A New Basis for Solutions

Actions and Policies on Climate Change

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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February 20, 2007 — I herein propose a new criterion for actions taken and policies formed in the context of changing global climates. I believe this is a criterion on which [gasp!] all present sides to the debate can reasonably agree.

For those who have gotten understandably impatient with the debate and the topic itself, the proposed new criterion is set forth below. For those with some interest in a topic this urgent, with such high stakes piled on either side of it, please let me suggest some of the considerations which led to the proposed new criterion:

Photo courtesy of Elan Sun Star

The necessity for a new criterion

The mere fact that the United Nations IPCC “consensus” report on global warming published its conclusions a few days ago, and will be publishing its scientific findings in support of those conclusions three months later, strongly suggests the possibility that money and power are driving “scientific findings” on both main sides of the debate over global warming—not only Bush, Big Oil and Big Polluting Industry.

As the debate has developed, I think it has become apparent that there are scientists with round heels all over the map, not just on one political side of the debate. Each side has demonstrated that pretty well to be the case on the other side.

Whatever real scientists and real findings may be caught up in the mess either way, the whole of the science done on both sides is cast into doubt, with no prospect that whatever is the truth of the situation will get sorted out in time to affect outcomes. Science is the one thing on this planet that we — the public, policy makers, our interests and our progeny — could place much trust in, and now we cannot trust even science to be giving us an objective, reasonably accurate picture.

Yet we cannot wait for the truth of the matter to eventually resolve. One now universally agreed fact is that violently disruptive climate change is indeed underway and in some prospect of accelerating. One further consideration upon which I think all can agree, if we all just stop and think about it, is that significant climate change has many consequences, some of which can be severely deleterious to human and economic concerns. One of these, in turn, which I think would also be hard to argue against, is the global disruption of land-based agriculture and a potential for global famine.

One side might argue, no, no, no, we have agricultural surpluses, we haven’t seen famine in America since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, and we don’t think the global climate changes — which we now admit to — will be that large or that violently disruptive, and what’s been happening already is just normal vagaries of weather, just as we’ve always had. However, even putting aside all the weight of evidence to the contrary, can you be certain of your position on that? Are you willing to gamble a few billion lives on the certainty of your position that there is nothing to worry about, nothing to be done, and nothing needing to be done?

But the other side can also argue, quite correctly, that the evidence cited by alarmists is also tainted, and that the matter is too much in doubt to spend billions or trillions of dollars on imagined pending emergencies which might never come to pass, especially public monies which have to come out of taxes, sacrificing both current and future well-being on what may be only a chimera.

This sounds like a dilemma, but in truth it is not.

Contingency planning

There is need to plan for contingencies, and to have “escape routes” planned in the event such emergencies might indeed start happening. Just having options developed and in mind what to do and where to go if…. could save billions of lives, with the most negligible of expenditures until such time as the emergencies actually started happening and the need for coping with them became unarguably and overwhelmingly evident. If the emergency never came, neither would the massive expenditures already so often referred to.

Hence, a strong case can be made for thinktanking the contingencies, and even for putting the global warming issue, as non-politically as possible, to one of the global problem-solving colloquia which I have been advocating. Where an issue has been so heavily politicized as this one, ground rules would have to be adjusted to give greater premium to finding consensus than to beating the other fellow down to prove you are right. This would be relatively easy at the kind of colloquium I advocate, because nearly all discussion would be channeled into various specific CPS or problem-solving techniques.

The main thrust of the proposed colloquium, and colloquia series, would not be that “Here’s the answer, world,” but that here is what ordinary people came up with by using these various problem-solving methods, and what could our leaders and professional experts, responsible for the present state of affairs, do if they were to start using similar methods.

The original and main purpose of such a colloquium would be to promote the use of various CPS methods at policy levels, where they very clearly are very badly needed.

A second function would be to publicize the CPS methods in such a way that everyone would come to know about them and how to use them on their own issues.

