Buying Time In The Climate Crisis

17:00 minutes

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In the context of climate change, geoengineering refers to deliberate, large-scale manipulations of the planet to slow the effects of human-induced global warming—whether by removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it safely, or altering the atmosphere to reflect the amount of incoming sunlight that is absorbed as heat.

But neither strategy is uncomplicated to deploy. Carbon capture is expensive and is often used to enhance fossil fuel extraction, not to actually reduce emissions. Meanwhile, altering our atmosphere would require maintenance indefinitely until we actually reduce emissions—that, or risk a whiplash of warming that plants could not adapt to. 

UCLA researcher Holly Buck is the author of a new book that examines these complexities. She explains to Ira why geoengineering could still be a valid strategy for buying time while we reduce emissions, and why any serious deployment of geoengineering technology would require a re-imagining of society as well.

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Segment Guests

Holly Jean Buck

Holly Jean Buck is a NatureNet postdoctoral fellow with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles. She’s based in Los Angeles, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. If you’ve been following the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard that Australia is on fire. Record climate crisis heat has led to millions of acres burning, tens of thousands of people evacuating, while a region twice the size of New Hampshire has already been scorched, and no sign of the fires stopping soon. Which brings us to climate change and lots of talk about lowering emissions of carbon dioxide by adopting clean energy, fossil free vehicles, lower meat consumption, and more.

But those efforts to lower CO2 levels are not working well. CO2 levels hit a record high last year. My next guest wants us to look more closely at another proposition– geoengineering– intervening in the Earth’s natural climate system and inserting our own projects to lower the global warming by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, locking it up in the ground, or perhaps put particles in the air that would reflect sunlight and lower the greenhouse effect.

But there are only a few dozen carbon capture facilities in operation. And atmospheric geoengineering needs much, much, much more research. And as my guest points out, embarking on large scale geoengineering is more than an equation of should we. It’s also a question of what does the world look like after we commit to it. Here to unpack that is Dr. Holly Buck, postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and author of the new book After Geoengineering. Welcome back to Science Friday, Holly.

HOLLY BUCK: Thanks so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. We haven’t even decided, right, that geoengineering is a valid strategy for climate change. So why write about after when we still don’t have a before?

HOLLY BUCK: Right, great question. I mean, we haven’t even got the information that would allow us to decide. So the after of after geoengineering is I wanted to shine a light on the commitment of this. Because it’s not just turning on a device, flipping a switch. It’s a real commitment. It’s a centuries long project. And so deciding to start it is a bit like deciding to get married, but the hard work is really choosing your spouse forever. It’s this relationship that needs to be maintained. And so we need to do the research thinking about the duration of that intervention.

IRA FLATOW: And then I just described a couple of tactics for climate geoengineering. At their simplest, it’s removing carbon and blocking the sun. How advanced in the research phase are we into in these methods?

HOLLY BUCK: So with solar geoengineering, we’ve had about a decade of modeling studies. That’s inadequate for answering the questions that we want to know. A lot of scientists think it would take two to three decades of dedicated funded research to begin to answer some of the key questions about what the risks would be, what the impacts would be. With carbon removal, there’s been a lot more progress. And it’s actually looking pretty encouraging.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us how that works. Walk us through how carbon removal or a sequestration, as they call it, would work.

HOLLY BUCK: Right. There’s a lot of terminology for this. You might have heard of carbon removal, drawdown, negative emissions technologies. These are umbrella terms that are talking about removing carbon from the atmosphere. And basically, it can be stored biologically in ecosystems, such as forests, soils, or geologically deep underground.

IRA FLATOW: And so you would just suck– basically, you have a giant pipe that sucks the CO2 out of the air and then locks it up?

HOLLY BUCK: So there’s two kind of big technologies for geologic disposal side. One is something called direct air capture, which is building machines that do that. I mean, they have contact with the air. Then the carbon dioxide needs to be transported somewhere, and it needs to be injected deep underground. So it’s really a whole system of carbon capture, transport, and storage. The other big scale technology is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage or growing biomass, combusting it in a power plant, separating out the CO2 and putting that underground. And both of those rely on carbon capture and storage technologies.

IRA FLATOW: Because I’ve also heard about methods that we could use the soil itself to lock up CO2 if we just improved the soil.

HOLLY BUCK: We can, and that has a lot of enthusiasm right now and a lot of potential. And part of the context for why people are so excited about that is that the world’s soils, they hold more than double the carbon that’s in the atmosphere. And they’ve also lost a lot of carbon. One-third of the world’s topsoil is degraded. North American farmland, in particular, has lost about half of its natural endowment of soil carbon.

