Sunday, March 15, 2020

We Need a Manhattan Project for the Climate

"We could call the IPCC reports our modern Einstein letters. They are arriving to the Resolute Desk with greater frequency and urgency. Sadly, the occupant of the oval office is curled up with a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

Teller drives Szilard to see Einstein
With a viral plague descending on the world now, I am struck by how similar this century’s 20’s are to the last century’s. The plague then, following the Spanish flu pandemic, was political. In 1921, a piece of fake news caught the attention of a young house painter named Adolph Hitler. In its earliest editions, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion had nothing whatever to do with either Jews or anti-Semites. It was a literary parody propaganda written in the 1860s to rally popular opinion against Napoleon III. Around 1895, the pamphlet was modified by the czarist Russian secret police stationed in Paris to portray anti-monarchists as part of a global Zionist conspiracy. 

Alfred Rosenberg introduced Adolf Hitler to the Protocols with an edition printed by automobile magnate Henry Ford under the title The Jewish Peril. It came at a pivotal time when Hitler was still developing his worldview, pre-Mein Kampf. He referred to the Protocols frequently with approval in political speeches throughout his career, despite having been told that they were faked. So, too, did Joseph Goebbels. To them, the notion of Russian secret police fake news was hogwash. The Protocols were gospel. 

When Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, people already knew how he felt about Jews. Black shirt fascists were publicly beating up Jews all over Germany, burning and looting shops, and arresting many on false charges. Most Germans realized it would get worse, but like all political tides, people assumed Hitler wouldn’t last beyond one term and that the Reichstadt’s old line politicians — the deep state — would shake off its lethargy and step up to control the damage. They were wrong.

By March, parliamentary vote was replaced by executive orders. An order for the reconstruction of the civil service issued on April 7. Reconstruction was a euphemism for dismissing Jews from state appointments, including university faculties. 

Germany fired 27 Jewish scientists who had won, or would later win, Nobel prizes. Among these were several important physicists who would geopolitically shape the remainder of the 20th century. Now they became concerned about whether they would even be able to leave Germany.

Fortunately for those scholars, brave men outside Germany saw what was going on and stepped into the fray, quickly, before travel barriers were erected. In April 1933, British economist William Beveridge founded the Academic Assistance Council, later renamed the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, that rescued more than 2500 scientists from Germany and occupied countries, including Hans Bethe, Felix Bloch, Max Born, Albert Einstein, James Franck, Otto Frisch, Fritz London, Lise Meitner, Erwin Schrödinger, Otto Stern, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Victor Weisskopf, and Eugene Wigner. 

Hitler’s anti-Jewish executive order disrupted theoretical physics at a key moment. The scientific frontier was just pushing into the realm of quantum mechanics, the description of the atom, and an understanding of the curve of binding energy derived from Einstein’s formula, E = mc2. So it was that the rescued Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard found himself crossing a London street when he suddenly grasped that atomic fission could be sustained in a chain reaction of energetic subatomic particles. 

Szilard, later soaking in his bath in the Strand Palace Hotel near Covent Garden, realized that these fission reactions could be chained together to release unfathomable energy to power, or destroy, whole cities with a mere teacup of isotopes. He also knew that this sort of physics was not unknown to the non-Jewish scientists still at work within the Third Reich, or to their counterparts in universities in Russia and Japan. So it came to be that Szilard, urged by Wigner, went to visit Einstein to implore him to author a letter to alert President Franklin Roosevelt to the danger. A young Edward Teller drove Szilard out from New York City to Long Island to take that meeting.

Szilard persuades Einstein to write Roosevelt
By the time Einstein’s letter reached Roosevelt, Germany had invaded Poland and the United States was moving, slowly, to war footing. Despite being very busy, the significance of atomic fission was instantly grasped by Roosevelt and within hours of receiving the letter, a committee had formed at the White House to bring key scientists into communication with the military echelon and civilian war planners. From that emerged the secretive Manhattan Project, jointly headed by Robert Oppenheimer for the scientists and General Leslie Groves for the Pentagon. Oppenheimer pulled together in one place the best minds of the world to solve this one problem. 

