Comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline

A student asked me to comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline, based on my area of expertise. This (in a slightly edited form) is what I wrote:

It is not possible to detect the climate change caused by any particular piece of our energy infrastructure, yet in aggregate the greenhouse gas emissions from energy infrastructure is having a tremendous impact on our climate system.

The question, therefore, is not about the amount of climate change caused by this individual facility, but what environmental and human damage will result as a consequence of building more such infrastructure.

From a global environmental perspective, the Dakota Access Pipeline is another step down a path we shouldn’t be going down. No one step down this path brings calamity, but each step increases risk and increases damage, and collectively many such steps could prove catastrophic.

If we know we need to be transitioning to the near-zero emission clean energy system of the 21st century, why are we continuing to expand last century’s archaic polluting energy system?

Clearly, there is money to be made by building this pipeline, but the public interest lies in building the energy system of the future, not in enlarging the energy system of the past.


Seeking money, asking to help

I sent this little note of unsolicited advice to my postdocs writing proposals and seeking other forms of support…

Some years ago, I went to a DOE program manager asking them to help fund a project that I thought was really important. The program manager said to me:

“I don’t want to hear about how I can help you. I want to hear about how you can help me.”

This really lit a light bulb up in my head, that was only made brighter when for a while we were distributing FICER funds to third parties.

Every NSF program, every philanthropist, everyone else distributing funds has objectives that they are trying to achieve. They will give you money only if you can convince them that you can help them achieve their objectives cost-effectively.

There is a tendency to approach people for money in the position of supplicant when it is more appropriate to approach people for money in the position of service provider.

Thinking of yourself as providing a service will color how you write your proposals or how you design your pitch. swatch-white_8

What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering?

A student wrote me and asked, “I am doing a biography speech about you for my speech class, and I was wondering if you could answer just a couple of questions for me, if possible. What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering? Did something happen in your life that made you realize this is what was important to you?”  This is what I wrote her in response:

Most things in life happen as an unpredictable consequence of personal preparation and random opportunities.

I had studied and worked as a climate scientist for over a decade before I started to consider geoengineering.

In 1998, I co-organized a meeting on energy system transitions towards an energy system that did not use the sky as a waste dump. We, or more specifically, my mentor, Marty Hoffert, invited Lowell Wood to speak about geoengineering. He had been working on geoengineering concepts, working with Edward Teller at Lawrence Liverrmore National Laboratory.

Lowell claimed, without much evidence, that putting particles in the stratosphere could return Earth’s surface environment closer to what it was before the dawn of the industrial revolution. David Keith and I and a few others in the audience said something to the effect of “Even if you could return globally averaged temperatures back to what they were, there would still be large changes in regional and seasonal climate.”

At that time, I too worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but it was a 7000-person workplace and I had never met Lowell Wood. However, next door to my office there was a guy named Govindasamy Bala and he ran atmospheric climate models. My initial goal was to show that solar geoengineering wouldn’t work and there would be large regional and seasonal mismatches. We had no money to do this, so I told Bala that if he ran the climate model simulations, he could be first author on the resulting paper.

We did the simulations and lo and behold the model predicted that the solar geoengineering would work quite well, and do a good job of offsetting regional and seasonal climate changes. This result was largely due to the strong influence of sea ice on the climate system. If you can restore sea ice back to what it was, then much of the rest of the climate system is also restored. Ours was the first three-dimensional climate model simulation of solar geoengineering.

So, this has been much of my history in this field: We try to poke holes in the idea, because emotionally I don’t like the idea of intentionally manipulating Earth’s climate system, but each time we do a computer model simulation, the results suggest that solar geoengineering could offset most climate change for most people most of the time.

Over the past decade, many more people have entered this area. As a scientist, I try to be the first to do something in a research area and then move on to something else. So, now I am spending perhaps 10% of my time on this research area.

For example, the 1998 paper that came out of that meeting in Aspen, was the first peer-reviewed paper ever to compute how much carbon-emission-free energy we would need to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels while providing enough energy to sustain economic growth. Of course, now, many people are doing such calculations.

I just got back from 2 months in the Great Barrier Reef, where we for the first time ever put a plume of CO2-enriched seawater across a natural unconfined patch of coral reef, and we measured how the CO2 caused the reef to grow more slowly. We will not repeat this work, but try to move on to the next creative idea.


A comment on the proposal to close Indian Point nuclear power plant

A journalist asked me to comment on the efforts by Governor Cuomo to close down the Indian Point nuclear power plant, outside of New York City. An edited form of my reply follows (image from


I am a climate scientist with no particular expertise on things nuclear and little knowledge specific to individual power plants and little knowledge about the details of New York’s power supply system, so I am a loathe to comment on Indian Point and other matters with great specificity.

I do know that nuclear power has been one of the safest and most reliable, if not the safest and most reliable, forms of electricity generation operating over the last half-century — and this is taking the tragic accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima into account.

