So by now you probably know that Richard Branson, along with various other climate change luminaries has offered a 25 million dollar prize to anyone who can suck 30% of the greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. Inventors all over the world are competing for the prize, to be judged by Al Gore and various famous climate scientists.
Perhaps it is just sour grapes that I have no inventing skills, and thus am doomed to poverty and obscurity, but this reminds me of the time our refrigerator broke down. The freezer was icing up heavily, and preventing the vent of cold air into the refrigerator. And the man who came to repair it couldn’t figure out what the cause was, so he suggested adding a small electric heater to our freezer, which would prevent the ice from forming and blocking the cold air flow.
We declined this solution, because it was stupid, not to mention wasteful. Instead of fixing the root problem, it manufactured a solution that a. was fraught with potential problems and b. didn’t fix the root problem. And the Branford prize seems oddly similar.
Now let’s think hard about what kinds of solutions people might come up with to resolve the climate change problem – most of them (I checked all this with DH who is an astrophysicist), pretty much come down to “change the carbon dioxide and methane into something else” or “move the carbon dioxide/methane somewhere else). Now correct me if I’m wrong, but chemical reactions to change something into something else tend to be umm…energy intensive, no? And moving large quantities of diffuse gases around would be…ummm…also energy intensive. And isn’t the problem that we’re umm…burning a lot of energy?
Now, of course we could come up with a renewable means of powering this enormous energy guzzler, but don’t we need to be building those renewables to replace even a small part of our *existing* energy consumption? And in fact, the production of all those renewables is going to spew a not-insignificant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, because those renewable sources are made with ummm…fossil fuels.
Now then there’s the problem of what to change the carbon into if we use a chemical reaction. Personally, my husband is partial to graphite, because it is comparatively harmless and can then be used in pencils. The problem would be that it would fall to earth in chunks, which would be tough on people standing underneath. Now I’m sure scientists can come up with something soft, but there are real concerns about changing the carbon to another gas, and changing the basic composition of the atmosphere.
Now one solution to the problem of energy intensiveness would be to create a living solution, something self-perpetuating that “ate” carbon dioxide or methane. But the problem with these ideas is that the potential for unforseen consequences is fairly high. If, for example, a self-perpetuating something or other (this is a technical term) that “ate” carbon dioxide were to be created, what would prevent it from accidentally eating all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, destroying the greenhouse effect, dropping the worldwide average temperature to -10 degrees and freezing the oceans solid. If we are relying on our prior record as human beings for forseeing the unpleasant consequences of our technology to save us, let me just say, “no freakin’ way.”
Every such solution is bound to be dangerous. Adding particulates to the atmosphere (which wouldn’t win the Branson prize but has been proposed quite seriously) to cut down on the sun’s penetration further, has a whole host of possible negatives, including increasing asthma, giving the whole planet emphysema or plunging us into an ice age.
And, of course, the biggest danger, and the most likely one, is that it just plain wouldn’t work. So of the most likely solutions, one or two or ten are likely to fail before we hit on one, if we ever do – and each one is likely to contribute enormous quantities of greenhouse gases, and take billions of dollars and waste time and money and resources we do not have while we try really hard to fix what we’ve done.
Now we’ve known about global warming for decades, and for decades we’ve declined to use the obvious solution – cut back radically on our consumption of energy, use what energy we can use to create non-polluting, renewable solutions, and change our lives. Now we’ve managed to drag ourselves to the brink of viewing our own extinction – whether as planet or simply as a whole lot of suffering individuals who are going to die because we wouldn’t give up our conveniences and live more reasonably. Technologies are what got us into the problem – there’ s no too ways about it. Thus far, we have never created a technology that didn’t in the long term, result in using more stuff, more energy. If we make a more efficient doohickey, the money we save goes to consuming other crap. Our energy consumption has grown steadily, despite all sorts of advances in efficient technology.
In the end, the solution to the global warming problem is mostly not going to be found in a lab – it will be found in our own convictions, and the democratic processes we use to convince our leaders that we are prepared to change and sacrifice in order to see another generation, and ten generations, go forward. It isn’t that technology will do nothing – there are technologies that will enable us to be a little more comfortable, to keep some of our infrastructure and economy intact – how much is not yet clear. But in the end, what will save us, to the extent we can be saved (we are already committed to a great disaster and a century of crisis), is that we stop looking to high technology and start using what already is here, and what we have – our hands and our feet, our backs and our minds, to substitute for the things we think we need.
I will never win the Branson prize, but here’s my entry. If you want to remove 30% of the carbon from the atmosphere, immediately ground the Virgin Atlantic fleet and most airlines, tell Al Gore to get his ass off the jet and stay home in Tennessee (or if he wants, he can run for president from his hybrid bus – whatever). Take the 25 million dollars and all the tax revenue you would have spent sucking methane and use it to pay tropical farmers to preserve the rainforests, rather than grow wheat for cows there. And every person who owns a patch of ground that will grow anything should get their behinds in gear and start turning that patch of earth, every single available cm to garden. Till once, if at all. Use mulch, or seed balls or other low and no till options. Pour every bit of compostable material, including humanure (which fertilized farmer’s fields in the US well into the 1900s and could do it more safely now with good composting techniques and central composting stations in crowded areas), food scraps, garden waste, etc… on the ground and raise the levels of organic matter as high as you can. Raising soil humus levels really does remove carbon from the atmosphere. Will it get us to 30%? No, probably not. But it will get us a fair way, and with far lower chance of extinguishing all human life, wasting billions of dollars and burning up the remaining fossil fuels on stupid solutions.
It is time to stop thinking in terms of putting a heater in the refrigerator, and fix the root problem. Duh.