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Calling All Mad Scientists

To stop global warming we may need to start thinking outside the box
Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat—and How to Counter It Wallace S. Broecker and Robert Kunzig Hill and Wang, 272 pp., $25

Book CoverIn the summer of 1858, a putrid odor of raw sewage arose from the River Thames in London and choked the city in its sickly grip. The Great Stink, as it came to be known, spurred Britain's lawmakers to rush a bill through Parliament to provide the money to build a modern sewer system -- one that would discharge sewage downstream from the river's drinking water intake. Construction of similar structures in the same era in a number of European and American cities, including Paris and Chicago, ended epidemics of typhoid and cholera, which victims contracted by drinking water contaminated with feces. If the Victorians could eliminate these diseases through careful disposal of human waste, why can't we counter climate change by extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and burying it where it can do us no harm?

That radical proposal lies at the core of Fixing Climate, the latest in a spate of books on the seemingly intractable problem of global warming. While most writers stress the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the authors of Fixing Climate -- Columbia University earth scientist Wallace Broecker and the science writer Robert Kunzig -- suggest instead that we view carbon dioxide as a form of sewage: a pollutant with which we have carelessly contaminated the atmosphere, but one that we can remove with the right technology. Doing so is necessary, they argue, because the chance that we will succeed in paring back our carbon emissions with the speed required to avert disaster is quite small.

Broecker and Kunzig embrace a techno-fix that would require us to scrub our carbon dioxide waste from the atmosphere and sock it away in rocks. Their proposal is typically American: upbeat in its can-do spirit, yet pragmatic. The pair are not breast-beating penitents. In fact, they open their book with an eloquent ode to the beauty of the piston engine, acknowledging that fossil fuels have enabled the average American to live as well as a preindustrial king. Yet it's time to shovel away the scum. "We need to create the means for taking our carbon back out of the air and putting it underground, where it came from," they write.

If anyone should be taken seriously on the topic of climate change, it is Wallace Broecker, who has spent more than 50 years studying the climate of the past 200,000 years, and who was one of the first to warn, more than three decades ago, of the dangers of global warming. Born in 1931 ("the same year as Twinkies," the book points out), he arrived in 1952 at what is now Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. He has spent his entire career there, publishing more than 400 papers and winning numerous prizes, including the National Medal of Science. Over the years, Broecker has developed ways to calculate the rate of gas exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean -- in particular, oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide -- and devised what is known as Broecker's Conveyor Belt, a global scheme of ocean circulation that is thought to drive climate patterns the world over.

As background to their proposal, Broecker and Kunzig devote about a third of their book to explaining the complex history of climate change science; a laudable effort, though at times my eyelids did begin to droop. To their credit, they enliven the text with asides on the notable figures who first figured out the science at hand (among them the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, whose "ravishing young wife, Sophia" deserted him in 1894 after a year of marriage in the midst of his calculations on planet-warming carbon dioxide).

The book's real focus, though, is a climate fix hatched by Klaus Lackner, now a physicist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Lackner's company, Global Research Technologies, announced in the spring of 2007 that it had built a prototype "air-capture technology product" to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. When Broecker first heard Lackner talking about his ideas in 1999, he recalled thinking, "This guy is nuts." Lackner, then an associate director of Los Alamos National Laboratory, argued that we should attempt to accelerate the natural chemical breakdown of rocks. The plan: grind up billions of tons of magnesium- or calcium-rich rocks, chemically combine them with carbon dioxide to form another type of rock -- a harmless carbonate -- and then find a place to put the resulting mountains of the stuff. Later on, Broecker found Lackner's tendency to think big-and his willingness to attack a problem from first principles -- "more exciting than crazy," and lured him to Columbia.

In fact, there is nothing all that revolutionary about pulling carbon dioxide out of the air; it is done on every space shuttle and submarine to prevent crews from asphyxiating on their own exhaled breath. Lackner built his prototype on a budget of $5 million from the late Gary Comer, the founder of Lands' End. In this device, crushed rocks have been replaced by a plastic compound that reacts with CO2 to form sodium bicarbonate: essentially, baking soda. If Lackner's vision comes to fruition, 20-foot-tall carbon-sucking towers-each resembling an erect Tower of Pisa-could be arrayed all over the planet. The final step in this massive cleanup project would be to extract CO2 from the bicarbonate and inject it into the ground in liquid form.

Related Tags: global warming, climate
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Josie Glausiusz has written about almost every topic known to science for publications that include Discover, Nature, and Wired. She is a co-author of Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects (Chronicle).

Whats wrong with reforesting, conserving, preserving, restoring Nature??
many more benefits... as well as the aesthetics... techno fixes...
its also very cheap in the developing world...

Other large-scale blue-sky solutions with potentially minimal environmental degradation might include:

1. Cycle Rail (Hybrid Human-Electric Agile Monorails) comprised of vehicles weighting under 100 pounds

2. Sea Surface Temperature Reduction near Urban coastal Areas
- Tropical cyclone offshore steerage
- Heat wave mitigation and reduced energy expended on local air conditioning

3. Tropical Cyclone Steerage and Energy Capture

4. Polar and Temperate Zone Winter Ice Production Acceleration

5. Ice Elevators for High Rise Cooling Retrofits

6. Urban Solar Thermal Retrofitting of High Rise Buildings

7. Carbon Negative Cities

Thank you for the work you have done in publishing this article. My purpose here is to seek global warming pen pals. I have a BA in chemistry and 5 years graduate work on catalytic chemistry, and now am a senior audit student at UWM in global warming education and am participating in the FocustheNation.org group again this year if we get enough interest at UWM again this year. Last year was a small group.

The only safe way to remove carbon from the atmosphere is by trees, simple natural science! We need to plant vast areas with trees, this provides real jobs, enhances bio deversity,encourages rain out,provides a vast resource and trees look nice.Techno fix will only result in more carbon being released as techno fixes are not carbon neutral. The biggest release of co2 came from the destruction of the rain forests and no one seems to comment on that one do they? Wake up humans!