In his recent article in Nature, Dr Philip Williamson highlights how the targets set out in the Paris Agreement mask an underlying assumption that they will be met through large-scale carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere and, in particular, through Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and large-scale afforestation (planting trees on land not forested in the recent past).
Williamson points to the startling fact that “the IPCC’s roughly 5,000-page Fifth Assessment Report…leaves out one crucial consideration: the environmental impacts of large-scale CO2 removal” and warns that these environmental impacts could translate into adverse rather than beneficial climate impacts: “Planting at such scale [as proposed for BECCS] could involve more release than uptake of greenhouse gases, at least initially, as a result of land clearance, soil disturbance and increased use of fertilizer.”
The article describes how such technologies, despite being included in IPCC scenarios, could carry significant, unintended risks to biodiversity and ecosystems. It concludes with the statement that “For now, action should focus on urgent emissions reductions and not on an unproven ‘emit now, remove later’ strategy.”
Williamson’s article goes in to some detail on the potential ecological (and thereby climate) implications of any possible BECCS or large-scale afforestation programme. He describes how limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C would require “crops to be planted solely for the purpose of CO2 removal on between 430 million and 580 million hectares of land — around one-third of the current total arable land on the planet”. It is important to note that another peer-reviewed article suggests that significantly more land may be needed.
Williamson adds that “the land requirements to make BECCS work would vastly accelerate the loss of primary forest and natural grassland. Thus, such dependence on BECCS could cause a loss of terrestrial species at the end of the century perhaps worse than the losses resulting from a temperature increase of about 2.8 °C above pre-industrial levels”. This would obviously be a terrible consequence of misguided climate mitigation policies.
That’s by no means all of it either – Williamson goes further: “…little is known about the effect of future climatic conditions on the yields of bioenergy crops; what the water requirements of such crops may be in a warmer world; the implications for food security if bioenergy production directly competes with food production; and the feasibility (including commercial viability) of the associated carbon capture and storage infrastructure.”
Another important point made in the article is that the optimistic claims made by the IPCC about the ability of BECCS to play a central role in mitigation come from the work of “physical scientists and modellers”, not ecologists. In fact, the IPCC Working Group 3 on climate change mitigation (which has written about BECCS and afforestation) was heavily dominated by economists, engineers and environmental managers, rather than climate scientists or ecologists, as civil society groups pointed out when their most recent Assessment Report was released. It’s no surprise therefore that the ecological impacts of large-scale CO2 removal technologies such as BECCS have not been considered.
A more contentious suggestion made by Williamson in the article is this: “One solution would be to abandon the term climate geoengineering and simply assess the various methods for mitigating climate change on a case-by-case basis.” Abandoning the term climate geoengineering could ultimately mean abandoning the de-facto moratorium on geoengineering agreed by the Convention on Biological Diversity, which would definitely be a step in the wrong direction. And abandoning the term is not a prerequisite to assessing the different proposals classed under it.
Williamson proposes: “It is time for the IPCC, governments and other research-funding agencies to invest in new, internationally coordinated studies to investigate the viability and relative safety of large-scale CO2 removal.” However, as his article confirms, it is vital that such work is not be left to modellers, economists, engineers and environmental managers. Such scientists have little academic background in understanding the vital and complex links between the climate and the biosphere, and the crucial role that biodiversity plays in maintaining all of the earth’s life support systems.
Last week in Germany the “Group of 7” countries (Canada, Japan, USA, Germany, United Kingdom, France, and Italy) declared that “deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century.” Many interpreted this as a call to phase out fossil fuels by the end of the century.
This interpretation deserves a closer look.
In response to the announcement, Greenpeace warned that “G7 leaders have left the door open for high risk technologies, like nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage.” Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is at the core of a push to achieve “net-zero” emissions. Net zero emissions is different from actual zero emissions because it allows burning fossil fuels and emitting carbon, as long as the carbon is eventually sucked out of the air.
The G7 language on decarbonisation this century is not specific, however, and does not promise an end to the use of coal or other fossil fuels. Instead, the language could imply reaching net-zero, where any remaining emissions are balanced by sequestration through afforestation or negative emissions technologies.
The most likely method of achieving negative emissions, biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), is controversial because it might require very large areas of land to be set aside for fast-growing trees or other biomass crops.
The G7 “commit to” develop and deploy “innovative technologies striving for a transformation of the energy sectors by 2050”. The communique doesn’t explain which technologies would be considered “innovative”. However, the use of the plural term “energy sectors” perhaps points past electricity generation towards transport, heat and beyond.
We recognize that fossil fuels will remain an important part in the energy mix for some time, as we progressively reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our energy systems. In this context, we encourage countries which opt to make use of carbon capture, use and storage to collaborate on large-scale demonstration projects and countries which opt to develop and use shale gas and other unconventional resources to collaborate on safe and responsible development.
It’s as close to an endorsement of CCS as they could get, and leaves little doubt about what the G7 considers “innovative”. Meanwhile, business leaders like Richard Branson have lined up behind “net zero,” conflating it with a decrease in the use of fossil fuels. They are joined by influential economist Jeffrey Sachs and the World Bank, among others.
Will Carbon Capture and Storage allow us keep burning fossil fuels?
The IPCC’s current scenarios rely heavily on Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and CCS, which have been called “unicorn technologies“. BECCS involves generating power by growing massive amounts of biomass, then burning it in power plants that capture the carbon at the smokestack and store it underground. Theoretically, this technique would remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
A few days earlier, ActionAid released a damning report about this version of “net zero,” declaring that:
Adding “net” to a goal of “zero emissions” may prove to be a trap that delays real climate action, and which could drive devastating land grabs and hunger through the large-scale use of land, biofuels and biomass to absorb rising carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of requiring real emissions cuts, “net” counting could allow for business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions, offset by massive-scale mitigation through the land sector.
The IPCC’s own “net zero” scenarios, the report explains, would require between 500 million and 6 billion hectares of land to keep climate emissions from heating the earth by more than 2 degrees. For comparison purposes, the total area of India is 328 million hectares.
But even if the large-scale dispossession required to suck billions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere went forward, BECCS strategies probably won’t work. As Rachel Smolker explains, BECCS will likely cause additional emissions through fertilizer use and land disturbances. And long-term storage of tens of billions of tonnes of CO2 creates major dangers:
[O]ur current understanding of earth history, plate tectonics and earthquakes tells us that assuming long term CO2 storage would be foolish. CO2 is not only a danger to climate, but in concentrated form, it is a lethal poison. Any abrupt release of concentrated CO2 could have serious impacts on those exposed, as well as contributing a sudden spike of CO2 to climate. Multiple small leaks also pose risks. They can occur at many points from capture process to compression to pipeline transport to injection, separation and reinjection and storage site leaks. […] Experience with the wrongful claims made by the nuclear industry (Chernobyl, Fukushima etc.) or by the oil industry (Deep Horizon) should serve as clear lessons: Relying on industry claims about safety and reliability is unwise. Precaution is very highly advised!
