Geoengineering: wise to have a fallback option

Sailing ship graffiti

Over at RealClimate they are talking about geoengineering: that’s the intentional manipulation of the global climatic system with the intent to counteract the effects of greenhouse gasses. Generally, it consists of efforts to either reflect more solar energy back into space or enhance the activity of biological carbon sinks. It has been mentioned here before.

The fundamental problem with all geoengineering schemes (from sulfite injections to plankton tubes to giant mirrors) is that they risk creating unexpected and negative side-effects. That said, it does seem intelligent to investigate them as a last resort. Nobody knows at what point critical physical and biological systems might tip into a cycle of self-reinforcing warming. Plausible examples include permafrost melting in the Arctic, releasing methane that heats the atmosphere still more, or the large-scale burning of tropical rainforests, both producing emissions and reducing the capacity of carbon sinks. If physical or biological systems became net emitters of greenhouse gasses, cutting human emissions to zero would not be sufficient to stop warming; it would simply continue until the planet reached a new equilibrium.

Given linear projections of climate change damages, we would probably be wisest to heed the Stern Review and spend adequately on mitigation. Given the danger of strong positive feedbacks, it makes sense to develop some fallback options for use in desperate times. It seems to me that various forms of geoengineering should be among them. Let us hope they never need to be used.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

70 thoughts on “Geoengineering: wise to have a fallback option”

  1. The debate heats up
    Is geoengineering worth a second look?
    Posted by Maywa Montenegro at 6:26 PM on 24 Oct 2007
    Read more about: climate | climate change mitigation
    Tools: print | email | + digg | + | + reddit | + stumbleupon

    Until recently, I was under the impression that scaling back carbon emissions 80% by 2050 might forestall the worst of effects of global warming. But with news like yesterday’s, with California up in flames, and with the Arctic ice cap shrunken to an all-time low, I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve already done so much damage that a technological fix might be necessary…

    “This is not to say that we should give up trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ninety-nine percent of the $3 billion federal Climate Change Technology Program should still go toward developing climate-friendly energy systems. But 1 percent of that money could be put toward working out geoengineered climate fixes like sulfate particles in the atmosphere, and developing the understanding we need to ensure that they wouldn’t just make matters worse.”

  2. European Parliament votes to require car ads include warnings on CO2 emissions

    The European Parliament recently voted that car ads must include warnings on vehicle CO2 emissions. If the rule successfully negotiates the rest of the European Union legislative process, 20 percent of a car ad would have to warn or educate consumers about the CO2 emitted from the vehicles advertised, as well as their fuel consumption. The 20 percent rule would apply to overall space in a print or internet ad and overall ad time for TV and radio commercials. “As you can imagine, it is not something that we would be particularly happy about,” says a spokesperson for an auto industry trade group. Ad companies are also not thrilled since the rule could cut into the $8.6 billion a year that automakers in Western Europe spend on car ads.

  3. Industry’s plan for us

    * A Sulfur Parasol to Blot Out the Sun
    * A new word enters our vocabulary: Geo-engineering
    * Fertilizing the Oceans with Iron
    * Mirrors in Orbit
    * Radiation Belt Remediation
    * A Plan to Change the Earth’s Orbit
    * The Biggest Geo-engineering Project: Carbon Sequestration

  4. Grand schemes for re-engineering the planet now have their own special name — geo-engineering. The word means, “global-scale interventions to alter the oceans and the atmosphere so fossil corporations can continue business as usual.”

  5. Give me one example of something analogous done on a small scale successfully, or don’t give geo-engineering any credit. Certainly, never use the word “wise” in conjunction with it.

  6. anon (the fourth one),

    Geoengineering is like a backup parachute. You don’t want to use it and it is likely to give you a jolt and a hard landing. Still, it is a sensible thing to be investigating, given how little we understand possible feedbacks.

    The danger is that studying it will foster the belief that we can easily fix climate change in a technical way, with no need for mitigation. While I recognize that risk, I also recognize the desirability of having some kind of measure that can be employed in a period of rapid and potentially catastrophic accelerating change.

  7. “I’ve been a Republican my whole life, but I’ll be doggoned if Al Gore isn’t right. Is it fair for you and me — this generation — to pollute for all the generations to come when we’re already seeing the effects — global warming, mercury, particulate matter?”

    — newly minted environmentalist Sammy Prim

  8. Feds still failing on environment: commissioner

    Updated Tue. Oct. 30 2007 2:13 PM ET

    David Akin, CTV News

    OTTAWA — Federal governments — be they Liberal or Conservative — continue to fail to make decisions and implement policies that would protect Canada’s natural environment, says the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development.

  9. “The danger is that studying it will foster the belief that we can easily fix climate change in a technical way”

    The danger is that it will foster the complete lack of danger.

  10. I don’t think you can ‘foster’ a lack of danger.

    Do you mean that it will lead people to believe that there is no danger? I think that is pretty unlikely. By the time we are intentionally manipulating the climate system, virtually everyone will need to admit that some danger exists.

  11. Wildfires turning northern forests into carbon-dioxide sources

    A group of U.S. researchers have found that wildfires — fuelled by climate change — may be turning boreal forests into sources of carbon dioxide.

    The boreal forests — found in northern Canada, Alaska, Siberia, China, Scandinavia and elsewhere — make up the second largest type of forest in the world behind the tropical rainforest.

    Scientists have historically believed that the boreal forests act as a carbon sink, as trees absorb carbon emissions and reduce them in the atmosphere.

    But new research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Nature, has found that the forests may be emitting more carbon than they are absorbing.

