By Allie Skalnik
To talk about climate change, we have to first acknowledge the facts. Gases like carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor are the largest contributors to the greenhouse effect. Now, the greenhouse effect is essential for human life on Earth, as its property of trapping heat on the Earth’s surface means we aren’t living in Ice Age-like conditions right now. But just as its absence spells disaster, an excess of these greenhouse gases disrupts the careful balance of climate on Earth. To keep the Earth in a habitable state for humans, we need to eliminate all CO2 emissions within 30 years. But that’s arguably the easiest part of the battle. Additionally, we will need to cultivate new technologies and fields of study in order to remove the CO2 humans have released since the Industrial Revolution from the atmosphere. That is much more daunting of a challenge.
In order to eliminate emissions, at least we know what to do. It’s the same thing we’ve been talking about for decades now: replace fossil fuels with renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar, and nuclear power. We know that’s what we have to do. And in this way, the climate change movement has been very clear in its message. An important aspect of movements achieving reforms has been a clear, rallying message that will mobilize voters and protests alike. Climate change faces a unique challenge in this capacity. The ‘doom-and-gloom’ tactic is not terribly motivating, and we have a remarkable ability to become desensitized to this kind of messaging. This is why the climate change plea has begun to sound like a broken record. This is only compounded by the fact that problems with the scale, that can seem distant, require a massive amount of cooperation to solve. Much like the pandemic, human psychology works against us, and a great deal of sacrifice is required from every individual in order to solve things. The pandemic should be a wakeup call for all of us, and if nothing else, there’s a lot to learn about how to tackle these kinds of challenges. It is reasonable to ask a single individual to consider the long-term implications of their actions, but this is a much more difficult message to impart upon all of humanity. There is also the tendency for us to expect someone else to solve climate change for us, but seeing as that hasn’t happened so far, I don’t believe that’s happening any time soon. But as we saw with the race to create a vaccine, if everyone in the world is working on this problem, it can be solved.
Eliminating CO2 emissions, however, is less than half the battle. Solar, wind, and nuclear power will address emissions, but they do nothing for the gigatons of CO2 already in the atmosphere. Tackling that problem will take inventing entirely new technologies. There are already many potential candidates, but they are not without their faults. The most widely supported solution would be to simply plant trees. Trees are nature’s carbon collection machines, and when they die, they become buried safely underground where fossil fuels came from in the first place. The main challenge with this solution is space. If we planted a trillion trees, that would only one-third of the carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution. Especially since scientists are worried about food shortages and running out of available farmland in the coming years, it seems unlikely planting trees will be the silver bullet in the climate question. But it may be a vital component.
There is an emerging technology to do the work of trees, capturing carbon, but without needing the same space or resources. It’s called direct air capture, or carbon capture, and it works by singling out CO2 molecules either by spraying a substance that attaches only to the CO2 or by pushing it through a filter. This siphons the CO2 directly out of the air. It’s the same technology that saved the astronauts in the Apollo-13 mission and are sometimes placed in the smoke stacks of large factories. The challenge for these technologies, like many climate solutions, has been scaling it up…and scaling it up in a way that will be successful economically as well. Additionally, there’s the question of what to do with the carbon once it’s been captured, and many solutions have been suggested. You could put it back underground, for example, and some people are working on ways to incorporate it into useful products. The main challenge of carbon capture technologies, however, is that it takes a lot of energy. If that energy comes from fossil fuels, carbon capture technologies are rendered useless, and if it comes from renewables, many argue that energy would be better used elsewhere.
So why haven’t we been talking about these technologies more? Why hadn’t I heard about carbon capture, what seems like such a promising new enterprise which could solve all of our climate problems. As we discussed before, there are still many challenges with this technology. But the most prominent concern preventing scientists from boasting about carbon capture is the worry that it would make the endeavor to eliminate carbon emissions seem any less dire. Carbon capture should not become a reason why carbon emission restrictions are not enforced. The reality is it will take eliminating carbon emissions and carbon capture technologies both to halt and reverse the impacts of climate change.