Even worse, the carbon that is captured will likely end up being used in “Enhanced Oil Recovery” techniques, which pump carbon into exhausted oil wells to extract even more oil.
Indeed, the only operational CCS plant in the world, in Saskatchewan, has been selling its carbon to an Alberta oil company. Because CCS is extremely expensive, the plant has been subsidized with $2 billion from the people of Saskatchewan. So effectively, the first and only example of CCS we have turns out to be a “backdoor subsidy to oil producers” for extraction that may not have been possible otherwise.
No surprise then, that this critic of the G7 pushes in the same direction as the G7’s own statements. “If you want a stable climate, we have to get to net zero emissions. For a government to try and avoid such a statement, is really a shame.” [Emphasis added]
In the lead up to Paris, we’re likely to see more of this false conflict: foot-dragging governments vs. proponents of faster implementation of “net zero”. What’s left out is the need to phase out fossil fuels altogether, a task the G7 governments have shunned for the last two decades.
The portrayal of status quo vs. net zero as the main conflict plays into the hands of the big oil companies, which want to protect trillions of dollars of investments and subsidies and to keep extracting oil until it’s gone. Basic facts about net zero are missing: namely, that it is an epic land-grabbing disaster for the global south that would drive global hunger and almost certainly won’t work as advertised.
As Paris draws closer, it will become crucial to establish that despite many claims to the contrary, “net zero” is not zero, and actual reductions in fossil fuel extraction and use are required. “Net zero” is a well-packaged excuse to keep pumping oil out of the ground while relying on hypothetical, unproven or nonexistent technologies to save us.
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?
The widely touted ‘carbon capture and storage’ technology is much more expensive than wind and solar, says a Greenpeace report. It also represents a perverse subsidy to the fossil fuel sector that will only boost coal and oil, and delay the transition to a renewable energy system.
The technology works by chemically capturing CO2 from the flue gases of power stations, then pumping it to places where it can be pumped underground – either to be stored or, all too often, to force extra oil out of flagging oil fields.
One problem with the technology is that it increases the amounts of fossil fuel that have to be burnt in CCS-fitted power stations by around 30% in order to drive the energy intensive processes. But of course that’s a boon for fossil fuel producers.
“Carbon capture could actually increase the overall climate pollution associated with fossil fuels by promoting increased extraction, combustion, and fugitive emissions”, says Greenpeace.
More than double the cost of wind power
The Greenpeace analysis uses US Energy Information Administration (EIA) cost projections for CCS and renewable energy to calculate relative costs of reducing carbon pollution, and shows how CCS only maintains dependence on fossil fuels and exacerbates greenhouse gas emissions.
Even using EIA’s optimistic assumptions about CCS effectiveness and costs, the report shows that CCS would still cost almost 40% more per kilogram of avoided carbon dioxide than solar photovoltaic, 125% more than wind and 260% more than geothermal.
It calculates that in 2019, based on EIA cost estimates, carbon capture and sequestration would cost 18 cents to avoid the emission of each kilogram of carbon dioxide per unit of electricity, while solar photovoltaics cost 13 cents, wind costs 8 cents, and geothermal costs 5 cents.
And as the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, the advantage of genuinely low carbon technologies like wind and solar will only increase.
“The truth is that carbon capture and sequestration is not worth the investment – sequestration is a gamble while carbon capture does nothing but prop up the oil industry”, said Greenpeace Legislative Representative Kyle Ash.
“Its price tag is further evidence that our focus should be on moving toward affordable renewable energy, not wasting time with false solutions.”
Propping up the oil industry, increasing oil recovery
CCS has been pushed as part of the Obama administration’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy that has helped maintain our dependence on fossil fuels. The EPA’s proposed carbon rule requires that new coal plants capture CO2, and emphasizes the CO2 be used to augment oil extraction.
Oil rigs then pump the carbon dioxide underground so the oil expands and more is forced up the well. Rather than actually storing carbon, it comes right back up the well with the oil. Every major power plant CCS project in the United States intends to sell the scrubbed carbon to the oil extraction industry.
“There’s a reason that the oil industry is supportive of CO2 capture technology – it makes them more money and maintains our dependence on fossil fuels“, explaiined Ash. “It’s a win-win for coal and oil.
“The coal industry gets to greenwash its image, and the oil industry benefits from the captured carbon that’s harnessed for increasing oil extraction. This scandalous collusion between coal and oil also includes the Obama administration, which is wasting billions in taxpayer dollars on carbon capture while working to expand the extraction of coal, oil and gas.”
The UK government is also keen to progress CCS development and just awarded a £2.5 million contract for the identification of suitable CO2 storage sites.
Insecure carbon storage creates long term hazard
Even if permanent storage was the ultimate goal for the carbon, it has proven to be a dangerous and difficult task.
The locations that have been identified as having the greatest potential for carbon sequestration are in the same spots as fracking and shale gas reserves. Earthquakes as a result of fracking threaten the feasibility of those projects.
Additionally, CO2 can lead to ‘downhole communication’, or ‘frack hits’, in which case the CO2 injected into one hole just comes out another. When it comes to sequestering carbon permanently underground without the complications of oil and gas extraction, the science remains dubious.
A recent MIT study found that the majority of CO2 injected into saline aquifers, the type of geology believed to have the greatest storage potential after exhausted oil wells, could make its way back to the surface.
And in the event of a large-scale release of CO2 from an undergound storage reservoir, which could result from an earthquake or accidental damage, any person or animal caught in the cold, ground-clinging cloud of toxic CO2 gas would die.
Background: Greenpeace’s 2014 ‘Energy [R]evolution‘ analysis shows that there is a path to an economy reliant on renewable energy without additional breakthrough technologies or reliance on false solutions like nuclear and CCS. Over the past 15 years, Greenpeace’s Energy [R]evolution analysis has more accurately predicted renewable energy growth than most, including the EIA, International Energy Agency, and others.
Geoengineering has been back in the news recently after the US National Research Council endorsed a proposal to envelop the planet in a layer of sulphate aerosols to reduce solar radiation and cool the atmosphere.
