Today I meet Wally Broecker and Klaus Lackner, arguably two of the most important men on the planet. Wally, a “towering scientist”, has played a crucial role in alerting us to, and helping us understand global warming… and Klaus has developed a technology that can help reverse its effects. Wally isn’t always happy with how he’s described. “Of late, I’ve become known as the first person to use the words ‘global warming’. If my career has boiled down to that it’s a big failure”.
My journey today starts with a weekly ticket for the New York subway which, by happy coincidence, has the word ‘Optimism’ printed on the back of it. First stop: Klaus’s 10th floor office at Columbia University (the building, inexplicably smells of ham sandwiches). Klaus is giving me lift to Wally’s office at the leafy campus of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, an institution dedicated to studying the planet at a ‘big picture’ level (understanding ‘earth-wide’ systems and how they interact).
In the short time I have in Klaus’ beat up car it becomes abundantly clear he has a deeply analytical mind, inherited perhaps from his lawyer father who worked to build a fair judiciary in Germany after World War II. But as well as a scientist’s need for clarity there’s an empathy for the ambiguities of the human condition. As we cross the George Washington Bridge Klaus recalls in his perfect but slightly accented English the traumatic effects of conflict on his older relatives. Perhaps this gives some clue as to why Klaus isn’t just an ‘ivory tower’ theoretician. Like his father Klaus is determined to do, not just think. “I have an engineering bent,” he says. “So I’m not just looking at how and why things work, but how one can make things work. I’m very much interested in how to build things.” The world may one day be very glad that Klaus is like that.
Before meeting Klaus I’d had time to wander around Columbia’s beautiful Manhattan campus. On Schermerhorn Hall I find the inscription “For the advancement of the Natural Science speak to the Earth and it shall teach thee”.
If Wally wanted a better summary of his career than “the first person to use the words ‘global warming’ ” this might be it. He’s been speaking to the Earth and listening to its replies since 1952. In a dialogue that’s now lasted over 55 years the Earth and Wally have enjoyed a long chat, the latter always listening hard and famously discovering, amongst other things, Thermohaline circulation – often referred to as the ocean’s ‘conveyor belt’, a global pattern of shifting water that spans the globe.
“I think the greatest pleasure is beating nature to one of her secrets,” Wally tells me later. “I’m an ‘inverse engineer’ in a sense. We have an Earth system and I’m trying to work out how it’s put together. Most engineers go the other way. They design a system and build it.”
As Klaus and I approach Wally’s office I find a playful summary one of those conversations with the planet. Pinned to the wall outside his office is a huge furry pink and blue toy snake, underneath which a piece of paper bears the words, “I am the climate beast and I am angry!” It’s arguably Wally’s favourite metaphor. His assertion that “The climate is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks,” is one of the most quoted summaries of our problems with Carbon Dioxide (CO2 being the ‘stick’ in question).
At 78 Wally has a charmingly curmudgeonly manner that seems to have little time for indulging in niceties with visiting authors (“What are you doing here? You’re writing a book? Oh yes, I have some vague recollection”). But as our conversation progresses you begin to understand there’s good humour underneath. Wally likes to play. In fact, he has a long-standing reputation as a prankster, and is rather disappointed that his students aren’t equally mischievous. (Many of the professors I’ve been meeting see pranks as a good thing – a sign of creativeness and the playful spirit needed to ask new questions, devise experiments and think laterally).
One of his own favourite pranks was, with the help of colleague Dorothy Peteet, jacking up the car of the normally calm George Kukla (another Lamont staffer) and placing it carefully on cinder blocks just a mite bigger than the normal gap between the chassis and the ground. When George tried to drive off his wheels spun impotently. The normally calm research scientist lost his cool, not least because he was entertaining “a very important man from China, one of the first Chinese visitors that came here.” Wally laughs. “We asked him whether Chinese did pranks like that and he said: ‘Only small children’ ”. He smiles and laughs again. Another favourite is a college escapade where Wally and friends captured the senior class president, locked him in a cage and hosed him with water. Rather unnecessarily Wally adds, “We didn’t like him much”. Of today’s generation of students Wally laments, “They’re too serious. There was one student who bought a dozen eggs and pitched them at my window. But that wasn’t a prank. He was just fed up with me”.
Our meeting takes place in the Gary C. Comer Geochemistry Building, whose recent completion prompted Wally’s first office move in decades. Gary Comer was a successful businessman and keen yachtsman (with a particular interest in arctic waters) who wrote to Wally in 2002 after navigating the Northwest Passage, untroubled by ice.
If you’re not familiar with the Northwest Passage the brief summary is this. For the best part of 400 hundred years European nations (and in particular Britain) launched scores of missions to try and find a navigable path through the Canadian Artic. The prize would be a sea route thousands of miles shorter (and therefore considerably cheaper) to China and the Far East. In commercial terms the rumoured Northwest Passage was a prize worth fighting and dying for. Indeed, many of those who went never came back. The stories are horrific – ships trapped in the ice for up to five years, decimated crews limping back in damaged craft, the disappearance of entire missions and, it is now largely acknowledged, cannibalism. Ice thwarted nearly every attempt. Others were scuppered by madness, mutiny and politics – before the ice could get them. In the end the passage was navigated in 1906 by Roald Amundsen, in the tiny, shallow hulled Gjøa. It was concluded that for anything but the tiniest vessels the Northwest Passage did not exist. (For a fuller history of the Northwest Passage, which I wrote for the National Maritime Museum go here.)
In 2001 Comer and his crew decided to see if they could take his 151 foot motor yacht Turmoil through the passage, expecting to fail and having the safety of a sea plane on hand should they get into real difficulty. But despite the fact they were on one of the largest private yachts in the world Turmoil’s crew sailed right through in just 19 days with hardly any ice to bother them. Rather than being jubilant, Comer became deeply concerned. Global warming, it seemed, was already making some very real changes to the planet. Today, several large commercial ships have made the same journey. The ice barrier, at least for large parts of the year, has gone. For those who’ve studied climate change, or the history of the Northwest Passage, that is an incredible and incendiary fact.
If you’ve suddenly been awakened to the reality of climate change and want to find out more, as Comer did, it won’t be long until you come across the name Wally Broecker. He’s variously described as “the Grandfather of Climate Science”, “one of the world’s greatest living geoscientists” and is the recipient of a brace of awards, which if listed would make your eyes glaze over, but include the US National Medal of Science and the Tyler prize (awarded annually “for environmental science, energy and medicine conferring great benefit on mankind.”) Smart chap. (That Wally chooses to hang out with Klaus is no small endorsement). Comer began dedicating what was left of his life to funding climate research projects (sadly he died from prostate cancer in 2006). Under Wally’s guidance he donated large parts of his fortune (built from the Lands End mail order clothing company) straight to respected scientists – as well as putting up the cash to erect the building I am now sitting in.
When Wally talks about climate, people listen. He insists the warming we’re seeing now is fundamentally different to historical shifts in the climate. In summary he says, “It’s bigger and faster”.
A lot of people find the idea of manmade global warming hard to grasp – so called ‘climate sceptics’. Some argue that climate scepticism is driven by vested interests (those for instance represented by the oil industry), or by an unwillingness on the part of consumers who worry that accepting climate change will mean having forego energy-rich lifestyles. Those who don’t accept the prevailing scientific consensus can be vilified as selfish or simply burying their heads in the sand. My own feeling is that ‘man in the street’ climate scepticism is as much a function of not really understanding how global warming works as willful short-sightedness. I think it’s genuinely hard to believe in something you can’t personally make sense of, and not everyone has a scientific learning. Even one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest minds, physicist Richard Feynman famously said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand” meaning, “if I don’t know how it works, I don’t buy it”. And with a media that tends to report science with the same diligence that David Letterman studies employment legislation, it’s no wonder a lot us wonder if manmade climate change is really happening at all. But however you slice it, the fact is more CO2 means more warming, and most of the CO2 put into the atmosphere in the last 150 years has been put there by you and me using energy created by burning fossil fuels.
