carbon economy.

This is why climate change is the most difficult problem mankind has ever faced.

“Climate change is the biggest collective action problem, probably, in human history,” says Scott Barrett, the Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia University. “It always was, in theory. Now, after 20 years of action, we’ve seen that it is in practice.”

See what I mean about depressing?

And yet.

This book offers a way out. That’s why I wrote it. I’ve been writing about the social and environmental impact of business for years. I’ve seen how markets can solve big, complicated and seemingly insurmountable problems. Who could have anticipated the benefits generated by electricity, air travel or the Internet? Who could have predicted that globalization would lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in China and India? Markets work fast. Governments are sluggish.

That’s why we need to explore new approaches to global warming. One is geoengineering: Planetary-scale actions designed to counter the climate effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

In particular, we ought to take a close look at a set of emerging technologies that are designed to capture carbon dioxide from the air. Backers of these technologies, which are sometimes called direct air capture of CO2, say, with good reason, that they shouldn’t be thought of as geoengineering.  They’re more akin to recycling.

Why, they ask, can’t we find ways ways to capture and recycle CO2 the way we now collect and recycle newspapers or aluminum cans? Suck it up–and then make it into something useful. As it happens, scientists already know how to pull CO2 out of the air. But the conventional wisdom holds that it’s costly and impractical to do so. In the pages ahead, you’ll meet some smart people — including Bill Gates — who are trying to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.

My first sustained exposure to geoengineering and air capture came in February, 2010, when I was invited to a private meeting of the trustees of the Environmental Defense Fund, one of America’s most respected environmental groups, at the Cavallo Point Lodge in Sausalito, CA. Steve Hamburg, EDF’s chief scientist, brought together scientists, economists and policy experts to talk about what it might mean for scientists to invent the equivalent of a global thermostat. “Part of my job is to bring new ideas and issues to the organization,” Hamburg told me later. Even if they sound a little crazy at first.

One of the speakers that day was David Keith, a physicist who was then teaching at the University of Calgary and has since joined the faculty at Harvard. Keith is a brilliant scientist, an entrepreneur and a strong advocate of government-backed research into geoengineering. He has a way of disarming critics by acknowledging the obvious problems with the idea of deliberately manipulating the earth’s climate.

Geoengineering, Keith said that day, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.”

But, as his listeners immediately understood, we treat cancer patients with chemotherapy because it’s better than the alternative. Someday, Keith said, we may turn to geoengineering for the same reason: Like it or not, in the event of a climate emergency, geoengineering could be best option we have to head off a global catastrophe.

Keith, for his part, has become so convinced of the need for new climate solutions that, with the financial backing of Bill Gates, among others, he has started a for-profit company to build machines to remove carbon dioxide from the air.

Geoengineering raises thorny questions. Will it work? What might be the side effects? Who gets to decide when to deploy it? Who controls the global thermostat? What if Russia and Canada decide it’s fine to let the earth get a bit warmer, but India wants it cooler? Some scientists have mused about “geoengineering wars.”

I needed to know more. What I learned surprised me, and it will surprise you, too.

You can download the rest of the book here.

Content Discussion

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on March 3, 2012

When you write that “air capture on a global scale will cost much more and take much longer than… gearing up US industry to fight WWII”, and put forward the figure of 8 gigatons of CO2 that would need to be removed from the atmosphere to reduce CO2 concentration by 1 ppm, you underestimate the scale of the problem.  

CO2 moves around in the surface reservoirs, i.e. between the atmosphere, the oceans and the vegetation on land. About 40% of the 29 gigatons emitted each year now moves into the ocean and into vegetation right away.  If you take what’s left, some 17 – 18 gigatons and divide by the annual parts per million increase, i.e. about 2 ppm, you get 8 gigatons per ppm.  We think the planet is giving us a break because we mistakenly believe all that matters is what stays in the atmosphere.  We’re mistaken.  

When it comes time to remove that CO2, if civilization were to suddenly realize that it had polluted Earth’s atmosphere to the point it had become dangerous to the existence of civilization for instance, we’ll find out that the “absorbed” CO2 didn’t disappear.  Because if it took 29 gigatons going in to get 17 gigatons accumulating, to get 17 gigatons to stay out we’ll have to remove something like the original 29 gigatons.  

