Notes from the TED Salon: "Hot Science: Radical Ideas to Combat the Climate Crisis"

Posted by: June Cohen

Oppen.JPGLast night in New York City, 250 TEDsters gathered to hear some radical proposals for outsmarting climate change. It’s a fact: Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are rising, and with them the possibility of severe climate change within our lifetimes. Increasingly, scientists are considering extreme measures that can quickly suck CO2 out of the atmosphere to reverse the heat buildup that could cause global warming.

And so, with our sponsors, BMW and Conde Nast Portfolio magazine, TED hosted a salon on climate change. The goal: Inspire a debate that goes beyond conventional rhetoric, and explore some radical scientific solutions that just might be ideas worth spreading …

Guest host Stephen Petranek began the night with a spirit of discovery. Seen from one angle, “global warming is a very simple chemistry problem,” he said, and removing CO2 from the air shouldn’t actually be that hard. In exploring the problem of climate change, his search for solutions (and speakers) turned up a wide range of unconventional thinkers and remarkable ideas — all of which are within the realm of near-term possibility.

First up: Michael Oppenheimer (pictured above), former chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, who was one of first to sound the warning about global warming. “I’m the depressing and immobilizing part of the program,” he joked. “I don’t propose any solutions …. So pop your Prozac and let’s go.” Oppenheimer set up the evening by demonstrating the overwhelming evidence that “pervasive climate change is already under way” and “further warming is physically inevitable.” (For a refresher on the causes of climate change, and the role of carbon dioxide, there’s no better primer than Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth).

Physicist Martin Hoffert took the stage next. A staunch advocate for getting off fossil fuels, Hoffert takes what might fairly be called an expansive approach to alternative energy, urging the systematic use of all our planet’s available energy sources: not only the wind and the sun, but ultimately all the star-power in our galaxy. Viewed from this angle, our singular focus on earth-bound fossil fuels seems not just misguided, but small-minded: “We’re relying on sources that represent only an infinitesimal portion of available energy,” Hoffert said.

His proposals — which range from wind farms (like the one atop the original Freedom Tower design) to a global power grid for collecting and distributing solar power, to an idea (“usually considered pretty far out … but maybe not for this audience”) for collecting solar power from space — all push the limits on conventional thinking and urged us, essentially, to think bigger.

Now, just as the evening’s speakers are all testing the edge of science, performer Sxip Shirey is pushing the edge of music. A circus composer and all-round showman, Shirey uses bowls and marbles, music boxes, bells and whistles to create beautiful, otherworldly sounds unlike anything you’ve heard. His short piece, “Pandora” — beautiful, haunting, eerie, sexy, mind-bending in its own right — provided a bit of mental cross-training, mid-evening. Murmurs of “How does he do that?” could be heard through the crowd …

Next, environmental scientist David Keith put forth another controversial solution: What if we injected levitated particles (likely sulfurous) into the middle atmosphere, to deflect sunlight and heat? The method is “absurdly cheap,” mimics a natural process that occurs when volcanoes erupt, and could be deployed in a localized fashion above the poles, as an emergency measure to slow a melting ice cap.

Now, this might may not be a GOOD idea, Keith warns. But it’s crucial that it enters the realm of public discourse. The idea has been around since the Johnson administration, but public debate has been squelched for a number of reasons, including this central problem: The knowledge that geo-engineering is possible makes climate change less fearsome, and reduces the political will to cut emissions (which we must do). “This is what economists cause a moral hazard,” Keith concludes. But it’s no reason to avoid a discussion: “We don’t make good policy decisions by hiding things in a drawer.”

The next speaker, Russ George, brought our focus down from the stratosphere and into the oceans, where climate change and rising CO2 levels have caused a dramatic loss of ocean productivity, particularly in the southern hemisphere. George focused on the disappearance of plankton blooms along the water’s surface (think of them as ocean forests). His proposal: the controlled release of iron filings in the Pacific to stimulate a plankton bloom, and therefore increase uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide. George’s firm, Planktos, would then sell carbon offsets, based on the productivity of the “iron bloom.” Like Keith’s solution (injecting particles into the atmosphere), this approach mimics a natural process caused when dust storms swirl out over the sea. And it similarly (let’s face it) triggers serious concern about unintended consequences.

