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Why Increasing Albedo is More Urgent than Cutting Emissions

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Robert Tulip

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Re: Why Increasing Albedo is More Urgent than Cutting Emissions

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Science Show today broadcast an interview with me titled Geoengineering Now Urgent (9 minutes), and further comments from my interview at the start of the program (2 minutes). The Science Show has been presented weekly by Robyn Williams on ABC Radio National for 47 years.

This is timely as COP27 prepares to convene next week. I hope the geoengineering analysis here can be discussed at COP.

Today’s program (one hour) is titled Storms changing our coasts, plastic in the ocean, and a call for geoengineering.
Link is https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/pr ... w/14091532.

Here is a transcript of my comments used as the program introduction.

“The reality is that climate politics has been pitched as a war between emission reduction and the fossil fuel industry, and the view is that geoengineering is on the side of the fossil fuel industries. So what it has meant is that within the climate science community there is this moral hazard concept, that people say if you take action to geoengineer the climate then you are just failing to address the real issue, which is our emissions. But let me explain. Our annual emissions are about 15 billion tonnes of carbon or 50 billion tonnes of CO2 [equivalent], but the historic emissions are more like 670 billion tonnes of carbon, pushing a trillion tonnes. So our annual emissions only worsen the problem, they add up, it is cumulative. This concept of committed warming from past emissions is really central. We have to see that this 670 billion tonnes of CO2 is what is causing the warming, its what’s causing the risk of sea level rise, and until we work out technologies that will remove this vast quantity of past emissions, then cutting our new emissions is really too small, too slow, to really make a difference. It will take us years, decades potentially, to work out how to remove all that committed warming, but we have to do it. The only thing that will stop us going over the edge – there is a great paper from a few years ago by Will Steffen and colleagues from the ANU called Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene, and it points out that we face the risk of going over a threshold into a hothouse - the only thing that will stop us from going over that threshold is brightening the planet through geoengineering.” [Note – I don’t suggest Steffen et al support geoengineering, only that in my opinion brightening the planet is the only action that can prevent a hothouse phase shift.]
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Robert Tulip

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Re: Why Increasing Albedo is More Urgent than Cutting Emissions

DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am Hi Robert, sorry for taking so long to get back to commenting on your passionate proposal.
I appreciate it DWill. This is difficult material that almost no one is willing to discuss. Having just posted the link to my radio interview above, I am now coming back to this response.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am I'll address this last assertion you've made with a pessimistic comment about the possibility that the COP framework could be diverted to placing SAI or MCB at the top of the world agenda.
I agree it is not going to happen soon that world governments will do anything to stop climate change other than expel more hot air through useless talk. It is simply that I am explaining what would be the best path to prevent planetary calamity. Discussing rapid political change as a thought experiment is a useful way to contrast our world situation with the delusional mistakes of world politics.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am Of course, as you say, neither is anywhere at all on the current list at these conferences.
Climate policy faces an extreme path dependence, locked in to the absurd idea that cutting emissions is the only practical way to mitigate climate change. As I have said, cutting emissions does nothing to slow warming, but that has not stopped the UN big brother system from capturing the language to define mitigation as decarbonisation only. There is something seriously insane or stupid in our species that the only actions that could actually prevent disaster by brightening the planet are specifically banned from any field testing.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am The whole COP process relies on individual countries' Nationally Defined Contributions, which are measures of carbon reductions, from direct cuts in emissions and methods of removal/sequestration such as reforestation.
There is just so much wrong with the whole NDC process. One of the most appalling examples is the British company Drax that has received $10 billion of public funds to cut down old growth forests in America to burn in a former coal fired power station. They only do it because the mad UN carbon accounting rules mean the British government can corruptly ignore all the emissions from this process, which they apparently could not do if they got exactly the same energy from coal. The whole process of carbon accounting needs radical change, to instead measure the actual effect of actions to cool the planet. The best way to do that would be to measure the impact of each action on radiative forcing. I have just written a short commentary that suggests geoengineering is more than 10,000 times better value than electric cars as a way to address climate change.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am Now going on 27 iterations of goading countries to set increasing ambitions to reduce carbon production, the COP won't jettison the focus the institution is based on.
It is certainly understandable that people are not willing to change established thinking. However, this is a prime example of Einstein’s alleged definition of insanity, doing the same thing repeatedly even though experience shows it does not work. It is abundantly clear that cutting emissions cannot stop global warming, but the UN response is just to double down and call for countries to cut seven times as much, as that is apparently what they think would be needed to stop dangerous warming. The fact it cannot happen does not elicit any curiosity about better ways to achieve their goals. I am so pleased to get my views into the media with my interview today, as I have noticed a quite extreme censorship of this scientific information, perhaps more through indifference than malice.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am This would go beyond even a paradigm shift--and 27 is only a few months away.
Paradigm shifts are always far harder and slower than simple logic suggests, due to cognitive and institutional inertia and laziness. My interest is just to suggest the ideal, in order to help shift the dial of the public debate.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am Path dependency may explain this singular focus as well as devotion to a mythology does.
There are a number of psychological syndromes that are in play with climate change. The number of people who simply deny climate change is happening is astonishing, as bad as saying the earth is flat. Those on the other side of the debate are not much better, driven by wishful Tinkerbell thinking, that wishing makes it true that cutting emissions could affect climate change.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am The most that could be hoped for is that cooling gets some prominence in the various discussions that go on at COP27.
Given that the IPCC totally excluded cooling measures from its recent Summary to Policymakers, their intransigent opposition will continue to defy the science, while calling to follow the science. Such gross hypocrisy and stupidity will eventually be noticed by some journalists.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am But I don't see undeveloped countries clamoring for the wealthy to get on board with paying for cooling.
This is a line of thinking that requires a paradigm shift to think at planetary scale. That is something that cannot come from political leaders without first having major media coverage. Poor countries have so many constraints that we can’t expect them to lead the way, although it would be nice if there was at least a conversation, since the only way to limit sea level rise is to freeze the poles, That should be a primary advocacy objective for all low lying countries who will otherwise face massive flooding and climate refugee problems in coming decades, with the loss of all beaches and ports.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am They're still going to be demanding--quite rightly--a great deal more adaptation funding, and they'll be pointing fingers at laggard developed countries for not cutting enough emissions. Same old same old.
The whole narrative of ramping up emission cuts has no hope of success. It should just be abandoned until we have a critical engineering path with some prospect of stopping dangerous warming.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am By the way, adaptation funding for undeveloped countries does need to greatly increase, regardless of whether the world pivots 180 degrees to a cooling focus.
