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Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism
Alex Steffen, 29 Apr 09
Article Photo

This is a draft essay, and obviously still rough in patches. I'd appreciate feedback! - Alex

GEOENGINEERING AND THE NEW CLIMATE DENIALISM
by Alex Steffen

The Idea of Geoengineering is Being Used Dishonestly

Though we spend our time here at Worldchanging focused on solutions to the planet's most pressing problems, sometimes the politics around an issue become so twisted that it's necessary to address the politics before we can have a real discussion about the problems and how to solve them. That's the case with geoengineering.

Some scientists suggest that certain massive projects -- like creating artificial volcanoes to fill the skies with soot, or seeding the oceans with mountains of iron to produce giant algal blooms -- might in the future be able put the brakes on climate change. These "geoengineering" ideas are hardly shovel-ready. The field at this point consists essentially of little more than a bunch of proposals, simulations and small-scale experiments: describing these hypothetical approaches as "back up options" crazily overstates their current state of development. Indeed, almost all of the scientists working on them believe that the best answer to our climate problem would be a quick, massive reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

None of this has stopped geoengineering from becoming part of a new attempt to stall those very reductions, though. The same network of think tanks, pundits and lobbying groups that denied climate change for the last 30 years has seized on geoengineering as a chance to undermine new climate regulations and the U.N. climate negotiations to be held at the end of the year in Copenhagen. They're still using scare tactics about the economic costs of change, but now, instead of just denying the greenhouse effect, they've begun trying to convince the rest of us that hacking the planet with giant space-mirrors or artificial volcanoes is so easy that burning a lot more coal and oil really won't be a problem.

Delay is The Carbon Lobby's Strategy

It's a central, yet often forgotten, fact in the climate debate that pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is incredibly profitable. For a small group of giant corporations (the coal, oil and car companies which we can collectively call the Carbon Lobby), business as usual is big bank. The difficulties of addressing climate change have much more to do with the political power of these corporations than with the technical challenges of building a carbon-neutral economy (a carbon-neutral economy being an engineering and design challenge that we already have the capacity to meet).

For the last thirty years, the Carbon Lobby's strategy on climate change has been to delay. Almost every informed observer knows, and has known for decades, that the days of fossil fuels are numbered, but how quickly and how completely we shift away from them makes all the difference to these industries. They have a huge investment in oil fields and coal mines and dirty technologies, and each decade they delay the transition away from coal and gas means literally trillions of dollars more profits. Delay = big bucks.

The best way for the Carbon Lobby to delay that transition has been to make regulations and treaties that limit the amount of CO2 emissions politically impossible, especially in the U.S., where the Lobby's influence is the greatest because of their hold over the Republican party.

That's why they put such emphasis on attempting to portray the science of climate change as inconclusive or hotly debated (despite the fact that their own scientists told them in 1995 that the science on climate "is well established and cannot be denied"). If they could make people feel uncertain, they could make it safe for politicians to actively oppose new regulations and treaties (a strategy laid out in the famous leaked "Luntz Memo"). Lying about the science made people uncertain; that uncertainty let the Carbon Lobby stall U.S. action; and by stopping the world's biggest polluter from participating, they stymied any real global deal on greenhouse gasses.

The strategy worked, up to a point. But now most Americans understand that climate change is real and that it demands action. Our new president advocates strong action on climate; business leaders from many industries back him, as do most labor and religious groups; and foreign nations are eager to negotiate (European conservatives are even competing to show leadership on tackling climate emissions, rather than denying that those emissions are a problem). This emerging consensus on the need for regulatory action and effective treaties threatens to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels much more quickly than anyone expected, so the Carbon Lobby is scrambling to find new reasons for delay.

How Geoengineering Becomes an Argument for Delay

Their new justifications for delay are simple. Taking advantage of the economic crisis, they call climate action a job killer. If the Right's anger and vehemence against the very idea of green jobs has shocked and confused you, well, understand that it's important that climate change be framed as a threat to the economy, and never an opportunity: the growing importance of clean tech industries and jobs to the American economy must be downplayed in order for this strategy to work (never mind that wind power already employs more Americans than coal mining). Look for this argument to increase in volume as Copenhagen draws near.

But to really make their case for more delay, they can no longer be seen as outright opponents of climate action. They've got to have their own plan. And that's where geoengineering comes in.

The biggest argument for strong actions taken quickly is that delay or weak responses may put us in a position of facing rapid, perhaps even runaway climate change. The longer we wait, the more dangerous our position becomes. The only certain route to safety would be rapid emissions reductions, including programs for ecosystem restoration and other forms of sustainable sequestration to help draw CO2 levels down.

But if we can be made to believe that megascale geoengineering can stop climate change, then delay begins to look not like the dangerous folly it actually is, but a sensible prudence. The prospect of geoegineering is the only thing that can make that delay seem at all morally acceptable.

In other words, combining dire warnings about climate action's economic costs with exaggerated claims about geoengineering's potential is the new climate denialism.

The Carbon Lobby Spins Geoengineering Instead of Emissions Reductions

The new climate denialism is all about trying to make the continued burning of fossils fuels seem acceptable, even after the public has come to understand the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real. That's why denialists present geoengineering as an alternative to emissions reductions, and couch their arguments in tones of reluctant realism.

One of the earliest political calls for geoengineering was Gregory Benford's essay Climate Controls, written for the Reason Foundation (you can find out more about their links to the Carbon Lobby and their role in climate denialism here). Benford was explicit that he saw geoengineering as a way to avoid reducing CO2 emissions:

"Instead of draconian cutbacks in greenhouse-gas emissions, there may very well be fairly simple ways--even easy ones--to fix our dilemma. ...take seriously the concept of "geoengineering," of consciously altering atmospheric chemistry and conditions, of mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases rather than simply calling for their reduction or outright prohibition."