  12. An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security

    PETER SCHWARTZ & DOUG RANDALL / GBN Global Business Network October 2003

    Imagining the Unthinkable

    The purpose of this report is to imagine the unthinkable – to push the boundaries of current research on climate change so we may better understand the potential implications on United States national security.

    We have interviewed leading climate change scientists, conducted additional research, and reviewed several iterations of the scenario with these experts. The scientists support this project, but caution that the scenario depicted is extreme in two fundamental ways. First, they suggest the occurrences we outline would most likely happen in a few regions, rather than on globally. Second, they say the magnitude of the event may be considerably smaller.

    We have created a climate change scenario that although not the most likely, is plausible, and would challenge United States national security in ways that should be considered immediately.

  13. Ethical Issues Created by Geo-engineering Proposals – An Initial Analysis

    I. Introduction to ethics of geo-engineering of the climate system

    II. Ethical Questions Raised by These Proposals

    * What is the ethical significance of the differences between inadvertent and intentional interference with the climate system?
    * What ethical issues are raised by the scientific uncertainties in the deployment of these technologies?
    * What ethical issues are raised by the need of someone to determine the heating goal for the entire planet, as would be the case in these geo-engineering proposals?
    * Is further research on these proposals ethically warranted?

  14. Knowledge gaps pour cold water on sea fertilization

    The parties to the London Convention, the international treaty governing ocean dumping, have agreed that large-scale ocean ‘fertilization’ is currently not justified given gaps in scientific knowledge.

    Adding iron, phosphate or urea can stimulate plankton growth in nutrient-poor parts of the ocean — thereby sucking down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and potentially helping to combat climate change. But critics warn that the ecological impact is poorly understood, and at its meeting in London last week, the convention endorsed concerns issued in June by its scientific advisory group.

    Environmentalists last week also raised concerns over an Australian company’s plan to test its carbon-sequestration technology in Philippine waters. Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC) of Pyrmont, New South Wales, is currently in discussions with Philippine authorities over dumping 500 tonnes of dissolved urea, a nitrogen-based fertilizer, in the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines.

  15. Nature 450, 491-492 (22 November 2007) | doi:10.1038/450491a; Published online 21 November 2007

    Carbon cycle: Marine manipulations

    Kevin R. Arrigo

    The effect of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on carbon uptake in and export from the upper ocean is one of the big questions in environmental science. But it can be tackled experimentally.

  16. If actually cutting greenhouse gas emissions isn’t going very well (largely due to incessant foot dragging by politicians), how about coming up with some new technology or chemical to put up into the atmosphere to help neutralize global warming?

    Recently, 50 respected climate, energy, and economics researchers met at Cambridge University to discuss that very question. The process is called “geoengineering” and it basically involves tinkering with the planet’s climate to find alternate ways to prevent the very worst effects of runaway global warming.

    In theory, geoengineering is certainly possible. After all, that’s what we’ve unintentionally been doing for decades with gases like carbon dioxide, that cause global warming. And “aerosols” or soot put in the atmosphere from airplanes, ships, factories and other sources has also been shown to affect the climate. Sometimes, these tiny particles in the air absorb heat and hold it closer to the earth, adding to the overall warming trend. Other times, the particles can cause localized cooling by reflecting sunlight back into space. Indian researchers, for example, now say that air pollution in India has reduced the amount of sunlight the country receives by five per cent over the past 20 years.

    But geoengineering in this context specifically refers to intentionally tinkering with the atmosphere – in this case to help mask the effects of our other unintentional tinkering. Would it work? Should we even talk about it?

    According to those researchers at the Cambridge meeting, the answer to the second question is a qualified “yes.” In an article in the journal Science, they point out that while they worry that the public and politicians might gravitate towards these technical solutions, they feel that global warming is too dangerous to avoid discussing all available options. Even if they are a last resort.

    Huge knowledge gaps exist in geoengineering solutions. One idea involves seeding the oceans with iron or phosphate to help stimulate the growth of plankton, which would theoretically help remove carbon from the atmosphere. However, no one knows what else it would do or if it would work. In fact, parties to the London Convention, an international treaty governing ocean pollution, recently agreed that such large-scale ocean seeding is not justified given gaps in scientific knowledge.

    Another idea involves spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, mimicking the effect of large-scale volcanic eruptions. Similar to what is happening in India, the theory is that this layer of pollution high in the atmosphere would reflect some sunlight away from the earth and act as a buffer against the heating effect of increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

    For each theory, the conference participants pointed out gaps and concerns – which ranged from the practical (cost and technical ability) to potentially devastating ecological consequences that are, by and large, unpredictable. To experiment with the atmosphere is to experiment with life as we know it. After all, this isn’t a test tube. This is all the known life in the universe – and it includes us.

    The fact that some researchers are even willing to discuss such radical and dangerous methods to slow global warming should be a wake-up call to world leaders meeting at the international climate change conference in Bali, Indonesia next month. If serious scientists are actually contemplating such drastic measures, it ought to show just how dire the situation has become.

    What is desperately needed, the researchers say, is what we have yet to see – genuine efforts to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. That’s why this next climate conference is so important, fresh on the heels of the IPCC co-winning the Nobel Peace Prize. This is an opportunity to look beyond Kyoto to the next level of engagement and agree to the substantial greenhouse gas reduction targets that scientists say we need if we are to avoid the worst of global warming.

    Cooperation from the United States and China, as the world’s largest total greenhouse gas emitters, is obviously critical to reducing global greenhouse pollution. But countries like Canada could play an important role if we lead rather than follow and step up, rather than cower behind our big brother. It isn’t good enough to just hope we don’t have to attempt the unthinkable. We have to actually take serious steps to prevent it.