A third purpose of the colloquium, if held on the topic of global climate change, would be to establish a lot of the possible options into the context, to in fact do some of that contingency planning so the best recourses would be visibly available should we come to need them. That could save millions if not billions of lives, and whatever masses of economic interest.

This third purpose brings us to what we propose as a new criterion for policies and actions to be undertaken vis-à-vis the context of global climate change.

The proposed new criterion

I propose, very simply, that out of the wide array of possible actions to be undertaken, especially of any costly action to be undertaken before the emergency as a preventive (to head off a possible disastrous consequence of disruptive climate change):

Select and undertake only those actions which are also worth undertaking for other reasons or for their own sake, until the emergency itself becomes certain.

How will that criterion work? Some examples —

Cultivating algae on a large scale, which are very efficient at (temporarily) sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere, as a proposed action would not qualify under this criterion on three counts, namely,

  1. Because of round-heeled science as discussed above, it is not yet certain that our excess CO2 is the main thing driving the global warming;
  2. The algae as a bulk product only temporarily lock up CO2 and, in various uses or generally, tend to break down to release that CO2 again, so there is little or no net gain in purging excess CO2 from the atmosphere.
  3. And (now our criterion comes into play) we don’t have enough current uses of algae to justify, on its own, a massive project to cultivate algae. We use a tiny bit of it for nutritional supplements, and that’s about it.

What could make an algae-raising project worthwhile in its own right, and profitable, instead of being a drain on the treasury and instead of being just a speculation against a problem which might not be a problem?

  1. Using algae as fertilizer, both generally and as a way to increase the carbon content of soils, especially in deserts (to be irrigated) where soil content of carbon is presently negligible.
  2. Using algae to manufacture ethanol.

Because algae grow so much more rapidly than corn and potentially in such huge volumes, upon independent objective examination there is some likelihood that ethanol made from algae may cost less than that made from corn, and use up less energy in its manufacture. (Economic and political interests have gotten involved in the ethanol matter just as they have in the more general issue. This algae question might best be pursued by private industry and enterprises whose initial stakes don’t predispose findings as to what is economical.)

Thus, using our proposed criterion as a basis for selecting courses of action could actually change proposed courses of action into worthwhile, profitable enterprises instead of being drains on the treasury.

However, one of our list members at Yahoo, Tom Hernach, points out that one apparent drawback of algae is their high level of cellulose content, which is insoluble in water and whose accumulation might render conditions less favorable for other forms of life. One solution to this which he suggested would be genetically engineering a yeast which can digest that cellulose, turning that into ethanol. Another of his creative suggestions was to use the cellulose component of algae in the manufacture of paper, correspondingly saving many of the trees now being consumed.

It has been similarly proposed that we dump fertilizer into the ocean, to increase the rate at which the ocean takes up and sequesters carbon dioxide. Aside from questions of upsetting oceanic ecology, this proposal flunks the criterion. Except for the questionable CO2 matter, dumping fertilizer into the ocean is expensive and doesn’t yield any useful or profitable product, and does not seem worthwhile undertaking in its own right.

But — how about such fertilizer in the process of enriching oceanic fish farming? That is a possibility. The world is drastically short of producing enough protein, despite our level of comfort here in North America and in other advantaged regions. Would the cost of the project be offset enough by profits from increased fish protein production to justify this form of the fertilizer-in-oceans proposal? Possibly so. The matter certainly seems worth at least some further investigation. Adding some further value to the proposal would be that not only would some extra CO2 be sequestered away, but with the increased supply of fish protein we’d have one more hedge against shortfalls in land-based agriculture resulting from disruptive changes of climate.