Benford is far from alone. One of the major proponents of geoengineering is the American Enterprise Institute. AEI has a long history of working to deny the scientific consensus on climate change. They have strong ties to the Carbon Lobby (ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond served on the AEI board of trustees, and $1,870,000 from ExxonMobil helped fund their anti-climate work).

Now AEI is working both sides of the new climate denialism street. They claim that climate action is too expensive (In a January paper, AEI's Willem P. Nel and Christopher J. Cooper argue that "The extent of Global Warming may be acceptable and preferable compared to the socio-economic consequences of not exploiting fossil fuel reserves to their full technical potential." In other words, "It's more profitable to let the planet roast."). They also house one of the few funded policy centers on geoengineering, the AEI Geoengineering Project.

The Geoengineering Project is run by Lee Lane. Lane is smart, and so he doesn't say outright that we should dump climate negotiations and trust in geoengineering, but you don't need to read too far between the lines to hear that's what he's saying.

In 2006, Lane specifically advised the Bush Administration to urge a greater focus both on debating carbon taxes (we know how Republicans like to "debate" taxes) and on geoengineering as "strategic measures" to "block political momentum toward a return to the Kyoto system." He continues to put forward geoengineering as an alternative to real emissions reductions anytime in the near future. As he said at AEI's recent geoengineering conference:

"I think in response to all of those difficulties that certainly I am not the only person to see, a growing number of experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the need to broaden the debate on climate policy. What I mean by broaden it is to expand what we consider as serious climate policy options from what has been a very narrow focus on greenhouse gas emissions limitations, and indeed rather steep and rather rapid greenhouse gas emissions limitations, to consider a much broader range of policies that go way beyond simply attempting to make short run reductions in greenhouse gases."

In other words, Lane wants us to believe that emissions reductions are politically impossible (never mind that he works at an institution which has labored mightily to sabotage emissions reductions treaty negotiations, and that he himself explicitly advised the Bush Administration on how to do the same), so we ought to be considering geoengineering as the "serious" option instead.

The Distortion of Geoengineering has Become Widespread

Turn over denialist rocks and you'll find political advocates for geoengineering a-plenty. For instance:

*The Cato Institute (denialists), whose senior fellow and director of natural resource studies, Jerry Taylor, says that if we end up forced do something about global warming, "geo-engineering is more cost-effective than emissions controls altogether."

*The Heartland Institute (denialists), whose David Schnare now advocates geoengineering as quicker and less costly to the economy than greenhouse gas reductions:

"In addition to being much less expensive than seeking to stem temperature rise solely through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, geo-engineering has the benefit of delivering measurable results in a matter of weeks rather than the decades or centuries required for greenhouse gas reductions to take full effect."

*The Hudson Institute (denialists) advocates geoengineering as substitute for reductions:

"Successful geoengineering would permit Earth's population to make far smaller reductions in carbon use and still achieve the same retarding effect on global warming at a lower cost. The cuts in carbon use proposed by international leaders and presidential candidates would have a drastic effect on the economy, especially since substitutes for fossil fuels will be expensive and limited for a number of years."

*The Hoover Institution (denialists) is home to not only to senior fellow Thomas Gale Moore, author of "Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry About Global Warming" but also nuclear weapons engineer and original SDI "Star Wars" proponent Lowell Wood. Wood has become an outspoken geoengineering proponent and co-authored a recent WSJ op-ed in which he warns "But beware. Do not try to sell climate geo-engineering to committed enemies of fossil fuels," thus revealing that the point is to be friendly to fossil fuels.

And, of course, denialists' allies in the media and the blogosphere have been quick to take up the call. Conservative columnist (and climate "contrarian") John Tierney thinks geoengineering makes superfluous emissions reductions ("a futile strategy") and wants "a geoengineering fix for global warming," to provide an alternative to the idea that "the only cure [is] to reduce CO2 emissions." Wayne Crews of the denialist site globalwarming.org (a project of the Carbon-Lobby-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute) likes geoengineering strategies as possible "options apart from carbon constraint," while climate treaty opponent and "delayer" Roger Pielke, Jr. finds it encouraging that geoengineering's getting so much buzz.

It would be easy to go on. But the point is obvious: the Carbon Lobby, no longer able to deny the reality of climate change, is hoping to use the idea of geoengineering to undermine political progress towards reducing climate emissions through sensible, intelligent regulations and international treaties. Big Oil, Big Coal and the auto companies want you to believe that reducing emissions is too expensive to work, climate negotiations are too unrealistic to succeed, but we can keep burning fossil fuels anyways because geoengineering gives us a plan B. If you think that, you've been spun.

How to De-Spin Geoengineering

None of this is to say that megascale geoengineering should be a taboo subject. We need a smart debate here, where we explore the subject honestly and without industry spin. Here are six suggestions for returning reality to the geoengineering debate in these critical months leading up to Copenhagen:

First, Demand that bold emissions reductions be acknowledged as the only sound foundation for any climate action plan. The Carbon Lobby thrives on half-truths and obfuscation. Ethical people -- whether geoengineering proponents, opponents or doubters -- all need to be extremely clear in saying that a strong, rapid movement away from fossil fuels and toward climate neutrality is non-negotiable. Many leading thinkers on geoengineering (such as Paul Crutzen and Ken Caldeira) already make clear that immediate action on reducing greenhouse pollution (on both the national and global levels) is the first step, period. We should follow their lead.

