Sulphur sunshade is a stupid pollution solution

'Problem' pollution is overrun by 'solution' pollution. Cartoon by Greg Foyster

by Greg Foyster (Eureka Street)

It’s a credo of consumer capitalism: never address the cause when you can create an industry treating the symptoms.

This is the logic behind many profitable businesses, from cholesterol-lowering pills that compensate for poor diet and lack of exercise to factories that recycle unnecessary packaging.

Now there’s a new technofix on the table, and it’s called geoengineering. Geoengineering means intervening in the Earth’s climate to counter, or offset, global warming. It’s hacking the planet on a monumental scale.

Some proposals sound like pure science fiction. Building ‘artificial trees’ to suck in carbon dioxide. Fertilising entire oceans with iron, trigging carbon-sequestering algal blooms. Launching a fleet of ships to patrol the ocean, pumping seawater into the air to ‘brighten’ marine clouds.

The most ambitious and widely studied is spraying sulphate particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect sunlight, cooling the planet.

The idea comes from huge volcanic eruptions, which can blast millions of tonnes of sulphur into the stratosphere, creating a kind of chemical sunshade. When Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, the Earth cooled by about half a degrees Celsius over the next year.

After decades of being taboo, this outlandish scheme, called ‘solar radiation management’, is now being taken seriously. It’s been explored through scientific papers in major journals, reports of the UK’s Royal Society, hearings in the US Congress, and a recent report of the US National Academy of Sciences.

Some environmentalists and climate scientists say it may be a ‘necessary evil’ to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points. Controversially, the most recent IPCC Assessment Report mentioned geoengineering in the prominent final paragraph of its Summary for Policymakers.

 

“Dimming the sun wouldn’t solve the other problems caused by carbon pollution. Dissolved carbon dioxide would still acidify our oceans. The climate would still change.”

 

There are deep pockets behind it too. Techno-philanthropist Bill Gates is a leading financer. Venture capitalists are circling, and some proposals have already been patented.

A firm called Intellectual Ventures owns the intellectual property for the ‘StratoShield‘, an invention to deliver sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere through a 30-km-long hose supported by balloons. A professor at Harvard, David Keith, is pushing for more research and testing.

Neoconservative think tanks have leapt at the technology, arguing it’s a cheaper solution to global warming than cutting emissions and restructuring the economy. Once the post-Paris Agreement buzz wears off and governments realise the hard work ahead of them, they might find this line seductive.

As a thought experiment to highlight the warped logic behind geoengineering, I’m proposing my own climate-hacking invention. It’s called The Problem-Solution Generator, and it has two parts.

The ‘Problem’ is a dirty coal power station that spews carbon dioxide into the lower atmosphere, overheating the planet. Burning coal also releases other forms of air pollution — sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, soot particles and mercury — responsible for millions of deaths worldwide.

The ‘Solution’ is a 30-km-high smoke stack which separates the sulphur dioxide emissions and pumps them into the stratosphere, where they won’t make people sick and should cool the planet. Thus a single machine generates a problem and then solves it — The Problem-Solution Generator!

Of course, we could shut down coal power stations and not create the problem in the first place. But that would address the cause — rising carbon emissions — which isn’t what technofixes like geoengineering are about. So let’s continue the thought experiment, using some of the same arguments as for other sulphur-spraying ideas.

Advocates of solar radiation management say that, unlike other responses to global warming, it doesn’t upset the economic or political status quo. It’s as if the current composition of society is more permanent and fixed than the composition of the entire upper atmosphere.

The Problem-Solution Generator shares this assumption. Fossil fuel companies could continue making money off heating the planet, while also making money off cooling the planet. It’s a win-win!

There are a few concerns. Previous large volcanic eruptions have been associated with lower global rainfall and famine. Climate modelling indicates solar radiation management might dry the Amazon and disrupt the Asian and African monsoons. The sulphur particles could damage the ozone layer.

The biggest fear is switching the off button. Carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for centuries, but sulphur particles only stick around the stratosphere for a few years, so if we suddenly stop pumping the stuff up there, the temperature could spike abruptly. The faster the rate of warming, the less time plants and animals have to adapt, risking widespread ecosystem collapse.

But in the spirit of Silicon Valley techno-optimism, let’s look at these as opportunities. Lower global rainfall? That’s an opportunity for a spin-off industry in cloud-seeding drones. Disrupted monsoons? They’ll mostly affect poor African and Asian subsistence farmers, so the cost to the global economy will be small. Dangerous to stop once we start? That just shows what a great business model it is!

Dimming the sun wouldn’t solve the other problems caused by increased carbon pollution. Dissolved carbon dioxide would still acidify our oceans. The climate would still change, just differently. We might still see mass extinctions and so forth. But our clever minds will soon solve these problems too. The important thing is that we maintain our faith in human progress.

Sound crazy? This kind of thinking is actually conventional. The underlying assumption of Western industrial society is that nature is a resource for our exclusive use. Geoengineering just takes this domination of the natural world to its logical extreme. In one sense, complete control of the planet is where our civilisation has been heading for centuries.

In Earthmasters, Clive Hamilton writes that geoengineering proposals ‘entail building a vast industrial infrastructure in order to counter the damage done by another vast industrial infrastructure’. If the Problem-Solution Generator seems colossally stupid, it’s only because it makes the stupidity of geoengineering technofixes utterly transparent.

 


Greg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Cartoon by Greg Foyster

 

The Paris Climate-Change Spectacular

by Neth Daño and Pat Mooney (Project Syndicate)

OTTAWA – The United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in December will feature all the tightly choreographed production values of a Hollywood blockbuster. The cast will be huge: presidents and prime ministers at center stage, supported by thousands of extras, including protesters, riot police, and busloads of media. The script may still be under wraps, but the plot has already leaked: This time, in sharp contrast to the failed negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, the planet is going to win.

It is a seductive plot, but one that does not quite hold together. Goodwill and hard bargaining, the world will be told, paid off. Governments have agreed to voluntary reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions that will prevent the planet from heating more than 2° Celsius. Then, in a stunning deus ex machina, it will be revealed that the world’s largest fossil-fuel companies – the so-called supermajors – have agreed to bring net emissions to zero by 2100, by capturing carbon at the source, sucking it out of the atmosphere, and storing it underground. The planet will have been saved, and the economy will be free to flourish. Cue the music and roll the credits.

