Fixing Climate
Wallace S. Broecker and Robert Kunzig
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Buy *Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat - and How to Counter It* by Wallace S. Broecker and Robert Kunzig online

Fixing Climate: What Past Climate Changes Reveal About the Current Threat - and How to Counter It
Wallace S. Broecker and Robert Kunzig
Hill and Wang
272 pages
April 2008
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Climate change is inevitable, says Wallace Broecker, and it’s already happening, so he teamed up with journalist Robert Kunzig to tell us what we can do about it.

Fixing Climate comes in three parts. There’s a highly skimmable prelude by way of memoir explaining how Broecker came to be a scientist. The bulk of the book is a fast-moving glacier of evidence arguing for the possibility of sudden change in global climate patterns. Extreme desertification, rising sea levels, and shifting agricultural regions are in our future; we need to accept the facts and learn to deal with them, Broecker argues. The last part of the book is a survey of technological fixes or, rather, of extreme engineering ideas that might stabilize the planetary carbon load.

The evidence is largely familiar, as Broecker is a climate-change godfather, and much of his research and speculation have entered the collective mythos as a set of inconvenient truths. Decades ago, Broecker was one of the first scientists to point out that dumping billions of extra tons of carbon into the environment was bound to turn on a climatic burner. He was able to come to that conclusion in the early ’80s because he’d been studying millions of years of carbon deposition since the 1950s. Broecker ran one of the first carbon-14-dating labs; some people follow the money, others follow the carbon.

Evidence Broecker has either exposed or witnessed the exposure of includes mega-droughts in the North American Southwest; the draining of Lake Agassiz, a mega-lake that, in the wake of retreating glaciers, poured its guts out into the Atlantic, shutting down the plumbing that mixes warm and cold ocean water and keeps northwestern Europe temperate; and the precipitous retreat of contemporary glaciers in Greenland, the reduction of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, and the collapse of ice shelves in Antarctica. Broecker and Kunzig do a fine job of marshalling many decades of research into a compelling narrative. The middle of the book is unputdownable.

The third, extreme-engineering part of Fixing Climate is premised on the assumption that we aren’t going to change our behavior: we’re not going to reduce or even stabilize carbon emissions at some safe level. No lasting agreement could be globally implemented; we can’t even get implementation of the Kyoto Accord, which is too timid to do much good, anyway. In any case, energy consumption will continue to rise.

Who in the developing world is going to give up a crack at a high-energy-use lifestyle, especially with America and Europe as role models? Where will all that energy come from? Broecker figures we have oil and coal enough for a few more centuries, at least, and that furthermore nothing in the so-called alternative energy field is going to pan out. No solar, no wind, and no plant-derived fuels will play a major role in energy production—and folks just don’t want nuclear. Since petroleum-based consumption will continue to rise, Broecker and Kunzig argue, we need to find a way to take carbon out of the atmosphere.

One way to remove carbon from the environment would be to scrub the air. Broecker—who has billionaire connections—promotes a scenario based on the research of Klaus Lackner, in which millions of windmill-sized scrubbers would dot the global landscape, sequestering carbon in the form of carbonate, a stable, mineral form of carbon.

But what, then, to do with the gigatons of carbonate? The powdery mineral in turn must be sequestered, or at least dumped, somewhere; perhaps it could be used to fill in the cavities left by decades of pumping oil out of the ground. Then, too, a huge mining industry would have to supply the raw materials that would go into the scrubbers and do the chemical work of pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

All this would make a nice terraforming scene in a science fiction novel. It’s hard to imagine, though, the incentive that would induce us to adopt such an industry on such a large scale. Broecker may well be correct that we’re going to increase the carbon load in the environment. So maybe it’s time for crazy ideas; sometimes you’ve got to get a little crazy to survive.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Brian Charles Clark, 2008

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