Wallace Broecker Geochemist, Palisades, New York

How to stop global warming? CO2 “scrubbers,” a new book says

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What about alternative energy sources?
I don't think anybody believes that alternatives will supply the energy we'll need. The long-term solution is solar electricity. But it is far too expensive—there have to be breakthroughs. If they were to occur in the next 10 or 20 years, great, we could put the whole CO2-capture idea on the shelf. But we have to develop that technology, because it looks right now like solar energy is not going to become affordable in that time scale. We are going to need some way to bail ourselves out.

We have enough coal to run the planet for several hundred years. We could make gasoline out of coal for the equivalent of $50 a barrel. People are not going to use solar energy if it costs 10 times more than energy derived from coal. We are not putting enough resources into developing the technology to capture and store carbon. Everybody is worried about carbon footprints as if that is a solution. It's not. It is important, I'm not putting that down, but conservation in itself can't do it. The world has to run on energy.

How would we pay for the carbon scrubbers?
Whenever carbon is taken out of the ground in whatever form, some sort of tax would be paid. Ultimately there would be a smooth system. Carbon is taken out, a price is paid and that money goes to companies that are burying it. Of course, the transition from nothing into this huge enterprise is very complicated. An enormous amount of work has to be done.

With all of the greenhouse gases being produced, could capturing and storing really put a dent in climate change?
It would have to. Otherwise why do it? Most of us think that by the year 2070 we need to have a carbon-neutral planet. We can no longer increase the CO2 content of the atmosphere. But poor people on the planet are going to want to have a decent standard of living. To have a decent standard of living requires energy. Just take China. Their energy use is going to go way up. China has coal, so they burn coal. The temptation is going to be to go to a coal economy. Every time we create some CO2 we have to take the equivalent amount out and bury it. To capture and bury all the CO2 we're going to be producing is something like $600 billion a year for the world.

Do you think the world is ready for millions of CO2 scrubbers?
No, I don't think so. Not yet. People are really concerned about CO2 that's true. But I don't think most people realize how tough a problem it is and what's really involved. The awareness doesn't extend to the tough decisions that are going to have to be made by the world if we are going to ever rein this thing in.

Are you optimistic?
I'm an optimist, but I wish I was a little bit younger and could see how this thing really plays out over the next 50 or 60 years. It will be the major issue in the world for a long, long time.

As the world seriously warms, the realization that we have to do something is going to become ever more intense. Clearly something is happening.


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