There was a Twilight Zone episode where a man from 1965 wakes up in 1865 in Washington DC. He sees a newspaper headline, “President Lincoln is going to Ford’s Theater tonight.” He frantically tries to tell everybody to alert Lincoln that he will be assassinated if he goes to Ford’s Theater. Nobody takes him seriously, and Lincoln gets shot.
Today, in 2018, there is nobody from 2118 frantically trying to tell us how we are making a disastrous mistake with the current climate crisis. But somebody should definitely try. If you see me frantically waving my hands, here’s why.
We are focusing on only half of the solution to climate change. We must not only radically reduce our CO2 emissions, we also absolutely must remove CO2 from the atmosphere. We have dilly-dallied for so many decades now, failing to reduce our emissions, that we have already crossed a big line; reducing emissions alone will no longer be enough to save us.
Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have added 1 trillion tons of CO2 to our skies, already enough CO2 to devastate us. It was enough to heat the Gulf of Mexico to the point where tropical storms there in 2017 beefed up into a series of hurricanes that destroyed cities as never before (warming seas cause stronger hurricanes). It has been enough to vastly melt the Arctic with ruinous consequences, and it is now causing California to burn with much more ferocity. The 1 trillion tons of CO2 we already produced is right now kick-starting our slide down a slippery slope to mass misery and the destruction of decently organized human life.
Even if by magic we all instantly became perfectly green with zero emissions, that 1 trillion tons of CO2 is enough to cook us, and we won’t be able to stop it unless we find ways to remove CO2 from our skies. But all we ever hear about is emissions reduction. We act, talk, and write as if reducing emissions alone will solve the problem, but at this late date, it won’t.
Make no mistake, I am in no way denying the crucial necessity of emissions reduction. Ongoing CO2 emissions are in fact such a huge problem that, if we don’t bring them down radically, any attempts to avoid climate ruin by pulling CO2 out of the sky will be futile, as ongoing emissions will countervail all our CO2 removals. Clearly, we all must fight ferociously with full force to radically reduce ongoing CO2 emissions.
However, other than articles involving James Hansen, Russ George, or Sam Carana, you will have to search quite assiduously to find any article on climate that does a good job of giving CO2 removal its proper place alongside emissions reduction. Clean energy, green industry, and conservation are constantly cast as the full answer to the threat, portrayed as all we need to do to avoid runaway climate change. Twilight Zone indeed.
The climate movement needs a serious update. If this was 1968, then emissions reduction could be the only goal, but not in 2018. That killer 1 trillion tons will not go away by itself. If we don’t roll up our sleeves and get to work on swiftly removing CO2 from our skies, we will be doomed for sure.
The grassroots protesters are correct that “business as usual” is what got us into this mess, and that we need to deal with root causes. But even if we base our decisions in our communities rather than being dictated to by big business, even if we radically curtail the meat industry, even if we fundamentally change how we produce and consume and put sustainability at the heart of everything we do — all great examples of societal fixes that are essential for avoiding climate ruin — we would still need to remove huge amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
So the next step is to look at the various ways to remove CO2. When you start examining them, you will find challenges in terms of high financial costs, high amounts of energy needed to run various machines, low speed of removal, and limited ability to scale up to remove enough CO2. There are a host of ideas out there, and all of them need to be considered, vetted very seriously, and implemented if they can contribute to the removal. The one I choose to highlight here, because of its unique potential for being cheap, easy, fast, scalable, and needing almost no energy at all, is called “Ocean Pasture Restoration,” or OPR.
When our oceans are healthy, they naturally remove significant amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere by creating life, such as plankton, via photosynthesis. But we have a problem: large parts of our oceans are iron deficient, as ocean chlorophyll has been lacking the vital, albeit tiny, amount of iron that it needs for robust photosynthesis.