The proposal has been widely criticised for possible unintended consequences, such as ozone depletion, ocean acidification and reduced rainfall in the tropics. Perhaps even more troubling, geoengineering is a technological fix that leaves the economic and industrial system causing climate change untouched.
The mindset behind geoengineering stands in sharp contrast to an emerging ecological, systems approach taking shape in the form of regenerative agriculture. More than a mere alternative strategy, regenerative agriculture represents a fundamental shift in our culture’s relationship to nature.
Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, remineralises soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertiliser runoff.
But these methods are slow, expensive and impractical in feeding a growing population, right?
Wrong. While comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, yields from regenerative methods often exceed conventional yields (see here and here for scientific research, and here and here for anecdotal examples). Likewise, since these methods build soil, crowd out weeds and retain moisture, fertiliser and herbicide inputs can be reduced or eliminated entirely, resulting in higher profits for farmers. No-till methods can sequester as much as a ton of carbon per acre annually (2.5 tons/hectare). In the US alone, that could amount to nearly a quarter of current emissions.
Estimates of the total potential impact vary. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University argues that desertified and otherwise degraded soils could sequester up to 3bn tons of carbon per year (equal to 11bn tons of CO2, or nearly one third of current emissions). Other experts foresee even greater potential. According to research at the Rodale Institute, if instituted universally, organic regenerative techniques practiced on cultivated land could offset over 40% of global emissions, while practicing them on pasture land could offset 71%.
That adds up to land-based CO2 reduction of over 100% of current emissions – and that doesn’t even include reforestation and afforestation, which could offset another 10-15%, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Of course, none of this is license to perpetuate a fossil fuel infrastructure, since there is an eventual limit to the amount of carbon that soil and biomass can store.
Given that they are better even from purely commercial considerations, why haven’t regenerative practices spread more quickly? An answer commonly offered by farmers themselves is that “people are slow to change.” Maybe so, but in this case there is more to it than that. Regenerative agriculture represents more than a shift of practices. It is also a shift in paradigm and in our basic relationship to nature – as a comparison with geoengineering highlights.
First, regenerative agriculture seeks to mimic nature, not dominate it. As Ray Archuleta, a soil-health specialist at the USDA, puts it, “We want to go away from control and command agriculture. We should farm in nature’s image.” In contrast, geoengineering seeks to take our centuries-long domination of nature to a new extreme, making the entire planet an object of manipulation.
Second, regenerative agriculture is a departure from linear thinking and its control of variables through mechanical and chemical means. It values the diversity of polycultures, in which animals and plants form a complex, symbiotic, robust system. Geoengineering, on the other hand, ignores the law of unintended consequences that plagues any attempt to engineer a highly nonlinear system. It exemplifies linear thinking: if the atmosphere is too warm, add a cooling factor. But who knows what will happen?
Third, regenerative agriculture seeks to address the deep basis of ecological health: the soil. It sees low fertility, runoff and other problems as symptoms, not the root problem. Geoengineering, on the other hand, addresses the symptom – global warming – while leaving the cause untouched.
There is no quick fix
Unlike geoengineering’s quick fix, regenerative agriculture cannot be implemented at scale without deep cultural changes. We must turn away from an attitude of nature-as-engineering-object to one of humble partnership. Whereas geoengineering is a global solution that feeds the logic of centralisation and the economics of globalism, regeneration of soil and forests is fundamentally local: forest by forest, farm by farm. These are not generic solutions, because the requirements of the land are unique to each place. Unsurprisingly, they are typically more labour-intensive than conventional practices, because they require a direct, intimate relationship to the land.
Ultimately, climate change challenges us to rethink our long-standing separation from nature in which we think we can endlessly engineer our way out of the damage we have caused. It is calling us back to our biophilia, our love of nature and of life, our desire to care for all beings whether or not they make greenhouse gas numbers go up or down.
Geoengineering, beyond its catastrophic risks, is an attempt to avoid that call, to extend the mindset of domination and control to new extremes, and to prolong an economy of overconsumption a few years longer. It is time to fall in love with the land, the soil, and the trees, to halt their destruction and to serve their restoration. It is time for agricultural policy and practice to become aligned with regeneration.
The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) announced its long-awaited reports on climate geoengineering in mid-February. The reports intelligently state at the outset that geoengineering is no substitute for reducing emissions. But the call for experimentation and research – and for federal government funding for it – is pervasive, loud and clear. And worrisome. A similar call for research was published as a commentary in Nature, conveniently timed just a few days ahead of the release of the NAS reports.
One approach to climate geoengineering would have us inject large amounts of sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect a proportion of sunlight – a form of “solar radiation management” (SRM). That could provide some temporary overall global cooling, though not evenly distributed. Models as well as the real world experience of volcanic eruptions show that this would have severe side effects, from disrupting rainfall over large areas of the planet to degrading the ozone layer.
Those who support research into SRM believe that its negative impacts must be seen relative to the disastrous changes, including to global rainfall patterns, which are already unfolding. However, as NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has pointed out, rainfall is much more sensitive to changes in the amount of incoming sunlight (which would be reduced through SRM) than it is to greenhouse gases. Therefore, an earth with high greenhouse gases plus SRM won’t be anything like the earth any of us have experienced.
Experimenting with SRM is a bit like experimenting with heroin. You know even before you try it that it’s not going to be good for you. Also like experimenting with heroin, it does nothing to address the underlying problems that lead to addiction. Pumping sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere would do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. To the contrary, it could be used as an excuse to continue to do so. Nor would it slow or stop ocean acidification, the other disaster caused by carbon dioxide emissions besides climate change. Because SRM fails to address the cause of warming, and instead just temporarily masks some of the symptoms, it becomes an addiction and would have to be maintained and even increased over time. Getting off the SRM drug would be especially problematic. Suddenly halting injection of sulphate particles would result in very abrupt and dramatic heating.
Those who call for research into SRM cite the urgent need to understand more in order to have it as a “tool in the box” in case things get so bad that we need to take dire action. Others support researching it because they fear if “we” (the United States and the United Kingdom) do not take the lead and get up to speed, some unfriendly nation or entity might do so and then use it as a weapon. The weaponization of geoengineering is a particularly troubling concern and in fact, the CIA contributed to funding the NAS reports. One scientist reports being contacted and questioned by CIA officials.
A blanket call for more research on climate geoengineering is especially foolhardy. In 2010, an article by four climate scientists published in Science pointed out that open-air experiments to test the effect that SRM with sulphate aerosols would have on rainfall patterns would need to be so large as to be capable of disrupting global rainfall – and thus food production on a large scale.