A less costly and more productive way to increase world supply of fish protein has been set forth in Feeding the World (Winsights No. 59). That better meets the suggested new criterion. That would be a highly profitable and beneficial enterprise which just happens also to be a very good hedge against the prospect of emergency shortfalls of food production on land. (And, of course, these two very different ways of improving world supply of fish protein are not an either-or:  they probably can usefully be used in tandem in some situations, and one more economically than the other in some amongst the variety of conditions in which this recourse might be pursued.)

Irrigating the desert? Definitely worth undertaking for its own sake, and potentially highly profitable. Forty and fifty years ago the world made reforestation efforts which were far too little and too late, and desert has consumed most of the continent where humanity first emerged. Millions of human beings have died, directly or indirectly, from the effects of that desertification, while many millions more have become displaced refugees or now live at the very margins of barest minimal survival. The cost of irrigation has gone down spectacularly, thanks to leaps in the technology of stripping salt from sea water. So:

Irrigate some of the deserts of the world. Plant cover crops the first few years, harvest the grains, compost the stalks, return that compost to the soil, build up carbon in the soil sequestering CO2 from the air and also building thereby the moisture stability of the soil there. The new grains source could be profitable, as well as ending the present humanitarian costs.

Perhaps to lead the way on this avenue could be

  1. the manufacturers of that modern water desalination equipment whose volume low cost now makes this project feasible;
  2. the manufacturers of various agriculture-related equipment;
  3. various elements of the agribusiness industry, who may also find enough profits in prospect also to add their efforts on behalf of this project; and
  4. if, by this time, the above proposal on algae has developed, the economic interests that have emerged there could also play a useful hand, since they would profit from the use of enormous volumes of algae that could be used to fertilize irrigated desert soils and to sequester carbon in those soils.

By the same token, a much less costly project could save — or at least postpone the end of — the Amazonian rainforest, now apparently in the early stages of flipping over into becoming another Sahara. If all that rainforest becomes desert, as some climate models suggest is already happening even apart from all the logging off and all the slash-and-burn which have already so decimated it, that is a lot of soil about to lose its carbon and boost C02 levels yet higher sooner in our atmosphere.

Using our proposed new criterion, it does seem eminently worthwhile, entirely aside from prospective effects on changing global climate, to preserve the Amazon. The biodiversity there, the medicines and other products yet to be discovered and made from that biodiversity, the potential for partnered human/forest economic activities whose value would far outweigh the temporary grazing of cattle which now impels the slash-and-burn, are just a few of the things which make the preserving of the Amazon worthwhile in its own right:

  1. Through prizes for recipes and cookbooks featuring iguana, we could start a world-wide fad for iguana, raising its perceived value and price relative to the beef which now drives the slash-and-burn. Iguana, unlike beef, requires a forest habitat.
  2. Needed apparently are pumping stations at the mouth of the Amazon, and pipelines into the forest, to get more water back up into that forest and forestall the flip-over into becoming desert.
  3. If there is no longer enough water in the Amazon River to forestall desert when pumped back up into the forest, a few modern water-desalination plants along the coast, also feeding into those upstream pipelines, could make up the difference.

As intrinsically worthwhile as it seems to save the Amazon, here the new proposed criterion gets a bit strained. The interests building the plants and the pipelines may make some profits, but is enough commerciable wealth and profit generated by the project to fully meet the proposed standard? At first blush, probably not: the long-run benefits may be too long to fit into any particular firm’s budget and incentive. At second blush, however, with such a variety and wealth of resources represented, the project seems at least worthy of further investigation. — And: the proposed focus of such investigation should be, according to the proposed criterion, finding commerciable values in such a project and in the continued rainforest itself, sufficient to make the profit prospects of individual firms positively compelling.

And so on for hundreds of possible recourses to possible situations stemming from possible disruptive effects of global climate change.

With this proposed new criterion, there don’t have to be political sides drawn, there doesn’t have to be corrupted science. We various of us just go in problem-solving with an eye to how positive value and positive profits can be created or found which ALSO address some of the problems and context of disruptive global climate change — for the most part, a long way away from public policies and public monies and public power stakes and positionings.

