Scientists reconciled to the reality of global warming are discussing geoengineering, or "the deliberate modification of Earth’s environment on a large scale to suit human needs and promote habitability." High tech ideas include solar radiation management (a humonguous umbrella in the sky to deflect sunrays), iron fertilization of the ocean to stimulate carbon-capturing algae bloom, spraying water on the polar ice cap to thicken it, and stratospheric sulfur aerosol (spraying sulfur in the sky to simulate volcanic action).
Geoengineering -- the word alone has a Buck Rogers, all-science-is-good-and-d@mn-the-consequences, gee-whiz feel to it. All of the ideas listed above have Unintended Consequences writ large. Instinctively, I don't like geoengineering.
However, I do like trees. And mountains. And critters who live on them. Read on for bad news and good news: another American animal endangered by global warming, another chance (probably not to be taken) for the Obama administration to take bold and decisive action or (more likely) engage in piecemeal politicking; but geoengineering that the administration will try -- and so can you!
This weekend I encountered many animals while hiking the remote, spectacular Mineral King section of Sequoita National Park. Some have adapted to humans -- the local marmots have decided that car parts are delicious. Some have learned to be wary of humans -- I startled several Bambis and their mamas. And then there's the fast moving American pika, which I saw but couldn't photograph. The American pika (pronounced PIE-ka, as in "I like-a pie-ka," hence the bad pun diary title) is neither a kind of font nor a yellow Pokemon, but a hamster-sized small mammal that roams the Sierra mountains at about 8,000 to 13,000 feet. It's particularly vulnerable to warm temperature, dying after one hour at 75 degrees. Which makes it poster child #2 for global warming (#1 being large, white, and furry).
As the pika's habitat warms, it moves further up its home mountain...if it can. A biologist specializing in studying pikas reports that 8 out of 25 colonies in the Great Basin area (the area between the Rockies and Sierras) are simply gone:
"The pikas are completely gone from a third of their sites," Beever told us. "It's clearly related to global warming," he said, because thermal influences appear to be the most important driver of pika losses. However, Beever also said it is also clear that those temperature influences are combining with other factors -- such as the extent of rocky habitat and land use factors such as roads -- to affect populations across the Basin.
Unlike some critters, the pika can't descend a mountain to relocate to an adjacent mountain, so it's particulary vulnerable to climate change.
On May 6, 2009, the US Fish & Wildlife Service agreed to study whether the pika should be considered endangered; a final decision is due February 1, 2010. The pika would be the second animal (after the large, white, and furry one) to be listed as endangered specifically by global warming.
Which brings us to the polar bear rule. After dragging its feet for years and being threatened by environmentalists, scientists, and people with common sense, the recalcitrant Bush administration finally agreed to list the polar bear as a threatened species. Normally the listing would give the Secretary of the Interior the right to regulate development that endangers the species, in this case greenhouse gases. The Bush administration instead manufactured a "polar bear rule": it would not take any action against the global threat of greenhouse gases, but instead adopt limited, toothless local rules to protect the bear. Sadly, Obama has continued Bush's policy.
Next February with the expected listing of the American pika, Obama will have a chance to revisit the polar bear rule. He can do nothing, face years of litigation, and let the pika become extinct. He can take bold and decisive action by using the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gas, thus effectively reversing the Bush polar bear rule -- a highly controversial yet effective move (in other words, fat chance for a President afraid of the coal lobby). He can try to save the pika by simply trapping colonies and moving them to higher mountains, a la the California condor program. Or he can create a "pika rule," regulating development only across the pika's habitat (mountainous western United States). And then what? Wait for another animal whose existence is threatened by global warming, list that one with a local rule taking another slice out of America, and continue piecemeal, without planning, without ever addressing the root cause of all these extinctions? Geoengineering almost looks good by comparison.
Despite all the bad news for the polar bear and the pika, there's some reason to hope. Call it "Geoengineering For Dummies."
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world,
That has such people in't!
The Department of the Interior controls 20% of American land, between Sequoia and other national parks, the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Office of Surface Mining, and the like. National forests, controlled by the Department of Agriculture, add another high percentage. What if all of that land (or as much as feasible) were transformed into carbon sinks?
Some carbon capture and sequestration techniques (or carbon sinks) are billion dollar Buck Rogers solutions: bury it underground in coal mines! in the ocean! make it have an exothermic reaction with manganese! (huh?) However, there's another carbon capture technique known to every schoolchild: trees! Flash back to elementary school: people breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, but plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen.
David Hayes, the #2 person at DOI and a noted biodiversity expert (Kossacks remember him as being the appointee with a hold placed on his nomination), has recently discussed "re-greening the emerald planet":
trying to measure and understand the carbon-absorption properties of the various lands under its control; seeing how they can be improved, including with market-based offsets; telling the story to the public of why protecting and expanding forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc has an important climate-change component; making forest-preservation an important part of international climate negotiations (rather than talking only about clean-energy sources); and a lot more.
In other words, study which trees to plant, plant them, teach the public, and include trees in the Copenhagen negotiations. James Fallows of the Atlantic reports here, and you can watch a video clip here (no embedding, sorry). Hayes is not the only one looking to trees. Tomorrow, July 22, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee will conduct a hearing on "The role of agriculture and forestry in global warming legislation." And the House's version of the cap and trade bill (ACES, aka Waxman-Markey), features planting trees as a potential "trade" for emitters to make.
Compare the beautiful simplicity of Geoengineering for Dummies with any other carbon capture and sequestration technique:
* It's as inexpensive and low-technology as buying a $20 tree at the nursery and planting it * It can be understood by a third grader * It's been field-tested, and proven to work, over millions of years
The Kyoto Protocol focused on carbon emissions and ignored carbon capture, for political reasons, but Hayes believes it's time to start looking again at trees to capture carbon emissions. He's not alone. A UNEP paper, Carbon Capture and Storage -- Nature's Way (68 pg pdf, but highly recommended for more detail on the subject) predicts that much of the December 2009 Copenhagen meeting will be taken up with paying developing countries for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD).
Action alert! There's nothing wrong with planting trees on your own, without waiting for the Department of the Interior to do it. You can even try planting a tree recommended for a slightly warmer climate than yours. Of course, follow some sensible ideas: plant it where it won't need extra water, don't plant where your homeowners association frowns on it, and take care of it until it's established.
I don't wish to paint mere tree-planting as a magic bullet that will solve all global warming issues. Among other points, we may not be able to plant enough trees, fast enough, to reverse or even halt the alarming pace of global warming. However, we can plant trees and paint rooftops white (another example of low-tech geoengineering) and change our lightbulbs and strengthen and pass ACES in the Senate. Let's hope it's not too late for the polar bear and the American pika, the Arctic ocean and the mountains of the western United States, and the planet.