Heroes of the Environment 2009 — David Keith

It is time again for the annual feast of fun that is Time’s Heroes of the Environment list. As always it is a thought provoking reminder of how narrow my environmental issues are. Climate and energy issues dominate what I think of under that rubric but here there is lots of room for good old fashioned pollution: mines, dirty rivers, rubbish and the like. Not to mention bloody organic farmers, and various people who would not really make my list (Pen Hadow? Really?)

But climate and energy do top the bill: Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives leads off the whole package, and there’s a nice spread about Joe Romm, who gives his take on the honour here. (Nice note of irony: the piece on Joe Romm is written by Bryan Walsh, eviscerated by Joe earlier this year for a piece that took the Breakthrough Institute’s line on energy R&D; in last year’s Heroes Bryan profiled the Breakthrough Institute’s founders  Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger.)

My contribution this year (following Jim Lovelock in 2007 and Kim Stanley Robinson in 2008) is on David Keith, who I imagine is probably suitably embarrassed by the whole thing; but to my mind deserves the recognition. His heroism consists of thinking hard and clearly about things other people are hardly thinking about at all. That has let him do a great deal to help frame and further the debate on geoengineering, which needed to be done, and now he’s pursuing ideas about direct air carbon captur, which again can but benefit from the serious attention. It also makes him one of the best people to talk to about climate and energy issues, bar none. Excerpt:

David Keith, studiously avoiding mad scientist cliches

The brains have arrived, Master (©2008 Ewan Nicholson)

Early success in pure physics (his graduate project, supervised by a professor noted for his mentoring of future Nobelists, was a long-awaited experimental breakthrough in atomic optics) did not satisfy him. Climate work promised a greater opportunity to do good while at the same time throwing up what ambitious physicists always want most: questions no one yet knows the answers to.

Soon he was working on nitty-gritty climate-modeling problems while learning economic and policy analysis. That breadth has helped him communicate climate concerns to the often skeptical energy industry; it’s also part of why he is listened to by people like Bill Gates, who relies on meetings organized by Keith to stay up-to-date on climate science. “While he’s got informed and strong opinions,” Gates says, “he’s also incredibly open-minded, pointing out the unknowns in his opinions and just as readily pointing out the merits of others’ opinions.”

It’s been a good press weekend for David. He has a Perspectives piece on air capture that’s part of a package on CCS in last Friday’s Science; that got picked up on John Tierney’s NYT blog.

Image of David Keith by Ewan Nicholson, used with permission, all rights reserved

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