Small-scale, open-air SRM experiments could help to develop and test the feasibility of large-scale deployment of such technologies, but they could not tell us more about what the global effects of such deployment would be than modeling studies coupled with observations of climate effects of volcanoes already can tell us. What this existing research shows does not bode well for SRM.
What about other climate geoengineering approaches? Under the heading of “carbon dioxide removal” (CDR) are approaches that use plant or plankton biomass growth to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere, as well as methods that use machinery to filter carbon dioxide out of the ambient air (direct air capture).
Direct air capture of carbon dioxide might seem an attractive prospect, but it is technically challenging and – most importantly – highly energy intensive and extremely costly. Building new power stations to scrub a small fraction of the carbon dioxide emitted by other power stations clearly makes no sense, nor is there any sense in diverting any of the small fraction of lower carbon energy such as wind power to power giant carbon dioxide-sucking fans rather than replace existing fossil fuel use for energy. No proposed direct air capture technique has so far proven feasible at scale.
Plant biomass approaches range from very large-scale afforestation (tree plantations), to stimulating plankton growth with ocean iron fertilization, very large-scale use of biochar, (although the National Academy scientists do not regard biochar as a proven form of carbon dioxide removal) or low-till agriculture (included by the NAS, even though that is mostly a practice for industrial GMO soya and corn producers, and even though several studies have put claims about low-till and no-till sequestering of carbon into serious doubt). They also include most prominently, capturing carbon from industrial bioenergy processes, also known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
Ocean fertilization (except for small-scale experiments that have undergone a risk assessment) would contravene an international convention (London Convention and Protocol) as well as a specific moratorium by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Its potential to harm marine biodiversity is well established, while several studies have contradicted claims that it could sequester substantial amounts of carbon.
The biomass-based CDR approaches have won favor as more “benign,” and because they involve using plants, they elicit less of the visceral repulsion that most feel toward sulphate particle injection. Proponents claim that these plant-based CDR techniques can provide various auxiliary benefits. For example, the assumption is that BECCS can provide us with alternative renewable energy while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Biochar advocates meanwhile claim it will improve soils, increase agriculture productivity, reduce use of fertilizer, retain moisture, clean toxins from the environment and more, all while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – despite the fact that studies do not show that biochar can be relied upon to actually deliver such benefits.
Sound magical? Only if one accepts underlying false assumptions. The first is that there are copious amounts of “sustainable,” available biomass, (and by implication of the land, soils, fertilizers and freshwater required to grow such quantities of biomass) readily available to be burned for bioenergy, or pyrolyzed to produce biochar or refined into biofuels. Those mythological supplies of biomass simply don’t exist. Even with the comparatively small scale of bioenergy production we currently have in place, the impacts on land, food and climate have been hugely problematic and are already well documented. Numerous studies have demonstrated the climate benefits of agroecological farming, protection and restoration of soils, or halting deforestation and allowing natural forests to grow. Establishing huge new demands for wood and crops for CDR achieves just the opposite.
The second false assumption is that large-scale bioenergy is largely “carbon neutral,” based on the absurdly simplistic claim that carbon released from burning a tree for electricity (or refining it into fuel) will be offset when a new tree grows in its place. This “carbon neutral” myth has been debunked in scientific literature repeatedly and yet still remains, a testament to the potency of marketing myths and industry PR messaging.
Those who advocate biomass-based CDR climate geoengineering continue to accept it on face value and assume that when CCS is then applied to a “carbon neutral bioenergy” process, it is rendered “carbon negative” (removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or “net zero emissions”). Since this is simply not true, we already know full well that the impacts of global scale deployment of BECCS would not only fail to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, but would also increase manifold the problems we are already witnessing as a result of bioenergy mandates and subsidies (land grabs, soil and water depletion, biodiversity loss, competition with food production, air pollution and more).
So should we experiment with CDR? Unlike the case for SRM, small-scale “experimentation” is already underway in many locations, though not referred to as “geoengineering.” For example, tree plantations (afforestation) already exist and are expanding. Many different kinds of bioenergy processes are already in practice from ethanol production (which currently consumes nearly 40 percent of the US corn crop) to co-firing of wood with coal for electricity. Capturing carbon from ethanol fermentation and fossil fuel smokestacks has been tested and found to be energy intensive, expensive and risky. Furthermore, to offset the costs, carbon dioxide is often marketed for “enhanced oil recovery” (pumped into depleted oil wells to force remaining oil out). None of these, at the scale currently in place would be considered “climate geoengineering.” But our experiences with them have already flagged up serious limitations and problems. For most biomass-based approaches, the limited availability of biomass, and the land, soils, nutrients and water for growing it, is the key limitation.
Directing science funding toward climate geoengineering raises additional concerns: First of all, public funding for scientific research is limited and spending more of it on geoengineering research will inevitably result in other areas of research being starved of funding. Secondly, once significant funding for geoengineering research becomes available, a bias toward research “results” that reinforce the need for more, similar funding can easily develop. For example, hundreds of studies per year are currently being published about obscure aspects of biochar research, with titles such as “Adsorption of anionic dye on magnesium hydroxide-coated pyrolytic bio-char and reuse by microwave irradiation.” Yet field studies that could reveal to what extent biochar actually does increase soil carbon and what its effects on different crops and soils really are remain few and far between. The National Academy rejected biochar altogether as unworthy of consideration for CDR. Meanwhile, agroecology – one of the most promising ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making agriculture more resilient to the now unavoidable level of climate change – remains starved of funding. A letter signed by more than 200 scientists in 2014 warned: “Public research into agroecology is drastically inadequate . . . And past analyses have found that funding for agroecology is a very small part of the federal research budget.”
Investing in climate geoengineering research creates momentum. Careers are built around it, grants are sought, and institutes and initiatives sprout up as is already clearly underway. These all will seek to perpetuate and advocate the need for more research and investment. That momentum becomes increasingly difficult to stop, even if the ideas have been deemed too risky, too expensive, ineffective or otherwise pointless to further pursue.
Another concern relates to the regulation of activities associated with geoengineering. In the aforementioned Nature article, the authors write: “We argue that governance and experimentation must co-evolve. We call on the US government and others to begin programs to fund small-scale, low-risk outdoor climate-engineering research and develop a framework for governing it.”
The US government? US government “regulation” of GMOs, just as an example, is considered by many to be woefully inadequate and driven more by the interests of Monsanto and their ilk than any interest in protecting public health or the environment. Many people around the globe would likely feel uncomfortable with a US government funded, or governed program on geoengineering. This is especially important given that the negative effects of different types of geoengineering would likely be felt most dramatically in the global South: Sulphate aerosol injections from real-life volcanoes have been linked to major droughts and famines in large parts of Africa, while tropical countries, where trees and crops grow fastest, would be the likely biggest targets for any biomass-based CDR schemes.