  17. With cracks and holes in the Greenland ice sheet, we may well have to ‘geo-engineer’ the climate

    From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
    December 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST

    “In light of these two trends, climate scientists are now beginning to discuss a topic that only two years ago many fervently hoped they’d never have to discuss: geoengineering, or the intentional human modification of the planet’s climate to arrest or slow global warming. Geoengineering would involve, for example, putting sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere or putting mirrors into space to try to block a fraction of incoming solar radiation.

    An idea no longer at the margins

    Today the topic is at the margins of the public-policy dialogue about climate change, but I expect it will be at the centre of public discussion within five years. In 10 years, we will see demands from some segments of the public and many opinion leaders that we carry out geoengineering. And we’ll probably start doing it within 20 years, likely when it becomes apparent that the Greenland ice sheet is starting to collapse.

    We will do it, because by then we’ll be experiencing major socio-economic impacts of climate change — for instance, shortfalls in global food supply, as droughts and heat waves affect grain-growing regions. At that point, we will wonder about what kind of world we’ve created for our children and grandchildren. We’ll recognize that we’re facing an emergency unlike anything humankind has ever faced before, and we will demand that our leaders and experts do something, anything, to stop the slide.”

  18. So-called “geo-engineering” is another area of research that deserves attention, but will not receive it from the private sector. Some sunlight reaching the earth is absorbed, and some is reflected away. Likewise, some volcanic eruptions, namely those that produce lots of sulfur, can cool the earth significantly. Indeed, it is estimated that the sulfur currently in the atmosphere, mainly from combustion of coal and oil, may be masking a significant part of the expected greenhouse effect.

    So it would make sense to conduct small, reversible experiments to determine what substances might be put at what altitude to reflect incoming energy, and to include the results in global climate models to ascertain where they would be most effective and benign. Needless to say, this is not a task

  19. Nature Reports Climate Change
    Published online: 1 May 2008 | doi:10.1038/climate.2008.42

    Research is responsibility

    Olive Heffernan

    Arguably, what should be of greater concern is the prospect that not a single one of the myriad schemes would actually work in reality. To rely on geoengineering as a solution to climate change would be massively irresponsible, akin to using gambling as a way to get out of debt, and with much higher stakes. But it would be equally irresponsible to avoid garnering all the knowledge we can about whether it is a feasible option.

  20. Lethal injections
    Science: Geo-engineering scheme damages the ozone layer

    The large burden of sulfate aerosols injected into the stratosphere by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 cooled Earth and enhanced the destruction of polar ozone in the subsequent few years. The continuous injection of sulfur into the stratosphere has been suggested as a “geoengineering” scheme to counteract global warming. We use an empirical relationship between ozone depletion and chlorine activation to estimate how this approach might influence polar ozone. An injection of sulfur large enough to compensate for surface warming caused by the doubling of atmospheric CO2 would strongly increase the extent of Arctic ozone depletion during the present century for cold winters and would cause a considerable delay, between 30 and 70 years, in the expected recovery of the Antarctic ozone hole.

  21. Technology and global warming
    The world in a test tube

    Sep 4th 2008
    From The Economist print edition

    Elsewhere, however, the taboos still rule. Nowhere more so than in geo-engineering, the idea of combating global warming by altering the climate by, say, absorbing carbon dioxide in the oceans, or reflecting sunlight back into space (see article). This involves fantastic sounding schemes, such as fertilising the oceans with iron (to cause a bloom of planktonic algae, thus sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere) or ejecting carbon from the poles using lasers. Scientists and policymakers have been reluctant even to discuss the subject—much less research it, because they worry that it could cause more problems than it solves and that it will give politicians an excuse to avoid curbing carbon emissions.

    Both fears are reasonable. The farmer who introduced rabbits into Australia said the bunnies would do “little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” The rabbit went on to become a devastating pest. And the world’s politicians, they may well negotiate with less commitment if they feel that they may one day be let off the hook.

    But neither reason should stop research as insurance. Some forms of geo-engineering may in fact turn out to be easier and cheaper than widespread global curbs on climate emissions—though they may still be unacceptably risky. Only research can tell. As for the politics, geo-engineering cannot just be put back in its box. And because research creates new information, it is as likely to disabuse those who think they can avoid climate-change agreements as it is to offer them false hope. Just ask the people who have given their lives to the fuel cell.

    The solution to climate change will probably involve an array of technologies, from renewables, nuclear, carbon sequestration, public transport to energy conservation. It is too early to say whether geo-engineering or anything else will be part of this mix. Geo-engineering may turn out to be too risky, however much is spent on researching it. Then again, there may come a time when it is needed. The world needs to be ready—and research is the only way to prepare.

  22. Global warming
    A changing climate of opinion?

    Sep 4th 2008
    From The Economist print edition
    Some scientists think climate change needs a more radical approach. As well as trying to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, they have plans to re-engineer the Earth

    Perhaps the most intriguing idea—which was published last year, though not discussed by the Royal Society—is to eject carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at the Earth’s poles, using the planet’s magnetic field. This may sound absurd, but oxygen already leaks out this way (the phenomenon is the subject of a paper just published by Hans Nilsson of Swedish Institute of Space Physics). Alfred Wong, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, proposes that a system involving powerful lasers and finely tuned radio waves could encourage carbon dioxide to take the same route. His calculations suggested that using lasers to ionise molecules of carbon dioxide, and radio waves to get them to spin at the correct rate, would cause those molecules to spiral away from Earth along the lines of magnetic force until they were lost for ever in space.

  23. Geoengineering is not an alternative to mitigation. It is an alternative to ending up like Venus, if we see ourselves sliding down that slope.