Second, Point out that a climate-neutral world is realistic. One of the public debate's biggest failures is the extent to which we've let people be convinced that a climate-neutral planet is some distant, improbable fantasy world. It's not. We know, already, right now, how to dramatically slash emissions using currently available technologies, and make a profit. Economists (like Lord Nicholas Stern, former Chief Economist at the World Bank) estimate that the total cost of pursuing climate neutrality could be as little as 1% of GDP (far lower than the anticipated costs of allowing climate change to worsen). But there may not even be a cost: a great many of the actions we need to take (like rebuilding our cities and using energy more efficiently) return greater economic benefits than they demand, and when something pays you money, it's not a cost, it's an investment.

Third, Be extremely clear about geoengineering's real possibilities and actual limitations. Journalists tend to sell the planetary engineering sizzle, rather than serve the heavily-caveated steak. Advocates need to continue to emphasize that geoegineering proposals are still extremely early-stage, experimental and surrounded with unknowns. (On the other side, even determined opponents of geoengineering need to acknowledge the good intent and sound reasoning of scientists who are doing their best to add new insight to an extremely important debate.)

Fourth, Get the order right: zero-out first, adapt next, engineer last.. We need to be clear that because of the experimental nature of geoengineering projects, their use should be a last resort, not a primary option. Megascale geoengineering should not yet be part of any national strategies for addressing climate change, or a part of any offset systems in carbon trading regimes. We need first to drive greenhouse gas concentrations down with proven methods, and then begin preparing to adapt to the climate change we know we've already set in motion. We should only turn to megascale geoengineering as a last resort.

Fifth, Keep a wary eye on the Arctic ocean and other tipping points. Last year, scientists conducting research in the Arctic made a startling discovery: what might perhaps be formerly-frozen methane was bubbling to the surface of the warming ocean in alarming amounts. Their work demands corroboration, but if confirmed, this should cause us all to worry. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas and huge amounts of it are trapped beneath frigid waters and frozen permafrost, waiting perhaps to be released by rising temperatures.That methane could set off runaway climate change. Even if their findings are refuted, though, potential tipping points need to be watched. If we find we've blundered into rapid runaway climate change, some forms of geoengineering, however poorly understood, may quickly move from "last resort" to "needed option."

Sixth and last, Continue outing the Carbon Lobby and its cronies, and reject their intervention in the debate. Legitimate debates about the possible uses of megascale geoengineering should not include people whose institutions have been consistently and intentionally dishonest about science and science policy.

The next two decades will have an almost unparalleled importance in human history, and the decisions we make during this time could have almost unthinkable impacts for millennia. The world in which scores of future generations will live -- its climate, the plants and animals that make up its biosphere, the material possibilities of its cultures -- will to an astonishing degree be influenced by the choices we make in the next score of years.

How we interpret the possibilities of (and understand the limitations to) large-scale geoengineering projects will help shape the clarity and velocity with which we act on reducing emissions and building a new, climate-neutral economy. These questions matter too much to allow them be twisted by a bunch of shills for fossil fuel industries.

We need to reclaim the debate about our planet's future, together.


Image credit: Edward Burtynsky

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Comments

I thought that was an excellent article; informative and thought provoking; well constructed and easily understood.

Nice work.


Posted by: Steve on 27 Apr 09

Is this geoengineering or is it adaptation? Either way, it deserves more attention than the methods Steffen mentions.

(How fire can be domesticated)



Posted by: G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan until ~1996 on 27 Apr 09

Alex,

Nice post. I'm glad to see you're engaged in elevating the debate on geoengineering, which is poised to become the most highly charged and controversial aspect of climate change. It will become the global focusing agent of all the angst and fear around climate change like nothing else.

Unfortunately, my informed opinion is that tipping points are much closer than most people realize, and that geoengineering is probably the only tool to prevent crossing climate tipping points while we create carbon neutral economies. You are right to highlight the Arctic-methane feedback loop, which threatens to release 100 times the historical total of human CO2 emissions in roughly 100 years. But there are many more tipping points to worry about (e.g. ocean circulation and primary production, droughts and wildfires, etc...)

We have very little time to understand how to use geoengineering effectively. The necessary research that society must do includes not only the science of geoengineering, but also the politics and ethics around potential implementation. Winners and losers will be created by both geoengineering and climate change, although geoengineering will hopefully produce fewer losers and for a shorter time period. How will the world decide on who the winners and losers will be? This is the sort of debate that would be perfect for Worldchanging.

Cynodont


Posted by: Cynodont on 27 Apr 09

Much happier with this new perspective Alex, or perhaps the old perspective more eloquently articulated. I agree w/ Cynodont above that the threat of tipping points argues that we move forward simultaneously w/ the research necessary to understand the portfolio of approaches and which (if any) make sense, as well as the safety, ethical and governance questions surrounding them.

Certainly that should not, *must* not distract from emissions reductions efforts. That is clearly job #1 and must not be characterized otherwise.

Maybe we're all in agreement now?

Dan


Posted by: Dan Whaley on 27 Apr 09

The article is dead on. However, there is the other side - the side that presents itself as lowering emissions to affect climate change as well. There are certain indicators that demonstrate that humanity (and lack of it) are impacting the global environment, but global warming has become more of a marketing strategy than the *theory* that it truly is. The fact is that everyone is shooting in the dark, and even with the sizable amount of data on hand there is not enough to make iron-clad forecasts.

The middle ground isn't the fence, it's realizing the strengths and weaknesses of either side and acting intelligently. It's easy to become polarized, and that's where politics enters. That and... money and power. Much like the World Bank and other things have been maneuvered in the past to assure that developing nations get nice forecasts for high price tags in the political and financial arenas.

Knowing the facts is what this should be all about. Things based on opinion need to be filtered out, and more people need to see the raw data. The facts. And, most importantly, the how and why of the fact collection process itself. Motivations are not always as they seem.