The consequences of climate geoengineering are global, so global governance should be considered essential. Yet, realistically, the global community can hardly come to any agreement on climate. How will nations agree on a framework for the governance of geoengineering? Is it possible? Or is climate geoengineering essentially impossible to govern?
Finally, any advancement of climate geoengineering plays directly into the hands of political forces including the oil industry and climate deniers who are pleased to have a “Plan B.” As Pat Mooney from ETC Group points out: “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 [carbon dioxide] 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. . . . If the US or other powerful governments accept geoengineering as a plausible ‘Plan B,’ Plan A will evaporate faster than Congressional bipartisanship.”
Pumping funds into geoengineering research seems especially unwise given the political context, and since we already can see clearly enough that these approaches are extremely dangerous, likely won’t work, will have unanticipated negative impacts, are very likely to worsen rather than improve the climate – and with different outcomes for different people in different places – are virtually ungovernable, divert resources from better uses, are a political nightmare, and can potentially be weaponized.
These issues are not all unique to climate geoengineering. Many are common to other kinds of technology developments that pose enormous and potentially global risks. The time is long overdue to recognize that our capacity for developing technologies in many cases poses serious risks to ourselves and the rest of life. When it comes to climate geoengineering, we should not be forced to accept that because we “can,” even though we know we “shouldn’t,” “if we don’t, someone else will” and therefore we “must.” That line of reasoning is no way for an intelligent species to conduct itself.
This sounds like a philosophical question, but it might become a more concrete one. A report released last week by the National Research Council called for research into reversing climate changethrough a process called albedo modification: reflecting sunlight away from earth by, for instance, spraying aerosols into the atmosphere. Such a process could, some say, change the appearance of the sky — and that in turn could affect everything from our physical health to the way we see ourselves.
If albedo modification were actually implemented, Alan Robock, a professor of environmental sciences at Rutgers, told Joel Achenbach at The Washington Post: “You’d get whiter skies. People wouldn’t have blue skies anymore.” And, he added, “astronomers wouldn’t be happy, because you’d have a cloud up there permanently. It’d be hard to see the Milky Way anymore.”
Losing the night sky would have big consequences, said Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent work looks at the health effects of the emotion of awe. In a study published in January in the journal Emotion, he and his team found that people who experienced a great deal of awe had lower levels of a marker of inflammation that has been linked to physical and mental ailments. One major source of awe is the natural world. “When you go outside, and you walk in a beautiful setting, and you just feel not only uplifted but you just feel stronger,” said Dr. Keltner, “there’s clearly a neurophysiological basis for that.”
And, he added, looking up at a starry sky provides “almost a prototypical awe experience,” an opportunity to feel “that you are small and modest and part of something vast.”
Research on the benefits of awe, he said, suggests that without a starry sky, “kids are going to be less imaginative, we’re going to be less modest and less kind to each other,” and “it may cost us in terms of health.”
If we lose the night sky, he said, “we lose something precious and sacred.”
He believes whitening the daytime sky might result in “that same loss of the sense of what’s vast,” a sense his team’s research suggests is “one of the most important things that people build into their lives.”
Paul K. Piff, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, says that when he studied awe among the Himba in Namibia, “the night sky was one of the very clear elicitors” of the emotion. The sky “has this really important role, obviously, in all sorts of different historical ways for the development of humankind and human consciousness, but it also has this shared feature of, no matter where you are and where you come from, it seems to brings about this really, really amazing and transformative experience.”
“We’re finding in our lab that the experience of awe gets you to feel connected to something larger than yourself, see the humanity in other people,” he explained. “In many ways it’s kind of an antidote to narcissism.” And the sky is one of the few sources of that experience that’s available to almost everybody: “Not everyone has access to the ocean or giant trees, or the Grand Canyon, but we certainly all live beneath the night sky.”
“Everyone’s looked up at the sky and wondered what our place is relative to the universe,” he said, “and so blotting out the stars would deprive people of this extremely compelling, awe-inspiring, transformative and cherished experience that we all share.”
“We used to be a lot more connected to the sky,” said the artist Ken Murphy. “It used to be either you’d look at the campfire, look at the sky, or go to bed, and now our lives have radically changed, and I think there’s definitely a loss in that.”
For his project “A History of the Sky,” he set up a camera to take a photograph of the San Francisco sky every 10 seconds for a year. He then made a time-lapse movie of each day and arranged them into a grid, creating a sort of video diary of the view above the city:
“While I was shooting, I was very tuned into what was going on with the sky,” he said. “It’s very compelling to witness what’s going on over our heads.”
On long backpacking trips, his focus often turns to the sky: “It becomes this unfolding drama every night, and you really can see how in history we’ve spun these elaborate myths around things going on in the sky. It must have been such a huge part of people’s consciousness before we had all these other distractions.”
“It’s a horribly disturbing thought to me that that would be permanently obscured in some way,” he said.
For Jennifer Wu, a photographer and a co-author of the book “Photography: Night Sky,” the starry sky is “one of those things that I hope that people will always enjoy.”
“When we go out and we see the stars there’s that connection,” she said. “We have creativity, we get renewed. There’s kind of a refreshing feeling about going out and being outdoors at night and seeing the stars.”
If something came between us and the stars, she said, “we won’t be able to photograph them as much.” This is already a problem for city-dwellers, she noted — because of light pollution, many in dense areas can’t see or photograph the stars.
“I love seeing the Milky Way,” she added. “Going out and seeing this incredible, beautiful band of light overhead, it’s just magnificent, and it would be disappointing to not see it anymore,” to lose the feeling that “we’re just one of these little dots among these many.”
Dimming the appearance of the stars would also make it harder for astronomers to study them. Telescope technology has just reached a point, said Steven Flanders, the public affairs coordinator for Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, “where the corrective systems on these telescopes are able now increasingly to compensate for the blurring of the earth’s atmosphere. At least at visual wavelengths, we don’t need to go out into space as we did with the Hubble Space Telescope, because we can do as well or better with corrective technology.” And, he said, “that whole process is for naught if we lose access to the night sky.”
One area that might suffer, he said, is the effort to identify planets in other solar systems. And that effort plays a big role in keeping the public interested in astronomy: When “we talk about planets,” he explained, “we talk about the search for life.”
