In “Galapagos”, Kurt Vonnegut says our brains got too big. He says, and I’m paraphrasing here, that in order to keep these overgrown calculators occupied, we constantly invent problems and solve them. Our fantastic intellect is there to help us justify all the tinkering.

Problem invention often occurs as a side-benefit of problem solving. Our need to engineer our way out of life’s challenges has brought us easily prepared but tasteless foods, more, but less reliable, information, internal combustion engines, internal combustion weapons, and a bored populace more than willing to abuse all of these things.

You know that carbon problem everyone is yammering on about? Someone has a solution. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Capture methods vary and each carries its own risks and costs (https://www.wri.org/insights/6-ways-remove-carbon-pollution-sky). We already know a fair amount about planting trees and crops that store carbon dioxide, but new technologies, such as bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), direct air capture, and carbon mineralization have their own energy requirements and pollution footprints.

Ocean-based carbon capture systems use the photosynthesis in intertidal plants, seaweed, and phytoplankton. By adding minerals to increase bicarbonate storage or running electric current through the seawater, CO2 would be extracted. Again, there are energy costs.

All of these methods are likely to carry as-yet-unknown consequences.

Once pulled from the environment, the captured carbon would be buried (sequestered) in the ground.

According to Michael D. Lemonick (The Earth-Shaking Consequences of Burying Carbon – July 5, 2012, https://www.climatecentral.org/news/the-earth-shaking-consequences-of-burying-carbon-underground) “ … among other potential dangers, CCS could trigger earthquakes. Geologists have been aware since the 1960’s that pumping liquids and gases into underground rock formations can trigger earthquakes by adding just a little extra pressure to existing faults in a sort of straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back effect.”

Can anyone say fracking?

“In 2011 alone, subsurface injection of wastewater from mining operations was blamed or suspected in quakes that shook Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio and Oklahoma. But they were small earthquakes, causing minimal damage and no injuries at all, and if that’s the worst consequence of keeping a lid on global temperatures, it might well be worth it.

Lemonick said CCS projects need to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere for thousands of years. Even minimal earthquakes, such as those that occurred in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, and Oklahoma in 2011, can create leaks that would release the carbon back into the air. And those minimal fissures add to already existing stresses on the planet’s crust.

“In places where vast, continent-sized plates of crustal rock attempt to slide past each other (as in California) or where one plate dives under another (as in Japan), the movement proceeds in fits and starts, with long periods of no motion at all as the stress gradually builds, and then the sudden jerk of a major earthquake,” Lemonick said. (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/scientists-take-another-step-toward-safely-burying-co2/)

More recently, in Scientific American, Bobby Magill described how carbon dioxide is injected into ancient lava flows. The lava solidifies storing the carbon underground.

“Stored carbon dioxide could explosively leak into the atmosphere through fissures in the earth,” the article offers, almost as an afterthought.

Lemonick quoted scientists, Mark Zoback, of Stanford University: “For the U.S., the best storage locations by these criteria are most likely in the Gulf of Mexico. If you’ve got a refinery on the Gulf Coast and if you can separate the CO2 and inject it underground locally, there’s no doubt that it’s a viable idea.”

Can anyone say Deepwater Horizon?

Zoback was not arguing that CCS is necessarily a bad idea, Lemonick said, “ … only that it might be a bad idea on the grand scale it would take to make a major dent in global warming.”

When I was a reporter covering marine issues in Midcoast Maine, we were just beginning to talk about sea-level rise. One of the many environmentally aware nonprofits in the state send me a video called “Building a Resilient Coast: Maine Confronts Climate Change” that outlined strategies for protecting property and infrastructure along our border with the ocean. After more than a decade, we still think adaptation is about changing the world around us, rather than altering the behaviors and habits that brought us to this dangerous place.

In the aftermath of the recent climate summit in Glasgow, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “Adaptation’ sounds so nice, so soft, so gradual — until it isn’t. Of course, we’re going to have to adapt, but I’d prefer to have to adapt by building a single sea wall than rebuilding Miami or New Orleans every three years. The difference will be what we do to minimize climate change now.” (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/09/opinion/climate-change-summit-glasgow.html)

Can anyone say Hurricane Katrina?

“There is still a huge gap between what scientists say is needed by way of immediately reducing use of the coal, oil and gas that drive global warming and what governments and business — and, yes, average citizens — are ready to do if it comes to a choice of heat or eat,” Friedman wrote. “Governments will not quit dirty fossil fuels until there is sufficient clean energy to replace them. And that will take longer or require much greater sacrifices than are being discussed in any depth at the summit.”

Even if it all went as planned, CCS won’t stop climate change. According to a CBS story on the process, the capacity of the geothermal-fueled Climework plant in Iceland is 4,000 tons. “That’s a drop in the carbon dioxide ocean,” Climeworks executive Julie Gosalvez said. “Nearly 40 billion tons of CO2 are now released into the atmosphere every year, much of it from fossil fuels,” the CBS report concluded. (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/devices-carbon-dioxide-fight-climate-change/)

Earlier this month, Maine voters rejected a plan that would carry electrical energy, from a hydro plant in Quebec to end users in Massachusetts, through miles of previously somewhat untrammeled woodland. During the discussion preceding the referendum, I kept looking for information about the need for this. Was Massachusetts experiencing a drastic shortage of electricity? Were they having blackouts and brownouts, such as the ones that continue to plague California?

Well, no. In reviewing information provided by the Massachusetts Dept. of Public Utilities, I found no planned outages of the sort used to ration electricity in places where the resource is limited. We are not running out of needed power so much as continuing to find ways to use more. And more. And more.

According to CNBC, while the “ … global supply of renewables will grow by 35 gigawatts from 2021 to 2022,” our demand for energy is expected to increase at three times that rate. “That shortfall will only widen as economies reopen and travel resumes.”

“We need to stop deluding ourselves that we can have it all,” the report concluded. Countries, such as Germany, renewable energy and conservation success stories a decade ago, now struggle to meet demand.

Does this desire for more feed anything living? Or, are we only looking to feed the servers that keep us streaming and buying and dreaming as all that is living falls victim to our solutions?

When I was in grade school, a teacher told us that what separates humans from the rest of the earthlings is our ability to adapt. Today we call it resiliency. But, what we call adaptation is, all too often, the application of our very large brains to change the world around us. Why turn lights off when we can just make more energy? Why move to higher ground when we can build a bigger seawall? Why modify my diet or exercise regimen when new drugs and artificial body parts can replace what overuse, carelessness and the never-ending search for comfort have destroyed?

We keep thinking we can go ahead, growing and dominating until there’s nothing left of the natural order that has allowed us to become a highly advanced civilization that never thinks all that much about where it is going, and has now has gone too far to turn back?

The desire, to fix things once and for all, is burned deep into our human makeup. In a time when most of our problems seem to have started as solutions, can anyone say it’s time to stop adapting the world? Can we apply our very large brains to living within the generous constraints of the lives we’ve been given?

filed under: