It has been obvious to most scientists for decades that the human use of fossil fuels is affecting the Earth’s climate. Carl Sagan testified before Congress back in 1985 that if a nuclear war could cool the planet into a so-called “nuclear winter” from soot produced by the burning of targeted cities, the buildup of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would certainly warm it. Sagan was an expert in planetary atmospheres, having discovered the runaway greenhouse effect on Venus in 1962 where the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere resulted in surface temperatures of 800 degrees F. He feared Earth could suffer a similar fate. James Hansen at NASA and Michael Mann of Penn State also started raising alarms in the 1980s.
Some politicians were also concerned about the climate. Tennessee Governor Al Gore made climate change an issue in his first run for President in 1988, although as Gore himself has said, he was preaching to a choir that had not yet been assembled. He gained more influence as Vice President in the Clinton administration, where President Bill Clinton famously stated, “The science is clear and compelling: We humans are changing the global climate.” Gore has since become a significant climate spokesperson starting with his subsequent presidential run in 2000 and in the following two decades. Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden have also been strong proponents of the need to address human-induced or “anthropogenic” climate change, and even George W. Bush has acknowledged that it is a concern. The only one who has not is Donald Trump.
This leads us into the so-called “climate debate.” Politicians like Trump, many of his followers, and certain invested business people continue to claim that the notion of humans affecting climate is nothing but hyperbole. Trump called it a “Chinese hoax,” which feeds a conservative narrative that U.S. environmentalists have been duped by a Chinese diversionary tactic to convince the energy sector to cut back on coal and oil while capturing and sequestering carbon dioxide and constructing “zero carbon” wind turbines and solar farms. As a result, expensive U.S. electricity makes U.S. products more costly and less competitive. In the meantime, China supposedly laughs at us while they merrily burn coal to generate cheap electricity and blow us out of the water economically with their low-priced manufactured goods.
The numbers don’t actually support this myth. U.S. natural gas-fired electricity generated in combined cycle powerplants is 50% more efficient and as such significantly cheaper than electricity generated from coal. The development of U.S. shale resources by fracking in the first two decades of the 21st Century created abundant domestic supplies of natural gas. Because of these favorable economics, many U.S. utilities switched over from coal to natural gas for electric power generation, creating a boom for the shale gas producers and causing economic havoc in the coal industry. (All fossil fuel is bad for the environment, but natural gas is less bad than coal.) China generates most of their electricity from coal because they have relatively small reserves of natural gas. There are substantial shale gas resources in southern China but these have been challenging to develop. As an additional cost, China is forced to import a significant amount of coal to keep its economy running. The country also constantly fights electricity shortages, building new power plants at a frantic pace. On the whole, kilowatt for kilowatt, U.S. electricity is actually cheaper than Chinese electricity.
As for low-priced Chinese goods, according to the World Bank, the 2019 GDP in U.S. dollars for the three largest national economies shows that the #1 U.S. economy eclipses #2 China by more than the entire GDP of #3 Japan. China has more than four times the population of the U.S., so their lower GDP is divided among many more people, resulting in a per capita income quite a bit less than ours. The Chinese economic juggernaut is driven not by cheap fossil energy, as claimed by Trump, but by cheap labor.
Some of the “climate skeptics” (they dislike the term “climate deniers”) have attempted to take a scientific rather than an economic approach. They declare that any change in the climate is a natural event that has nothing to do with the combustion of fossil fuels and any carbon dioxide emissions that may be coming from humans are insignificant. There are scientific-sounding statements that the elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are beneficial for increasing the yields of corn and other crops (which is not true; fertilizer works better, and even if it was true the crop losses from climate-related droughts and floods are far more substantial than any gains). Claims that greenhouse warming slows down and even stops at higher CO2 concentrations fly in the face of satellite data showing that it gets worse. Other debunked assertions state that the current warming trend is “good” for humans (when anthropological evidence suggests that it is not), and over timescales of tens of millions of years, the current high CO2 levels are not that unusual (true, although when compared to the last 400,000 years, including four major ice ages and associated interglacial periods they are off the charts).