The trouble is that the script is fiction, not documentary. The technology required has yet to be invented, and bringing net emissions to zero simply is not possible. And, like a Hollywood production, the Paris conference’s message will have been heavily influenced by those who have the most money.

The math is not difficult to follow. The world’s energy infrastructure – finely tooled for the use of fossil fuels – is worth $55 trillion. The paper value of the fossil-fuel reserves – most of them owned by the supermajors – is some $28 trillion.

The fossil-fuel industry’s influence is evident in the fact that governments worldwide are expected to spend some $5.3 trillion this year subsidizing it, including the massive outlays necessary to counteract its adverse health and environmental effects. In other words, the governments meeting in Paris spend more subsidizing the causes of climate change than they do on global health care or, for that matter, on climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

But that will not be part of the story in Paris. There, the global public will be presented with a narrative premised on two unproven forms of “geoengineering,” proponents of which seek to manipulate the planetary system. The effort that will receive the greatest amount of attention is bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). In May, the United States Department of Energy convened a private meeting to discuss this technology, which will be the fig leaf used by the supermajors to protect their assets.

Deploying BECCS, however, would require the world to maintain an area 1.5 times the size of India, full of fields or forests capable of absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide, while still providing enough food for a global population that is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050. By then, the technology’s advocates promise, biological sequestration will be joined by programs that capture emissions as they are released or pull them out of the air to be pumped into deep subterranean shafts – out of sight and out of mind.

Fossil-fuel producers promote carbon capture to allow them to keep their mines open and pumps flowing. Unfortunately for the planet, many scientists consider it technically impossible and financially backbreaking – especially if such technology is to be deployed in time to avert chaotic climate change.

Preventing temperatures from rising out of control will require a second geoengineering fix, known as solar radiation management. The idea is to mimic the natural cooling action of a volcanic eruption, by using techniques like the deployment of hoses to pump sulfates 30 kilometers into the stratosphere to block sunlight.

The United Kingdom’s Royal Society believes that the need for such technology may be unavoidable, and it has been working with counterparts in other countries to explore ways in which its use should be governed. Earlier this year, the US National Academies of Science gave the technique a tepid endorsement, and the Chinese government announced a major investment in weather modification, which could include solar radiation management. Russia is already at work developing the technology.

Unlike carbon capture, obstructing sunlight actually has the potential to lower global temperatures. In theory, the technology is simple, cheap, and capable of being deployed by a single country or a small group of collaborators; no UN consensus is required.

But solar radiation management does not remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. It only masks their effects. If the hoses shut down, the planet’s temperature will soar. The technology could buy time, but it surrenders control of the planetary thermostat to those who hold the hoses. Even the technology’s advocates concede that their computer models predict that it will have a strong negative impact on tropical and subtropical regions. Climate change is bad, but geoengineering has the potential to make it worse.

The story that the Paris conference’s producers will ask viewers to believe relies on technologies that are no more effective than smoke and mirrors. It is important that we learn to see past them. The curtain will rise on a set of false promises, and it will close with policies that can lead only to mayhem – unless the audience gets into the act.

Recklessly playing God with the planet

A government-sponsored scientific panel called for more research on geoengineering — here’s why we shouldn’t even consider it

by Shannon Hall (ScienceLine)

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Geoengineering — that wild and grandiose idea that suggests we could offset and even reverse the alarming effects of global warming — has been viewed as an insane notion for decades. Surely we’d have to be truly desperate before we’d even consider deliberately fiddling with the planet on such a massive scale.

But now, some experts think we’ve reached the point where we have no choice but to look into geoengineering.

Earlier this year, the National Research Council released two reports that called for more research on the idea. The first report examined ways we could remove some of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. At first glance, this might be plausible. But the second report looked at far more controversial methods, such as releasing reflective particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight and therefore cool the Earth.

The second report warned that at this time, these methods were risky and poorly understood. But I’d like to take this a step further: Both reports contain ideas that will never be practical and are actually more dangerous than the problem at hand. We will never understand the risks well enough to justify any of the outlandish schemes that these reports describe.

Most scientists agree that geoengineering should never be a substitute for solving the problem upfront. Sadly, we’ve been so slow to burn fewer fossil fuels and cut our greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists now think geoengineering might help us clean up the mess we’ve already made.

As human beings, we have the tendency to think that technology will save us. But if there’s one lesson we should have learned by now, it’s that we can’t keep playing God with the planet. We simply don’t understand the climate system well enough to predict how any geoengineering method would play out in the future.

Although the first report, on carbon dioxide removal, doesn’t seem completely ludicrous at first glance, it takes just one example to reveal its folly. In 2012, a rogue American millionaire dumped 220,000 pounds of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean to create a massive, carbon-sucking plankton bloom, nearly 4,000 square miles big. This illegal maneuver may have removed some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but scientists worry these blooms can kill marine life and cause toxic tides.

The second report examined a much easier and cheaper approach than removing atmospheric carbon: Spraying reflective particles, called aerosols, into the atmosphere, to intercept incoming solar radiation. This would essentially be the man-made equivalent to volcanic eruptions. WhenMount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, spraying white ash more than 12 miles high, it temporarily lowered the Earth’s temperature by nearly 0.3 degrees for three years. But this method, too, has scary side effects.

Every cloud droplet forms around an aerosol particle. But man-made aerosols differ in size, composition and number from natural aerosols. So they could form radically different clouds.

Scientists aren’t sure how well these man-made clouds would reflect sunlight back into space (therefore reducing the Earth’s temperature). They might be tenuous enough to let more light through. They would also likely affect the raindrops forming within the clouds, creating huge precipitation changes that could bring droughts to some areas and floods to others.

But what’s really scary about geoengineering is that once we start, we can’t really stop. As soon as we quit sucking up carbon dioxide or spraying aerosols into the atmosphere, the Earth will heat up rapidly. And a rapid heat increase is much more dangerous than one spanning a century or more. The world’s ecosystem, not to mention the humans within it, will have little time to react.

So the million-dollar question is: Is geoengineering, despite its obvious drawbacks, still worth investigating — just in case? No. The longer we look into it, no matter how innocently, the more likely we are to do it. We’ll gain some understanding of the climate system and think we know it all. But we will never know every foreseeable side effect.

It’s time to put our resources into harvesting green energy today. Researching geoengineering will only take attention away from the problem at hand. It risks that we’ll continue to burn fossil fuels under the assumption that we’ll fix the issue later. And that’s a chance we simply cannot take.

