This is how we’re going to solve climate change

Caltech. Credit: Erik Olsen

Yesterday, the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena made a major announcement: philanthropists and entrepreneurs Stewart and Lynda Resnick gave the school $750 million to develop technologies to tackle climate change. The news of the announcement was somewhat lost in the craziness of the news cycle following the whistle-blower revelations of the Trump administration, but make no bones about it, this is major news.

Thomas F. Rosenbaum, president of Caltech, told the New York Times that, “the money will be used to build a research center and to support a broad range of projects. Among them are finding ways to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and perhaps store it in the ocean; to capture and reuse rainfall; make plants more resistant to drought; and create plastics that are easier to recycle.” In other words, a key focus is going into geoengineering.

Coal mine in Germany. Credit: Erik Olsen
Coal mine in Germany. Credit: Erik Olsen

Many people believe that solving the climate crisis is a matter of reducing our use of fossil fuels. While this is unquestionably part of the equation, it is also very unlikely, if not impossible, that as a species we will muster the discipline and accept the cost of reducing our consumption of fossil fuels to levels that make a significant impact on carbon in the atmosphere. This argument was recently made by the writer Jonathan Franzen in an article in the New Yorker magazine. While Franzen was viciously pilloried for this opinion, both in rebuttal articles as well as Twitter, he is largely correct.

Currently, global temperature is on track to rise by an average of 6 °C (10.8 °F), according to the latest estimates. Some scientists say that we are already on the verge of a “global disaster” at the planet’s poles. Melting ice at the Arctic and in Greenland this year reached a record level, with Greenland shedding 12.5 billion tons of water into the sea. That’s more water than at any time since record-keeping began in the 1950s. It gets worse.

As NASA points out “Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, global warming would continue to happen for at least several more decades, if not centuries.” Even if the United States and Europe enacted stringent, extensive measures to reduce carbon output, China, India, and many other developing countries will continue to depend on fossil fuels to foster economic growth. Asking other poorer countries to slow their progress after two centuries of our own largely uninhibited industrial development is the quintessence of hypocrisy. Yes, it is possible that some countries will develop with certain sustainable measures in place, but if we look at the technologies currently available even to wealthy countries, there is no viable or affordable technology currently available to offset the consumption of carbon-rich sources of energy. This is not to say that we should not try to implement measures to reduce carbon output. It makes sense to do this even if global warming were not a factor. Renewables are cleaner, far less environmentally destructive and simply make more sense, assuming they can be implemented at scale and reasonable cost. We should do everything we can to implement renewable energy sources.

Wind turbine

This gets us to the $750 billion Caltech donation. It is far more likely that some form of geoengineering is going to end up solving the carbon problem. While many scientists and entrepreneurs are currently developing ways to take caarbon out of the atmosphere, at the moment, there is no scalable or viable means of doing so. But that may not be the case in the future. It is possible, if not likely, that someone will find a way to remove carbon from the air on a global scale. The question is one of investment, ingenuity and, of course, luck.

There is a historical precedent for tackling such a large problem. In the early 20th century, humankind was faced with a global food crisis. Agricultural production was slowing due to shortages of fertilizer, which largely came from the mining of guano, or bird droppings, which existed in large deposits in a select few places around the world, including Peru. The key ingredient in fertilizer is nitrogen, which plants depend on for growth and which is slowly depleted as crops are harvested and replanted. (Back before humans started agriculture, nitrogen would return to the soil when plants died, but when plants are grown for food, they are removed, depleting nitrogen from the ground.)

With the naturally occurring nitrogen found in guano, we had a reprive. But it only took a few decades for most of the key sources of guano to be exploited. And so, early in the 20th century, scientists warned that we were on the verge of perhaps the most dire environmental crisis in the history of humanity: there was not enough fertilizer to support the earth’s rapidly growing population. They were certain that, unless another source of nitrogen could be found, large-scale starvation would certainly occur.

Which brings us to the Austrian chemist Fritz Haber. Haber figured out a way to use high-pressure (in a huge machine he designed) and a catalyst to get nitrogen from the air. Air is nearly 80 percent nitrogen, but it is in a form that makes it hard to separate from air’s other components: oxygen, argon, carbon dioxide and water vapor. Haber’s process converts atmospheric nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) by a reaction with hydrogen (H2) using a metal catalyst under high temperatures and pressures.

Fritz Haber

Haber’s breakthrough enabled mass production of agricultural fertilizers and led to a massive increase in crops for human consumption. The food production for half the world’s current population involves Haber’s method for producing nitrogen fertilizers. The world’s authority on nitrogen fertilizer, Vaclav Smil, has said the industrial synthesis of ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen “has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television.” In other words, one man, armed with an idea and the resources to make it happen, largely saved humanity in its time of greatest crisis.

It is not merely wishful thinking to believe that we are in a similar moment now and that human ingenuity and perseverance will help us find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a global scale. Many people are working on geoengineering solutions, from carbon sequestration to solar radiation modification to the widespread production of carbon sinks (for example, planting trees). It could take several different approaches, or perhaps just one, assuming there is another Fritz Haber out there today, which undoubtedly there is. But what’s required is funding and commitment. It will likely take several years and many billions (trillions) of dollars to find the solution, and that is why the $750 million gift to Caltech is a great start.

The questions are: Where do we invest our time and money to solve this crisis? Where do our priorities lie? Again, I’m not saying in any way that we should give up on finding and implementing ways to reduce carbon output, but resources to tackle the climate problem are finite, and most people have largely demonstrated that they are, so far, unwilling to make even the most basic sacrifices to cope with the problem. It’s hard to imagine this changing because it is part of human nature. As Franzen wrote in reference to the most basic carbon reduction targets discussed today: “Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon. I can run ten thousand scenarios through my model, and in not one of them do I see the two-degree target being met.”

With what resources we do have, therefore, a much larger proportion should be directed towards geoengineering solutions, developing and implementing technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere. But where should those resources go, specifically? To whom do we direct money for this kind of research and development? The Resnicks got it right. There is likely ould be no better single place to funnel funds for geoengineering solutions than the nation’s premier technological institution: Caltech. That’s why yesterday’s announcement is such big news, and far more significant than President Trump’s Ukraine problem. That said, if Trump is eventually removed from office, we do regain some sense in our own country’s climate policy, which he has largely derailed. So, we may have that, too.

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