Climate skeptics with scientific degrees provide a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the climate science denial arguments. The issue is often presented as being biased in favor of climate change activists, with a call for a more “balanced” approach to invoke a notion of fairness. The news media will often buy into this notion of allowing equal time for arguments on both sides, even though one side has considerably more evidence than the other. Climate skeptics will also promote a sense of uncertainty about the validity of the data and urge caution about not jumping to conclusions with so much that is unknown. Their arguments often finish off with a claim that “the science is not settled” in response to climate scientists supposedly saying that it is.
This is by no means a typical scientific debate. For starters, no legitimate scientist would ever claim the science is “settled” because it never is. There is always an opportunity for new data to come in that upsets the apple cart. The only actual rule in science is “honor the data.” Scientists tend to be a disagreeable bunch, playing devil’s advocate with each other and trying to find the holes and flaws in someone’s well-crafted hypothesis. This is exactly how the scientific method is supposed to work. Humans are remarkably good at convincing themselves of things. The role of the scientific community is to review those claims, test them out experimentally, see if the results are repeatable and then, just maybe the original interpretation could be considered to be correct. Until someone else comes along with new data that change everything.
Some readers might remember the hoopla a few years back over an engineering process called “cold fusion” that was supposed to produce nuclear energy by tightly binding hydrogen atoms chemically inside a metal matrix until they fused. Many scientists were skeptical when the scientific article was first published, because at the time the only way humans knew how to make hydrogen fusion was with the intense heat and pressure of an atomic explosion. However, the authors were given the benefit of the doubt because they were established researchers working at a major university, and the article had been peer-reviewed prior to publication. A number of research labs set out to duplicate the experimental design described in the paper with the intent of reproducing the results. There was a great deal of excitement because actual cold fusion would definitely be a breakthrough energy technology. Unfortunately, no one else could get it to work. It turned out that the original research contained some serious measurement errors and flawed experiments. The paper had created a great deal of interest when initially released, and the authors became world-famous, which seemed to be their motivation. However, once the facts caught up to them, they were forced to withdraw the paper from publication under the firestorm of recriminations that followed. The authors were accused of rushing the article into print to try cashing in on the technology and they suffered significant professional disgrace within the scientific community as a result.
It is important to understand that the evidence supporting human-induced climate change is strong, and the evidence against it is weak. Scientific skeptics have reviewed the data, repeated the observations, and re-run the models, only to end up reaching similar conclusions. The experiments were rigorous, careful, and robust. The results were obvious, clear, internally consistent, and reproducible. Those are all the hallmarks of good science. New evidence that continues to come in supports the reality of anthropogenic climate change. The science is not “settled” by any means but as Clinton said, it is “clear and compelling.” The strongest scientific theories are the ones that have been tested and re-tested and found to hold up over time. Things like Relativity, the Laws of Motion, Thermodynamics, and Evolution all became established after decades of tests. Climate change has also been through this testing. If it were indeed a hoax, a cold fusion-level of ruckus would have been raised by the scientific community over such false information. Those who insist that they are skeptical about climate science have ulterior motives. It is not the science, because the science was done right.
If the “scientific” climate skeptics produced solid scientific evidence showing that links between fossil energy, greenhouse gas, and the climate crisis do not exist, climate scientists would readily change their minds because the scientific method always honors the data. So far, however, no convincing data have been forthcoming. The skeptics, most of whom have either direct or indirect ties to the fossil fuel industry, whine that the arguments they do try to present are dismissed or covered up by mainstream science. The claim of a cover-up is a standard tactic for conspiracy theories and a poor excuse. It is far more likely that their arguments were dismissed because of weak evidence, questionable methods, and unsupported conclusions. Cover-ups are usually attempts to hold onto money or power and climate had neither of these when the problem was first publicized. All the money and power back then was with the fossil fuel industry. So which side has an incentive here to cover up something?
Pseudo-technical babble from climate skeptics and the notion of “equal time for both sides” pursued relentlessly by the media only serve to confuse the public. The ordinary person on the street wonders if climate change actually poses a problem or not. If so, are humans causing it? Should we do something about it? The confusion produces uncertainty, with some people supporting it and some opposed. It gets tribal, with folks choosing sides and falling into different camps. These divisions cause politicians to dither over climate policy decisions that might alienate groups of voters. The decision ends up being “not to decide” and the issue is put off for a future date. Thus, the status quo is preserved, and the fossil fuel industry continues to sell their products at a profit. This is the root cause of the “climate debate.” Ask yourself why there have been 27 United Nations COP climate summits at last count. Why was this all not resolved at COP #1? Instead there have been 26 more years of dependence on fossil fuel.
