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Geoengineering: Plan B, Triage Method or Dangerous Illusion?
Alex Steffen, 21 Mar 10

Andy Revkin has a new post up over at the NYT, talking about "wishful thinking" and "real action" on climate, and it's raised some interesting points about geoengineering.

The post is a response to Joe Romm's attack on remarks Andy is reported to have made at a recent talk, where he called the idea of global diplomatic solutions to climate change wishful thinking. Joe accuses Andy of mistaking US climate change politics (by far the most backward of any major nation) with global realities. Andy responds:

"On the overarching question of “solving” the climate problem, I’m sure Joe would agree that global warming is inevitably going to be, at best, managed — not “fixed” — given the trajectories for emissions in a world inexorably headed toward roughly nine billion people seeking energy-enabled lives and with substantial warming already in the pipeline, according to a heap of research.

"As I mentioned in my talk, it’s not hard to find signals that diplomatic and legislative efforts are destined to be inadequate and new approaches are needed. When Friends of the Earth (U.K.) says that some geoengineering options need to be explored (cloud management and direct air capture of carbon dioxide) you know they’re not counting on emissions pledges."

This would make you think that Friends of the Earth has given up on climate action and is calling for us to geoengineer our way to safety. I don't find FoE particularly authoritative on this subject, but the FoE report (PDF) says something very different anyways:

Scientific understanding has moved on since the 2 degree threshold was first suggested, with an understanding now that the impacts of 2 degrees are likely to be much greater than originally envisaged and that a threshold of 1 to 1.5 degrees would be more appropriate.

Because the effects of greenhouse gasses last for quite some time (something like 35% of the gasses we emit today will still be in the atmosphere in 100 years), FoE is saying, and because the impacts of a two-degree temperature rise are more severe than we previously thought, we need not only incredibly bold action on climate mitigation, but plans for how to hold down temperatures while greenhouse gas levels fall. This is anything but a blanket endorsement of geongineering:

"Mitigation has to be the priority for action, action far in excess of currently being considered by politicians is needed. It is now clear that mitigation alone cannot keep global temperatures below a safer threshold of 1-1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. However many of the geoengineering options suggested are totally unacceptable due to the adverse environmental or social impacts they bring or risk bringing."

They're assuming we go all-in, and it's still not enough. That's a reasonable stance to have.

Diplomatic/legislative efforts may not be sufficient now, though a political breakthrough is entirely possible (it's ethically important to continue to note that our failure to act is based on political inertia, not the impossibility of making these changes themselves, which has been exhaustively demonstrated to be within our means: we could reach (net) zero emissions, with the will to do so).

However the idea that geoengineering is in some way a substitute for emissions reductions is crazy. No one credible is saying that. There are some credible people saying we need to eliminate emissions *and* research geoengineering as a backup to blunt worst short-term effects of emissions we're already committed to or have already released. The idea that geoengineering is a "plan b" is completely political spin:

"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... 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."

David Roberts has a great interview up with Worldchangig ally Jeff Goodell, where Jeff tries to put all this in perspective:

There are a few things I worry about most. One is the fantasy of the quick fix. You already have people like Bjorn Lomborg talking openly about this. I'm sure we will see Heritage Foundation stuff coming out about the virtues of geoengineering. My immediate fear is that it will co-opt the political debate. That's why it's really important for scientists and journalists who understand that this is not a substitute for cutting emissions to get out in front. That's my near-term fear.

Farther out is the idea that a nation or a group of nations will decide, for nationalistic or militaristic reasons, or a genuine belief that they can fix their problems, to do this. And it won't be a nation like the United States or western Europe. It will be China, India, a collection of developing nations. It could be any group of nations. They will do it badly, and cause a lot of climate chaos, and it's not clear where we will go from there. It's a scary scenario... without any kind of vetting, safety guards, or transparency.

But as I wrote in the book, my nightmare scenario is that we won't do anything. It will just be decades more of apathy. We'll block progress on research on geoengineering, we won't reform our energy system, we will just continue with the status quo for another two or three decades. We'll just ride straight ahead into climate chaos.

