Moving the climate debate forward: geo-engineering

[Via Dan W's comment at TNC]

AP Newsbreak: Obama looks at climate engineering:

The president’s new science adviser said Wednesday that global warming is so dire, the Obama administration is discussing radical technologies to cool Earth’s air.

John Holdren told The Associated Press in his first interview since being confirmed last month that the idea of geoengineering the climate is being discussed. One such extreme option includes shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays. Holdren said such an experimental measure would only be used as a last resort.

“It’s got to be looked at,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.”

There is a lot of skepticism- much of it well-founded, some of it hysterical and unreasoned- surrounding geo-engineering. Many view it along with CCS as nothing more than a more sophisticated attempt to move the goal posts on emissions reductions further still into the future even as we accumulate ever more of them in our atmosphere. I confess to having had similar doubts, especially when proponents of geo-engineering seem to miss completely the non-warming negative effects of increasing carbon levels (e.g. ocean acidification) or of the additional problems their proposed solutions can pose to issues relating to international law and security.

However, like Holdren, I think that we are reaching the point where we need to do due diligence regarding its exploration, provided mitigation and adaptation are still as aggressively pursued as possible. Moreover, a serious examination of geo-engineering as a possible tool to combat climate change can only serve to bring the severity of less-recognized consequences of failing to mitigate to the fore.

We’re in a situation where this issue has become partisan to the point where self-identified members of the opposition party in the US in large numbers reject climate science’s mainstream (and possibly overly-conservative- e.g. the AR4) conclusions: anthropogenic climate change is happening; the consequences beyond 2-3C of warming will be on the balance negative; the costs of action are likely significantly less than inaction.

Moving the issue away from the Inhofe-Bachman-Shimkus-Limbaugh-Will idiocy and into serious discussions of what tools we have at our disposal can, at this point, only be for the good. There exists a rather tedious meme that in order to address climate change, “enviros” have to be willing to sacrifice a few sacred cows (even as, from old-growth forests to a nuclear “revolution”, such claims are largely unfounded). In the cases of CCS and geo-engineering, however, there may be some small grain of truth to it. Not inasmuch as these should become the primary focus of mainstream efforts to combat climate change- but rather that they can no longer be deemed a priori verbotten if we are going to ever seriously move towards meaningful action.

If preventing disastrous climatic change is your serious goal, you should welcome an honest appraisal of every tool in the collective kit. If CCS and geo-engineering are truly the smokescreens some claim they are, the truth will out. If CCS can eventually be a legitimate component of emissions-reduction based mitigation, then we should embrace it if only conditionally upon concurrent changes to coal usage. If geo-engineering proves to be viable only as a last resort due to its own negative consequences, better to have that knowledge sooner rather than later and redouble efforts to get some sort of treaty in place as soon as possible.

Disinformation will continue to be put forth and I plan on continuing to push back in response. But I would much rather see us, in terms of policy, pushing forward. An honest appraisal of all of our options going forward cannot be anyone’s sacred cow.

[UPDATE: Holdren is walking back the idea that he was discussing Administration policy:

I said that the approaches that have been surfaced so far seem problematic in terms of both efficacy and side effects, but we have to look at the possibilities and understand them because if we get desperate enough it will be considered. I also made clear that this was my personal view, not Administration policy. Asked whether I had mentioned geo-engineering in any White House discussions, though, I said that I had. This is NOT the same thing as saying the White House is giving serious consideration to geo-engineering - which it isn't - and I am disappointed that the headline and the text of the article suggest otherwise.

Fair enough. I didn't think there was anything particularly outrageous about the comments as reported by the AP, but I guess this shows what a sensitive subject geo-engineering remains. And with reports that DARPA is looking into it and some hints of disillusionment with what the US will be willing to offer at Copenhagen, it's certainly understandable why the Administration would be quick to squash any notion among fellow negotiators that it was actively pursuing geo-engineering as a strategy.]

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11 responses to “Moving the climate debate forward: geo-engineering

  1. Thought provoking post. My concern is the possibility of a two part problem (which I think you imply in the post).

    Part 1 — Holding off on subjecting geo-engineering proposals to critical evaluation and trials will likely only serve to elevate the likelihood of their efficacy to urban legend status, and open the door for political theater — e.g., certain people will claim “we don’t think AGW climate change exists, but even if it does those commie pinko-greens are standing in the way of the techno-wonder solutions that will save us all (so we still don’t need to bother with mitigation in any event).”

    Part 2 — Things get so bad that we have no choice but to pursue geo-engineering solutions – and they either don’t work or produce intolerable side effects. (See for example, the recent iron seeding experiment failure, which deflated a lot of confident predictions about the viability of that approach.) Then what do we do? Better to know up front whether any of these proposals are actually feasible, than have people inflating unrealistic expectations for them, using these expectations to block mitigation efforts, and then discovering that none of the geo-engineering miracle cures we’re depending on actually work.