As for how the loss of a swath of astronomical research would affect humanity, he said, “at a practical level, I don’t think we would lose anything.” But “at another level,” he said, “we would lose some of the curiosity that in some manner helps keep this society vibrant and moving.”
“The search for life is terribly exciting,” he added, “and you can argue that a society, any society, needs that kind of stimulus in various forms.”
It’s not completely clear, some researchers say, just how much aerosols would change the look of the sky. “You are essentially putting stuff between you and the light,” said Waleed Abdalati, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and one of the authors of the report. “So when you’re talking about dim light like stars,” he explained, “it’s certainly conceivable and even likely that they would appear dimmer.” Aerosols might whiten the sky during the day as well. How visible these effects are, he said, would depend on how much material was injected into the atmosphere — and we don’t yet know how much we’d want to inject, because we don’t yet know what the other side effects of such injection might be.
Ben Kravitz, a postdoctoral researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who has studied the possibility of albedo modification through aerosols, said in an email that according to current models, the whitening effect of aerosol injection “would be similar to the whiter sky that is often seen in large cities or areas with industrial pollution.” As for starlight, he said, “I don’t know of any study showing that the aerosols would obscure the stars; that sounds like an interesting research problem.”
Alan Robock, the environmental sciences professor, mentioned one possible upside in an interview: “You’d get these beautiful red and yellow sunsets,” as “the yellow and red colors reflect off the bottom of this cloud.”
He recommends more research into albedo modification: “If people ever are tempted to do this, I want them to have a lot of information about what the potential benefits and risks would be so they can make an informed decision.”
Part of understanding those risks and benefits may be evaluating the emotional impacts of making big changes to the way the sky looks. Of these impacts, Dr. Abdalati said, “my own view is they’re huge.”
“I think in time their magnitude will diminish as it becomes the new normal,” he said. But “for the generation that makes the decision to undertake something like that, to deploy something like that, I think the implications would be profound.”
Still, he believes “it’s incumbent upon us to understand the options before us, even if they’re options that may never be deployed.” That means making an effort to keep climate change from worsening in the first place, exploring ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere once its there — and understanding the implications of putting aerosols in the atmosphere, even if we never do it. “Deploying something like albedo modification is a last-ditch effort,” he explained. “I think it’s one that should be avoided at all costs, but should be understood.”
And, he said, “we’ve gotten ourselves into a climate mess. The fact that we’re even talking about these kinds of things is indicative of that.”
For Dr. Keltner, the sky is a source of awe. For Ms. Wu, it’s a fount of creativity. And if it one day turns white, it may become something else: a reminder that humanity ran out of options.
WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Tuesday, the National Academy of Sciences released two reports on climate intervention through geoengineering. These reports assess two categories of geoengineering: carbon dioxide removal and sequestration and albedo modification. Although the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed upon a moratorium on geoengineering in 2010, reports such as these indicate that momentum has not slowed and that some continue to grasp at these techno-fixes as viable options to combat climate change.
Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale technological manipulation of the Earth’s systems, including systems related to climate. These technologies generally fall under three broad areas: albedo modification (solar radiation management such as cloud whitening and covering deserts with reflective plastics), carbon dioxide removal and sequestration (such as ocean fertilization, biochar, and carbon extraction machines), and weather modification (such as cloud seeding and storm modification).
The following is a statement from Friends of the Earth Climate and Energy Program Director Ben Schreiber:
Friends of the Earth is committed to fighting climate change through sustainable and just solutions. While we agree that the current level of greenhouse gas emissions leaves us vulnerable to climate chaos, geoengineering will take us in the wrong direction. It serves as a dangerous distraction from the crucial discussions and actions that need to take place to mitigate and adapt to climate disruption.
Geoengineering presumes that we can apply a dramatic technological fix to climate disruption. Instead of facing the reality that we need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions, lower our consumption levels and rapidly transition to renewable energy, some hope to simply reengineer the climate, the land and the oceans to theoretically slow down and reverse climate disruption.
Geoengineering is an attempt by those most responsible for climate disruption to continue polluting instead of committing to the necessary actions and funding needed to help those countries and communities that will be most harmed by climate change.
The side effects of geoengineering interventions are unknown and untested. In order to have any noticeable impact on global temperatures, geoengineering projects would have to be deployed on a massive, global scale. These “experiments” would not only take action in the absence of scientific consensus, hence violating the precautionary principle, but could also easily have unintended consequences due to mechanical failure, human error, inadequate understanding of ecosystems, biodiversity and the Earth’s climate, unforeseen natural phenomena, irreversibility or funding interruptions.
These experiments also violate the 2010 moratorium established by the 193 countries who are parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity due to uncertainty around geoengineering’s environmental, social, cultural, and economic risks. The UN Environmental Modification Treaty has prohibited the hostile uses of environmental modification since 1976.
Geoengineering conflicts with sustainable and just solutions to the climate crisis. Real climate justice requires dealing with root causes of climate change, not launching risky, unproven and unjust schemes. Friends of the Earth supports the current moratorium agreed upon through the Convention on Biological Diversity and would condemn any proposals to move geoengineering towards real world experimentation.
Some years ago, in the question-and-answer session after a lecture at the American Geophysical Union, I described certain geoengineering proposals as “barking mad.” The remark went rather viral in the geoengineering community. The climate-hacking proposals I was referring to were schemes that attempt to cancel out some of the effects of human-caused global warming by squirting various substances into the atmosphere that would reflect more sunlight back to space. Schemes that were lovingly called “solar radiation management” by geoengineering boosters. Earlier I had referred to the perilous state such schemes would put our Earth into as being analogous to the fate of poor Damocles, cowering under a sword precariously suspended by a single thread.
This week, the National Research Council (NRC) is releasing a report on climate engineering that deals with exactly those proposals I found most terrifying. The report even recommends the creation of a research program addressing these proposals. I am a co-author of this report. Does this mean I’ve had a change of heart?
The nearly two years’ worth of reading and animated discussions that went into this study have convinced me more than ever that the idea of “fixing” the climate by hacking the Earth’s reflection of sunlight is wildly, utterly, howlingly barking mad. In fact, though the report is couched in language more nuanced than what I myself would prefer, there is really nothing in it that is inconsistent with my earlier appraisals.
Even the terminology used in the report signals a palpable change in the framing of the discussion. The actions discussed for the most part are referred to as “climate intervention,” rather than “climate engineering” (or the common but confusing term geoengineering). Engineering is something you do to a system you understand very well, where you can try out new techniques thoroughly at a small scale before staking peoples’ lives on them. Hacking the climate is different—we have only one planet to live on, and can’t afford any big mistakes. Many of the climate “engineering” proposals are akin to turning the world’s whole population into passengers on a largely untested new fleet of hypersonic airplanes.
