Thursday, October 22, 2015


The Anthropocene is the Name of the Game – first in a series.

Returning from considering the possibilities of Deep Time, I come upon the present geological period, one dominated by human artifacts and titanic planetary shifts we have brought about, chiefly through burning fossil carbon. It is aptly named the Anthropocene. While many would like to see the age of mammals, the Cenozoic era, continue, especially the sweet spot in which we have thrived, the Holocene period, we have clearly thrust ourselves, and the entire biosphere, into a brave new world. Though modern industrial civilization is out of control, we are now in charge, as indicated in the bold book by Mark Lynas I reviewed here, The God Species

If we are out of control, shouldn't we perhaps submit to the forces of chaos, wipe the slate clean, and try to create something more sustainable from the wreckage? For several years now I have been advocating economic collapse, the sooner the better, since the longer we continue on our present reckless course, the greater the number of extinctions and the more ecosystems to go into collapse But it has finally sunk in that industrial collapse might actually push us over the edge. For the irony is that industrial pollutants, mostly sulfates, are blocking more incoming radiation – a full 1degree C. That extra degree would bring us to the brink of runaway climate change, the 3 degree threshold outlined in another of Lynas's books, Six Degrees. We may well be already there. James Hansen argues that 2 degrees Celsius, around which there is an international consensus, is too soft as a safe target, that 1.5 degrees is the tipping point. Though we are “only” at .8 degrees now, a strong El Nino – which may have just begun - would release another .2 still stored in the oceans, and the carbon cycle will deliver another .8 degrees over its period of 20 years. That would leave us at 2.8C by 2035. Unless a significant amount of carbon is removed soon, we have locked in that tipping point within twenty years, even if we stopped further fossil emissions today.

So we are stuck with global industrialization, at least for now. The best we can do is to try to limit growth, approaching a steady-state, continuing to release industrial aerosols while we work to find something more benign, creating a soft landing for a more mature, sustainable Anthropocene. We seem to be approaching a global consensus that something robust needs to be done, with major statements by the G-7 in late spring, and a deepening commitment from China to the major agreement announced last fall between China and the US, the two biggest players. Global corporations are getting it, with almost 90 companies signing on to Obama's effort to get their cooperation in emissions reductions. Here's the link again to the New York magazine article on 2015's potentially momentous shift.  We are starting to transition to a path of lower carbon pollution; however, it has not come soon enough to avoid catastrophic climate change. So the major players in the Anthropocene scenario, the developed nations and their partner global corporations, will need to go into crisis mode and design some major tinkering, something beyond redoubling efforts to reduce omissions.

GEOENGINEERING. An atmosphere manipulated by humans is the first major piece of geoengineering. It started with the Industrial Revolution in Britain (the coal-fired steam pump to be precise), with the process accelerating greatly when the US and Europe industrialized , redoubling with re-industrialization during post WWII, and finally the rapid industrialization of China in the 1990's. This process, which began willy-nilly, will not end without some intentional reverse geoengineering of the sort being discussed by scientists and policymakers world-wide. Such discussions have intensified in recent years, with calls for public disclosure and vetting of potential experiments involving some of the techniques being proposed. No matter what the people in the streets, town halls, and blogosphere say, the global power structure, both national and corporate, will simply not go into stoic mode and let the climate catastrophe run away with us in its wake. We may still prove to have been too smart for our own good, but we are going to use the tools at our disposal.

I know this flies in the face of the romantic/green position, which asks us to sacrifice our high-consumption lifestyles and is wary of technological fixes, which got us into the mess in the first place. They would also endorse Thomas Berry's challenge that we need a “re-invention of the human at the species level.” Since natural selection would obviously take far too long to have any effect on fast-moving planetary events, Berry can only be talking about cultural evolution, which has been the agent of planetary change via the huge acceleration in human invention. (This is pointed out by James Lovelock, whose latest book is the focus for the next post in this series). Greens would correctly point out that large-scale attempts at geo-engineering are not only potentially dangerous for Gaia, they would have the effect of encouraging earthlings to relax about carbon emissions. But as I should have made clear, the best we can do in reducing emissions will fail to halt a very steep climate change curve which is accelerating every day. Geoengineering will come only when it absolutely must, and it will be about buying time, not “solving” climate change.

