In the third and final installment of this series, we look at the need to investigate suggested solutions, how to cover human adaptation and how to explain geo-engineering
By James Fahn
The development of biofuels derived from vegetation and thus, in theory, consuming as much carbon as they emitwas once seen as the most promising alternatives to fossil fuels. But the bloom is off the rose for several reasons. Most biofuel initiatives require a lot of land and fresh water, resources that are increasingly in short supply, potentially increasing food security concerns. The development of biofuels is often expensive when compared to the energy density of the fuel produced. This has led some critics to consider biofuel development a boondoggle, more of a subsidy for farmers than a way to prevent climate change.Biofuel made from organic waste (also known as “biogas”) is generally considered a clean energy source. And there is still hope that biofuels can become a more effective solution in the future; for instance, if they can be derived from food waste, cellulose, or algae, which may require fewer amounts of land and water, or if they can be turned into aviation fuel, for which there are few alternatives at the moment. But as with all proposed solutions, journalists will need to investigate whether they turn out to be more hype than help.
CARBON REMOVAL, CAPTURE, AND SEQUESTRATION
Increasing our capacity to store carbon is going to be a crucial component of our effort to prevent climate change. So far, this has mostly been done by trying to grow trees and protect forests sometimes through offset programs like Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+). Such projects can contribute significantly to forest preservation and the regeneration of degraded landscapes. On the other hand, they sometimes conflict with the interests of forest welling people, and their links to carbon offsetting efforts are not always clear, creating tensions that suggest abundant potential for journalistic inquiries.
There are other initiatives aimed at removing carbon from emissions or from the atmosphere and then either storing or reusing it. Many of these are supported or promoted by fossil fuel companies that are particularly keen on Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS). This is a process that involves capturing the CO2 emitted during coal or other fossil fuel burning processes and storing it, typically by channeling it into underground storage facilities to prevent its release into the atmosphere. Such promises have been key to the industries’ claims of producing “cleaner” energy.
But despite all the promise, CCS has so far mostly been relegated to dubious demon stration projects, basically because it needs to be carried out on a huge scale and remains a relatively expensive process. Other engineering efforts aimed at removing carbon from the atmosphere seem to be mostly in the pilot stage thus far. In effect, it has faced the same problem as renewable energy initiatives: figuring out who is going to pay for them when the price on carbon remains low or nonexistent.
That said, we are probably going to have to eventually rely on carbon removal and storage to a certain extent. We have already wasted so much time trying to reduce the world’s carbon footprint that the world will probably overshoot the Paris targets aimed at preventing catastrophic climate change, which means we may well need the “negative emissions” that carbon removal can generate. As with biofuels, journalists will need to watch this space.
CLIMATE CHANGE IS ACTUALLY AN UNPLANNED GEO-ENGINEERING EXPERIMENT ON A VAST SCALE, AND HUMANS ARE CARRYING OUT SEVERAL OF THEM
Humanity has a vast task ahead adapting and responding to climate change, and the scale can seem scary. A deep look into all the resilience, and the reporting, that is going to be required could be as long as this piece. But there are a few key issues on which to keep a close eye. Much of the focus on resilience will be about fresh water: its availability and the lack thereof, and its role in floods, storms and drought. Preparing for and recovering from more devastating weather related disasters will also command a lot of attention.
Trillions of dollars are likely to be spent on adapting to climate change from building seawalls to restoring sand marshes nd it seems unlikely all the money will be spent responsibly and efficiently. Journalists will need to keep a sharp eye on that, and on whether politicians and planners face choices as to whether to build “hard” defenses or “soft” ones, and whether to plan for two feet of sea level rise or five or more, and so on.
But even those issues may pale compared to the potential costs of the massive human migration we’re likely to see. Only the wealthiest places will be able to pay to protect themselves. The next best scenario for people living in harm’s way will be “managed retreat.” But let’s face it, most of the time it won’t be wellmanaged. It will be chaotic and probably bloody. Journalists will need to watch carefully who’s making what decisions regarding whose communities get saved.
Climate change is actually an unplanned geoengineering experiment on a vast scale, and humans are carrying out several of them. The jury is out as to whether we’ll be good planetary engineers, but the evidence so far isn’t looking too good. It’s quite possible some country, bloc, corporation, or other powerful entity might one day decide to enact some purposeful geoengineering, with the goal of protecting itself from onslaught of climate change.
Our job as journalists is to explain the science, and investigate the human responses all around the globe that have made this the story of our time.
Some of the schemes that have been most talked about include distributing aerosols into the atmosphere or solar shades into space to slightly reduce the sunlight falling on the Earth. But there are concerns that this could also end up reducing agricultural output, and it wouldn’t do anything to prevent the acidification of the oceans. Right now, we even lack opportunities to talk about the possibilities, as there are few governance mechanisms for global decision making on such matters.
If all this sounds outlandish, bear in mind that 20 years ago, it was virtually taboo in environmental circles to talk about adaptation, because it was seen as distracting the world from the main goal of preventing climate change in the first place. That is roughly the position of geoengineering today. It is considered a “moral hazard” but who knows what desperate measures countries may turn to if some of the most dire predictions come to pass. Journalists should want to know, and would be well advised to keep an eye on any such initiatives, which could in theory be developed in secret.
As indicated by this long but far from exhaustive list of topics for journalists to investigate, climate change and all its manifestations is altering everything. It’s beginning to touch every part of our planet, from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the atmosphere, as well as every aspect of humanity’s economy and society.
Scientists, economists and people working close to nature can help explain how we are changing the world around us. Our job as journalists is to explain the science, and investigate the human responses in many more places around the globe that have made this the story of our time.
James Fahn is Executive Director of the Earth Journalism Network at Internews. He is also a lecturer at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches international environmental reporting. First published on the Global Investigative Journalism Network website. Reprinted with permission.