Geoengineering a New Future: Interview with NYT Bestselling Author Thomas Kostigen



AS: In this episode, we are joined by Thomas Kostigen a climate survivalist, journalist, and New York Times bestselling author. We're going to hear about some of the most cutting-edge Green Technology that can enable us to confront the realities of climate change some of which are quite provocative and controversial. But first a bit about our guest, Thomas founded the climate survivalist column for USA Today and has written for numerous Publications including the Washington Post, The LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal among others. He's written two books for National Geographic on climate preparedness and has a new book out called Hacking Planet Earth How Geoengineering Can Help Us Imagine Our Future. Thomas welcome to Get Real!


TK: Thanks for having me and I look forward to getting real with you.


AS: Awesome, so just to set the scene for our listeners some of whom may not know, what does it mean to be a climate survivalist?


TK: Sure, well I think for many years, I’ve been in this space for a long time. This is my tenth book and the previous iterations of climate discussions and education and storytelling or what have you, have really revolved around what’s going to happen in the future, so climate planning, what can we do from a strategic standpoint, less so anything tactical. So, when you start to get into tactical considerations, like what can we do right now. How can we survive this moment? And when we look at the wildfires raging, and we look at the hurricanes that are hitting us, and we look at droughts, and we look at all of these consequences that we’ve read about that would be extreme and we’re experiencing them right now, you have to go into survival mode. And that’s what it means to be a climate survivalist. It’s no longer something that we’re looking for in the future it is happening right here right now so how do we survive in the world we live in today and that's what it means to be a climate survivalist.


AS: that's genius because one of the things we talk about on the show a lot is, and the purpose of the show, is actually making climate issues and sustainability tangible for people today right now because we are seeing instances of climate catastrophe right now like as we're recording this there are major wildfires in California and other places and at the same time there are these far off projections of what's going to happen 10 years from now, what’s going to happen 20 years from now. So I think creating that accessibility and that preparedness is crucial and I'm curious so when I think of the word survive and surviving there's a distinction between surviving and thriving and one of the things that I'm interested in is how we can create an empowering context for people around what it is to be aware for sustainability and be proactive so what would you say is the empowering context being a climate survivalist. That allows people to be in action and not have that paralysis that we can sometimes experience?


TK: Yeah, I mean do something. It’s the old Nike, which is a body in motion stays in motion. To cut to their current logo, just do it, just do it. And it’s phenomenal to me, when I wrote the Green Book in 2007, people weren’t even recycling in every state and I got so many letters and responses from people in different places after they read the book who said that look I read this and I said well why don't I recycle the bin’s right there, and they started doing that, just that one single action that most of us do or even are required to do. Take’s them on a different pathway and they start thinking about things differently like what is the effect of my action and once you start just that little tweak that little shift all the sudden the world kind of opens up and you go oh yeah why aren’t i doing this or why aren’t i doing that and how can I do more. And I’m starting to see some results, because at the end of the day you do see results. Now, have we gone far enough in that path? No. But, We are starting to see that even the environmental discussion has risen to just something so common that we all speak the same language we know what recycling is we know a lot of the lingo or etymology around climate change and sustainability and global warming, we all know what that means now and so I think that's a big win for the space.


AS: Totally. So you have traveled the ends of the Earth for book research, for National Geographic reporting and your new book hacking planet Earth for that book you went to the front lines of geoengineering projects that various scientists and engineers and Visionaries are developing to solve problems related to climate change which we will get into more shortly but I'm curious what is one of the defining moments in your career is that had you dedicate your life to being a climate survivalist and offering solutions was there a particular experience like set the scene for us.


TK: The light bulb moment you mean?


AS: Yes!