Posted by: Taran Rampersad on 27 Apr 09

It is nice to see that scientists have come to a consensus as to what god they worship. Nice to see how far scientists can distance themselves from math and physics.


Posted by: larrydalooza on 27 Apr 09

The removal of my comments regarding contrails and space based solar/microwave energy production makes me question the true intent of this web site. The world is changing, are we going to have an honest discussion about it?


Posted by: Matt on 27 Apr 09

I love when someone else perfectly articulates what I would like to say... it makes my life that much easier.


Posted by: Edward on 27 Apr 09

I didn't see Matt's original comment, but I will back up his assertion that geo-engineering is already ongoing and has been for several years.

A man named Brian Holmes has been researching this contentious issue since the early 2000s and has compiled lots of great information on his website for anyone interested:

http://www.holmestead.ca/index-ct.html

This page in particular has some interesting perspectives on the subject of actively altering the Earth's albedo effect to reflect solar energy away from the planet and back into space using an aluminum/barium compound suspended in the atmosphere and discharged by either military or commercial jet liners via their 'contrails'.

http://www.holmestead.ca/chemtrails/jimphelps.html

A Google search for the term 'chemtrails' may yield similar results.

Thank you for providing an open forum where such serious matters may be discussed amongst intelligent and educated individuals.

Sincerely,

Colin Pape


Posted by: Colin Pape on 27 Apr 09

It sounds like there's broad consensus that geoengineering approaches are potentially crucial, not shovel ready, and urgently need more research, especially to uncover unexpected risks.

Under those circumstances, I'd argue that if we had a fixed basket of dollars to use for action on climate change, some of them should be used for geoengineering research, even if that diverts some money and attention away from CO2 reduction plans. This is true even if denialists claim that one eliminates the need for the other.

Of course, we don't have a fixed basket, so we should all focus our political efforts on increasing the size of the basket so we can advance on all fronts.

Your essay made a lot of good points, but I think it would have been stronger if it acknowledged that many of the scientists who work on geoengineering efforts are staunch advocates of intervention on climate change who are advancing the same cause you are in the best way they know how. Please don't paint with too broad a brush!


Posted by: Trey Smith on 27 Apr 09

I applaud your overview. It will be easy to fall victim to geoengineering spin. What interests me most is your fifth point: "If we find we've blundered into rapid runaway climate change, some forms of geoengineering, however poorly understood, may quickly move from "last resort" to "needed option."" In your perspective, haven't we blundered into rapid climate change already? There may be uncertainty about the magnitude of greenhouse gas impact, but less doubt about its duration in the atmosphere. Even full-scale green energy transformation won't stop the impact of existing and inevitable atmospheric change. Taking your fifth point for orientation, how can we not move geoengineering towards "needed option", without become climate change denialists ourselves?


Posted by: Brian on 27 Apr 09

Isn't a massive reduction in man-made carbon emissions simply another form of "geoengineering?" And doesn't it suffer the same limitations as the other forms of "geoengineering" discussed in the article, including most prominently the lack of any reasonable chance that it will meaningfully prevent our ever-changing climate from continuing to change?

Apparently, it's fine to ruin our economy and ecology by adopting more costly energy sources (yes, that's right, because if you think windmills and solar panels on a scale sufficient to displace carbon-emitting energy sources will be ecologically benign, perhaps you should think again), but it is evil and "denialist" to think (much less investigate) that there might be other ways to deal with excess carbon.

The argument appears to be "we are so absolutely certain that we can change the climate back to the way we think it should be by reducing or eliminating evil human carbon emissions (as opposed to the non-evil (and far larger)natural ones), that we hereby label any other method of dealing with excess carbon as 'denialist' and worthy only of scorn."

But, hey, at least we can all agree that nuclear power, which generates a massive amount of power in a tiny footprint (and totally carbon-free), appears to be the most rational way of proceeding from all perspectives. Right?


Posted by: Mooseman on 27 Apr 09

Great Article. Thanks for the perspective.
IT seems that if it has a weakness, it is that you explain how you rank the importance of Geoengineering.
Perhaps an extended discussion of geoengineering is needed.
Regarding comments- Any solar radiation blocking/reflecting technology is risky on two fronts. First, you are decreasing energy available for photosynthesis. That has the potential to decrease food production and carbon sequestration. Second, increasing the carbon density of the atmosphere may have other unintended consequences. Chief among them is that the ocean will continue to acidify. Ocean acidification is bad. Our prospects for survival are extremely diminished if the ocean essentially dies from acidity.


Posted by: Bill S on 27 Apr 09

hello....i'm sorry but....they are already doing it.....it's call "atmospheric geoengineering".....chemical trails people...."chemtrails".....they mix something with the jet fuel.......look in the sky people THEY ARE ALREADY DOING IT

http://www.infowars.com/the-government-is-already-geo-engineering-the-environment/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuP9KYgSUcQ

they are trying to create an artificial sunscreen.

geoengineering it's REAL, and it's happening right now


Posted by: PILOT 4 on 27 Apr 09

Excellent article, not first-draftish at all and very well balanced.

I haven't reviewed all the comments, but I noticed a couple of posters suggesting that our closeness to several alarming tipping points should make us consider geoengineering now. I'd like to make an important distinction here: the threat of methane and other tipping points indicates that we need to go massively carbon-negative; but going carbon-negative is not the same as geoengineering. Technologies like air capture may be necessary but can be done using traditional industrial systems and don't involve rejigging the planet itself. Personally, I'm very interested in shifting the debate away from geoengineering to the creation of a carbon-negative industrial infrastructure, which would operate parallel to the traditional "green" technologies. (I make that distinction because I think it's useful to consider industries that have emissions reductions as their intent as distinct from those that have removal of *existing* atmospheric CO2 as their purpose.)


Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 27 Apr 09

Many of the organiziations involved with 'denilism' such as the Cato Institute seem to also be involved with the tobbaco lobbies. Enviromental groups should study the efforts of anti-smoking groups as a way getting around such lobbists. There could be some very important tactical information to be shared!


Posted by: GlenH on 27 Apr 09

This is a very good article on how the useful fools are being encouraged to promote useless tools to generate lots of hot air and little else (apart from a few contracts)

(Perhaps we should start referring to 'eGo-engineering'?)

It reminds me of the wonderful idea to generate electricity from massive updrafts generated by huge concrete cooling towers: while disingeneously non-geo in the usual sense, it's part of the same meme.

Indeed, a few commenters have already suggested that anything we do large-scale could be considered 'geo-engineering', so perhaps it would be useful to try and classify what is meant by geo and non-geo approaches (if they can be classified or whether its that wonderful 'false dichotomy' so beloved of culture pugilists)

Here goes:

geo = any approach which acts as a palliative (curing the symptoms rather than the cause)

non-geo = any approach that seeks to solve the basic problem (too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere)

Hmmm... where does that leave methane munching bacteria? That raises the issue of reversible and non-reversible strategies. Also, if we're concerned about whether delaying strategies are afoot, we should also contemplate resource hogging vs sharing (do you feel a scenario diagram coming on?)

The way I tend to view it is that geo strategies are viable if they can 'delay' the onset of tipping points and buy us stability time to get some solid emission reduction strategies in place. A good example was provided, free of charge, by the cooling effect the Pinutobu eruption had on global climate in the early-mid nineties. Then the eruption company went broke, SO2 soot levels dropped, and we were back to normal. That, plus the warming effect of the greenhouse gases that had built up during the previous few years. (An opportunity wasted, or a provider of a short, sharp shock? )

Thus, SO2 additive to aviation fuel is probably worthwhile investigating (as aviation con-trails are already an inadvertent form of geo-engineering, as reported here a while back, they may as well be made use of)

But, where a geo-engineering project would divert effort from a greenhouse capture/reduction scheme, just say no.


Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Apr 09

David Brin writes:

Alex, to my mind, the issue isn't whether or not geoengineering belongs on the table. It does. Some proposals do seem intrinsically more sane while others appear outrageously lunatic. For example, if, instead of dumping iron, we simply stirred the ocean bottom in a few locations, we would imitate nature's precise method for creating vast fisheries, creating food while sucking carbon out of the air... something inherently less risky than starting up volcanoes. (I illustrate this in EARTH (1989).)

But no, the isue at hand is not the merits of any indvidual geoenginering scheme. It is instead the need to finally diagnose genuine, bona fide insanity when we see it. The climate change denier movement stands esposed for what it has always been, a frenzied quasi-religious cult, bereft of even marginal logic.

In desperate, successive phases, the members of this cult first sneeringly dismissed the notion that warming is occurring at all, as a secular trend.

Then, when forced to admit that it is so, they denied that human-generated activities could possibly affect Earth's climate.

Then, when science came in overwhelmingly against that position, their gambit was to minimize likely effects.

Then, when the US Navy announced plans to deal with an ice-free Arctic, they began promulgating the notion that it all will turn out to be beneficial(!), and/or that "anyway, it's already too late, so don't bother." Many people have unblinkingly gone from one position to the next, without even glancing in the dictionary, under "inconsitency" or "hypocrisy" or "credibility."

Now comes geoengineering, under which they admit that their earlier positions were absolutely and completely wrong in every possible way, and yet continue to insist on their right to sneer at the other side, which proved right on every single count! Such gall! Such Chutzpah!

Why are these jerks doing this? It does not really map on to "conservatism" which used to preach wisdom like "waste not" and "a penny saved" and "cleanliness is next to godliness" and which used to adore efficincy. That THIS is "conservatism would send everyone from Cotton Mather to Barry Goldwater to even Richrd Nixon spinning in their graves. (A possible new energy source?)

Is it really at the behest of a few carbon fuel moguls, the same way that shills also ranted distractions for so long, on behlf of Big Tobacco? Can it really be as simple as that?

I suspect deeper psychology is involved, e.g the trumped-up treason that is called "culture war" - whose effect has been to oversimplify all complex issues and effectively lobotomize the greates problem-solving nation in history. The same reflex that made this same clade oppose civil rights and every other reform of the last 75 years. In the end, it has nothing to do with "left vs right". (I happen to be a big fan of Adam Smith0 Rather, it is about biliously hatred of "smartypants." And anything at all proposed by wiseguys.

There is asolution. Let a consortium be formed with one aim, to collect names and public statements, with an openly stated goal:

"These people clearly have followed a pattern of obstructing humanity's efforts to come to grips, to innovate and to solve a desperate threat to our nation, world, children and planetary survival. Their eagerness to jump from one failed rationalization to another has only one common theme -- a relentless eagerness to block civilization's efforts to become more energy efficient.

"Since there are NO other commen elements to their positions, we shall operate under the assujmption that blocking energy efficiency is their central goal."

This consortium should go on to make a simple declartion:

"From this moment on, we serve notice. All evidence gathered will go toward building a case for civil lawuits, to be filed in future years, holding these people financially responsible for tort damages done to our nation, people, children, civilization and planet, by a conspiracy whose sole aim was to prevent the amelioration of a deadly threat to public health and public welfare. Based upon the utter consistency of their behavior -- similar to that of the tobacco companies, during their own denial and obstruction epoch -- we plan to reduce some of the pain and damages that this conspiracy will have caused, by seeking civil damages plus major punitive penalties.

