The first of five articles I wrote about iron fertilization of the oceans for Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Oceanus magazine is online. It’s an overview of the issue from scientific, environmental, economic, and regulatory angles. The other four articles look into each of those angles in a bit more detail and should be online soon.
Iron fertilization of the oceans is a form of geoengineering, a controversial idea that humans can intentionally alter the Earth to make it more hospitable. Critics assail geoengineering as unethical, arrogant, and just begging for tragic side-effects. Proponents counter that the human race has been unintentionally altering the Earth for centuries, so we might as well use some forethought for a change. It’s the stuff of epic arguments, but the fact that it’s even under discussion points at the bigger issue. Climate change has us in a deep hole, and we are furiously digging:
- Every time you burn through a 15-gallon tank of gas, you put about 300 pounds of carbon dioxide into the air.
- The world currently emits more than 7 billion tons of carbon every year.
- That’s about 25 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or enough to raise atmospheric CO2 by nearly two parts per million every year (roughly speaking, and that’s after accounting for the tendency of ocean and land to take up about half of what we emit).
- Before the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO2 was about 280 p.p.m. Now it’s around 380. The most optimistic long-term scenarios talk about stabilizing levels at 560 p.p.m. (double the pre-industrial levels).
- The remarkably successful E.U. Emissions Trading Scheme last year traded about 430 million tons of carbon emissions equivalents, or one-fourteenth of the problem, assuming all the accounting and regulation was done correctly, which is kind of a big assumption.
- Emissions reductions are still emissions, and they will continue to accumulate in the atmosphere as long as they are above zero.
- Early climate models were criticized for including unrealistic emissions scenarios that environmentalists had trumped up to make the predictions more scary. Looking back, our actual emissions have pegged at the highest of those estimates, according to David Keith of the University of Calgary.
- Even if the U.S. gets its act together and joins Europe to cut emissions, there are roughly two billion Indians and Chinese getting ready to go car shopping. If those people were to match current American levels of car ownership (more than one car per American), global oil demand would more than triple, Elizabeth Kolbert recently reported in the New Yorker.
- And though we’re not making a ton of progress on alternative fuels, we keep finding more petroleum to burn. Kolbert also recently described the oil sand boom in Alberta, Canada. It has the potential to supply 1.7 trillion barrels of “synthetic crude” oil (yippee!). Worse, the procedure is energy intensive, putting each barrel’s total emissions tab at up to 140 percent that of straight-from-the-well oil.
So while changing light bulbs and carrying groceries in canvas tote bags and driving something smaller than a rhinoceros are great starts, they’re not really getting us anywhere near a solution. That’s why people are talking about iron fertilization and putting sulfur particles into the atmosphere. But just like in Carlos Moffat‘s favorite Seinfeld episode, anytime you find yourself doing something so crazy that it requires a helmet, it may be time to rethink.
Enter the carbon tax: What a concept: paying for producing an undesirable waste product. I mean, we pay to have our trash picked up. Every time we replace car tires we pay to have the old ones disposed of. Every homeowner pays a sewage bill.
Opponents cite the strain such a pervasive tax would place on the economy. Everything we buy that uses petroleum as a material or during shipping would get more expensive. The costs would multiply and suddenly everyday Americans wouldn’t be able to afford their (seemingly) modest lifestyles. We would find ourselves having to make dramatic changes in the way we live, eat, shop.
But then again, isn’t that the point? As long as riding a bike to work seems like a noble deed, many of us are happy to stop there and feel good about ourselves. But if we finally make burning carbon cost something, people and industries will start to make changes on their own, simply out of service to their bottom line. No idealism required.
(Image: New York Times)