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Geoengineering Megaprojects are Bad Planetary Management
Alex Steffen, 9 Feb 09

Mega-project geoengineering proponents love to set up the following argument:

1) Climate change is real and worse than we thought.
2) Humanity will not or cannot reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or will not or cannot reduce them enough in time to stave off catastrophe.
3) Therefore, we need to find other approaches to lowering the planet's temperature and/or pulling greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and the best way to do this is through mega-scale geoengineering.
4) Anyone who opposes this argument is unrealistic and afraid of the adult responsibilities of planetary management and will lead us over the cliff into runaway climate change.

It's a brilliant political argument, raising a threat and then making those who oppose your response to that threat part of the threat itself.

The biggest problem with it as a policy argument is that it's riddled with inconsistencies, false assumptions and half-truths. Let's go through the argument and the bright green response:

1) Climate change is real and worse than we thought.

No disagreement here, though it's worth noting that many of those now calling for a "broader debate" about geoengineering are the same people who spent much of the last two decades denying that climate change was happening and who still seek to benefit from inaction: the sudden interest of coal and oil companies and the American right wing in geoengineering ought to, in and of itself, make us suspicious of the role it's playing in the climate change debate.

2) Humanity will not or cannot reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or will not or cannot reduce them enough in time to stave off catastrophe.

This, of course, is a classic politics of impossibility argument.

The reality is that we know that zero greenhouse gas emissions ought to be our goal, and that goal is largely achievable already, with technologies and designs that are within our grasp, and that, indeed, many of the kinds of land-use and design changes a climate-neutral society would demand would in fact increase real prosperity and quality of life. We shouldn't discount the massive amount of work involved, but nothing in that work itself is itself impossible, and all of us will benefit greatly (especially compared to the alternatives).

Tackling climate change is a political problem. The question is not can we tackle climate change, but will we, and problems of political will are entirely subject to human intervention.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems with advocating for mega-scale geoengineering is that it is already being used in the debate as an alternative to greenhouse gas reduction targets -- so much so that the U.K. government felt compelled to explicitly declare that geoengineering was not such an alternative.

What is more, the proper deployment of geoengineering megaprojects would have to be executed through precisely such the kind of international political process of which the megaproject crowd despair, and be subject to just as many delays and constraints as any other international negotiation. Unilateral mega-scale geoengineering on the part of any one nation (much less any one corporation) is pretty much as close to an obvious cause for war as I can imagine, and, given the possible consequences, quite likely could legally qualify as a crime against humanity. There's no short-cut through the politics here.

3) Therefore, we need to find other approaches to lowering the planet's temperature and/or pulling greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and the best way to do this is through mega-scale geoengineering.

Here's where the problems start multiplying.

First, in order for this point to have any validity, geoengineering mega-projects would have to work. So far, we have no proof that any of them actually would work, and numerous reasons to believe that many of them could go disastrously awry.

For instance, various schemes have been proposed to lower the temperature of the planet, by shooting massive clouds of small particulates into the upper atmosphere, or launching orbiting mirrors, or what have you. All of these schemes fail on two basic criteria, which is that they wouldn't reduce the actual amount of greenhouse gasses being pumped into the atmosphere, so not only would they have to be long-term plans (lest we risk a rebound effect) but they would do nothing to prevent other catastrophic consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation, especially ocean acidification.

Second, in order for us to find this point valid, geoengineering megaprojects would have to, in fact, be the best way to lower the planet's temperature and/or pull greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. But we already know that the best way to cool the planet, even in the fairly short term, is to reduce emissions, and we have solid reasons to believe that megaprojects are a lousy way to do that.

The best way to lower the concentration of greenhouse gasses is, of course, not to emit them in the first place. This is a point that can't be made often enough. But once they're already in the atmosphere, the best way to remove them is almost certainly through the pursuit of a vast number of small-scale carbon fixing efforts: replanting forests, using adaptive restoration to get ecosystems stable and working again, using biomass to create biochar energy and then plowing the remaining carbon into the soil, and so on. We can become carbon-negative without biohacking kudzu or seeding ocean algae with millions of tons of iron.

Our goal should be to cool the planet in ways that reinforce and restore the resilience of its natural systems.