  24. Geo-engineering
    Every silver lining has a cloud

    Jan 29th 2009
    From The Economist print edition
    Plans to engineer the climate may be less effective than had been hoped

    “At most, he reckons, the sulphate-injection approach could counteract half of the warming the world is expected to suffer over the next 100 years if carbon-dioxide emissions continue to rise unchecked.

    Other options seem even less effective. Encouraging cloud formation over the oceans by spraying seawater into the air would be roughly as helpful as pumping the stratosphere full of particles. Its effects, though, would be geographically patchy. And dumping nutrients such as iron into the sea would be only one-sixth as effective as either sulphate injection or promoting the formation of clouds.

    Moreover, effectiveness is only one way to rank the ideas. In theory, a solar shade could provide any amount of cooling, but the researchers estimate that it would have to have an area of 4.1m square kilometres (half the size of Brazil) to offset half the warming expected over the next century, assuming no cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions occur.”

  25. Plan B
    Geoengineering is risky but likely inevitable, so we better start thinking it through
    Posted by Guest author (Guest Contributor) at 1:40 PM on 09 Feb 2009

    ” If we start to see faster-than-expected increases in temperature, deadly heat waves and storms, crop failures and drought, the pressure to do something will be enormous. Desperation is a powerful driver. Desperation plus a (relatively) low-cost response, coupled with quick (if not necessarily dependable) benefits, can become an unstoppable force.

    If we don’t want to see geoengineering deployed, we have to get our carbon emissions down as rapidly and as widely as possible. If we don’t — if our best efforts aren’t enough against decades of carbon growth and temperature inertia — we will see efforts to do something, anything, to avoid global catastrophe. “

  26. Geoengineering by the numbers
    January 28, 2009, 12:34 am

    A very useful paper (abstract|pdf|discussion space) comes out today in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics by Tim Lenton and his student Naomi Vaughan. Tim told me when I was reporting the Andy Ridgwell paper on leaf albedo (Nature story|blog entry) that he’d become pretty interested in evaluating geoengineering schemes, and was setting up a group at the University of East Anglia to assess them. This paper presumably represents the first fruits of that interest, providing a ranking of most of the geoengineering schemes proposed in the literature in terms of the amount of radiative forcing they can provide.

  27. Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism

    Geo-engineering remains at best a secondary climate strategy if you first do really aggressive CO2 reductions and keep concentrations below 450 ppm. For now, as Obama’s science advisor put it, “The ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.“

    At worst, geo-engineering is an utterly false hope that will undercut efforts to achieve the kind of emissions reductions needed for it to have any value. That, of course, is why conservatives love it, which is the subject of the guest post today by Alex Steffen, Executive Editor, (first posted it here).

  28. Green light for research into engineering Earth’s climate
    Manipulating the climate systems directly through geoengineering has been given a first scientific stamp of approval by the American Meteorological Society.

    Rie Jerichow 21/07/2009 17:40

    The American Meteorological Society is the first major scientific body to officially endorse research into geoengineering. In a policy statement, the society advocates that “geoengineering will not substitute for either aggressive mitigation or proactive adaptation, but it could contribute to a comprehensive risk management strategy to slow climate change and alleviate some of its negative impacts”.

    According to the society, geoengineering proposals fall into at least three broad categories:

    One is reducing the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases through large-scale manipulations (e.g., ocean fertilization or afforestation using non-native species).

    Another is exerting a cooling influence on Earth by reflecting sunlight (e.g., putting reflective particles into the atmosphere, putting mirrors in space, increasing surface reflectivity, or altering the amount or characteristics of clouds).

    Other possibilities are other large-scale manipulations designed to diminish climate change or its impacts (e.g., constructing vertical pipes in the ocean that would increase downward heat transport).

  29. A biased economic analysis of geoengineering

    Guest commentary by Alan Robock – Rutgers University

    They also imply that stratospheric geoengineering can be tested at a small scale, but this is not true. Small injections of SO2 into the stratosphere would actually produce small radiative forcing, and we would not be able to separate the effects from weather noise. The small volcanic eruptions of the past year (1.5 Tg SO2 from Kasatochi in 2008 and 1 Tg SO2 from Sarychev in 2009, as compared to 7 Tg SO2 from El Chichón in 1982 and 20 Tg SO2 from Pinatubo in 1991) have produced stratospheric clouds that can be well-observed, but we cannot detect any climate impacts. Only a large-scale stratospheric injection could produce measurable impacts. This means that the path they propose would lead directly to geoengineering, even just to test it, and then it would be much harder to stop, what with commercial interests in continuing (e.g., Star Wars, which has not even ever worked).

  30. “It may be that the benefits of geoengineering will outweigh the negative aspects, and that most of the problems can be dealt with, but the paper from Lomborg’s center ignores the real consensus among all responsible geoengineering researchers. The real consensus, as expressed at the National Academy conference and in the AMS statement, is that mitigation needs to be our first and overwhelming response to global warming, and that whether geoengineering can even be considered as an emergency measure in the future should climate change become too dangerous is not now known. Policymakers will only be able to make such decisions after they see results from an intensive research program. Lomborg’s report should have stopped at the need for a research program, and not issued its flawed and premature conclusions.”

  31. Is there a place where I can wager that large scale geo-engineering will take place? i.e. analogous to how one can wager on the outcome of elections.

  32. It’s a bit of a pointless thing to bet on: like betting there will be a global thermonuclear war.

    If you ‘win’ the bet, the negative consequences associated with what you anticipated will vastly overwhelm the value of your winnings.

  33. Wait, so your saying that it’s good to have thermo nuclear war as a fall-back option?

  34. Researching geo-engineering has two potential benefits:

    (1) Teaching us how dangerous it would be, eliminating notions it should be used as an alternative to mitigation.

