We Could Have a Healthy Climate — Why Target Two Degrees?

By Peter Fiekowsky. This article first appeared in Brain Science and Climate Change


Two degrees or zero degrees increase.
Which climate future would you choose to give to our children?

Goals matter

Leaders use specific goals to align collective action to achieve a desired outcome. Given human ingenuity, a well designed challenging goal pulls for its own fulfillment. This has been the basis for leadership and management for decades, if not millennia.

For decades, our climate leadership has been pointing us to a goal of no more than a two degree increase, roughly three times more warming than we have now. With a heroic concerted effort the recent Paris climate summit achieved remarkable results to get us close to that goal.

You probably know about today’s 1000 year storms, floods, droughts and 60 million refugees escaping lands with failing crops.  Picture three times worse in your mind. It’s hard to imagine–is that what you want? Is that what we want?

Why are we not collectively targeting what we want? What is it we want? Is it physically possible?

Most experts agree that the our climate goal optimistically should be restoring the climate to close to what it was during the development of civilization, especially the last few hundred years for which we have good records. There are many ways to quantify that goal; One of the best is the restoration of the polar ice cap–it’s simple to visualize and measure and corresponds with stable sea level and previously normal weather patterns. Call that a healthy climate.

We could achieve a healthy climate.

A geologist friend recently told me, “I’m not a climate expert, but all you need to restore the ice caps is a couple large volcanoes. That happens over and over through geologic history.”

Realistically it’s not that simple. The UN tells us we’d have to invest 1% of global GDP in clean energy production, mainly wind and solar, and the National Academy of Sciences tells us we’d have to invest another 1-2% of GDP into carbon dioxide removal, and we’d have to cool the planet with refinements of the methods that volcanoes have used for eons. Given that we now spend 6% of global GDP on fossil fuels, we could afford this and still come out way ahead.

Why two degrees?

If we could achieve a healthy climate, then why are our experts and leaders leading us to a two degree climate disaster? Is it a conspiracy, or is it something else, maybe outdated science?

Over the last few years, when I propose to climate experts and leaders that we could achieve a healthy climate if we wanted, almost to a person they get upset with me and say, “We can’t discuss that. If people thought it might be doable, then we would fail to convince the climate deniers to take action. We need a climate Pearl Harbor to trigger WWII scale action.”

What if that is not true? What if people, and society, actually act on doable, inspiring goals? Was President Kennedy an effective leader when he declared that we could land a man on the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade? Kennedy could have threatened us with disaster if we didn’t keep up with the Soviets, but he didn’t do that. Maybe Kennedy knew something about the science of leadership and action that our climate scientists are now ready to learn too.

Time to change our tune

We can achieve a healthy climate by 2050, as measured by restoring the ice caps to their 1990 size, and it would cost less each year than we now spend on fossil fuel. I give calculation details here. Even if we fail, and restore the ice caps by 2060 or 2070, that outcome is surely better than the two degrees that we are girding for now.

Tell President Obama that you want a healthy climate.

A 3-Legged Stool: The Climate Moonshot is a Healthy Climate by 2050

By Peter Fiekowsky. This article first appeared in Brain Science and Climate Change

When President Kennedy declared in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade–he actually said we’d send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. A powerful campaign requires a good outcome.

A successful climate campaign takes us to a healthy climate. Imagine a world with a healthy climate. A world with stable forests, stable farmland, stable temperatures and stable sea level. Technically and financially we could achieve a healthy climate in a few decades. The whole moon program was just eight years. A healthy climate clearly requires new thinking, lots of innovation, and lots of manufacturing. It could be accomplished in 35 years. We don’t have to wait for a miracle technology.

A healthy climate is a stool with three legs. The legs are: 1) Energy transition from fossil fuels; 2) Carbon dioxide removal, and 3) Cooling the planet. Many people hope that cooling theHealthyClimateStool planet is optional, but without it our extreme droughts, floods, fires, and climate refugees will only get worse.

What is new is this: All three legs are required for us to leave a healthy climate to our children. And we can do all three at a cost below what the world spends on fossil fuel now. No major new technology is required. A lot of testing, experimenting and development is required, but the technologies and financing is available. What’s needed is creativity and alignment.

You may be thinking that if it’s that simple, something must be missing. What is missing is people saying they want a healthy climate. Human creativity and cooperation can produce amazing results, but we need a compelling vision, just as the moon program started with “Send a man to the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.”