4) Anyone who opposes this argument is unrealistic and afraid of the adult responsibilities of planetary management and will lead us over the cliff into runaway climate change.

This is where geoengineering advocates seek to tar others with the brush of Luddism.

But the fact is that many of us have been advocating for planetary management for years -- indeed, the very first widely popular book about climate change was called The End of Nature and argued that we were now responsible for managing the planet.

Many of us oppose geoengineering megaprojects, not because we are afraid of science or technology (indeed, most bright green environmentalists believe you can't win this fight without much more science and technology), but because these kinds of megaprojects are bad planetary management.

It's bad planetary management to take big chances with a high probability of "epic fail" outcomes (like emptying the sea of life through ocean acidification). It's bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It's bad planetary management to assume that this time -- unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history -- we'll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.

Geoengineering is bad planetary management. It doesn't make proponents bold, or visionary, or more committed to scientific progress. It just makes them proponents of a set of bad ideas. They are of course welcome to continue to advocate any ideas they choose, but they need to get over the idea that only they are visionary and bold enough to manage the planet.

The real planet managers are already hard at work on the real solutions, from clean energy and urban redesigns to climate adaptive restoration and binding international greenhouse gas agreements. We'd all better get behind the effort to make their success the new realism.

From page photo credit: flickr/catface3, CC license.

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Comments

If one takes the writers case as valid that the issue is ALL about global warming and hence cooling the planet then one might fall into this logic trap of a story. However popular the 'global warming' band wagon is it is NOT the most dire threat from our century plus love affair with fossil fuel.

Since good satellites went up in the early eighties the decline in ocean cholorophyll which relates directly to lost phyto-plankton represents 4-5 billion tonnes of CO2 uptake each year. Since the climate change discussion is about 6-8 billion tonnes too much CO2 in the air each year one might imagine seeking to restore that lost plant life is meaningful activity.

As a person whose been in the reforestation business since the eary 1970's and whose company has been responsible for planting hundreds of millions of trees I can speak about the realities of eco-forestation. The fact is there isn't sufficent forestable land, to say nothing of the high cost of forestation to accomplish enough fast enough.

This topic ought to be about the real and immediate impacts of CO2 on the most sensitive ecosystem of the planet, and by the way the most imporatant, the surface oceans.

These semantic debates do so very little other than misdirect from the real issue at hand. In more than a century of fossil fuel burring we've belched hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 into the air. The vast majority of this is still in the air as CO2 has a residence time of over a century in the atmosphere. The issue is that the CO2 in the air already amounts to a lethal dose of slow poison to the ocean ecosystem.

Sure it creates climate change and global warming but those are glacially slow processes that threaten change that is far from what the oceans are now suffering. The carbon bomb airborne and now impacting on the oceans is more than sufficient to destroy most higher life in the oceans, that above the level of bacteria for example. Even if we stop the emission of another single molecule of CO2 that airborne carbon bomb will destroy higher life in the oceans... unless something is done to mitigate the damage from the already emitted deadly dose of CO2. No matter whether you jet off to a winter holiday, drive a Prius, or buy more energy efficient light bulbs the dose of CO2 already in the air will do its deadly job.

ONLY the massive immediate enhancement of photosynthesis on this small blue planet offers a means or even a chance to capture the existing lethal dose of CO2 and convert it into green life instead of acid death.

And only in the surface ocean is there sufficient available area to restore those green plants.

But engaging in meaningless semantic debates while fueling up the Prius or pointing fingers of blame at those who drive SUV's is so much easier than actually doing something meaningful like perhaps saving the planet.

If we merely sit back and critique others and reduce the amount of new poison we belch into the air it all amounts to doing nothing.

Think of it in this way. It's as if we treated patients arriving in hospital emergency rooms bleeding profusely from traffic accidents by first making them take drivers education class before treating the wounds that will surely kill them. Stop carping and do something, get a life, save the life of a plant (and planet) today.


Posted by: russ on 9 Feb 09

Alex, you leave out the actual argument that most geoengineering proponents (the scientists, not the pundits) make: that geoengineering is not a substitute for carbon emission reduction, but an enabler -- if the disastrous effects of warming are happening faster than we can bring emissions down, then some way to suppress the warming temporarily becomes necessary.

