The “Magic Bullet” Is That There Is No Magic Bullet

At RealClearScience Chris Hawes surveys some developments in carbon capture technology:

According to a recent major UN report, if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5 °C and prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change, we need to reduce global CO₂ emissions to net zero by 2050. This means eliminating fossil fuel use fast – but to cushion that transition and offset the areas in which there is currently no replacement for combustibles, we need to actively remove CO₂ from the atmosphere. Planting trees and rewilding are a large part of this solution, but we are highly likely to need further technological assistance if we are to prevent climate breakdown.

So when recent news emerged that Canadian company Carbon Engineering has harnessed some well-known chemistry to capture CO₂ from the atmosphere at a cost of less than $100 a tonne, many media sources hailed the milestone as a magic bullet. Unfortunately, the big picture isn’t as simple. Truly tipping the balance from carbon source to carbon sink is a delicate business, and our view is that the energy costs involved and likely downstream uses of captured CO₂ mean that Carbon Engineering’s “bullet” is anything but magic.

I haven’t summarized my views on this issue for a while so this looks like a good opportunity. I think it is evident to anyone who cares to observe that climate is changing and it has always been changing. That human beings are a contributing factor to the process can hardly be denied as well. Human beings have been, at the very least, a contributing factor to the desertification of the Arab Peninsula and the Sahara through overgrazing.

Most of the Chicago area used to be a marsh. That people drained and filled in the marshes, even redirecting rivers to make things more conducive to the population is a matter of record. Before the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, the Los Angeles basin was home to at most a few thousand people. Now more than 10 million people live there, paving over the pre-existing scrub, bringing in water and all of the other things people need to live.

There is presently an enormous accumulation of heat in the ocean off the coast of China. It’s hard to find an explanation for it other than the the huge number of people and the industrialization of the last several decades. All of these examples I’ve presented are local change but all have implications that reach far beyond those localities.

I don’t know whether carbon in the atmosphere is the primary culprit. I think it’s probably a factor. I’m skeptical of fine-tuned predictions of what is going to happen. I think the matter is too complex for that. I do think that extracting carbon that has been stored for millions of years and injecting it into the atmosphere in the millions of tons is bound to have some effect.

I also think that demanding that the Chinese and Indians eschew any ambitions for improving the lots of their people because doing so emits too much carbon will be futile while demanding that we first reduce the amount of carbon we’re emitting, then become net zero, then net negative is not only futile but fantastical.

I think that reducing the amount of oil that we burn for fuel would be a good idea if only because the stuff is to darned useful for other purposes. I think that wind and solar power are good for some niche uses, particularly for producing consumer electricity where sunlight is plentiful, e.g. Southern California and the American Southwest, but we still need reliable sources of power for places not so blessed and presently the best candidate for that would be nuclear power. I have expressed a preference for small scale nuclear reactors based on thorium as “inherently safe”.

I think that carbon capture is a promising technology and we should be looking to it, particularly in the areas adjacent to power plants, to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Consequently, I see a diverse energy future that includes nuclear in our future. Less coal and oil, more natural gaS.
And for goodness sake don’t do what the Germans have been doing.

25 comments… add one
  • Gray Shambler Link

    Interesting carbon capture process, although I still do not believe co2 is a major contributing green house gas:
    But in Hawaii, they’re willing to put money down to stave off a six foot rise in the seas, 80 years from now:

  • Chlorofluorocarbons and methane are much worse. Substantial sources of methane include human beings, other animals, ironically, the holding ponds behind hydroelectric dams, and swamps or marshes.

  • Roy Lofquist Link

    I’ll spare y’all the “twenty-seven 8 x 10 colored Glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of Each one explainin’ what each one was,” and ask a simple question:

    How is it that they can predict the temperature within 1/2 degree (centipede) a hundred years from now when they can’t predict the temperature a month from now?

  • Gray Shambler Link

    Because of varying tides, sedimentation, alluvial fans, erosion, tectonic plate movement, ect., ocean levels are hard to measure. We know they’ve been rising for a good 20,000 years or more, as the retreat of the glaciers is not disputed, but mankind has always been able to adapt to such slow change. I think a 72 inch rise in 80 years is unlikely, but even if it were fact, nothing to panic about here.

  • Roy:

    As I noted, I don’t believe they have the ability to predict at that fine a granularity. That doesn’t mean that saying “temperatures will go up” is wrong.

    I also agree there’s nothing to panic about. That doesn’t mean we should just maintain course. The more fragile the environment in which you live, the more concerned you should be. So, for example, the Dutch have something to worry about. They’re already below sea level. I think that places like LA and Miami have more concerns than Chicago. A rule of thumb for the places that are environmentally less fragile are to look at the places that had substantial populations 500 years ago. They’re less fragile.

    As I also noted there are good reasons NOT to burn oil even without carbon-induced global warming.