I suppose when talking about efforts the size of what the US did in WWII as you do, tacking an extra 40% on top only means taking something very hard to imagine the what passes for leadership in the US at the moment doing and increasing the size of the effort to something very hard to imagine them doing. 

Another way to say this is the way Hansen puts it:

“Fossil fuel injection of CO2 remains in the surface reservoirs for millennia.  An extraction of CO2 redistributes itself among surface reservoirs in the same way as an injection. Thus, because CO2 has already reached the dangerous level, unconventional fossil fuel injections must be entirely removed.”

All further CO2 emissions will have to be entirely removed by our descendants, if he is correct about what the dangerous level of CO2 is.  It isn’t going to work out in the way a simple calculation of what 1 ppm of the atmosphere of CO2 weighs indicates.  Putting 29 gigatons in each year now means our descendants, or some of us, at Klaus Lackner’s most optimistic projected target cost of $30 a ton, will have to spend about $1 trillion to take it out.  

If the cost is $50, $100, or $200 or more per ton removed, as you say people are arguing about, that’s a $1.4 trillion, $2.8 trillion, or $5.6 trillion bill we’re handing off as an expense to our descendants for each year of what we are doing now, we think, for free.  

By the way, I bought your book.  

Here’s a very recent example illustrating what David Keith was saying in your book, i.e. “It’s unbelieveable, the idea that people think it’s acceptable in an advanced technological society for oil company executives and congressmen to opine about science as if, basically, facts don’t matter”

The photo is former GM Vice President Bob Lutz explaining to Bill Maher this week that facts really don’t matter.  He told Maher that his attitude that “global warming is a crock of sh*t”, that he first expressed in 2004, “has been reinforced since then”.  Scroll down this page and see the entire clip.

There isn’t a consensus among climate scientists about anything anyone should believe.  Not one prediction ever made in any IPCC assessment has come to pass.  He even claimed to know what some of the predictions were.  Eg:  “the oceans were gonna get hot” and he knows they didn’t.  “We haven’t had any serious hurricanes”, and Al Gore said we were going to get some.  And furthermore, in the “last fifteen years CO2 has gone up by several points and the global temperatures have stayed stable or slightly declined”.  The last decade was not the hottest on record.  So there.  He announced he bought a house in the Florida Keys, and scoffed “it’s supposed to be underwater three years ago”.  

Lutz also declared that the government bailed out GM because the problems of GM were caused by the government.  Apparently, 30 years of government bungling aimed at driving GM out of business finally caused the straw of the financial crisis to break GMs back, Congress knew it, and that’s why Congress responded with the bailout.  

Unbelieveable?  Watch the clip.  This is what a lot of US business leaders believe.  

Marc Gunther's picture
Marc Gunther on March 3, 2012

David, first, thanks for buying the book and giving it such a careful and thoughtful read.

The estimate that we’d have to remove 8 gigatons of CO2 to reduce atmospheric concentrations by 1 ppm was a rough estimate. You’re right that it doesn’t take into account CO2 absorbed by the ocean; if we were to suck CO2 out of the air, the ocean would release some CO2 back into the air to put things back in equilibrium. (I’m not a scientist or science writer, as you may have figured out when you read the book.) When I ran the number by climate scientists, they essentially told me the 8 gigaton estimate was close enough but low. No one suggested that it was 40% too low but again, this is out of my area of expertise.

What I do understand is that the scale of the climate problem is not well understood. I hope that comes across in the book.

The economics are a bit more complicated. If we can find a use for CO2 in the short term (enhanced oil recovery, feeding algae), the costs of pulling it out of the air would be partly or entirely offset by the value generated by the CO2. The big long term idea which I didn’t get into in any detail because it is so speculative is that CO2 could be captured from the air, and combined with hydrogen that has been separated from water to make transportation fuels. If this was powered by renewable energy, we’d have a low-carbon closed cycle way of making fuels.

Given how little progress we’ve made so far with mitigation–and thank you for the clip, which helps explains why–it seems to me that new approaches like this deserve consideration.

Marcio Wilges's picture
Marcio Wilges on November 21, 2014

Climate threat has been an ongoing issue since many decades back. I have to fully agree that little or no efforts have been put in so far to address this issue. However, I did read something about initiatives being put forward on the removal of CO2 from the waters in order to tackle the issue of mounting carbon storage by using a catalyst. The project is progressively taking place but not entirely settled as a clear solution out yet.