The evening’s final speaker, TED veteran Juan Enriquez, offered us a glimpse at some ground-breaking research to explore the potential of bioenergy. He looked at the way our current energy sources — coal, oil, gas — are ultimately derived from ancient plants, and are in some way “concentrated sunlight.” Can we learn from that process and accelerate it? Can we apply biological principles to the problem of fuel creation? Can we get to the point where we grow our own energy as efficiently as we grow wheat? Looking at a photo of a pile of surplus grain, he notes, “That would probably be a good outcome for energy.”

After five provocative speakers, and many more mind-bending proposals, Stephen Petranek neatly summed up the thoughts swirling through all of our minds: “Humans are at a place in their history when we can actually engineer our own planet and fool mother nature,” he reflected. And while we must be absolutely mindful of the unintended consequences (they inevitably occur), “It’s incredibly uplifting to know we can control our own destiny.”

The talks from this Salon will be made available on TED.com over the months to come.

Photo of Michael Oppenheimer by Myrna Suarez, Condé Nast Portfolio

Comments (11)

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 12 2010

    OTEC technology
    Concerned about the idea of using nuclear energy for pumping the cold water and searching for better alternative energy sources, I found a perfect solution in technology called OTEC ( ocean thermal energy Conversion ), were a system that uses just the temperature difference between the surface ocean and deep water to generate electricity, the energy availability in the oceans is about 40 billion megawatts, or has power to spare, this technology has an income of more than 90% and is fully ecologica, another interesting point is that this energy source is available in large quantities precisely in the most favorable to the installation of the system

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 4 2010

    An new ecological idea to solve the global warming …see here…http://wwwecsm.blogspot.com/

  • Robert Mike commented on Jan 4 2010

    It seems to me the entire article is based on junk science. According to the NOAA the levels of CO2 rise have been negligible in the last 800 years. (http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2005/s2412.htm) I can’t see changing the entire world order based on unsound principles. Basically anyone who buys into the notion that we must act immediately or else, has no means of performing the easiest of research. This is just a way for rich people to get richer by selling “carbon credits,” while holding the masses in check. Yet another flim-flam being propagated on a website dedicated to advancement of knowledge. Maybe TED should focus on sound scientific principles rather than have the go with the crowd mentality.

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 3 2010

    An ecological idea to solve the global warming problem

    The proposals made to solve the problem of global warming can be separated into two categories:
    1. Ideas based on carbon sequestration – As examples, there are reforestation and production of algae in the oceans. These solutions, although theoretically correct, are long-term solutions and in practice seems unfeasible: reforestation because it is contrary to economic interests of the capitalist system, and in the case of algae production, we have a concern about the ecological balance.
    2. Solutions of thermodynamic nature – for example, those related to the increased reflection of solar rays, with the placement of thousands of mirrors in orbit or the spraying of sulfur in the high atmosphere….

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 3 2010

    ..These solutions are also unfeasible and in the case of spraying of sulfur it would have a real environmental crime with the production of acid rain. These thermodynamics solutions are Just symptomatic because in reality they do not solve the problem at its root.
    My proposal to lower the average temperature of the atmosphere is thermodynamic kind and therefore is not really a solution and would have to be complemented with long-term reforestation and reducing carbon emissions.

    Cooling of tropical seas

    The idea is very simple and I am amazed it was not submitted.yet.
    As everyone knows, the Earth’s climate is determined, among other things, by the warm and cool ocean currents. In the case of the warm currents, they determine the formation of atmospheric convection currents, forming the so-called trade winds. These winds, in turn, are primarily responsible for the formation of deserts. In addition, the warm currents are responsible for the formation of typhoons and ….