One thing is certain: The fact that some serious scientists are now calling for more research on geoengineering means we’ve reached a terrifying place. Isn’t it time to finally get serious about cutting carbon emissions instead of holding out for techno-fixes that could backfire disastrously?

Geoengineering Is Not a Solution to Climate Change

Using technofixes to tinker with global climate systems is an excuse to avoid unpopular but necessary measures to reduce carbon emissions

by Clive Hamilton (Scientific American)

Can we control the climate system? And we can control ourselves?  Credit: BenGoode/Thinkstock
Can we control the climate system? And we can control ourselves? Credit: BenGoode/Thinkstock

The geoengineering juggernaut has shifted into higher gear with the release of a long-awaited report from the National Research Council recommending federal funding for research into “plan B” technologies to intervene in the climate system to counter the effects of warming.

Reports commissioned by the council are often the trigger for large-scale research programs into new areas of science. Although providing a comprehensive review of the science behind various schemes, the new report is at its weakest when it grapples with the politics of geoengineering. Adopting the line that more research is always a good thing, council scientists do not concede experiments that do not change the physical environment can sharply change the social and political environment.

And so the report treats as only of theoretical concern the possibility that a major research program on climate modification would reduce political incentives to reduce carbon emissions. Anyone who has watched world leaders seize on carbon capture and storage as a means of having our cake and eating it can see what is likely. The world lost 10 years chasing the chimera of “clean coal.”

Questions of control are at the center of the geoengineering debate, especially with respect to the proposal that receives most attention—shielding Earth with an atmospheric layer of sulfate particles to reflect some of the sun’s heat. Renamed “albedo modification” in the council report, it raises many questions. Among them: Can we control the climate system? Can we control ourselves?

After all, in full knowledge of the consequences we have failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—not so much because we do not buy green electricity or switch to public transport but because we cannot stop ourselves voting for politicians whom we know will do little or nothing.

Technofixes—technical solutions to social problems—are appealing when we are unwilling to change ourselves and our social institutions. So here is the essential problem that the council scientists do not confront: Does anyone really believe that while warming is suppressed with a sulfate aerosol shield a revolution will occur in our attitudes and political systems?

No. Yet every scientist, including the council authors, is convinced that if albedo modification is implemented and not followed by a program of global emission reductions, then we are almost certainly finished. Sulfate spraying without a change in the political system would make the situation worse.

There is a long history of technological interventions entrenching the behaviors that created the problem. In Navigating Environmental Attitudes Thomas Heberlein tells the story of the New Deal dams of the 1920s and 1930s built to limit severe damage from floods and droughts. Yet flood losses after the dams were built increased. People looked at the now “safe” flood plains and built more houses on them. They were sitting ducks when the rivers once again flooded. The course of a river is easier to shift than people’s attitudes.

The council argues that the U.S. should have a better research base on albedo modification to inform its response should some other actor decide unilaterally to begin spraying sulfates into the stratosphere. Perhaps, although that would be a situation of international diplomacy, and quite possibly military maneuvering, rather than one of “my model run is better than yours.”

The risk of the National Research Council report is that its warnings about the environmental risks and uncertainties will be overlooked by political players looking for an answer but unwilling to embrace the need it stressed—to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Already, politicians loathe to implement serious measures to cut emissions are privately attracted to the geoengineering technofix, including albedo modification, as a substitute.

For the moment the political taboo on speaking of it publicly is holding. (Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen broke the scientific taboo with a famous essay in 2006.) But by normalizing geoengineering as one response among a “portfolio” of actions, the council report, backed by the prestige of the National Academy of Sciences, may loosen the prohibition’s grip.

A fleet of planes daily delivering sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere would be a grim monument to the ultimate failure of unbridled techno-industrialism and our unwillingness to change the way we live.

Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, is the author of Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering(Yale University Press). He served as a reviewer of the National Research Council report.

Geoengineering is no place for corporate profit making

There is no shortage of ideas from business to save the environment – the problem is when they want to make a fast buck

by Clive Hamilton (Guardian)

If you want to make money out of global warming invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy companies, says Clive Hamilton Photograph: Jochen Tack /Alamy“Save the world and make a little cash on the side.” That’s the motto of Russ George, the colourful entrepreneur behind Planktos Science who wants to put geoengineering into practice now. George is convinced that by adding iron sulphate to the oceans, he can stimulate plankton blooms and so suck enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to offset human emissions from burning coal and oil.

In 2007, backed by a Canadian real estate developer, the Planktos ship set sail from San Francisco bound for the Galapagos Islands and loaded up with iron sulphate. George was going to make a killing by selling carbon offsets to whoever wanted them.

George believed, and told whoever asked, that ocean fertilization could become a $100bn business and hinted to journalist Jeff Goodell that America’s biggest coal-burning utility was interested in buying his carbon credits.

The venture soon collapsed, leaving a cloud of mistrust hanging over all research into iron fertilisation. Not long after Russ George set the regulatory alarm bells ringing, the London Convention, which regulates ocean dumping, and the Convention on Biological Diversity both passed resolutions banning iron fertilisation experiments except under restrictive conditions.

Rogue geoengineers like Russ George drive respectable researchers crazy, not to mention those business people who think there really are profits to be had from a plan B. On this question, last week’s report by the US National Research Council (NRC) stresses that carbon dioxide removal is expensive and limited by “technical immaturity”.

A range of companies have identified business opportunities in technologies designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it somewhere more or less permanently. Those who believe they can profit from carbon credits because polluters with emission caps will pay for them point to the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism, which allows parties to meet their emission reduction obligations by paying developing countries to grow forests onto land cleared long ago.

More trees means more carbon dioxide soaked up in vegetation rather than in the air, at least for a time. However, worried about the verifiability and permanency of carbon dioxide stored in trees, the European Union does not allow credits generated that way to be traded in its emissions trading scheme.

And the commercial promise of other methods of carbon dioxide removal is likely to be very limited. Credits for using giant machines to remove the gas are not likely to be accepted internationally for a long time, if at all, not least because the industrial infrastructure needed for extraction would need to be about as big as the infrastructure that puts it there – oil wells, coal mines, railways, pipelines, power plants, refineries and so on.

Neverthless “air capture” technologies are being developed by firms like Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company founded by Harvard physicist and geoengineering enthusiast David Keith. They are ventures looking for a rationale, but that has not stopped Alberta oil sands billionaire N Murray Edwards and Bill Gates from investing in the company.

