The Price of Progress
I spent this past summer at a job that doubled as a climate change crash course. I went in cautiously concerned, became alarmed by day three, and was absolutely terrified by the end of June. By the time I met Peter Fiekowsky in mid-July, I was frequently waking up in the middle of the night in the throes of climate calamity nightmares.
My boss co-founded Climate Change Resources, an online platform to help people get active in the climate change movement. The point is to help mobilize people in the most productive ways possible.
When Fiekowsky walked into our meeting at my boss’s New York City apartment, he sat down on the couch, crossed his legs, looked at me, and said, “It’s scary, isn’t it?” with all the validating concern of a calm parent. I was surprised—as the intern I hadn’t expected to be addressed first. Of course, I said yes, though I didn’t mention the nightmares.
“Don’t worry,” he assured me, “I am going to make sure your children live in a healthy climate. Climate change will not be the end of human civilization.”
An entrepreneur and engineer from Silicon Valley, Peter Fiekowsky is a quintessential Californian. He smiles often and drags his words. He’s casual but neatly dressed and rather short, his presence in no way intimidating. He is also the founder of the Healthy Climate Alliance, and the “thought-leader” behind its mission to organize the world around one specific, measurable climate goal. In Fiekowsky’s words, the goal is “to give our children the same climate our grandparents gave us.” By 2050, Fiekowsky wants to bring the levels of carbon in the atmosphere down to 300 parts per million.
Ever since the nineteenth century, when we realized we could dig oil and coal out of the earth and burn it for energy, we’ve been spewing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere in rapidly increasing quantities—quantities far too large for natural “sinks” that absorb carbon, like forests and oceans, to keep up.
In 2008, a group of NASA scientists led by Jim Hansen wrote a paper warning that 350 parts per million (ppm) is the highest concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that the planet could tolerate before slipping into global catastrophe. We are now at 410 ppm. The result is a blanket of heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, steadily rising temperatures, and a whole mess of nightmare-inducing consequences.
This is where it gets complicated. Humans consume more than enough resources to deeply impact how Earth’s natural systems function, and because those systems are all interconnected, the consequences are incredibly complex. The cruel irony of global warming is that the stress we put on these systems simultaneously destroys the mechanisms with which the Earth copes with that stress, so the damage reinforces itself.
For example, the oceans are a major carbon sink, meaning they absorb naturally-emitted CO2 back out of the atmosphere. But, because they have been forced to absorb more CO2 than their natural systems can use, they have become more acidic and less capable of capturing carbon as we demand they capture more and more. And the oceans are just one example. The variety and complexity of these consequences are what make climate change so hard to understand. Ultimately, though, the core problem of rising CO2 emissions is the trigger behind them all.
Fiekowsky has created the Healthy Climate Alliance and his 300 by 2050 goal in response to that core problem. His plan will require pulling 50 gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year for 20-30 years, depending on the extent to which we are simultaneously eliminating our carbon emissions and converting to a renewable energy economy. The technology to do that has already been developed in a number of different models and, he insists, can successfully complete the task for less than 5% of the global GDP—or maybe even for profit.
For Fiekowsky, the main hindrance to progress on climate change is that the global population doesn’t yet understand that, as he says, “climate change, ultimately, is an engineering problem.” Any engineering problem, he says, “has an engineering solution.”
Until now, Fiekowsky explains, the fight against climate change “has been treated like the civil rights movement.” Much of the rhetoric surrounding solutions has centered around how well or poorly humans are behaving: “We’ve been asking people to behave well: drive less, use LED bulbs, and so on.” But behavioral changes can’t pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. “In fact,” he adds, “the climate is a physical phenomenon. If you want to modify the physical world, that’s an engineering activity.”
Fiekowsky’s confidence is contagious. “The whole purpose of leadership,” he told me recently, “is to create a future that people are actually excited about and that they can move towards.” Having read hundreds of paralyzingly dismal predictions, I was more than willing to get on board with an optimistic goal. And as he told me about his recent adventures, I got the sense that others were, too.
