The Healthy Climate Alliance has a bold and achievable plan to return the global climate to the conditions our great-grandparents enjoyed at the dawn of the 20th century. They want to do it by 2050, using a combination of carbon-removal technologies and natural systems to pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it in construction materials, the bottom of the oceans, and through other economically viable programs. This is a hopeful and positive view of humanity’s ability to respond to the economic consequences of climate warming that can be added to the well-established, but limited, potential of reducing carbon emissions. The two, reductions and removal of carbon, are tools for managing climate conditions. We asked Peter Fiekowsky, founder of the Healthy Climate Alliance, to join us for the first of several conversations on the June 11, 2018, Earth911.com podcast.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Welcome back to Sustainability in Your Ear, the Earth 911 podcast. I’m Mitch Ratcliffe, and today on our interview segment we’re joined by Peter Fiekowsky, who is an entrepreneur and physicist and started the Healthy Climate Alliance. The Healthy Climate Alliance is a nonprofit organization working with climate actors, people in the community, business leaders, policymakers, activists, scientists, communicators, and other people who have a stake in the future, to bring the idea of restoring a healthy climate into the global conversation.
I met Peter recently at the Earth Day gala event. He walked up and just started talking to me about the fact that we can fix the world. So, Peter, I was stunned by the fact that things aren’t hopeless. You didn’t start off by telling me the world was going to end, you started off telling me we could have a better world. Tell us about the Healthy Climate Alliance.
Peter Fiekowsky: The Healthy Climate Alliance is committed to the fact that we can reverse global warming and restore the climate, and restoring the climate means going back and giving our children the climate that our grandparents had.
Mitch Ratcliffe: And in what timeframe? Because that’s the surprising thing to me.
Peter Fiekowsky: We use the number, the year 2050.
Mitch Ratcliffe: We’re talking 32 years from now we can get back to our grandparents’ environment?
Peter Fiekowsky: That’s right. That’s right. I can tell you more about how we picked the year 2050.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Yes, please do.
Peter Fiekowsky: Okay. Well, I’m a physicist and an engineer and entrepreneur. The way we do things in engineering is someone tells us “Here’s what I want. I need a machine that does this, a factory that does that, a house that does this other, and I need it by Thursday or next year or next century. You design it.” And so, when we went out looking at how do we restore the climate, the first thing we have to say is “What does that mean, and by when do we want to do it?” And so, I’m going to dive into our history a little bit. The way I got into restoring the climate is for 30 years I was advocating as a volunteer for poverty issues. I went to Congress and we got Congress to fund fantastic things, immunizing all the world’s kids, giving AIDS treatment for people, leading to the end of, it’s now looking like the end of AIDS in another few decades.
We saw that the poverty work was going to go down the tubes if we didn’t restore the climate, because clearly in tropical areas harvests were going down, the forests were collapsing, and so on. A group of people, not so much myself, started the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and I was advising them because I had a lot of experience in advocacy in Washington as a volunteer, and my first question to them was “Okay, good, let’s succeed in this. What do you want to achieve by when?” They looked at me blankly, and said “I don’t know, the scientists told us that we should put a price on carbon, and that would be a good thing.” I said “That’s really a good thing. But if you do that, what do you achieve?” And there was silence, and they said “Okay Peter, you’re in charge of the 100 Year Plan Group. Figure out what it is we want to do on the climate, so we can say what and by when.” And that’s how we do engineering.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Today, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is about 411 parts per million. What would it be if it was back to our grandparents’ era?
Peter Fiekowsky: Well, 300 parts per million is the number that we use, and if I was an argumentative scientist I could argue about that, but anything below 300 is clearly survivable. We know that anything above 350 is not survivable, and that’s why some of your listeners may have heard of 350.org, because that’s a level of which if the CO2 gets above that, we’re not going to survive. Now, you may have noticed that we passed that point 30 years ago.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Yes.
Peter Fiekowsky: It’s one of my big frustrations with the climate conversation now is it’s been 30 years. What we’ve been doing hasn’t worked, it’s not working now, and it won’t work. What we need to do is get the carbon out of the atmosphere, emissions reduction is vital, that we got to get the carbon out of the atmosphere.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Even if we do reduce our carbon outputs, there’s so much in the atmosphere that if we don’t get it out we still continue down the path we’re on.
Peter Fiekowsky: Absolutely. The CO2 stays in the atmosphere 1,000 or 2,000 years. We’ll be long gone if we don’t get the carbon out, and we can.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Well, what are the different ways that you’re talking about? We’re going to focus on one of them today, but give us a broad view of the different Healthy Climate Alliance initiatives that you believe will help us restore the climate?
Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah. Well, your listeners certainly know about growing more trees and growing things in the ground which store carbon in the ground, and that’s valuable and important, but it doesn’t scale very well because if you give up cropland for trees, that’s bad for people.
We have a term we call the restoration scale, for carbon dioxide removal. And, when you look at things through that lens, then you can store CO2 on land, or you can sequester it on land or in the ocean. On land, you can use increased planting, you can use photosynthesis, but it’s competing with humans. And so, although it’s good, it’s not at the right scale.