Ethical dilemmas

The prospects are awful when fossil fuel companies play both sides of the fence – oil companies such as Shell and ConocoPhillips have also put money into geoengineering. Is it ethical for the polluters to promote technologies that may allow them to continue to pollute?

If the promises made by geoengineering erode the political incentives requiring polluters to cut their emissions, will we see fossil fuel corporations begin lobbying to get political endorsement for climate modification?

The ethical and political difficulties deepen when we get to the other kind of geoengineering scheme reviewed in the NRC report, “albedo modification” – formerly known as solar radiation management – schemes to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface.

No one will ever make money out of trading emission reduction credits in global dimming. But some commercial outfits can envisage a desperate world paying them princely sums for access to the technology for doing it.

There have been a flurry of patents being issued, 28 at the last count, including one for a hose suspended by blimps in the sky that would spray sulphate aerosols. Branded the StratoShield it’s owned by a firm named Intellectual Ventures, which markets the device as “a practical, low-cost way to reverse catastrophic warming of the Arctic – or the entire planet.”

Among the investors in Intellectual Ventures who perhaps see themselves making a motza from planetary catastrophe are Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft, and Bill Gates himself. If the future of the world comes to depend on the Stratoshield, will they play hardball?

So here’s the bottom line: if you want to make money out of global warming invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy companies. They are guaranteed winners and your children will not hate you for it.

 

The Risks of Climate Engineering

by Clive Hamilton (New York Times)

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The Republican Party has long resisted action on climate change, but now that much of the electorate wants something done, it needs to find a way out of the hole it has dug for itself. A committee appointed by the National Research Council may just have handed the party a ladder.

In a two-volume report, the council is recommending that the federal government fund a research program into geoengineering as a response to a warming globe. The study could be a watershed moment because reports from the council, an arm of the National Academies that provides advice on science and technology, are often an impetus for new scientific research programs.

Sometimes known as “Plan B,” geoengineering covers a variety of technologies aimed at deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system to counter global warming.

Despairing at global foot-dragging, some climate scientists now believe that a turn to Plan B is inevitable. They see it as inscribed in the logic of the situation. The council’s study begins with the assertion that the “likelihood of eventually considering last-ditch efforts” to address climate destabilization grows every year.

The report is balanced in its assessment of the science. Yet by bringing geoengineering from the fringes of the climate debate into the mainstream, it legitimizes a dangerous approach.

Beneath the identifiable risks is not only a gut reaction to the hubris of it all — the idea that humans could set out to regulate the Earth system, perhaps in perpetuity — but also to what it says about where we are today. As the committee’s chairwoman, Marcia McNutt, told The Associated Press: The public should read this report “and say, ‘This is downright scary.’ And they should say, ‘If this is our Hail Mary, what a scary, scary place we are in.’ ”

Even scarier is the fact that, while most geoengineering boosters see these technologies as a means of buying time for the world to get its act together, others promote them as a substitute for cutting emissions. In 2008, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, later Republican presidential candidate and an early backer of geoengineering, said: “Instead of penalizing ordinary Americans, we would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific invention,” adding: “Bring on the American ingenuity.”

The report, considerably more cautious, describes geoengineering as one element of a “portfolio of responses” to climate change and examines the prospects of two approaches — removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and enveloping the planet in a layer of sulfate particles to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface.

At the same time, the council makes clear that there is “no substitute for dramatic reductions in the emissions” of greenhouse gases to slow global warming and acidifying oceans.

The lowest-risk strategies for removing carbon dioxide are “currently limited by cost and at present cannot achieve the desired result of removing climatically important amounts,” the report said. On the second approach, the council said that at present it was “opposed to climate-altering deployment” of technologies to reflect radiation back into space.

Still, the council called for research programs to fill the gaps in our knowledge on both approaches, evoking a belief that we can understand enough about how the Earth system operates in order to take control of it.

Expressing interest in geoengineering has been taboo for politicians worried about climate change for fear they would be accused of shirking their responsibility to cut carbon emissions. Yet in some congressional offices, interest in geoengineering is strong. And Congress isn’t the only place where there is interest. Russia in 2013 unsuccessfully sought to insert a pro-geoengineering statement into the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Early work on geoengineering has given rise to one of the strangest paradoxes in American politics: enthusiasm for geoengineering from some who have attacked the idea of human-caused global warming. The Heartland Institute, infamous for its billboard comparing those who support climate science to the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski, featured an article in one of its newsletters from 2007 describing geoengineering as a “practical, cost-effective global warming strategy.”

Some scholars associated with conservative think tanks like the Hoover Institution and the Hudson Institute have written optimistically about geoengineering.

Oil companies, too, have dipped their toes into the geoengineering waters with Shell, for instance, having funded research into a scheme to put lime into seawater so it absorbs more carbon dioxide.

With half of Republican voters favoring government action to tackle global warming, any Republican administration would be tempted by the technofix to beat all technofixes.

For some, instead of global warming’s being proof of human failure, engineering the climate would represent the triumph of human ingenuity. While climate change threatens to destabilize the system, geoengineering promises to protect it. If there is such a thing as a right-wing technology, geoengineering is it.

President Obama has been working assiduously to persuade the world that the United States is at last serious about Plan A — winding back its greenhouse gas emissions. The suspicions of much of the world would be reignited if the United States were the first major power to invest heavily in Plan B.

Plan B? What Happened to Plan A?

Why we shouldn’t fund geoengineering experimentation, and what we still need to learn about the climate

by Pat Mooney (ETC Group)

The US National Academy of Sciences has released two reports on geoengineering that recommend investments in solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Geoengineering has become known as the US government’s “Plan B” response to climate change. Geoengineering proponents have recently pushed for government funding of geoengineering research in Nature and the Washington Post.

At first glance, this seems prudent: of course we should have more information about all of the options. Most geoengineering backers insist that these are only extreme measures of last resort. SRM (now rebranded as “albedo management” by the NAS report) which proposes blowing sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to block sunlight and lower global temperatures or CCS, which proposes to stuff billions of tonnes of CO2 into defunct mines and oil wells, are Plan B: only to be considered if governments can’t agree on emission targets in Paris later this year. Is geoengineering deplorable or deployable? We won’t know, backers argue, unless we do the research.

Plan B?

