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Finding high-tech solutions to the Arctic ice meltdown

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Peter Fiekowsky and Erica Dodds, (left) leaders of Healthy Climate Alliance, presented their work to a packed room at the Commonwealth Club last week. (Courtesy Healthy Climate Alliance)

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Despite cold temperatures and even snow in the Bay Area, climate change is happening. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is warming the planet, increasing chaotic weather patterns and melting Arctic ice.

But there are ways to to rebuild Arctic sea ice and drawdown excess carbon dioxide , according to the father-daughter team of Peter Fiekowsky and Erica Dodds, leaders of Healthy Climate Alliance, who presented their work to a packed room at the Commonwealth Club last week.

“We can do it,” Fiekowsky told the audience. “We have all these solutions.”

Dubbed “climate restoration,” this work will get the planet back to the safe and healthy conditions that existed 100 years ago.

One method involves a reflective material used by Ice911 founder and CTO Dr. Leslie Field. After over a decade of extensive testing, she selected an eco-friendly hollow glass microsphere – basically, a floating kind of synthetic sand – that helps young, thin ice reflect away the sun’s energy. When spread at scale in strategic areas of the ice’s surface, it would slow Arctic melt and allow multi-year ice to rebuild.

The nonprofit set a goal to protect 15,000 to 100,000 square kilometers of ice within a few years. Since 2017, it has tested agricultural machinery to help spread the materials on lake ice. Over time, Ice911 will test the method on sea ice using a large cargo ship with suitable pumping capabilities to disperse the material in closely-monitored locations.

Another solution is technology created by Blue Planet, a Silicon Valley-based company that produces rocks by capturing excess carbon in the air. These carbonate rocks are sold in place of mined aggregate for concrete and other building materials. San Francisco International Airport used Blue Planet’s concrete in one of the boarding areas.

Again, if the technology is scaled, it can help turn the one trillion tons of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere into a commodity.

“By mineralizing carbon dioxide, it is permanently removed, unlike other temporary approaches that will release the captured carbon dioxide back out in our lifetimes,” Dr. Brent Constantz, Blue Planet’s founder and CEO, told me.

The work pioneered by Ice911 and Blue Planet could protect us from numerous dangers associated with climate change. But it could also permit policymakers and privileged communities to ignore the realities associated with our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Solutions must be coupled with changes, otherwise restoration is only an allusion; especially, for marginalized communities who bear the burden of environmental degradation.

“I’m always curious to hear about restoration in the terms of injustice and violence,” Armando Davila, an audience member, said addressing the speakers. “These industries have caused irreparable, but perhaps not unrepairable, damage to people throughout the world.”

Dodds and Fiekowsky aren’t ignoring these concerns. The Healthy Climate Alliance advocates for emissions reductions and is currently exploring partnerships to address environmental injustice. The intention is not to slap a band-aide on a wounded planet or promote corporations, but simply to make rebuilding sea ice and drawing-down excess carbon dioxide part of the conversation.

So far, it hasn’t been. Efforts to address climate change typically accept some level of damage as inevitable and attempt to limit it. The 2015 global agreement signed in Paris, for example, aims to limit a global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. While laudable, we will still experience significant environmental, health and economic problems at this mitigated level.

Climate restoration offers a future where environmental damage and human suffering isn’t inevitable – a world where southward slips of the polar vortex don’t regularly threaten the lives of the poor, homeless, sick, incarcerated and vulnerable.

“The people who will benefit most are the people who are at risk now,” Dodds told me.

The Healthy Climate Alliance is currently working with the United Nations to include climate restoration as part of the stated climate goals. If they are successful, we could see more hopeful conversations about the future.

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A recycling question from a reader:

What should we do with milk cartons and soup packages? – Susie Steer

Great question! People often wonder if milk cartons and cardboard soup packages should be tossed in the green bin. Typically, San Franciscans are encouraged to compost paper products that are wet, greasy or otherwise dirty.

But milk cartons and soup packages belong in the blue bin. The insides of these containers are coated with materials that protect them from liquids. (If they were only made of paper, the milk and soup would make them soggy.) Recology, San Francisco’s provider, can recycle the coated paper. They only ask that San Franciscans make sure they’re dry, so they don’t ruin un-coated paper products in the blue bin.

You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers. Email sorting questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest columnist. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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