This naturally begs the question ‘what are we going to do about it?’ As I see it there are four options. Do nothing. Cut CO2 emissions. Try to engineer counter-measures that will produce a counteracting cooling effect (this is generally called ‘Geo-engineering’ of which the wackiest idea is launching large mirrors into orbit) or invest in Klaus Lackner. Because Klaus has done something extraordinary.
Klaus’ team has built a machine that strips CO2 out of the ambient air. Or to put it another way, on one side of Klaus’ machine is air that contains current levels of CO2 and on the other is air with roughly the same amount of CO2 in it as was present before the Industrial Revolution. “We got money from Gary Cromer and spent the last 5 years in Tucson, Arizona proving that this works,” says Lackner, the ‘we’ in question being Klaus and two brothers, brought to the table by Wally, Allen and Burt Wright (another set of Wright Brothers experimenting with air who may well go down in history).
Think about this for a second. Klaus’ technology can begin to reclaim the CO2 we’ve been putting out, which is good news because the oceans and the land can’t sequester it fast enough to keep up with our prodigious output. This isn’t about reducing emissions, it’s about treating emissions in the same way we treat sewage. It’s a crucial component in a CO2 processing infrastructure for the planet.
It isn’t the whole answer (although with enough of Lackner’s machines it arguably could be). “If you’ve built a coal plant with carbon capture in mind I can’t compete with that,” says Klaus. He’s clear that capturing carbon at source is the cheapest way to curb CO2 concentrations. But even if every power station suddenly became a zero-emitter of carbon tomorrow there are plenty of other places pumping it out, especially in the transport sector, which accounts for nearly a quarter of the world’s emissions. As Klaus points out, “an airplane has a hard job running on electricity”. A further ten percent comes from building heating systems. You cannot capture this CO2 ‘at source’ (the power station or oil refinery) and as the tax on carbon emissions inevitably rises, air capture may offer some emitters the best option for offsetting the CO2 they’re contributing to the atmosphere. And let’s not forget the huge amounts of the CO2 we’ve already emitted is still hanging around and needs to be dealt with too.
The Lackner/ Broecker position is that creating waste isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Not dealing with it is the bad thing. Nobody suggests you stop going to the toilet, but we did install sewage systems once we began to suffer the numerous epidemics that lots of human waste visited on (especially) city-dwelling populations. (In the UK it was actually the fact that parliament got unbearably stinky, being next to the open sewer that was the Thames, that finally moved the legislators to action – a worrying parallel that has a resonance with how governments are behaving in response to climate change today). In short, we stopped adding to the pollution problem, but could still go to the toilet. You’ll find few people arguing against sewers and sewerage treatment today (and if you do, don’t accept a dinner invitation from them).
Lackner’s carbon scrubbers are one option for treating our ‘carbon sewage’. It makes impossibly simple sense. What’s more Klaus’ machine isn’t just an idea on paper. Lackner’s self-confessed ‘engineering bent’ has delivered a working prototype.
Carbon scrubbers aren’t a new invention. They’ve been used for decades, for instance, in submarines to keep the air breathable. Until recently however, the prevailing wisdom was that such scrubbing technology could not be adapted to remove the relatively small proportion of CO2 in the atmosphere without using up huge amounts of energy. Indeed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) dismissed Klaus’ work with a single line in a report of carbon capture and sequestration. “The possibility of CO2 capture from ambient air (Lackner, 2003) is not discussed in this chapter because CO2 concentration in ambient air is around 380 parts per million, a factor of 100 or more lower that in flue gas”. In short you’d be nuts to try and find the CO2 needle in the atmosphere haystack. Anything that might work would take up too much energy (and thus add more CO2 to the atmosphere than it removed). Wally had his reservations too. The first time he saw Lackner talk he thought he was nuts. ‘Energetically nuts’ to quote him directly. “Then we had more time to talk, and I immediately tried to hire him.” Lackner was even on the IPCC committee that dismissed his ideas as fanciful, perhaps because at that point he didn’t have a working machine to show them. As with so many things, people have to see it before the believe it. That ‘engineering bent’ was about to come into its own. Lackner, set out to prove his methods could remove CO2 at acceptable levels of energy expenditure, and Wally was right behind him. That’s because Wally believes we’re not going to change over from fossil fuels fast enough to deal with the problem, and that a plan that only focuses on cutting emissions “is going to kill us”.