Coal kills something like 3000 people every day, largely due to health effects of particulate emissions. More people die from every week from coal-electricity production than have ever died as a result of nuclear power. The airplane crash gets the news; people dying on the highway every day is a bit ho-hum.

That said, if you were siting a nuclear power plant today, I don’t think you would site it near a giant population center. That is just sensible risk management. The risks are already small, but why not make them even smaller?

If Indian Point is closed down what will take its place? Will it be better or worse? What will be built additionally? Today, the cheapest electricity from new builds is typically natural gas. It is clear that natural gas is much worse for the environment than nuclear power.

I went to high school in Yorktown Heights, New York, less than 10 driving miles from Indian Point. Back then, I felt tangible disquietude, afraid that at some point the nuclear core might melt down and expose me to lethal radiation. Now, I understand intellectually that the likelihood of me dying in an automobile accident was many many thousands of times greater than ever dying as a result of a meltdown at Indian Point. But would I put many many thousands of times more effort into avoiding automobile accidents than I would put into trying to reduce risk from Indian Point? No. The desire to close Indian Point is mainly an emotional response to not-easily-quantified threats beyond our control, and not primarily based on a rational risk assessment.

A friend of mine did a study of a wide range of risks, and he decided that one of the main things we could do to reduce real risk in our lives is to wear motorcycle helmets while driving cars. His wife told him that if he did that, she wouldn’t ride in a car with him. So, he drives without wearing a motorcycle helmet.

It is a difficult question: How much should public policy cater to fears that are in large part irrational, but which nonetheless make people uncomfortable? A role of government is to help people feel better. To what extent is it appropriate for governments to undertake costly actions that cater to people’s largely irrational fears? (Isn’t that exactly what we did in Iraq?)

Tough questions. No simple answers.

Bridging the urban-rural divide


How much of our political view is shaped by whether we come from an urban or rural environment?

If you come from a city, you understand that we all depend on each other. You interact with and come to appreciate people of all sorts of races and religions. You live and work and have become friends with people who have come from all over the world. You recognize that we need social institutions to do something about that psychotic homeless guy. You don’t want people walking around on your streets carrying guns. You are probably going to vote for Clinton.

If you come from the middle of no place, you probably feel like you made it as far as you did mostly because of your hard work. You probably interact with few people outside of your own ethnic group. You likely live and work mostly with people born near you live. You expect your neighbor’s family to deal with their crazy uncle. You want your gun so you can hunt and protect yourself, just in case. You are probably going to vote for Trump.


Democracy is supposed to be a system where government acts in the interests of the majority, while protecting the rights of the minority. But no major political party has, in living memory, worked to promote the interests of the majority of Americans.

One thing working people in both urban centers and the rural regions can agree on is that the major parties have concerned themselves primarily  with satisfying the short-term interests of their powerful and wealthy donors. The major political parties have been working in the interest of a narrow minority while trampling on the rights of the majority. We all have a right to share in prosperity.

No major political party has, in living memory, worked to broadly share the fruits of globalization, increased automation, or immigration. Broadly shared prosperity is in the long-term interest of nearly everyone, because stark inequality is not a foundation for sustained economic growth.

Our nation is in crisis. If we are to avoid fascism and tyranny, our political parties must become democratic parties and work to promote the interests of the majority.

We need to find a way to reach across that urban-rural divide. Maybe we can recognize that it might make sense for everyone to have a gun on a farm, but not on a city street. Maybe we can agree that our successes depend both on our own hard work and on being surrounded by functioning social institutions (schools, police, healthcare, etc). People working on farms and in cities can agree that when a job leaves for China, or a job is replaced by a machine, or taken by an immigrant, the displaced person still needs to share in the benefits of that globalization and automation and immigration. The benefits can’t all go to the wealthy few.

The crisis in American democracy is a consequence of an unnecessary conflict between the urban and the rural which is in turn a symptom of the widening gap between the rich minority and struggling majority. The primary problem for the average working person in America, whether they be urban or rural, is a lack of prosperity. The common foe is inequality. The common goal should be sharing the benefits of globalization, automation, and immigration.

The success of the American experiment depends on bridging the urban-rural divide.

Images from:
Population density and 2012 election results:
Average income between 1946 and 2008:

This little essay was prompted by a comment by Mike Pesca on The Gist:

Managing Earth’s Future: Self-restraint for the common good?

I was asked to be on a panel at the 2016 Fall American Geophysical Union Meeting on Planetary Intelligence: Managing Earth’s Future. This is what I wrote as an abstract before realizing I was limited to 2000 characters. (This is >2100 without spaces.)


We are global in our impacts, yet local in our thoughts and feelings. The daunting challenge facing Homo sapiens is learning to cooperate at global scale for the common good.