An organized effort by the fossil fuel industry and certain conservative groups is attempting to discredit climate science using $64 million in annual funds received from 140 different conservative foundations, who generally conceal donations through the use of donor-directed philanthropies. The money goes to think tanks and institutes that use tactics developed for the tobacco industry (by some of them, as a matter of fact) to convince the American public that climate change is neither real nor serious. Like the fossil fuel industry, the tobacco industry was fully aware of the hazards of their products but created enough uncertainty and doubt to maintain robust cigarette sales until governments finally addressed secondhand smoke and banned indoor smoking, prompting many people to quit. Thus, anyone who believes that “climate change is a hoax” should also remember that “4 out of 5 doctors smoke [insert brand name here] cigarettes.”
One of the recipients of this anti-climate funding is the Heartland Institute, an Illinois-based think tank that has moved to the forefront of climate skepticism after downplaying the health hazards of tobacco in the 1990s. It views climate change as a conspiracy by world governments to control people’s lives. “The global climate agenda, as promoted by the United Nations, is to overhaul the entire global economy, usher in socialism, and forever transform society as one in which individual liberty and economic freedom are crushed,” reads an event description for a recent climate skeptics conference sponsored by the institute. Another conservative institute that is at the forefront of climate skepticism is the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. Their approach is generally a bit softer, asserting that we don't really understand all the uncertainties of climate and have no hard data to show just how much warming the increase in greenhouse gas emissions will actually induce. According to Heritage, government policy is supposedly being based on "unrealistic" worst-case scenarios by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and climate skepticism serves as an "antibody to flawed assumptions and preconceptions."
By the way, one of these so-called “flawed assumptions and preconceptions” of the IPCC is that humanity is driving off a cliff and while there is still time to stop, we had better hit the brakes real soon. The IPCC recommends doing two things to stabilize the climate: 1) stop using fossil fuel by mid-century and 2) remove 730 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air by 2100. These tasks are formidable, but not impossible.
In the early 1990s, an organization called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), representing the oil and coal industries engaged a guy named E. Bruce Harrison to build a campaign sowing doubt about the science of climate change. Harrison's previous successes included discrediting research on the toxicity of pesticides for the chemical industry, discounting the hazards of smoking for the tobacco industry, and campaigning against tougher emissions standards for the auto industry. His public relations firm was considered one of the best. The tactics he developed for GCC included claims that the science was unsettled and that reducing fossil fuel use would negatively affect American jobs, trade and prices. This latter point has actually been adopted by economists who call it the “social cost of carbon” and they have been debating for years about how various national economies might be adversely affected by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Harrison specifically sought to engage a wide range of experts in his campaign who were scientists, economists, and academics because of their higher credibility compared to industry representatives.
Has it worked? You be the judge: Forty years after scientists began raising the alarm about fossil fuel combustion leading to human-induced climate change, our energy economy is still 80% to 90% powered by fossil fuel. Most of the electricity (70%) in the United States is generated by natural gas or coal. In China, 80% of the electricity comes from coal. Only 2% of vehicles in the world are electric; the other 98% still burn petroleum. A large percentage of the world population uses natural gas for heating, cooking, and hot water. An even larger percentage, primarily in places like China and India burn coal directly for heating and cooking. The goal of the fossil fuel industry is to continue to profit from fossil fuel. Expecting the fossil fuel industry to stop selling gasoline is like expecting the dairy industry to ban ice cream.
Should we be concerned about all this fossil fuel combustion affecting climate? In a word, yes. The physics of climate change are simple and straightforward and have been understood for nearly two centuries. Anyone who has ever walked barefoot on the beach on a sunny summer afternoon knows that the sun heats the Earth’s surface. The process is called insolation and the amount of solar heating at mid-latitudes can be greater than 300 watts per square meter during summer daylight hours. French physicist Joseph Fourier discovered back in 1824 that short wavelengths of infrared radiation (IR) from the sun penetrate the atmosphere and heat the Earth. This heat energy from the warm Earth is then re-radiated back into space as longer IR wavelengths. Fourier found that carbon dioxide (CO2) was transparent to the shorter incoming wavelengths of IR but absorbs the longer outgoing IR wavelengths radiated back from the ground. Thus, the atmosphere is warmed from below by heat radiated from the Earth and not from above by the sun. This is why the temperature of the air decreases with altitude and high mountain peaks are perpetually snow covered. The atmospheric temperature gradient is also responsible for the condensation of clouds in the sky and rainfall from those clouds.
