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Climate: Too much diagnosis, too little prescription

Denis Pombriant
Jun 11, 2019 · 10 min read

Too many climate change writers seem to want to outdo Al Gore who first brought attention to the matter. Gore shared a Nobel Peace Prize with the UN’s IPCC for his effort but those who came later have added a little precision to the estimate but they have not fundamentally changed anything. Now that we know the score, it’s important to move from diagnosis to prescription lest we all sound like a bunch of whining babies. Climate change has solutions, but no one is going to bestow a new environment on us, we’re going to have to work for it starting with plans and prescriptions. This piece points to a forward path away from simple diagnosis and toward workable solutions.

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Cimate diagnoses abound. What’s needed now aare prescriptions based on science.

The climate crisis is eliciting an unusual response for something described as a crisis. It’s not that civilization is doing little to bend the curve away from catastrophe; after all, there have been numerous failed efforts to do something, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreements spearheaded by Barak Obama. But virtually all past agreements have been a bust. Part of the reason might have been a lack of useful technology to bring solutions to life. More on that below.

So far, the human species has done a pretty good job of working through the Elizabeth Kubler-Ross model for the five stages of grief found in her seminal book, “On Death and Dying,”which can be applied to dealing with a calamity like climate change.

If you’re not familiar with the model you can find it here. But most people, I’d venture, have a passing knowledge of the chronology of, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Actually, it might be premature to technically say that we’re dealing with climate change at all because we seem to be stuck in denial. Or are we?

There’s good evidence that some are moving into anger and that’s good because if the human species is going to get through eye of this needle, we don’t want to get all the way to acceptance. We will need a little of Dylan Thomas’ advice: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and instead, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Rage isn’t helpful though

Over on One Zero, Phil Torres has a piece of that rage titled, “It’s Time to Rebel Against the Existential Threat of Climate Change.”I recommend it, not because I agree with it but because of the example it provides.

Based on years of research and extensive writing on the subject, (the rules of this site prevent me from plugging my book, fine) I’d say three things about climate change,

1. The problem is solvable; and

2. The technologies needed to affect solutions have only recently become available; and

3. The situation is reversible

Let me elaborate.

1. The problem is solvable

I would prefer to say that the problem is “not unsolvable” because it indicates an element of human agency needed to make a solution but for clarity we’ll go with the header.

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Too much CO2 from everywhere. Fixing it will require an international solution.

Our condition is primarily one of having too much carbon dioxide in the environment and no effective ways of removing it. Other gasses, like methane, are strong contributors but we conflate the two. Taking carbon out of long-term storage and burning it to put additional carbon into the environment is the principle problem (call this the long carbon cycle).

Methane is often seen as more significant because CH4 is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Too often agriculture is blamed with the prescription that we all need to become vegetarians. But we need solutions that empower people so that they willingly participate in forging a solution. Telling people to do without something is not a winning approach.

The gas industry is at least as big a culprit as commercial agriculture because gas pipelines lose about 10 percent of their freight during the transit. Take a look at your gas bill if you use it. You are billed on product at the wellhead not as it’s delivered to your home, office, or restaurant. There’s not much to do about it because CH4 is such a small molecule that it can pass through the metal of the pipe. The solution is to stop using gas all together, another reason to focus on renewables.

Running on empty

Animals are a smaller part of the problem but there is good news on the pollution front, actually bad news disguised as good news that will save us: We are running out of fossil fuels. The evidence does not come from me but from the US Department of Energy and the IEA of the European Union. The consensus of all parties is that we have about 50 years of oil left in the ground, fewer than 1.687 trillion barrels, assuming we can recover it all. And we have fewer than 477 billion short tons of coal around the world, enough for 100 years if used at the current, declining, rate.

Not to worry, we’ve made excellent strides in renewables which I’ll cover in the next section. If you have any doubts about running out, you need look no further than the once strong link between car companies and petroleum companies. The auto makers have all (literally all) announced plans and in some cases products that bring electric cars to market in quantity in the next few years. Some are already here and they’ll get better.

Car makers know they have optimized the car running an internal combustion engine as much as it can be optimized. From here they need a new paradigm and they don’t want to be left with no products that people can buy because petroleum ran out or got ridiculously expensive. So they’re moving and that’s a big tell.

Range anxiety distorts adoption

As I have written in these pages, making charging stations ubiquitous can at least double the range of EVs and potentially erase anxiety all together. How? If you know your destination has good charging capacity your range expands from 55 miles one way to closer to the capacity of the battery. Fast charging in 30 minutes means you can get lunch, do errands, whatever, and your car will be ready to go when you return.

Achieving that vision will require some changes in society. There are roughly 168,000 gas stations in the US and 133,249 in Europe as of the end of 2016 and one only needs to visit a retailer perhaps twice a week, perhaps more, but the point is that filling up is not a daily thing for most of us and it’s quick. Charging will be different; it will require constant vigilance made somewhat easier by reminders from the car. But all of this brings home the reality that we’ll need to convert at least our largest parking lots to charging stations.

This will all cost money, but it will also create jobs and promote a new industry. Oh, happy day!

Summary for this section

We need a new energy and transportation paradigm. Self-driving cars are spiffy but the real progress in transportation will come from setting up charging networks that make charging ubiquitous and relieve range anxiety. These are the issues holding back a wholesale abandonment of gasoline driving and a rapid decline in tailpipe emissions.