What about your far-fetched Comet?

Our seemingly most far-fetched idea up to this point would be where we suggest towing a stray comet into a stable Lagrangian orbit to act as a shade between Earth and the sun. That is very close to being achievable even with our present level of technology and doesn’t appear to present any really great problems in implementing. This could be a last-resort, last-ditch, self-contained project which even a single major corporation could undertake, even under the chaotic conditions where civilization was collapsing under the emergencies posed by a runaway greenhouse effect.

We could argue that our proposed criterion didn’t need to apply to that proposal, that things would be to the point where it would unarguably be to everyone’s immediate interest to implement, and wouldn’t be undertaken unless — as seems so likely — we continued to wrangle here on Earth without useful action until every other recourse was too little too late.

But we won’t argue that. We won’t argue that, in part because even the small distance that technology would have to advance to make this action feasible does take a little time (months of applied research) and some modest expense. The criterion would be needed to justify that advanced research expenditure.

And we don’t NEED to argue that, either — and not because the same technology that could make sunshades out of comets for us would also deflect asteroids, one of which, sometime, is bound to otherwise hit the Earth again. That argument would have the same structure as the more general argument concerning disruptively changing world climate, whose resolution we are finding via the proposed criterion.

The reason we don’t need to make that argument is that the criterion may well apply even here, and help us hunt up a major positive value and profit potential. We do need a bit of research and maybe some technical help, however, in taking this comet-moving idea to the next level of proposal. Here is the question:

On one side of the equation you have the expense (and energy budget) of developing the re-usable technology, of lifting a payload of comet-moving equipment into suitable space trajectory, of actually moving a comet when one comes along and putting it into stable orbit of some sort, and a solar-powered factory to convert the comet’s water into rocket fuel. On the other side of the equation is the cost and the energy budget of moving into stable orbit the mass of rocket fuel that the equivalent mass of comet’s water can be converted into, in service of deep space missions which are upcoming anyhow….

Make that a Lagrangian stable orbit trailing Earth in its path around the sun. Developing this whole base of a new industry would, parenthetically and incidentally, develop the capability right with it of towing such comets into sunshade position should we come to need it. This reasoning — if the economics and energy budgets for this come anywhere close to a favorable balance — means that our proposed criterion could apply to even our seemingly most far-fetched proposal, the one surely now the very farthest from where people are currently doing such thinking as they may be doing.

Further, it must be to someone’s economic interest and profit potential to create such comet-based, stable-orbit-based fueling stations. Even with governments so heavily involved with the space program, we might be able to see this whole comet-fuel industry open up without spending any public money.


  • There are not only a variety of problems and effects headed our way by disruptively changing global climates, but a variety of potential recourses which can be found to ameliorate or protect against or head off some or all of these various problems and effects.
  • Some of these problems and effects are serious enough to warrant contingency planning and problem-solving. There will be some murmurings on this point, but nearly every one of us buys insurance against slimmer possibilities, in our personal life and in business.
  • At the same time, there are enough doubts left as to the nature and extent and causes of disruptive climate change, to raise questions as to whether and how much resource and money should be invested in solving problems which may turn out not to exist.
  • The suggested criterion for selecting among available options would be to search for those actions which are worthwhile in their own right and potentially profitable, aside from their helping cope with one aspect or another of the global climate change context.
  • If we look among the available options, for coping with climate disruption and its effects, to seek out those options which meet this proposed criterion, we will find them.
  • This is a course of action which can be agreed upon by all reasonable people whatever their previous or political position in the global warming debate. We gain safety — personal safety, safety of the economy, safety of the community and nation, safety of civilization and even of the human race as such — amidst the sea of uncertainties surrounding the current science on global climate change. At the same time we gain new options for creating positive value and potential profits, with negligible expenditures, as should be expected from the application of ingenious, creative, problem-solving methods to these contingencies.