TK: There was. Often times as a journalist you start to go down different paths and you open different doors and things become provocative and what you thought was a hunch become What you thought was a hunch become validated and then that becomes the story. I n this case there was a very specific moment that opened up a complete shift in what I did for my profession and that was, I’ve done a lot of work, I’ve always been writing, I was a journalist all throughout college, and then after college, and I’ve done a lot of work from DC to New York for magazines and all that stuff and then I got asked to do some documentary work as a spinoff of that. So I was doing something for Artists Against AIDS worldwide it was a big concert we were putting on in Johannesburg and it brought in just you know top-line musicians and we’re doing a retelling of the We Are the World campaign and so I was in Ethiopia out by the camps that had been set up there and I was standing by a dry riverbed doing a stand up, just you know speaking into the microphone with my camera man, and talking about the story and you can imagine what that's like you’re surrounded by crackled earth and you know extreme heat, and there's not a drop of water in sight, and you know there’s significant poverty and we had been on the ground for a number of days. And I saw in the distance just a purple dot. And that purple dot got a little bigger, and a little bigger, and a little bigger. And came up to be about just a little bigger than waist height and it was an eight year old girl wearing a purple dress and she said something to my translator and immediately you know I said how much because I was just trying to get on with the job and he had a conversation and he said wait you know she doesn't want money she is wondering if we have a pencil and paper because she would like to be able to do her homework and she has designs to be a doctor because people in her Village are really sick and it's heartbreaking and you realize at that moment or at least for me the lightbulb moment to what a simple action and what a simple thing like handing someone a pencil could do. So of course you just want to give her the shirt off your back, give her as much money, whatever she needs just to do what she has great intentions to do. Whether she did that or not, I don’t know, but if for me changed the way I looked at the world. And for me to be able to take whatever skills and education I have as opposed to doing something that was very top level speaking to groups of people who wanted to do you know things that would impact policy or impact the masses, I decided to to look at how could I impact individuals with very very specific steps that they could take to change their lives, and that manifested as the green book, which went on to be you know be a big book, and came on the heels of an inconvenient truth, and provided hundreds of solutions that you could do in your everyday life to be more sustainable. And so from that moment on, then you’re on the path. And it just brought me to different issues that I started to look at, different ways that people could engage in making the world hopefully a little better place for us all.


AS: I love that! So, similar to my light bulb moment Was An Inconvenient Truth actually. Let’s fast forward to today and talk about geoengineering. So your new book hacking planet Earth is about geoengineering and various solutions that people around the world are creating around climate change so geoengineering is defined as large-scale intervention in the Earth's natural systems such as our oceans soil and atmosphere to counteract the impacts of climate change this is a blanket term that includes ideas like setting up Sun shields in space or dispersing microscopic particles in the air to dissipate heat-trapping clouds and geoengineering has been seen as controversial with people arguing that going out and conducting experiments is dangerous, could create more problems, or that it's even playing God so what would you say to those people what's your take on this?


TK: geoengineering is a broad term and can be defined many different ways. There are a lot of conspiracy freaks out there who look at geoengineering as chem trails that is supporting a military industrial complex that’s going to change our way of thinking because we're going to manipulate the weather so it gets way out there and then you have way out there science that looks at extreme possibilities of saying well what if we put a sun shield out there in space between the earth and the sun to block the radiation and so we cool the planet. so you know you look at all those things and you know what we're really talking but it climate technology and can we use best-in-class technology today to undo what we've done for the last hundred years or more during the Industrial Revolution where we've gone ignorantly and changed the climate with fossil fuels and carbon emissions, etc. So how can we go and try and unpack that and correct that. Mother Nature can’t do that, she doesn't have the capacity in terms of reducing the amount of carbon in the carbon cycle to get it back to means where it will just create an average temperature for the planet that’s not so extreme that it makes it inhabitable. so we have to go in


AS [13:02]: sorry so when you say that you mean compared to the rate that we are producing negative impacts she can't catch up is that where you're saying?


TK: That’s correct. So historically, nature just to simplify things takes trees and soils and the oceans, oceans accounting for according to recent reports about 60% of carbon emission reduction, that floats up in the atmosphere from all sorts of means, breathing, turning over soil, just things that put carbon gases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere very simplistically, and then nature takes that as part of the carbon cycle and puts it back into plants and that’s how we breathe, it creates oxygen, so that cycle, without us going in there and saying well we’re going to burn all sorts of stuff, and add to that equation, that’s what we’re talking about and so when we do that nature just doesn't have the capacity with the trees and the soils etc to offset that, that’s why you hear a lot about the carbon offsets. So in my thesis, we need to use best-in-class Climate Technologies to go in and rectify that. Now does that mean we’re gonna go willy-nilly and sprinkle the clouds with some sorts of weird doctor strange love chemicals? No. Does that mean we’re gonna go interfere with the oceans? No. Can we use Virtual Reality for example to Showcase what might happen with supercomputers behind the scenes going to the nth degree of the possibilities of what might happen if we indeed did something like marine cloud brightening, if we indeed did something like stratospheric aerosol injection, if we indeed did something like ocean, so if we use the other side of the artificial intelligence supercomputers big data on the modeling side to see what might happen we can go and do things incrementally that can offset part of that equation that we were talking about before so that when we do reduce carbon in the atmosphere which is what is called negative emissions so if we can start to use carbon capture utilization and sequestration ccus to our advantage, then all of the sudden we have a weapon that we can use in the battle for climate change, and that's what I mean by geoengineering the Planet.


