The world has failed
at the task of CO2 mitigation. Principally driven by a massively
funded campaign of disinformation in the US, along with the
capitulation of the Republican Party to Big Fossil, the will to
reduce carbon emissions has been battered down. The science, so
clearly laid out by Al Gore in his 2006 film, convincing a large
number of viewers, is now lost in the liberal-conservative divide,
and we are nowhere near the necessary rate of reduction in greenhouse
gases required to keep climate change within the boundaries of a
habitable planet. With the assumption of the elected tyrant Trump,
this politicized tragedy now has the US on the brink of withdrawing
from the hard-fought Paris Accord. In fact, today's news reports
that he has decided to withdraw. From reluctantly rising to the level
of co-leader with China of the mitigation pathway outlined in Paris,
the US is now in the role of a rogue state.
But the US is very
good at technology, especially the kind of tech that bends the earth
to do our will. We led the way in developing the atomic bomb, and
during the Cold War, competed with the Soviets not only for nuclear
superiority, but control of the weather as a weapon to be used
against our enemies. The long tradition of modeling ways to tinker
with climatic forces is now on the threshold of physical experiments
with the atmosphere and the oceans, and a “geoclique” has formed
to make sure that global civilization will not perish at the hands of
the Climate Beast. We missed our chance to save Earth, under her
rules, and now we will make her follow ours.
Australian public ethicist Clive Hamilton's latest book – lays out
this emergent Brave New World of geo-engineering. In his last book,
Requiem for a Species
, he powerfully analyzed all the forms of
denialism that brought us to the brink. Here he picks up
these threads to show how the "Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering" (his subtitle) is being woven from the very same cloth. The supreme
irony is that conservatives in the US and elsewhere are strongly in
favor of climate engineering, without ever admitting the human-driven
climate change which forces us to consider such a dangerous
experiment. They side with the techno-elites who are confident that
humans can and will completely colonize and control the Earth, so
that “nature” is a zoo or farm within the over-arching domain of
the human. And global capitalism, riding on the back of Big Oil will
continue its hegemony. We will be as gods, for better or worse.
Hamilton calls this faction the Prometheans, after the titan who
stole fire and brought it to humanity.
Those of us,
including many scientists, who oppose the hubris of climate
engineering, prefrering to safeguard and keep God's Ark, Hamilton
calls Soterians, after the Greek goddess of safety, salvation, and
preservation from harm. Soterians are folks like Al Gore, Bill
McKibben, and EO Wilson, who would have us do everything possible to
reduce emissions, preserve habitat, and encroach on the ecospheric
commons as little as possible – admittedly a huge task for our
overdeveloped, overpopulated world.
But before we go
further into the political and social ramifications of the huge
divide at this crucial moment in Earth history, I will quickly review
the range of climate engineering techniques under development.
Geo-engineering methods can be best divided into two strategies. The
first entails the removal of excess CO2 by extracting the gas from
the atmosphere, depositing it somewhere safer. This strategy would
manipulate the great carbon cycle, which continually exchanges carbon
between the atmosphere, oceans, and the biosphere. The second
technique is solar radiation management, which would cool the planet
by reflecting a greater proportion of incoming radiation from the Sun
back into space. The two chapters in which Hamilton lays out these
two distinctly different strategies are very well researched and
clearly written. I will only review the highlights.
CO2 removal is
probably the only widely known climate engineering strategy. It has
been under development since the 1990's in the form of carbon capture
and storage, or CCS. It has been held out as a necessary technology
of great promise, permitting the continued consumption of “clean
coal” as a fuel for the world's growing demand for electricity.
Unfortunately, the process of burying the extracted carbon deep in
suitable geological formations has proved much more difficult than
thought, and far more expensive. Both the EU and the US terminated
their pilot CCS projects after a few years. The only successful
experiment has been in Finland, in a perfectly sited formation, but
at great expense. Essentially, CCS
from power plants is dead.
have emerged for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, including ocean
fertilization with iron particles, liming the oceans, mass planting
of trees, fast-growing algae, and biochar. Small experiments on iron
fertilization, aimed at increasing the rate at which CO2 is carried
to the ocean floor, have been tried, and were hugely disappointing.
The ocean system is much more complex than the experimenters
realized. Liming would require a huge infrastructure and be
energy-intensive. Tree planting and growing algae take too long.
Biochar is similar, plus scientists are not convinced it will stay
intact for as long as enthusiasts proclaim. All of these would need
to take place on a massive scale at huge expense.
Turning to solar
radiation management (SRM), climate engineers see more promise.
Brightening the low-lying stratocumulus clouds that cover a third of
the ocean would increase the albedo effect that the Earth is losing
at the North Pole due to melting ice. Tiny aerosol particles could be
injected into the clouds, which would increase their reflectivity.
Many types of particles could be used, including the silver iodide
used in cloud seeding, but sea salt works just fine, so a fleet of
special vessels could roam the oceans continuously recycling seawater
30 meters into the air, whence the air currents would do the rest of
However, a cheaper
method, more susceptible to fine tuning, would be to distribute
sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere from airplanes,
especially at the poles. Air currents would do the rest, and the
effect would last much longer than sea spray. The global average
temperature is already 1 degree C less than it would be without the
sulfate pollution from industrial processes. If we cleaned it all
up, then the temperature would immediately rise that amount,
effectively bringing us to a 2 degree C rise, the very brink of
runaway climate change. There are many dangers to this proposal, not
least being how easy it would be to do. Another is that it would
delay the repair of the ozone holes at the poles, which are closing
due to the first successful international treaty on emissions in the
Montreal Protocol, eliminating fluorocarbons from refrigeration.
Sulfate aerosols at the poles is the climate engineering plan of
choice for scientists working on the problem.
Labels: Al Gore, Big Fossil, CCS, climate disinformaiton, climate engineering, Clive Hamilton, Earthmasters, geo-engieering, Paris Accord, solar radiation management, sulfate aerosols