IDEAS Boston; WGBH Forum Network; Daniel Schrag: Geoengineering
The next guest is Daniel Schrag geochemist He's director.
Oh yes please please. Thank you. Thank you Paul. Thank you very much.
Daniel Strad director of Harvard University's Center for the environment and professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences he studies climate and climate change over the broadest range of Earth's history Schrag has shown tremendous technological ingenuity in devising better methods for measuring how earth's climate has changed over geological time which could help produce predict future climate patterns by studying ocean circulation changes for example over the last several decades. He helped develop the snowball earth hypothesis. Proposing that a series of global glaciations occurred between seven hundred fifty and five hundred and eighty million years ago that may have led to the evolution of multicellular animals. That is sooner or later US based on his research Schrag believes that Mars was once much warmer than it is today might have had a liquid ocean and that earth before the origin of life might have looked much like early Mars Dennis frag is alarmed by climate change. He is also alarmed by what humans in desperation might try to do about it which is why he has cautiously endorse the need to study geo engineering schemes to mitigate or reverse global warming that involve man deliberately tinkering with Earth's climate. Because we have to think about ways in which the system as it is or as it might be taken with might fail Schrag says the idea that we can control our climate is wrong. It may be that a world with climate engineering is better than a world without geo engineering because we're losing control of climate change. But that shouldn't make us think we actually know what we're doing. Please join me in welcoming Daniel straggly. Thanks. Thank you.
Thank you Tom and thank you everyone it's I got to say it's listening to the first three presenters this morning it's hard to follow. I'm actually despite despite Tom's introduction I'm actually going to only maybe very briefly talk about climate engineering at the very end of this. It's something maybe we could talk about very briefly but I don't want to spend too much time on it. I want to talk about some other ideas but first I want to talk about the problem we're facing with climate change.
I know this is supposed to be an uplifting day but this may not be the most uplifting of presentations. I'm a geologist and that means I study the history of climate as Tom explained. And the bad news is that climate change is actually far worse than most people are led to believe. Scientists tend to be very conservative we actually believe in 95 percent confidence intervals.
And that means that when we talk about a problem we're very careful to talk about only things that we're very sure about. And yet most of the things we have to worry about are things that we are not very sure about we really don't understand the system. Let me let me give you that perspective very briefly. First of all this is the last hundred fifty years of energy use and you can see biomass that's mostly wood coal oil and gas.
Fossil fuels hydro and nuclear coming in hydro includes solar and wind.
And the reason they don't have their own. S. is that the width of that section would be about the width of the line dividing the two sections. They're an insignificant contribution to our current total energy use for the world.
But let's hope that the next hundred fifty years is going to look very very different. But this is the nature of the problem burning all of this fossil fuel has led us to this dilemma. I think about this is a geologist and the way that works is this is an ice core record of carbon dioxide from the last six hundred fifty thousand years. You see CO2 fluctuating. We know CO2 is the main greenhouse gas. It's amplified by water vapor in the earth's atmosphere but it's water vapor sort of a feedback not a not a direct signal. And the CO2 fluctuates you can see that it's never been above 300 parts per million. The low points. Are about one hundred eighty parts per million. Twenty thousand years ago that was when Boston where we are today was under of about a kilometer of ice. The end of the ice sheet went all the way to about New York City. Very different world. In the last hundred fifty years from burning fossil fuels we're at about today three hundred eighty seven parts per million. This is more CO2 than we've ever seen in fact any hominid species in fact probably not for about thirty five million years. Have we as the earth has such high CO2 levels in the next 40 to 50 years we will be at about 500 parts per million. This is what people often don't understand about climate change. This is not a question of whether we're going to get to 500 parts per million. It's a question of whether we get to a thousand. So we are going to see that much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The question is are we going to double that all the way up through the roof. That is the issue. So we are guaranteed to have substantial impacts of climate change and we just don't understand enough about the climate system to say whether or not this is actually tolerable or catastrophic. That's what I think is often mis portrayed when people talk about this especially in the media. The uncertainty is used as an excuse for maybe not worrying about the problem. The uncertainty in this problem is actually the reason we should all be actually very very afraid of it because most of the uncertainty cuts in the wrong direction. Again the way I think about it is this we're doing an experiment at a planetary scale that hasn't been done for millions of years and no one understands exactly what's going to happen. Now we do know a lot about the Earth system. We build models that are pretty good and our best models tell us they're going to be winners and losers but that many impacts are going to be severe and we could talk about many of them here I'm not going to. I should just note one thing which is the largest of these on humans not on natural ecosystems but on humans may actually be mountain snow melt one that doesn't get a lot of attention.