I can't find any scientific geoengineering advocate who presently argues that geo is a substitute for reducing carbon emissions. I've looked. Basing your argument on somebody doing so at some point, rather than on the actual, current lines of debate, comes awfully close to arguing against a straw man, and I know you don't want to do that.

...geoengineering mega-projects would have to work. So far, we have no proof that any of them actually would work...

Actually, that's not quite true. Stratospheric sulfate injection is a direct mimic of one of the results of large volcanic eruptions. Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 lowered global temperatures by about 0.5°C shortly after the eruption, lasting for a bit less than a year. The mechanisms are reasonably well-understood, and the sulfate injection proposals hew pretty close to the volcanic model. You can argue that it would have known (ozone depletion) or unknown undesirable side-effects, but claiming that we have no proof that it would work is inaccurate.

Generally speaking, simple albedo-management techniques (urban rooftop brightening, land brightening, cloud brightening) have centuries of physics (and smaller-scale practical experience) underlying them, so again the real questions have more to do with unwanted side-effects than functional success.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Feb 09

Well, distinguishing the scientific proponents of geoengineering from the political proponents (whom you dub the pundits) seems a pretty ridiculous distinction, given that these debates are at heart political, not scientific, and the scientific debate's largest role at this point is as ammunition in the political debate.

The highest level governmental advocates for pursuing geoengineering have so far been Bush administration folks explicitly arguing that the possibility of geoengineering was an argument against a stronger global GHG agreement. There's no way to ethically distinguish between the scientific debate on geoengineering and the political uses to which that debate is known to be put and which we know it will be put -- because the U.S. right wing and carbon lobbies are already using it that way and have an obvious intention to continue.

But even given that (I think sophistic) distinction, the very example you raise (of stratospheric sulfate injection) is a perfect example of a fix that *won't* work. It would *probably* bring surface temperatures down temporarily (if it's done right and the calculations are all correct and complete), but it would do nothing whatsoever about its own side effects (ozone depletion, which you rightly mention), other problems associated with GHG accumulation (like ocean acidification) or the possible whiplash effects that could unfold the moment we stop producing these massive artificial volcanoes.

So the suspected effects of this approach would be ozone depletion and continued widespread ocean death, with a strong possibility of nastier side effects if we stop using it. If that's a *working* geoengineering project, I'd hate to meet a failure. ;)

But snark aside, I think claiming that we know an approached based on a mechanism will work, because we have strong reasons to believe that we understand the mechanism itself is a weak argument, since design and delivery are non-trivial components of the system, and by all accounts, we're not completely sure of second-order effects. Might possibly work? Yes. Proven ability to work? No way.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 9 Feb 09

So the one example of people making the "geoengineering replaces carbon reductions" argument comes from members of a discredited administration no longer in office? (Side note: even the Bush EPA official who made that claim backtracked from it on the geoengineering mailing list.) As long as you keep hammering this point, you're arguing with the specter of a claim, while the debate has long since moved on.

Carbon emission elimination efforts would continue; nobody with any credibility is claiming otherwise. And once you accept that even geo advocates want radical carbon emission reductions, some of the other concerns become less black & white. Albedo-management geo does nothing about ocean acidification or carbon sink overloading, true -- but carbon emission elimination does. And the whiplash temperature spike if albedo-management suddenly stops? It occurs primarily in scenarios where carbon reductions haven't continued.

[To be clear, I'm only talking albedo-management and not carbon-management geo because the latter proposals are either too uncertain or too slow.]

As for whether or not they'd "work" to keep temperatures down, the general circulation models that underlie the geoengineering research are the very same GCMs that underlie projections of warming. Our certainty about anthropogenic global warming comes from the combination of understanding physics, present-day observations of limited impacts, and detailed GCMs that can back-cast earlier climates and forecast what's on the way. Arguments about albedo-modification geoengineering, similarly, come from a combination of understanding physics, present-day observations of similar processes, and those very GCMs.

The larger point remains: the geoengineering scenarios being discussed are those in which carbon emission reductions continue, and the geo is used as a "stay of execution" -- a way to keep temperatures down, and thereby limit the heat-related crises, while emissions reduction efforts continue. After all, as you have argued, populations under duress make lousy environmental stewards. We're more likely to be able to make the necessary social/political/economic changes if we're not fighting resource wars, dealing with mega-droughts and fires, and trying to stave off opportunistic diseases.