A lot of adaptation funding is very poorly conceived, such as sea walls. Refreezing the poles will do more to give poor countries time to adapt than many far more expensive local projects.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am Cooling the planet is quicker, but it's not that quick.
Adding 15 billion tonnes of sulphur dioxide to the stratosphere each year would cost about $5 billion per year, and in fifty years could cut radiative forcing by two watts per square metre, according to a recent paper by Doug MacMartin of Cornell. Achieving the same result by carbon-based climate response would require removal of a trillion tonnes of carbon from the air. At the moment this is estimated to cost $100 trillion, but I expect technology will emerge to actually make it profitable within about twenty years. In the meantime brightening the planet is the only thing that will mitigate climate change.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am
You speak of the psychological factors that cause people to be stuck on emissions reduction and to not even consider geoengineering. A psychology dilemma that advocates for cooling face is that they need to be up front about challenges and risks, in order to have credibility, yet doing so will probably make the majority less willing to follow.
I disagree. The risks of not cooling massively exceed the risks of cooling. That is the appropriate comparison. Scientific papers such as Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene show the massive risk of phase shift into a hothouse. There are also major recent papers on specific worsening tipping points. My assessment is that Marine Cloud Brightening using sea salt mist should be the first major cooling technology, with targeted deployment to stabilise extreme weather. That simple approach has very low risk, and would create governance systems to then assess more complex methods involving chemistry with sulphur, iron and titanium.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am We've been putting the planet at risk for a couple of centuries, yet that has been slow and nondeliberate. To set off on a deliberate course of planetary engineering feels entirely different to people.
Sleepwalking over a cliff is also slow and nondeliberate, but we would all certainly intervene if we encountered someone doing that. Planetary engineering involves seeing the planet in a unified way. It points toward spiritual transformation, but for that very reason, I advise extreme caution about political transformation, aiming for a conservative approach that minimises political change, finding ways to implement geoengineering through existing political and economic systems. That means the popular left wing concept of climate justice is not very helpful as a contribution to climate security. We need a stable climate first if we are to achieve any justice objectives.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am If they are told of the uncertainties, they may jump on those reasons to avoid making a leap.
There are a bunch of crazy neo-communist NGOs who propagate such alarmist distortion. It is certain that such polarised ideological opposition will escalate, but it will have to be stared down and refuted. For that reason and others I think geoengineering is most likely to be implemented by the conservative side of politics, especially as the fossil fuel industry comes to see it as a practical way to continue to operate, and right wing politicians see it as a way to get on board with climate change, better than either denial or emission reduction.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am I suppose one could speculate that if the engineering option was seen as less disruptive to lives, many people might prefer it, but I tend to think the other response is more likely.
The engineering option will be far less disruptive than the creation of a billion climate refugees from countries like Bangladesh and Vietnam. In my radio talk I mentioned the possibility that marine cloud brightening could reduce hurricane impact. Ian just killed a hundred people and caused a hundred billion dollars worth of damage. That is disruptive.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am I also think Landroid's point about public suspicions of nefarious motives is a good one.
The most nefarious motive at play at the moment is that the fossil fuel industries want to drill in the Arctic so they welcome warming. They don’t notice that this disrupts the jet stream which is why Ian stayed put for so long and caused so much damage, and would get even worse with a melted pole.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am
I read a piece by Gernot Wagner, in which he speculates that greater public awareness that scientists are seriously considering geoengineering may make people more adamant about emissions reduction.
The trouble is that the climate problem is 670 billion tonnes of carbon that humans have added to the air, and cutting emissions can at best slow the increase of that committed warming by just a few billion tonnes a year. That is marginal.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am They might think, oh my god, we don't want them to do that, we need to cut back now on GHG! Wagner called that inverse moral hazard. It's just an example of the different reactions that are possible. https://www.milkenreview.org/articles/g ... the-gamble
That psychology is very irrational, failing to engage with basic empirical facts. Cutting emissions is too small, slow and contested to make any difference for decades, and will be completely overwhelmed first by brightening and then by conversion of CO2 into useful commodities, to the point it is most likely ongoing emissions will be completely compatible with climate stability.
DWill wrote: Wed Sep 28, 2022 11:36 am Getting back to your prediction of fossil fuel companies allying with climate activists, such a great deal of movement on all sides needs to occur before that can happen. That is all I can think of as a comment.
These are all really interesting and astute and helpful responses DWill, thanks very much. I think the movement will be fast, once the ideas I have presented here are more widely discussed. It is simply that no one has had the audacity to suggest a grand bargain between fossil fuel use and climate stability, so that is inconceivable to people. The elegance and simplicity of that idea will make it compelling.
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Re: Why Increasing Albedo is More Urgent than Cutting Emissions