Saying we need more information sounds reasonable, but geoengineering research that involves experimentation and builds actual hardware is a clear and present danger to the climate for two reasons. If the US or other powerful governments accept geoengineering as a plausible “Plan B,” Plan A will evaporate faster than Congressional bipartisanship. The fossil fuel industry is desperate to protect between $20 and $28 trillion in booked assets that can only be extracted if the corporations are allowed to overshoot GHG-emissions. The theoretical assumption that carbon capture and storage will eventually let them recapture CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in the earth or ocean provides the fossil fuel industry with the best way to avoid popping the “carbon bubble” other than outright climate denial. Spraying sulfates in the stratosphere can – theoretically – lower temperatures until carbon capture and storage techniques are viable. In other words, geoengineering research is becoming the only tool the fossil fuel industry has left to undermine the political and corporate will to lower actual emissions now.

Geoengineering could justify continued emissions, but it may also do direct damage to the climate. The two NAS reports are quiet about budgets and don’t define the scale of field studies. Most scientists concur that geoengineering is extremely risky, but also say that only very large field trials will yield useful data. Experimentation, in other words, equals hardware development and effective deployment. We already have examples: between 1993 and 2009, 11 governments conducted a dozen geoengineering experiments in international waters to see if spreading iron particles on the surface of the ocean could lead to the sequestering of carbon dioxide on the ocean floor. The first experiments dumped iron into 50-60 km² of ocean. When that didn’t work, they increased the surface area six-fold until the final 2009 dump was 300 km². It still failed. The geoengineers wanted bigger experiments, but three different UN conferences intervened and have effectively banned ocean fertilization. Sagely, the NAS report now concludes that ocean fertilization “is an immature technology whose high costs and technical and environmental risks currently outweigh the benefits.”

NAS also talks about the need for governance but only in the context of the United States. Stratospheric aerosol spraying can be undertaken by one country or a “Coalition of the Willing,” even though the impact will be global. For this reason, the United Nations must be in charge.

What about Plan A?

There is much that scientists don’t know about planetary systems. The acknowledged gaps in Plan A research have widened from a crevice to a chasm to a canyon. It would be extraordinarily foolhardy for policymakers to advance Plan B before Plan A’s research issues are addressed.

It is difficult, for example, to establish Plan A emission targets (or, for that matter, Plan B’s levels of stratospheric aerosol spraying) when governments don’t disclose their current emissions. China underreported its annual GHG emissions by about 20%, while the USA’s recent emission reductions aren’t quite what they’re fracked up to be. America cut back its emissions to 1992 levels because fracking lowered the demand for coal – but the coal was still burned overseas. The UK’s 14% reductions (between 1990 and 2008) in greenhouse gas emissions were erased by its 20% increase in emissions from outsourced manufacturing. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian emissions dropped 10 – 14% but only because farmland was temporarily abandoned.

How can we pursue “climate interventions” and call them scientific if governments don’t get the data right?

Governments have also had difficulties keeping track of their biomass, with implications for Plan B’s carbon capture and storage strategies. According to a UNEP report, up to 30% of all timber exports are mafia-controlled and 90% of tropical deforestation is due to illegal trade – making biomass calculations problematic. Meanwhile, India overestimated its forest cover by about 10%.

Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand have all flip-flopped on their emission commitments while the UK has cut back its renewable energy support. The EU’s carbon credit scheme is a laughingstock. This makes Plan A’s emission goals – or the levels of Plan B’s stratospheric aerosol interventions – subject to unexpected and dangerous changes.

Plan A and Plan B both need cutting-edge monitoring of planetary systems. However, by 2020, the number of civilian US climate monitoring satellites could drop from 23 to 6 and the number of monitoring instruments from 90 to 20. Monitoring is weakest over the Indian subcontinent and apparently deteriorating throughout the tropics. In 2014, for example, scientists discovered that an important swath of the Brazilian Amazon has been completely missed by satellites. The Economist called this “willful blindness.”

Recently, science has uncovered a vast deep-ocean “river”, a bacterial prairie the size of Greece beneath the Humboldt current, and reconsidered the impact of sulphates on cloud formation in polar regions that could significantly alter Plan B proposals for carbon sequestration or solar radiation management.

Money is indeed needed for climate change research. Governments should pony up and scientists should get to work. But the NAS needs to flatly condemn the deployment or hardware testing of dangerous technologies that have consequences for the whole planet.”

NAS support for geoengineering research creates a political space that could lead multinational oil companies and their governments off the hook. Precisely at the moment when climate denial is losing steam, it’s crucial to prevent it from being replaced with unicorn-like fantasies of magical technologies that allow the status quo to continue.

Pat Mooney is the Executive Director of ETC Group.

Is geoengineering research going outdoors?

by Blaž Gasparini and Prof. Ulrike Lohmann

Weather-balloon carrying an ozone measuring device. Could geoengineering soon go beyond computer simulations and lab experiments? (Photo: Penn State / flickr CC BY-NC 2.0)

Geoengineering research has so far been confined to modelling and laboratory studies. Serious research outside of these limits has been a taboo because of the serious risks this may pose for ecosystems and society. However, two recent publications are breaking the ice and bringing the discussion of field experiments into the limelight of the scientific community.

Climate science is giving a clear signal that action has to be taken to halt global warming. Rising greenhouse gas emissions are driving us towards a climate with negative consequences for society in most parts of the world, for instance through an increase in weather extremes. The fact that we still do not have any binding agreements on reducing greenhouse gases is pushing part of the scientific community towards researching technological fixes for the climate problem – geoengineering.

Geoengineering aims at treating the “symptoms” of climate change – most notably the temperature increase – by altering the Earth’s radiation balance. The proposed methods vary greatly in terms of their technological characteristics and possible consequences. In this blog post, we focus on the best-known solar geoengineering method: the “artificial volcano” or stratospheric aerosols method. Scientists propose injecting small, reflective sulphate particles (aerosols) into the stratosphere at 15–20 km altitude. The small particles reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface and thus cool the lower atmosphere. This effect has been observed after large volcanic eruptions (thus the name “artificial volcano”), most recently after the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption, when the global average temperature decreased by almost 0.5°C in the year following the eruption. Unlike volcanoes, geoengineers would continuously inject the aerosols until greenhouse gas levels dropped below a level determined to be safe. So far, all solar geoengineering studies have been confined to computer models [1].