2. The technologies needed to affect solutions have only recently become available

The above discussion is one proof point for this section. An even more important point is the evolution of renewables. Torres’ article, mentioned above, asks why we couldn’t have begun the process of warding off climate change when the scientists first alerted us to the problem 30 years ago. The answers are several but they boil down to human nature, if it ain’t broke… . And disruptive innovation.

People put things off, especially difficult things as we did with climate change.

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Things got bad while we were developing important technologies. But solutions are in hand and deployable.

But thirty years ago, there were no good alternative energy sources that could scale to industrial capacity. For improvements in solar panel efficiency we can thank the computer hardware industry whose relentless 50-year effort to pack as many transistors and other components onto silicon chips as possible finally resulted in chips dense enough to capture photons at commercially interesting rates.

We can’t say the same about wind though as an economic prospect deploying wind turbines is a chicken and egg proposition. You need lots of turbines for a wind farm to be viable because you also need to store the generated power and upload it at the right times. You also have to provide for times when the wind doesn’t blow. All this means there is a lot of additional technology and investment required and it took time for the investment to come along.

There’s also geothermal technology in which a power company harvests heat from deep underground to turn steam turbines. There are commercial deployments already and publicly traded companies doing the deploying but more needs to be done.

Some technologies aren’t here yet, but they are envisioned

We still need to talk about removing some carbon from the environment. There is no shortage of snake oil salesmen willing to sell you a machine that will remove carbon from the air. But what’s difficult, and what you only realize upon closer examination, is what to do with the carbon once captured. Carbon dioxide is a gas at ambient temperatures and that molecule needs to be chemically modified to give us a chance to keep it out of the air.

Various proposals abound but they violate the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which is like the absolute speed limit of energy and matter conversion. Simply put, it takes far, far more energy to un-smoke a cigarette than burning the thing produced. Translation, capturing all that carbon and doing something to stabilize it will bankrupt us from an energy perspective.

What to do?

Green plants are our best hope. They use solar power, absorb CO2 and produce the oxygen that we breathe and the foods that we consume, the wood of our homes, you get the idea. Using green plants has the following shortcomings:

1. There’s no land left for planting green things like trees unless we want to forego eating. There’s no irrigation water either. It’s all spoken for.

2. Green plants are a temporary solution as their output eventually decays or is eaten and turned back to CO2.

But these are good things.

A prescription

Earth is covered mostly by water, i.e. 72 percent. The oceans have everything we need to grow green things except for iron. I recommend we grow phytoplankton, little green plants that form the bottom of the marine food chain. More plankton means more fish and more fish might feed a few billion people alleviating the methane and nutrition problems in the process.

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We’re not sending a billion people to Mars. We need to make solutions here, now.

Experiments have shown that fertilizing the ocean with minute quantities of iron acts as a fertilizer that promotes phytoplankton growth. Some of the plankton eventually sinks to the ocean floor where it remains for millions of years. How do we know this? It’s how all of the petroleum we use today was formed. For instance, one of the greatest oil fields in the continental US is the Permian Basin of West Texas. It was a shallow sea 250 million years to 300 million years ago in the Permian Period.

Growing more food is a good idea but doing this to keep carbon out of the air is a temporary solution, though that’s not all bad. Treating diabetes with insulin is a temporary thing too. People may take insulin multiple times a day, but this turns a lethal disease into a management issue by turning an acute problem into a chronic one. We can do this with climate and carbon removal and we should.

Earth’s biosystems make between 100 billion tons and 115 billion tons of biomass each year. If we could double that output by growing plankton in the ocean we’d remove a decade’s worth of pollution in a decade. Obviously, this means we’d have to stop emitting carbon too.

This should be an R&D project sponsored by the Department of Energy.

Summary for this section

From this section you can see that solving climate change is more complicated than simply reducing emissions. It’s more like solving a Rubik’s Cube. That’s okay. The pieces to the puzzle are falling into place. There really are solutions and what’s needed is not panic but thoughtful innovation.

3. The situation is reversible

Climate change is mutable, it can change. In fact, climate has always been changing from warm and temperate eras to ice ages, climate changes. What’s different this time is the human dimension. Not only are humans a cause of climate change but alleviating its worst effects while supporting the human race’s ability to exist all while the race expands to the reasonable carrying capacity of the planet is a tall order.

We can convert the economy to electricity, and we can remove carbon from the environment, but we also need to stabilize the human population while ensuring both resources and jobs for all people. Energy, transportation, and food are all money-making endeavors and the government should not be in the business of promoting the participants. Government does have a role is setting standards and goals while promoting specific directions. We should be careful in promoting schemes that go out of their way to create jobs because we could ultimately pay for things that private enterprise should pay for.

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Solving climate change is like solving a Rubik’s Cube. Solve all sides at once.

Last word

I know this is long, and I am sorry. My point is that we can’t remain stuck in diagnosis mode forever and we need to do better than offering opinions not backed by research. Solving this Rubik’s Cube of a climate situation is possible but we need to be rational and remember to act locally.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Denis Pombriant

Written by

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Denis Pombriant

Written by

Researcher, author of multiple books including “The Age of Sustainability” about solutions for climate change. Technology, business, economics.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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