Fourier referred to the atmospheric warming process as the “hothouse” effect, an old term for the glass-covered buildings we now call greenhouses. He determined that CO2 acted to trap heat in a manner similar to the glass windows of a greenhouse. Thus, CO2 and other heat-trapping gases such as methane (CH4) and water vapor (H2O) are called greenhouse gases or GHG. Fourier understood that some level of GHG in the atmosphere was necessary to hold in heat at night and prevent temperatures on the Earth from plunging below freezing even in the tropics after sunset. His claims about the heat-trapping properties of carbon dioxide were verified experimentally by American physicist Eunice Foote in 1857 and confirmed for additional gases a few years later by John Tyndall in Ireland. This is not new science.
The concentrations of CO2 and other GHG in the atmosphere vary naturally over geologic time periods. Low levels of CO2 typically correlate with an ice age, whereas higher levels coincide with warmer, “interglacial” periods. Air bubbles trapped deep in the ice sheets of Antarctica have provided miniature samples of ancient atmospheres. An analysis of these bubbles in drill cores from the thickest ice near the Russian Vostok Base show that CO2 levels in the atmosphere ranged from about 200 to 300 parts per million (ppm) over the last 650,000 years as volcanoes erupted, rocks weathered, and forests bloomed.
At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th Century, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere were around 280 ppm. As fossil fuel use increased, especially after the Second World War, GHG levels in the atmosphere increased with it. As of 2022, carbon dioxide concentrations had reached 420 ppm, a 50% increase above pre-industrial levels. Parts per million sounds like a small amount and it is. Climate skeptics claim that the concentrations are far too low to have any effect on climate, and indeed translating the historical carbon dioxide ranges into percentages shows that it only makes up 0.02% to 0.03% of the air. Even our current high stand of CO2 is only 0.042% of the atmosphere.
However, low concentrations of many substances can have outsize effects. For example, the lethal dose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl is only 0.003 grams (3 milligrams), equivalent to about a dozen grains of sand. The Antarctic ice core analyses showed that the climate bounced between warm periods and ice ages over geologic time with only about a 100 ppm variation in CO2 concentration. In just two centuries, we have added 140 ppm more above the historic levels. This is why scientists are so concerned.
The burning of fossil fuels emits combustion products into the atmosphere that trap heat and affect the climate of Planet Earth. The heat energy can manifest in a number of ways. One of the more common is longer and deeper droughts that lead to more wildfires because a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor. This can also result in killer heat waves if high temperatures are combined with high humidity. When the higher levels of water vapor do come out of the warm atmosphere, the result is larger and more violent storms, many of which occur in unusual locations. Other manifestations of an unstable climate include rising sea levels as ice sheets on land in Antarctica and Greenland melt, ecosystem disruptions caused by the migration of temperature and rainfall patterns, changes in ocean circulation patterns that affect storm tracks, and disruptions in the jet stream. These resulted in cold polar air moving south into places like Texas, where snow accumulated along the Rio Grande in 2021, and warm, tropical air moving north into places like Siberia, where summer temperatures in 2022 reached triple digits.
The Earth has natural feedback mechanisms that maintain the climate at a more or less steady equilibrium. For example, if a large volcano like Yellowstone erupts, it can add significant amounts of GHG to the atmosphere. Initially the ash, dust, and aerosols thrown high into the stratosphere will block sunlight and cool things down. After these particulates settle out, the climate will warm from the CO2 and SO2 emitted by the eruption. Over time, these will combine with rainwater and fall as weak carbonic and sulfuric acids. The acids react with the minerals making up basalt, a very common rock type, and release calcium and magnesium ions into seawater. These combine chemically and biologically with dissolved CO2 to form carbonate minerals like calcite or dolomite that lock down the carbon dioxide as a solid, removing it from the atmosphere. Calcium also reacts with SO2 to form calcium sulfate, CaSO4, another solid mineral better known as gypsum, the main ingredient in plaster and drywall. Enhanced plant growth will also help to draw down the elevated levels of CO2.