For millions of years, our ancestors, like most animals, consumed the fruits of their labors, and little capital or infrastructure accumulated over the ages. This radically changed over the past centuries. Following the inventions of the loom and the steam-engine, we have been developing ever more efficient ways of generating consumer products. Critically, some of the wealth generated by these more efficient technologies was reinvested into additional capital infrastructure, such as factories and machines, thus expanding the capacity to offer goods and services to insatiable consumers. Some of this reinvestment, and technological innovation, was in technologies that extracted and transformed natural resources into valuable goods and services and also into dangerous pollution. Improvements in medical technologies led to quasi-exponential population growth, mirroring and multiplying the quasi-exponential growth in per capita consumption.

We are reaching a stage where this quasi-exponential growth is starting to reach boundaries, but these boundaries are not sending signals to the market that would allow a laissez faire approach to work.

The central question is: How can we continue improving the well-being of living people (at least), while diminishing material flows associated with environmental pollution?

Globally speaking, if we don’t place constraints on ourselves, nature will impose constraints on us. We can impose constraints on ourselves to protect us from what nature would otherwise to do to us.

To have a sustainable future, we would need to level off population at the lowest feasible level. The difference between a future population of 6 billion and a future with 16 billion is a half-child per family less-or-more than the central projection of demographers. Empowering women with education and technology has proven to be a most effective strategy at reducing population growth.

To have a sustainable future, we would need strong disincentives on environmental damage, especially on the production of long-lived wastes such as carbon dioxide. It is of course a huge political challenge to get such disincentives in place. If we fail to get these global guardrails established, planetary management will be largely reactive, driven by competition among those with incentive and power.

In a resource- and pollution-constrained world, technological innovation is the surest path to economic growth and improved well being for all, especially the poorest on this planet.

With better policies in place, we can look forward to a future of continuous innovation and ever-improving well-being, with stable populations and diminishing environmental impact.




Ordinary Miracles


Some have criticized Bill Gates for saying that ‘we need an energy miracle’, suggesting this will be interpreted as Bill Gates saying that we should do nothing but sit around and wait for a miracle to occur.  I cannot speak for Bill Gates, but I can talk about what I understand him to be saying.

We live in a world of wonder, surrounded by technological miracles. We are surrounded by technological inventions which, if they were shown to our hunter-gatherer forebears, would have been attributed to magic or some divine power instead of to the laws of physics.

When I look out the window, I look through something that is hard as rock, yet almost invisible. Our ancestors would likely look at this strange artificial rock as some sort of miracle. Put a metallic film behind this rock and it turns into a mirror – surely an invention that Narcissus would have found miraculous.

We are so accustomed to technological miracles that we fail to appreciate the wonder of the technological world around us. We hurtle down highways in tin cans moving at 80 mph. We get in a cylinder and fly through the air at 500 mph. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have considered these technologies miraculous.

Electricity is magical. How do these wires cause my refrigerator to cool, my microwave to heat, and my audio system’s speakers to vibrate? Surely, the ancients would have found these technologies miraculous.

I can pull a little slab out of my pocket and instantaneously talk to someone on the other side of the planet. I turn on the television and see before me imagines from long ago and far away — miraculous.

Vaccines prevent disease and antibiotics cure disease — miraculous technologies.

With anesthetics, someone can slice me open and I wouldn’t even feel it — surely a miracle.

Technological miracles surround nearly our every waking moment. These come not from divine intervention but through the innovative work of brilliant people. Technology regularly creates miracles. We can expect further investment in clean energy research and development to generate more miracles.

Arthur C. Clarke once wrote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When I hear Bill Gates talk about the need for miracles, I hear him talking about the need for technologies that would, to our ancestors, be indistinguishable from something produced by divine intervention. These kinds of innovations happen all the time.

Recently, Bill Gates has written:

Some people argue that deploying today’s technology and developing new ideas are competitors in a zero-sum game—that doing one means you can’t do the other. I disagree.  Successful industries that are built on innovation rely on both deploying the technology they have and developing the technology they need.

This framing seems just about perfect to me: “Deploy what we have, and develop what we need.” We have enough to start down the path, even if we don’t yet have what we need to reach our destination. When real technologies confront real barriers out in the field, problem solvers innovate new solutions and create technological miracles.

The controversy over Bill Gates’s use of the word ‘miracle’ to describe what is needed to solve the climate problem comes from people’s perception of miracles being something that happens rarely as a result of divine intervention. However, we can also perceive miracles as something that commonly happens as a result of hard work.

When Bill Gates says ‘We need an energy miracle’, he means that we need to work hard to create the technologies needed to provide everybody with abundant and affordable clean energy. Technology miracles are something we can anticipate if we put in the effort to create those miracles.

Perhaps it would have been better for Bill Gates to use some other word, but we should try to understand what he is trying to communicate, rather than fret about how he might be misunderstood.

Bill Gates recognizes the deployment and innovation go hand-in-hand. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Innovation will only create the needed miracles if we begin to address the climate problem with urgency using the technologies we already have.

Ordinary miracles are an expected outcome of hard work by creative people. These ordinary miracles will help us to reach our climate goals.