    (2) Providing a last ditch option in a truly dire runaway scenario.

    The danger that studying geoengineering will make mitigation less likely is not one I find too compelling. As the Lomborg story above illustrates, the kind of people who think geoengineering could be a better option that GHG mitigation are happy to assume so on the basis of very scanty evidence indeed.

    In short, studying it might improve outcomes and seems unlikely to worsen them.

    As for the betting, I think you misunderstand me. The point I was making is that such a bet is pointless to win, like betting there will be a devastating nuclear war. Placing such a bet is just an expression of cynicism, with no additional purpose.

  35. Fine, I realize I’m being a bit silly – but there is a serious point in looking for a place to bet on climate change related future events. I’ve been told its the case that markets where people buy and sell the rights to be paid a certain amount if a certain candidate wins are more accurate at predicting election results than polls – what is so unappealing about setting up a similar market for things like guessing future temperatures, sea level rise, global Co2 reductions etc…

  36. Prediction market
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Prediction markets (also known as predictive markets, information markets, decision markets, idea futures, event derivatives, or virtual markets) are speculative markets created for the purpose of making predictions. Assets are created whose final cash value is tied to a particular event (e.g., will the next US president be a Republican) or parameter (e.g., total sales next quarter). The current market prices can then be interpreted as predictions of the probability of the event or the expected value of the parameter. Prediction markets are thus structured as betting exchanges, without any risk for the bookmaker.

  37. Reynolds, Tol, Lomborg: The Case for Ignoring Climate Change

    The most successful Libertarian politician in Canadian history, Globe and Mail columnist Neil Reynolds, has joined the campaign to do nothing about climate change, basing his argument (A Net-Benefit Greenhouse Gas Plan – Less is Really More) not on the work of anyone who actually studies climate science, but rather on two economists with a track record of trying to discourage action.

    Most famous of these is Bjorn Lomborg, the Disingenuous Environmentalist and director of a Danish think tank that specialilzes in understating the costs of climate change and overestimating the costs of taking preventative action.

  38. Engineering Earth ‘is feasible’
    By Pallab Ghosh
    Science correspondent, BBC News

    A UK Royal Society study has concluded that many engineering proposals to reduce the impact of climate change are “technically possible”.

    Such approaches could be effective, the authors said in their report.

    But they also stressed that the potential of geo-engineering should not divert governments away from their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

    Suggestions range from having giant mirrors in space to erecting giant CO2 scrubbers that would “clean” the air.

    Such engineering projects could either remove carbon dioxide or reflect the Sun’s rays away from the planet.

    Ambitious as these schemes seem, the report concluded that many of them potentially had merit, and research into them should be pursued.

  39. Geoengineering report baffles reporters

    Yesterday the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific body, delivered its official view on geoengineering. Scientists analyzed a dozen different approaches and weighed their pros and cons. Then, being scientists, they plotted their results in a bizarre phase space that nobody could understand. Many a reporter, myself included, were scratching our heads when co-author Ken Caldeira popped this little gem up onto the screen.

    The bottom line is that the Royal Society felt that the only sure way to save the planet is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in the event of a global climate emergency, we should at least know the consequences of geoengineering.

  40. Perhaps the most sensible position on nuclear/CCS/geoengineering can be summed up by paraphrasing William Lyon Mackenzie King: “nuclear/CCS/geoengineering if necessary, but not necessarily nuclear/CCS/geoengineering.”

  41. Why Levitt and Dubner like geo-engineering and why they are wrong

    Many commentators have already pointed out dozens of misquotes, misrepresentations and mistakes in the ‘Global Cooling’ chapter of the new book SuperFreakonomics by Ste[ph|v]ens Levitt and Dubner (see Joe Romm (parts I, II, III, IV, Stoat, Deltoid, UCS and Paul Krugman for details. Michael Tobis has a good piece on the difference between adaptation and geo-engineering). Unfortunately, Amazon has now turned off the ’search inside’ function for this book, but you can read the relevant chapter for yourself here (via Brad DeLong). However, instead of simply listing errors already found by others, I’ll focus on why this chapter was possibly written in the first place. (For some background on geo-engineering, read our previous pieces: Climate Change methadone? and Geo-engineering in vogue, Also the Atlantic Monthly “Re-Engineering the Earth” article had a lot of quotes from our own Raypierre).

  42. Bill Gates Funds Research Into Climate Hacking
    * By Alexis Madrigal

    Bill Gates has sunk at least $4.5 million of his personal wealth into geoengineering research.

    While it’s a small chunk of Gates’ vast personal fortune, it’s a sign that the founder of Microsoft thinks we should at least be looking into the controversial practice of intentionally altering the Earth’s climate on a global scale.

    “[Gates] views geoengineering as a way to buy time, but it’s not a solution to the problem” of climate change, Gates’ spokesperson John Pinette told Science Insider. “Bill views this as an important avenue for research — among many others, including new forms of clean energy.”

    The money will be directed by two high-level scientists at the forefront of geoengineering research: climate scientist Ken Caldeira, of Stanford’s Carnegie Department of Global Ecology, and physicist David Keith of the University of Calgary. They will decide which technologies should receive the cash in order to alter the stratosphere to reflect solar energy, filter carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and brighten ocean clouds.

    Gates’ funding is in line with his recent essay on climate policy in which he called for radical innovations in electricity generation and transportation.

