Unanswered Questions for Geoengineers & Reed College

“The Paris agreement aims to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2C above preindustrial temperature, but achieving this goal requires much higher levels of mitigation than currently planned. [emphasis added]” So begins an editorial, “How to govern geoengineering,” appearing on p. 231 of the 21 July 2017 issue of Science magazine.

The 3 authors, all of whom work at the Carnegie Climate Geoengineering Governance (C2G2) Initiative, describe the two most talked-about versions of “geoengineering” (human actions designed to intentionally change the climate): carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM). Both approaches currently run aground on unsolved technical problems, and, as the authors point out, “geoengineering does not obviate the need for radical reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to zero, combined with adaptation to inevitable climate impacts. [emphasis added]”

To put it in straightforward terms, we can talk all we want about technical ‘engineering + adaptation’ fixes for the planet, but we still need to stop producing greenhouse gases. This means halting the burning of fossil fuels, something that will happen only when Reed College, and other shareholders in fossil fuel companies, stop clinging to a narrowly defined view of “fiduciary responsibility” that says short-term profit is a viable option even if it leads to long-term disaster.

I have 34 years of college teaching at 3 different institutions under my belt, and I know that what we do is worthwhile, but I cannot identify a single college program that would justify financial transactions that will ultimately make refugees out of the millions who live in coastal communities, and threaten the global food supply, to name just two likely consequences of climate change (“The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, 9 July 2017 and “Are We as Doomed as That New York Magazine Article Says?” The Atlantic, 10 July 2017).

Our institution’s approach to the fossil fuel industry needs to change, and yet, even as I try to picture the necessary changes I know that these will need to be managed carefully and thoughtfully. Overnight divestment is not a viable option. Unfortunately, what concerns me is that the College’s leaders have so far denied that there is even a problem here worthy of their attention. They find it easier to blow the dust off of documents written for a bygone age, and point to phrases like “fiduciary responsibility” and “protecting academic freedom,” phrases that will almost certainly lose all meaning in the world that is now appearing all around us.

Sometimes it helps to look at the data. Here are globally averaged CO2 levels (measured at the ocean’s surface as reported by the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, NOAA) taken from the last 27 years of my Reed career:

  • April, 1990 (my first Reed Thesis Parade) – 355.4 ppm
  • April, 2013 (class of ’17 clicks ‘yes’ on Reed’s admission offer) – 396.5 ppm
  • April, 2017 (class of ’17 celebrates Thesis Parade) – 406.7 ppm

When I first arrived at Reed global CO2 levels had just moved above the 350 ppm mark embraced as “safe” by atmospheric scientists and climate activist organizations like 350.org. This means my entire Reed career has been spent watching CO2 levels rise ever higher into the “danger” zone.

The rate of CO2 rise is another cause for concern. In my first 23 years at Reed (1990-2013) these levels rose 41.1 ppm or 1.8 ppm/year. During the last 4 years (2013-7), however, the time period during which the Reed Class of 2017 completed the journey from high school to college graduation, CO2 levels rose another 10.2 ppm or 2.5 ppm/year. So not only are CO2 levels higher than ever before, they might be rising faster too.

During these 27 years I replaced my gas guzzlers with hybrids, bought utility energy credits in solar, wind, and other renewables to replace all of my power consumption, and I watched one institution after another (including Reed) “go green” with energy reduction programs. All of these actions were beneficial, but things have gotten worse anyway. This is because the impact of our other actions, namely our addiction to fossil fuels as a means for operating our daily lives, and as a means for funding our institutions, has exceeded the impact of our good deeds.

The take-away lesson is not that the situation is hopeless and we are doomed, but that much, much greater efforts are called for. Unfortunately, great effort must begin with great imagination, and it is challenging to imagine changes on a sufficiently large scale. Our habit is to think small, to bind our expectations regarding our futures tightly to the constraints of the world we already live in. “What can I do?” and “How will Monday be different from Sunday?” are the kinds of incremental questions we prefer.

Mental habits like these make sense in a certain kind of world, but the CO2 trends cited above should make one pause. Intentionally or not, we are creating a world that is unlike any that we have seen in human history. We need to think more imaginatively than ever before, particularly if it is our responsibility to support the ongoing activities of two thousand students and workers. While it is certainly possible that incremental improvements in energy production, usage, and investment, are the only ones available to us, we must make sure that we operate consistently from a perspective in which addressing climate change is of the highest priority, and not from a perspective that assumes college “business as usual” trumps all other considerations.

The ability to imagine futures radically different from the present, and to devise plans for reaching those futures, may not come easily, but it is the kind of “outside-the-box” thinking that a Reed education ought to cultivate. And this is the kind of imagination that needs to guide the College’s planning for the future.

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