Zero Emissions Isn’t Enough. ​We Need Climate Repair.

Ceasing fossil fuel consumption is a huge lift, but it isn’t enough to save the planet. We need to think much, much bigger: toward global solutions that can capture excess carbon in the atmosphere and begin repairing the deep damage we’ve done to the planet.

An aerial view of drought-shrunken Horseshoe Lake near Mammoth Lakes, California. (David McNew / Getty Images)

Last year’s United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, COP26, concluded with the most ambitious set of national commitments in the history of the negotiations. Yet scientists and activists say these commitments, if they are achieved, likely put us on track to blow past the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming that Glasgow organizers had promised to “keep alive,” headed toward a catastrophic 2.4 degrees Celsius. As usual in climate politics, the best our ruling class can offer is too little, too late.

Worse, recent events show that the climate may be more sensitive to warming than once thought. In 2020, wildfires brought choking air and bloodred skies to California. In 2021, unprecedented floods displaced thirty-five thousand in South Sudan. In the Pacific, Typhoon Rai killed four hundred, and in the Atlantic, Hurricane Ida killed over a hundred and caused more than $65 billion in damage. This summer’s heat waves have likely killed thousands across Europe.

And so on, in countless numbing headlines and shocking cell phone videos every year. The climate crisis is no longer about what the world will be like in 2050 or 2100, but rather what it will be like this year, and how much worse it will get each year after.

Nor will its most brutal impacts be confined to equatorial latitudes. The Global South and the working class will suffer the most, but the whole of human civilization, as well as every other species, will feel the heat and heavy weather.

Given how dangerous and inhospitable our current world of 1.1 degrees Celsius warming turns out to be, we should consider just what we are in for even if, as we must, we ramp up our ambition and cut carbon emissions fast enough to stabilize the climate at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. When we reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, it will be an order of magnitude worse than our current dire climate circumstances, much less the 2 degrees Celsius–plus climate we are in for without drastic action.

And because greenhouse gases can linger in the atmosphere for centuries, things will not go back to normal once we cease burning fossil fuels. Extreme weather will continue to overpower us. Wet-bulb heat disasters will remain regular and deadly occurrences. Glaciers will keep collapsing, and seas will keep rising. Forests, croplands, and other landscapes will struggle to adapt. Ocean acidification will threaten marine ecosystems on which billions depend, and will get worse as the hydrosphere absorbs more of the excess carbon we’ve dumped into the air.

These grim realities should not discourage us from pushing for climate action — quite the contrary. The only sensible response is to increase our ambition, to ask what can be done to fix the mess we will be left with when the last coal plant is shut off and the last gas-powered cars stop running.

As socialists, we should be committed to not just stopping capitalist degradation of the environment but to providing a safe and stable planet for generations to come. As such, we have to stop thinking that the job will be done when emissions are ended.

Swift and deep decarbonization, the epochal transition of the human civilization off fossil-fuel energy to sources that don’t endanger our lives and planet, is only step one. We should start planning for and demanding a second civilizational project to follow: climate repair.

How to Fix the Planet

Rolling the climate back to a less volatile state means removing and disposing of much of the excess carbon dioxide that has been added to the atmosphere and ocean over the last two hundred years. Think of CO2 as a kind of waste, as “father of direct air capture” Klaus Lackner has argued. (I studied with Lackner at Arizona State University.) It’s the low-energy byproduct of getting energy out of hydrocarbons via combustion (or out of carbohydrates via biological respiration). It’s hard to do anything with the molecule without putting new energy into it, both to separate it from the air and to turn it into a more energetically useful material — which is what plants do through photosynthesis.

To get us back in the ballpark of preindustrial 280 parts per million (or perhaps slightly warmer than that, if we prefer), we will need to remove somewhere in the neighborhood of three hundred to five hundred gigatons of carbon (meaning about 3.7 times as much carbon dioxide) — a volume on the scale of Lake Michigan. Some of this drawdown we can indeed leave to plants. Deforestation is a significant chunk of our carbon debt, and revitalizing forests, grasslands, wetlands, and soils is a necessary part of any climate repair effort.

But the biosphere can only hold so much, as Spencer Roberts has pointed out in Jacobin. Restoring almost all the Earth’s surface to a preindustrial state would only pull down and sequester less than half of what we need.

We have inundated the carbon cycle with carbon that had been buried in the lithosphere (the earth’s crust) for millions of years. As Holly Jean Buck explored in her 2019 book After Geoengineering, there simply isn’t enough land to grow the biomass required to hold all that spent fossil carbon. Perhaps we could imagine using desalinated water to irrigate and green big deserts like the Sahel, but this too would be a massive undertaking and would probably bump up against other nutrient bottlenecks.

Much of our excess carbon will likely need to be pulled out of the air and oceans using industrial forms of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), such as a technology called direct air capture (DAC). DAC involves passing air through a chemical sponge that filters out some of the CO2.