The point is this: There is no "other" path than emissions reductions. Whether some geoengineering ideas are even reasonable triage methods, to get the planet through the crisis we've already induced -- that's a reasonable discussion, and depends in part on what actions we include under the geoengineering umbrella.

I tend to think that geoengineering as a whole is one big fit of carbon blindness, and that our standard for whether or not a given large-scale adaptation/harm reduction plan is worth considering is whether or not it's something we'd want to do anyways, for other reasons. Afforestation, ecosystem restoration, biochar and terra preta -- all these are things we might very well want to do even if there wasn't a climate crisis. There's no reason we'd want to even think about creating an artificial volcano or dumping thousands of shiploads of iron filings into the sea if the climate wasn't heating -- and the results of some of these kinds of "solutions" could be disastrous.

It'd be irresponsible not to demand much bolder political climate action. There isn't any solution that doesn't involve that. The question is, have we waited to long to leave the discussion there, or do we need, now to talk about "Copenhagen squared" and begin to think about a world of radical emissions reductions, climate adaptation on the ground, and emergency measures to slow heating while we mobilize?

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Comments

This is an important discussion and I've responded to your post in the comment string at Dot Earth: http://j.mp/co2Fix Thanks for focusing so much good energy on these issues.


Posted by: Andy Revkin on 21 Mar 10

I saddens me to see such a waste of evidently talented and committed people.

Please read the entire comment before forming an opinion of me - I want only to help you in reviewing your current action plan in the light of further information.

Having read my comments, you can either deem me to be deluded or genuinely review your understanding. Be assured that my intention is not to upset or antagonise anyone.

You're talking about trying to address a dubious problem that has been hyped up by a frenzied media.

The perceived need for action was to address the output from flawed computer models, which in turn were fed erroneous data from cherry picked land stations, ice cores and tree rings. All the while, the OBSERVED data (satellite data) showed that the models were a complete nonsense.

It feels good to get behind a cause and to fight for a position (I know because I fully supported action to address AGW until I had researched enough to fully understand) but it's time to stop helping to enrich the world's bankers further.

'Carbon Trading' (which is what this is all really about) has nothing to do with helping the environment and everything to do with handing total control of all life and all activity on earth to a select few who will administer their global environmental regime (as they detailed in the Copenhagen documentation).

Even if good people were at the head of the new global environmental governance to begin with, it is merely a matter of time until more cunning and ruthless individuals effect their plans for takeover. You know this to be true, even if you have only a basic grasp of history.

Think seriously about this. If you are brave enough, pretend for a moment that you have no opinion either way on the matter. Then forget for a moment your fervent and laudable attempts to try and solve what you perceive to be a problem and simply observe. Not just the specifics that are currently commanding your attention but the whole picture (and be honest with yourself about what you know to be true about where power lies in the world and how it is gained and retained).

Since when do the governments of the world give a damn about the environment? ALL goverments are funded by vested interests and lobbyists. The people represented by these lobbyists have firm desires to gain control of the movement in the fullness of time. Otherwise, there is no way they would simply roll over and allow legislation that is supposedly detrimental to their interests to be passed.

These are some very powerful people who could have squashed the AGW movement like a bug if they were scared of where things were heading. But they didn't. They got squarely behind the movement and are now even helping to fund it. Do you really think that they suddenly developed an eco-conscience and lamented their transgressions to the point of trying to right their wrongs? Or perhaps you think that public opinion forced them to act. Really? These people own the media. The vast majority of the public only form the opinion that they are programmed to form, by what they see and hear.

If I thought for a moment that there was a genuine problem that needed to be addressed I would fight to ensure that it was addressed.

The reality though is that the recent economic collapse was well anticipated by the individuals that engineered it, for they knew that unlimited credit ALWAYS leads to inflation and collapse. Even a simpleton can grasp the basics if they can be bothered to apply themselves. Debt based money has a finite lifespan and a replacement must be found before the end of that lifespan.