“People like Jim Hansen [the NASA climate scientist the Bush administration tried to silence for saying, climate-wise, ‘Houston, we have a problem’] say we’ve got to stop burning coal and that if you can capture and store carbon that just encourages burning coal. We look at it the other way. Coal is there. It’s going to be burned. We better damn well figure out what to do about it.”
Wally gives an example. “When the G20 met it Italy and said we’re going to stop the warming at two degrees, that’s madness. That’s 450 parts per million…”
“… and we’re only ten years away from that concentration of carbon in the atmosphere,” says Klaus, finishing Wally sentence for him (they do this quite a lot to each other, giving an indication of just how attuned they are).
“There’s no way we can do that. We can’t change over from fossil fuels fast enough,” says Wally. “The world leaders still don’t really get it. That’s why we need air capture.”
So how do Klaus’ machines work?
The key component is a hanging gallery of strands of a ‘sorbent’ resin. If you were a chemist you’d call this sorbent sodium hydroxide and (if you were a chemist) you might know that sodium hydroxide will, given almost no provocation, react with CO2 to create another material with the equally catchy name of ‘sodium carbonate’. Even better (CO2 capture wise) this resulting concoction will happily bind with another molecule of CO2, creating sodium bicarbonate (or baking soda to you and me).
Capturing CO2 though is only one half of the job. Somehow you’ve got to get the CO2 off the sorbent if you want the apparatus to be reusable and therefore cost effective. Restocking the whole shebang with a new supply of sorbent resin makes things prohibitively expensive and energy hungry.
This is where Lackner’s resin comes into its own, by doing something that even Klaus admits is counter-intuitive. In the presence of water the resin changes its affinity for CO2. In fact it starts to shed its recently collected bounty. The ‘collection’ reaction takes a reverse step, moving from sodium bicarbonate back to sodium carbonate. What this means is that if Klaus pumps water vapour into his machines CO2 from the sorbent will ‘fall off’ the resin and quickly dissolve in the water. Condensing that vapour allows the captured CO2 to bubble out the top, in the same way CO2 bubbles rise to the top of fizzy drinks.
There’s a kind of sweet poetry to one greenhouse gas (water vapour) collecting up another (CO2). After all, one of the problems with CO2 in the atmosphere is that it encourages more water vapour into the air, thereby amplifying the warming effect. Here, thanks to the chemistry of Lackner’s sorbent, the opposite is happening. Water vapour is being used to call CO2 out of the air (rather than CO2 calling water vapour into it).
When I ask ‘Can the chemistry of the sorbent be improved further?’ Wally jumps in with a guffaw. “They don’t know how the chemistry works!” he exclaims with boyish joy. In short, Klaus isn’t sure why the water vapour makes his resin give back some of its CO2. “I can tell you for sure what it does. That we can see. But at the moment I can only speculate why it does it. I’ve a good theory, and in the next year we will prove whether I’m right or wrong. One of the reasons I’m excited about where we are right now is we are setting up experiments to understand the chemistry. Once we’ve done that we can engineer the chemistry. It is very unlikely that an adapted off the shelf resin picked by dumb luck will turn out to be the best solution. So I guarantee you these machines will get better.”
In his office Wally’s points to a sealed tube (next to a can of Dr Fozzes Fart Beans) that contains some of the first CO2 captured by one of Lackner’s early prototypes, a machine that helped to take the ‘energy consumption’ argument against ambient air capture and kick sand in its face. Klaus now says that for every 20 CO2 molecules his machines will put in the atmosphere (if they’re powered by electricity generated from fossil fuels) they’ll take out 100. And he’s just at the beginning of his journey. With investment, experience and improved manufacturing that ratio will improve. (Klaus already has a long list of improvements he wants to research). Which is why it’s scandalous that Klaus has struggled to raise the $20million he estimates he needs to turn his working prototype into a blueprint for a mass manufactured unit.