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 3 2010

    ….typhoons and hurricanes and indirectly are also the cause of tornadoes. This occurs when a large surface of the ocean is heated to temperatures above 27 C. What few people know is that at few hundred meters below the current warm ocean , the waters are extremely cold (about 6 C to 1,000 meters deep), therefore, to cool the surface very warm waters , we have to do is just pumping a large amount of cold water and pour it over the hot current!
    Sounds easy, but as the volume of water in ocean currents is huge (the order of tens of millions of cubic meters per second), it would require hundreds or thousands of offshore pumping platforms, strategically located in order to achieve lower a few degrees Celsius, the surface temperature of the oceans, but theoretically it is possible. The technology required for such enterprise has existed for more than a century. The extremely high cost of this machine (hundreds of billions of dollars) would be….

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 3 2010

    ….would be offset quickly by the end of the hurricanes. Countries that are more affected by hurricanes are rich countries such as China, United States, Japan, Mexico, India. So the wealthy countries are also more interested in solving the problem. The atmosphere also cool the medium term. The trade winds weaken and, with the consequent decrease in desert area, we would also have an additional carbon sequestration.

    Why this proposal is environmentally friendly?

    The average temperature of the oceans is approximately 3.5 Celsius , while the average surface temperature is about 17 C. This means that most of the oceans is at temperatures below 3.5 C, actually a big part of it is about 2.5 C, ie to cool the surface waters (at about 2 to 3 C), we have a temperature rise from the icy waters of a few tenths of a degree. It certainly will not cause any environmental problem. We must….

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 3 2010

    ….We must also remember that the average temperature of the oceans has never been so low in the last 10 million years.

    Anticipating criticisms and doubts

    1. The heat produced by the pumping stations would not be detrimental to the environment?
    No, because this heat would be dissipated in the very cold water used in the process. This heat would produce an average temperature increase of a few tenths of a degree, and would take centuries to happen.
    2. What is the source of energy used for the procedure?
    We would have to use nuclear energy, although this cause embarrassment in the most radical environmentalists. It makes no sense to generate this energy with fossil fuel sources.
    3. Who would pay this account?
    It sure would be who has the money (United States, IMF, UN, China, Japan, etc.) and the need to resolve the problem. Insurance companies could help since they would benefit directly.
    4. That your idea is unique and is patented?
    I think the idea………

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 3 2010

    ……..I think the idea has not yet been submitted, as if he had, certainly was being discussed. I found nothing on the Internet. The idea has been registered in office just to keep my credit as an inventor and here I am putting into the public domain. This question is of interest to all humanity and all living beings on the planet. It would be unethical to want to sell this idea.
    5. As would be built this supermachine?
    It could be constructed in various ways, but basically it would be an alignment of hundreds of offshore platforms (one every 500 meters), properly located and anchored with power generators and turbines pumping, the kind that are used in hydroelectric plants. They could also be used ships built for that purpose or adapted. The suction of the icy water pipes would be made by several meters in diameter and about 1,000 meters deep.
    6.Do the deep could waters capture will not drag the submarine mud and cause an environmental impact?
    No, because the deposits……

  • Richard La Marck commented on Jan 3 2010

    …….No, because the deposits of organic matter are at 4,000 meters deep and the idea is to use the water which is at 1,000 meters. The system could also be used to effect the dispersal of nutrients, but this would be done with great care and monitoring. The possibility of increasing production of fish is very interesting and should not be discarded.
    7. This procedure does not interfere with the system of thermohaline currents?
    This would have to be monitored, but I think not, because the amount of water used would be insignificant compared to the ocean.

  • Dru Chichester commented on Dec 30 2007

    This could combat the climate changes by raising money and awareness: You got your Red Sox, your White Sox; how about the Green Sox – the first professional sports team playing for the environment. Big name players, top notch management, but one big difference – all proceeds (after expenses) go toward the protection, maintenance and repair of our precious Earth. So all you Ted Turners out there, you would-be champions of the environment, put your heads together as well as your wallets and be on the forefront of the new century. The goodwill generated and the broadening of the baseball audience will elevate the sport to a new place in popular culture. Otherwise disenchanted viewers, turned off by the outlandish amounts of money made and spent on professional sports, will have something of redeeming value to support. The GREEN REVOLUTION, once just a twinkle in some granola eaters’ eye, is weaving the new fabric of society. Earth-friendly enterprises are leading the way. I believe that whomever has the finances and the forsight to initiate such a venture will find themselves one day among the MVPs at Cooperstown. If you build it they will come!