Mountain snowpack is actually the natural reservoir for the world. So if you think about California or anywhere in the West agriculture is fed. By mountains snow melt snow is stored in the winter and builds up and then melts throughout the year as that snow melt occurs earlier and earlier in the year. River systems will start running dry in the summer. And if you think that's a problem for the American West or the Sierra Nevada as in California and the Central Valley think about what it does in Asia when the Indus the Ganges the Brahmaputra the Mekong the Yangtze in the yellow rivers which support two and a half to three billion people start having trouble because they're all draining this region in the Himalayas in the Tibet plateau is a really big problem. Now.
What I want to talk about but I wanted to there's going to be surprises are going to be things that we don't understand about the system and we can't predict. Here's a nice example most recently that I think shows the conservatism of the. Of the scientists. To give you a perspective Arctic sea ice we know has been declining for some time. The best models predicted that. The sea ice would be gone in the summer sometime between 20 70 and 20 100. And then in 2007 this is what happened. This is springtime coming to the Arctic.
Stop right here.
So that was what September of 2007 looked like. You can see it's it's remarkable. This surprised even Arctic scientists who study the sea ice the entire margin of Russia's ice free you could go from anywhere in Russia out through the Bering Strait into Japan. No problem. The entire northwest passage was ice free. That used to be a difficult passage. We're now talking about saying seeing potentially ice free conditions in the summer sometime at the end of next decade.
That's extraordinary. Congressman Waxman's office called me up actually laughed when that happened in the fall a year ago. His his staff member said What the hell are you guys doing. We thought you were talking about 2070. Congress doesn't worry about 2070 it turns out. You know we've been watching the Russians planting a flag in the bottom of the Arctic Ocean and the you know all the other things going on the Canadians fighting with the Danes. We haven't worried about it but 2015 is like tomorrow. We have to actually think about this. So well guess what. Most of the time when scientists are wrong it's going to be in the wrong direction. That's one of the problems here. Now of course the reason this matters why the Arctic ice sheet matters so much. The Arctic ice sheet is floating it doesn't actually affect sea level but it is partly what keeps Greenland so cold it insulates the ocean from the atmosphere. And Greenland matters a lot to sea level. Greenland has about seen seven meters of sea level equivalent stored in ice. West Antarctica the small part has about six meters. The big part of Antarctica has about 15 meters of sea level stored on it. And we just don't know how long it's going to take for these ice sheets to melt. Could be a thousand years it could be 500 years. It could be 200 years. Hopefully East Antarctica's a lot longer than that. It is very very cold. But Greenland and West Antarctica are very vulnerable. Now there are some places that have been dealing with sea level for a long time. This is the Netherlands. A lot of their land is under water and they go through amazing engineering efforts to actually solve this problem. The Dutch are really really good at this but partly they've invested heavily they actually put a lot of money into fighting this problem as opposed to what we do in New Orleans which is a little a little different.
I mean it's it would be sad it would be funny if it wasn't so sad actually at the level of investment we've made in protecting a major US city was so small. And many people lost their lives the good news is Hurricane Katrina missed New Orleans if it hit New Orleans we could have 100000 people dead. Luckily hit Mississippi and missed New Orleans as it was only flooded over two days instead of in 10 minutes. This is a big challenge the one I want to talk about today now is two types of solutions to climate change. I wish I could provide with a techno fix that would solve all of the climate problems and I could make you all think this problem's going to go away. That is the case. There is no single solution to this problem this is a big problem and the scale of our energy system that is causing this problem is huge. And so I'm not going to be able to solve all of this I want to talk about two things one a very local scale and one a very global scale at a local scale I want to talk about the problem of sea level rise in Boston.
