Comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline

A student asked me to comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline, based on my area of expertise. This (in a slightly edited form) is what I wrote:

It is not possible to detect the climate change caused by any particular piece of our energy infrastructure, yet in aggregate the greenhouse gas emissions from energy infrastructure is having a tremendous impact on our climate system.

The question, therefore, is not about the amount of climate change caused by this individual facility, but what environmental and human damage will result as a consequence of building more such infrastructure.

From a global environmental perspective, the Dakota Access Pipeline is another step down a path we shouldn’t be going down. No one step down this path brings calamity, but each step increases risk and increases damage, and collectively many such steps could prove catastrophic.

If we know we need to be transitioning to the near-zero emission clean energy system of the 21st century, why are we continuing to expand last century’s archaic polluting energy system?

Clearly, there is money to be made by building this pipeline, but the public interest lies in building the energy system of the future, not in enlarging the energy system of the past.


Seeking money, asking to help

I sent this little note of unsolicited advice to my postdocs writing proposals and seeking other forms of support…

Some years ago, I went to a DOE program manager asking them to help fund a project that I thought was really important. The program manager said to me:

“I don’t want to hear about how I can help you. I want to hear about how you can help me.”

This really lit a light bulb up in my head, that was only made brighter when for a while we were distributing FICER funds to third parties.

Every NSF program, every philanthropist, everyone else distributing funds has objectives that they are trying to achieve. They will give you money only if you can convince them that you can help them achieve their objectives cost-effectively.

There is a tendency to approach people for money in the position of supplicant when it is more appropriate to approach people for money in the position of service provider.

Thinking of yourself as providing a service will color how you write your proposals or how you design your pitch. swatch-white_8

What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering?

A student wrote me and asked, “I am doing a biography speech about you for my speech class, and I was wondering if you could answer just a couple of questions for me, if possible. What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering? Did something happen in your life that made you realize this is what was important to you?”  This is what I wrote her in response:

Most things in life happen as an unpredictable consequence of personal preparation and random opportunities.

I had studied and worked as a climate scientist for over a decade before I started to consider geoengineering.

In 1998, I co-organized a meeting on energy system transitions towards an energy system that did not use the sky as a waste dump. We, or more specifically, my mentor, Marty Hoffert, invited Lowell Wood to speak about geoengineering. He had been working on geoengineering concepts, working with Edward Teller at Lawrence Liverrmore National Laboratory.

Lowell claimed, without much evidence, that putting particles in the stratosphere could return Earth’s surface environment closer to what it was before the dawn of the industrial revolution. David Keith and I and a few others in the audience said something to the effect of “Even if you could return globally averaged temperatures back to what they were, there would still be large changes in regional and seasonal climate.”

At that time, I too worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but it was a 7000-person workplace and I had never met Lowell Wood. However, next door to my office there was a guy named Govindasamy Bala and he ran atmospheric climate models. My initial goal was to show that solar geoengineering wouldn’t work and there would be large regional and seasonal mismatches. We had no money to do this, so I told Bala that if he ran the climate model simulations, he could be first author on the resulting paper.

We did the simulations and lo and behold the model predicted that the solar geoengineering would work quite well, and do a good job of offsetting regional and seasonal climate changes. This result was largely due to the strong influence of sea ice on the climate system. If you can restore sea ice back to what it was, then much of the rest of the climate system is also restored. Ours was the first three-dimensional climate model simulation of solar geoengineering.

So, this has been much of my history in this field: We try to poke holes in the idea, because emotionally I don’t like the idea of intentionally manipulating Earth’s climate system, but each time we do a computer model simulation, the results suggest that solar geoengineering could offset most climate change for most people most of the time.

Over the past decade, many more people have entered this area. As a scientist, I try to be the first to do something in a research area and then move on to something else. So, now I am spending perhaps 10% of my time on this research area.

For example, the 1998 paper that came out of that meeting in Aspen, was the first peer-reviewed paper ever to compute how much carbon-emission-free energy we would need to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels while providing enough energy to sustain economic growth. Of course, now, many people are doing such calculations.

I just got back from 2 months in the Great Barrier Reef, where we for the first time ever put a plume of CO2-enriched seawater across a natural unconfined patch of coral reef, and we measured how the CO2 caused the reef to grow more slowly. We will not repeat this work, but try to move on to the next creative idea.