The political clashes, accusation of crimes against humanity, and potential for catastrophe you rightly note are possible in a geoengineering scenario are even more likely in a scenario where emissions reductions fail to work in time, and we're left fighting over environmental scraps.

To a person, the geoengineering specialists I've spoken with want carbon emission reduction/elimination efforts to continue as swiftly and as aggressively as possible. They don't want to have to try geoengineering -- they see the potential for unanticipated consequences and surprising combinatorial effects as well as anybody. But they also think that, in the scenario in which our efforts to reduce emissions aren't happening fast enough to head off disastrous results, just clapping harder isn't enough.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Feb 09

(And, just for those of you who are surprised by this exchange, I should emphasize that Alex & I are in agreement about 99% of the issues surrounding global warming and the need for carbon emissions elimination. This just happens to be the one where our views differ.)


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Feb 09

"So the one example of people making the "geoengineering replaces carbon reductions" argument comes from members of a discredited administration no longer in office?"

Not at all -- I've cited a number of examples on this site in the past (and, btw, that Bush claim was in the U.S. official position, not the stance of a single bureaucrat.) Check out, for instance, the involvement of American Enterprise Institute folks.

There's simply no way to parse this debate and not see that, politically, the argument that we have a geoengineering "backstop" is being used in conjunction with questions about the realism of climate agreement hopes as an argument against doing very much.

((And I too will emphasize that Jamais and I agree about almost every aspect of the bright green agenda, though we disagree sharply on the role of geoengineering.))


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 9 Feb 09

I think that geo-engineering mega-projects need to be considered as a time gaining strategy.

However, I also have no doubt whatsoever that some people (not the experts, but the ones who cherry-pick experts to justify their own agenda) would love to channel all our efforts into such mega-projects, and then send them nowhere.

Unfortunately, these people still appear to have the ear of the politicians (in Australia, at least, judging from the way in which solar and biochar is being pushed to the back of the queue). Unless these people can be prevented from hogging the trough (ie using the effort at the expense of more modest and small-scale but effective measures) then I have to view the motivation behind all megaprojects with suspicion.

(Question: why doesn't massive biochar sequestration qualify as a geo-engineering megaproject?)


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 9 Feb 09

Question: why doesn't massive biochar sequestration qualify as a geo-engineering megaproject?

It does. It's one of the geo projects considered in a recent comparison. The numbers they came up with seemed to show biochar as a decent long-term carbon management tool, but insufficient on its own. Others disagree with those numbers, though. Still, a major biochar project will have its own side-effects and unanticipated consequences -- any large-scale climate management intervention will.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Feb 09

Almost all natural systems are non-linear in character and the geo planetary one is especially complex and as such this should argue against intervention at this scale, the chances of failure or unintended consequences are huge and entirely to be expected. Politically the geo-engineering gang are probably impressed by the way in which mega projects will be lined up to benefit those very corporations which did so much to deliver the problem in the first place. As with the banking meltdown, I suspect political cohesion will not be too hard to get (or take too long) at government level once the crisis becomes more apparent and it will be a great way to siphon money into the hands of the few once more. Unhappily that is why the cheap, low cost, job creating local solutions/ amelioration efforts will have to struggle to be heard. Distracting us from the evidence that solutions are already to hand and focussing on the detail of this or that maga-fix is no doubt useful in this framing game.


Posted by: Ken Webster on 10 Feb 09

Actually, point two is valid. We have already surpassed 450 ppm CO2eq in greenhouse gases so the only way to prevent catastrophic impacts is to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Even if we reduced carbon emissions to zero, we are looking at a thousand years of warming. This is why I no longer really care much about albedo adjustment (except perhaps for the arctic), but am deeply interested in air capture of CO2 through rapid "weathering" processes that take CO2 out of the ambient air and turn it into rock. That work is underway and will probably be the full solution to the problem - one which will allow continued use of some fossil fuels as well, by the way.