Here's a picture that appliance applied science associates did a few years ago of what flooding from a hundred year storm would do with only a point six meter sea level rise. It's pretty bad for Boston.
I know I've been talking with people at Harvard about this because Harvard is building a new campus in Alston only about a metre and a half above sea level and Harvard actually you know is planning to build it putting a lot of money into this campus and expects it to be around for another three hundred years. Well 300 years now you're talking about seriously level rise and you have to think about this. But one of the things I think I convinced the planners was that solving this problem by raising the buildings in Austin for the new campus didn't wouldn't matter much if the whole neighborhood was under water. Now luckily Boston turns out to be a very special place much better than many other cities around the U.S. that are near the coast. There's actually one really sensitive spot in Boston. I'm not sure that I can help the entire waterfront area but. But in fact most of the Boston area is really access through the Charles River Basin. And there's something here called the Charles River Dam. We take it for granted. Charles River Dam what it does is it protects the Charles River from the tidal fluctuations in the ocean and vice versa. So it basically keeps When the when the oceans higher than the than the river it keeps the river from getting flooded with salt water and when the river is higher than the ocean it keeps the river from draining out all of a sudden. So it's a very effective system I don't have any of you taken those duck boats through the locks It's a great thing to do. Turns out that. The. Height of the Charles River dam which was rebuilt in 78 originally was built in 1010 is only a foot and a half above the historic highest tide ever experience only a foot and a half. So what I said to the Austin planners for Harvard was you know the thing we should do is we should get together with MIT a few of the other local universities and get some people from Boston and Cambridge and actually. Make a plan to raise the height of the Charles River down. We don't have to do this next year it's not an emergency. Sea level rise isn't going to happen in five years but over the next 10 or 20 years we should put a plan in place to put two meters of additional protection in Boston actually that would take care of the sea level problem for Boston. That's a really easy thing we should be doing. So there's one idea for this conference which is just let's just raise the Charles River Dam. It's not something that has to be done immediately but it has to be done at some point over the next few decades. And I think I think it is something that's very feasible. Give us all a little bit of sense of relief for Boston. And what about the other problems. Well I talk about now a much bigger problem. You know I'll go it was in Harvard last week talking about his plan to put 100 percent renewable electricity on the grid in 10 years. It's an incredible vision for those who don't know we have about 1000 megawatts of installed capacity. I'm involved in a project now trying to build a zero carbon power plant that's going to produce 600 megawatts of power in New Jersey. And it's an eight year project. The idea of building a thousand gigawatts of new capacity in ten years is is mind blowing. Many people just say up he's being ridiculous you can't do it. I actually take him a little more seriously than that. I think it's very very difficult to do. Not impossible but. Fundamentally even though electricity is our largest contributor to fossil fuel emissions of CO2. Fundamentally we have to deal with not just electricity. We have to deal with transportation as well in the US. It's about 30 or 40 percent coming from from. From transportation. And fundamentally we have to tie in with something else which is if we're going to decarbonize oil we have to understand that if we think about climate change we have to understand orals dominant role in energy security and energy markets. We're going to go on a 10 or 20 or 30 year path if the president is going to sell us a plan to to build a new green energy future which is being discussed. And it doesn't solve our fundamental problem of energy security and energy independence which is mostly in this country about foreign oil. I don't think it's politically sustainable. So we have to deal with the oil problem. And you know people talk about peak oil. That's certainly an issue the geopolitics of unstable regions. We out of our 20 and a half million barrels of oil a day we import 13 million barrels. Luckily a lot of it's from Canada but from Venezuela and Saudi Arabia and Nigeria and a lot of other places too. Many people don't know where oil goes. They said We use 20 and a half million barrels a day the world uses 85 million barrels a day. It's extraordinary the scale of the oil system the infrastructure that's been built up in the last hundred years. Eighty five million barrels a day is a roughly A Thousand Barrels a Second for the world. That's amazing and we use a quarter of that.
