What if we could cool the planet?

Manmade carbon dioxide emissions are knitting a wooly blanket around the planet at a time when we really need to throw off the covers. Yet even if we could stop driving, manufacturing things and producing dirty power, it may be too late: climate scientists agree that without major intervention, existing CO2 will keep warming the planet for the rest of the century.

A potential solution is geoengineering, says Jeff Goodell, who appeared at RiverRun Bookstore Wednesday for his new book “How to Cool the Planet.” The Rolling Stone/New York Times Magazine contributor’s previous book is “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future” (2006).

We have the technology, he says. We can brighten clouds or blow tiny sulfur mirrors into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight from the earth’s surface. Deflecting 1 to 2 percent of sunlight would offset the warming effect of doubling today’s carbon emissions. We can also sequester CO2 by tossing iron in the ocean, thereby feeding plankton that will consume CO2 in photosynthesis and sink to the ocean floor. Oh, and there are tree-like machines that suck carbon from the air.

So how does this sound? Like a quick fix? Like Star Wars (the missile shield)? Like a threat to our spiritual integrity?

“Reaganesque,” said one young man in the audience, almost certainly born after the 40th president left office.

Goodell understands the anxiety. He’s conservation-minded himself and, in fact, headed to the Arctic Circle this weekend to better understand the warming threat. Geoengineering was “science fiction writ large” until he talked to enough smart people to conclude that we don’t have the luxury of being properly appalled. We’re staring down calamity.

Some of his conclusions:

Geoengineering is dangerous politically. A quick fix is precisely what some people like. As the ink on the book dried, he got a delighted call from the nation’s biggest fossil-fuel lobbyist. “We love your book!” Gulp.

Worse, geoengineering could enable rich individuals or states to act unilaterally to manipulate the climate. It’s like nuclear weapons: “How do you keep the crazy person’s finger off the trigger?”

Geoengineering will happen sooner or later. We’re in a position where we’ll have to consider this at some point, he says. We should start talking about it now.

Worse than technological hubris is human apathy. “The real risk is being fat dumb and stupid a lot longer and riding into this superheated world without any heed,” he says.

Ultimately, Goodell concludes that we are, like it or not, a species that manipulates our environment. Do you own an air conditioner? Do you like heat in the winter? He works another metaphor beautifully: I’ve discovered that the people who understand this best are gardeners. I’m not much of a gardener myself, but I am married to one. My wife, Michele, is happiest when she has dirt under her fingernails, and one of her highest aspirations in life is to grow all our own food. It’s because of her that our kids have such a heightened sensitivity to the freshness of green beans that they can take one bite and tell you, with a good chance of being correct, whether the bean is store-bought or homegrown.

My wife’s garden is, by any standard, a product of human artifice. There is nothing “wild” about it, nothing undisturbed, nothing left alone. She has planted every plant and mixed the soil to her liking with imported alpaca manure. The garden is entirely organic – she’s no more likely to use Miracle-Gro than she is to dye her hair pink – but it is also entirely human. It is an artifact, but it is a living artifact. You do not walk through her vegetable garden and admire the basil and the asparagus an feel that nature has been banished.

Compelling thought indeed, but still, it’s just Goodell’s backyard.

I want to learn more. And as a professional communicator, I’m eager to see how geoengineering alights on our national radar screen. I cringe at the possibility (certainty?) that politicians and pundits will get hold of this and club one another silly with it, as with health care. And despite my status as a card-carrying independent, the possibility (certainty?) of the profit motive getting further entangled with the fate of the planet concerns me.

Can we start a conversation on geoengineering? Should we start one? If so, how?

Nominating an unlikely new Earth Day saint

It’s Earth Day, and you can practically hear tributes to Rachel Carson and Senator Gaylord Nelson and other patron saints of the environmental movement ringing from hybrid to shining hybrid. As well they should. Without Nelson there would be no Earth Day, and without Carson and her ilk the Earth would be in rougher shape than it already is. I would, however, like to commemorate a different figure on this Earth Day: Col. Edwin Drake, the man who pioneered commercial oil drilling.