  2. rustneversleeps

    Good post. Will try to write more here or elsewhere, but will at least add Marty Weitzman’s most recent working paper – arguing that the fat-tailed uncertainty of CC risk leads to an economic case for urgent and large mitigation efforts – also suggests that the same fat-tailed uncertainty suggests large expenditures on “fast-response” geoengineering studies – as extra short-term insurance in case of really bad outcomes:

    “So the very first thing to say here is that the fat upper tail of the PDF of possible temperature changes lends even greater urgency to reducing GHG emissions by levying a substantial tax on the burning of fossil fuels. Having said this, there is more to say.

    “The fat tails introduce some distinctive issues of their own. Responsible economic analysis of
    fat tails implies some tolerance for at least considering extreme-sounding proposals that are not normally placed on the policy table for discussion. One consequence of fat-tailed logic
    might concern the role of fast-acting planetary geoengineering. The opinion that follows
    might be construed as editorializing, but it seems to me that the analysis of this paper
    leads logically to a narrowly-defined niche role for a reliable backstop technology that can
    e¤ectively knock down high planetary temperatures quickly in case of emergency.”

  3. Geoengineering is a strange idea. The people who most support it, deny the most crucial element can be done.

    In order for engineering schemes to be implemented, we have to have reason to believe that we know that they’ll do more good than harm. The way to decide that is run a model. This is how it’s done for any other engineering proposal.

    The irony is that the people who most point to geoengineering, most deny that climate models are any good. If they’re right about the climate models, they’re wrong about geoengineering being doable. And vice versa.

  4. But that’s rather the point of having a serious in depth analysis of the benefits/consequences, isn’t it? To take geo-engineering out of the hands of the delayers?

    I’ve yet to see a viable geo-engineering scheme that can address ocean acidification. Giving geo-engineering a fair assessment will bring its deficiencies to the fore and emphasize dangers of non-mitigation the general public isn’t aware of.

    The worst case scenarios I can think of are:

    1) It’s used as an excuse to do nothing and continue “wait and see.”
    2) We do something reckless and cause massive ecological/environmental/humanitarian harm.

    Aren’t we already on both of those paths at the moment?

  5. Ocean acidification is addressable in concept, the practice doesn’t seem so good. The main routes so far for geoengineering that would improve that situation are the ‘iron fertilization’ and ‘biochar’ ideas. The problem with iron fertilization is that even if it worked as hoped by its proponents, it wouldn’t decrease CO2 levels below current — acidic ocean — levels. Worse, with the recent experiment, it also doesn’t look like it’ll work as hoped. ‘biochar’ hasn’t been tested on any large scale, and the energy requirements for executing it seem prohibitive to me at a glance. (But, given the area, my glance isn’t terribly meaningful.)

    Some 15 years ago, on usenet, John McCarthy (inventor of LISP and a generally bright guy) decried how climate folks weren’t looking in to geoengineering. He was already wrong then, and more ideas (biochar is more recent, iron fertilization is not) have come up since.

    For we who are willing to listen to the best science and engineering, it’s sensible to be looking at what options may exist for geoengineering.

    But most of the talk towards geoengineering (McCarthy included) is not in that vein. It is “I don’t want to do anything now, so I’ll pretend that all problems can be fixed later.” Regardless of the results of our research on geoengineering, this will still be their response. Same as they now say climate models that arrive at answers they don’t like are no good, they’ll say that the geoengineering models that arrive at answers they don’t like are no good.

    If you take such people at their present word, you’re only wasting your time and energy.

    The real battle to be fought, starting 30 years ago, is the one in favor of reality-based decision making. Until that one is won, the reasearch doesn’t matter.

  6. I understand- I just think we’re talking about two somewhat different things. I don’t under any circumstance think that looking at geo-engineering feasibility is an excuse to not [that makes quite a bit of difference!] push as hard as possible for mitigation. I think that such an evaluation could make the case for mitigation even stronger.

    You’re worried on a completely different level that it may result in endless goalpost moving due to the unseriousness of many of its proponents. I certainly understand and agree with that concern.

    Joe Romm also echoes your points: Conservatives like geoengineering as a talking point because they think it obviates the need for serious mitigation, which it doesn’t. The AP notes, “The conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute has its own geoengineering project, saying it could be ‘feasible and cost-effective.’ “ But this is just a talking point. In reality, actual deployment of serious geo-engineering requires two things that conservatives completely reject today — climate scientists and climate models.

    If you don’t believe climate models, then you would never contemplate geo-engineering in a million years. Only models can tell you what geo-engineering might do – there is no way to run a global experiment at scale and there are no paleoclimate analogs of the kind of geo-engineering that is being contemplated. But this is the Catch-22. Long before you had enough faith in climate scientists and climate models to justify geo-engineering, you would have a near certain understanding of the catastrophic global warming impacts we face on our current emissions path and a near certain understanding of how mitigation is the wisest and safest response.

    I don’t disagree with either of you. I hope that’s clear. If geo-engineering is seriously evaluated and people dismiss the findings on grounds of ‘models-aren’t-reality’, then they will be relegated to the dustbin with the rest of the deniers/delayers.