These natural processes gradually reduce the GHG concentrations and return the atmosphere to climate equilibrium over tens of thousands of years. However, humans have increased the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere by 50% in just 200 years. The Earth’s natural climate feedback mechanisms have not been able to cope with anything this fast. Left on its own, the climate will get back to equilibrium naturally in 100,000 years or so if you want to wait.
It is almost certain that a century from now humans will no longer be using fossil fuels. Whether that is because we have developed new, carbon-free energy sources or because we are living in caves and burning wood will depend solely upon the actions we take in the next decade or two. The climate debate is not real. Without question, humans are affecting the climate with consequences that will be felt by all life on Earth if we keep it up. The artificial “uncertainty” about climate change is being driven by the greed of those who want to continue to profit off fossil fuel. They intend to fill their coffers with revenue until there is either no fossil fuel left to extract or society collapses. What we are all supposed to do after that is never quite explained.
My Transformation from an Oil & Gas Geologist to a Climate Warrior by Daniel J. Soeder
My career as a professional geologist started back in the late 1970s when the United States was in the throes of an "energy crisis" brought on by the 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo. Since the 1960s, America had been consuming more energy than we produced domestically and imports were used to make up the difference. When the Arab members of OPEC decided to halt oil shipments because of U.S. support for Israel in a Middle East war, it threw the nation and the economy into turmoil.
The immediate impact of the embargo was a steep increase in gasoline prices, severe gasoline shortages, and panic among car-dependent citizens. Lines of vehicles many blocks long formed at service stations that had fuel, and purchases were typically limited to ten gallons (38 liters) or less to prevent hoarding. This was before the internet and smart phones, so the only ways to discover which service stations had gasoline available were announcements on radio stations or by word of mouth. People would sometimes spot a gasoline tanker truck in transit and follow it to a service station. Most citizens were stoic and polite in this era of greater social graces, but if someone tried to cut in line out of turn, all hell could break loose.
In 1973, U.S. oil imports were averaging about 5 to 6 million barrels per day out of a total daily petroleum consumption of about 17 million barrels per day. Of the 30 to 35 percent of the total U.S. oil supply made up of imports, only about half originated in OPEC countries, while the remainder came from non-OPEC sources. Even if all OPEC members had agreed to embargo oil exports to the U.S. (and not all of them did), oil supplies would only have been cut by about 15 percent. The actual supply reduction was closer to 10 percent. Although the U.S. still had 90 percent of its oil supply and the OPEC oil embargo only lasted five months, it precipitated one of the greatest existential crises in American history. It is difficult to overstate just how much trauma, drama, concern, panic, hand wringing, and angst the OPEC embargo caused to the social fabric of the U.S., except perhaps to point out that it influenced American foreign policy for at least the next forty years.
National security demanded that domestic energy resources be found and developed in the United States, and I spent my first decade out of school researching natural gas resources in coal, tight sandstone, and especially shale on projects that were funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In 1988, I wrote a scientific paper on the shale research, which was the first publication to indicate that the Marcellus Shale in the Appalachian basin potentially contained significantly more natural gas than DOE and other contemporaneous resource assessments had estimated. There was no workable technology for extracting shale gas at the time, so the paper sat unnoticed in the journal archives for two decades. DOE eventually gave up on shale and I moved on to the nuclear waste site characterization project at Yucca Mountain, and later to groundwater and surface water investigations in the Mid-Atlantic for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
George Mitchell of Mitchell Energy persisted with the shale gas research into the 1990s. Mitchell had been interested in shale for a long time, and with the luxury of owning his own oil and gas company, he continued experimenting for years with methods to produce economical amounts of gas from the Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth basin of Texas. His family, his partners, his investors, and even his own employees thought he was nuts and begged him to stop wasting time and money on shale. By the late 1990s, Mitchell had found that recent advances in directional drilling technology could be applied to construct horizontal wells through shale. These long horizontal boreholes, or “laterals” as they are called, allow wellbores to penetrate several kilometers through a shale unit. In comparison, vertical wells are limited by the formation thickness to a few hundred meters of contact at best. Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is done at intervals along the laterals to create high-permeability flowpaths into an enormous volume of rock and produce commercial amounts of natural gas.