Enter 'carbon trading', which is just another form of currency (with the added bonus of the possibility of REAL power through the control of every CO2 producing activity on the planet). Take a moment on Google to see how effective the carbon trading mechanism has been so far. Already, rich individuals have become richer, as the scheme is manipulated - indeed, its future is now in some doubt. The net result for reduction of a demonised life-giving gas? Nothing. Zero. No reductions resulting from the trading of 'credits'. Is that really such a surprise? It is already fulfilling its purpose.

All life on earth is carbon based, ergo if you control all carbon, you control all life.

Perhaps the proposed worldwide environmental government will be democratically elected? Unfortuantley, no. No mention in the Copenhagen treaty of democracy or elections - just some fantastical dictatorship who we will have to hope are generally benevolvent because they will yield absolute power over every activity of every nation state on the globe.

I am only sorry that I spent so long fighting the cause for these greedy, power-hungry, dictators-in-waiting. But in my defence, there wasn't, at that time, the plethora of information that is available to inquisitive minds today.


Posted by: David on 21 Mar 10

I think people are missing the point. We have already geoengineered the planet. We geoengineered it with CFCs and destroyed a goodly portion of the stratospheric ozone that protects terrestrial life from UV radiation. That may be working itself out over the next 40 years or so but there is also the possibility that another ozone hole will appear in the Northern hemisphere over the next few decades, at least that is what some climate scientists think.

We have already geoengineered the atmosphere with our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Now we have to live with the consequences even if we enact a policy of zero emissions tomorrow, my preferred policy proposal.

Once you start geoengineering, you have to keep at it I learned at an MIT conference on the subject in the Fall of 2009. That's where we are now. Arguing about whether or not we should geoengineer is ignoring reality. We have geoengineered our world over the last century or so and now we better get good at it.

This does not mean that I support any of the present proposals for new geoengineering projects. I don't believe we know what we are doing based upon previous performance. Our big ideas have led us into a bad situation. I suspect that newer, bigger ideas will only make the situation worse.

First, do no harm. Zero emissions for a start. Clean up based upon ecological design always. Then maybe I'll spend a few minutes entertaining any new, big, "heroic" efforts that sound a lot easier than they usually turn out to be.


Posted by: gmoke on 21 Mar 10

I see a clear sign coming up : geonengineering wars.
Today we nuke tehrans nuclear facilities, tomorrow we nuke Indias geoengineering facilities. What if Russia wants an Ice free North pole and declares war on everybody stopping the warming ?
The copenhagen summit was a freindly children's birthday party compared to future global discussions on geoengineering warfare.


Posted by: MM on 22 Mar 10

"Joe accuses Andy of mistaking US climate change politics (by far the most backward of any major nation) with global realities."

I'd say that we here in Canada are FAR more backward than the US in terms of Climate policy.


Posted by: Chris on 24 Mar 10

Geoengineering is an example of using the same kind of thinking that got us into this problem to try to solve the problem. Ain't gonna work.

What we need is biospheric design, ecological systems design. Not geoengineering. We need deep systems thinking rather than some heroic machine. We need Janine Benyus rather than Nathan Myrhvold.


Posted by: gmoke on 25 Mar 10

To David from 21 Mar 10 :

Yes to every point in your post. Like you, I have come to the same conclusion, but only after spending a long time researching to find what we know, what we believe, and what is merely being asserted without evidence. The case for man-made catastrophic global warming (and ocean acidification) is baseless. It has been promoted as a vehicle to allow massive amounts of money and power to flow to a small set of already wealthy and powerful people.

There are plenty of real problems with the environment that can be addressed once we have realized that global warming is a false alarm. Urban air pollution, ground water overuse, oceanic over fishing, soil loss; these are all REAL problems that can use your help.

Do your own research. Read the papers. Read BOTH sides of the argument. DO THE MATH! DO THE PHYSICS! DO NOT BE MISLED.


Posted by: Jason on 8 Apr 10

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