Stuff I Wrote Elsewhere: The Puzzling Politics of Air Capture

I’ve wanted to write about Klaus Lackner’s air capture ideas for a long time. They originated in his work at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the ’90s, and I met him and talked about the work at the time. But I didn’t really get it, and never wrote about it. In recent years I’ve been actively watching for an opportunity to visit the subject, and his visit to UNM last week gave me the chance.

Clearing the air with “synthetic trees”?

Beginning at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the mid-1990s, and since 2001 at Columbia University, Lackner has poked and prodded anyone who would listen with this deceptively simple idea: If the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning is a problem (which he thinks it is), why not clean it out of the air directly?

The idea has won support from some of climate science’s most famous names. And yet, surprisingly, it also has drawn opposition from some advocates of greenhouse gas reductions,


  1. This isn’t really puzzling, and it’s rather akin to geo-engineering in general:

    1) We may need to do some of this stuff eventually, out of desperation.

    2) But in the meantime:
    a) Energy & CO2 efficiency everywhere, for which there is massive low-hanging fruit.
    b) Building renewables
    c) and even CO2 capture at point sources, where ithe concentratiosn are higher, i.e. liek if the Calera process or algae/coal, etc ever work
    d) Plant trees

    all seem like wins. In any case, if we don’t use a lot of the fossil fuel that’s left (i.e., energy “capital”) to build long-term sustainable energy supplies, we (speaking loosely, I won’t be around) will get to go back to ~1700s-level energy levels, and in particular,the population of NM won’t be what it is now.

    3) Air-capture is certainly wroth researching, along with other geoengineering, but the concern by many is that it can be yet another excuse to put off 2).

    I haven’t looked closely, but observe that it takes *energy* to build and run these things. In the short-term, is it better to spend energy to build renewables, build more efficient buildings & vehicles & lessen CO2), OR to build these things? (Needs lots of numbers I don’t have.)

    4) Our civilization is probably nearing a local “peak energy” sometime in the next few decades. Then, it’s downhill, see Charlie Hall’s “cheese slicer” @ TOD, search for “The Curse of Shrinking EROEI” and go on from there.

    SO, think of a stalling airplane taking a dive to build up speed to regain control before crashing. If it avoids the crash, and there are reasonable EROEI renewables built, then one can use the excess energy to build more, and then use some of that energy to draw down CO2.

    5) Anyway: my opinion: research them, but absolutely do not count on them, any time soon. Maybe mid-century or later.

  2. John-

    Who are these people that Roger was referring to: Those people, Pielke argues, are focused on reductions in energy consumption as a means to broader societal goals, and are suspicious of technological fixes that would obviate our need to consume less.

    Do you actually know of anyone who actually falls into this category?


  3. Andy –

    Roger cites a couple of examples in his air capture paper and related materials, first among them Ted Parson in an editorial comment published in Climatic Change in 2006. Wally Broecker, who has joined Lackner as an advocate of this technology, also has talked about receiving this reaction.

  4. Andrew:

    I don’t have specific references handy, but try:

    Google: return simpler life -paris -bush

    1) I have occasionally seen this @ Grist, Dot.Earth, elsewhere.
    See Simplicity.

    2) I suspect you have relatively little of this specific case in TX, and we don’t have much in Silicon Valley, but there are parts of CA where there is a strong belief that less energy-use & technology would be intrinsically better for us. We get a littel in S.V. regarding topics like bicycling usage.

    But:consider this event @ Isis Oasis, a place at which we once stayed (not realizing…).

    3) I have a relative who’s a psychology professor, does psychopathology, among other things. For many people:

    “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything…” — Richard Feynman

    is terrifying. Some people thrive on complexity and ambiguity, and scientists often do, but not everybody does. Certain anti-AGW beliefs may well be attributable to this personality trait.

    4) Consider the Amish, who are actually relatively coherent in their belief systems. Not for everybody is ~7 kids/family and 8th-grade education … but billions of people in the world would trade lives with them in a flash.

  5. The Feynman quote above had me thinking when I then ran into this statement by a science writer at the New York Times.

    “I think human beings are remarkably adaptable creatures that can cope with having their belief systems jangled, and I don’t know a science writer who would shy away from writing something that might contribute to the jangling.”

    While I admire the optimism of such a sentiment, my response to this from a “Social Scientist” perspective is…what is this guy smoking? Avoidance of belief system jangling might be the single most prevalent human mental activity ever.

  6. John-

    I’ve read the Parson editorial. It makes many good points, but does not make the point that you and Roger seem to think it does. Roger’s selective quoting of the article is misleading. I recommend you read Parson’s article yourself.


  7. Andy:
    I generally don’t read RP Sr, so I hadn’t gone through that to read Parsons.

    I just took your question in the general sense (“who are these people”), and suggested classes of folks who do seem to believe that. [I get into occasional arguments with such, as with well-meaning urban dwellers who *really* do not understand where their food comes from or how far away, or what it might be like to live and work on a 1800s farm, or somehow think that if everyone goes back to a low-tech lifestyle there will still be good Internet access. Sigh, as much as we do our best ot use bicycles as often as possible, some people just do not understand, or have never visited a Chinese or Indian farm.)

  8. @scot,
    My cellular model of memory, surprisingly, makes a strong emergent prediction that people will avoid belief system jangling whenever possible and will resort to cognitive dissonan4ce when straight avoidance is not strong enough.

    Avoidance appears to be an emergent property of the biology of brain architecture.

    In a stable ecological niche, avoidance appears to be a strong positive selection criteria.

  9. A couple of questions, first, would it not be simpler to grow real trees, second, what is the CO2 cost of building and operating one of these artificial trees. Links appreciated

  10. Eli –

    Real trees – that is, increasing the total amount of carbon sequestered in the terrestrial biosphere – seems orthogonal to the ideas being proposed by Lackner et al. There’s an upper bound on the total amount of trees mass that could be grown, at which point you reach a steady state. In principal, air capture, if it proves to be feasible, could allow an arbitrarily larger amount of carbon to be removed from the air and sequestered.

    But there’s an implicit flaw, I think, in the implication of your comment. We’ve got a series of separate discussions going on about various technologies, and whether X is better than Y, when in fact what we’re likely looking at in approaching the problem is a suite of solutions of X’s and Y’s.

    On the carbon cost of doing this, I’ll refer you to Keith et al., Climate strategy with CO2 capture from the air. Climatic Change, 74: 17-45, where they’ve done the basic calculation you’re interested in using fossil fuels as the energy source to create a bounding scenario.

  11. You can bury trees after you turn them into newspapers or you can build hoses with them, so no, I don’t think there is necessarily a limit on trees. I have to read the Clim. Ch. article, but waving my ears about a bit, you have to mine, purify, probably transform the ore you are going to use and then bury it. Strikes Eli that that is a bit much.

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