In September, he visited the Vatican and met with Cardinal Turkson, who is responsible for overseeing Pope Francis’s Laudato Sí goals, which address climate change, among other global issues. Turkson “quickly and enthusiastically came to support the 300 by 2050 goal.” They’re now organizing a Climate Restoration Conference at the Vatican in April 2018. Fiekowsky is also involved in the development of two peer-reviewed papers that demonstrate the huge potential geoengineering holds. He went so far as to tell me, “Things are going so quickly that I think a year from now, it’s likely that the world will be fairly organized around the 300 by 2050 goal.”
Although Fiekowsky’s reassurance definitely helped me face the rest of my summer, the shine of his message began to wear down once I returned to school in Colorado. There are some gaping holes in Fiekowsky’s plan which he tends to gloss over. The technology has many potential side effects that he’s often reluctant to mention—including, for example, accidentally destroying the global ocean ecosystem. And then there are the political logistics of getting a polarized global community to actually work together.
Naomi Klein, a fierce critic of geoengineering and the author of “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” describes the group of scientists, engineers, and business leaders determined to engineer our way out of the climate crisis as “The Geoclique”—a group more commonly (and kindly) known as geoengineers. Klein evokes an image of elite, exclusive academics making drastic decisions without fully recognizing the millions of lives they endanger. “The Geoclique,” she says, “is crammed with overconfident men prone to complimenting each other on their fearsome brain-power.”
My gut reaction when reading Klein’s book was to defend Fiekowsky: this smiley man oozing honesty didn’t sound like a member of the Geoclique. So, armed with Klein’s doubts, I asked Fiekowsky how he would deal with some of the enormous challenges to come.
One of Fiekowsky’s favorite strategies is Ocean Iron Fertilization (OIF), which entails distributing iron filings over the surface of the ocean. (OIF is a type of Direct Air Capture (DAC), a class of technologies that involve directly absorbing CO2 in the air.) In OIF, iron filings catalyzes a growth in phytoplankton, a photosynthesizing organism at the bottom of the oceanic food chain. More phytoplankton absorb more CO2, and, consequently, increase the ocean’s ability to capture carbon. As Fiekowsky says, “If you increase the primary productivity of the ocean, then you get a lot of fish and a lot of seaweed. In the end you end up with a profitable industry.” He describes OIF as a win-win, but this tactic has received a significant amount of pushback because of the repercussions it could have for oceanic ecosystems.
For every engineering problem that arises, Fiekowsky seems to have a solution. Even rising temperatures have a tidy fix: Solar Radiation Management (SRM) is pushed by geoengineers as the fastest, most feasible defense against the worst consequences of global warming. Instead of actually restoring the atmosphere to its pre-anthropocene carbon levels, SRM is a cooling strategy meant to stave off the most threatening effects of intense heat. It involves injecting reflective particles into the atmosphere to interrupt the sun’s radiation and cool the planet.
But SRM is often criticized as a band-aid solution. It doesn’t remove carbon, nor stop us from emitting it—SRM just blocks out some of the sun’s carbon-magnified heat. The issue Klein predicts is that “all the warming that you had artificially suppressed by putting up that virtual sunshade would hit the planet’s surface in one single tidal wave of heat, with no time for gradual adaptation.”
It is for this reason that Fiekowsky does not include SRM as part of his official 300 by 2050 goal. However, he does think it will play a temporary role in getting us there. He predicts an approximately 25-year employment of SRM, during which humanity would meet, or be well on our way to, his goal. That way, when we do take down that “virtual sunshade,” we would reveal a healthy climate. It’s like a scene change: we drop the curtain, rearrange the set, and pull it up again, newly ready for our fiery solar audience.
But it might not be so simple, considering some of the unwanted results SRM could bring. One SRM strategy at the forefront of the Geoclique conversations is stratospheric sulfate aerosol injections. This requires spraying sulfate molecules into the atmosphere to block out the sun, mimicking the effect of a volcanic eruption. It’s naturally inspired, but this particular technique’s side effects include white skies for the duration of its usage. For Fiekowsky, though, this doesn’t seem to be a big deal: “If we do the sulfates, for example, which is the most painful thing to do, we’d only be doing it for 25 years or so. People imagine 25 years of white skies...it’s finite pain.”
Even more importantly, SRM would drastically change global weather patterns as well as delay the regeneration of the ozone layer. Klein cites a 2008 study that determined sulfur dioxide injections “would disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing the precipitation to the food supply for billions of people.”