Most previous literature has referred to schemes to increase the proportion of sunlight reflected back to space as solar radiation management, as if it were something routine and businesslike, along the lines of “inventory management” or “personnel management.” It is far from clear, however, that solar radiation can be managed in any meaningful sense of the word. The NRC report instead uses the more neutral term “albedo modification.” Albedo is the scientific term for the proportion of sunlight reflected back to space. If the Earth had 100 percent albedo, it would reflect all sunlight back to space and be a frozen ice ball some tens of degrees above absolute zero, heated only by the trickle of heat leaking out from its interior. Earth’s current albedo is about 30 percent, with much of the reflection caused by clouds and snow cover. I myself prefer the term “albedo hacking,” but “albedo modification” does pretty well. My colleague and report co-author James Fleming has called such schemes “untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief.” (A companion report also discusses less problematic, if currently expensive, schemes for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Many of those would be well worth doing if they ever became economical.)
The report describes albedo modification frankly as involving large and partly unknown risks. It states outright that albedo modification “should not be deployed” and emphasizes that the main focus in climate protection should continue to be reduction of CO2 emissions. If we continue to let CO2 build up in the atmosphere and attempt to offset the effects by increasingly extreme albedo modification, the report states, that situation is one of “profoundly increasing risk.” This is a far cry from the cartoonish portrayal of albedo modification as the cheap and obvious method of choice in Superfreakonomics or by Newt Gingrich.
Two albedo modification schemes are singled out for detailed scrutiny. The first of these, called stratospheric aerosol modification, works high up in the atmosphere—in the layer known as the stratosphere—and involves injecting substances such as sulfur dioxide that lead to the creation of tiny particles that scatter sunlight back to space. It’s modeled on what happens in the wake of large volcanic eruptions. The second, called marine cloud brightening, works close to the Earth’s surface and involves injection of particles (usually created from salt spray) that either directly reflect sunlight or modify low-level clouds in a way that makes them more reflective. Both techniques have the glaring problem that the albedo-modifying effects disappear within a few weeks to a few years, whereas the climate effects of the CO2 we emit will persist for millennia, even if we ultimately kick the fossil fuel habit. That means that if the CO2 we have emitted at some time heats the Earth to the point where something intolerably bad starts to happen, active albedo modification would need to be continually maintained basically forever. When has humanity ever managed to sustain a concerted complex technological enterprise for centuries, let alone millennia? An awful lot can happen in a thousand years, much of which we have no way to anticipate. The report recognizes that such a millennial commitment would be unprecedented in human history.
The take-home message is that it is not possible to use albedo modification to counteract peak CO2-induced warming without maintaining the climate intervention without interruption for millennia. At least, that’s the case unless we learn how to actively suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. The problem of millennial commitment makes it exceedingly imprudent to count on albedo modification to get and keep us out of a climate emergency. Absent effective CO2-removal techniques, albedo modification cannot be seen as a temporary measure that can give us time to get our act together to eliminate CO2 emissions. And if at any point albedo modification actions are ceased abruptly, the world would be faced with the rapid release of a century or more of pent-up warming. This is why I refer to such a world as “Damocles world.” A lot could happen in a thousand years that might force abrupt termination of albedo modification, but to just mention one possibility: Think of what an attractive target most of the proposed deployment systems (e.g. tethered balloons or fleets of lumbering stratospheric aircraft) would be for terrorists, or for nations who believe rightly or wrongly that they are being harmed by albedo modification.
Temporary deployment scenarios, which are used to delay warming rather than limit its ultimate magnitude, are also considered in the report, which takes no stance on what form of deployment is most likely if the world is ever driven to that stage. I myself think the temporary deployment scenarios are highly implausible, and are mainly shopped by albedo-modification boosters as a less threatening way to get the camel’s nose in the tent. I think that if people realized how little albedo modification can do for climate without taking on a millennial commitment, and that even such modest goals come within reach only when CO2 emissions reductions are so successful you hardly need albedo modification at all, a lot of the enthusiasm for the technology—already feeble outside the small circle of boosters—would evaporate.
Albedo hacking in the face of high CO2 would put the Earth in a state that has no real analogue in all of human history. In fact, the state you create by such an action is somewhat like the state the Earth was in some 250 million years ago during the Permian period, when the sun was dimmer but atmospheric CO2 was higher. A more disturbing comparison involves what would happen if albedo hacking ends abruptly: That would risk warming of a magnitude unseen since the Paleocene-Eocene rapid warming event some 55 million years ago, but at a rate that is probably unprecedented in all of Earth history. The hacking would also transform a substantial amount of direct sunlight into diffuse sunlight, altering the environment for all green plants on land.
More generally, the climate of the Earth is determined by a struggle of two different parts of our planetary energy budget. One part is heat energy loss to space; CO2 affects that. The other part is the amount of sunlight absorbed; albedo modification affects that, but the consequences of turning this dial are not at all equivalent to dialing back CO2 to pre-industrial values. This dial can probably be used to reduce global mean temperature (though with uncertain precision), but there is much more to climate than that. The global cooling that could possibly be achieved comes at the cost of changes in rainfall patterns, winds, and regional temperature. With the current state of climate models, we have only very limited confidence in our ability to predict the outcomes, and even more limited ability to model the actual albedo change resulting from the complex chain of events due to an actual climate-intervention action. What’s more, our current ability to even monitor what we actually did to the sky leaves a lot to be desired. And albedo modification does little or nothing to ameliorate the acidification of the oceans caused by CO2 emissions. All that is acknowledged frankly in the report.
In other words, albedo modification addresses (albeit imperfectly) the symptoms but not the root causes of CO2-induced global warming. As a possible response to such criticisms, Oxford’s Steve Rayner has mused that “Band-Aids are useful when you are healing.” However, Band-Aids are not all that useful if you really needed penicillin instead, and the wound festers until you die. Albedo modification is not like a bandage that promotes healing, but more like taking painkillers when you really need surgery for cancer.