Though the technology is still new, carbon removal firm Climeworks recently turned on its Orca DAC plant in Iceland, powered by clean geothermal and financed without fossil fuel funding. Other pilot plants are popping up around the globe. Carrying out the CDR we need doesn’t require any fundamentally new inventions (we already scrub CO2 from the air on submarines and spacecraft), but rather investment to increase DAC efficiency, drive down costs, and get the larger carbon removal industry to scale.

Once pulled out of the air, captured CO2 must then be transported and stored in underground reservoirs or converted into durable products. A wooden house is a reasonably stable form of carbon storage, provided it doesn’t burn down for at least a century or so, and researchers are developing ways to fix more CO2 into other building materials like concrete.

But the most permanent way to store captured carbon would be to return it to where our fossil fuels came from — putting it back in the ground, as Orca does.

All of this is energy-intensive, and powering DAC by burning more coal and oil is, obviously, the opposite of carbon negative. Thankfully it’s becoming increasingly plausible that, with enough investment, renewables (particularly solar) can deliver a world of clean energy abundance. Solar and wind energy are now much cheaper than coal, and if we keep up the rate at which we are projected to install these sources in the 2020s, in a couple decades humanity will have more and cheaper energy at its disposal than ever before.

If we have successfully put a Lake Michigan worth of atmospheric carbon back in the ground, in that moment we may begin to find a just and sustainable relationship to our world. (Claudel Rhealt / Unsplash)

The catch is that solar and wind are intermittent, ceasing to generate at night or when the wind stills but producing a surplus of electrons during the brightest or windiest hours of the day. Keeping the grid continually powered requires storage — batteries, pumped water or air, or using clean energy to make fuels like hydrogen or synthetic hydrocarbons. Nuclear is also an option, coming with its own set of advantages and complications.

In both cases, climate repair will require us to build out more fossil-free energy generation than we need just to keep the lights on. The sooner we recognize this, the better we can make our demands sufficient to the task.

Carbon capture actually fits quite nicely into a world powered by the sun, however. DAC machines don’t need to run 24-7, so we can turn them on during peak generating hours or whenever we have surplus electrons that need to be put to use. This helps with the “duck curve” problem of varying levels of solar energy productivity during the day, and would be a much more beneficial use than what capitalists will likely do with abundant clean energy, such as mining for cryptocurrencies.

Environmentalists and socialists alike should demand a swift ramp-up of both the clean energy and carbon removal sectors. As Andreas Malm and Wim Carton point out, “The technology cannot be summoned ex nihilo circa the year 2043.” The sooner we can bring this technology to scale, ready to make use of the surplus electrons that will come with transitioning to clean energy, the easier it will be to navigate the transition from our first task of global decarbonization to the next stage of planetary climate repair.

The Worker Must Have Emissions Cuts, but She Must Have CDR, Too

Some on the Left will be skeptical of this project, since carbon capture has been floated by fossil fuel companies as a way to maintain the coal- and gas-burning status quo. What I am proposing, however, is not a quick techno-fix to solve our climate problems without deep changes to our economy and society. Rather, climate repair is about acknowledging how much damage capitalism has done to our planet — so much that even if we do manage, as we must, to cease our fossil fuel emissions and radically change our approach to energy, industry, and agriculture, our climate problems still won’t go away. We will be left with a fundamentally less habitable world, with more work to be done to deliver a habitable one to future generations. Demanding climate repair is the only just response to this hard truth.

According to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report, CDR is already a necessary part of any plausible emissions trajectory that holds the world to 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. Furthermore, some emissions will be trickier to cut than others, such as those involved in certain industrial processes and air travel. We should ask tough questions about which of these hard-to-mitigate emissions really benefit the world’s working class — not the fuel for the predator drones, surely, nor much of the steel that goes into building the luxury skyscraper real estate where the world’s plutocrats park their money, and perhaps not even some of the methane produced by animal agriculture.

But where real sacrifices by the working class are necessary, removal can help us carve out allowances.

There is a real danger, however, that promises of CDR will be used as justification for yet more delay of climate action, more cover for fossil capitalism to continue its ecocidal extraction. Certainly the oil and coal corporations think so, given their material and ideological support of the carbon capture space. Malm and Carton present a scathing survey of the ways DAC is poised to offer capitalists new frontiers of exploitation without meaningfully reducing the concentration of carbon in the air.

For exactly this reason, socialists should take up climate repair as a core demand.

If we dismiss carbon capture as an idea tainted by capitalist greenwashing, we will be both flat-footed in the mitigation debate and unable to craft a DAC policy that actually delivers future workers a habitable world. We must argue and organize for carbon removal that occurs in addition to radical cuts in emissions, rather than instead of.

Capitalists will be eager for an either/or that allows them to get away with doing neither. To combat this, we need to co-opt carbon capture from the Left.