Posted by: DSchnare on 10 Feb 09

Many politicians already complain about the "so high" price of solarthermic power plants and wind power plants. So I wonder, what they guess how many they'll have to pay for such silly projects, where you even don't know, what will happen (perhaps a new ice age starts).


Posted by: Lukas on 10 Feb 09

Hey Alex,

The one point I have never seen you address in any of your geoengineering related posts is the threat of runanway climate change. What if, as Jim Hansen asserts, we are already past the climate tipping point? There are some very good reasons to believe that even if CO2 emissions went to zero tomorrow, that non-anthropogenic CO2 emission feedbacks would significantly *amplify* the sum total of historical anthropogenic CO2 emissions. The geologic record is very clear that ruanaway CO2 emissions have occurred in the past.

If this is true, then your entire argument fails when you say: "But we already know that the best way to cool the planet, even in the fairly short term, is to reduce emissions", and, "The best way to lower the concentration of greenhouse gasses is, of course, not to emit them in the first place. This is a point that can't be made often enough."

If you even think that runaway CO2 emissions are a *possible* result of unintentional CO2 emissions that have already occured, then how can you not also be in favor of at least researching geoengineering? There are many good reasons to believe that geoengineering can actually build resilience in the earth's natural systems, which are threatened now with global scale biogeochemical collapse (which creates a feedback loop with runaway CO2 emissions).

The only way that we can turn down the natural CO2 emission amplifier at this point is to reduce the runaway forcing effects (e.g. arctic ice-albedo feedbacks, ocean circulation changes, drought feedbacks, etc...), while greatly expanding efforts to both reduce emissions and actively remove atmospheric CO2. Some of these efforts will necessarily include geoengineering, because the simple solutions you describe simply aren't big enough or fast enough to prevent runaway feedbacks. So in that case, we had better get going on developing good science and policy around this eventuality. Your straw-man arguments aren't helping this extraordinarily challenging debate at all.


Posted by: Cynodont on 10 Feb 09

Hey Alex,
To follow up on my point that merely reducing CO2 emissions is not enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, the recent PNAS paper by Susan Solomon is now available (see below for the abstract). In short, the paper says that CO2 emissions have a permanent warming effect, even if that CO2 is taken out later. Matthews and Caldeira published a similar paper last year with the same results. Scary...

I think the way forward is to recognize that the potential side-effects of geoengineering present a "risk-risk tradeoff" between the effects of anthropogenic climate change. The situation is bad enough that extremely respectable scientists are calling for geoengineering research now, because it is possible that the risk of geoengineering plus emission reductions is less severe than the risk of emissions reductions alone. Only more research can let us even begin to make an intelligent choice on this subject -- better that we find out sooner rather than later!

http://www.pnas.org/content/106/6/1704.abstract?sid=0d095ff3-819e-4752-b632-2a934c9911e2

Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions
Susan Solomona,1, Gian-Kasper Plattnerb, Reto Knuttic and Pierre Friedlingsteind


Abstract

The severity of damaging human-induced climate change depends not only on the magnitude of the change but also on the potential for irreversibility. This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years. Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450–600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era and inexorable sea level rise. Thermal expansion of the warming ocean provides a conservative lower limit to irreversible global average sea level rise of at least 0.4–1.0 m if 21st century CO2 concentrations exceed 600 ppmv and 0.6–1.9 m for peak CO2 concentrations exceeding ≈1,000 ppmv. Additional contributions from glaciers and ice sheet contributions to future sea level rise are uncertain but may equal or exceed several meters over the next millennium or longer.


Posted by: Cynodont on 10 Feb 09

1) Climate change is real and worse than we thought.

"Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them." --Dr James Lovelock's lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. '07

2) Humanity will not or cannot reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or will not or cannot reduce them enough in time to stave off catastrophe.

Here is what Climate Code Red says:


--Human emissions have so far produced a global average temperature increase of 0.8 degree C.


--There is another 0.6 degree C. to come due to "thermal inertia", or lags in the system, taking the total long-term global warming induced by human emissions so far to 1.4 degree C.


--If human total emissions continue as they are to 2030 (and don't increase 60% as projected) this would likely add more than 0.4 degrees C. to the system in the next two decades, taking the long-term effect by 2030 to at least 1.7 degrees C. (A 0.3 degree C. increase is predicted for the period 2004-2014 alone by Smith, Cusack et al, 2007).