  43. The Earth Trials
    Can we test our geoengineering schemes before we have to use them?
    By Eli Kintisch
    Posted Thursday, Jan. 28, 2010, at 5:53 PM ET

    The Copenhagen climate meeting was a big disappointment. Sen. Lindsey Graham now says the cap-and-trade bills “are going nowhere.” So despite continued work toward cutting greenhouse emissions, we may see in the coming months a renewed interest in geoengineering—the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the atmosphere—in an attempt to ward off the dangers of climate change.

    The once-rogue concept of planet-hacking has come a long way in just three years: from key private meetings among scientists, to sophisticated computer modeling papers (PDF), to serious investigations of the idea by the British Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. This week the discussion moves into a new phase: a debate over how actual field tests for geoengineering should be implemented, regulated and, in fact, whether their results would even help us to understand the most severe risks of deployment at all. In three opinion pieces published in the premiere science journals—one in Nature yesterday, and two in Science today—scientists from across the world offered differing takes on the future of internationally coordinated testing. But their back-and-forth over which experiments might be best and what sort of political treaties would be necessary raises a distressing possibility: It’s not just that geoengineering tests will be difficult. It’s that the problems they invite would be so diverse—and their results so inconclusive—that we’re likely to skip the testing altogether. If countries are going to hack the stratosphere, they may just do it full-bore in the face of disaster.

    The three papers naturally focus on what’s considered the fastest and most feasible form of geoengineering—the sun-blocking method some call the Pinatubo Option. If deployed, this would mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes by putting a cloud of particles in the upper atmosphere, where they could scatter a small percentage of the sun’s rays. (It’s named after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. That event cooled the globe 1 degree Farenheit in less than a year by spewing 10 million tons of sulfur pollution into the stratosphere.) Scientists have proposed creating a cloud of sulfuric acid or other particles using airplanes, naval guns, or hoses suspended by balloons. So, can we do a practice run of the Pinatubo Option?

  44. Nice quote:

    “[G]eo-engineered solutions to climate change are capitalism’s ultimate parlour trick… an impressive leap from a desperate denial of the causes of climate change, to a triumphant denial of the consequences.”

    Dr Adam Corner

  45. “So Gates is looking at nuclear as the most likely miracle. “A molecule of uranium has a million times more energy than a molecule of coal.” He and Nathan “Mosquito Zapper” Myrhvold are backing a nuclear approach. It’s called Terrapower, and it’s different from a standard nuclear reactor. Instead of burning the 1% of uranium-235 found in natural uranium, this reactor burns the other 99%, called uranium-238. You can use all the leftover waste from today’s reactors as fuel. “In terms of fuel this really solves the problem.” He showed a photo of depleted waste uranium in steel cylinders at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Kentucky — the waste at this plant could supply the US energy needs for 200 years (woah!), and filtering seawater for uranium could supply energy for much longer than that.

    TED’s Chris Anderson asked: If this doesn’t work, then what?

    Gates: If you get in that situation – there is a line of research on geoengineering that could give us 20 additional years to get our act together. But that’s a last resort. Gates wants to solve the problem without geoengineering.”

  46. Bill Gates Funds Seawater-Spraying Cloud Machines

    “Environmentalists have long argued about whether geoengineering (using technology to alter the climate) is a good way to tackle climate change. But the tactic has some heavy hitters on its side, including Bill Gates. The Microsoft founder recently announced plans to invest $300,000 into research for machines that suck up seawater and spray it into the air, seeding white clouds that reflect rays of sunlight away from Earth. The machines, developed by a San Francisco-based research group called Silver Lining, turn seawater into tiny particles that can be shot up over 3,000 feet in the air. The particles increase the density of clouds by increasing the amount of nuclei contained within.”

  47. Let’s Talk About Geoengineering
    It might sound crazy, but it’s a conversation worth having.
    By Jeff Goodell
    Posted Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010, at 11:00 AM ET

    It doesn’t take much imagination to dismiss geoengineering as a sci-fi fantasy writ large. The whole notion of geoengineering—which the British Royal Society defines as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming”—reeks of human hubris and technocratic arrogance. Just talking about it seems, at best, a distraction from the urgent business at hand, which is developing the political will to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. After all, if global warming might be a problem that could be fixed by tossing sulfur particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight, hell, why bother cutting back on fossil fuels? Jump in the SUV and party on.

    The only thing more reckless than embracing geoengineering, however, would be to dismiss it. Yes, it’s a dangerous, crazy idea. In a rational world, we would never consider it. But we don’t live in a rational world. (If we did, subsidies for the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t be 12 times greater than subsidies for renewable energy.) We live in a world that likes quick fixes and easy answers, and in that world, geoengineering has a lot of political and economic appeal. The real question is: Will we pursue it in an intelligent way that helps us manage the risks of global warming and deepens our understanding of how the climate system works, or will it simply turn into, as one blogger put it, “a ramifying suite of mega-engineering wet dreams” that leads to a whole new dimension of chaos?

    Geoengineering typically refers to two different approaches to cooling the planet. The first includes all those technologies that would change the reflectivity, or albedo, of the earth. If we could reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the surface of the earth by about 1 percent, that would be enough to offset the warming that comes from a doubling of atmospheric CO2 levels (a common benchmark used by climate scientists). One way to do this would be to mimic a volcano and throw a small amount of dust high into the stratosphere; the particles act as tiny mirrors, scattering sunlight. Other approaches include brightening clouds over the oceans so that they reflect more light, or merely painting our roads and rooftops white.

  48. That article raises a scary point: “In the not-too-distant future, geoengineering will undoubtedly be packaged by Big Coal as a diet pill for our climate and energy problems, a cheap and easy way to avoid the difficult task of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels. If that happens, it would be a disaster, because geoengineering is in no way a substitute for cutting emissions.”

