Solar geoengineering is having another moment in the sun. The Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx), funded in part by Bill Gates, has passed another hurdle and a governance committee has been established to oversee its deployment.
The premise of solar geoengineering is straightforward. Sunlight passes through the Earth’s atmosphere with relative ease, hits the ground, warms it and the ground subsequently emits infrared which is trapped by the excess greenhouse gases we’ve put into the atmosphere. The intent of solar geoengineering is to increase the reflectivity of the atmosphere so that less light gets to the ground in the first place, but instead bounces back into space. If less energy gets to the ground, atmospheric temperatures do not increase. It’s potentially a giant thermostat control knob for the planet. But, as always, there are challenges with this.
The initial experiment being discussed would be minimally intrusive, intended to answer specific scientific questions and not to introduce chemicals into the stratosphere. The high-altitude balloon would lift an instrument package 20 kilometers into the stratosphere and release less than 2 kilograms of material, initially simply ice, into a volume of air about a kilometer long and a hundred meters in diameter. Should all go well, then further experiments with other substances such as calcium carbonate would be conducted.
To be clear, this is simply an experiment, it will advance human knowledge, it will answer some interesting scientific questions, and the likelihood of the experiments themselves causing any environmental concerns are zero, outside of chaos theory thought experiments and butterflies. The experiments and advancing the science are not the concern.
Solar geoengineering, if actually performed, is another matter.
Let’s start with the obvious. It doesn’t deal with root causes, but only with a subset of symptoms. Solar geoengineering does not address the root causes of global warming in any way. It doesn’t change the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere at all, it merely masks them.
This is likely why the Trump administration and its preponderance of fossil fuel industry members support solar geoengineering, unlike the Obama administration before it. As The Guardian pointed out in 2017:
“While geoengineering received little favour under Obama, high-level officials within the Trump administration have been long-time advocates for planetary-scale manipulation of Earth systems. David Schnare, an architect of Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency transition, has lobbied the US government and testified to Senate in favour of federal support for geoengineering.”
It’s unsurprising that the Obama administration wasn’t in favor of it. They did strongly tend to prefer solutions to problems, not bandaids for symptoms and weren’t inherently cheerleaders for the fossil fuel industry.
But global warming’s root causes do more than just warm the atmosphere. Excessive use of fossil fuels has many other symptoms, some of them potentially just as dire. As I said in a recent article:
“We have to stop emitting CO2 so that oceans don’t acidify even more than absolutely necessary, but even if we stopped now, oceans would be getting more acidic for the next century or two, and that could be fatal to pretty much all of us.”
Solar geoengineering doesn’t do a thing for oceanic acidification because it’s a different symptom of the same root cause, one the bandaid doesn’t cover. That’s one of the problems with treating symptoms instead of root causes.
But that’s not all. Most of us have experienced being in a home or office where someone has control of the thermostat and tries to adjust it to their comfort. Fluctuations of temperature result as the climate control system kicks in and out. That’s a feedback mechanism that’s inducing oscillation. It’s annoying in a shared workplace, but at the level of the planet it has much more serious consequences.
Remember that the problem is not a warmer average global temperature, but a rapid change in average global temperature. We’re already at about 20% of the warming that melted the continental glaciers and on track for 40% to 60% of the temperature increase, and we are doing it in a couple of centuries instead of 5,000 years. The rate of change is the problem. Further, the average increase masks substantial variance in actual temperature swings in specific areas, with polar regions leading with much higher average temperatures.
Solar geoengineering has the strong potential to cause a rapid plunge in global average temperatures. This isn’t new news, but the subject of study and modeling in and of itself. The 2018 Nature paper, Potentially dangerous consequences for biodiversity of solar geoengineering implementation and termination, by Trisos et al, lays it out starkly.
sudden termination increases both ocean and land temperature velocities to unprecedented speeds (global medians >10 km yr−1) that are more than double the temperature velocities for recent and future climate change in global biodiversity hotspots. Furthermore, as climate velocities more than double in speed, rapid climate fragmentation occurs in biomes such as temperate grasslands and forests where temperature and precipitation velocity vectors diverge spatially by >90°. Rapid geoengineering termination would significantly increase the threats to biodiversity from climate change.
The bold emphasis in the text has been added, but it’s worth making it stand out. Among other things, what this paper makes clear is that we have to turn the thermostat very, very little and then leave it alone. We might be able to take the edge off of global warming, but we aren’t going to make the planet cooler.
