Climate Change

Published on October 16th, 2017 | by Steve Hanley


Geo-Engineering: Can We “Science Our Way” Out Of A Climate Catastrophe?

October 16th, 2017 by  

Ever notice how once something new crops up in your life, suddenly it’s everywhere? In a comment to our recent story about carbon dioxide levels in the Eocene period, some people raised the topic of geo-engineering — ways to mechanically alter the earth’s atmosphere so a portion of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space or schemes that would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air and sequester it somehow.

geo-engineering graphic

Photo credit: Alamy via The Guardian

Today, I opened my digital copy of The Guardian while I having my morning cup of Darjeeling and see this headline: “Geo-engineering Is Not A Quick Fix For Climate Change, Experts Warn Trump.” But it’s the sub-head that grabs my attention: “Leading researchers and campaigners express concern that geo-engineering research could be used as an excuse not to reduce CO2 emissions.”

Can We Science Our Way Out Of A Climate Catastrophe?

Yes, friends, the idea that humans will somehow “science our way” out of a climate change catastrophe has now been seized upon by the climate deniers — that well-funded cabal put together by ExxonMobil, the Koch Brothers and the rest of the usual suspects in the fossil fuel club. There new mantra is that geo-engineering means we don’t have to worry about carbon emissions after all. We will simply geo-engineer a solution when the time is right.

Rex Tillerson, the man who led the parade of climate denial at ExxonMobil for years and is now the US Secretary of State (you cannot make this stuff up!) has said that climate change is mostly an “engineering problem.” A tuck here, a snip there, and voila! We can keep on pumping pollutants into the earth, the air, and the seas in perpetuity until the last molecule of fossil fuel has been extracted, transported, refined and burned. Happy days are here again, boys, and the money will just keep rolling in. Ain’t life grand?

Spraying Sulphates Into The Atmosphere

At the center of the discussion is David Keith, a self-styled solar geo-engineering expert at Harvard. He and his colleague Frank Keutsch plan to conduct an experiment that involves spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere from a high-altitude balloon over Arizona to see what happens. They think the particles will reflect a portion of the sunlight that would otherwise hit the earth back into space, leading to a cooling effect on the land below.

The idea resonates with several people inside the Trump administration. David Schnare played a key role in the EPA transition team. He is strongly in favor of federal support for geo-engineering research and real world testing such as what David Keith plans to do in Arizona next year. Then he wants to deploy massive stratospheric spraying within three years after the testing is completed. Most supporters of geo-engineering think such spraying will need to continue for at least one hundred years to be effective.

There are a few problems with atmospheric spraying, however. One, sulphates and water can combine to create sulfuric acid. Does anyone remember acid rain? Apparently no one in the atmospheric spraying movement does. Two, “atmospheric modelling has shown that stratospheric spraying could drastically curtail rainfall throughout Asia, Africa and South America, causing severe droughts and threatening food supply for billions of people,” The Guardian reports.

Politics Rears Its Ugly Head

“Clearly parts of the Trump administration are very willing to open the door to reckless schemes like David Keith’s, and may well have quietly given the nod to open-air experiments,” said Silvia Riberio, with technology watchdog ETC Group. “Worryingly, geoengineering may emerge as this administration’s preferred approach to global warming. In their view, building a big beautiful wall of sulphate in the sky could be a perfect excuse to allow uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction. We need to be focusing on radical emissions cuts, not dangerous and unjust techno-fixes.”

Serial philanderer Newt Gingrich is solidly in favor of geo-engineering, which should send a cautionary message all by itself. “Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year,” he said in 2008. While heading right-wing think tank the American Economic Enterprise, (why do these lunatics all wrap themselves in the flag? Because it works.) he helping launch a geo-engineering unit to promote research into the idea. “We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.” And put lots of dollars in Snooty Newtie’s wallet at the same time, one suspects.

The National Academy of Sciences Report

A report released on Tuesday by the US National Academies of Sciences says tinkering with the planet through geo-engineering now would be “irrational and irresponsible.” First and foremost, humanity must begin by drastically cutting emissions, something the fossil fuel vultures are implacably opposed to doing.

The 16 scientists who wrote the report did advocate for further research into geo-engineering techniques as a hedge against a future climate emergency. “Should there come a time when the world must consider more extreme interventions in the climate, do we want those decisions to be knee jerk reactions? Or do we want them to be made with a wealth of information?” asks Marcia McNutt, the chair of the NAS committee responsible for the report.

Credit: National Academy of Sciences

Two Kinds Of Geo-Engineering

The report separates geo-engineering into two distinct classes. The first, darbon dioxide removal (CDR), would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it deep in the ground or in the oceans. The second is called albedo modification (AM), which involves increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of the earth so the warming effect from the sun is diminished.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that more carbon dioxide in the oceans means more acidic seawater, which will lead directly to a dramatic reduction in seafood, a staple food that billions of people rely on. But hey, what’s a little starvation to Republicans? Those people don’t vote, and as Mitch McConnell likes to snarl, the winners get to make the rules.

The ideas range from planting more trees (which also means stopping the clear cutting of forests to grow crops to feed cattle) to ringing the earth with space dust to block some of the sun’s rays from reaching the surface of the earth. The NAS report says removing carbon from the atmosphere is less risky but more expensive. It is also a long way in the future, as the technology does not presently exist. Altering the earth’s albedo could be done now at less cost but its consequences are unknown and could be massive — as in billions of people dying from hunger and thirst.

