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By Jillian Melero, Nov. 15, 2018 –

Climate change is rapidly taking the world as we know it into uncharted territory. What we do next and how quickly we do it can shape the degree to which  changes are catastrophic – with an escalation in wildfires, drought, flooding, food shortages, and severe storms – or advantageous – with investments in renewable energy and innovation. We are seeing some of both already.

The latest report of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in October, gives us a time-frame of 12 years to cut global emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels and stay below the tipping point of 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) global temperature rise. The report was based on the work of 133 scientists and other authors and more than 6,000 peer-reviewed research articles. The Paris Agreement, from which the Trump administration has withdrawn the U.S., set the 1.5-degree limit as an urgent limit in 2015 with the support of 194 countries.

“Everybody talks about the Paris Convention – we can’t heat the Earth more than 1.5 degrees. So what are you gonna do?” asked Columbia University geochemist Wallace Broecker in an interview during October’s annual Comer Abrupt Climate Change Conference in Wisconsin, “Is there a magic switch you pull? Boom! We stop raising CO2 and the Earth cools and it doesn’t warm anymore? Forget it!” Broecker said.

Columbia University climate science veteran Wally Broecker warns there’s no “magic switch” to stop the rise in carbon dioxide emissions. CO2 extraction offers one answer but it’s a “monstrous task.”(Abigail Foerstner/Medill)

The use of fossil fuels, resulting in carbon emissions, and the accumulation of heat-trapping greenhouse gases have already warmed the planet by 1 degree C since pre-industrial times and mostly within the last 50 years. That 1 degree has been significant enough to create a decline in Arctic sea ice, raise sea levels by 8-inches and inundate some island countries, heat the oceans, and increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as powerful hurricanes or the severe drought that fed the California wildfires.

So, what are we gonna do?

According to the IPCC report, stopping the production and consumption of fossil fuels pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is only the first step. Like Broecker, the report states that we’ll also need to find ways to remove existing CO2 to reverse some of the damage that’s already been done. – Here’s what we can do.

The End of Fossil Fuels

The good news? Right now, the U.S. is fully capable of making the transition from fossil fuels to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 with no serious change in the amount of power used.

Eighty to eighty-five percent of the transition to renewables can be accomplished in the next 12 years, according to a study from Stanford researchers published in “Energy and Environmental Science” In 2015. The Wall Street Journal predicts that global fossil fuel use could peak as early as 2025. Mark Z. Jacobson’s study, “100 percent clean and renewable wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) all-sector energy roadmaps for the 50 United States” does what it says and describes energy solutions possible in each of our 50 states. Jacobson also contributed to the development of an interactive map that lists the possibilities for renewable energy by city, state, and even by country available at The Solutions Project.

“If we build a renewable energy system, we now know with pretty high confidence that we can do it. And we can do it at a price that doesn’t bankrupt the economy,” said geologist, and Penn State Geosciences Professor Richard Alley. In fact, Alley sees growth. “I think it is fair to say that if we set out today to do it, what we’d end up with would look very different than what we’d start building. Because there’d be so many new corporations and so many new inventions and we would – people would build things that we can’t now, and it would be fantastic.”

Geologist Richard Alley
Geologist Richard Alley emcees the annual Comer Climate Conference in Wisconsin in October. (Abigail Foerstner/Medill).

Alley is one among many who believe that investment in renewable energies will boost the economy not only through the creation of new clean energy tech jobs but by the innovation of new products and projects that both mitigate the issues of existing climate change and also help individuals take the greatest advantage of a reinvigorated, decentralized energy grid.

“If you have to build a seawall to block the waves from your city, you can build a giant wall and let the waves beat on it or you can think about putting a fleet of wave generators out there and take some of the energy out of the waves and put it into your electric grid. And so, you can see something customized where the waves come in and [people] need to protect their city from the waves, [so] they are building wave generators to do the job. The people who have wind are building [for] wind, the people who have sun are building [for] sun. And you start figuring how to shuttle the electricity around better,” Alley said.

The amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is at nearly 410 parts per million, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ancient air pockets in Antarctic ice cores tell us that carbon dioxide levels never rose above 300 parts per million during the warming spells between the ice ages of the past 1 million years. The “safe level” for atmospheric CO2 is 335 ppm, as established by atmospheric scientist Jim Hansen and others in a 2008 study “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?”

So, how can we take out what we’ve already put in?

“I should say that this taking CO2 out of the air is a monstrous task. One of the people who’s working on this is developing a unit that takes one ton a day out of the atmosphere,” Broecker said.  “If you wanted to take all the CO2 we’re currently producing out of the atmosphere, so we’re putting it in and taking it out at the same time, it would require one hundred MILLION of these units. Each of which would cost the price of a car. They would cover the entire area of Arizona. Now think of that. Think of Arizona with these units spaced at about 100 feet apart – 100 million. Of course, they wouldn’t all be in Arizona, but somebody would have to give up land that could be used for something else, to do this.”

Of course, the prospects for scrubbing up CO2 would be a lot more feasible if we weren’t continuing to produce so much of it at the same time. And having a fully realized clean energy grid will also take time, work, and investment. And we need some grit as well as grid.

“There really needs to be something like the Fed, that controls CO2,” Broecker said.  “This would be an international group that’s free of politics. And they make the decisions of how we go about dealing with this. And it’s going to be tough, they’re going to have to be able to tax the world.”

A CO2 tax has been one of the major policy change-makers called for by one of this year’s winners of the Nobel Prize, economist William Nordhaus. And while “taxing the world” is a daunting prospect, the upside for any tax is that the money can be used toward public works and public goods, such as paying for pricey CO2 scrubbers or building clean energy infrastructure and spurring new technology innovations which will pay off dividends. Climate economists have estimated that investing in sustainable practices, policy, renewable energy technology and infrastructure now, the global economy can save approximately 26 trillion dollars by 2030 in climate costs associated with disasters such as flooding, drought and hurricanes.

“Right now, to improve the economy [takes us] in the same direction as ‘improve the environment,” Alley said “It is the same direction actually based on what’s out there as getting more jobs. Jobs are less certain, but more employment is in the same direction as more environment, in the same direction as bigger economy, in the same direction as better national security. That’s one of these powerful things. You will meet the person who says, ‘We can’t afford to deal with this’ and the economist would say, ‘You can’t afford not to.’”

Photo at top: Lightweight magnesium car bodies are under development at the Center for Materials Research at Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht. Lightweight vehicles require less fuel for propulsion. Geesthacht, Germany. (Jillian Melero/Medill)

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