Before the Industrial Revolution the oceans were getting enough iron. For centuries, winds were blowing iron-rich dust from dry land masses into the oceans. But as CO2 has increased in the atmosphere, that extra CO2 has caused many land areas to become more grassy — less dusty — and therefore the winds have been carrying much less iron-rich dust into the oceans.
Luckily, the amount of iron needed for ocean pastures to regain their robust power of photosynthesis is extremely small. This means it is entirely feasible to gather and distribute enough iron-rich dust to restore our sick oceans back to their healthy pre-industrial, life-spawning, and CO2-repurposing state.
People are correctly concerned with the loss of Amazon rainforest. But the equivalent loss in the oceans is shocking. Ocean pastures, along with the Amazon, are the “lungs of the planet” — 70% of the oxygen in the atmosphere is produced by marine plants. During the last 50 years, the oceans have been losing an amount of plant life equivalent to an entire Amazon rainforest every five years. So, over 50 years that is 10 entire ocean Amazon forests that have stopped breathing in CO2 and breathing out oxygen. It’s largely from losing the iron and other micronutrients because of less “dust in the wind.”
Fortunately, it is much easier to replace tiny amounts of iron than to regrow the Amazon. One ocean pasture is roughly the scale of one Amazon forest. Since OPR can get up and running simultaneously in 10 pastures, after about 5 years those 10 ocean pastures could become 10 Amazon-equivalents. That would repurpose quite a lot of CO2, on and on into the future.
OPR is done pasture by pasture, so adjustments can be made for unforeseen problems. Moreover, OPR is about returning pastures to their historically normal concentrations of iron, nothing we haven’t seen before, and the data from those centuries of normal concentrations tell us that the oceans were indeed healthy and were not plunging into disastrous problems. Indeed, OPR was performed in 2012 off the coast of northwest Canada and it worked very well, with no disasters. Nonetheless, any change involves risk, and there are no silver bullets. But it’s time to get going, and removing CO2 with one method or the other is critical.
How much will it cost? James Hansen refers to levels as high as $500 trillion for capturing, compressing, and storing carbon. Fortunately, restoring ocean iron would cost in the very low billions.
Our goal must be nothing short of giving future generations the same safe and healthy climate that our grandparents enjoyed. We can do it. But I feel like I am in a Twilight Zone episode watching Lincoln riding in his carriage on his way to Ford’s Theater — and I feel the burn of duty to warn him. Because if we silently go along with today’s two dominant camps, either denying the problem exists, or focusing only on emissions reduction, we will be doomed to enter a truly nightmarish version of the Climate Twilight Zone.
So, instead, let’s push relentlessly, as hard as we can, for emissions reduction and CO2 removal, and let’s restore our climate.
If your going to make grand claims of doing “… in-depth, award-winning investigations into the corruption that undermines our democracy, environment, and economic prosperity…” , then please do some real research from trustworthy sources.
Here is some background on Russ George:
Sam Carana is a pseudonym for an unidentified blogger who probably has no qualifications in climate science. Carana is making up fake news, such as that the world will heat up by 10C by the year 2026! People, please check your sources.
You seem to suggest that even if we stop all CO2 emissions, the burden of the CO2 already emitted will just sit there in the atmosphere, like an undigested meal. But if the excess was created by our emissions, then it should dissipate when emissions stop. Carbon in the biosphere is in a continuous cycle. It is always being absorbed and released by various processes. In particular, it’s absorbed by growing plants. (In fact, the process you advocate is an example of that.) When a substantial degree of release is shut off, we should expect that the continuing processes of absorption will outpace releases, and bring the atmospheric concentration back toward preindustrial levels. The excess *will* “go away by itself.”
Of course this is not to say that CO2 removal should not be tried. And we know very well that carbon emissions are not going to be zeroed out in the foreseeable future. Any means of improving the balance is welcome. However, the advocate quoted in the article you linked decries how the 32 scientists who wrote the article in Nature “completely neglect to offer the simple solution” he promotes, “my proven, simple, sustainable, safe, affordable, and immediately deployable solution,” even though “IT JUST WORKS!” He goes on, “My proven methodology and technology can, and will, safely and sustainably restore ocean pastures in all of the world’s seven seas for mere millions of dollars, NOT trillions!”