"Individuals have perfect freedom of speech. But when lies are spread with malicious and selfish intent that results in palpable harm to others, the victims (we and our posterity) do have recourse in court. Participants in this conspiracy are served notice. They should step back and view their relentless campaign against energy efficiency in this light."

david brin
sent from Washington DC


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 27 Apr 09

The world's emissions of the main planet-warming gas carbon dioxide will rise over 50 percent to more than 42 billion tonnes per year from 2005 to 2030 as China leads a rise in burning coal, the U.S. government forecast on Wednesday. China's coal demand will rise 3.2 percent annually from 2005 to 2030, the Energy Information Administration said in its International Energy Outlook 2008. --Reuters, 26 June 2008

Any carbon diet strategy would be dependent upon clean coal:

"The vast majority of new power stations in China and India will be coal-fired; not "may be coal-fired"; will be. So developing carbon capture and storage technology is not optional, it is literally of the essence." --"Breaking the Climate Deadlock," Tony Blair, June 26, 2008

But, Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon d ioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide -- a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars. "Beware of the scale," he stressed."

"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

"The Greens' resistance to geo-engineering sits very uncomfortably with its message that the planet is screwed and we're all going to die. It suggests that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations. It suggests that they don't actually believe their own press releases, and that they know the situation is not as dire as they would like the rest of us to think it is. And that Environmentalists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces - "we'll save the planet our way or not at all." It suggests that Environmentalists regard science and engineering as the cause of problems, and not the solution." --Climate Resistance, 24 March 2008


Posted by: Brad Arnold on 27 Apr 09

The last time you commented that list of quotes I believe someone said "climate resistance? puh-lease."

And honestly, making the same points with the same recycled quotes is a bit much. People here have already answered those points, more than once. It's essentially spam to just repeat the same quotes every time the topic comes up. Please at least find some new quotes.

I will note that the IEA is essentially an energy industry group, and notoriously behind the times on energy efficiency, green building and clean vehicle technologies. Many dispute their projections of future energy use.

We can build a carbon clean economy. Repeating again and again some people saying that we can't doesn't make those quotes any truer.


Posted by: Jane on 28 Apr 09

Alex -nice essay

One thing I'd add to it, that humanity is already inadvertently geo-engineering the planet through agriculture and other activities.

Ecological forms of geo-engineering - such as planting crops with different albedo, or sequestering carbon in soil - are much lower risk than the high risk orbital interventions and are likely to have significant additional benefits (e.g. sequestering carbon in degraded soils can also increase crop yields and decrease vulnerability to drought). However, these practices also have the risk of unintended negative consequences, but these consequences are also far more reversible than global geo-engineering.

These forms of geo-engineering are much better understood, are likely to be cheaper and offer more opportunity for learning and experimentation than untried global schemes.

When discussions of geo-engineering only include poorly understood mega-schemes while ignoring any discussion or comparison with terrestrial, better understood small-scale alternatives - the discussion is not seriously engaging with climate change issues, and are, whether on intentionally or not, distracting discussion from the pressing reality of climate change.


Posted by: Garry Peterson on 28 Apr 09

I think I could accept one geoengineering scheme - white roofs. Free if you're replacing it anyway, reduces summer air conditioning & urban heat island effect and does not affect winter heat in snow areas.


Posted by: bryan on 28 Apr 09

Some really good ideas in your blog. Hopefully we can get more people thinking about their carbon footprints.

Everyone should check out the winning videos from this great competition at the Tomorrows World site

http://www.tomorrowsworldcompetition.com/

They asked student to think of ways to inform the public on climate change, flooding, and how water efficiency can turn things around. I think their videos are great, definitely worth your time!


Posted by: Mark on 28 Apr 09

As an educator the geo-engineering proposals are going to be difficult to deal with. Students often have this image of someone with technology and money fixing the problem so they can, as the poster says: keep calm and carry on and they like the idea of debating which outlandish proposal is going to be a winner. The reworking of the industrial system speaks of change and social change particularly. Many of the students (and some mainstream teachers I work with) are not at all keen on this, as they probably feel it might mean being a loser rather than staying a winner. Or having to make smart choices and take responsibility or - heaven help us - get involved. Why wonder about systems and creativity and all sorts of worldchanging goodies when 'They' can keep their power and influence so long as the the system is patched up. I often think the debate is about whether political power can remain concentrated or whether communities are going to reclaim it : devolved energy devolves other kinds of power too. Particularly that of being able to say 'go away.
Sadly the geo-engineering framing is effective, so your article is a much needed counterpoint. (PS to a couple of posts: its not about facts so much as frameworks see Lakoff and Johnson on this. I am sure the carbon lobby has done.)


Posted by: Ken W on 28 Apr 09

This is an important commentary, showing the weasly political uses of geoengineering theories. If you're open to substantive changes, I'd second Bill S's suggestion that you emphasize the many other consequences of rising carbon, in addition to simple warming. He mentions ocean acidification, which could undo civilization by itself. But there are other consequences. For example, the study of particulate "global dimming" (similar to some geoengineering proposals) showed that it had greatly increased drought by disrupting weather patterns. The side effects of any geoengineering are just about guaranteed to dwarf the "unintended consequences" of all previous human actions.


Posted by: Christopher Brewster on 28 Apr 09

It seems silly to harp on the political problems endemic to climate treaties when the political implications of geoengineering are far greater. Almost any conceivable climate change will involve winners and losers. Therefore any intentional climate change might quite reasonably be seen as an act of war by those affected by it.


Posted by: Alan on 28 Apr 09

I think this is very good and I hope it changes some minds!


Posted by: Randolph on 28 Apr 09

Alex you're correct to point out the great moral hazards involved with Geoengineering and how these can be abused by some interests.

However I think the best approach to these tactics should be something that we should do with all proposed approaches, submitting them to intense scrutiny. At the moment Geoengineering (with the possible exception of biochar) fits squarely in the blue-skies-maybe-one-day category of solutions which is worth stressing repeatedly.