That’s right, oil drilling. On Earth Day. Bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

Drake is credited with inventing economically viable oil extraction in 1858, when Seneca Oil hired the semi-retired railroad worker to explore oil deposits on its land near Titusville, Penn. Most homes and businesses of Drake’s era were lit by lamps burning whale oil, which grew scarce and expensive as the whale population plummeted from overhunting. Seneca Oil founder Samuel Martin Kier had invented a method for refining crude oil into kerosene to replace whale oil in lamps several years before the company sent Drake to Titusville. The problem was there was no reliable supply of oil to refine, which meant kerosene couldn’t replace whale oil on a large scale. Before Drake, people skimmed oil off creeks from the water that seeped into salt mines. Those sources were too erratic to provide the masses with kerosene for lamps.

It was Drake’s idea to dig for oil instead of skimming it. The good people of Titusville thought Drake was off his rocker. They called his operation “Drake’s Folly” and crowded around the drilling site to jeer. When his first mine shaft collapsed, it looked like they might be right. But Drake thought of sinking a pipe into the ground and drilling inside it to prevent the bore hole from collapsing. Just days after Drake’s bore hole started belching up oil, there were imitators up and down the creek using his methods to get oil out of the ground. The oil era, for good or ill, was launched.

I bring up Drake on Earth Day because of the parallels between his story and what’s going on in renewable energy right now. Listen to some of the skepticism that persists around renewable energy: Wind and solar are too sporadic to replace fossil fuels. Renewables cost too much and don’t deliver a big enough return on investment. They have lower energy content than fossil fuels. Now rewind 152 years to Edwin Drake’s era. Do any of today’s criticisms sound familiar?

Regardless of what you think about his legacy, Edwin Drake was not an environmental criminal. He was a resourceful man who solved his era’s energy problem by ignoring conventional wisdom and trying new things. He had a vision, and he persevered until he found a way to get it done. Yes, he left us a mixed legacy. Nevertheless, our generation needs its own version of Edwin Drake, to do for renewable energy what Drake did for oil. It happened once, and it can happen again.

On a side note: Check out the last page of this week’s Newsweek magazine for a scorecard of how well we’ve done at cleaning up the environment since the first Earth Day. There are reasons to be glad, and reasons why we still have a lot of work to do. Happy Earth Day!


10 Earth Day links to help your planet

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. This is the message Jack Johnson is sending to children (and anyone else listening) in his song “The 3 R’s” found on the Curious George Soundtrack “Sing-A-Longs and Lullabies.” It’s one of my son’s favorite songs to sing along to – well for an 18 month old, it’s more like a hum. Today while singing, I turned to him and said, “This is a great song for Earth Day.” He nodded!

This is what Earth Day is partly about … educating young and old alike on taking care of our planet for a better future. This shouldn’t just be one day of caring and giving back to the Earth; it should be something we strive to recognize in every action we take.

Where to begin though? It can be something simple. My pledge is to purchase a countertop composter and start composting my family’s food waste.

Looking for ideas to help the Earth every day? Here are 10 sites containing tips, articles and resources to get you or your company started:

ABC News: http://abcnews.go.com/print?id=7395740

Clean Techies: http://bit.ly/djWave

Climate Counts: http://www.climatecounts.org/

Earth911: http://earth911.com/earthday/

EPA: http://www.epa.gov/earthday/tips.htm

Inc: http://www.inc.com/guides/2010/04/earth-day-initiatives.html

Jetson Green: http://bit.ly/aouQrN

Preserve: http://www.preserveproducts.com/recycling/index.html

Whole Foods Market: http://bit.ly/asQi7G

Yo Baby: http://bit.ly/9beYFO

Let us know what you think.

Top green tech links for the week 4/11

  • Plug-in hybrids are so 5 minutes ago. DARPA has its eyes on flying electric car (via Inhabitat).
  • Speaking of PHEVs…wondering where you’ll be able to fuel up while on the road? Try a local Whole Foods grocery chain (via Green Car Congress).
  • First Walmart, now IBM telling its suppliers to green up or take a hike (via Treehugger).
  • Forget peak oil threats. Peak phosphorous may be a more urgent problem if you want to eat (via Greenbang).