“Last summer we started to seriously try and raise money to build a company,” says Klaus. “And then the economy took a nose dive.” Wally makes a bombing noise. “The fact that Klaus has trouble raising money is absurd,” he says, bristling. In fact the two men are reeling from a recent decision by congress to block funding for a research hub dedicated to carbon capture and storage. The amount? $25 million a year for 5 years. Or 0.00016% of the $787 billion the US government pulled out the hat for its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – money for stimulating the economy out of the economic crisis. The great irony here is that ambient air carbon capture will likely be a trillion dollar industry.
Klaus believes his machines can create CO2 cheaper than existing commercial processes. “The US consumes roughly 8 million tonnes of commercial CO2 a year,” he says. “Some of that I believe air capture could be competitive for and so you could push this forward and make it happen without having government support.” There’s a clear commercial model for Klaus’ machines which, says Wally, means they “can be implemented faster” than other solutions. “We have an edge,” says Klaus. “You start small, selling CO2 into the market, improving your technology, and you can be ready before the coal plants have figured out the best way to capture CO2 at source”. One area Klaus sees a clear market is for commercial growers who enrich the atmosphere of their greenhouses with CO2 to generate higher yield crops. “Rather than ship the CO2 in, you create a greenhouse with an air scrubber attached. It’s cheaper, and if you’ve any excess CO2 you can sell to the guy next door”.
Using current market prices for CO2 and the current efficiencies of his machines Klaus estimates each unit will yield a 15% return on investment, and this is before you take into account the money saved from offsetting your emissions (the cost of which will only rise). “As a business it’s bigger than Exxon Mobil,” Wally suggests.
It strikes me as ironic that when it comes to saving the financial system governments around the world couldn’t move fast enough to act, citing it as the platform our economies run on, therefore justifying swift and decisive action. Yet there is another platform all the banks run on. It’s called the planet and the social and financial implications of global warming will do more to hamper Wall St. than anything they’ve done to themselves. When, I wonder, did a human-friendly atmosphere not become an infrastructural investment? A back of a napkin calculation suggests that Klaus’ machines could offset all the carbon we pump into the atmosphere each year and start to reclaim the backlog for the equivalent of a 3% tax on car prices for the next 10 years.
When I first came across Klaus’ work it was one of the most optimistic things I’d heard in years, and I’m an optimist by profession. When I tell people about what’s been going on in Tucson their eyes light up. ‘Really?!’ they say. ‘That’s great. How come I don’t know about this?’ When I tell them he’s finding it hard to get investment they’re dumbfounded.
“I think it’s built in our nature that if the crisis is tomorrow we’ll jump, we’ll have the adrenaline to do whatever it takes to solve the problem,” says Klaus. “If I told you 50 years ago that what was happening in banking would lead to a meltdown… would we have done anything? We are not good at thinking beyond a 50 year timeframe.”
I wonder if this is something to do with the length of our lives? Maybe one benefit of increasing life-spans (which I cover in my chapter on Transhumanism in the book) is that we’ll be more inclined to think long term. When you have to clean up your own mess you tend to make less of it.
There’s no way around it. Klaus is good news for the planet, if he can get the money. Even better news is that he isn’t the only one developing machines that eat carbon out of the air. “I convinced David [Keith – renowned climate scientist] that this air capture stuff works so he now has a competing effort.” Peter Eisenburger, also at Columbia, is attacking the problem as well.
The more people working on technologies to take back the CO2 we’re putting into the atmosphere the better. Someone has to win Richard Branson’s $25million ‘Earth Prize’ too, which will be awarded to any team that ‘can demonstrate a commercially viable design which results in the removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases (although I’ve heard concerns that Branson’s ‘prize’ is actually a strategy to buy billion dollar intellectual property at a million dollar price). “Who will actually take it forward is now a horse race,” says Keith.