Field experiments

A group of atmospheric scientists have recently proposed nine field experiments to test solar geoengineering methods [2]. They divided ideas into those that aim at understanding the effectiveness and risks of geoengineering and those aimed at developing technologies needed for the deployment of geoengineering. Furthermore, the scientists made a clear distinction between experiments seeking to understand small-scale atmospheric processes like chemical reactions on the surface of artificially injected particles and those targeting large-scale climate responses, e.g. a decrease in global average temperature. The impact of large-scale experiments cannot be simply extrapolated from small-scale ones. However, large-scale experiments would only be performed in cases where numerous prior small-scale tests proved successful with only negligible environmental risks – which might be too late to avoid some of the negative consequences of global warming.

The proposed experimental design of a small-scale stratospheric sulphur (and water) injection field test (source: [3])
Of the proposed experiments, a small field test called the stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment (SCoPEx) is at the most advanced planning stage [3]. A Harvard research group designed the experiment to better quantify a side-effect of stratospheric sulphur injections: ozone depletion. A decrease in stratospheric ozone levels can increase the risk of skin cancer, which could be even more disruptive for society than the greenhouse gas-driven warming of the planet. A sudden decrease in ozone concentrations during SCoPEx would probably kill the idea of stratospheric sulphur geoengineering. As illustrated in the figure, the experiment is comprised of a balloon with a module carrying an aerosol generator, observational instruments, and an engine. The module both injects and monitors the aerosol plume. The experiment is expected to emit less sulphur and water than an intercontinental flight between Europe and the US. The researchers estimate the total costs of the field experiment to be around USD 10 million.

Why is field testing so controversial?

SCoPEx and other currently proposed small-scale experiments most likely do not pose significant risks for environment and society. Unlike full geoengineering deployment with large-scale, decades-long injections, these experiments would not modify the planet’s energy balance. However, there remain other issues related to the proposed outdoor geoengineering research:

  1. The first field experiments could add momentum towards a rapid deployment and commercialisation of geoengineering research. Can we imagine a large multinational company taking over geoengineering research and the possible economic interests this would create?
  2. Increased geoengineering research could discourage mitigation efforts. Why would we mitigate carbon emissions if we have a Plan B which can partially counteract global warming?
  3. Who/which body would be authorised to monitor outdoor tests? Who can define the limit between a small-scale experiment and full deployment? And finally, who would control the global thermostat if full deployment took place?

Why bother with geoengineering at all?

Curiosity-driven geoengineering research provides the information society and policymakers need to choose the best strategy in dealing with climate change [4]. Geoengineering modelling studies contribute to a better understanding of the stratosphere and more accurate representation of aerosol processes and their interactions with climate, e.g. the impact of volcanoes on global temperature, precipitation, crop yields, etc. This results in more robust modelling projections of the future climate.

We think geoengineering tests should be constrained to either computer models or laboratories until we develop a good understanding of all associated natural processes and risks. Small-scale process-based experiments could prove to be useful – however, we suggest taking a step back and focusing on open questions regarding natural atmospheric processes like stratospheric aerosol microphysics.

This blog was co-written by PhD student Blaž Gasparini and Prof. Ulrike Lohmann, and was originally posted to ETH Zürich

Further information

[1]The topic has already been discussed in more detail in previous blog entries (in German):Geoengineering – Ein gefährliches Spiel mit Aerosolen?  and Kann Geoengineering das Klimaproblem lösen?

[2] Keith et al., 2014: Field experiments on solar geoengineering: report of a workshop exploring a representative research portfolio, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., doi: 10.1098/rsta.2014.0175

[3] Dykema et al., 2014: Stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment: a small-scale experiment to improve understanding of the risks of solar geoengineering, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., doi:10.1098/rsta.2014.0059

[4] see also Robock, A. 2012: Is geoengineering research ethical? (Pdf)

Five facts CBC listeners didn’t hear from Canada’s geoengineering cheerleader

What’s missing from David Keith’s climate change charm offensive

by Jim Thomas

This article was originally published by the Media Co-op.

David Keith's preferred geoengineering scheme involves spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere.
David Keith’s preferred geoengineering scheme involves spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere.

Last Sunday, CBC listeners across Canada enjoyed their morning coffee and took care of a few chores around the house while the calm, mellifluous vocal cadences of Michael Enright and his guest David Keith washed over them. Keith, Enright said while introducing his guest, is a prominent and well-respected scientist, and the author of “The Case for Climate Engineering.”