What you can do is mineralize, so you can take CO2 and do the same thing, and turn it into limestone, turn it into rock that you can use for paving, and it’s the same thing that clams, that shellfish do. That’s called mineralization. It’s actually very low energy and the amount of rock we use for concrete globally is enough so that in 30 years, if we made that rock from CO2 — and we know how to do that — we could actually pull all the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere in 30 years.
Mitch Ratcliffe: And so, the other major area that, and it was what you first started talking to me about at the Earth Day event, was ocean iron fertilization. Tell us what that is.
Peter Fiekowsky: I mentioned the land, and then in the ocean, the ocean is three-fourths of the surface of our planet, and so that’s where there’s lots of sun, lots of water, but there’s limited nutrients because there’s, where’s the nutrients going to come from?
Well, it comes either from dust falling from the sky, from the air, or from upwelling, from the depths. And so, to increase the photosynthesis in the ocean, you have to do one or both of those. And this, it turns out that fertilizing from the depths is very inexpensive, because in a lot of the ocean, the limiting factor is iron and the amount it needs is incredibly low, incredibly low. Basically, one day’s production of iron, if ground finely and spread it throughout the ocean, would be enough to get all the carbon out of the atmosphere.
Mitch Ratcliffe: And so, what would happen? Let’s talk a little about the mechanism. So, the iron would enrich the water so that the plankton could do photosynthesis more effectively, and when they are done photosynthesizing, how does the carbon get sequestered?
Peter Fiekowsky: The iron is the is the missing link that’s needed for photosynthesis. The plankton grow, they get eaten by fish and other plankton, and a lot of it just falls down to the bottom of the ocean, or down towards the bottom of the ocean. Some of it makes it, some of it just gets suspended in mid-ocean, and a lot of it gets eaten by fish and some of the fists get eaten by other fish, and some of them sink down towards the bottom of the ocean. And that’s basically — and so that’s how the carbon gets sequestered.
Mitch Ratcliffe: So, nature doing its thing, just is accelerated by the iron.
Peter Fiekowsky: That’s right. That’s right. In fact, get coal is essentially formed that way. It was in shallow seas millions and millions of years ago, there was photosynthesis, the plants fell to the bottom of the sea and just stayed there and eventually [became coal].
Mitch Ratcliffe: And, this is something when we first talked, I thought you were saying that you were just doing this everywhere. As I looked into it, and you and I have exchanged some notes about this as well, it’s really about picking certain places it sounds like, and so can you talk about where this has been tested and what the results were?
Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah, so the biggest test was done in 2012 off the coast, off the Gulf of Alaska, and it was about 100 by 100 kilometers, and it was only like 70 tons of iron for that whole area. And the result was, about six months later, the fisheries in Alaska had five times their normal amount of salmon catch, and other fish also. But, the stories that I’ve heard is that the warehouses in Alaska got full of fish, and they actually had to stop the salmon catch because there was nowhere else to put the salmon at that point.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Was that salmon that grew up there or did, was it salmon that came there because the food was there? Do we know?
Peter Fiekowsky: The fish swim a lot, and so the stories I heard is some of the fish that they found had come 1,000 miles to feed off of their favorite area of plankton. That was in the fall of 2012 when they did the experiment.
Mitch Ratcliffe: And this was also controversial. Russ George, who did this, felt some heat. What was the outcome, and why is this controversial?
Peter Fiekowsky: There’s a lot of reasons it’s controversial, but the fundamental problem has been that our climate policy has been to reduce emissions, and so a number of green organization said “Well, wait a minute, if you pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and the CO2 goes down, that’s just going to give us permission to put out more emissions.” And so, they complained and [started a] sort of a vicious campaign against him.
Now I can understand, because if you read the UN reports indeed they say, “We have to focus on reducing emissions.” And those green organizations were correct that it would reduce the pressure if we reduced emissions by pulling it out of the atmosphere. So, what my organization is doing is saying “Well, let’s be straight about it. What we want is a healthy climate, and that means a low CO2 level in the atmosphere.” And-
Mitch Ratcliffe: Which may include management as well as removal, and so these are two thrusts or activity that need to go together. Not separately.
Peter Fiekowsky: That’s right, that’s right. And, they’ll be what we call asynchronous, which means that they’ll go up and down at different rates. So, for example, right now as we’re converting our cars to electric gradually, and our lights are maybe half converted to LED, it becomes a little bit more difficult every decade to switch over to clean energy, because the easy things are gone.
It’s going to be the opposite in carbon dioxide removal. It’s going to be, for many decades it’ll get easier and easier and easier to remove carbon dioxide as our technology improves. And so, they should be treated as very separate processes, because one’s got getting easier while the other one’s getting harder at the moment.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Okay. And so, the Healthy Climate Alliance is really helping the policymakers and business leaders understand how those asynchronous motions of more emissions or less emissions and more removable or less removal can be used to create a harmonic, or in harmony.
Peter Fiekowsky: Do it harmoniously. Now, fundamental to that is the main thing that you and I spoke about before the show, is that you’ve got to start with an optimism.