Other companies began applying this technology in other basins, and it wasn’t long before Bill Zagorski of Range Resources decided to try it out in Pennsylvania on the Marcellus Shale. He ran across my 1988 paper, which helped to convince him that it could be an excellent resource. The Marcellus Shale is now the single largest gas producing formation in the United States and Pennsylvania is the second largest gas producing state, trailing only Texas. In 2009, the U.S. surpassed Russia to become the number one gas producing country in the world.
I found out about the success of shale gas in 2008 when I started getting telephone calls at the USGS about the 1988 research paper. My formerly obscure paper has now been cited hundreds of times in the shale gas literature. I transferred over to DOE to work on shales once again, but this time I was focused on the environmental effects of production, especially fracking, and wrote a book on the subject. I retired early from DOE and took a position as director of an energy resource program at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, which was primarily focused on oil and gas. I discovered that not many students were interested in oil and gas careers because of climate concerns and job uncertainty in the industry. Program funding was also a challenge. Government agencies and private foundations weren’t putting much money into oil and gas research. The industry was no help either – because of the volatility of oil prices they would promise support one minute and withdraw it the next. When COVID hit, people stopped traveling, and oil prices fell into the basement, including going briefly to zero at one point. One of our major oil company supporters pulled back funding and the other declared bankruptcy. My one remaining student graduated and got a job siting wind turbines. And that was the end of that.
My own feelings on climate had been ambiguous for many years. Of course I was concerned about greenhouse gas (GHG) and climate change, but I still had the “energy crisis” mentality that it was more important for the United States to continue to increase domestic sources of energy, and that meant fossil fuels. There simply wasn’t anything else. The solutions I had heard for addressing climate change were simplistic, impractical, or both. An earnest young man at an environmental conference once assured me that the path forward was to enforce energy conservation and only generate electricity with wind and solar. How then do you manufacture cement and purify pig iron? How do you power a vehicle? How do you provide electricity on calm days or at night?
I had done a bit of research a few years earlier when I was still at DOE on the potential for geothermal energy to be used as a secure energy supply for U.S. military facilities, specifically the WV National Guard training camp. Geothermal for the most part requires hot springs, geysers, or volcanoes but the Earth is hot everywhere if you go deep enough and there were indications that geothermal resources could be tapped in other areas. The DOE study suggested that heat for the National Guard facility could be obtained from the depth of the Marcellus Shale. However, we concluded that if you are drilling to the Marcellus Shale for geothermal, you might as well just use the gas.
I was thinking about geothermal energy for a potential project in South Dakota on a remote tribal reservation and out of curiosity I attended a DOE Geothermal Technology Office (GTO) program review meeting in Denver in 2017 to learn what people were doing. This was the first I had heard about engineered geothermal systems (EGS), which can be deployed just about anywhere to provide large amounts of energy while adding zero GHG to the atmosphere.
Whoever came up with the idea of adapting lateral drilling and staged hydraulic fracturing from the shale gas industry for use on geothermal resources deserves some major accolades. To wit, two parallel horizontal wells are drilled into deep, hot rock and connected by hydraulic fractures. Fluid moves down one well, collects heat from the rocks as it flows through the interconnecting fracture system and returns to the surface via the other well. This was a genius move that made the whole methodology for extracting geothermal heat from “hot, dry rock” at least an order of magnitude more feasible than previous attempts using vertical wells.
I remember coming home from the Denver GTO meeting with a new understanding that while yes, we needed more energy, what we really needed to protect the climate was sustainable, carbon-neutral energy. For the first time I saw a real energy solution in EGS that was likely to work at the scales needed. Maybe it was not THE answer, but it was AN answer, and it was the first one that sounded achievable with existing technology. I crossed the Rubicon on climate as a result of this meeting (better late than never, right?).
Other options became apparent. A solar heat loop could be added to EGS to boost the rock temperature in shallower aquifers, suggesting that a solar-assisted system could increase the versatility of EGS and allow even wider applications. Because EGS can be located anywhere on Earth as long as the drillholes are deep enough to reach hot rocks, these drillholes could be constructed at an existing, coal-fired thermoelectric power plant. Replacing the fossil fuel burner with a geothermal hot loop to make the steam that drives the turbines means that we don’t need to build brand new power plants to decarbonize electricity. The boilers don’t care where the heat comes from, as long as it is the correct temperature (200 to 400 degrees C). Such a move would allow us to decarbonize electricity quickly and cheaply by retaining existing generating and power distribution infrastructure, possibly in less than ten years. This is huge.