When I asked Fiekowsky about SRM’s effects on weather patterns, he said, “we’d have to deal with that. We already have satellites scanning every square meter of the planet on a daily or weekly basis at all different wavelengths. We have all the data we need already, and if we treat the climate as an engineering project, which it is, then we just utilize the data. As things start going badly, we tweak it.”
The thing is, we don’t have all the data and we can’t possibly. No matter how much data the scientists have, these predictions are just that: predictions. This is an experiment that by its very nature is impossible to test. In order to see how a method would impact climate patterns on a global scale, it would need to be deployed on a global scale. Assuming that humans have the necessary accuracy of foresight, according to Klein, is arrogant. According to Fiekowsky, that assumption is our only option.
This is no longer a technical matter. This fundamental disagreement between Klein and Fiekowsky raises the possibility that Fiekowsky isn’t even seeing the real issue. That is, maybe climate change is not an engineering problem. Maybe the engineering problem is simply a symptom of something deeper: that we think the planet is ours to dominate, control, and profit from. This mindset is what Klein calls “Extractivism,” which is a much more complicated issue—one with ideological, psychological, and cultural roots. Extractivism is so deeply ingrained in our world that it, like climate change itself, seems virtually invisible. But if Klein is right that we can’t truly address climate change without addressing Extractivism, then simply removing carbon from the atmosphere would not be solving the fundamental problem—it would merely be treating a symptom.
Fiekowsky’s confidence that we can and must control nature to serve our own needs clearly echoes Klein’s definition of Extractivism. While that attitude might not seem like such a bad thing, it’s dangerous to think this way because the dynamics created by geoengineering are hauntingly similar to those created by climate change itself: The people who have contributed the least to the problem (those in still-industrializing nations) will bear the brunt of geoengineering’s side-effects, just as they are currently bearing the brunt of climate change. Monsoons potentially decimating the food supply in Southeast Asia is just one terrifying example.
This exemplifies the creation of what Klein dubs sacrifice zones—places that “somehow don’t count and therefore can be poisoned, drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good.” Even if these sacrifice zones are a sacrifice in the name of environmentalism, the sacrifice itself is still a problem. If the people making the decision to sacrifice are the only ones who benefit, that decision certainly diverges from environmental ethics. In fact, Klein calls this sort of decision genocidal.
And, as Klein writes, “power from fossil fuel always required sacrifice zones—whether in the black lungs of the coal miners or the poisoned waterways surrounding the mines…it is bound up too with notions of racial superiority, because in order to have sacrifice zones, you need to have people and cultures who count so little that they are considered deserving of sacrifice.”
Unfortunately, introducing market-based climate solutions into an unchanged market means perpetuating these dynamics. Although less sci-fi scary than SRM’s effects, carbon capture also necessitates sacrifice zones. Any on-land carbon capture, such as reforestation, requires repurposing vast areas of land. Now, major emitters can purchase sections of that land to make up for the amount of carbon they put into the atmosphere. These purchases are called “carbon credits,” and are meant to pay for the cost of sequestering carbon. So companies can emit all they want and still call themselves “carbon neutral,” as long as they pay for a correspondingly large section of a carbon sink.
The problem is that instead of repurposing land currently used for carbon-emitting industries, offset vendors usually purchase vast expanses of inexpensive land, displacing indigenous communities in order to plant thick forests on their former farmlands. Klein points to the Nature Conservancy, in particular, whose Parana conservation project in Brazil was the site of human rights abuses. Locals reported being shot at by park rangers while they searched for food on their former farmlands. As Klein writes, “the added irony is that many of the people being sacrificed for the carbon offset market are living some of the most sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles on the planet.”
This is a flagrant example of the kind of corruption grassroots environmentalists critique in top-down environmentalism, where the interests of polluters are married to those of green organizations. The development of society has always required sacrifice zones, so we can’t just change the nominal reason for sacrificing swaths of humanity. Whether it’s economic progress or environmentalism, the problem remains. And, if the fossil fuel industry is benefiting from the demise of small sustainable communities, can these solutions be called environmentalism at all?
Sacrifice zones have arguably developed in the absence of adequate regulation. They arise when an enormously profitable industry is not incentivized to meet a standard of environmental or social ethics, nor held accountable by governmental policy. The energy industry has actively opposed the development of environmental safety regulations for decades. And they continue to pour millions of dollars into thwarting the public’s ability to understand and address the problem, ensuring that publicly-elected officials will not do so either. Exxon is currently under investigation for fraud because they have been funding a climate-denial campaign, even though they knew about climate change and its consequences as early as the 1980s.
