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Articles by Peter Donovan

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If we quit adding carbon to the atmosphere, it won’t stop global warming any time soon. That’s why people are hoping there are ways to get the extra carbon out of the atmosphere, and that we can put billions of tons of it somewhere safe.

Breaking apart carbon dioxide — or extracting carbon dioxide from the air — takes work. Work means energy. It’s the reverse of combustion. There’s a triple problem here: the technology itself, the disposal, and the energy to do the work.

It’s a common saying that you can’t unscramble an egg. Once scrambled, the egg proteins won’t go back to their raw configuration when they cool, and even if they did, it’s impossible to wield a fork in such a way as to separate the yolk from the white. Roomfuls of the latest and greatest laboratory equipment, the best Google algorithms, or even all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would not unscramble our egg. The mixing and cooking are irreversible processes.

It’s a familiar impasse. Can we change the way we see the problem?

Feed our scrambled egg to a hen, and tomorrow she’ll lay us a new eg... Read more

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  • Two solutions to global warming

    Will reducing or stopping carbon dioxide emissions stop global warming? Not according to the IPCC. The Fourth Assessment FAQ, section 10.3, notes that "complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century." By going cold turkey on fossil fuels, we only get down to about 1985 levels in 92 years. The oceans will continue to heat up.

    In other words, we might as well try to drive a big wood screw into hard oak with a hammer. Yet the belief that reducing carbon dioxide emissions will have some leverage on the problem is widespread.

    To examine our beliefs, which are often hidden from us, I offer two solutions to global warming. Both will likely work, but they are very different.

    1. The Earth Bag. Many elaborate and expensive geoengineering proposals have been made, but here is the most practical.

    The earth's overall temperature depends in part on albedo, or reflectivity to solar radiation. Change this by a few percent, and we change the climate.

    We manufacture 5 trillion plastic bags each year. All we need to do is to make them all white and bright, and get them into the dark tropical oceans, where they will reflect huge amounts of solar radiation back into space.

  • Moving toward responsible agriculture

    North Dakota senator Kent Conrad calls the farm bill a "legislative battleship that you cannot turn around quickly." As of mid-November 2007, this year's $286 billion farm bill appears to be having engine trouble. It is stalled in the Senate, and there is talk of a presidential veto.

    We reap what we sow

    Should farmers be able to receive more than $250,000 in subsidy payments? What should the funding be for biofuels, for school lunches? Most of these arguments are about the speed of the battleship, or which flags it should fly, not the direction.

    For generations, that direction has been the maintenance and continued acceptability of high-input, industrialized agriculture -- "production agriculture" to its defenders. The farm bill is the legislative and financial instrument by which we attempt to turn an agriculture that is economically, socially, and ecologically unsound into something that is politically acceptable. This is getting harder and harder to do.

  • We have plenty of solutions at hand beyond technology

    Today the dominant view of global warming is that it's a technical problem. The burning of fossil fuels -- often regarded as the lifeblood of modern economies -- puts greenhouse gases into the air, mainly carbon dioxide, trapping more solar energy, which heats the planet and alters weather patterns. Methane and nitrous oxide also contribute. The solution is defined as reducing greenhouse gas emissions (pollution). The political, social, and moral campaign is directed at technological change, and at using our technology less.

    But if everyone stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, global warming will continue for decades. We don't have an economical technology for removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Limiting ourselves to technology-focused solutions doesn't give us much leverage. It gives us an agenda of "let's wreck the world slower."

    There is another side to global warming, one that existing scientific panels are ill-equipped to recognize and that existing institutions are ill-equipped to act on. Global warming is not just an atmospheric pollution problem caused by fossil fuel burning. It is also the result of changes in basic biospheric processes. Let's look at some examples.