So this independent entrepreneur has got a proven, effective, and cheap system for hire, which is unaccountably ignored by the scientists. Might such claims raise a tinge of skeptical doubt? Perhaps we should look him up–https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russ_George. Interested readers may draw their own conclusions.
What about sequestering carbon in the soil? The Center for Food Safety has a 2015 report on the topic. It says, “In fact, soil is the largest ‘sink’—or area of storage—where additional carbon would actually be extremely beneficial. Currently our cultivated soils globally have lost 50-70 percent of their original carbon content.”
Wikipedia definition of Regenerative agriculture: is an approach to food and farming systems that rejects pesticides, artificial fertilizers and claims to regenerate topsoil, increase biodiversity. improve water cycles, enhance ecosystem services, increase resilience to climate fluctuation and strengthen the health and vitality of farming and ranching communities.
Here are 17 organizations promoting regenerative ag.
Ecdysis Foundation is another
We need a lot more to counter Big Ag’s industrial approach that destroys the soil ecology and sends CO2 into the atmosphere.
Well done and right on.
Thank you. Thank you.
well said, my man! Glad to be reading something hopeful and constructive.
This article reminds us of the need to not only cut back present output of greenhouse gas. But it also tells us that there is
the problem of “legacy” CO2 built up to a current 405 ppm. This is greenhouse gas built up and concentrating in the
Atmosphere. This has been climbing in concentration since the dawn of the industrial revolution. We must rid ourselves of this as well as ongoingoutput of greenhouse gas.
This must be dealt with and
the most efficient way to do so seems to be by Ocean Pastoral Restauration.
We have to own this goal as ours. Nobody else will do it as far as I can tell. It is us. Thank you for a great inspiring article!
When we as a society learned that human sewage was killing millions with plague and cholera, we did not stop making human sewage pollution; we learned how to treat that pollution. Decarbonizing our world today with clean energy sources is vitally important, but if we do not treat the climate pollution we have already emitted, the abrupt Earth systems changes that have already begun will complete their initiations (collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, collapse of Arctic sea ice, undersea permafrost melt, shutdown of the Gulf Stream, the flip of the Amazon from carbon sink to carbon source because of three 100-year or more extreme droughts since 2005, the flip of Alaska (and likely the rest of northern forests) from carbon sink to carbon source from permafrost melt and release of methane, collapse of Northern Hemisphere high altitude and high latitude forests from insect attack, collapse of ocean productivity…)
If we simply treated climate pollution like the most important issue of our time that so many important scientists have told us it is, the job would be half finished.
Thanks for pointing out Zhu and Zeng 2016 and Evan et al., 2016 to our attention again Alex. Restoring anthropogenically degraded ocean productivity is not dangerous climate geoengineering, it is climate pollution mitigation.
The Twilight Zone is the zone in which people actually believe we can stop this runaway train.The reality is that it is too late and the 6th extinction has begun. There is no way humanity will change its ways of living fast enough. Did you know the planet woukld keep on warming for up to twenty years even if we stopped pollution today. And everything about global warming is accelerating exponentially. Brace for impact.
Deborah A. Taubman
I am 100% behind your environmental concerns. I am also intrigued by the OPR initiative. Do you know if OPR has tried to contact various leaders of corporate and governmental agencies to present the OPR initiative? If so, what has been the response? As Peter Fiekowsky points out in his earlier comment to you, “We know that cooling the planet back down is possible: Nature does it over and over. We’ll figure it out, after we say we want to.” Thank you very much, Alex, for your continued dedication to thoughtfully and creatively raising awareness of this, frankly, life-threatening global challenge!