Stuart Haszeldine, a professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, says: “The US National Academy report makes a smart distinction between slowly and deliberately putting carbon back underground and tinkering with sunlight reflection and adjusting the atmosphere. The first is slower, do-able, visible, and controllable but will cost more. The second is cheaper in the short term, but is poorly understood, will create global regions who are losers, and also means that humans have to keep maintaining the earth’s annual atmospheric injection.”

Carbon capture is no different than sequestering carbon in the permafrost found throughout the world. Melting of that permafrost is now one of the greatest threats to the environment as carbon locked up for millenia now is being released back into the atmosphere. Wouldn’t it be better and cheaper to take prudent steps to prevent melting of the permafrost in the first place?

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

What could possibly go wrong? Well, some countries might be upset if sulphate seeding causes droughts, famine and political upheaval. Wars could be fought over increasing scarce resources like food and water, but that’s of no concern to the advocates for these cockamamie ideas.

Professor Steve Rayner of Oxford University’s geo-engineering program and co-author of one of the most influential reports on the subject in 2009, addressed the likelihood of international conflict. “There are issues to do with the perceptions of the technology that make doing the stratospheric aerosol injection something that would be politically very dangerous to do without an international agreement… If you were to do it, any negative event that occurred would be attributed by some party or another to that intervention.”

Raymond Pierrehumbert, one of the authors of the NAS report, says of albedo modification research, “What is the point of actually investing in a research program that is specifically targeted at some aspects of the technology of albedo modification that you wouldn’t do for understanding climate in general. The report leaves the door open for doing some of those things… But my own feeling is that albedo modification really is a distraction from the main job of keeping the carbon dioxide emissions down.”

Biomass To The Rescue?

BECCS, the model depicted in the lower right corner of the graphic above, is what most climate scientists would like to see happen, but the carbon capture piece is just theoretical at this point. “You have to build an industry that is essentially reverse engineering two hundred years of the fossil fuel industry on a global scale,” says Steve Rayner. “There are real problems there with the length of time it would take to ramp up an industry on a scale that is actually going to make a difference to the atmosphere.”

This Is Too Important To Leave To Politicians

The NAS report adds, “Mitigation, although technologically feasible, has been difficult to achieve for political, economic, and social reasons that may persist well into the future… For that reason, it may be prudent to examine additional options for limiting the risks from climate change.”

Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, believes this could have serious implications for the politics of climate change. “The (NAS) report treats as only a theoretical concern the possibility that a major geoengineering research program would reduce political incentives to reduce carbon emissions. But anyone who has watched world leaders seize on carbon capture and storage as a means of having our cake and eating it can see what is coming. The world lost 10 years chasing the chimera of ‘clean coal’.”

Naomi Klein, in her latest book about climate change, “This Changes Everything,” says geo-engineering could be seen as a kind of Noah’s ark, a Deus ex machina type of supernatural intervention. “If geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative… It’s the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved.”

Rachel Smolker of the NGO BiofuelWatch goes even further. She suggests that geo-engineering research is being actively promoted by fossil fuel acolytes. “The geo-engineering clique is taking advantage of this situation to promote their planetary technological manipulations. Some of the most avid promoters of geo-engineering have links to the fossil fuel industries and to institutions that have backed climate denial.” And we know who is behind those institutions, don’t we, boys and girls?

David Keith Defends Research But Hopes He Is Wrong

Remember David Keith, the fellow who plans to conduct some sulphate spraying experiments over Arizona next year? Don’t mark him down as one of the bad guys. “One of the main concerns I and everyone involved in this have, is that Trump might tweet ‘geoengineering solves everything — we don’t have to bother about emissions.’

“That would break the slow moving agreement among many environmental groups that sound research in this field makes sense.” At the best, climate engineering is a supplement, and “it could be that we shouldn’t do it,” he insists.

“Our work is to inform better choices and it would actually be very useful to know for sure it didn’t work.

“Right now there are heads of state and others in leadership who are explicitly assuming it could work, that it’s there if we need it. But let’s say we found something deep in the climate models which suggested we were overoptimistic about solar geoengineering, then I would say ‘abandon it’. That would be great. I’d love to publish that.”

Cognitive Dissonance In The First Degree

The willingness of some people to actively discredit climate scientists in general while embracing geo-engineering science should tell you all you need to know about the climate denial industry. Just as long as they and their handlers are making a buck, they are perfectly willing to watch billions die, provoke world wars, or stand idly by while thousands of species are exterminated from the face of the earth — including perhaps the human species.

Anyone who treats the health and welfare of others with such callous disregard would ordinarily be regarded as a criminal, but if you have enough money and influence, the laws don’t apply to you. It is up to us, the little people, to scream and yell, kick up a fuss and advocate for policies that reduce carbon emissions and the sooner the better.

Our world is too precious to be left to liars, cheats and crooks. A good start would be to throw all of the corrupt legislators in the US Congress — the ones who slavishly follow the orders of the Koch Brothers — out in the street. November 2018 is not far away. The need is now and the urgency is great.

Source: The Guardian

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About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter. "There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest." Elie Wiesel

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