One of the strangest parts of Fiekowsky’s thinking is that he fully accepts the possibility of oil and gas companies playing a major role in his proposed solution: “I’ve talked and worked at length with Exxon executives and Shell executives and they tell me, ‘listen, the oil companies are in the business of making money and they don’t care how they make it. If they shift from oil to solar, they don’t care.” They aren’t too worried about it. They’re very engaged.’ When I go to climate conferences, there’s always the oil people and they’re certainly engaged. They’re putting in best efforts.” But no company funding a climate-denial campaign can be putting in “best efforts.” We shouldn’t trust that the people who are creating the problem are also doing their best to fix the problem.
Fiekowsky himself recognizes that bringing carbon levels down to 300 by 2050 requires simultaneously removing CO2 and converting to renewable energy, so one would think he’d be concerned about the fossil fuel industry’s successful campaign to hinder all progress. He drastically simplifies the tangle of sociopolitical and economic challenges, insisting, “Giving our children a healthy climate, no one disagrees with. There’s no one saying that we don’t have that obligation.” Maybe nobody says they don’t care about children, but plenty of people are acting like they don’t care.
Part of why Fiekowsky might be motivated to defend energy companies is that DAC—his principal solution to climate change—is something gas executives have themselves recently begun endorsing. For the current energy industry, these solutions are attractive because they allow companies to label themselves “carbon neutral” while continuing to emit carbon. This continues to expose the environment and society to further atrocity, as has already surfaced within the carbon offset market. What’s more, Fiekowsky’s 300 by 2050 goal was created around the fact that even if we went carbon neutral, carbon levels of 410 ppm will still bring dire climatic consequences.
Fiekowsky also minimizes the challenges surrounding proper regulation of carbon capture technologies and ignores how those challenges are compounded when the technology is employed for profit. If, for example, OIF is introduced into an unregulated market and proven profitable, it won’t matter whether or not it turns out to be harmful or helpful. Whichever companies are involved will continue with the practice because, from the beginning, they were driven by profit, not by a concern for the environment. We can predict this with some confidence because this is exactly what has happened with gas companies: they found out that their business was harmful but trucked on anyway.
When I asked Fiekowsky how the carbon sequestering market would be regulated, he compared the issue to baseball. Once the rules for the league are set, he explains, “No one monitors the leagues that closely. Because you have the league, you have the rules, and then it’s sort of self-organized.” The analogy works, just not in Fiekowsky’s favor. You might “have the rules,” but people break them—dozens of baseball players have been outed for using steroids. Similarly, Exxon has funded denialist campaigns for decades. And the U.S. government, which is supposed to be regulating gas companies, is filled with gas companies’ former employees: Rex Tillerson, our current Secretary of State, is the former CEO of Exxon.
By saying that gas companies are putting in their “best efforts,” Fiekowsky allows those same forces that poisoned our atmosphere to profit from restoring it—or worse, to profit from merely appearing to try. By extension, he’s leaving Extractivism unchallenged. That’s a dangerous idea not only because Extractivism is what got us into this mess, but also because Extractivism is simply wrong.
Increasingly, science has revealed just how far off the mark the belief of man as master-manipulator really is. We are approaching the point of incinerating ourselves precisely because we have failed to understand the true repercussions of our meddling with nature. And even as science progresses exponentially, so do provisions to our previous knowledge. Every year, we’re learning more about new ways we’ve doomed ourselves without knowing. As recently as August 2017, Harvard’s School of Public Health released a study indicating that high carbon concentrations inhibit protein production in crops and will leave 150 million additional people protein-deficient in coming years. And yet, in October 2017, the EPA eliminated the Clean Power Plan. Somehow, despite the warnings from both scientists and the environment itself, we continue to believe we have a right to keep taking.
This highlights the main issue with a plan like Fiekowsky’s: it perpetuates the misconception that humans have both the ability and the right to manipulate the planet and its resources to our benefit. It solidifies Extractivism as an indispensable part of “progress.”