So people look at that and they think, well, what if we just put the carbon back into the soil and hold it there? And this is a great strategy, especially in terms of thinking of things like climate change adaptation, so having soils with better water retention, more nutrients. Soil health is really important. However, it’s not a silver bullet solution for climate change.

IRA FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a phone call or two in here. 844-724-8255 is our number. 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us at @scifri. So you said before that the carbon capture is a lot further along in development than the aerosol, the reflection of sunlight. Tell us why that is and what the idea behind the sunlight is.

HOLLY BUCK: So the sunlight reflection methods the basic concept is to block a fraction of incoming sunlight, a percentage or two, which would cool the planet, either by putting aerosols, tiny particles, into the upper atmosphere, probably using specially designed high altitude aircraft. And scientists have talked a lot about using sulfur because when volcanoes erupt, the sulfur dioxide is released in their plumes. So there’s kind of an analog for it.

And you have to imagine a small air fleet dedicated to this project. This particle of precursors have to be continually flown up there year after year. And then the other idea which has received even less research is something called marine cloud brightening, so trying to make clouds brighter and more reflective.

IRA FLATOW: You know, that– and we’re really– that would really be an experiment, right? Anything to do with geoengineering about the sun, we have no experience doing any of that, do we?

HOLLY BUCK: No, we have basically observations from volcanoes. But there’s a lot of possible negative impacts there.

IRA FLATOW: And that is one of the questions you have to deal with, not just the research but the political implications, the social implications that we have really no– we’re right on the edge of that.

HOLLY BUCK: Yeah, I think the governance challenges are, in many ways, more difficult than the technical ones.

IRA FLATOW: Because I remember years ago going down to Florida to watch experiments in cloud seeding to make it rain from the clouds in Florida. They had a lot of clouds. That was a good place to test it out. And the scientists I talked to said, well, they’ve stopped the program now. And I said why? And he said because the politicians are not sure where it’s going to rain if we make it rain, and then they’re worried about it, sort of the same thing here.

HOLLY BUCK: And yeah, there’s also been legal cases about making it rain in one place and stakeholders bringing lawsuits in another place. So a lot to untangle, but I think we need to start thinking about international scale governance for these techniques.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because you get to a point where we have reached a tipping point where we have to do something, right? We’re not 50 years ago where we can just think about it anymore.

HOLLY BUCK: Yeah, and there’s a growing awareness of this, particularly in the wake of the last IPCC Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change special report on limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. They point out that all scenarios that limit warming to 1.5 Celsius or 2.7 Fahrenheit project the use of carbon removal, many of them at a fairly large scale. So in a sense, we’re already relying on these technologies that don’t yet exist.

IRA FLATOW: There are critics of the carbon removal and carbon capture who say, you know who’s behind this, is the fossil fuel companies. Because they don’t want to stop burning fossil fuels so they’ll just try to promote a way of sucking it out of the atmosphere. Well, how do you answer that?

HOLLY BUCK: I think that’s probably true. They’re the ones that are best positioned to do so because they have 40 years of expertise in injecting CO2 underground. They have the technology for doing that. So there’s this huge question of what should the role of the fossil fuel companies be. Could they be transitioned to carbon storage or carbon removal companies instead?

IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones, 844-724-8255, to Oakland with Michael. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

MICHAEL: Hi. So direct air capture seems like the most attractive way to do this possible. And I’ve been pleased to see just in the last couple of years, it seems like there’s been a lot of startups with significant capital that have gotten into this game. They’re all doing it on tiny, tiny scales and with a ton of money behind them, though. Are we really getting close to a point where this could be remotely economically feasible? It seems like even with a significant price on carbon, it would be really difficult to get people just sucking CO2 directly out of the air, which would be the cleanest possible way to go about this thing.

IRA FLATOW: Good question. Holly?

HOLLY BUCK: Yeah, it’s important for people to understand that right now, the big market in CO2 is enhanced oil recovery or injecting CO2 underground to get more oil out, which is not an optimal use case if the goal is solving climate change. But so we’ve seen the announcement of the first large scale direct air capture facility planned for the Permian Basin in Texas with carbon engineering as the company and sponsored in partnership with Occidental Petroleum Low Carbon Ventures, kind of a venture capital arm of this fossil fuel company. And that would be the use case, is enhanced oil recovery. So that’s the initial market.

And so the question, like Michael pointed out, is, what’s the other sources of funding for this? It’s really hard to see it without, at a large scale, without large scale public funding, which is why that people need to know about carbon removal in order to think about, should we be demanding these technologies? Should we be spending significant public resources on them?

IRA FLATOW: Well, people need to feel that it’s a real threat, right? That this is not something you balance a balance sheet on. What is the alternative to living on the planet? How much is it worth to spend to try to keep the planet alive?