That and the track record of the people you are referring to. They should have no credibility at this stage in the public eye.


Posted by: Jose on 30 Apr 09

A very informative article. Thanks very much for posting it. I would recommend a follow-up article that discusses the potential dangers in suggested forms of mass intervention by geoengineering. We know so little about our planet, and ourselves.


Posted by: Terry Williams on 30 Apr 09

Alex, you make very good points. Yet, to win over the Carbon Lobby, you have to match the wits and scale of whatever alternative that you and several other influential voices are offering. It's possible for example to talk about how we can offer better end-products and services than what the Carbon Lobby offers, without having to ask anyone to reduce carbon. You shared some interesting toughts about product-service systems (Service Envy: Branding Experience Instead of Stuff, June 28, 2006). I have for example developed a transport system which is 10X better than anything that exists today, that also has ultra-low carbon footprint and multiplier effects on various other areas. (www.cv2systems.com)

I sent you an article on the subject several times. I'd also be presenting a paper titled on one of the aspects of the system called "Public Roads as Service Market: Paving the way for Civilisation 2.0 at the forthcoming ITS World Congress in Sweden. The ball is very much in our court.


Posted by: Chandra Vikash on 1 May 09

All this fear of "geoengineering" sounds like a movie plot where a self-proclaimed cloud seeder comes to a drought-stricken town in Oklahoma during the dustbowl days. He claims to be able to make it rain. His price is high and the town is flat broke. How's this sounding so far?

The idea of retuning our atmosphere's CO2 content via technology doesn't have to be scary. Maybe we need to try it out on a small scale first. I think that we can become a carbon negative civilization without geoengineering, but it is my opinion that there isn't enough time for that anymore. We are past Jim Hanson's tipping point now. I suggest we seriously consider deploying "Star Wars" size CO2 electrolyzers that are powered by renewable power sources and the methane that is now threatening to bubble up from the depths of the World's oceans. CO2 Electrolysis has been demonstrated and is well understood:

Chemists at the University of California, San Diego have demonstrated the feasibility of exploiting sunlight to transform a greenhouse gas into a useful product.
http://www.azom.com/news.asp?newsID=8290

Here is NASA's take on it:

http://rtreport.ksc.nasa.gov/techreports/2002report/600%20Fluid%20Systems/609.html
Contact:
Dale Lueck
(321) 867-8764

Another Solution:

CO2 --> CH4 (methane) via a microbe
http://esciencenews.com/articles/2009/03/30/microbes.turn.electricity.directly.methane.without.hydrogen.generation


I suggest that if you create CO2 in whatever large-scale manufacturing process you're involved in, you're responsible for "neutralizing" all of it. Otherwise, no operating license will be issued/renewed for what you're doing.

Hope that is encouraging. I believe that though we're past the tipping point, it is not too late to clean up our act.


Posted by: Doug Starfield on 2 May 09

This reminds me of how the tabacco companies used to deny that smoking causes cancer. Only recently have they admitted that it "can" cause cancer. But the government doesn't ban them cause it gives them too much tax revenue and because people would still do it even if it was illegal.

Now the oil companies and coal companies are starting to admit that global warming is real. Most of them still don't think it's a big deal, or that it's worth making such "drastic" and "expensive" cultural, lifestyle, and infrastructure changes, but it is. I have been an environmentalist for at least a few years before it was popular to be an environmentalist. I've heard every argument in the book, and I know that this geo-engineering idea is a bad one. In the past ideas that were outlandish were seen as "impossible" but turns out our nation was built on these ideas. Now when we think of the power we can recieve from genetic engineering and geo-engineering people don't think about them as impossible, but some actually think of them as "morally questionable". We have everything we need to make a healthy sustainable planet save for political will, and I know in heart of hearts that America can choose to do the right thing, istead of the seemingly easy thing.


Posted by: Cullen Kappel on 2 May 09

You say,

"Indeed, almost all of the scientists working on them believe that the best answer to our climate problem would be a quick, massive reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions."

And,

"Many leading thinkers on geoengineering (such as Paul Crutzen and Ken Caldeira) already make clear that immediate action on reducing greenhouse pollution (on both the national and global levels) is the first step, period."

It would strengthen the article if you had links to articles by, or at least quotes from, the geoengineers who you say hold these views.

If "almost all," and "many leading thinkers on geoengineering" hold these views it should not be hard for you to come up with some good linked examples, i.e. references please!

By the way, your links to the NY Times article on the denialist lobby, and the fact that Wind Power employs more people than coal are good useful links.


Posted by: Tavita on 3 May 09

[Denialist propaganda comment deleted as per policy: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives//008132.html ]

[We don't allow the repetition of blatant lies and distortions here. Please go elsewhere if all you have to say is a parroting of Carbon Lobby spin. It wastes our time and yours.]


Posted by: Moderator on 3 May 09

Can you imagine how appealing a project like this would be, to Bechtel?



Posted by: Anna on 4 May 09

All in all, another barely contained religious tract. Good luck convincing those outside your choir.


Posted by: Margot on 6 May 09

We 'engineered' our way into our predicament. What reason is there to think that 'engineering' won't simply exacerbate the problem, or substitute another one?

Many organizations have adopted a shell-game strategy to avoid collision with reality. 'Cap and trade' or 'emissions trading' schemes are clearly an attempt to avoid out-in-the-open resolution and action.

Ask yourself: where can I go to get a 'carbon credit' for my personal carbon reductions? Do I believe that my benevolent overlords are doing this for me?

The hour is late. The game is afoot. Putative 'engineering' solutions are a smokescreen.