In locations where an engineered geothermal hot loop might not work, small nuclear reactors could replace coal burners. These fit into submarines and spacecraft, so why not power plants? New nuclear technology is small, efficient, and can be mass produced in a factory. Surely it can be made to fit under a boiler in an existing power plant and produce as much heat as a coal fire. High efficiency combined cycle (CC) natural gas-fired power plants can be run instead on biogas methane. Both gases have the same chemistry and heating value, but one is derived from fossil fuel and the other is made by microbes from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Burning biogas simply returns the carbon dioxide back to the atmosphere from where it came and is carbon neutral.
Would any of this actually work? I don’t know – it needs to be tested and evaluated. However, we do know that it doesn’t defy the laws of physics and obtaining commercial levels of electricity from these energy resources is simply a matter of scaling-up. The economics of retrofitting an existing power plant with a carbon-free heat source has got to be cheaper than abandoning the entire facility and building completely new wind turbine and solar photovoltaic infrastructure. In fact, replacing natural gas with biogas in a CC power plant doesn’t require any modifications at all. Both are composed of methane and the gas burners in the turbine won’t notice any difference.
In my opinion, GTO should be funded with billions and given Manhattan Project type priority to develop EGS as a crash program. What they actually have are millions for one geothermal field test site in Utah and things are moving slowly. Likewise, nuclear technology is suffering from stalled permit and waste disposal issues. These logjams need to be broken by licensing a high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada (which has no technical issues, only political ones) and by expediting permits for a joint venture between TerraPower and PacifiCorp to build the small but powerful Natrium liquid sodium-cooled reactor. Genetic engineering of methanogens to improve methane output should also be robustly funded along with the design and development of biogas generation facilities. These technologies could decarbonize electricity within a decade, but we have to jump start them with some technical and regulatory advancements. At the moment those are not happening.
Along with ending humanity’s use of fossil fuels that continue to make the climate crisis worse, national governments should support the “geoengineering” technology of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) removal that focuses on reducing the levels of GHG in the atmosphere to pre-industrial conditions. (Obviously this is futile if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels and adding to the problem.) There are a number of different approaches to carbon dioxide removal (CDR), including such things as planting trees that soak up CO2 through photosynthesis, or adding mineral amendments to soils that capture CO2 geochemically. CO2 can also be removed through a process known as Direct Air Capture (DAC) using engineered chemical and mechanical devices.
I got involved with a DAC process known as Carbon Blade (https://www.carbon-blade.com/) when approached by a former colleague from the DOE lab as part of a team competing for the carbon removal XPRIZE. We did pretty well, finishing in the top 60 out of 1,300 entrants, and we decided to form a company to commercialize the technology. The captured carbon must be kept isolated or sequestered from the atmosphere for at least a century and the longer the better. It can be stored underground as a gas or in solution, or at the surface in solid form, like the carbonate minerals in limestone.
According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, some 730 billion metric tons (730 gigatons) of carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere by the end of the 21st Century to bring GHG concentrations down to pre-industrial levels and stabilize the climate. If we start removing 10 gigatons per year in 2030 and increase this to 20 gigatons per year by 2050, we should reach the end-of-century goal. Around four million Carbon Blade units will remove one gigaton of CO2 per year. Nine other DAC companies removing the same amount will achieve 10 gigatons per year. It sounds formidable and it is, but it is not impossible.
No one should give up hope. Congress has passed and the President has signed the Inflation Reduction Act that, among other things, contains $369 billion in spending over ten years to combat climate change. The bill includes subsidies for clean energy projects, supports climate-related research and development, and provides incentives for consumers to adopt clean energy technology. Some environmental activists have criticized it for not doing enough, but everyone agrees it's at least a start and a huge improvement over what we had before, which was essentially nothing.
My recent experience working with renewable energy and carbon dioxide removal has made me aware that a lot of really smart and very dedicated people are working hard to solve both the energy and climate crises. It will take some time, but not a huge amount of time. Everyone working on these things knows that there is a looming deadline, and that we can’t be lackadaisical about this. Many people are pushing hard. I think we will see significant progress over the next decade.