--Then add the 0.3 degree C. albedo flip effect from the now imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice, and the rise in the system by 2030 is at least 2 degree. C, assum ing very optimistically that emissions don't increase at all above their present annual rate! When we consider the potential permafrost releases and the effect of carbon sinks losing capacity, we are on the road to a hellish future, not for what we will do, but WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE.

3) Therefore, we need to find other approaches to lowering the planet's temperature and/or pulling greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and the best way to do this is through mega-scale geoengineering.

"I'm going to tell you something I probably shouldn't: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot." --Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 2008

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008


Posted by: Brad Arnold on 10 Feb 09

Sorry for the double post, but there are some misconceptions about my preferred method of geoengineering, the simple and cheap method of putting a small amount of sun dimming aerosol into the upper atmosphere:

Using sulfate is not necessary. Instead, according to "The Incredible Economics of Geoengineering," using an engineered sun dimming aerosol would be much more efficient (i.e. saving the ozone layer).

Furthermore, there is a practical mechanical method of removing CO2 from the ocean that would address another effect of an elevated CO2 level in the air that dimming the sun wouldn't mitigate:

"Researchers at Harvard University and Pennsylvania State University have invented a technology, inspired by nature, to reduce the accumulation of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) caused by human emissions. By electrochemically removing hydrochloric acid from the ocean and then neutralizing the acid by reaction with silicate (volcanic) rocks, the researchers say they can accelerate natural chemical weathering, permanently transferring CO2 from the atmosphere to the ocean. Unlike other ocean sequestration processes, the new technology does not further acidify the ocean and may be beneficial to coral reefs. The innovative approach to tackling climate change is reported in the Nov. 7 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology..." --"Engineered weathering process could mitigate global warming," EurekAlert, 7 Nov '07

Of course what I am proposing above is just a mitigation method to avoid catastrophe until other non-polluting energy production technologies are in place (I strongly recommend reading the article "Moore's Curse and the Great Energy Delusion" by Vaclav Smil on the logistics of our transition away from fossil fuels).


Posted by: Brad Arnold on 11 Feb 09

I really liked the phrase 'adaptive restoration', can anyone elaborate on what exactly this means?


Posted by: nicholas M. McGill on 13 Feb 09

http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/009406.html

Geoengineering Megaprojects are Bad Planetary Management
Alex STEFFEN, 09 February 2009
(with responses by Colin KLINE prefixed by "CK:")

Mega-project geoengineering proponents love to set up the following argument:
1) Climate change is real and worse than we thought.
2) Humanity will not or cannot reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or will not or cannot reduce them enough in time to stave off catastrophe.
3) Therefore, we need to find other approaches to lowering the planet’s temperature and/or pulling greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and the best way to do this is through mega-scale geoengineering.
4) Anyone who opposes this argument is unrealistic and afraid of the adult responsibilities of planetary management and will lead us over the cliff into runaway climate change.

It’s a brilliant political argument, raising a threat and then making those who oppose your response (to that threat) part of the threat itself. (CK: The ‘broad brush treatment'). The biggest problem with it as a policy argument is that it’s riddled with inconsistencies, false assumptions and half-truths. Let’s go through the argument and the bright green response:

1) Climate change is real and worse than we thought.
No disagreement here, though it’s worth noting that many of those now calling for a ‘broader debate’ about geoengineering are the same people who spent much of the last two decades denying that climate change was happening and who still seek to benefit from inaction: the sudden interest of coal and oil companies and the American right wing in geoengineering ought to, in and of itself, make us suspicious of the role it’s playing in the climate change debate.
CK: Talk about ‘broad brush treatments’.
Where is the statistical evidence proving this “many ...” claim? Yes, there are Climate Change Deniers who will grasp at any straw in order to continue the same-old-same-old despoilation of & profiteering from the planet. A list of these malelovent persons has been furnished by George MONBIOT. But there are also those who see GeoEngineering as being the only possible solution to cool the planet in time, before it is changed irreversibly. These persons claim that the CO2 horse has already well and truly bolted, and in turn has released the very potent CH4 dragon (already lurching out of the Boreal Tundra and the Arctic Ocean Clathrates) which will undoubtedly destroy this planet. They claim that mankind could immediately cease ALL fossile carboniferous fuel burning tomorrow. But there is no technology (AT ALL) that will reverse CH4, which will cause temperature acceleration within the next 20years, apart from that of freezing it back to its original state. Indeed there is a competition between the same-old Fossil Burners, the same-old CO2 reducers, and the brand new whiter & brighter direct sunlight reducers.
The CO2 reducers do not even acknowledge that CH4 is 40 times more pluripotent than CO2.