From my blog https://planetaryrestoration.net/f/resp ... the-planet

McKibben’s New Yorker article “Dimming the Sun to Cool the Planet Is a Desperate Idea, Yet We’re Inching Toward It” is informative but badly flawed. McKibben is deeply biased against geoengineering. As a result, his article reflects the distorted views of an ideological campaign rather than a scientific account. Stated with his usual elegance and erudition and thoroughness, nonetheless his political agenda leads McKibben to numerous dubious assumptions and opinions. I am challenging the consensus that McKibben represents, so if I have any mistakes in my analysis, I would appreciate people pointing them out.

The title already frames the argument in a highly slanted way. Solar geoengineering can more accurately be termed “Brightening the Planet”, setting the need to regulate the atmosphere in a beneficial and positive context, rather than the negative and fearful language of “Dimming the Sun”. For McKibben to call planetary brightening “desperate” opens the moral ambiguity that desperate solutions are either necessary or insane. Unfortunately, the article conveys the latter derogatory implication by selective and distorted reporting, when a more balanced assessment would see brightening as necessary. Then there is the deceptive subtitle, “The scientists who study solar geoengineering don’t want anyone to try it.” A more honest statement would have been “Most scientists who study solar geoengineering are not calling for anyone to deploy it immediately.” McKibben’s heading appears calculated to give the false impression that expert scientists who study planetary brightening think it is a totally bad idea.

It would have been possible for McKibben to frame stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) in a much more objective light. He could have recognised that SAI is only one brightening method, alongside others such as marine cloud brightening (MCB) and mirrors to enhance earth’s reflectivity (MEER). He could have mentioned that MCB offers interesting potential to target cooling in ways that will mitigate extreme weather, and that MEER can lift local agricultural productivity with a superb cooling return on investment. He could have explored how the cooperative governance that will be required for global deployment of cooling technologies could be a decisive force to promote world peace, stability, prosperity and security, diminishing rather than causing conflict, and how incremental deployment can build in safeguards against risks of side-effects. He should have recognised that safety of SRM has to be assessed against a realistic level of decarbonisation, not against whipped up speculative and quasi-religious alarm aimed to prevent research. He could have accepted that the cost of renewable energy may prove to be higher, and its cooling benefits lower, than its boosters allege. He could have included biodiversity protection among the benefits of higher albedo, alongside his mentions of preventing extreme weather and slowing sea level rise. He could have noted that the severe risk of accelerating feedback from methane release due to global warming tipping points, particularly in the melting Arctic, could totally swamp all feasible cooling efforts from emission reduction and GHG removal.

McKibben ignores the ethical weight of all these positive existential reasons for a large-scale immediate research program to work out how best to brighten the planet. Instead, he calls for most of our eggs to remain in the failing basket of cutting emissions, with a bit of support for greenhouse gas removal. This is even though recent politics shows the likelihood and feasibility of shifting carbon at the scale and speed needed for climate impact is remote, if not physically impossible. Carbon-based approaches have orders of magnitude worse cooling return on investment than the innovative technologies of solar radiation management, but this science is ignored in the IPCC. The situation is indeed desperate.

What McKibben calls “the horrors that come with an overheating world” could be prevented more safely, quickly, cheaply and effectively by direct cooling than by carbon-based methods. Albedo is a far more tractable climate lever than carbon. That makes it surprising, not as he says unsurprising, that geoengineering has so few public advocates. With the terrible heat waves this year worsened by Arctic amplification, which has disrupted the path of the jet stream, there should be broad public discussion of how the climate crisis could be mitigated by intensive effort to brighten the planet, for example to refreeze the pole. For this article to pitch sulphur as just as bad as carbon, serving supposedly malevolent interests, serves the ideological agenda of demonising SAI.

Is it carelessness or lying for McKibben to say “the reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide and methane by replacing fossil fuels with clean energy… is happening”? No doubt he would argue he just meant that some replacement is occurring and did not mean to give the false impression that emissions are falling, when of course they are increasing. The emotional pull of hope and spin over evidence and logic appears in his euphemistic statement “we’re not on track to come particularly close to that target” to cut worldwide emissions in half by 2030. No, we are not particularly close. We are spectacularly distant from that target with roughly net zero chance of reaching it.

The worry is that McKibben and his admirers inhabit a parallel universe of discourse around these topics. Here in Australia, the new government is also part of this fanciful net zero imaginarium. Australia seems to be the only country in the world that has ramped up climate ambition this year. The proposal is for a total revamp of the electricity production and distribution system by building massive new infrastructure while ceremoniously blowing up coal fired power stations. The risk is the power stations will be destroyed with nothing to replace them, destroying energy security. These political ideas appear to have about zero chance of success in the real world of engineering and economics and environmental impact.