Natural gas liquid some of it comes from from natural gas production. But what's interesting is only 9 million out of the 20 and a half million goes to gasoline. A lot of it goes to other places. Jet fuel distillate fuel oil that's diesel fuel that's trucks and trains and ships.
So there's a lot of other uses of oil not just gasoline. Now what are the options for a solution. Well there many things again it may not be a single thing but I want to talk today just briefly about one idea that I've been working on that I think would potentially replace a big part of this. The danger is that the most likely replacement for oil is more oil. OK you've heard about drill baby drill. That's what we're talking about. And that seems to be the dominant strategy today. And it's hard to resist it because we need oil we're not going to go without. And so there's going to be a lot of pressure to get more oil in more expensive places that are more environmentally damaging. There's tar sands up in Canada that's not a big deal. It's a big deal if you live up and out of baskets terrible for the environment. But the scale of it is still very very small and unlikely to get to be very large. It will probably max out around three million barrels a day out of a total of 85 so I don't want to spend any time talking about it. There are other ideas. Plug in hybrids many people talk about electricity as the solution to transportation because you can get clean electricity. I actually think that that. It's a wonderful idea the efficiency of electric motor is a great thing. We still don't know whether batteries will become cheap enough and durable enough to make this work. But I hope it does. But here's the problem even if we had full implementation of plug in hybrids throughout our society everybody used electricity for local transportation short distance commutes. It would only cut about 4 million barrels a day out of our total of 20 and a half. That's a lot I mean four million barrels a day is nothing to scoff at. But it doesn't solve the problem. We still have a problem. There's hydrogen fuel cells those are very expensive and the costs have not been coming down. I wish they were a solution. I want to talk about the last two parts biofuels and coal to liquids. This last one coal to liquid has been sort of the the villain in metal groups minds. And the irony is the same technology may actually hold the.
Key to a solution.
This is a corn ethanol plant in in the in Iowa corn ethanol. Sort of the biofuels effort in this country. A couple years ago it was everybody's solution. And then last year it kind of unraveled. Here's the cover of Time. I think the answer is somewhere in between corn ethanol is pretty terrible but many people think corn ethanol as a route to more advanced bio fuel sources and that may indeed be the case. But there's a from problems we just don't have enough. Biomass without seriously cutting into our food crops. And the pressure on food around the world has really increased. So we have a challenge here how do we actually do this. People talked about algae. There are some Boston companies doing this. It turns out I am very very skeptical about whether this ever works at scale it certainly doesn't work at cost compared to a hay field. This is very very expensive. It's like trying to grow wheat or rice in a greenhouse. It's at a practical large scale of agricultural productivity. It doesn't really work. Let me talk about an old technology I wish I had something new to sell you but I actually have something very old. First the dam and now this. This is old good old fashioned German chemical engineering This is developed in the 20s Fischer-Tropsch. It was used by the Nazis in World War Two it was how they made oil out of coal. They actually made over 100000 barrels a day for themselves during World War 2 and it was deployed in South Africa when South Africa was embargoed from the world oil market because of apartheid and it's still the largest. South Africa still has the largest operation in the world. They they produce during the embargo period oil at a price of about $30 a barrel. Which was exorbitant when oil was $8 a barrel but looks pretty good now. The irony of this the problem is that is that it actually produces twice as much carbon dioxide as regular fuel regular oil. So if we start building and China starts building large coal to liquids plants we're toast literally. We've got a huge problem. So what do we do. There's this irony of this of this process. I believe these fuels can actually be the dirtiest technology in the world or the cleanest. The plant South Africa as I said double regular oil. Modern one if we build it in the U.S. might be a little better because there's been some improvement in the technology. If we actually took the. Plant and we actually capture the carbon dioxide coming out of the smokestack and injected it underground into a geologic repository efforts that I've been working on. It turns out that it would actually be about the same as regular oil. It's still bad. But no worse than regular oil. And we'd be making it here. The cost would be between around 60 70 bucks a barrel which until recently looked pretty good. With a recession the price may drop a bit more. But here's the interesting thing. If we take biomass and combine it with coal and when I say bio mass I'm not talking about corn. I'm talking about sewage or wood chips hay anything because the great thing about this process is you're doing at about twelve hundred degrees Celsius.