  • Roy Lofquist Link

    George Carlin had something to say about this:

    You write: ‘That doesn’t mean that saying “temperatures will go up” is wrong.’ Not wrong. However, to go all Chicken Little about it is evil.

    “As I also noted there are good reasons NOT to burn oil even without carbon-induced global warming.”

    Are these good reasons good enough to compensate for the inevitable deterioration of the human condition? There is a strong, undeniable correlation between energy consumption per capita and human healt, wealth and happiness.

  • There is a strong, undeniable correlation between energy consumption per capita and human healt, wealth and happiness.

    which is why I think that our objective should be to produce as much energy as we can in as ecologically sound a manner as we can. There are alternatives to gasoline for powering vehicles and as a long-term matter I think we should be moving to them. Right at this moment gasoline and diesel provide the most energy in the smallest space at the least cost so I don’t believe they are immediately dispensable.

    Said another way I think that both the warmists and their opponents are wrong or, at best, just telling part of the story. One thing we can’t do is transition to 100% renewables in the immediate future.

  • steve Link

    “How is it that they can predict the temperature within 1/2 degree (centipede) a hundred years from now when they can’t predict the temperature a month from now?”

    Physics. You can measure the amount of energy (heat) hitting the planet and the amount leaving (or absorbed). You can confirm that by measuring temperatures broadly across the planet including the oceans and in the atmosphere. It should also be noted that your claim of half a degree is a straw man. If you really read the IPCC reports they give a broad range of possible outcomes.

    The temperature in a given area next month is affected by many things other than how much heat we are absorbing from the sun, like jet streams, water currents, rain etc.


  • Guarneri Link

    Not physics. Statistics.

    You can’t truly measure. You can only take measurements, imprecise because they are the result of very imperfect sampling techniques using devices and protocols that have changed significantly over time and have been subjected to, ahem, “adjustments.”

    Big difference.

  • TastyBits Link

    A calculation based upon measurements can only be as precise as the least precise instrument. It is quite likely that the temperature increases are 0 degrees, scientifically.

    […] That human beings are a contributing factor to the process can hardly be denied as well. […]

    I am denying it. If humans are contributing, it is too small to measure.

    […] desertification of … the Sahara through overgrazing.

    Of all the animals, humans are the most vain. If farts and overgrazing were able to alter the Earth’s climate, I guess it was good that the dinosaurs were killed off.

    Just for fun, I will play along.

    The warming is occurring, and at some point, it will stop and begin cooling. (For the unaware, the Earth moves between Ice ages and Warm ages.) Human induced warming is the increase above the natural high point. So, any effects from the human contribution are several thousand years off.

  • I’m not making it up, TastyBits. See this journal article.

    The process is still going on.

  • steve Link

    “You can’t truly measure.”

    Which is true of all of physics, yet we manage to limp along. We decided Einstein was correct after a few photographic plates taken in the early 1900s. Not exactly ultra precise. So we are now able to measure with enough precision to give us meaningful data. The chance that the changes are zero is pretty close to zero, scientifically.

    Due to “adjustments”, the laptop I am working on probably has more computing power than all of the computers put together in the 50s. Technology changes. (What is it about conservatives who can understand that the technology involved in producing stuff has changed in the last 30 years, but you cant comprehend that they way we measure stuff might have also changed in the last 30 years?)


  • Gray Shambler Link

    Department of Archaeology and Art History, Seoul National University, Seoul, South Korea.

    Apparently, this is now how you get research grants in South Korea, as well as the UK, and the US.

  • TarsTarkas Link

    The black swan event regarding global warming would be something like an large undersea landslide causing a massive outgassing of methyl hydrates buried in the continental shelves. A large temperature spike in the bottom waters of the sea would also do it. Like that temperature anomaly off China that you mentioned . . .

    Pellets – Germany, who is oh so protective of their own tree plantations (don’t call them forests, I’ve been in the Black Forest) is burning up our southern lowland forests at a fierce rate. But wood is renewable!

    Here’s an interesting article I found surfing the web:,-german-study-shows

    Yeah, maybe the German researchers are in the pocket of the auto industry. But maybe they’re not too.

  • Guarneri Link

    “What is it about conservatives who can understand that the technology involved in producing stuff has changed in the last 30 years, but you cant comprehend that they way we measure stuff might have also changed in the last 30 years?”

    They can, but they don’t believe in false precision.

  • steve Link

    So NASA is capable of measurements precise enough to fly to the moon and back, but they dont know how to measure temperatures? We have had satellites up for years, well before climate science was turned into an issue measuring the amount of energy hitting the planet and that emitted back by Earth. Why is it the scientists who gave us GPS cannot do this science correctly? (ERBE satellites.)


  • steve:

    I presume you are aware that 99.9% of the sensors used to monitor temperature are surface-based not space-based? That’s one of the controversies about measuring temperature—lack of uniformity among the locations of sensors.

