Whales, Seaweed and climate change

Every time I turn around, it seems, there is a new idea being floated about how to positively, definitely deal with climate change. The latest idea, reported on CNN from an Ecology journal, is whales. Whales, according to the report, store large amounts of carbon, and, of course, whales are big. The article says, “The world’s largest whales are more than just astonishing creatures. Much like the ocean, soil and forests, whales can help save humanity from the accelerating climate crisis by sequestering and storing planet-heating carbon emissions.”
This is nice. Everyone likes whales, even though we have spent the last couple of hundred years killing most of them for lamp oil—or in the case of the Japanese whalers, for sushi. Of course, as with most such climate change solutions, the problem is one of scale. You would need a lot of whales—millions, probably, to make a dent in atmospheric carbon. So why is the article even published? It is obvious that the world is not going to drop everything and engage in a massive breeding campaign to repopulate the oceans with whales. It’s never going to happen. If anything, due to pollution and climate change itself the whales of the world are increasingly threatened; many species are close to extinction.
I hesitate to brand this a feel-good story. It was picked up from a serious scientific journal, and I’m sure the original article has well-calculated facts and figures to show that, in theory, whales can help. But so can a lot of things. There are carbon-capture technology startups everywhere, it seems. I read of one in Iceland that transforms atmospheric carbon into limestone, which could then be sunk into the bottom of the oceans. Of course, as with all these purported solutions, the problem is one of scale. The technology would have to scale up by huge orders of magnitudes to have a real impact. The level of investment needed would need to come from a consortium of wealthy nation-states—the same ones who are largely responsible for climate change in the first place. It would be far simpler for those same nation-states to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprints, but that is what the (mostly ineffective) Paris accords and other treaties are about. Lots of talk, no action.
And let’s not forget seaweed. Seaweed is better than whales. Apparently, according to a book on climate change I have been recently reading entitled Climate Restoration by Peter Fiekowski, if the world’s oceans could be populated with fast-growing, carbon-consuming seaweed, all the world’s atmospheric carbon could be drawn down out of the atmosphere and absorbed into seaweed, which would eventually decompose and drop to the bottom of the ocean, where it could join the limestone other startups have created. You will not be surprised to know that there is indeed a startup company proposing just this seaweed scenario. But again, it is all about scale. You can only imagine the amount of seaweed required to make any real impact. What entity or country or consortium of countries is going to drop everything and invest billions, or probably trillions, in seaweed? You can fill in the blanks of the answer yourself.
Fixing climate change is not about whales, it is not about seaweed or a host of other proposed technologies that proudly tout their superman-like ability to solve the problem. No, the problem is much simpler than that—it is greed, simple greed. Ever since John D. Rockefeller monetized the oil oozing from the ground in Pennsylvania and created one of the world’s great fortunes, fossil fuels have transformed the world and put untold trillions of dollars into fossil fuel industry’s pockets. Recent articles have documented that forty years ago, Exxon scientists documented, and sent to upper management, the effect of fossil fuels on the atmosphere and the climate, and apparently predicted quite accurately the very scenario we are dealing with now. Management’s response was, apparently, to hire experts in publicity and PR to obscure this fact, much like the tobacco companies, for decades, denied that cigarettes caused cancer even though their own scientists knew the truth.
Were these people bad or evil? No, they were just ordinary human beings, behaving as ordinary human beings do by favoring greed and protecting their own interests and pocketing their own profits. How many of us, were we in the same situation, would have ultimately behaved differently? I’d like to think I would, but I would probably have been fired for my principled position. That’s the way the world is, and will be until some catastrophe occurs so large that suddenly everyone will slap their foreheads and say, “How could we have let this happen? How could we have missed this?”
I like to say that, when it comes to our species, when there is a big problem there are generally two kinds of solutions: the easy way and the hard way. In practice, we hairless apes almost always ignore the easy way until the hard way hits us like a freight train. I wonder if at the last minute we will all have the sense, as the freight train bears down on us at a hundred miles an hour, to finally leap off the tracks before it smashes us to smithereens?
I’d like to think we would, but at the same time I am not counting on it.