Blithely saying “we may, at least temporarily, pass the 1.5-degree mark” without then accepting any discussion of albedo increase as part of the return to stability seems in my view to involve motivated reasoning about the capacity to stop the vast momentum of these processes, like a runaway freight train. Overshoot thinking ignores research on earth system sensitivity, how feedback processes above 1.5 could make climbing back up that ski slope near impossible. Action to brighten the planet is insurance against this risk.

McKibben has a canny knack for damning with faint praise. He accepts, importantly, that “conditions may force a reckoning with the idea of solar geoengineering—of blocking from the Earth some of the sunlight that has always nurtured it.” However, this concept of “blocking nurture” has a begrudging spin, casting brightening the planet - an action that is essential for the survival of civilization – in an unduly negative light. The view that action to enhance planetary albedo is unnatural has to confront the understanding that it is a necessary means to sustain industrial civilization, that our constructed world requires a commensurate scale of response to maintain planetary balance.

Everything McKibben says on this topic comes laced with heavy ideological bias. Apparently “everyone studying solar geoengineering seems to agree that it’s a terrible thing.” I don’t think that is true. If you think trying to sustain human prosperity is evil, it would make sense that albedo measures that could help prevent societal breakdown are “a terrible thing”. Otherwise, that negative attitude looks an exaggerated description of the reasonable caution that scientists advocate. I would be interested to see the context of exactly what Andy Parker considers “outlandish”. There is no doubt agreement to brighten the planet would bring a paradigm shift in global politics, something that is hard to imagine. But for McKibben to join the dots to assert the advocates of a brighter planet think this would be “terrible” is a stretch.

The tendency to moderate scientific language in the interest of social acceptability may be behind McKibben’s claim that everyone, “to a person” in the geoengineering community agrees “that reducing emissions by replacing coal, gas, and oil represents a much better solution.” I personally find this assertion quite bizarre, a form of emotional fantasy. It is like saying a much better solution to poverty would be making everyone a millionaire. A fine sentiment but totally impractical. Realistic timeframes to decarbonise the world economy are very slow, very expensive and very difficult. In the meantime, there are massive looming tipping points that can only be mitigated by action to brighten the planet, which provides the only available insurance against this risk.

Pascal Lamy, long term head of the World Trade Organisation, told McKibben “We did not move rapidly enough out of fossil fuels”. This crying over spilt milk is a common platitude, but useless as policy advice. It illustrates that fossil fuels remain wildly popular, despite lip service about their climate impact. My view is that hypothetical alternative histories that suggest the world could have stabilised the climate with an early embrace of decarbonisation 30 years ago basically ignore the impact of committed warming from past emissions, the baked-in heat which can only be removed through a combination of brightening the planet and conversion of CO2 into useful commodities. Lamy calls to “allow markets to internalize carbon damage.” My view is that the best way to deliver this result would be to shift climate accounting from carbon credits to radiative forcing credits, providing incentive for investment in direct cooling, and directly attacking the cause of heating. I find it pompous and patronising for Lamy to say “Europe is in some ways well ahead of others.” Where Europe is ahead in my view, is in neo-colonial manipulation of emission accounting to its own advantage. Emissions should be counted against the final beneficiary rather than the producer. Europe has also been well ahead in successfully exporting its emissions to China.

McKibben mentions the conspiracy theory about “global élites trying to control the weather”, using suitably detached ironic language about Bill Gates to avoid the imputation he is promoting this scare campaign. It would be more responsible for him to acknowledge that maintaining a global civilization with over eight billion people means that efforts to nudge weather systems away from extremes are essential. Would McKibben think it a bad thing if marine cloud brightening had been in place in the Atlantic Ocean to help cut the $100 billion damage bill from Hurricane Ian by trying to control the weather?