Further, as solar geoengineering solely deals with (a subset of) symptoms, the temperature knob automatically turns itself up so we have to keep turning it very gently down year after year, decade after decade. Starting solar geoengineering commits us to continuing it, a non-trivial global effort.
That’s why the Oxford Principles on Geoengineering exist. The people behind that understand the global ramifications of any geoengineering and the risks involved.
Principle 1: Geoengineering to be regulated as a public good
Principle 2: Public participation in geoengineering decision-making
Principle 3: Disclosure of geoengineering research and open publication of results
Principle 4: Independent assessment of impacts
Principle 5: Governance before deployment
Personally, having reviewed the principles and done the research and publication of articles on the global scale and interactions of warming causes, impacts and solutions, I think that the Oxford Principles are on the right track and need to have serious teeth.
We’ve already seen a. We really don’t want a rogue billionaire messing around with the temperature knob on the planet.
I’m sure that the principles behind SCoPEx are aware of the Principles, but it’s less clear that they consider them binding or meaningful. I’ve reached out to one of geoengineering leads behind SCoPEx, Professor Frank Keutsch of Harvard, to see what their stance on the Principles are and if Keutsch is forthcoming, the article will be updated.
But of course, that’s not the end of the story. Fossil fuel use is also a primary cause of habitat destruction, air pollution, and water pollution globally. The World Health Organization points to air pollution as the leading cause of premature deaths globally, in the millions, and much of that is directly attributable to fossil fuel use.
So we have a bandaid that would lead, most likely, to more use of fossil fuels, wouldn’t do a thing for other major issues related to the use of fossil fuels including the potentially catastrophic impacts of oceanic acidification, air pollution deaths and habitat destruction, and may lead to temperature changes so rapid that they cause worse problems.
The US National Academy of Science certainly agrees that it’s a poor idea.
“There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change. […] albedo-modification techniques would only temporarily mask the warming effect caused by high CO2 concentrations, and present serious known and possible unknown environmental, social, and political risks”
So did the Committee on Geoengineering Climate: Technical Evaluation and Discussion of Impacts; Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate; Ocean Studies Board; Division on Earth and Life Studies; National Research Council:
“while in theory geoengineering may seem like a good idea, it’s actually both “irrational and irresponsible.“
Everyone involved with solar geoengineering, as far as I can tell, is careful to say that the first efforts must be on reducing fossil fuel consumption. This isn’t an ignored or unknown issue. The problem is that many influential stakeholders would vastly prefer a technical bandaid to solving the root causes, and they are beating the drum for solar geoengineering instead of a reduction of fossil fuel consumption.
If we have to apply this bandaid, we’ve lost.
But the headline of the article promises a Bill Gates story, so lets turn the page on this hopefully-never-used bandaid and return to Gates.
First, it’s important to note that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been tremendously effective in disease prevention and eradication globally. Their efforts on that subject are stellar, and show that they have the right people providing guidance to them, as neither are epidemiologists or public health specialists. Neither am I, but I did help build the world’s most sophisticated communicable disease and vaccination management system in the world, so I have sufficient knowledge to know what expertise looks like in this space, and publish in the area of health moderately regularly, most recently on the first human communicable disease apparently caused by global warming itself, the rise of multiple drug resistant C. auris.
My ability to discern when someone is receiving good advice on the solutions for global warming is roughly equivalent to my ability to do so on global infectious diseases. I was Senior Fellow – Wind Energy with a Washington think tank, and I’ve read a tremendous amount of the research on solutions and published extensively on the scale issues of different solution sets. Gates does not show evidence that he has the right advisors related to global warming solutions.
His support for the potentially dangerous bandaid of solar geoengineering is one data point. He’s not alone in this, of course, but is perhaps the most recognizable name on the list, matched perhaps only by Pritzker. Headlines and social media related to the latest change in status of the SCoPEx have tended to use Gates’ name because he’s so well known and influential, and that influence and recognition bears weight.
Further, he was an early investor in Carbon Engineering, the air-carbon capture company founded by David Keith a few years ago. I published ten deep dives into the technology, economics, and alternatives underpinning Carbon Engineering’s approach earlier this year. I found that the only natural market for the solution was enhanced oil recovery, and in fact that’s the only real initiative that the company has contracted for, with the petroleum major Occidental.
