National Geographic’s November 2023 cover story is entitled “The Race to Save the Planet. Can Technology Help Fix the Climate Crisis?” by Sam Howe Verhovek. This headline puts climate change squarely in crisis mode, and by implication “the race to save the planet” signals the onset of a mad scramble to work our way out of the biggest jam in human history.
It’s hard to find a climate scientist who does not agree with that sentiment. According to the renowned climate scientist Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards, University College London:
I know a lot of people working in climate science who say one thing in public but a very different thing in private. In confidence, they are all much more scared about the future we face, but they won’t admit that in public. I call this climate appeasement and I believe it only makes things worse. The world needs to know how bad things are going to get before we can hope to start to tackle the crisis.
— “Soon the World Will be Unrecognizable’: Is it Still Possible to Prevent Total Climate Meltdown?”
The Guardian, July 30, 2022.
In the same spirit of McGuire “telling it like it is,” Verhovek’s National Geographic article makes a profound statement that should be emblazoned on every cell phone in the world and read every day: “Getting to zero carbon emissions won’t save the world. We will need to remove carbon on a massive scale. To do that will require a planetwide effort to match anything that humankind has ever achieved.”
That is a tall order, a very tall order indeed when consideration is given to how disjointed, at odds, and hateful the world is today. Politics has become a basket case of venomous snakes. Yet, saving the planet requires a coordinated “planetwide effort to match anything that humankind has ever achieved.” Hmm.
Proposals to save the planet run the gamut from mini-nuclear reactors scattered all over the planet (Oh. please! don’t), carbon capture and sequestration, a trillion planted trees, factory farms replaced by classic agricultural practices (absolutely necessary), soil restoration, geo-engineering schemes to reflect incoming solar radiation, re-freezing the Arctic and much, much more.
Verhovek’s National Geographic article is artistically drafted in the spirit of honesty about the true capability, or not, of climate fixes he found around the world. He traveled to see them. Refreshingly, his approach to the subject matter is brutally honest. There are lots of novel concepts underway that seemingly have potential. But time is of essence and the scale of operations required to get the job done is absolutely staggering, almost beyond imagination. Is it beyond worldwide cooperation?
As of our new 21st century, the planet’s climate system has radically shifted by becoming a hinderance and threat to society in sharp contrast to the past several thousand years of the Holocene not-too-hot, not-to-cold Goldilocks era that supported human existence as a partner in life. Now, unfortunately, global warming has become public enemy number one and a threat to life.
The climate system has rapidly changed because of a deleterious energy imbalance, which is the “proximate cause of global warming” according to Dr. James Hansen, the world’s leading climate scientist. Energy imbalance is the heart and soul of extreme global warming, and it has turned nasty and challenging, a threat to existence.
Energy imbalance or “sunlight in versus sunlight out” is currently running at a rate of 1.36 W/m2 as of the 2020s decade. That is double the 2005-2015 rate of 0.71 W/m2
— James Hansen, “Global Warming is Accelerating. Why? Will We Fly Blind?” September 14, 2023.
W/m2 is “watts per square meter.” According to Dr. Hansen’s description: “There is more energy coming in (absorbed sunlight) than energy going out (heat radiated to space).”
Alas, doubling the rate of energy imbalance within only one decade is not good; in fact, it is horrible, something that causes scientists to unblinkingly stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night. That imbalance is why so many crazy climate disasters have been simultaneously hitting the planet from coast-to-coast and pole-to-pole. The entire climate system is out-of-kilter, topsy-turvy.
Mainstream news has been covering these disaster scenarios extremely well over the past couple of years, as radical climate change struts its stuff for all to see on national TV, major rivers drying up, the Amazon suffering repeated devastating bouts of blistering drought, spontaneous Noah’s Ark floods hitting every continent, massive hurricanes, and Arctic permafrost starting to come apart at the seams across one-quarter of the Northern Hemisphere, exposing decades of recklessly handled industrial toxicants and eons of global warming’s favorite drug CH4 (methane) a “global warming high” that’s to die for.
World news outlets have been so full of disaster scenarios in real time that debate and denial about climate change falls flat on its face; the proof is on the nightly news. For example:
Extreme heat has unleashed rain like never before. Unusually violent downpours have hit every inhabited continent this year. From Storm Daniel in Libya to Typhoon Doksuri in China, the damage has been severe.
— Bloomberg ESG News, November 1, 2023.
What’s to be done?
Can the climate system be fixed?
