Wednesday, May 31, 2017


Brave New World: Geo-engineering

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.

Earthmasters – 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.

Other strategies 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 the job.

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.

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