Our planet’s situation: ‘crisis’ or ‘quest’?

How we brand environmental challenges may have a big impact on our planet’s fate.

So suggests New York Times “Dot Earth” blogger Andrew C. Revkin. “If I had to choose one of two bumper stickers for our car — CLIMATE CRISIS or ENERGY QUEST — I’d choose the latter,” he says. “This doesn’t mean I reject the idea that we face a climate crisis. I just don’t think that phrase is a productive way to frame this challenge, particularly as defined over the last few years in the heated policy debate.”

If we must consider ourselves in crisis, he says, let’s define it right. Citing a colleague’s argument, Revkin views crisis less as catastrophe or cause for alarmism than a crucial or decisive moment, a turning point. This approach seems to cool passion without sacrificing urgency. And though Revkin sees a need to act immediately, he wants to focus on the positive.

I’m talking about a sustained quest, from the household light socket to the boardroom, the laboratory to the classroom, the smart post-industrial American city to the struggling, (literally) powerless sub-Saharan village. This is not some onerous task, but an active, positive assertion that the ways we harvest and use energy — an asset long taken for granted and priced in ways that mask its broader costs — really do matter. Dry places do this with water all the time. In Israel, there is no toilet without two flush options. It’s not some goofball green concept; it’s just the way things are done.

The TriplePundit blog’s Deborah Fleischer has some complementary ideas for effective sustainability communications. Although the post has corporate social responsibility (CSR) reports in mind, the principles can apply to any communication.

Tell positive stories about specific challenges and successes.

Make a specific request. Instead of calling for a new green mindset, for example, suggest specific actions like printing on double sides or reusing water bottles.

Engage people’s emotions. Data and logic are great, now bring it home. How many trees does that equal? Present a photo of a forest as big as the thing you’re talking about, or work in three dimensions by, say, creating a sculpture from all the plastic water bottles you’ve collected in your office. For mind-blowing, emotion-charged examples of consumption run amok, see artist Chris Jordan’s portraits of mass consumption.

Finally, use non-controlling language. Try please think about and please consider instead of you should.

Whether your planet or your business is at stake (somehow I believe they’re interconnected), how you say it is important.

Baby boomers’ reprise: building the green economy

There’s an abundance of guilt being a Baby Boomer these days. Our anticipated disproportionate drain on healthcare, Medicare, social security, etc. as we ebb into retirement has made us a pariah generation … a socio-economic time bomb of sorts.

So it was some comfort to read a new report from the Council for Adults and Experiential Learning (courtesy of BusinessGreen.com) on how Baby Boomers may provide the critical link to attaining a green economy.

How Boomers Can Help the Nation Go Green contends that green jobs are a natural fit for boomers seeking “encore careers.” Our professional skills, life experience and business savvy match up perfectly with the unmet needs of growing the green economy. And our generation is too restless and purpose-driven to adopt the more sedate retirement lifestyles of our parents, according to the report:

The 20th century vision of retirement filled with endless leisure is giving way to what think tank Civic Ventures calls a “new form of practical idealism: real jobs tackling real problems and making a real impact.”

It was even more surprising to learn – given our current unemployment woes – that experts expect skilled labor shortages across all segments of green industries, and that skilled boomers are best suited to plug the labor gap. In other words, boomers can be a catalyst for both green job creation and fulfillment.   The report says the three big areas of encore career opportunities will be in energy efficiency (e.g. energy auditing and weatherization), clean energy generation (e.g. solar contractors), and conservation (e.g. sustainability consultants). Though I personally believe there’s a lot of IT and engineering brain power the boomer generation could bring to emerging fields like the smart grid as well. But who am I to argue?   The report should also be an eye-opener to green technology marketers, who have largely ignored boomers in favor targeting their messaging towards genXers and millennials. If you want to attract the best people, you’ve got to talk to the best people. They forget that it was boomers who gave the world Earth Day, green buildings and granola.