You rightly say that CO2 removal is necessary, and that this is being inadequately stressed. It is the main strategy described
in my book “A Farewell to Ice” (Oxford Univ Press, US; Penguin, UK) which starts with the self-reinforcing feedbacks associated
with ice and ends by saying that we have to go to CO2 removal because emissions reduction will never be adequate.
The world is in a very serious crisis but most of us don’t know because it is not receiving the amount of coverage it deserves from the media which reports it in bits and pieces which is soon lost. Climate change is taking place at a very noticeable pace and there are huge pitfalls in it which it may be impossible to slide over or overcome. For example, methane, dormant at many places could leak out in huge quantities to the extent that it may smother the whole planet and make life impossible. This could happen anytime. We will never be able to take timely action in the present systems of insecurity and greed. A way which suits the rich and the poor alike and changes our outdated systems making it possible to tackle all our problems is stated in the FREE 45 minute read, 5 starred eBook available at
You’ve failed to factor in that the oceans have *already* been the heat sink for all the heat that has accumulated thus far in the atmosphere, and quite specifically over the past 40+ years. In fact, there’s so much CO2 taken up by the oceans, they’ve become considerably more acidic and that acid is destroying the shells of crustaceans. And yet, you claim seeding iron dust intentionally into the oceans is safe. For whom? Certainly not crustaceans, and likely not for other marine life either. Furthermore it is plankton, not marine plants, in the oceans which generate O2, 70% of our total amount of O2, to be precise.
Also, you failed to mention the impact of global dimming, which is currently keeping the earth habitable. Above and beyond the fact it would be impossible at this point to create, manufacture, and disseminate the technology required to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in amounts that would make a demonstrable difference, if those emissions were removed, temperatures would spike radically and fairly immediately into the non-habitable range.
The sheer truth is to have done anything realistic in terms of averting our current trajectory, we needed to begin in earnest over 40 years ago. We’re already at a point where dozens of irreversible feedback loops are currently operant, several of which are converging toward massive methane releases from the Arctic, at which point methane, not CO2, will become the primary driver of anthropogenic climate change.
Hubris and arrogance is really all there is now because we’ve managed to put ourselves into a predicament from which there are no solutions. 40 years of heat cannot be withdrawn from the oceans, billions of tons of ice cannot be refrozen, unraveling ecosystems are beyond repair, and we won’t be able to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s really past time to actually be telling the truth about where we’re at with climate change – on the very precipice of Near-Term Human Extinction – instead of continuing to lie and pretending we haven’t totally screwed our own species, as well as all the rest of life on earth (quickly being overtaken by the 6th Mass Extinction), and indeed, the very planet itself.
Julianne, I do appreciate your comment. Allow me to respond.
The ocean produces oxygen through the plants (phytoplankton, kelp, and algal plankton) that live in it. Phytoplankton: derived from the Greek words phyto (plant) and plankton (made to wander or drift). Some phytoplankton are bacteria, some are protists, and most are single-celled plants.
About ocean acidification: one of the great benefits of OPR is that while today that extra CO2 in the atmosphere is interacting with the oceans in a way that results in acidic molecules, when the ocean iron content is returned to its historically normal levels that interaction will shift from acidification to photosynthesis, relieving the acidification problem.
Your point about dimming is strong and well taken. I am currently looking into it. If you can suggest a good source I would appreciate that.
Agreed Julianne. But what do those of us who agree with you do now? It’s a horrible thing to be hopeless about our kid’s future.
We all want to give our children a safe and healthy climate like our grandparents had. To achieve it, we must first say it’s our goal. Just like marrying your sweetie needs more than wanting it–you must say that’s your goal–make a proposal.
Knowing how to do it ahead of time is not required. I certainly didn’t know how to be married when I proposed. But I learned!
We know that cooling the planet back down is possible: Nature does it over and over. We’ll figure it out, after we say we want to.
Alex- great article. Thank you.