The writer welcomes help in getting this new criterion into appropriate discussions in this context, private and public, and in bridging the deep divisions now barring us from rational actions.

The writer also welcomes help in forming contingency-planning and problem-solving groups and functions, especially in creating a form of the proposed global problem-solving colloquium. Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of the matter.

UPDATE! — August 2007 — New Mexico Scientist: Plankton Could Counter Climate Change
A New Mexico Tech scientist believes he has found a way to head off dangerous climate change. Oliver Wingenter said the idea is simple — fertilize the ocean so that more plankton can grow. Read his full article.

Win Wenger comments:
Until now I was sadly convinced that conservation measures regarding CO2 would be too little and too late to meaningfully affect the outcome. Wingenter’s observations regarding production of dimethyl sulfide by plankton changes my mind on this. My system for oceanic fish farming also, necessarily, very much enhances conditions for plankton to flourish, and has the advantage that we don’t have to dump chemicals and substances into the ocean in order to fertilize the plankton. The dead waters offshore of Texas and Louisiana could be similarly treated and brought into plankton productivity, without being used to fishfarm because of the chemicals which killed all life there in the first place.

In other words, the combination of my proposal for fish farming, with Wingenter’s proposal to boost production of plankton and therefore the Earth-shading effects of dimethyl sulfide, with even fairly mild versions of the proposed CO2-conservation measures, may be enough to restabilize Earth’s climate and food supply, even while boosting food supply for billions now starving.

Postscript:   We make these following observations, on October 10, 2009, in response to a most encouraging report published in New Scientist:

“Rocket company tests world’s most powerful ion engine”
by David Shiga, 05 October 2009″

A major, much more powerful, new ion drive engine is being developed which can propel human missions to Mars in as little as 39 days, compared to the six months or more required with conventional rockets. One 200-watt engine of this type has already been test-fired. Another is slated to be installed on the International Space Station within five years to help it maintain its orbit against atmospheric drag – which could be very important if the sun goes into its next solar maximum and stirs up our upper atmosphere again.

Ion engines are of special interest in space development because they can run almost forever with little fuel, requiring, however, abundant energy, which is abundant in space. They work in a vacuum. They are not powerful enough to lift their own weight against the full pull of Earth’s gravity, but once in orbit their mission capacity is huge compared with that of other currently available forms of propulsion. Earlier, weaker ion drives have been used successfully in the later stages of various distant space missions throughout much of the solar system.

A point of interest here is that it brings much closer the achievement of what we’ve proposed in the present article and in Off on a Comet for intercepting and moving comets. The main, positive purpose for such a proposal is to fully and effectively launch the new Space-based Industrial Age to bring comprehensive prosperity to every corner of the Earth and its varied inhabitants while protecting what now survives of the terrestrial environment. Accomplish this by attaching such ion engines and their controls to the nucleus of a water-rich comet and nudging it into a stable, trailing LaGrangian orbit following Earth around the sun. Millions of tons of potential rocket fuel that doesn’t have to be lifted against Earth’s gravity well, plus limitless solar energy, opens to us the resources of the entire solar system.

The second, contingency, purpose for such a proposal is in the last-ditch instance of runaway global warming – which could happen in five years if the already-started methane blow accelerates and initiates a fourteen-degree thermal spike like that which happened in the world’s worst mass extinction ever, at the end of the Permian – where potentially risky global engineering may be required for our survival. In this instance a comet could be nudged into stable LaGrangian orbit between Earth and the sun to act as a diffuse sunshade. The coma of a comet being diffuse and spread out, and thus not affecting one area of the Earth much more than another, this seems to be among the geo-engineering methods which are least disruptive to what remains of Earth’s climate patterns.

We used to think we had more time than this – and if the sun unexpectedly continues in its current solar minimum, we do – but we need to work these things out and develop on standby, at least, the relevant technologies. Emergence of this new generation of ion rockets is profoundly encouraging.

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