Colossal almost certainly can’t create enough “mammophant” herds to make a difference in the climate — and it’s not clear that it would be possible with any number of them. Permafrost was once stable not because mammoths roamed the tundra, but because the climate was very cold and dry, which also allowed the animals to thrive, says Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics in the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. The company’s plan has cause and effect reversed.
Still, the idea points to a sad reality about our halfhearted war on climate change: We are losing, the effects of global warming are becoming ever-more glaring, and we are desperately groping for solutions, including far-fetched schemes that we might have avoided or dismissed in the past. Reviving extinct mammoths would have been rejected as a bad plotline for the next “Jurassic Park” sequel not that long ago. Now it seems plausible enough as a climate fix to attract $15 million in investment funding.
In the United States and across the world, devastating floods, massive wildfires, droughts and heat waves make it clear that the effects of global warming are here, and they are undeniable. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated that avoiding warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is possible only if leading countries make massive and immediate cuts to their greenhouse gas emissions. But in 2020, 83 percent of the world’s energy still came from greenhouse-gas-producing fossil fuels, according to BP’s 2021 accounting of world energy.
Greenland has lost 5 trillion tons of ice since 1990, with every 362 billion tons lost creating one millimeter of sea level rise. A recent United Nations report warned that emissions could increase by 16 percent by 2030, placing the world on a path to warm 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees now looks practically impossible, especially because the political will to make big changes appears to be absent. That has left scientists looking further afield for ideas that might stand in for government action.
Mammoths aren’t the only animals that experts are eyeing as an answer to our problems. A team led by Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany, has proposed training cows to use a toilet. In a recent study published in the journal Cell, 10 out of 16 calves were successfully trained to urinate in a “MooLoo,” a designated area of their pens. (Calves that did so were rewarded with food, while those that peed in the wrong place were hit with a spray of water.) Urine contains ammonia, which turns into nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas, when mixed with soil or feces. With about 1.5 billion cows on the planet, each producing about eight gallons of urine a day, toilet-training cows really could reduce emissions by allowing their urine to be sequestered and treated. “Remarkably, the calves showed a level of performance comparable to that of children and superior to that of very young children,” the study notes.
Cattle also belch methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, because one compartment of their stomach ferments partially digested food for later use. So researchers have experimented with special diets that might cut back on the gas; Mexican scientists found that grass mixed with leucaena leaves reduced bovine methane emissions by as much as 36 percent, with no difference in milk or meat production. Since livestock produces 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with cattle accounting for most of that, this type of research could yield real results — though it might take getting all 1.5 billion of the world’s cows to adopt a new diet.
Certainly, not all the ideas emerging out of this desperation are good ones. In 2012, three philosophers proposed taking on the primary hindrance to preventing climate change: human nature. In what they dubbed “human engineering,” S. Matthew Liao, Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache proposed to make humans smaller so they would consume less, smarter so that birthrates would drop, and intolerant to beef protein through “meat patches” akin to nicotine patches. All of this would, in theory, lower our energy needs and thus greenhouse gas emissions. They also suggested pharmacologically enhancing altruism and empathy by developing a “prosocial hormone” oxytocin pill so people might finally give a damn.
Other proposals that might have seemed like science fiction a few years ago are now considered worth trying. Carbon capture technology, for instance, which involves physically removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has emerged as a critical solution, though it isn’t ready to scale yet. In September, Climeworks, one of the myriad companies competing in this space, installed the world’s largest direct-air capture plant in Iceland. Called Orca, it works like a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year to be stored underground. That’s only about 790 cars’ worth, though — what might be eliminated with a decent municipal public transportation program. As Business Insider noted, in one year Orca will capture only three seconds’ worth of global emissions, or one 10-millionth of humanity’s output. It’s also very pricey; Climeworks has declined to disclose the cost of using this technology, but co-founder Christoph Gebald told The Washington Post that it was at least $600 per ton of carbon captured.
If all else fails, maybe greed will work. That’s the idea behind the SolarCoin Foundation, established in 2014 by Nick Gogerty, Joseph Zitoli and Justin Levinson. It rewards one SolarCoin to large-scale solar-energy generators for every megawatt-hour of verified solar-electricity production; one megawatt-hour is enough to power the average home for about three weeks. SolarCoins can be converted to dollars or any other cryptocurrency. But the present exchange rate is around 22 SolarCoins to the dollar, with more than 45 million SolarCoins in existence. “Our ultimate goal is to bring about the ‘Solarity,’ ” Levinson, an engineer with the project, said in an interview. “As the price of solar decreases and the price of SolarCoin increases, producing solar energy becomes effectively free.” But that’s still quite far off in SolarCoin’s future.
Climate scientist Jason Box has proposed covering Greenland’s glaciers with white blankets to reflect sunlight, keeping the ice frozen. In a documentary for Discovery UK, Box and colleagues demonstrated the concept by unrolling a special white polypropylene blanket over about two and a half acres atop Greenland, totaling 31 rolls. It may sound crazy, but on a much tinier scale, a similar project is saving about 1 percent of the Northern Schneeferner, the largest glacier in Germany. Greenland, however, is 7 million times that glacier in area.
On the surface, the idea that we could reverse years of climate neglect with some clever miracle invention — a feat of human ingenuity — is alluring. But none of these solutions is ultimately better than what many of these same scientists have been screaming for governments to do since the 1980s, which is to dramatically lower emissions. They all have huge costs, monetary or otherwise, or they treat just a sliver of the problem, or they risk unintended consequences. Those consequences, and a dustbin full of expensively bad ideas, may be the price we pay for not listening all this time.