2) Humanity will not or cannot reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, or will not or cannot reduce them enough in time to stave off catastrophe.
This, of course, is a classic politics of impossibility argument.
CK: Put a word ("impossibility") in your opponents mouth, and damn them for what they’ve allegedly said, eh ! The “Mega-project geoengineering proponents” (as STEFFEN labels them) don’t state that zero-greenhouse LEVELS (not EMISSIONS – silly) are impossible – just that it will take 80 – 100 years to reduce the levels of what we’ve already got, let alone what will be added, for NEGATIVE-EMISSIONS will not realistically happen for decades.

The reality is that we know that zero greenhouse gas emissions ought to be our goal, and that goal is largely achievable already, with technologies and designs that are within our grasp, and that, indeed, many of the kinds of land-use and design changes a climate-neutral society would demand would in fact increase real prosperity and quality of life. We shouldn’t discount the massive amount of work involved, but nothing in that work itself is itself impossible, and all of us will benefit greatly (especially compared to the alternatives).

Tackling climate change is a political problem. The question is not can we tackle climate change, but will we, and problems of political will are entirely subject to human intervention. Indeed, one of the biggest problems with advocating for mega-scale geoengineering is that it is already being used in the debate as an alternative to greenhouse gas reduction targets - so much so that the U.K. government felt compelled to explicitly declare that geoengineering was not such an alternative.

CK: Why does STEFFEN imply that BOTH geo-engineering and CO2 reduction are mutually exclusive, rather than co-supporting?

What is more, the proper deployment of geoengineering megaprojects would have to be executed through precisely such the kind of international political process of which the megaproject crowd despair, and be subject to just as many delays and constraints as any other international negotiation. Unilateral mega-scale geoengineering on the part of any one nation (much less any one corporation) is pretty much as close to an obvious cause for war as I can imagine, and, given the possible consequences, quite likely could legally qualify as a crime against humanity. There’s no short-cut through the politics here.

CK: Yes indeed, BOTH reduction of CO2 and GeoEngineering face mighty political resistance. So why not advocate both ?

3) Therefore, we need to find other approaches to lowering the planet’s temperature and/or pulling greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere and the best way to do this is through mega-scale geoengineering.

Here’s where the problems start multiplying.

First, in order for this point to have any validity, geoengineering mega-projects would have to work. So far, we have no proof that any of them actually would work, and numerous reasons to believe that many of them could go disastrously awry.

CK: Time is the enemy of CO2 reduction, and there is far less time for reversing the self-generating irreversible tipping point that CH4 threatens. Focussing on CO2 offers only one very unreliable bow to one’s quiver. GeoEngineering offers the advantage of reducing temperature (and hence CH4 – but not CO2), whilst CO2 cleansing goes about its worthy task. It offers 3 bows to the quiver.

For instance, various schemes have been proposed to lower the temperature of the planet, by shooting massive clouds of small particulates into the upper atmosphere, or launching orbiting mirrors, or what have you. All of these schemes fail on two basic criteria, which is that they wouldn’t reduce the actual amount of greenhouse gasses being pumped into the atmosphere, so not only would they have to be long-term plans (lest we risk a rebound effect) but they would do nothing to prevent other catastrophic consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation, especially ocean acidification.

CK: True, GeoEngineering may not reduce ocean acidification. It will only reduce major extinctions on land. But GHG reductions will not reduce CO2 in time before the oceans are acidified anyway.

Second, in order for us to find this point valid, geoengineering megaprojects would have to, in fact, be the best way to lower the planet’s temperature and/or pull greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. But we already know that the best way to cool the planet, even in the fairly short term, is to reduce emissions, and we have solid reasons to believe that megaprojects are a lousy way to do that.

