Actions have consequences. But sometimes, unfortunately, it can be far easier to initiate the action than to understand the consequences.
Take, for example, our wasteful, profligate, wanton extraction and burning of fossil fuels over the last 200 years.
In the process, we produced massive amounts of energy that created jobs, ran factories, built cities, and grew fortunes.
At the same time, however, we ran roughshod over individual rights, uprooted communities, destroyed ecosystems, and left countless workers poisoned, injured, or dead.
And what we also didn’t know, until just recently, was that we were inadvertently changing our planet’s atmospheric and oceanic chemical makeup at a rate that far exceeded what would occur under “natural” conditions, that is, without input from our industrial processes.
Finding all that coal, oil, and natural gas to burn was not easy, of course. It took a lot of work and a lot of intelligence and a lot of years. But the tragic irony is that the problems we created during all that time will be much more difficult to solve than they were to create.
Compared to what we have to do now to recover, the efforts expended during the last two centuries of digging and drilling and burning seem easy.
But is it really going to be that hard to reverse the cycle of global warming, you might ask? After all, if we made the mess with our ingenuity and our technology, can’t we use the same brains to clean it up?
Albert Einstein once said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.” And he also said, “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”
He was referring, in general, to the problems of atomic war and nuclear proliferation. But his observations apply equally well to global warming.
This contrast between easy and hard was made quite explicit a few days ago when two articles about geoengineering were published on the Web within a few hours of each other.
In the first, from John Collins Rudolf on the New York Times Green blog, we got a superficially cheerful, even optimistic overview of all the new solutions being proposed—complete with a pretty illustration that made everything seem just peachy:
For eternally upbeat technophiles and other dreamers, this is an ideal prescription. Got a problem? Don’t worry, more technology can fix it! Easy!
But on the very same day, at Joe Romm’s excellent Climate Progress blog, we learned that at least one of the proposed “easy answers” ain’t necessarily so:
Now comes a new study in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering, “Sequestering carbon dioxide in a closed underground volume,” by Christene Ehlig-Economides, professor of energy engineering at Texas A&M, and Michael Economides, professor of chemical engineering at University of Houston. Here are its blunt findings:
Published reports on the potential for sequestration fail to address the necessity of storing CO2 in a closed system. Our calculations suggest that the volume of liquid or supercritical CO2 to be disposed cannot exceed more than about 1% of pore space. This will require from 5 to 20 times more underground reservoir volume than has been envisioned by many, and it renders geologic sequestration of CO2 a profoundly non-feasible option for the management of CO2 emissions.
The study concludes:
In applying this to a commercial power plant the findings suggest that for a small number of wells the areal extent of the reservoir would be enormous, the size of a small US state. Conversely, for more moderate size reservoirs, still the size of Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay reservoir, and with moderate permeability there would be a need for hundreds of wells. Neither of these bodes well for geological CO2 sequestration and the findings of this work clearly suggest that it is not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others.
Ugh. One of the most promising solutions for combatting greenhouse gases turns out to be “not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction.”
Romm goes on to say:
We need to put in place 12 to 14 “stabilization wedges” by mid-century to avoid a multitude of catastrophic climate impact. For CCS to be even one of those would require a flow of CO2 into the ground equal to the current flow of oil out of the ground. That would require, by itself, re-creating the equivalent of the planet’s entire oil delivery infrastructure, no mean feat. But any significant amount of leakage would render CCS pointless.
So the easy solution is not so easy after all.
The choices we will have to make in this decade and the next as we struggle to avert catastrophic ecological disaster will, in fact, be extremely difficult. Emerging technologies may be able to help, but understanding the full consequences of what we are doing—especially if large-scale efforts at geoengineering are undertaken—will be extraordinarily challenging.
The siren call of technology—shiny, new, and exciting—can be alluring and seductive. But don’t be fooled into thinking that developing and wisely applying all those promising new tools will be a simple matter. Alas, ‘human wisdom’ often seems to be an oxymoron.
Looking back, it seems that Anton Chekov had it right when he said in 1899:
Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wildlife’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.
Have we learned anything in the century since Chekov wrote those words? Are we ready to start learning now?