Posted by: TJ on 7 May 09

A while ago there was a worldchaning article (http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007704.html) that suggest that geo-gambling is a better term than geoengeering.
I think it's a bad idea to use the term geoengeering when we talk about it.

Propaganda is about the ownership of words. Don't let the right control the words we use to describe geo-gambling.


Posted by: ChristianK on 9 May 09

Hi,

here is a lonk to Ken Caldeira on geoengineering:

http://www.allbusiness.com/utilities/utilities/3950113-1.html

Ray T


Posted by: Ray Taylor on 14 May 09

Hi,

here is a link to Ken Caldeira on geoengineering:

http://www.allbusiness.com/utilities/utilities/3950113-1.html

Ray T


Posted by: Ray Taylor on 14 May 09

I have never seen a single shred of evidence that geoengineering is being promoted by the fossil fuels industry. It would make no sense for them to say that global warming is such a dire threat that we should do things that people recoil in horror from. Like take responsibility.

And if it were being pushed by big oil, geoengineering would have a heck of a lot more funding than it does.


Posted by: Dan Wylie-Sears on 15 May 09

Here is a part of an exchange between Jim Miller and Eugene Gordon. Mr. Gordon is responding to my post on the Google Group: geoengineering@googlegroups.com.

While the reply is a bit hard to understand, it seems to fit the pattern of denial mentioned in Alex's above article. Mr. Gordon rejected the use of Agrichar to sequester CO2. His concluding statement seems to indicate that global temperatures will continue to fluxuate around 25 C regardless of what humans do to affect the temperature.

If anyone can better explain Mr. Gordon's comment, please let me know. If anyone would like to read the full exchange, send me an email.

Jim Miller
jimmiller5417 at yahoo dot com.


Posted by: Jim Miller on 30 May 09

Here's the last exchange between Jim Miller and Eugene Gordon:

Reply from Gene from Geoengineering Google group:
Jim:
Geoengineer might more properly be called climate control. That means, in effect, building a system that can work like a thermostat for global or even somewhat local (eg the Arctic) surface temperature control. Right now the temperature is non monotonically 1 increasing as it has been for tens of thousands of years and it will asymptote 2 at around 25 C with or without anthropogenic 3 greenhouse gas. The 540 million year proxie history of the Earth shows this behavior is normal and typical. What is happening now and during the recent past when fossil based CO2 only accelerated the increase (with short periods of decrease) is mostly increase and that increase must be curtailed or reversed a bit. Reducing CO2 emissions won't curtail it.

So I put systems for reducing CO2 emissions into the energy alternatives box, not the climate control box. Climate control is needed whatever we do about energy alternatives because of natural forces such as geological plate motion. See www.scotese.com

-gene

FOOTNOTES (by Jim Miller)

1.
A non-monotonic logic is a formal logic whose consequence relation is not monotonic. Most studied formal logics have a monotonic consequence relation, meaning that adding a formula to a theory never produces a reduction of its set of consequences. Intuitively, monotonicity indicates that learning a new piece of knowledge cannot reduce the set of what is known. A monotonic logic cannot handle various reasoning tasks such as reasoning by default (facts may be known only because of lack of evidence of the contrary), adductive reasoning (facts are only deduced as most likely explanations) and some important approaches to reasoning about knowledge (the ignorance of a fact must be retracted when the fact becomes known) and similarly belief revision (new knowledge may contradict old beliefs).

Belief revision is the process of changing beliefs to accommodate a new belief that might be inconsistent with the old ones. In the assumption that the new belief is correct, some of the old ones have to be retracted in order to maintain consistency. This retraction in response to an addition of a new belief makes any logic for belief revision to be non-monotonic. The belief revision approach is alternative to paraconsistent logics, which tolerate inconsistency rather than attempting to remove it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-monotonic_logic

2
Disambiguation in Wikipedia is the process of resolving conflicts in Wikipedia article titles that occur when a single term can be associated with more than one topic, making that term likely to be the natural title for more than one article. In other words, disambiguations are paths leading to different articles which could, in principle, have the same title.

For example, the word "Mercury" can refer to several different things, including an element, a planet, an automobile brand, a record label, a NASA manned-spaceflight project, a plant, and a Roman god. Since only one Wikipedia page can have the generic name "Mercury", unambiguous article titles are used for each of these topics: Mercury (element), Mercury (planet), Mercury (automobile), Mercury Records, Project Mercury, Mercury (plant), Mercury (mythology). There must then be a way to direct the reader to the correct specific article when an ambiguous term is referenced by linking, browsing or searching; this is what is known as disambiguation. In this case it is achieved using Mercury as a disambiguation page.

3

Human influences
Main article: Global warming

Anthropogenic factors are human activities that change the environment. In some cases the chain of causality of human influence on the climate is direct and unambiguous (for example, the effects of irrigation on local humidity), whilst in other instances it is less clear. Various hypotheses for human-induced climate change have been argued for many years though, generally, the scientific debate has moved on from skepticism to a scientific consensus on climate change that human activity is the probable cause for the rapid changes in world climate in the past several decades.[9] Consequently, the debate has largely shifted onto ways to reduce further human impact and to find ways to adapt to change that has already occurred.[10]

Of most concern in these anthropogenic factors is the increase in CO2 levels due to emissions from fossil fuel combustion, followed by aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere) and cement manufacture. Other factors, including land use, ozone depletion, animal agriculture[11] and deforestation, are also of concern in the roles they play - both separately and in conjunction with other factors - in affecting climate.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropogenic_climate_variability


Posted by: Jim Miller on 30 May 09

Brand's media surge as of late and the topics of geoengineering and his stance on nuclear power need to be de - spun. Amory Lovins has already come out with the nuclear de-bunking which you can see at grist


Posted by: Dan on 28 Oct 09

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