In an important acknowledgement, McKibben cites research that found a brighter planet would “likely produce a substantial, rapid cooling effect worldwide” and that it “could also reduce the rate of sea-level rise, sea-ice loss, heatwaves, extreme weather, and climate change-associated anomalies in the water cycle.” But then he immediately undercuts the massive benefits that these effects have for global security, stability and biodiversity by saying “the question is more: what else would it do?” This is like an ignorant cancer patient insisting the side effects of chemotherapy are “more” important than whether the treatment cures their cancer, assuming short term discomfort is “more” important than long term life. This “what else” question is actually most likely to be less important, not more important, in view of the benefits of higher albedo in preventing catastrophic impacts of dangerous warming. Potential effects of SAI on ozone, photosynthesis and rain require large scale field research to assess, just as new drugs need thorough testing of safety and efficacy. But like other populist agitators, McKibben seems happy to prejudge such detailed study, and instead endorses the negativity that puts politics before science. His failure to mention marine cloud brightening leaves out a significant potential method to address the uneven weather impacts of SAI.

Speaking of a “climate “solution” that helps some and harms others”, his scare quotes around “solution” imply that brightening the planet is a fake response. McKibben fails to mention that the ‘help’ could include preventing the need for a billion people to be uprooted from their homes to escape sea level rise, with the massive disruption, insecurity, conflict and economic effects of such dislocation. It is irresponsible to fail to properly weigh the moral balance between help and harm in this core world problem.

Despite all these problems of evident bias, I consider this article will overall have a very constructive and beneficial effect by prompting wider public debate of the issues. For example, his sympathetic treatment of the prominent call for a moratorium on any research into brightening the planet opens the question of whether our species has the brains to continue to exist on this planet. If we can’t cooperate to regulate the climate, then we can’t possibly maintain an advanced technological civilization. A stable climate sits at the foundation of the hierarchy of needs. If it turns out that cooling could be simple and cheap and safe to achieve, but we ban any study of how to do it on the grounds that we are convinced humans are just too stupid, the implied misanthropy is that those calling for the ban believe we deserve extinction and want to bring on the collapse. That view excludes the idea that human beings could evolve to a stable and durable global flourishing in harmony with nature.

McKibben raises the ethical dilemma between “an Indigenous regard for untouched nature” and concern for “the almost-certain-to-be-displaced inhabitants of islands like Kiribati.” The problem in this framing is that the option of untouched nature does not exist, and represents a romantic religious throwback to a pre-modern world. Saving Kiribati requires a brighter planet. My view is that Kiribati and the Association of Small Island States should encourage wealthy nations to test Marine Cloud Brightening in the Southern Ocean as the most likely step toward reversing sea level rise. The claim he cites from the head of the Saami council, Ms Åsa Larsson Blind, that geoengineering “goes against the respect” that Indigenous people have for nature is profoundly misinformed. Geoengineering is entirely about respect for nature, as the best way to mitigate the massive impacts that industrial civilization is having. By refreezing the Arctic a focus on increasing albedo can help sustain Indigenous ways of life. Indigenous people should engage the other side of this debate instead of accepting misinformation from environmentalists like McKibben.

The most useful thing in this article may well be McKibben’s musing about why the fossil fuel industry does not support geoengineering. He says “geoengineering is likely to be the next step in [the] progression” for fossil fuel companies, replacing their failed strategies of science denial and carbon capture and storage. My view is that bringing the funds, networks, skills and assets of the fossil fuel industry into the effort to brighten the planet can resolve the conflict over climate change, accepting the grand bargain of acceptance that emission reduction is only a minor factor in the overall climate equation in exchange for the fossil fuel industry taking a lead in action to cool the planet.

Conversation about practical cooperation for cooling would be far more productive than McKibben’s absurd endorsement of the claim, from the author of the proposal to ban all geoengineering research, that brightening the planet is “the same as climate denial”. In reality, action to stabilise and cut the temperature by cooling the planet is the exact opposite of denying climate science. It delivers what Greta Thunberg has implored, to actually listen to the science. A brighter planet will also enable a more intelligent and scientific humanity, reflecting on the core moral values of evidence and logic to determine the best available responses to climate change.

Robert Tulip
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