It is important to remember that previous generations faced existential threats as bad as climate change. The first half of the 20th Century featured the Great Depression sandwiched in between two very brutal world wars. These events alone or in combination could have destroyed civilization, but they did not. People adjusted, adapted, and displayed resilience.
The last world war was followed by a hair-trigger Cold War nuclear standoff that lasted for decades and could have destroyed all life on Earth, but it did not. However, it did come damned close at least once. I lived through the Cuban missile crisis as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, and the one thing I remember about it is that my parents were scared. When you’re a kid, your parents seem fearless. To see them really frightened by the television newscasts made more of an impression on me than anything else. As an industrial city, Cleveland was certainly a prime Soviet target. Watching my father try to figure out how to seal off our suburban basement against fallout was something I’ll never forget. Fortunately for us all, Khrushchev and Kennedy worked things out and humanity survived. Looking back on it now through the lens of history, it is apparent that yes, we should have been frightened. In fact, we should have been terrified. This is probably the closest the world has ever come to a full-scale nuclear war, and if not for a couple of fateful decisions made by a handful of critical people on both sides that could easily have gone the other way humans would have loosed hellfire upon the world.
It's okay to be concerned and maybe a bit scared about the future. It is understandable that people are frightened about the climate crisis, but they should also realize that their fears affect those around them, especially those who look up to them. Professional climate scientists and adult activists often face similar anxieties. It is frustrating to see the world going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks (as Radar O’Reilly used to say on MASH) from a self-induced problem that we know can be fixed if people would only act on it. Many scientists cope by turning to what is called a “sense of agency.” That means seeing a path forward, even if it is narrow and dimly-lit, and doing what you can to move along it. My sense of agency was to write a book that explains the science behind the climate crisis to the general public. For others, it might be community organizing, advocating for renewable energy or attending protests. One of my friends started a company that builds small wind turbines to independently power remote villages. Another has been working on developing geothermal resources in Africa to help the emerging economies there use carbon-free energy sources from the start. Still another invented an inexpensive process to remove carbon dioxide from the air. This is agency.
Turning to agency instead of just fretting about climate can convert the energy of fear into the energy of action, and it can also reassure others. Writing to your political leaders to deal with the climate crisis may not be as dramatic as my father trying to seal off our basement from possible fallout, but it will probably be a lot more effective.
A recent study on climate anxiety among children and young people found that government inaction on climate change has resulted in widespread psychological distress among the youngest members of society*. The survey of 10,000 young people, ages 16 to 25 across ten countries found that increased anxiety over the fate of the planet was strongly related to perceived government inaction. Over half (56%) of young people think humanity is doomed. Nearly 60 percent are very worried or extremely worried about the future and more than 45 percent said concerns about the climate affected their daily lives. Three-quarters of respondents see the future as frightening, while two-thirds report feeling sad, afraid and anxious. They feel abandoned, betrayed, or ignored by politicians and adults, and more than half said governments are not doing enough. People are holding off on getting married, having kids, buying houses, and just living life. A little anxiety is a good motivator. Too much of it pushes people into despair and feelings of hopelessness. There is a future, but if we want it sustainable and livable, we have to work for it. All of us.
The young people of today who are giving up on the future need to know that climate CAN be fixed. Technology got us into this crisis, and technology will get us out. I firmly believe that the future will be more utopian than dystopian, but we need to push it in that direction. Clever thinking and innovation have saved humanity from great dangers in the past, and there is a lot of clever thinking and innovation being applied to the climate crisis. Unlike some of the other crises, we know how to fix this one. The key is changing “it can be fixed” into “it will be fixed.” We need a strong dose of determination and stubbornness. Instead of sitting around wringing our hands in despair, let’s get to work.
Extracted in part from Energy Futures: The Story of Fossil Fuel, Greenhouse Gas, and Climate Change by Daniel J. Soeder, published by Springer Nature, Cham, Switzerland, 2022, ISBN: 978-3-031-15380-8; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-15381-5; 296 pages
*Marks, E., Hickman, C., Pihkala, P., et al., 2021, Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon. The Lancet, preprint, 23 p., posted: 7 Sep 2021; available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3918955
Dan is a research geologist and principal at Soeder Geoscience LLC with 35 years of experience in oil and gas development, environmental studies, groundwater hydrology, subsurface carbon dioxide storage, and high-level radioactive waste isolation.