And so it doesn't matter what kind of biomass you can put garbage you can put all sorts of things in there put in the biomass mix it with coal capture the carbon from the smokestack and the fuel you end up with is essentially a zero carbon fuel the way you can think about it is of course it's made of carbon but it's made of carbon from the biomass. You use the coal essentially as an energy carrier to convert the biomass to liquid fuel with near 100 percent efficiency.
You can actually make it negative. There's not enough biomass in the world to do this at large scale. But I should note Shel Coren has made a f official truck plant with 100 percent biomass in Germany they don't capture the carbon but they are making it they call it Sun diesel.
It's a very small scale project. So so why would you blend biomass and coal rather than just biomass. There are advantages there are technical advantages and there's infrastructure advantages but the most fundamental reason is there isn't enough biomass. If you're going to use biomass to decarbonize our our fuel you have to do it with the highest efficiency you want the most fuel out per biomass in and using coal in the process but in a way that none of the carbon from the coal gets to the air I think is one one way to do this. Again this is not a total solution to climate change. It may be a domestic solution to our fuel problem. That goes a long way to providing low carbon fuels. That doesn't require massive new infrastructure we can still put it in our cars and our trucks and still fly airplanes and everything else. I don't think we're going to see an end to air transport anytime soon. And you can't put ethanol in a jet engine. So. In conclusion let me just say I think biomass is going to be an important component of any serious strategy to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. Of course there are huge issues that I didn't talk about regarding economic development particularly in the rural tropics the tropical countries that are very poor. One of the few things they have is is a lot of sunlight. Their concerns about governance systems as well in that situation the environmental impacts of these fuels can be extremely positive or extremely negative. And the details of the process matters.
And and fundamentally I believe that this old technology that is considered one of the dirtiest in the world could actually be the cleanest in the world as well. What matters is not the technology itself but how we use the technology its human constraint human restraint human activity and the way we choose to use the technology. That's what's so important. And my time is finished but let me just end with this one slide because Tom did introduce me. I was going to talk about geoengineering. There are ideas about engineering systems because even with all of these efforts and many of us are working very hard to lower our CO2 emissions for the world we have to realize that this may not be enough we're still going to get to 500 ppm and 500 ppm might be a disaster. So what do we do.
Most of the things on this graph are irrelevant because they operate on too long a time scale but I want to call your attention to aerosols in the stratosphere in this upper left reflecting sunlight.
Essentially what natural volcanoes do over a short time scale terrifying idea. What arrogance what hubris that we could actually control our climate and yet we could probably wouldn't be perfect. We might screw up. It's a terrifying idea.
But the way I've been describing it is it's the worst possible idea except for the alternative which is what happens when CO2 rises.
I think the right way to think about this idea when you hear about it in the press is think about it as a target. It's not a techno fix it's not a bandaid it's a target. If you cut off you lose a limb. You turn it on so you don't bleed to death. But you still go to the emergency room. I think that's the right way to think about these sorts of ideas moving forward. They're turning kits they may be necessary and therefore we need to understand them because we might actually need them. But boy I hope not. So I'll end there. Thank you very much. THANK YOU ILY.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
- IDEAS Boston
- WGBH Forum Network
- Daniel Schrag: Geoengineering
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- Daniel Schrag, geochemist and Director of Harvard University's Center for the Environment, argues that climate change is actually far worse than people are led to believe. Locally, he suggests a feasible project to raise the height of the Charles River Dam, providing Boston with additional protection in the event of future storm flooding and sea-level rise. On the global level, he has cautiously endorsed the study of geoengineering schemes to mitigate or reverse global warming. This lecture is part of the 2008 IDEAS Boston conference.
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- Chicago: “IDEAS Boston; WGBH Forum Network; Daniel Schrag: Geoengineering,” 2008-10-30, WGBH, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed April 21, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_15-js9h41jv6n.
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