Yes, David Keith is behind not only the enhanced oil recovery solution for fossil fuel majors, but also is one of the pre-eminent solar geoengineering experts and advocates in the world. His first publication on the subject appears to be the 1992 EOS American Geophysical Union paper, A serious look at geoengineering, in which he and his co-author recommend a more rigorous research program on the subject. But there is more. Keith, with his associate Lee Miller, has published two papers which are fairly radically divergent from scientific consensus on the limits and advantages of wind energy. The most recent one made the bold assertion that using wind energy would warm the USA as much as global warming itself would, a finding which requires very careful selection of data and conditions to support, but which also generated global headlines delighting anti-wind advocates. Keith and I touched on this point as well in our conversation but also did not pursue it. I was left with the impression of a bias based on misplaced environmental concerns.
But back to Bill Gates. Despite a decade of global setbacks for nuclear which is matched by a decade of successes for renewables, Gates is still one of nuclear energy’s strongest supporters. China was the perfect test bed, and it has vastly exceeded wind and solar goals even as the longer running nuclear program underperformed substantially. South Korea is decommissioning its fleet of scandal-ridden reactors with substandard parts build in densely populated areas. The USA has failed to commission a single new reactor with the exception of one started in the early 1980s, and abandoned more modern ones. France has committed to cutting its fleet by a third and is seeing massive budget and schedule overruns with its attempt to build a new one. Germany, under the technocratic Merkel, is shutting down its entire nuclear fleet. All of these countries are doubling down on renewables, and sidelining or outright abandoning nuclear.
Yet Gates continues to be not only an influential booster of nuclear energy but a major investor in new nuclear technology such as Terrapower, a company he founded in 2006, another nuclear venture which is failing to achieve targets. He’s promised billions to Congress if they take his advanced nuclear plans forward. But even if Terrapower succeeds in building a form of generation that can successfully and reliably deliver low-carbon electricity to the grid, the odds that it will be cheaper than the projected $20 per MWh by 2030 of renewables are incredibly low. It’s not a winning bet and it won’t be a substantial wedge against global warming in the best case scenario.
It’s clear that Gates is not attending to the empirical reality of the success of renewable energy and the global failure of nuclear energy as a solution to global warming. His funding for solutions would be vastly better spent in areas where there is a much higher likelihood of value being achieve.
But at present, Gates is spending more of his money funding technologies we never want to use and technologies which won’t have anything to do if they ever see the market than technologies actually pertinent to the problem the world faces. It was possible in the 2000s to think that nuclear was a core part of the toolkit and that renewables might not be sufficient, but the past decade has made it clear that the inverse is true. Renewables are the core part of the toolkit. Nuclear isn’t up to the job. Bill Gates is listening to the wrong people.
Bill Gates needs new global warming solutions advisors. His influence and billions are being squandered right now. May I suggest that he set up a substantial amount of time with Mark Z. Jacobson of 100% Renewables by 2050 fame as a starting point?
- Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx)
- Potentially dangerous consequences for biodiversity of solar geoengineering implementation and termination
- Trump presidency ‘opens door’ to planet-hacking geoengineer experiments
- Oceans Need Geoengineering, Not The Atmosphere
- Oxford Principles on Geoengineering
- Keutsch Research Group, Harvard University
- World Health Organization Air Pollution
- A Fungus Is Now Infecting Humans & Global Warming May Be To Blame
- Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program Funding
- “That Was Quick” Category: Carbon Engineering Partners With Occidental To Pump More Oil
- A serious look at geoengineering
- Climatic Impacts of Wind Power
- Wind & Solar In China Generating 2× Nuclear Today, Will Be 4× By 2030
- Some Good News For The US Nuclear Fleet & Renewables
- US Commentators Point At Germany For Bad Energy Policies, But Live In Glass Houses
- Bill Gates’s Experimental Nuclear Power Plant Halts Construction in China
- Report: Bill Gates promises to add his own billions if Congress helps with his nuclear power push
- New Mark Z. Jacobson Study Draws A Roadmap To 100% Renewable Energy
- Geoengineering for Climate Change: Nature Has Already Demonstrated the Process and Some Effects
- New Reports Say Climate Intervention Techniques Not Ready for Wide-Scale Deployment
- World’s biggest geoengineering experiment ‘violates’ UN rules