AS [15:38]: so using the sexy virtual world to create different possibilities of what things would look like in various scenarios what are two or three examples, maybe from your book that would surprise or shock listeners that you find most interesting?


TK: I think in terms of the most provocative, that are real, that could happen now, that I think are just fantastic opportunities is zero mass water for example, which creates water from air. Fog catchers that are like giant volleyball nets that we could put up that captures moisture and allows people who are disenfranchised from a water system to be able to have water. There’s about 1.2 billion people on the planet that don’t have access to ready, fresh water. Even though we take it for advantage. So something like that, thats a real game changer in terms of the technology that I find fascinating. Lasers that can redirect the weather so we can shoot lasers into clouds that can redirect thunder I mean redirect lightning so that we don't have as many wildfires for example, or even airplanes that get hit, or we can create precipitation or you know not in certain places so you know that's a real game-changer with different lasers that can be utilized to actually shift the weather you know there is things like Marine Cloud brightening that does very localized cooling of ocean waters around the great barrier reef that is being conducted right now, the largest living organism in the world is the Great Barrier Reef, so if we can start to look at simple things like that and then see what ramifications if any come from that, then we can start to ramp it up.


AS [17:35]: okay so not going to lie the second example with the lasers and weather I was thinking of The Hunger Games a bit but I know it's not in that context at all but just so interesting so I just I just thought of something if we were to implement some of these projects on a small scale or not how do you get into like who owns these units how can they be distributed is it I'm just thinking about the global entities that would start to argue and potentially see real conflicts over these solutions regardless of the actual validity for environmental reasons?


TK: Well I think there’s two different things you’re talking about there. Who owns the technologies would be private sector largely. You do have a weather modification agency in China that employs 36,000 people or something like that. So you have government entities that also own some of these Technologies that's different and distinct from an oversight body which I think is what you were alluding to. And there’s a UN governing body that already has a geoengineering committee that oversees the ocean with one being designed now for just general geoengineering and even on a state level, Rhode Island for example, the small state of Rhode Island has a geoengineering legislation committee that’s starting to look at some of the different possibilities there because we do need to regulate it more, so we do need different actors when I say actors I mean nation states to have a voice in how these get developed and distributed because the Global South for example really needs to have a voice in whether you know they would benefit or you know suffer from some of these consequences so we need to have a really big discussion about some of these ramifications when it gets to a global scale but you know that's that's really where we're headed right now with some of the more International agencies starting to take a real hard look at geoengineering.


AS [19:44] Rhode Island, who knew? So what are some of the small-scale applications of Green Technology and Innovation out there, things that we consumers would see or could see or use day to day.


TK: Yeah, I mean solar obviously is the easiest go to, such advances in solar, and when people think of solar they don’t realize that there’s many levels of solar that comprises manufacturing, the actual product, the actual panels, the actual implementation actual distribution of it and there’s feedback into the system so there's a lot that goes into the solar world or the solar system, but the advances across the board have really grown to the point where a solar energy now no big shock is cheaper than fossil fuels, and historically coal has been the cheapest energy source in terms of efficiency that you can get and solar has eclipsed that. So you know, solar in all sorts of its forms whether we’re using it for panels, whether we’re using it for generators for example Goal Zero has an amazing solar power generator that you can use when the lights go out and we’re seeing lots of that in California right now so you know there's different applications for it to your car Tesla has a system that you can put a battery in your home that will not only power your home, but you can charge your car with it, as does BMW and a lot of others. We can use solar for different technologies now, many of us have seen solar backpacks, so we can start to charge our phones with those types of things, so that’s an easy one, but the things that you may not of heard of like smart shingles that are smog capturing shingles that you can put on the roof of your home that would capture smog, which is obviously pollution, you know that's made by 3M, great advanced technology there. things like tinted window that people don't often think of the big impact that tinted windows have on the temperature of their home that can make a big difference in terms of their energy and those are automated tinted windows that use nanotechnology that is really out there in terms of advancements, so that’s something else to take a look at. Smart Meters, very interesting way to be more efficient in your home or if you have teenagers who are taking really long showers you can put a smart tags on your water meters or electric meter and you can see who’s using too much video time and driving your energy bill up or water and you know you can start to have those discussions in your home, I’ll bag out of being intermediary on that, but you know things like smart homes and efficiencies there are big winners in this fight .