Today’s broken climate system has been 200+ years in the making, ever since humans first discovered a powerful relationship between industrialization and fossil fuels. And a two-hundred-year-old problem cannot be fixed overnight or within years, maybe decades. The scale of the problem is too big for anything resembling a quick fix.
Complicating matters, the technology that so many optimists are counting on is indeterminate as to scale and proficiency. One of the most celebrated efforts to capture carbon from the atmosphere was recently abandoned. “Occidental Petroleum: An Oil Giant Quietly Ditched the World’s Biggest Carbon Capture Plant”, October 23, 2023. According to Bloomberg:
Occidental Petroleum is leading the global charge to vastly expand the use of technologies that suck up carbon dioxide. The failure of the company’s biggest-ever bet shows the challenges ahead.
— Bloomberg, October 23, 2023.
Putting carbon capture into perspective:
After decades of deployment, however, total carbon capture capacity globally is only about 45 million tons of CO2 per year. That’s just 4% of carbon capture needed by 2030 to be on track for net zero by 2050, according to the IEA. And beyond the usefulness of producing more oil, the technology has also been the beneficiary of a decade of policy incentives, including new laws from the US government to increasingly subsidize the burying of CO2.
— Bloomberg, October 23rd, 2023.
Century (OXY) now finds itself on a growing list of CCS projects that failed to live up to lofty expectations. Decades of failed projects indicate controlling carbon is far more temperamental than backers let on. Capturing carbon is typically an eight-step process from production of CO2 to burial. At each stage, there’s a potential pitfall:
Examples of misfires abound in the previous generation of CCS. In Mississippi, a much-heralded “clean coal” project at Southern Co.’s Kemper power plant ended up scrapped due to technical problems as costs blew up to $7.5 billion. Chevron Corp. has consistently failed to run its Gorgon CCS plant in Australia as expected after seven years and $2.1 billion invested due to engineering problems around sinking the CO2.
— Bloomberg, October 23rd, 2023.
“CCS is ‘a mature technology that’s failed,’ said Bruce Robertson, an energy finance analyst who has studied the top projects globally. ‘Companies are spending billions of dollars on these plants and they’re not working to their metrics.”
With that rather jarring introduction, what does National Geographic have to say about saving the planet?
According to the article:
But what all these efforts have in common is that to their many detractors, the very idea of sucking all this carbon out of the air is a diversion from the far more urgent task of radically cutting carbon dioxide emissions to begin with… More than 500 environmental groups, for instance, have signed a petition urging U.S. and Canadian leaders to ‘abandon the dirty, dangerous might of CCS,’ or carbon capture and storage, a major form of carbon removal. The petition blasts the concept as ‘a dangerous distraction driven by the same big polluters who created the climate emergency.’
This criticism is directed at ExxonMobil, Chevron, and others claiming they will clean up the carbon problem. It is believed this same ruse will be front and center at COP28, the UN climate conference, to be held in Dubai, the heartbeat of fossil fuels, in a few weeks.
Verhovek rightfully takes to task the myth perpetuated by the oil and gas industry that carbon can be removed from the atmosphere so they can keep on producing forever. For example, as stated by Al Gore in a recent speech, “What the Fossil Fuel Industry Doesn’t Want You to Know” Gore showed a photo of a DAC project in Iceland, one of the originators of carbon removal, which will be enhanced enough in 7 years so that each DAC unit will be able to capture 27 seconds worth of annual emissions There are 8 units. Do the math. Gore’s response: “Are you kidding me!”
On a cost-effective basis, DAC is not credible. Moreover, the biggest obstacle to DAC is physics, CO2 makes up ~0.035% of the air, meaning DACs will vacuum the other 99.96% to get ~0.035% out of the air. Gore’s statement about scale:
Oh, please! It’s a bad joke and cannot possibly meet the scale required just to keep up with current emissions. Meanwhile oil companies are using DAC to effectively gaslight the public.
Yes, “gaslighting the public” as big-big money has entered the scene of carbon removal, Microsoft, JP Morgan and others invested $650 million in Climeworks, the Swiss-based company that has bold, elaborate plans to capture carbon. To be discussed in more detail in part 2 to this article.
According to Sam Verhovek:
But as important as that money is for spurring R&D, it’s a minute fraction of what would ultimately be needed to make a genuine difference in reversing or at least slowing climate change. That figure would likely be measured in trillions of dollars, amounting to one of the largest industrial undertakings in all of history.
The End: “Fixing the Climate Crisis Part 1”
“Fixing the Climate Crisis Part 2” – next week: Technological fixes already underway or on deck as described in Verhovek’s article. Hopeful technologies are abundant.