Geo-engineering could come in two forms. The first is removing carbon from the air, carbon capture and storage (CCS). Several years ago, after a talk in Raleigh in which he touted this as one answer to our dilemma, I asked James Hansen if he knew of any peer-reviewed studies of the process. He said no, he did not, but “surely the best method would be to capture it from power plants and pump it to the bottom of the ocean, where it would do the least harm.” In other words, he didn't really have a a clue. Surveying the status of such projects today, one plant continues operation in Finland. Both the Eurozone and the US started prototypes, then dropped them because of funding overruns. The process is extremely expensive and it is doubtful we will ever have the will or the money to do much of it.

The other form of geo-engineering is far more powerful and far cheaper to do, namely limiting the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth in the first place. Two methods have been put forth. One is to emulate volcanoes. Volcanoes throw out a lot of sulfur dioxide, which has the effect of blocking incoming radiation. Large eruptions have had global cooling effects for a year or more (the Pintatubo eruption of 1991, for example), and scientists think that a series of huge eruptions may have caused at least one of the planet's large extinction events.

The process would be fairly simple. Planes would fly into the stratosphere at the poles and dump sulfur dioxide, which would spread and create the effect of a high-altitude volcanic eruption. The process would be repeated at required intervals until the cooling effect would not be needed any more. Since the effects of such an activity would be unknown in advance, scientists have proposed small-scale experiments to get some data, hopefully exposing negative side effects. One of these, which may not be detectable at a small scale, is that the sky would no longer be as blue, based on observations of largescale eruptions in the past. 

A second promising method would be to artificially create low-altitude, extra-bright clouds over oceans which would reflect some of the sun's rays back into space. Armand Neukermans, building on the work of John Latham at NCAR, has made substantial progress towards creating aerosols from ocean water which could greatly enhance the reflectivity of these low-lying clouds. This would be economical as well as less risky than injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere – although the aerosol droplets would ultimately need to be injected 10 miles into the stratosphere for maximum effect. The first oceanic experiment is scheduled for Moss Landing, CA next year.

Though many greens, including those like myself thoroughly drenched in romantic values, would prefer to let it all crash, I have reached clarity that we must stay with the global industrial system long enough to see through the geoengineering prior to collapse. If we don't create conditions for a soft landing of the industrial age, we face the twin dangers of losing the aerosol buffer and of not having the means to create the atmospheric tinkering to cool things down. Paul Gilding lays out this second part in probable detail in The Great Disruption, where he argues that big companies have one last co-ordinated action to complete before being replaced by a new order, more earth-friendly. He expects that, once the developed nations experience the first massive climate shocks, a global alliance will quickly form to rapidly transform industrial products to fight the climate war, similar to what US corporations achieved during WWII, only at a more gargantuan scale.

So geoengineering will come, and it will need to be soon to be effective. While the climate diplomats in Paris this December are scrutinizing endless draft texts for something their governments can accept, there could well be a parallel underground conference of their engineer counterparts discussing strategies for coordination of these massive projects. There is a sense in which an international treaty, a second Peace of Paris, would be the “noble lie” which serious policy players, advised by scientists, would use as cover for their work of “saving civilization.” How such a scenario might unfold is unclear. The best case is for the best possible research to be done, and that the action will be co-ordinated by the international community, rather than rogue states or corporations.

There is clearly a comparison with another signal event of the Anthropocene, the first atom bomb test in Alamagordo, New Mexico. Scientists observing it were laying bets whether the earth's atmosphere would survive. Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad-Gita, “I am the destroyer of worlds.” The rest is central history of the Anthropocene. We dropped two bombs, devastating two large cities in Japan, which led to a nuclear stalemate that has dampened our warlike tendencies, due to the MAD consequences. As with the Manhattan Project, we simply don't know how a complex earth system (Gaia) will respond to rapid large-scale geoengineering. We don't know enough variables to build a reliable model. We will need to face the risk of unexpected consequences.

Risk-taking is a hallmark of the Anthropocene, and one risk creates the scenario for the next (viz nuclear power), even greater risk. At some point it will end, either with a huge failed gamble, or with a gradual series of stepped-down actions, ushering in a more sustainable successor to the Anthropocene. Either way, its days are numbered, for it will be the shortest geological era ever, a tiny stratum in the geological record.

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