    It does seem plausible that coal companies will follow a trajectory from denying that climate change exists, to denying that it is caused by them, to denying that we can do anything about it, to advocating that we should use geoengineering rather than abandoning coal.

  49. Geoengineering is in fact untested and dangerous. We don’t understand it, we can’t test it on smaller than planetary scales, and we don’t have the political capital, wisdom, or will to govern it. Planetary tinkering is not “cheap,” as some economists claim, since the side effects are unknown. It poses a moral hazard by possibly reducing incentives to mitigate. It could be attempted unilaterally, or worse, proliferate among rogue states, and it could be militarized. (Learning from history, it likely would be militarized.) Geoengineering could violate a number of existing treaties such as ENMOD, which, as von Neumann warned so long ago, would add to international stresses. Most poignantly, by turning the blue sky milky white or the blue oceans soupy green, by attenuating starlight, and by putting bureaucrats and technocrats in charge of a global thermostat, geoengineering will indeed alter fundamental human relationships to nature.”

  50. “Taxpayer-funded studies of planet-hacking aren’t yet a factor in the political debate on global warming, but the idea is getting plenty of attention. It’s now difficult to find a respectable climate scientist who doesn’t think the government should pay for an organized program to understand geoengineering. In the spring, the National Research Council laid out a variety of research areas—cloud brightening, stratosphere tinkering, roof-whitening—that should be tackled in “an integrated research effort.” The American Geophysical Union and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society both followed suit, with the latter calling for a ₤10-million-per-year government research effort. The Government Accountability Office, the House Science Committee, and the Bipartisan Policy Center will each, in the coming months, be releasing studies that will provide more detail on what such programs might cover and which federal agencies would do what. Experts say a transparent, coordinated federal program of $10 million to $30 million a year could be an important start.

    As a policy option, planet-hacking science has only recently moved from being utterly ignored to being held at arm’s length. A handful of scientists thinking about it are supported by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. But the notion of creating a more substantial research program hasn’t come up in any elections, and official Washington has held only three hearings on it, attracting little attention or controversy. Liberals have shied away; conservatives, to the extent they’ve acknowledge geoengineering at all, have used the issue to support various right-wing talking points about the socialist motives of environmentalists or the supposedly minor role of atmospheric CO2.”

  51. Geoengineering no quick fix for sea-level rise

    24 August 2010, by Tamera Jones

    Sea levels are still likely to rise by at least 30cm by the end of 2100, compared with 2000 levels, unless we use the most extreme geoengineering solutions to ease climate change while also cutting CO2 emissions, say researchers.

    This is because the huge volume of the oceans means they take a long time to react fully to atmospheric temperatures – usually about a century.

    ‘Geoengineering could be a simple solution for global temperatures, but not for sea-level rise,’ explains Dr Svetlana Jevrejeva from the National Oceanography Centre, one of the co-authors of the report. ‘Even with extreme scenarios, we’d only see a small slowing of sea levels.’

    Jevrejeva and colleagues from China, Finland and Denmark wanted to see how five geoengineering solutions will affect sea levels. Geoengineering falls into two main types: limiting the effect of the sun’s rays, or changing the carbon cycle in some way. The former doesn’t change atmospheric CO2 levels in any way, whereas the latter does.

  52. Last week, participants in the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) made their views clear at a meeting in Nagoya, Japan. They included in their agreement to protect biodiversity a moratorium on geo­engineering “until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks”. The moratorium, expected to be in force by 2012, isn’t legally binding, and given the preliminary nature of studies in the area it is unlikely to affect researchers in the near future. But some scientists fear that the CBD’s stance will sow confusion and delay at a time when governments and research groups are exploring how geo­engineering might feasibly be undertaken if global warming accelerates disastrously.

    The CBD agreement coincides with the release of a pair of reports on geoengineering, including a US congressional analysis, published on 29 October, that calls for research across the federal government. In his foreword to the report, Bart Gordon (Democrat, Tennessee), the outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, highlights the dangers of stifling research and calls for a “rigorous and exhaustive examination” of geo­engineering strategies.

    “If climate change is one of the greatest long-term threats to biological diversity and human welfare,” says Gordon, “then failing to understand all of our options is also a threat.” His report singles out the US National Nano­technology Initiative — a programme that incorporates research at 13 federal agencies — as a possible model for coordinating research.

  53. Geoengineering
    Research into the possibility of engineering a better climate is progressing at an impressive rate—and meeting strong opposition

    Nov 4th 2010

  54. SIR – Regarding the attempts at geoengineering and “fixing the problem of man-made climate change once the greenhouse gases that cause it have already been emitted into the atmosphere”, history has shown that when considering great policy questions it is vital to remember Parkinson’s Law (“Lift-off”, November 6th). This would warn us that if through various geoengineering schemes we are able to reduce the amount of global warming caused by a specified amount of carbon dioxide, we will just use the opportunity to burn more fossil fuel. When we give up on geoengineering, as eventually we must, the atmosphere would retain the extra carbon dioxide and global temperatures would rise higher than if we had never tried to engineer the climate.

    James Powell
    Buellton, California

  55. The radical science of geo-engineering: Maybe it’s not so crazy
    John Lorinc
    From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
    Published Friday, Jun. 24, 2011 4:57PM EDT
    Last updated Sunday, Jun. 26, 2011 8:29PM EDT

    During a year marked by startlingly unsettled weather, the world’s leaders – preoccupied as they are by economic storms – have had conspicuously little to say about global warming. Indeed, when the Kyoto Protocol, once touted as the big climate fix, expires next year, will anyone notice?

    In the absence of meaningful international progress on a workable emissions-reduction strategy, some climate experts have begun to ponder more radical Plan B solutions designed to prevent a torrid future filled with fierce hurricanes, vanishing glaciers and flooded lowlands.

