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Removing Carbon Dioxide

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:03 PM GMT on June 05, 2009

Stabilization of Carbon Dioxide (4)

See below more new policy on comments on this blog.

This series of blogs (links below) has been exploring the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They have been leading to the conclusion that we cannot afford to let too much carbon dioxide accumulate in the atmosphere. We are fast approaching 400 parts per million (ppm), compared with about 280 ppm before the industrial revolution. Jim Hansen has made cogent arguments that we need to get back to 350 ppm to avoid dangerous climate change. Relatively aggressive reduction of emissions could stabilize us at 475 ppm. All indications at the moment is that we are headed to much higher values of carbon dioxide, that will lead to substantial melting of sea ice, ice sheets, and permafrost. We are in the midst of a period of species extinction, and the rapid warming of the next 100 – 1000 years will accelerate the extinctions. (Again, primary references in previous blogs, linked below.)

I think I first read about global warming in 1968, when I was 14. It was not something that worried me a lot. The first thought of some very smart people was that the ocean was enormous, and that it would absorb the excess heat with no consequence. Then I heard the same about carbon dioxide. And, of course, it was also maintained that the plants of the land and ocean would take up the carbon dioxide.

Now 40 years later we know a lot more. There are enormous numbers of observations, and far better quantification of the processes that maintain carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Similarly our understanding of the heating and the response of both the physical climate and ecosystems is much more evolved. We measure this relentless increase of carbon dioxide. We measure a warming planet; we see tremendous warming in the Arctic. The ocean does not simply absorb the heat, neither does the ocean benignly absorb the carbon dioxide nor do the plants take it up robustly.

As we near 400 ppm in the next few years, as we start the near certain march to 500 ppm, we know that the warming will be “dangerous” - disruptive. There will be major disruption to people and cities and all that is near the coast line. There will be vast changes to ecosystems. Those dependent on water melting from snow and ice will need new strategies.

The ocean cannot absorb the carbon dioxide without changing its acidity, changing the environment for all phytoplankton and zooplankton. It is simply not reasonable to imagine the carbon dioxide being absorbed by the terrestrial ecosystems without consequence. Plus, the ocean and plants are not a safe place to store these excesses. What they take up, they can give back, and we know that they do. The carbon dioxide and the heating related to excess greenhouse gases will be with us for more than 1000 years. It is a debt that is not easily paid off and retired.

There are billions of people, growing, wanting, consuming. To maintain this population and these imperatives of consumption, we will have to learn to manage carbon dioxide. In fact, we have to learn how to manage the climate. We must break the lock between carbon dioxide emission and energy consumption. We have to assume that this will not happen fast enough to break the relentless rise of carbon dioxide for many years, decades. This requires technological development; it requires, I assert, paying the real cost of energy and the management of the wastes of energy. We pay for the management of our waste water. We know that we cannot fill our rivers with our sewage; the same management is required for our air. This will require technology – money.

We are going to have to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. We cannot rely on the oceans and the plants to take the carbon dioxide and heat. The carbon dioxide and heat will stay in the environment. It will push ecosystems into realms that are unknown to us. Ultimately, we will have to prohibit carbon dioxide from getting into the atmosphere and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This will require technology – money.

There is money to be made. There are costs for the common good. This is always true; it is not one or the other.

We cannot rely on the Sun to turn its self down.

We can buy time with efficiency and better management of fuel, forests, and food. Still, to support billions of people, growing, wanting, consuming – to support these people will require us to manage carbon dioxide and the climate. We change the climate no matter what; we have to learn to manage rather than change with inattention. We will need to sequester carbon dioxide back into the Earth. We will need to learn how to take carbon dioxide out of the air.

We are, ultimately therefore, faced with the need to engineer the climate. It has been, is, will be and should be a controversial subject. But, we engineer the climate with out inattention today. Part of our conscious engineering must be to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. David Keith is the go to person to learn about geo-engineering. Here he talks about the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere ( Climate strategy with CO2 capture from the air ). This is termed air capture – “air capture removes the CO2 directly from the atmosphere and so manipulates the global atmospheric concentration rather than the exhaust stream of large fixed-point sources such as power plants.” Keith investigates the air capture from technological, thermodynamic, and cost points of view. Again it is a matter of technology and money. (I highly recommend Keith’s review on geo-engineering Geoengineering the Climate: History and Prospect )

As we move towards the possibility of real climate policy, we must realize that a systematic approach is needed. We cannot fool ourselves that developing a carbon market will lead directly to carbon dioxide reduction. There have to be new, technological ways to rid ourselves of carbon dioxide. We require technology to give us viable choices of energy. And, we must begin to integrate direct management of carbon dioxide and the climate into our mindset. It is becoming a matter of, only, technology and money.

Figure 1: Methods of Geoengineering from David Keith, Nature, 2001 .


Need for a policy on comments: Many of the recent comment streams have disappointed me. I have received notes from people about how the discussion has degraded, and I have seen this written in the comments on other blog sites. Therefore, I am going to start to manage the comments at some level. Neither I nor WU have the resources to moderate the blog comments. Therefore, the only real tool I have is to ban comments. So I plan to start banning comments from those who I feel are at some level abusing the forum and simply being disruptive. This means streams of comments from the same people that add nothing new and comments which pull an isolated fact or figure out of context and use these as darts just to toss at the climate change dart board. I welcome discussion and discourse, but annoying heckling and obsessive chatter is simply annoying. So I plan to use my power to ban, which I will do for a limited amount of time, with repeated abuse becoming permanent.

Comments that I have received so far include flagging with “report to blog administrator” button at the top of the comment pane, and strengthen the WU policy with

“Intentionally inflammatory, provocative or antagonizing commentary directed towards a specific person or a group in general designed to invoke a response.” leading to a ban, with ever longer banning times.

I like the idea of self governance, with perhaps the selection of three people to form a Augustine Triumvirate to moderate.

Previous Stabilization Blogs:

Warm for a 1000 Years

How Much Warming Can we Avoid


Previous Blogs on Phenology and Ranges of Trees

Series of Blogs in 2008 of Spring Coming Earlier

Trees Moving North

Ye Olde Stabilization Blog:

A Strange Urgency

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.