Only Socialism Can Save the World

The nature of the problem already demands a socialist solution. As is always the question when it comes to climate change, we have to ask who is going to pay for this grand civilizational project of climate repair. While the political and material pressures of the climate crisis may nudge some capitalist actors toward cutting emissions, it is hard to imagine that corporations and billionaires are going to voluntarily fund the massive industrial apparatus required to dispose of the carbon waste in our atmosphere. Bill Gates and Elon Musk have made early investments in carbon removal technology, but no one expects them to pay for the full five hundred gigatons of removal out of pocket. Indeed, they are no doubt planning to cash in on this burgeoning industry.

Carbon credit markets may supply seed funding for scaling early CDR firms, but too often these schemes amount to bookkeeping tricks that obscure emissions and greenwash polluting corporations and lifestyles. Even if we reformed carbon credits to be more meaningful and robust, buying such eco-financial instruments will remain performative without significant state intervention. After all, few firms could stay competitive while voluntarily paying for the full cost of cleaning up their historic emissions. In the end, climate repair will need to be publicly funded.

Furthermore, climate repair will require marshaling enormous resources and productive forces. We’ll need to build millions of DAC machines and millions of solar panels and wind turbines to power them. Without careful planning and regulation, this could be its own environmental disaster.

Socialists should follow the model of the Green New Deal and push for publicly owned and operated carbon removal infrastructure — a Tennessee Valley Authority or Works Progress Administration for climate repair. We could also seize fossil fuel firms and put them to work reversing the damage they’ve done.

The Pickwick Landing Dam in Hardin County, Tennessee, a project of the Tennessee Valley Authority. (Photo by Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

Either way, we should demand that the millions of jobs climate repair will create should be union jobs that pay a living wage. We should caution leaders against leaving CDR in the hands of corner-cutting, profit-hungry capitalists.

In the meantime, our cities and states can nudge forward the emerging CDR industry through government procurement. By buying captured carbon directly, we can grow climate repair while setting up the criteria to ensure that removals actually do some good for the world. Several such procurement bills have been introduced throughout the United States and internationally, many developed by the volunteer CDR research and advocacy collective OpenAir.

Fundamentally a cooler, calmer climate is a global public good that crosses borders and classes. There is no single “customer” that climate repair could be sold to, and even cities and nation-states — our traditional actors for regulating air quality — work at too small a scale. When you remove a gigaton of CO2 from the atmosphere, the climate benefits are distributed all over the planet and to future generations. In fact, the benefits will be felt most keenly by the world’s working classes, who are disproportionately at risk of losing their lives and livelihoods to climate change compared to the wealthy.

A global wealth tax is the most sensible and fair mechanism for funding climate repair. According to a study by Oxfam, the world’s richest 1 percent produce more than twice the emissions of the poorest 50 percent of humanity, and the richest 10 percent are responsible for the majority of emissions since 1990. Further, because of the unequal ways climate outcomes are felt, climate change is set to be one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the poor to the rich in history. A global wealth tax could begin to rectify this climate injustice, while providing a funding stream to support the complex, expensive, decades-long project of climate repair.

We can’t leave the task of cleaning up our atmosphere and oceans to self-interested capitalists or even to squabbling nation-states. Their inaction, blame-casting, and obsequience to the fossil fuel lobby has cost us decades and put us on a path where climate repair is no longer optional. Now, in the pandemic, the latest COVID variants are demonstrating the cost of countries prioritizing their own bottom lines — and those of powerful corporations — over global public health cooperation.

Instead, the need for climate repair should spur us toward a new kind of international socialism. We should work to demand and build global democratic institutions that can justly manage and care for the planetary systems on which we depend, in a way that promotes health, safety, and prosperity for all people.

In my recent book Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, I imagine how this might look in the later half of this century. In this narrative, based on the most optimistic of the IPCC’s possible scenarios, an international movement of the working class not only achieves local shifts toward socialism but reforms to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. Enforcement mechanisms get teeth, and new kinds of parties are brought into the negotiations, like the trade unions and other constituencies currently excluded from all but advising and observing. Cooperation on ecological adaptation across bioregions begins to leech some forms of soft sovereignty from nation-states. A democratically controlled “Planetary Trust” is set up and empowered to levy a global wealth tax and administer climate repair — and then to make other investments in human flourishing, such as provisioning the basic needs of every person on Earth.

Decarbonization and climate repair are big tasks — perhaps the biggest humans have ever tried to accomplish. If, at the end of the century, we have successfully cleaned up our mess and put a Lake Michigan worth of atmospheric carbon back in the ground, I imagine it may feel like we have passed through a kind of bottleneck, plucking our collective neck out from under extinction’s swaying ax. It would be a moral triumph after centuries of blind and willful destruction — perhaps a moment in which we could begin to answer, for the first time, what a just and sustainable relationship to our world might look like.

In such a future, we would still need democratic, socialist planetary institutions to take on projects for all of humanity. These could include preventing and treating pandemics, protecting our fragile planet from asteroid impacts, and warding off other dangers lurking in deep time that we haven’t even thought of yet.

This may sound like science fiction. But it is capitalism’s lack of imagination, its unwillingness to go big when there’s not a profit to be made, that has so far constrained climate action. Socialists should think grander.