Before I left for the US, Klaus was starting to get a little press in the UK. His technology was given the cautious thumbs up from both the Royal Society (a UK based Fellowship of “the most eminent scientists of the day”) and The Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Unfortunately the press hooked onto the term ‘synthetic trees’ for Lackner’s machines. The natural reaction to this from a lot of people was ‘sounds daft, why not plant real trees? They absorb carbon don’t they?’ The answer is that while trees do absorb CO2, they take a long time to do it and also put a lot of it back into the atmosphere when they die and decompose. We’ve poured so much CO2 into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution that trees simply can’t absorb the stuff fast enough, even if we planted billions tomorrow, and even if we could make sure they kept their carbon sequestered after death – perhaps by turning them into biochar (something I’ll investigate when I visit eco-entrepreneur Vicki Buck in New Zealand in November).
“Let imagine a world in which we suddenly have lots of Lackner scrubbers and you bring the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere down to pre-industrial levels,” I say. “Does the planet start cooling almost immediately, does the warming stop?”
“We’ve warmed up the ocean and that’s a damper,” says Wally. “That’s holding back the warming of the planet too, because it sucks up a lot of the heat from the atmosphere, but as we cool the planet the ocean’s going to give that heat back, and slow down the cooling process”.
“The land would give its extra heat back in a couple of days,” explains Klaus, “but the oceans will take decades to give it all back, although you will see it going back down quite fast in the beginning”.
Of course, we can’t suddenly snap our fingers and fill the world with enough of Klaus machines to offset our carbon emissions. “You can’t do it overnight, but I do believe you could do it in a decade once you know what you are doing,” says Klaus. “So, you have a 30-40 year delay until you are back to normal.”
Our talk is nearly at an end and I ask how Klaus how he goes about convincing people he’s onto something.
“The problem I’ve found (and it’s getting bigger all the time) is that I’m suspect to both sides of the debate. The people who make energy or are into coal feel I’m trying to stop them, because I’m saying you’ve got to take climate change seriously and business as usual is not acceptable. On the other side you have people who have some idea of what ‘being green’ means and that allowing people to use fossil fuels and then capturing and putting the CO2 someplace is not acceptable to them.” (The issue of sequestering CO2 raises traditional anti-pollution hackles of many green, ironically hampering experiments that might help us understand the safest and best way to lock it away – a subject I’ll cover in the book)
“Are traditional environmentalists part of the problem now?” I ask.
Wally snorts. “Oh yeah”.
Is he optimistic we can solve the CO2 problem?
“It’ll be solved. The question is where will CO2 get to before it’s solved?” Or to put it another way, how bad will things have to get? Klaus agrees. “I’m optimistic that ultimately it will be solved. But my view of human nature is that we will not solve it until we get seriously goosed.”
“Maybe in twenty years when the impacts become obvious we’ll get serious,” says Wally.
“But let me give you an optimistic view,” says Klaus. “Back in the 90s I was asked ‘how do you see this moving forward?’ and I said, ‘In this decade, the 90s, you will see scientists thinking about it and not much more. The next decade there will be a big political debate and not much more. The decade where steel starts to go into the ground is 2010 onwards. And people get really serious about it between 2020 and 2030. In a way, we are on that track.”
Wally announces that he has to go for a beer with George Kukla (the car prank obviously long forgotten) and our meeting ends, but not before he shows me a picture of him getting an honourary degree from Cambridge University along with the other 9 recipients that year. One of them is Bill Gates. “Why isn’t he giving you some money?” I ask. “I did send him some stuff but didn’t get a reply. He likes David Keith, that’s why.” I bid Wally goodbye with my thanks and Klaus gives me lift to Dobbs Ferry train station for my trip back to Manhattan. As I get in the car I turn to Klaus and say, “You must be excited?”
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Oh yeah.”
As the train makes its early evening journey along the east bank of the Hudson river I watch the multiple reflections of fading sunlight flickering on the water and vow to do whatever I can to advocate for Klaus. But for now my mind is full. By the time I get downtown I need something trivial to refresh me. Colin comes up trumps and takes me and some other friends around a string of Manhattan bars where we drink beer and discuss the relative merits of 80s popsters The Pet Shop Boys and Duran Duran. The latter, I suggest, were more fun and had better songs. Other’s disagree. It’s the kind of conversation I need. Sometimes after a day talking about things that really matter, you need an evening discussing things that don’t.