You have to say, listen, I’m committed to my children that they have a planet as beautiful to live on, and to do that, obviously we have to have the same climate that our species had when our species evolved, and that our civilization had as our civilizations evolved over the last 1,000 or 2,000 years.
If we don’t have that, life is going to be very difficult. So, if we want that, then that needs to be our goal. And that’s a very exciting thing to realize “Oh, we can do that.” And, as I started saying a little earlier, once you say you want to do it, you ask the engineers “Can we do it?” The answer is they say “Yeah, when do you want it done by?” And so, going back earlier, I just said, I told them “Okay, let’s do it by 2050 because it’s a round number.”
Mitch Ratcliffe: And that’s what’s really, I mean having worked with engineers closely for the last 25, 30 years, I absolutely recognize the plausibility of what you’re saying, because you’re not talking about any need to discover new science. All of this stuff is already figured out.
Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah. Well-
Mitch Ratcliffe: So, they already know that they can do it.
Peter Fiekowsky: There will be more goodies coming. I know [there will be more] creativity, yes.
Mitch Ratcliffe: As science advances, technology advances, this becomes a much more manageable problem. So, let me ask you this. We get to 300 parts per million or thereabouts, what happens to the climate? How will we know it’s working?
Peter Fiekowsky: Well, there’s two parts actually. So, we get the carbon dioxide out and people can picture that happening. Best that can happen by 2050. Someone asked me, many people ask me, “Can we do it by 2040?” The answer is “Yeah, of course we could do it by 2040, but it’s not a round number, so let’s get on to wait.”
Mitch Ratcliffe: And it probably costs three times as much, too [to achieve the goal sooner].
Peter Fiekowsky: It might be and it might not, but you get started and then we’ll do course corrections. But the other part is you’ve got to refreeze the Arctic ice. So, the Arctic ice is melted, 80 percent of the Arctic is melted now. And that means that in the summertime when the sun is shining 24 hours a day on that now blue dark blue ocean, it’s being absorbed and warming the ocean. Fifteen years ago, it was shining on white ice, reflecting that sunlight right back into space.
That’s now 30 percent of the excess heat warming up our planet. And that means that when we get the carbon out, and the planet is cooling, unless we restarted the Arctic ice, we’re going to have that problem in the Arctic. The problem in the Arctic is, it’s the cold in the Arctic where the cold air falls in the Arctic, warm air rises at the equator, you get a flow of air around the planet and that’s the jet stream. A part of it is the jet stream. With a warm Arctic now, that jet stream is weak, and the weak jet stream is why you get these wild, crazy weather patterns. And so, you got to restart the Arctic ice and once you do that, then we’ll restore the normal kinds of weather patterns so you don’t get the big floods we get, and the big droughts that we get.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Peter, that’s an inspiring vision and it’s also concrete in the sense that you can imagine what the world would look like when that happens. I can remember when we had a lot of ice at the Arctic, and I have seen in my own community in the Pacific northwest a major change in weather. So, if we can start to do ocean iron fertilization in the right places, and it sounds to me like that tends to be off the coast, but not deep ocean, but also not too close to the coast based on what it could do.
Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah, it’s mostly deep ocean and anywhere near the coast there’s enough run off from the coast there’s enough iron that that’s not the issue.
Mitch Ratcliffe: So, in fertilizing, you’re actually over iron, you over fertilize essentially, just like you would a field.
Peter Fiekowsky: Well, there’s no reason to over fertilize because it’s just a wasted effort. It’s like if you’re doing serious agriculture, you put out sensors, you figure out what’s needed. As I said, the amount of iron is insanely low. And so, you don’t really worry about over fertilizing because from the iron perspective, anywhere near the coast you’re way over fertilized with iron, but it doesn’t cause any damage.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Okay, great. So, I learned something new, and then of course we can get back to having normal weather, we can get back to having polar caps.
Peter Fiekowsky: Yes.
Mitch Ratcliffe: And there are a lot of jobs that can be created by the fact that we’re pulling the carbon dioxide out of the environment and using it in construction for instance, or managing these sensor networks. So, it’s a really great economic vision, not simply one that says “Look, everything could be better.” You’re really tying this to the fundamentals that move people, and that’s great to hear.
Peter Fiekowsky: Yeah. Well, the biggest thing for me is, I don’t have any grandkids and I do want grandkids, and I really want a planet that I can give them and be proud of and say “Grandkids, take that. This is better than my grandparents had.”
Mitch Ratcliffe: And I think we can get people excited enough to do this. So, what I’m looking forward to is continuing this conversation on Earth 911. This has been a great start. Peter, I want to thank you for the time you took today, and I look forward to inviting you back to continue the discussion. Next time I want to hear about how we’re going to build things with carbon dioxide.
Peter Fiekowsky: Great. Very good. I look forward to it, and thank you.
Mitch Ratcliffe: Thanks, Peter. That was Peter Fiekowsky, the founder of the Healthy Climate Alliance, a physicist, and a very successful entrepreneur as well. We’ll be back with the rest of the show in just a moment.
Feature image courtesy of PittMoss