You can see that a healthy climate is possible by asking what would it cost to fulfill each of the three legs using today’s technology. To replace fossil fuel energy crudely with today’s best-in-class wind, solar and storage would cost about $45 trillion, about 1% of global GDP or income over 35 years (UN). That’s a fraction of the 6.5% of GDP that we spend on fossil fuels now. We could shift our spending to do that and we probably will. Remember that technology always gets cheaper and more efficient, while fossil fuels continually get more expensive as the easy to reach stuff is used up.

The second leg, removing carbon dioxide over 50 years would probably take three times more, or 3% of GDP, and would require the amount of energy produced by solar panels covering an area equal to that used by coal mines now. Some say we would use safe nuclear power instead. We have technology for concentrating CO2, converting it to alcohol, and then converting that into anything, including plastics. Those plastics could be used for construction, or just buried back in the coal mines where most of the carbon started originally. What’s needed is a good economic model that motivates the innovation required to make it efficient.

The third leg, cooling the planet, can be done by a number of cloud modification techniques. One technique mimics how volcanoes cool the planet, but does it safely and slowly. These techniques need testing to demonstrate doing it safely, but the cost is estimated at a tiny fraction of 1% of GDP.

The first step to a healthy climate is to declare that we want it, knowing that we could have it.

Oil companies and historians say it will take at least 70 years just for the energy transition leg. But we have the money and the technology to make history and do it faster. When enough people say they want a healthy climate, then economists will figure out a way to put people to work delivering on it. Then millions of engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs will work tirelessly to make it so.

The innovation all starts with wanting a healthy climate, and then committing to build all three legs of the stool. Without all three, it’s like sending a man to the moon…and leaving him there.


A Short Recipe to Achieve a Healthy Climate by 2050

By Peter Fiekowsky

This article first appeared in Brain Science and Climate Change

Let’s say you wanted to leave your children a planet with a healthy climate by 2050. How might you do it?

Given that the climate is already messed up, we need more than just ending fossil fuel emissions. At best that will leave us with two degrees of warming–three times worse than now: We already have 60 million refugees and frequent 500 year droughts, 500 year floods and superstorms.

If we also remove the excess carbon dioxide that we added in the last 50 years, and remove the excess heat that has accumulated, then we can end up with a healthy climate again. We can do this by 2050, spending less than we spend now each year purchasing fossil fuel. This is the “three-legged stool for a healthy climate”: Energy transition, CO2 removal, and cooling. Leave out any leg, and we don’t get a healthy climate. We can’t say how much of each will be needed, because there are too many variables and too much unknown. We do know that we need all three.

Here’s the recipe for achieving that healthy climate by 2050:

Define a healthy climate. Likely: “Restore the polar ice cap to its 1990 size.” This simple, vivid measure gives us stable sea level and the normal weather patterns from before 30 years ago.
Jan 1, 2016

Have some experts such as Dr. James Hansen and the president of the Sierra Club say they want a healthy climate goal. A healthy climate would be better than the two-degree bad climate we speak of as a goal now. Really. Have them publish op-eds in a few papers, and call for the President to declare a national goal of a healthy climate before 2050. Build the demand for a good outcome: a healthy climate.
March 30, 2016

Have a million people sign a declaration / petition asking for a healthy climate national goal. Promote it on social media and in letters to the editor in newspapers around the country.
May 1, 2016, after Earth Day

Have President Obama declare a national goal of a achieving a healthy climate by 2050, and establishing a Climate Solutions Council which will ensure the integrity of climate solutions research–their efficacy and side-effects. This may operate like the FDA, doing no research of its own, being accountable to Congress.
June 13, 2016–Obama often makes climate speeches the week before the CCL DC conference.

Start the Climate Solutions Council, staff it
Oct. 2016–a few months after Obama’s speech.

Institute a steadily increasing carbon fee and dividend to encourage a rapid transition to clean energy, especially as crude oil prices drop due to shrinking demand.
March 1, 2017 (after the election)

Develop a US funding mechanism for carbon dioxide removal (CDR). I have a former US Treasury economist setup to work on this when we’re ready.
Dec 1, 2017

Have the National Science Foundation, DARPA, CIA, and other institutions fund research and testing for carbon dioxide removal and cooling

Now with the serious science being done, fossil fuel usage dropping, and financing for CDR in place, we watch while people develop rapidly improving technology for achieving a healthy climate by 2050.

***Updated March 14, 2016. We’ve had progress and learned a lot; I’ve updated dates.