Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore pulled no punches about geoengineering in a phone conference with reporters on Wednesday. He was apparently reacting to a suggestion in a leaked draft summary of the forthcoming climate solutions section of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fifth climate assessment report.
The definitive study, to be released in Germany in April, suggests that before 2100, the world’s national governments may have to use massive geoengineering programs such as carbon capture and sequestration in order to check the forces of climate change. Gore finds the notion much less than appealing.
“The idea that we can put a different form of pollution into the atmosphere to cancel out the effects of global warming pollution is utterly insane.”
According to Guardian reporter Suzanne Goldenberg, Gore believes that large, untested measures carry enormous risks while doing nothing to address complications of climate change. These complications are known to include intensification of the phenomenon through ocean acidification, increased methane release, and other compounding factors.
Since climate change has been documented, some scientists and political leaders have grasped at the idea that radical, sweeping engineering interventions might hold back the forces loosed since the earth’s industrial revolution. These measures might include “easy fixes” like capture and deep burial of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants, injecting the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to reflect incoming sunlight, and seeding the ocean with algae to consume carbon dioxide. To Gore, the geoengineering ideas are as fanciful as alchemy, with results by tomorrow.
“The hubris involved in thinking we can come up with a second planet-wide experiment that would exactly counteract the first experiment [pollution-emitting industrialization] is delusional in the extreme,” the climate leader said. He feels that such proposals indicate how desperate some have become in the face of paralyzed global politics.
Among the reasons for doubting the usefulness of large-scale carbon capture and sequestration projects:
- No CCS technology has yet been proven. Large installations to date are still in demonstration or on the drawing boards.
- Commercialization of “zero-emissions coal-fired thermal power generation” is likely at least decades away–probably too late to mitigate negative climate change in the 21st century.
- CCS carries with it a substantial energy penalty, estimated to be between 10-40% of the energy a power station produces, increasing the negative effects of mining and transportation as well as increasing consumption of fossil fuels by 25%.
- Like nuclear power, geoengineering can produce dangerous wastes that must be disposed of safely or stored.
- Investments in developing CCS would siphon away resources from proven longer-term antidotes to climate change, most notably renewable energy.
The former vice-president reportedly draws a line between large-scale geoengineering and small changes with impressive effects in the aggregate. And unlike climatologist James Hansen and colleagues, who recently advocated nuclear power development, Gore does not see nuclear power technology becoming safe and inexpensive enough in the coming 10-15 years to invest in it now.
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