Fiekowsky’s entire solution to climate change revolves around his faith that once a goal is set, our technological prowess will enable us to reach it. His sentiment that we can “tweak” whatever goes wrong likens Earth to a grand science lab, in which humans control materials and procedure in order to create a desired outcome.
Ironically, both Fiekowsky and Klein frame the fight against climate change within the context of a dramatic moral dichotomy. Fiekowsky’s goal-oriented approach distills the decision to use geoengineering to whether or not we care about our kids. For Klein, the question is whether or not we can move beyond Extractivism.
Klein pleads for an overhaul of the extractivist mindset that binds our current economy to environmental exploitation. She insists, “Only mass social movements can save us now…To fail to exercise those options...could force government to rationalize ‘risking’ turning whole nations, even subcontinents, into sacrifice zones.” This, Klein says, “is a decision our children may judge as humanity’s single most immoral act.” In Klein’s evaluation, climate change is an opportunity to end Extractivism. Geoengineering not only falls short of that goal, but in fact directly perpetuates Extractivism.
Any true exploration of the question, “How did we get here?” makes it difficult to accept Fiekowsky’s idea that climate change is simply an engineering problem. Despite this, Klein’s assertion that “only mass social movements can save us now” may be too narrow as well. Unfortunately for us all, the scale of our predicament is now so huge that there may not be a single type of solution.
Mass social movements may be the only way to stop expelling carbon into the atmosphere and stop sacrificing some societies in order develop others. At the same time, to fail to remove the excessive amounts of carbon already in the atmosphere, even while we have the technology to do so, is also to sacrifice numerous societies. In September 2017, a third of Bangladesh’s land was flooded. Up to 15 million of its current citizens are expected to become climate refugees by 2050. It is here that Klein and Fiekowsky truly begin to intersect: DAC is our only chance of saving the communities that Extractivism has already sacrificed.
It seems, then, that both Klein’s social transformation and Fiekowsky’s 300 by 2050 goal are indispensable. Standing alone, Fiekowsky’s goal is simply a healthier atmosphere and, by extension, a healthier globe. Returning to safe atmospheric carbon levels is essential in order to re-establish healthy human existence on Earth. So is a mass social movement.
But Extractivism is a multifaceted problem; it extends into sociology, mass-psychology, economics, and ethics. Remedying our relationship with nature will require so much more than “tweaking” anything. It will require top-down and bottom-up change, a complete transformation of economy and political policy.
Because top-down change has been so slow, Klein looks to the recent effectiveness of grassroots environmentalism, such as the world-wide Blockadia movement. By physically opposing the contruction of new pipelines and sabatoging the companies building them, Blockadia aims to physically prevent carbon from being released into the atmosphere while simultaneously dismantling the capitalistic systems rooted in Extractivism. Unlike carbon offset markets, these movements do not work within the harmful economic framework that fossil fuel industries built. Instead, they confront it directly, and attempt to break it down so that something better might replace it.
What the entire climate movement is currently missing, however, is a “specific and measurable goal” to rally around. Fiekowsky provides both the goal and one component necessary for its actualization.
On this note, at a time when many experts have turned to despair, suggesting that we have irreparably doomed ourselves to climate apocalypse, it is significant that Klein and Fiekowsky also share an ability to imagine a positive post-climate change world at all (albeit Klein is certainly less optimistic). Even after realizing the contradictions and complications inherent in Fiekowsky’s plan, his assessment that “the whole purpose of leadership is to create a future that people are actually excited about” continues to inspire me.
At the nexus of Fiekowsky and Klein’s solutions there lies the legitimate possibility of real progress. If we could both overturn the exploitative systems which perpetuate climate change and use DAC to treat the excess 110 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, then we could walk away from the climate battle a healthier, happier global society.
Fiekowsky and Klein’s solutions overlap in an area as small as the eye of a needle, a tiny passageway leading to a sustainable future. The thing is, we have to thread the whole world through that eye, and right now there are way too many leaders puffing themselves up and pulling in the wrong direction for us to possibly fit.
This would require that the rising generation of leaders, from parents and teachers to CEOs and senators, commit to eradicating excess CO2 from our atmosphere and eradicating Extractivism from our culture. It may be naïve to even suggest that climate change could catalyze the greatest social movement in human history, but if it doesn’t happen, we will begin to see suffering on an equally unprecedented scale.
Part of the Four Letter Word issue