Although both David Suzuki and Al Gore had branded Keith’s proposals “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme”  Enright took pains to reassure listeners that his guest — a Harvard professor — was perfectly sane. Enright was kinder to Keith than Stephen Colbert had been a few months previous, and so unfortunately avoided a number of tough questions.
Climate Geoengineering is the process of attempting to counteract climate change by large-scale methods other than reducing carbon emissions. These include spraying tonnes of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere (Keith’s preferred option), mounting giant space mirrors to reflect sunlight and slow its warming effects, dumping tonnes of iron filings into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth, and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere with giant fans.
These measures have been opposed both because of their unpredictable effects and the fact that they give an excuse to rich countries to continue to increase carbon emissions on the basis of trumped-up techno-promises. In the same breath, Keith acknowledges and dismisses these criticisms.
Environmentalists who oppose geoengineering, Keith told Enright, are “more committed to their answer to the problem than really thinking in what I feel is a morally clear way about what our duties are to this generation and reducing the risks that they feel.”
Keith made the case for geoengineering, but he also made the case that those who oppose geoengineering are doing so because they have priorities other than slowing down the effects climate change. He aligned geoengineering with concerns about “how we want to leave the planet for our great-grandkids.” He took the time to talk about kayaking trips, and how he was motivated by a love of the natural world.
Keith didn’t take the time to mention a few other details. For those who are skeptical about Keith’s case for geoengineering, here are five things that Keith didn’t mention, and Enright kindly didn’t bring up.
1. David Keith runs a geoengineering company funded by tar sands money
In addition to being an author and a professor, David Keith heads up Carbon Engineering, a Calgary-based startup that is developing air-capture technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company is funded by Bill Gates, who is also a geoengineering proponent, and by N. Murray Edwards, an Alberta billionaire who made his fortune in oil and gas. Edwards is said to be the largest individual investor in the tar sands, and is on the board of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, a major tar sands extraction company. Carbon Engineering hopes to sell the carbon dioxide it extracts to oil companies to help in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)- a technique for squeezing more fossil fuels out of the ground which will in turn be burnt to produce more atmospheric carbon.
2. The geoengineering that Keith proposes could be disastrous for the Global South
A study of the likely effects of one of the methods Keith is promoting, spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere with the aim of reflecting sunlight could cause “calamitous drought” in the Sahel region of Africa. Home to 100 million people, the Sahel is Africa’s poorest region. Previous droughts have been devastating. A 20-year dry period ending in 1990 claimed 250,000 lives. Other models predict possible monsoon failure in South Asia or impacts on Mexico and Brazil, depending where you spray the sulphur.
3. Keith’s geoengineering proposals are deeply aligned with the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry
If oil, natural gas and coal companies can’t extract the fossil fuels that they say they’re going to extract, they stand to lose trillions of dollars in stock value, $2 trillion in annual subsidies, and about $55 trillion in infrastructure. David Keith’s enthusiasm for geoengineering plays to the commercial interests of these companies whose share value depends on their ability to convince investors that they can continue to take the coal out of the hole and the oil out of the soil. This may be why fossil-sponsored neoconservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute have been so gung-ho for geoengineering research and development along exactly the lines that David Keith proposes. For example there is very little difference between what Keith proposes and what the American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering project calls for.
4. Climate scientists just issued a new round of criticisms of geoengineering
In the most recent report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released before Keith’s interview aired, climate scientists loosed a new salvo of problems with various geoengineering schemes. “Geoengineering,” according to the report, “poses widespread risks to society and ecosystems.” In some models, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) — what Keith is pitching — “leads to ozone depletion and reduces precipitation.” And if SRM measures are started and then stopped for whatever reason, it creates a risk of ”rapid climate change.”
5. There’s already a widely-backed moratorium on geoengineering
While David Keith discussed possible ways of governing geoengineering internationally  he failed to mention that at least one UN convention was already dealing with the topic. The broadest decision yet on geoengineering, a 193-country consensus reached at the UN Convention on Biodiversity specifies that unless certain criteria are met, “no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place.” The moratorium is to remain in effect until geoengineering’s impacts on biodiversity and livelihood are analyzed, scientific evaluation is possible, and “science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms” exist.
In the interview, Keith said outright that he wants to bypass such a system. He considers the input of Africa and South America, and much of Europe and Asia as unnecessary in order to move forward with a geoengineering scheme. It would be enough, he told Enright, to gain the agreement of a small but powerful “countries with democratic institutions,” citing China as an example, along with the US and the European Union. David Keith has been recognized for his achievements in applied physics, but when it comes to political science, it may be time for him to hit the books.
Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group.

 

Strange Bedfellows? Climate Change Denial and Support for Geoengineering

by David Appell (Yale Climate Connections)

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Climate engineering and the risk of rapid climate change. Andrew Ross and H Damon Matthews. 2009 Environ. Res. Lett. 4 045103. Permission: IOP Publishing Ltd, under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA license.

These days, an article headlined “Geo-Engineering Seen as a Practical, Cost-Effective Global Warming Strategy” would hardly be surprising.

But what is surprising is that the headline came from a group denying global warming exists: the Heartland Institute in Chicago.

Well-known for its aggressive contrarian position on manmade global warming, and widely lambasted for its “I still believe in Global Warming. Do you?” billboard featuring a picture of Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, the Heartland Institute might seem unlikely to propose a solution to a problem it doubts exists. So why did the group run an article on geoengineering in the December 2007 issue of its newsletterEnvironment & Climate News?

Written by David Schnare, at the time an EPA staff scientist and now a director at the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., the article is based on testimonySchnare gave to the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works earlier that same year. Schnare mentions the ease, speed, and relative low cost of geoengineering schemes like injecting sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the stratosphere, called solar radiation management (SRM). In particular, Schnare in that article cited research by scientist Ken Caldeira* of Stanford University (and now also the Carnegie Institute) and concludes “reducing greenhouse gases will cost around 2 percent of the gross domestic product, while geo-engineering (by putting reflective aerosols into the upper atmosphere) will cost about one-thousandth of that.”

But Schnare’s article, written just a year after Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen’s seminal and controversial 2006 article calling for serious active research into solar radiation management, ignores the many complications, side effects, and unintended consequences of SRM that worry many. Crutzen had specifically mentioned undesirable destruction of protective stratospheric ozone. And SRM does nothing to stop ocean acidification, instead creating a world never before seen, high in carbon dioxide while relatively low in temperature.

Only in the last sentence of his article did Schnare casually advocate a vigorous development away from carbon-based energy sources, writing “the most sensible approach would be a mixed strategy of geo-engineering…and vigorously developing a transition from carbon-based energy, to include research on scrubbing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.”

Despite this article and others, and at least one presentation at its annual conferences, “Heartland doesn’t have a position on geoengineering,” according to Joseph Bast, the Institute’s president and CEO.

‘The Lomborg Maneuver’

The Heartland Institute is hardly alone in considering geoengineering as a solution to a problem it basically doesn’t see as a problem in the first place.

In recent years, Bjorn Lomborg has often downplayed the threats from climate change while pushing geoengineering as a short-term solution. So too have Newt Gingrich, the former EPA staff economist Alan Carlin, and the American Enterprise Institute, which earlier this year posted a seminar calling solar radiation management “an evolving climate policy option” on its website…a site chock-full of climate contrarianism.

One environmental group has taken to calling this straddle the “Lomborg maneuver” — “switching from opposing real-world action on climate change to supporting the most extreme possible action on climate change.”

How might one reconcile such seemingly contradictory positions? and why do they often come from politically conservative individuals and organizations? In his recent book, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, Clive Hamilton argues that this pair of positions maintains the dominant power structures of society, especially the roles of the energy mega-corporations that have a great deal to lose from any shift away from fossil fuels.

Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, writes “…these results are consistent with the more general argument that conservatives tend to take a more hierarchical view of society, as a natural order in which some groups are dominant and some subservient.” He continues:

Like a patient who will accept the doctor’s diagnosis only if the illness is treatable, a solution to global warming that does not destabilize a person’s worldview — but in fact validates it — makes recognizing the problem palatable….As the identity of conservative white males tends to be more strongly bound to the prevailing social structure, geoengineering is the kind of solution to climate change that is less threatening to their values and sense of self….they are consistent with the ideas of control over the environment and the personal liberties associated with free market capitalism. Just as the need to defend a cultural worldview makes conservative white males prone to repudiate climate science, so that worldview will make them prone to support geoengineering solutions.
Hamilton cites research by Dan Kahan of the Yale Law School and others showing that facts must accommodate one’s cultural values if they are to be accepted. Kahan calls this the cultural cognition thesis — that cognitively, cultural values come before facts in assessing many public risk conflicts, and to be accepted, facts must accommodate those values. Kahan concludes “as a result of a complex of interrelated psychological mechanisms, groups of individuals will credit and dismiss evidence of risk in patterns that reflect and reinforce their distinctive understandings of how society should be organized.”