AS [22:45]: And do you see those being accessible for people who are disadvantaged who aren't homeowners who might not have the means to purchase those things or make those modifications.


TK: Yeah, and there’s a lot of programs out there, you know it’s a great point. You know LADWP for example here in California, has gift back programs, you get a lot of rebates for you know putting in different types of turf as opposed to Grass that needs to be watered a lot. You’re even given solar rebates, your given water rebates, so there’s a lot of rebates out there that people can look into. Tesla has a program for Less Advantaged people in the inner cities who can put solar panels on their roofs for free, so there's a lot of programs you just have to do a little digging but you know there are programs out there for that, same thing goes with water, the three big pods are obviously Water waste energy and waste rebates too when you start to look at recycling you can get some money back for all sorts of things from electronics to you know many of the other things that we just throw out, plastics being rising up to the top because of obviously the big plastic pollution movement that’s out there.


AS [24:07]: I think the golden solutions are those where you can actually create value, well less waste overall, but create value out of waste and turn that around. So, in the environmental justice conversation while we’re on that topic, corporations take the crown for biggest polluters and a lot of people say that lifestyle changes have no impact as long as corporations don’t step up and limit their pollution, do you agree? Who do you think really holds the power here?


TK: I mean yeah, we’ve seen that. You know this is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. And we are on a discourse that is the definition of insanity we keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results and we haven't gotten anywhere that is going to make a big difference when we're starting to draw things down. Does that mean people should stop? No. We should still stay on this path because what we need to do is create a demand or a market for different products and Tesla’s a shining example of that, that can make a difference, and that is going to awaken you know the people that feed the market on the supply side to create products that we can just throw away without regard to where they go because they're going to be healthy from planet, it’s fine, it’s the cradle concept. So, when we start to look at Marketplace activities and the supply side on this and the manufacturing side that is what's going to move the dial. It’s going to be the manufacturing segments of society, it is going to be the private sector and the way that we can exert an influence on that is to not only buy those products but we can start to invest that way too and we're starting to see the environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) sector of the investment community step up and places like Black Rock that are saying you need to be environmentally friendly or we’re not going to invest with you and by the way we're the largest investor in the world so companies want that money, so they’re going to start to pay attention and put together these protocols. So I think that’s where we can start, with our 401(K)s, we can start with our purchasing habits, and our lifestyle habits, but again we have to then start to say okay what can we do that’s a level up from that? Can we start to look at some of these technologies that are going to make a big difference.


AS [26:48]: It’s interesting the way you said that it kind of made me think it's this whole intersection of managing cleaning up what's happened in the past, taking actions today right now in the present, and investing in a new future, so it's past present future all intertwine.


TK: That is correct. Very Buddhist of you.


AS: Thank you! So you threw out a number of ideas that I think are applicable to lifestyle shifts that we can make but I just want to get a little more granular here so let's talk about some get real actions that are impactful and accessible that our listeners can take right after this podcast ones that you wouldn't necessarily find in a Google search.