    [Edited to add]

    Also, I’m aware of the implementation problems with iron fertilization, but I’ve not read much about biochar in terms of combating ocean acidification. Are there any papers that explicitly look at biochar as a mitigation against acidification that you can recommend, or is it pretty much a case of extrapolation from general atmospheric reduction papers? Thanks.

  7. If things get bad enough, then you consider solutions in proportion to the perceived severity of the problem. These types of ideas are nearly completely untested and should only be attempted in an absolute emergency. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to be any better evaluated at that point than they are now, and it will be essentially a hail Mary pass, as likely to make things worse as make them better.

    From a purely psychological point of view, I don’t believe in these types of “solutions” because they aren’t. They are just manifestations of the human tendency not to do the hard and difficult changes necessary, when they’re necessary, and then hoping God will win it for us with a 3 run homer in the bottom of the ninth. We know what’s needed–conservation, change in lifestyle, renewal energies (of which there are many). Those things WILL work, as opposed to these wild schemes, which even if they do work to some degree, only provide fuel for continuing not to address the root causes.

    Extremely dangerous thought/behavior pattern. Extremely.

  8. thingsbreak: Sorry, I did hare off after a different point than your main line without making note of the fact. The population that is seeking merely to waste scientific and engineering time, energy, dollars, etc., is large enough, however, that I think it’s important to consider it in our approach to thinking about geoengineering.

    Now, within the realm of making serious consideration of geoengineering … as for anything else, I think forewarned is forearmed. The more we know, the better. And that does include geoengineering. But there’s a quite different issue that also needs to be examined. Suppose I discover a method for geoengineering so that the global mean temperature won’t rise. But, as for anything, there will be effects on where rain falls, how much, how fast, where storms go, and regional temperatures (global might be halted, but almost nothing will act uniformly everywhere). Still, for sake of discussion, it’s also cheap enough to be implementable.

    How do you get countries to pay? How do you decide how much they pay? Are you going to get agreement from countries that see their temperature/rain/wind/storm/… likely to change in a way they don’t like to join up? How? This is entirely a political question, and one that seems enormously unlikely to be approached with any seriousness. I think the science and technology are much, much more solvable than the political problem of a posteriori geoengineering. (Look up the history of weather modification experiments if you can.)

    On the technical side, it’s clearly far, far, easier to deal with high concentrations of things than low concentrations. Easier to capture at a combustion source (many percent CO2) than to strip it back out of the atmosphere later (parts per million). Even easier to deal with carbon that is never emitted in the first place.

    More exotic solutions, like the ‘sun shade’ idea that’s so popular with science fiction fans … just how well do they think we understand how the climate works? Ditto putting dams across some straits, or … quite a few. I’m confident that such structures can be engineered (well, not so much the sun shade, once you get to the realities there the numbers are very unpleasant and untried, but dams, fleets of ships, fleets of blimps, charring large quantities of organic matter, … are proven technologies, with ‘only’ scale as an issue). But I’m not so confident that the models can manage enough detail to tell us with enough confidence that we’re not shooting ourselves in the foot.

    The current climate scenario — adding a chemically inactive gas that is radiatively active, over decades, to the global atmosphere, is among the simplest possible climate change scenarios to model. Putting a white tarp over the entire earth would be easier. But putting one only over desert areas (the better to reflect sun) is harder. More localized effects are harder to deal with than global ones.

    A few more thoughts. As a long time SF reader, I have played with many geoengineering ideas myself.

  9. How do you get countries to pay? How do you decide how much they pay? Are you going to get agreement from countries that see their temperature/rain/wind/storm/… likely to change in a way they don’t like to join up? How? This is entirely a political question, and one that seems enormously unlikely to be approached with any seriousness. I think the science and technology are much, much more solvable than the political problem of a posteriori geoengineering.

    I’m right there with you- as I recently commented:

    it’s difficult for me to imagine how geo-engineering would prove to be less of an international treaty/regulatory hassle than emissions reductions

    I think that we’re agreeing about the same things, but concerned about them differently. Things that we both seem to take as a given- the lack of any real viable solution, the possibility of negating one aspect (e.g. global avg. surface temp increase) while ignoring/exacerbating others, the political nightmare, the potential for use as a delaying tactic, etc.- I would very much like to see communicated to the public. In that, I think an honest appraisal of geo-engineering would be extremely useful to say nothing of removing the “it isn’t anthropogenic/happening” component from the debate.

    Now, within the realm of making serious consideration of geoengineering … as for anything else, I think forewarned is forearmed. The more we know, the better.

    And this as well.

  10. Sometimes I muse out loud. Sometimes, I wind up repeating ideas others have mentioned earlier (I’m irritatingly bad at remembering where I first heard ideas — I’m pretty sure that I read the earlier post you re-quote. Sorry to have forgotten.)

    But, there’s one merit to the somewhat scattershot business. The more different reasons or views that come up supporting a particular approach, the better it likely is. I’m a believer in bashing around on ideas. That includes mine, though, of course, I’m not as calm about that stage :-) Still, I’m making the comments here because I think it’s an interesting idea, you have good points, and I’d like to see them developed more.

    Keep up the good work!

  11. Pingback: On geo-engineering » Mind of Dan

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