Later testifying before Congress, Oppenheimer recalled:
“I became convinced, as did others, that a major change was called for on the work of the bomb itself. We needed a central laboratory, devoted wholly to this purpose; where people could talk freely with each other; where theoretical ideas and experimental findings could affect each other; where the waste and frustration and error of the many compartmentalized studies could be eliminated; where we could begin to come to grips with chemical, metallurgical and ordinance problems that had so far received no consideration.”
“The Japanese assessment was essentially technological. Like Bohr’s assessment in 1939, it overestimated the difficulty of isotope separation and underestimated US industrial capacity. It also, as the Japanese government had before Pearl Harbor, underestimated American dedication. Collective dedication was a pattern of Japanese culture more than of American, but Americans could summon it when challenged and coven it with resources of talent and capital unmatched anywhere else in the world.” 
— Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Germans had no paucity of resources and talent in 1940. Despite the purges of Jewish scientists, they still possessed some of the foremost nuclear physicists of the era. Pause here and take a moment to picture a world in which Adolph Hitler possessed the atomic bomb, long before any of his adversaries. 

From 1941 to 1944, after suffering a crushing defeat in the blitzkrieg along the Eastern Front, ultimately costing 48 to 49 million Soviet lives, Stalin stood up an industrialized war machine that expelled the Wehrmacht invaders, killing 4.3 million stormtroopers in battle, and then wheeled and defeated the 1-million-man Japanese army in Mongolia in just 8 days. 

Now, suppose instead of watching his battered army retreating across the Russian steppes to the fatherland, dogged all the way to Berlin by incomprehensibility vast legions of pursuing Red Army tanks, Hitler had turned to his attache holding the football and simply released launch codes. Imagine what this past 80 years would have then become. Imagine, as Hitler did, a one thousand year Reich.
“Hitler had some time spoken to me about the possibility of an atom bomb, but the idea quite obviously strained his intellectual capacity. He was also unable to grasp the revolutionary nature of nuclear physics.” — Albert Speer
Consider the existential threat we presently face. Our international conferences have failed us. The pledges and pacts — Stockholm, Rio, Kyoto, Paris — stand revealed as false promises, filled with wiggle room and prevarications. We could call the IPCC reports our modern Einstein letters. They are arriving to the Resolute Desk with greater frequency and urgency. Sadly, the occupant of the oval office is curled up with a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

There are, outside the USA, the modern equivalents of Manhattan projects underway. In 2016 Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland convened a brain trust to advise her on Regenerative Development to Reverse Climate Change, eventually forming an initiative called Common Earth. Next May, top climate-reversing scientists reconvene in Stockholm to examine Negative Emissions Technologies (NET) and compare progress. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has become this century’s Los Alamos, Johan Rockström and Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in the role of Oppenheimer and Groves, headhunting any who might make significant contribution to reversing climate change, and obtaining the needed funding.

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Johan Rockström, Steffen Kallbekken, Kevin Anderson, and Joeri Rogelj in Paris, image by Peter Buchert

Unless we can lower atmospheric concentrations (and oceanic concentrations since they are in equilibrium) of heat-trapping carbon by hundreds of billions of tons within mere decades, the global thermometer will inexorably rise into territory uninhabitable by mammals and you and I will go extinct. At present rates of increase that event will likely occur before the end of this century. It is possible we could find ways to delay our death sentence — such as by relocating to undersea bubble cities — but in the end the oceans too will heat beyond human survivability. We need to remove 800 billion tons of CO2 from the existing global carbon cycle, extremely fast, or we perish.

By 1939, a few of the world’s brightest physicists had grasped that the way to make an atom bomb would not involve slow neutron bombardment of the heavy isotope Uranium-238, as generally assumed, but might be found in fast neutron bombardment of the rarer isotope Uranium-235 or a yet-to-be-discovered transuranic fission product. Relatively few physicists working on this problem had this insight in those years, and those in the dark outer circle included the atomic scientists laboring for the Third Reich and Japan. They imagined that with the right moderator, such as deuterium (heavy water), U-238 or Thorium could be made to sustain a chain reaction. Fortunately for the world’s Jews, Gypsies, and everyone else, they were wrong. They were still futilely pursuing heavy water atom bombs when the war ended.