A green consumer reaches the Hotpoint of no return

Kermit the Frog was right when he said it’s not easy being green. But he didn’t warn us how freakin’ expensive it can be, too. I learned for myself recently, when I got a personal lesson in environmental math and the correlation between corporate brands and environmental responsibility. It all came courtesy of an electric range.

My 30-year-old Hotpoint stove has been decaying steadily since I bought my house 10 years ago, and when one of the burners fell apart it was time to start socking away money for a new one. I had resisted replacing the stove for years, even though the burners were too small, the oven looked like the gateway to the third ring of hell, and it was the color of an under ripe avocado. Why? Because it worked. And, God help me there must be a penurious Yankee hidden on my family tree someplace, I couldn’t bear to get rid of something that worked. Not just for the money, though that had something to do with it, but because of the environmental impact of throwing out a major appliance. There is close to 200 pounds of steel, copper, plastic and assorted insulating materials in an electric stove. There was no way I could re-use the stove by selling it on Craig’s List or donating it to a charity – it was too old and decrepit. The Hotpoint was landfill fodder, and though my town has an excellent recycling program, the energy and new raw materials consumed by disposing of my old stove and replacing it with a new one weren’t worth it to me.

Then the front left burner crumbled like a Bermie Madoff hedge fund, and it was off to Consumer Reports to find a good quality replacement. I trust Consumer Reports the way I used to trust Larry Bird to hit the game-winning three-pointer with no time left on the clock. I don’t buy a roll of Life Savers unless CR says it’s okay. I’ll pay extra to buy something that CR recommends as a quality product with a long life span and low maintenance costs. So when all signs pointed to yet another Hotpoint in my price range, all that remained was to accumulate the last few bucks of the purchase price and head off to the appliance store.

Then my church had a “sustainable gift fair” for the holiday season, I bought a little book called “The Better World Shopping Guide,” and green reality clubbed me behind the ear.

The Guide rates companies according to a social responsibility formula that includes social justice, animal protection, human rights, community involvement, environmental record. I looked up appliances, found Hotpoint, and almost choked. It wasn’t just rated low, it was rated the lowest – a big fat “F,” alongside General Electric. The Guide counsels against doing business with any company graded “F.” And it doesn’t mince any words. “This category is reserved for companies that are actively participating in the rapid destruction of the planet and the exploitation of human beings. Avoid these products at all costs.” The companies that rated high on the list were the BMWs and Acuras of the world. They were expensive but, according to Consumer Reports, often weren’t a good value and didn’t last as long as the less expensive Hotpoints and GEs.

So there was the choice: a high-quality product with a long life from a company with a crummy environmental rating or a mediocre product from a company with a high environmental rating. A high-quality product from a highly rated company wasn’t an option because by the time I saved enough to buy one the old Hotpoint would have either crumbled or burst into flames.

Ellis Jones, author of “The Better World Shopping Guide” and a professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., said my dilemma is pretty common among socially conscious consumers, and that there are no fix-all answers.

“Unfortunately, in a market economy it’s often more expensive to be a responsible corporation, and that cost is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices,” Jones said. “What I tell consumers is that it’s important to understand the limits of choice and still stick by one’s guns as much as they can in any given situation. Everyone comes to the table with different resources, or they live in an area where they have limited choices of products and companies to buy them from. You can only do the best you can with what you have.”

If we want to make a difference socially and environmentally, Jones said, we have to increase the quality of our purchases, buy from higher rated companies, and decrease the quantity of our purchases. He predicts that it will get easier to buy conscientiously over the coming years because companies realize how social responsibility resonates with their consumers, and they want their brands to represent progressive ideals. In the meantime, he says, we will have to compromise on one front or another when voting with our disposable incomes.

So I compromised. Sort of. I didn’t buy a new stove. Actually, I couldn’t. I had to use the money I saved for a stove to replace the front left fender on my Honda Accord after a hit-and-run driver punched a hole in it. The Honda, with 165,264 miles on it, is a much bigger environmental issue than the stove. And what the hell, I still have three burners left on the stove. Maybe in 2011 …