It could be argued with some justification that if we do not severely restrict CO2 emissions, future generations will not have the choice to pursue a climate that is roughly similar to conditions before the Industrial Revolution. The relevant comparison, according to this argument, isn’t between the albedo-modified state and the pre-industrial state, but rather between a hot, high-CO2 state and a generally cooler (on average) albedo-modified state. That’s the “lesser of two evils” argument, and the associated justification for research is called “arming the future.” It is not hard to imagine a future world where albedo modification becomes a matter of survival (at least until something happens to force an abrupt termination). Unrestrained CO2 emissions could render large parts of the Earth uninhabitable for large mammals (including us) outdoors, and it is not hard to imagine a panicked rush to embrace albedo modification in such a situation. The problem with the arming the future argument, as pointed out by philosopher Stephen Gardiner, is that the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and the greatest moral culpability of all falls on those who, as in the case of the tragic Sophie’s choice, put somebody in the position where they have no alternative but to make an evil choice. That is precisely what we would be doing to future generations if we continue to shirk our responsibility for restraining CO2 emissions.
The moral culpability issue is compounded by the fact that even a limited deployment of albedo modification, by removing some of the more palpable symptoms of climate disruption, would almost certainly remove some of the incentives for doing the hard things needed to decarbonize the economy. To the extent that research brings such deployments closer to reality, even that research can incur risks that move us farther along the spectrum of moral culpability.
Now, about those research recommendations: If albedo modification is such a terrible idea, why do research on it at all? Indeed in his book, Mike Hulme considers the technology ungovernable and argues that if a technology is basically ungovernable at the level of deployment, we shouldn’t be doing research that could bring it into being. The new NRC report’s specific research recommendations are actually quite cautious, focusing primarily on things that contribute to a better understanding of climate in general, in addition to being necessary prerequisites for a better-informed judgment of the risks of albedo modification. That includes research priorities such as a better understanding of clouds, better understanding of tropical precipitation changes, and better monitoring of the Earth’s energy budget (including those things needed to understand the response of climate to volcanic eruptions).
Going beyond fairly uncontroversial research of this type engages value judgments well outside of what a group of 16 scientists such as ours is equipped to decide, and goes well beyond the boundaries of scientific judgment itself. The report recommends, of necessity rather diffusely, the initiation of a “serious deliberative process” which would ultimately determine the nature of the research program and how it would be governed. I intend to be quite vocal in this process, if it ever gets underway. Some others on the committee no doubt have different ideas about what the outcome of the process should be. For example, a recent Nature opinion piece unconnected with the NRC report itself but co-authored by Granger Morgan (another of the NRC panel members) argues that research should initially proceed without any governance, at the discretion of the scientists involved. I guess Granger and I will have to duke that out as part of the “serious deliberative process” recommended by the NRC.
The real consequences of NRC recommendations for research would only be settled as part of the serious deliberative process the report recommends, and that is where the hard work and hard decisions will take place. It’s not at all clear how this is going to happen. In the United States, can we actually have a reality-based, serious deliberative process about anything anymore? Can a serious deliberative process about climate change materially involve a Congress that cannot even muster a Senate majority to agree that humans can and are changing the climate? With the present state of leadership (and not just in the United States), developing albedo-modification technology would be like giving a loaded gun to a child. (OK, in the U.S. some people actually do that; it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.)
So yes, albedo hacking is still barking mad, but people are often driven to do barking mad things out of desperation, and we are heading to the breaking point now with our continued fossil fuel binge. But if it comes to albedo hacking, the result won’t be pretty. It won’t be some benign “Plan B,” but more like the constant fear of thermonuclear holocaust I grew up with during the Cold War. It will be the end of blue skies and crystal-clear starry nights, and the beginning of nightly blood-red sunsets. These are not the most serious consequences of albedo hacking, but they will serve as nightly visible proof of our moral failure. And there will be no exit, not for thousands of years (unless we figure out a way to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere). If the serious deliberative process counseled by the NRC report makes people stop and think about just how terrifying that world would be, perhaps the thought of a world with less reliance on fossil fuels would start to seem a lot less scary.
Nature has a new opinion piece up that signals a bold new push for field experiments into techo hacking the climate system, usually known as “geoengineering.” Right now there are all kinds of geoengineering experiments going on in labs and with computer modeling but “outdoor tests” are still frowned upon.
The authors of the piece—fixtures on the “geo-clique” conference circuit—boldly call for these tests to go ahead even in the absence of any regulatory system governing them. They explicitly state that “governance and experimentation must co-evolve”—which is a high-minded way of saying: roll the dice and see what happens.
Amazingly, the article completely fails to mention the most significant problem with small-scale field experiments: the fact that they are structurally incapable of answering the most significant ethical and humanitarian questions raised by these global-scale technological interventions, which relate to how geoengineering in one part of the world will impact the climate on the other side of the planet. Those questions can only be answered through planetary scale deployment.
Here’s a short excerpt from my book on why geoengineering is “untestable.” For those interested in more, see all of Chapter 8: “Dimming the Sun: The Solution to Pollution is… Pollution?” in This Changes Everything.
Like Climate Change, Volcanoes Do Discriminate
Boosters of Solar Radiation Management tend to speak obliquely about the “distributional consequences” of injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, and of the “spatial heterogeneity” of the impacts. Petra Tschakert, a geographer at Penn State University, calls this jargon “a beautiful way of saying that some countries are going to get screwed.” But which countries? And screwed precisely how?
Having reliable answers to those key questions would seem like a pre- requisite for considering deployment of such a world-altering technology. But it’s not at all clear that obtaining those answers is even possible. [David] Keith and [Nathan] Myhrvold can test whether a hose or an airplane is a better way to get sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. Others can spray saltwater from boats or towers and see if it brightens clouds. But you’d have to deploy these methods on a scale large enough to impact the global climate system to be certain about how, for instance, spraying sulfur in the Arctic or the tropics will impact rainfall in the Sahara or southern India. But that wouldn’t be a test of geoengineering; it would actually be conducting geoengineering.
Nor could the necessary answers be found from a brief geoengineering stint—pumping sulfur for, say, one year. Because of the huge variations in global weather patterns from one year to the next (some monsoon seasons are naturally weaker than others, for instance), as well as the havoc already being wreaked by global warming, it would be impossible to connect a particular storm or drought to an act of geoengineering. Sulfur injections would need to be maintained long enough for a clear pattern to be isolated from both natural fluctuations and the growing impacts of greenhouse gases. That likely means keeping the project running for a decade or more.
As Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers philosopher and climate change expert, points out, these facts alone present an enormous, perhaps insurmountable ethical problem for geoengineering. In medicine, he writes, “You can test a vaccine on one person, putting that person at risk, without putting everyone else at risk.” But with geoengineering, “You can’t build a scale model of the atmosphere or tent off part of the atmosphere. As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale planetary-wide implementation.” In short, you could not conduct meaningful tests of these technologies without enlisting billions of people as guinea pigs—for years. Which is why science historian James Fleming calls geoengineering schemes “untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief.”