By analogy, the NET Manhattan Project now seems fixated on a dead-end path called BECCS, or Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage. This is the Deuterium bomb of our time. BECCS won’t succeed because both parts of its formula are fatally flawed. It imagines biomass energy in the form of vast plantations of monocultured tree row crops, such as willow in temperate climates and eucalyptus in the tropics, feeding gargantuan centralized biomass steam plants to make district heating and air conditioning or generate electricity. This model of feedstock production and use is doomed to fail because it is non-ecological (the antithesis of a functioning ecosystem); capital intensive (perpetuating unstable wealth inequality); carbon-emitting (in its transportation profile); and vulnerable to market shifts for its products (such as we are now seeing in response to the coronavirus or to Saudi Arabia’s fire sale of crude oil). It fails a second time because it is carbon-releasing in its liquid-CO2 production and transportation pathway; capital intensive in its requirement for pipelines and deep-injection wells (perpetuating unstable wealth inequality); and unstable in its geological repositories (or, in the case of ocean disposal, because it is acidifying and de-oxygenating). 

Other options, like DACCS (Direct Air Carbon Capture and Storage) or Enhanced Weathering, show considerable promise from a technological standpoint but fail by any economic analysis because they are very costly with only meager financial returns, if any. Of course, in a global emergency, profitability does not matter. The electricity produced in 1943 by Portsmouth, Oak Ridge and Hanford engineers drawing from coal plants and dams on the Ohio, Tennessee and Columbia rivers in order to refine plutonium and U-235 for the first atomic bombs was more than the entire electric capacity of Australia at the time. All that power went to make the two bombs that were used on Japan. 
“At one point in the negotiations,” said Groves, “Nichols said they would need between five and ten thousand tons of silver.” This led to the icey reply, ”Colonel, in the Treasury we do not speak of tons of silver, our unit is the Troy ounce.” Eventually 395 million Troy ounces of silver, 13540 short tons, went off from the West Point Depository to be cast into cylindrical billets, rolled into 40-foot strips, and wound onto iron cores at Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee. Solid silver bus bars a square foot in cross-section crowned each racetrack’s oval. The silver was worth more than $300 million dollars.” 
— Richard Rhodes
As Roosevelt well understood, cost is no consideration when our very existence is at stake. 
Agroforestry and carbon farming have excellent returns on investment and also work well to pull carbon, but are difficult to scale to the level of the present threat. They also reach a saturation point for carbon beyond which they are only C-neutral, not C-negative. Had we slowed our emissions at the time of the first warnings, more than 30 years ago, we might have been able to withdraw carbon just by planting trees and switching to conservation grazing methods and that might have been adequate. We didn’t, so now we need reach for stronger medicine. 

The aunt in the attic is an option that just a few clever physicists are exploring while all the others are consumed by shiny DACCS toys or equations for land-use conversions to feed BECCS behemoths. Its caretakers at the Ithaka Institut in Switzerland, Cornell University, and elsewhere call it PyCCS, for Pyrolysis with Carbon Capture and Storage, and hopefully they will in the end be shown to have demonstrated the correct way forward, and we will all realize that and commit to it before it is too late to matter. 

When the Allies finally had the capacity to drop the bomb, after Germany had surrendered, Szilard, Einstein and most of other the scientists who had contributed to the Manhattan Project were horrified. Knowing game theory well, understanding the power of deterrence and the impotence of targeting civilians to end hostilities, and also grasping by their knowledge of physics and biology the devastating inhumanity of nuclear radiation, they tried to exert their influence. They had long labored under the expectation that Franklin Roosevelt would stand by his moral rhetoric and never inflict such an atrocity on non-combatant civilians. 

But by then Roosevelt was dead. Szilard tried to reach President Harry Truman to persuade him not to use the bomb. He was intercepted by General Groves, who had Szilard tailed by the FBI and wanted him imprisoned. In the end, Groves did keep Szilard and the others from communicating with Truman, the bomb was used, and eventually its production fell into the hands of many, including, today, some very unstable personalities.

The race to save the climate need not end this way. The Cool Lab PyCCS system we have described often in these pages can change our otherwise certain fate, and along the way could birth a far more democratic, egalitarian, secure, and anti-fragile future for humanity and all our relations — a circular economy in harmony with our mother’s needs. The only lurking horror is in a failure to comprehend the real danger, and to act.

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