HOLLY BUCK: Yeah, I mean, in Australia, like you pointed out, 15 million acres burned. That’s the size of West Virginia this year. And that’s at one degree of warming. So it’s not looking great.

IRA FLATOW: Now it’s summertime in Australia. But then again, it’ll be summertime in out west in America, and we’ll have the Western states burning, too, so it’s not isolated to just Australia.

HOLLY BUCK: Yeah, there’s no real optimal solution anymore. We’re kind of in an era of hard choices.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to take a couple of more questions if we can. Marty in Ellensburg, Virginia. Hi, Marty.

MARTY: Hi, it’s Ellensburg, Washington–

IRA FLATOW: I’m sorry.

MARTY: –but that’s OK.

IRA FLATOW: My glasses are dirty.

MARTY: So I’m just wondering if we’re trying to collect solar to keep it from heating everything up what about using just a bunch of solar panels everywhere? Because doesn’t that limit how much of the sun is reflected back?

IRA FLATOW: Interesting. She’s thinking– thinking about it.

HOLLY BUCK: Well, yeah, I haven’t heard that angle before. There’s one term for solar radiation management, which is albedo modification. And there would be a significant modification of the albedo.

IRA FLATOW: That’s reflection.

HOLLY BUCK: But generally to reflect the sunlight vacuum [INAUDIBLE] white albedo. One thing about solar panels is we do need to scale them up immensely because if we wanted to do large scale direct air capture, it would need to be powered by renewable energy and in particular, solar energy. Possibly nuclear energy, it looked like the best candidates for that, and at a very large scale.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about carbon capture and solar with Holly Buck, author of After Geoengineering. Let me see if I get another call in before we have to go. Bob in Lawrence, Kansas. Hi, Bob.

BOB: Hi. Happy new year, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You, too.

BOB: Coming from the wheat state, I’ve read quite a bit about the potential impact of geoengineering, changing the albedo of the atmosphere on crop yields. Can you comment a little bit about that, what you have come across? And also, they have geoengineering that they can implement in oceans with sequestration of carbon in the oceans.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’ve heard about the oceans ascending at way down below when it turns into a solid and it stays there for a long time. What about the crops, Holly?

HOLLY BUCK: Yeah, there’s been some initial studies on crop yields, far from what’s conclusive, I think. Part of the reason why it’s tricky is because you’re thinking about it in reference to these other climate change scenarios. So if you’re growing crops in a geoengineered world without removing carbon, you have this carbon fertilization effect, so more growth from the increased carbon in the atmosphere. And how does that balance? There’s a lot of changes about the hydrological cycle that are also not too well understood yet.

But in terms of ocean geoengineering, that’s been something that’s been of persistent interest to a small few. One of the ideas there is ocean iron fertilization. So would it be possible to put nutrients into the ocean like iron that would grow a plankton bloom and have that plankton sink down to the bottom of the ocean? This is another kind of risky fringe idea. Scientists aren’t really researching it too much right now.

IRA FLATOW: But we are at the point, it sounds like, we are willing to look at any option because with the crisises getting so bad. Wouldn’t you agree?

HOLLY BUCK: I think we should be willing to look at things. But I think we need a structured systematic federal research program so that we are looking not just for the things that work, but all the ways things might not work, too, and identifying particular showstoppers.

IRA FLATOW: And we don’t have that. Do we have any proposals for that? Is anybody speaking out about that, besides you?

HOLLY BUCK: Well, yeah, the National Academy has actually has been doing a study for a couple of years on developing a research agenda for solar geoengineering. That should be out in the summer of 2020, and it’ll make recommendations about what a federal research program would look like. They’ve already completed a report on carbon removal. And so people have thought about the questions that need to be answered. We just need to fund that research.

IRA FLATOW: And we need more– you’ve written books and fiction. It sounds like you’re saying we need more imaginative thinking.

HOLLY BUCK: We really do. Because when you see these lines on a graph with these levels of degrees and emissions, it’s really hard to picture what it feels like to be a person living in those futures. And the main thing here is the choices aren’t just about which technology or how many degrees, but about the social organization of these technologies, who participates in shaping them, who profits. Whether these technologies even work as intended is dependent upon these social choices. And we need imagination to think through all of that.

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Because after all, we are a capitalist society. And any decision we make will be about the money.

HOLLY BUCK: Right now.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I want to thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today. Dr. Holly Buck is a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA’s Institute on the Environment and Sustainability, author of a book– a great read– After Geoengineering. Have a happy new year to you, Holly.

HOLLY BUCK: Thanks so much. Happy new year.

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