This thesis helps explain many of the current sharp divisions over public policies, especially those with scientific origins such as climate change, vaccinations, and genetically modified foods. Those with values that place more emphasis on the individual would be expected to dismiss environmental and technological risks if solving them requires restricting industry and commerce. Those who more highly value egalitarianism and community are generally suspicious of capitalism’s disparities and its emphasis on individual initiative, and they therefore are more likely to advocate top-down regulation of commercial activity.

In the context of climate change and geoengineering, Kahan and his colleagues found that making their study participants aware of geoengineering’s potential to address climate change, while making them aware also of restrictions of carbon dioxide emissions, helped to overcome the cultural polarizations that dog the climate change issue. The researchers found too that their study subjects exposed to geoengineering ideas — in particular those who more highly value individualism — were slightly more concerned about the risks of climate change than those who were not exposed.

All people are prone to the cultural cognition thesis, especially those at the more extreme ends of the spectrum. But not all realize that the thesis goes both ways. For instance, the conservative writer Jonah Goldberg — who often downplays the risks from climate change (he recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “OK, things have gotten a wee bit warmer outside”) while advocating a geoengineering approach —accused “global warming alarmists” of advancing solutions that appeal to their core cultural values. In aninterview last year with RightWing News.com, Goldberg said, “One of the reasons why conservatives are right to be suspicious of global warming is that it confirms the exact same suite of policy approaches that these people were arguing for when they were worried about a population bomb. You know, managed scarcity, throw a wet blanket on capitalism, manage the economy.” But Goldberg did not acknowledge that his own beliefs and ideology might influence his attitude and approach to the climate problem no less than those he was criticizing.

Not Without Risks

The reality is that geoengineering itself carries risks, raises difficult ethical considerations, and poses the possibility of unintended consequences, so it is not the slam-dunk first choice solution to problems posed by a warming planet.

Ironically, some of those who say climate is too complex to be forecast, or who criticize models used in climate science as being incomplete or inaccurate, seem to have no trouble advocating geoengineering quick fixes which themselves carry climate and environmental complexities, or which would require extensive modeling to understand implementation and implications.

All geoengineering schemes have unwanted side effects, and some can be significant. Solar radiation management by aerosol injection into the upper atmosphere, for instance, mimics large volcanic explosions, like the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption that caused about one degree Celsius of global surface cooling for a year or two (returning to normal over the succeeding three years).

But that eruption also caused a 10 percent drop in worldwide precipitation, because it reduced evapotranspiration rates over land, and that situation didn’t return to normal for about three years.

There are concerns too that solar radiation management would reduce the essential Asian monsoon orcause drought in Africa. A recent modeling experiment by Simone Tilmes, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and colleagues found regional rainfall reductions of up to 7 percent when geoengineering reduced incoming solar energy so that climate forcings were at a pre-industrial level even as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels quadrupled.

There is another large cost to geoengineering by solar radiation management: once undertaken to reduce temperatures, it must be kept up essentially forever or warming will resume in a very rapid and dangerous fashion (see figure). Andrew Ross and H. Damon Matthews, in a study published in Environmental Research Letters, found that temperature would rise by up to 0.76°C in the first year after termination of a 40-year (2020 to 2059) SRM project, with up to another degree in the next two decades.

Such abrupt climate change can shock ecosystems, especially affecting marine biodiversity by giving advantage to mobile or opportunistic species. It would be even more abrupt and dangerous if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were to rise ever higher. Such threats would hang heavy over future generations, obligated to pay billions of dollars every year to continue to manage solar radiation for an increasingly out-of-kilter planet they did not create, having to carry the burdens of rapid and abrupt climate change were war, revolution, or economic distress to force a halt to the risk management effort.

And these are hardly the only reasons that geoengineering, though tempting, may not be the best solution to climate change, as scientist Alan Robock of Rutgers University wrote in his “20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea.”

‘Laudably Honest’

Of course, not everyone sees a problem with favoring a certain solution because it aligns with their cultural values. “I think it’s laudably honest,” says Eli Lehrer, president and co-founder of the R Street Institute, a Washington-based thinktank that, in its words, “supports free markets; limited, effective government; and responsible environmental stewardship.”

“Many want to use climate change to talk about a pre-existing agenda,” says Lehrer, who accepts the scientific evidence of manmade climate change and favors a carbon tax. “They may well be right. I’d like to do it too.”

Lehrer sees geoengineering as a common sense approach deserving of research, but to be undertaken only if the problem proves severe enough. “It’s probably the best solution to an extreme situation,” he says, adding that a goal of zero carbon emissions is not achievable or “worthwhile.” He disagrees with actually doing geoengineering any time soon, calling the potential adverse impacts “extreme and potentially dangerous.”

Humans vs. Nature

Since Crutzen’s 2006 paper, geoengineering is no longer a taboo subject, feared even for polite discussion, because it can offer an alternative way out of a nagging carbon problem — bariatric surgery instead of strict dieting.

Many scientists now are seriously exploring solar radiation management and ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, philosophers are weighing the moral and ethical dimensions of geoengineering, and even a few environmental groups have opened their minds to concepts once considered anathema. The newly released IPCC Working Group I Fifth Assessment Report mentionedgeoengineering for the first time ever.

Geoengineering solutions retain the idea of human’s technical mastery over nature. Instead of human societies changing to accommodate the natural world they rely on, climate engineering — consciously or not — is the view that nature can be fundamentally bent and manipulated to accommodate humanity. Wresting with nature is, in a very real way, the story of human development, and taming the wild world has brought some (but by no means all) wealth, relative comfort and ease, and freedom from basic wants. At the same time, that insistence on control now poses risks to the planet as the most fundamental stage on which that existence plays out.

“There is something increasingly desperate about placing more faith in technological cleverness when it is the unrelenting desire to command the natural world that has brought us to their point,” Hamilton writes in the last chapter of his book. “Unless we understand why a certain kind of rationality seems to have failed, appeals to more reason are quixotic. After all, the separation of natural and human history and the dominance of a certain form of calculative rationality were each products of the same Enlightenment process.”

Originally posted to Yale Climate Connections.