    These “geo-engineering” technologies (see sidebar), some seemingly plucked from the realm of science fiction, propose techniques to artificially reduce global temperatures and soak up excess carbon as an alternative to traditional fixes, such as green power and energy-efficient buildings. The proposals run the gamut from whitening clouds to capturing airborne carbon and deploying vast quantities of reflective materials into the orbit around Earth to deflect incoming solar rays.

    About 60 scientists and international relations experts gathered this week in Lima to contemplate the rapidly growing body of geo-engineering science and, in effect, consider a once-unthinkable question: Should the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which oversees Kyoto (and its eventual successor), seriously consider geo-engineering as part of its arsenal for fighting global warming?

  56. The BBC is reporting that there is strong support among the public in the U.S., U.K., and Canada for research into geo-engineering with approximately 72% respondents supporting the research (PDF). The survey was focused on solar radiation management. The article also mentions the U.K. Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project, which would inject water particles into the upper atmosphere as a prelude to spraying cooling sulphate. Researchers for the SPICE project calculate that 10-20 balloons could cool the global climate by 2C. Also mentioned in the article is the voluntary moratorium on the procedure by the international Convention on Biological Diversity.

  57. Nature Climate Change | Perspective
    Deliberating stratospheric aerosols for climate geoengineering and the SPICE project

    Increasing concerns about the narrowing window for averting dangerous climate change have prompted calls for research into geoengineering, alongside dialogue with the public regarding this as a possible response. We report results of the first public engagement study to explore the ethics and acceptability of stratospheric aerosol technology and a proposed field trial (the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) ‘pipe and balloon’ test bed) of components for an aerosol deployment mechanism. Although almost all of our participants were willing to allow the field trial to proceed, very few were comfortable with using stratospheric aerosols. This Perspective also discusses how these findings were used in a responsible innovation process for the SPICE project initiated by the UK’s research councils.

  58. Geo-engineering and climate change
    Stopping a scorcher
    The controversy over manipulating climate change

    Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. By Clive Hamilton. Yale University Press; 247 pages

    A Case for Climate Engineering. By David Keith. MIT Press; 194 pages

  59. As a range of climate change mitigation scenarios are discussed, University of Washington researchers have found that the injection of sulfate particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and curb the effects of global warming could pose a severe threat if not maintained indefinitely and supported by strict reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The new study, published today, 18 February, in IOP Publishing’s journal Environmental Research Letters, has highlighted the risks of large and spatially expansive temperature increases if solar radiation management (SRM) is abruptly stopped once it has been implemented.

    According to the study, global temperature increases could more than double if SRM is implemented for a multi-decadal period of time and then suddenly stopped, in relation to the temperature increases expected if SRM was not implemented at all.

    The researchers used a global climate model to show that if an extreme emissions pathway — RCP8.5 — is followed up until 2035, allowing temperatures to rise 1°C above the 1970-1999 mean, and then SRM is implemented for 25 years and suddenly stopped, global temperatures could increase by 4°C in the following decades.

  60. Rapid and extensive warming following cessation of solar radiation management

    Kelly E McCusker, Kyle C Armour, Cecilia M Bitz and David S Battisti

    Solar radiation management (SRM) has been proposed as a means to alleviate the climate impacts of ongoing anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, its efficacy depends on its indefinite maintenance, without interruption from a variety of possible sources, such as technological failure or global cooperation breakdown. Here, we consider the scenario in which SRM—via stratospheric aerosol injection—is terminated abruptly following an implementation period during which anthropogenic GHG emissions have continued. We show that upon cessation of SRM, an abrupt, spatially broad, and sustained warming over land occurs that is well outside 20th century climate variability bounds. Global mean precipitation also increases rapidly following cessation, however spatial patterns are less coherent than temperature, with almost half of land areas experiencing drying trends. We further show that the rate of warming—of critical importance for ecological and human systems—is principally controlled by background GHG levels. Thus, a risk of abrupt and dangerous warming is inherent to the large-scale implementation of SRM, and can be diminished only through concurrent strong reductions in anthropogenic GHG emissions.

  61. Reflecting Sunlight: Recommendations for Solar Geoengineering Research and Research Governance (2021)
    National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

    Climate change is creating impacts that are widespread and severe for individuals, communities, economies, and ecosystems around the world. While efforts to reduce emissions and adapt to climate impacts are the first line of defense, researchers are exploring other options to reduce warming. Solar geoengineering strategies are designed to cool Earth either by adding small reflective particles to the upper atmosphere, by increasing reflective cloud cover in the lower atmosphere, or by thinning high-altitude clouds that can absorb heat. While such strategies have the potential to reduce global temperatures, they could also introduce an array of unknown or negative consequences.

  62. Hence it is also prudent to study the most spectacular, and scary, form of adaptation: solar geoengineering. This seeks to make clouds or particle layers in the atmosphere a bit more mirror-like, reflecting away some sunlight. It cannot provide a straightforward equal and opposite response to greenhouse-gas warming; it will tend, for example, to reduce precipitation somewhat more than temperature, potentially changing rainfall patterns. But research over the past 15 years has suggested that solar geoengineering might significantly reduce some of the harms from greenhouse warming.

    What nobody yet knows is how such schemes could be developed so as to reflect not just the interests of their instigators, but also those of all the countries they will affect. Different countries might seek different amounts of cooling; some ways of putting solar geoengineering into effect would help some regions while harming others. Nor is there yet a compelling rejoinder to the risk that the very idea of such things tomorrow reduces the incentive to be ambitious in cutting emissions today.

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