How weight loss can put carbon removal in perspective

Six years ago, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared climate change to weight loss:

"You know, oftentimes when you face such an overwhelming challenge as global climate change is, it can be somewhat daunting,"


"If we keep in mind the big goal, but we break it down into baby steps - those doable, achievable objectives - we can do so much together."

Clinton's analogy comparing fighting climate change to weight loss can be extended to help put carbon removal in context. In this analogy:

  • Conservation and mitigation: analogous to going on a diet. The no-brainer strategy for starting to lose weight is to eat fewer calories, just like the no-brainer strategy for preventing climate change is to reduce carbon emissions from activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and intensive industrial agriculture.
  • Removing carbon from the atmosphere: analogous to exercising. Sometimes diet alone isn't enough to lose weight, exercise is needed too. In the same way, simply stopping carbon emissions might not be enough to prevent climate change -- we might also need to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and/or oceans. And even if we could prevent climate change without carbon removal, pursuing carbon removal strategies slowly and in moderation is likely to be beneficial regardless, much in the same way that moderate exercise is healthy regardless of whether it is necessary for weight loss.
  • Adapting to changes in the climate: analogous to buying new clothes. Buying new clothes does nothing to help you lose weight -- but it does make like more comfortable while you are overweight. No doctor has ever said, "it's OK to be obese -- you can adapt to this condition by planning what new clothes you should buy as you grow larger..." just like scientists largely agree that climate adaptation is no substitute for preventing climate change in the first place.
  • Albedo modification geoengineering techniques: analogous getting lap-band surgery. Lap-band surgery can have devastating side effects and so is only recommended in extreme circumstances. What's more, the procedure only works in conjunction with diet and exercise. In the same way, albedo modification geoengineering techniques are viewed as highly risky and uncertain, and require dramatic emission reductions and carbon removal for them to be phased out.