CK: That is just plain lying ! GHG gases are an agent of heating, not the cause of heating! With a larger blanket of GHG’s, the actual cause of heating is TOO MUCH SUNLIGHT entering the atmosphere. Thus the QUICK way to reduce heating is to reduce the solation levels upon the planet. See the “Solar Parasols at L1” proposal of KLINE/MacARA/MacBRIDE, 2007.

The best way to lower the concentration of greenhouse gasses is, of course, not to emit them in the first place. This is a point that can’t be made often enough. But once they’re already in the atmosphere, the best way to remove them is almost certainly through the pursuit of a vast number of small-scale carbon fixing efforts: replanting forests, using adaptive restoration to get ecosystems stable and working again, using biomass to create biochar energy and then plowing the remaining carbon into the soil, and so on. We can become carbon-negative without biohacking kudzu or seeding ocean algae with millions of tons of iron.

Our goal should be to cool the planet in ways that reinforce and restore the resilience of its natural systems.

CK: Very hard to “reinforce & restore resilience” when the planet is dead from overheating, however admirable the goal.

5) Anyone who opposes this argument is unrealistic and afraid of the adult responsibilities of planetary management and will lead us over the cliff into runaway climate change.

This is where geoengineering advocates seek to tar others with the brush of Luddism.

CK: Nup. Just tar them with “Puritanical Green Religiosity.” This new pagan religion genuflects to Mother Nature as the new-old Goddess of all that is good and holy. However, runaway temperature, vulcanism, tsunamis, tornadoes, killer asteroids are just as demoniacal angels as any offered by the old religions.

But the fact is that many of us have been advocating for planetary management for years - indeed, the very first widely popular book about climate change was called The End of Nature and argued that we were now responsible for managing the planet.

Many of us oppose geoengineering megaprojects, not because we are afraid of science or technology (indeed, most bright green environmentalists believe you can’t win this fight without much more science and technology), but because these kinds of megaprojects are bad planetary management.

It’s bad planetary management to take big chances with a high probability of “epic fail” outcomes (like emptying the sea of life through ocean acidification).

CK: There is just as much risk of “epic-fail” in the same-old CO2 reduction plan.

It’s bad planetary management to build large, singular and brittle projects when small, multiple and resilient answers exist and will suffice if employed. It’s bad planetary management to assume that this time - unlike essentially every other large-scale intervention in natural systems in recorded history - we’ll get it right and pull it off without unintended consequences.

CK: Supply evidence and prove the adjective “brittle.”

Geoengineering is bad planetary management. It doesn’t make proponents bold, or visionary, or more committed to scientific progress. It just makes them proponents of a set of bad ideas. They are of course welcome to continue to advocate any ideas they choose, but they need to get over the idea that only they are visionary and bold enough to manage the planet.

CK: Supply evidence and prove the adjective “bad.” This is childish name-calling!

The real planet managers are already hard at work on the real solutions, from clean energy and urban redesigns to climate adaptive restoration and binding international greenhouse gas agreements. We’d all better get behind the effort to make their success the new realism.

CK: The Precautionary Principle – much used in large engineering projects, states that even in the face of uncertainty, that is not an adequate reason to NOT take out insurance (technical and fiscal) to guard against unwanted outcomes. So, take out SEVERAL options as redundant insurance policies.


Posted by: Colin KLINE on 14 Feb 09

Alex writes:

"The reality is that we know that zero greenhouse gas emissions ought to be our goal"

-- which implies that he still believes the IPCC/Kypto dogma, and Michael Mann's now infamous 'hockey stick graph', that attempt to show human greenhouse gas production is driving the climate of the planet. I suggest that you check out:

http://www.friendsofscience.org/

and then go to OUR POSITION and click on the essay about 'up to date' climate science, where any confidence you have had in the IPCC/Kyoto scare mongering will evapourate pretty quickly.

Peter Salonius
Fredericton NB, Canada


Posted by: Peter Salonius on 14 Feb 09

The debate is over, and so will the race to get out in front of the defrosting of this Planet and the havoc that goes with it. Time to implement a plan. If not now, when.....when we've reached the ten year point of no return of Jim Hansen's Climate Change timetable?


Posted by: Doug Starfield on 14 Feb 09

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