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US can slow climate change with new carbon-capture technology

New innovations show that we can slow climate change. For instance, an artificial tree mimics the photosynthesis of real trees by chemically sucking CO2 out of the air. A push from Washington and other world capitals could help spur the market for such carbon-capture technology.

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The coal-fired Scherer power plant in Juliette, Ga. is pictured operating here on July 10, 2007. Op-ed contributor Richard Schiffman writes: 'In the wake of hurricane Sandy, more Americans than ever...are convinced that climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be addressed. This shift in public opinion may give the president the political space that he needs to push for the tough action that is required.'

Gene Blythe/AP

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Global temperatures are rising faster than scientists thought possible even a few years ago. The Arctic icecap is melting at a rate that few researchers had anticipated, and, most ominously, the permafrost is beginning to thaw, which could release vast amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than CO2.

The situation is indeed grave – but not unsolvable. While the majority of scientists agree that we humans have made the problem, new innovations show that we can also solve it. Climate change is a global problem, but the world looks to the US for leadership and solutions.

There are three reasons for this. First, America is the world’s largest economic power. Second, the US has been the main obstructionist at global climate conferences preventing the tough action that needs to be taken to cut the emissions of greenhouse gases and slow the progress of climate change. Finally, and more hopefully, the US remains the world leader in science and innovation.

I saw proof of this when I visited Dr. Klaus Lackner, the chairman of the Earth and Environmental Engineering department at Columbia University in December. He showed me a palm-sized mockup for an “artificial tree” that mimics the photosynthesis of real trees by chemically sucking CO2 out of the air. A single such tree-sized device left standing in the wind, Dr. Lackner told me, would remove one ton a day of carbon from the atmosphere, the equivalent of the greenhouse gases produced by 36 automobiles.

This “carbon capture” technology is not a risky geo-engineering scheme, according to Lackner. It is simply cleaning up after ourselves and repairing the damage that we have already done. He envisions a day when forests of such artificial trees – they cost less than automobiles to manufacture and can be placed anywhere on the face of the earth since C02 is equally dispersed – will make a big dent on the climate problem.

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