  • TastyBits Link

    @Dave Schuler

    I am aware that the Sahara has become a desert in the recent past. I quickly skimmed the linked article, but it seems there is still no definitive explanation.

    Causing large permanent change in the environment is difficult, and humans do not realize how insignificant they are. If the Sahara was meant to be green, it would have reverted by now, but assuming humans were the cause, the size of the herds would have to have been mind boggling. Today, it is the size of the US.

    Instead of dinosaurs, I can use elephants. They eat an enormous amount of vegetation every day and have not caused desertification. American bison could be used as well. If human intervention is required, the Mongolian steppes should have been long gone.

    The Dust Bowl of the 1930’s was caused by drought and farming techniques, but with rain and modified farming techniques, it reverted back.

    The levees and river control systems have stopped the Mississippi River from changing course, but at some point, these structures will fail, and the river will take its natural course. It may take 100, 1,000, or 10,000 years, but it will occur.


    If you mix less and more precise instrument measurements, you are limited to the least precise measurements. If you want the most precise measurements, you cannot include the less precise as well. Often, the increased precision is the result of multiplication and division.

    This is the problem with mixing satellite data with the historical data. They must massage (normalize) the satellite data to fit the historical record.

    Sir Arthur Eddington was not using an Instamatic camera and 12 inch ruler to determine the shift.

  • TastyBits Link

    There are places with human caused climate change – large cities. Due to the concrete and steel, cities are able to retain a large amount of heat during the day, and it is released at night disrupting the natural heating/cooling cycle.

    Cities are warmer than they should be. This localized climate change does affect the local weather, but it may affect a larger area as well.

    Mayor De Blasio has the right idea, but the problem is heat retention not greenhouse gases.

  • Guarneri Link


    Dave got to it before I came back to the site. The statistics are suspect due to sampling error (do you realize the irony that you poo poo the consistency of local temp measurements but accept the aggregate of local measurements? They have a perfect distribution of measuring sites? Snicker).

    A rising temp slope requires consistent measuring technology over time. Nope.

    And “adjusted” (Snicker) data is really no data at all. It’s supposition.

    Continue your fantasy.

  • Guarneri Link

    I realize I just stepped on Tastys point. Didn’t mean to.

    But he’s right. The notion that these issues are more than local, or can be precisely measured is just silly.

    Here in FL, to Dave’s point, 20% of the state has been affected by human intervention. It’s called the Everglades. Does it cause issues? Yes. Algae blooms and excess phosphorus runoff. But is it catastrophic? No. Is it being addressed? Yes. Did we get Miami, Sarasota, Naples etc as a byproduct. Yes. Formerly we had a mosquito, alligator, snake infested wasteland. Is the earth in jeopardy? No. Let’s get real.

  • Guarneri Link

    Seriously, steve? Just pour yourself some good scotch, relax, and let your mind wander. You are going to hang your hat on the notion that we can accurately measure the temperature of the earth with our current sampling protocols? We can construct historical temperature slopes from pre-industrial to current using vastly different technologies for measurement. (And what to do about evidence from long, long ago?). We can make rational “adjustments” to cure these faults?

    On second thought, skip the scotch and put down the bong.

  • steve Link

    The ignorance, it burns! We have about 30,000 measuring stations spread across the globe. These are run by 4 different agencies, 2 of which are run by different countries. 3 of the agencies account for gaps in measurement coverage by making statistical estimates of the uncovered area. The 4th just leaves that area out and does not include them int eerie calculations. If a station is moved its temperatures are checked against the od station numbers to look for correlation.

    Guess what? They all show the same trend and they all track each other. Every time we develop the tech to measure temps in a new area, like the atmosphere or the ocean we find the same trends. So go ahead and posit some theory about how the temperatures everywhere we dont measure are all in the negative direction and just enough to show no warming.

    “This is the problem with mixing satellite data with the historical data. They must massage (normalize) the satellite data to fit the historical record.”

    You do realize they dont do that? They follow the trend of the satellite data. Averaging the two would make no sense. (Please note that I try to cite scientists who work in the area. I have no idea what you guys are reading, but dont think you are reading working scientists.)

  • steve Link

    Oops, hit send too soon and forgot an important point here. What we really want to know is the trend. Is the temperature trending in one direction for a given site? For all sites in an area? For all sites?


  • TastyBits Link


    Unless something has changed recently, the satellite data is massaged to fit the existing data. The reason is because it is too precise for the historical data.

    For ocean temperature measurements, the data from ships, buoys, and satellites do not match, and since data from ships and buoys dates back much further, the satellite data is massaged to match.

    While it is amusing to beat on warmists, it does make sense. As long as the differences are consistent, the curves are more important.

    You do not need any of this data to deduce that the planet is warming. The glaciers have been receding for thousands of years, and at some point, they will stop receding and start growing. That will be the start of the next Ice Age, and then, the alarmists will decry the lack of cow farts.

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