TK: yeah and I think we covered a couple of these which is the in way that most Americans have access to the stock market is through their 401k plan and right now there is a policy that's on the table or a rule that would disallow people from investing with an environment focus through their 401k. So the federal government is basically saying we're not going to give you that option, that exists, we’re going to take that off the table. Yet, two-thirds of people who do invest, or do have a 401k would like that option. And then you look at the millennial class that says I’ll even take a haircut on my income, the amount that you’re going to pay me, in order to work at a company that is environmentally friendly, so you have the mass of the population saying this is a very simple thing yeah I'd like to do that and by the way ESG funds have outperformed any other fund class for the first six months of 2020, so you have this whole Direction and yet we're still getting push back that this may be too risky a proposition for people. Until we get to the point where people start to think about the environmental movement as incidental to their life things are going to be this way, and that puts a lot of pressure on the private sector but we have to then encouraged the private sector's through things like impact investing though things like the environmental, social, and corporate governance type of investing, through our 401ks and just generally saying, this is a way we’re voting with our dollars. That I think is going to go a long way, so if we can start to show more of that now, and allocate some of the funds that we’re allowed to do today, into our 401ks while we can or other investment means that I think will be a big vote to keeping the environmental movement moving at a faster clip. So that’s kind of on the sophisticated level, but on a very basic level, you can start to do things in your home like, I was just reading this morning about Montreal and they’ve created the largest greenhouse in Canada and it’s going to be able to feed a third or more of the population and it’s just an interesting way of looking at wow in a very confined space, as we have less and less arable land available to us to grow food and that’s a whole other podcast about food scarcity, but when you start to look at that and some of the possibilities that could be waged there in terms of food, that’s something that we can take into our homes. We can create vertical gardens in a corner of our apartment it we wanted to that we could make a salad from them, we can make all sorts of things, and vertical gardens are a growing phenomenon, you can start to invest in them if you like, or you can start to look at people like David Chang who are looking at the vegetables that can be grown through vertical gardens because they’re quote unquote cleaner. So, we start to look at some of those things like can we put a roof garden, can we put a garden in our backyard, can we start to feed ourselves that way. That’s something too because the average piece of food travels about 1,700 miles from pasture to plate, so think about all the things that have gone into that about a third of the food that ends up on our plate gets wasted along the way. So the more that we can get closer to our food supply the better. So I think those are a couple of easy ones that you literally don’t have to leave your house to do and then if you want to step it up look at some of the things that going forward I think are going to be just fascinating for people to get engaged with and that’s smart homes that create efficiencies. I went to a conference about this recently down in San Diego and all of the things that you’re able to do and we’ve gotten a little taste of it from Covid, you know being able to just order things and have them delivered at our door at a degree that I don’t think any of us have ever done before, being able to look at things in our house differently and see what efficiencies we can create and I think since we’re all bunkered down in our homes because of the public health crisis obviously our utilities, and this is something that isn’t talked about a lot, are going through the roof, in summer time, and then when we start to get into winter so what efficiencies can we create and that gets into some of the Smart Home Appliances that are out there because they are more energy efficient at the end of the day and that gets into a whole big data discussion that again is a whole other podcast but I think some of those things are very very important to look at in your house.


AS [32:45]: I think the overarching point to all of this is by doing any one of these things you will have a better quality of life regardless of the environmental impact

KT: Either you or someone down the road


AS: Or both


TK: Right, or both. And that’s the goal here. It goes back to the beginning of the podcast when I spoke about people writing to me about recycling for the first time and just a mentality shift that that created for them to be more environmentally friendly and someone from just that simple step in the book has now created a whole business out of that news created a website and has gone sustainable and it just like really interesting success stories that that you can start to think about so yeah that's it just simple things to get you on the path and some of us who've been in the movement for a long time can level up too and get a little bit more you know technologically aware to see what else is out there


AS [33:47]: Well if there's one silver lining of Covid I think it's encouraging people to get more tech-savvy so perfect opportunity. What do you want to leave listeners with in this conversation?


TK: That there are opportunities out there for us to engage in and with that are really really cool that are futuristic that are interesting they’re sexy, they are the future whether it's autonomous vehicles whether its cities of the future that have been built by you know these world-class architects in places like United Arab Emirates and outside of Abu Dabi where I’ve been to, really really cool stuff that make life interesting and make life better and I think that is something that we can all get around because we all want to look at the future we all want to see what's out there and say maybe that is a better way of going about it and maybe it will avoid some of these pitfalls that we’ve stepped into by not embracing what's out there that is the best of human innovation and the best that we have to offer the world which is our brains and our ability to take things to the next level that's what's going to improve conditions for everybody


AS [35:08]: Well, I'm inspired yeah it's so wonderful and I don't want to put anything on top of that just to say that was a perfect way to complete the conversation and I am so grateful that you're here today what I've gotten from this is how the possibilities are endless when we really lean into technology and when we we look at things from a fresh perspective and harness all that's available to us today to make the most of the future so thank you so much for being with us today


TK: Thanks so much for having me


AS: Alright, and we’ll talk to you soon


TK: Sounds great. Stay safe.