If We Can't Stop Emitting CO2, What's Our Plan B?

By Eliza Strickland | September 1, 2009 6:54 pm

earth atmosphereIt would be funny if it weren’t so serious: While some skeptics are still ignoring the scientific evidence and insisting that global warming is a hoax, engineers and scientists are already looking for the best “plan B” that can help out humanity in the likely event that the world’s governments can’t agree to cut carbon dioxide emissions fast enough to prevent serious global consequences. Just last week Britain’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers released their picks for the most realistic geoengineering tactics, and now the Royal Society, Britain’s top science academy, has weighed in with its suggestions.

A 12-member working group of scientists, engineers, an economist, a social scientist, and a lawyer spent nearly a year examining technologies, such as fertilizing the oceans to suck down atmospheric carbon dioxide or orbiting giant mirrors to deflect sunlight [ScienceInsider]. The subsequent report (pdf) argues that many of the most-hyped geoengineering ideas are simply too risky, including the proposal to fertilize the ocean to create carbon-absorbing algae blooms. “Most of the things that have gone wrong in the past have happened when we’ve tampered with biological systems” [New Scientist], says John Shepherd, who chaired the report committee.

The report separates geoengineering tactics into two basic approaches: those that reflect sunlight back into space to cool down the planet, and those that remove the heat-trapping gas carbon dioxide from the air. Of the two strategies, the report concluded that those involving the removal of carbon dioxide were preferable, as they effectively return the climate system closer to its pre-industrial state. But the authors found that many of these options were currently too expensive to implement widely. This included “carbon capture and storage” methods, which require CO2 be captured directly from power plants and stored under the Earth’s surface [BBC News]. Yet carbon capture and storage projects have been touted as an important response to global warming by power plants and governments alike.

Instead of such big, institutional carbon capture projects, the Royal Society report agrees with last week’s assessment from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers which suggested that “artificial trees” could line roadways and efficiently suck carbon dioxide out of the air. The new report also suggests that the planting of real, biological trees would help matters–but says both of these techniques would only produce results in the long run, over the course of decades.

But what do we do if we need to cool the planet in a hurry? In the event of an emergency where the Earth suddenly pitched into a different, hotter climate, however, the world may need to reflect back some sunlight, the report said, for example by shooting highly reflective aerosols into the atmosphere [Reuters]. While this would have an immediate impact, researchers note that it would do nothing to address the underlying problem of greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere. It also wouldn’t help our acidifying oceans, since oceanic carbon dixoide levels would continue to increase. Finally, the aerosols could change weather patterns in unforeseen ways.

There are costs and possible repercussions associated with each geoengineering proposal, Shepherd says, but humanity may not have a choice. “It is an unpalatable truth that unless we can succeed in greatly reducing CO2 emissions, we are headed for a very uncomfortable and challenging climate future. Geo-engineering and its consequences are the price we may have to pay for failure to act on climate change” [BBC News], he says.

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Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Feature, Technology

    The author starts by insulting those who disagree with him then presents no evidence to support his opinion. Where does Discover find these useful idots?

    As most popular articles and politicians do, this article and the people identified assume Global Warming exists and proceed to plan a response. They ignore recent and historical data and the science of Global Warming.

    RECENT global temperature readings show there has been no significant global warming since 1995, and statistically significant global cooling in the last 8 years. Global temp has declined 0.73 F since 2006. The seas are not rising. 90% of glaciers are growing. Both polar ice caps are growing. The oceans are cooling. The world is cooling.

    HISTORICALLY for last several hundred years, if the El Nino Southern Oscillation, the Pacific and Atlantic Decadal Oscillations continue, then the next 60 years should be cool. We are in the colder halves of concurrent 11 year and 120 year sunspot cycles and in the cooler phases of the Pacific and Atlantic Oscillations. The next 11 year cycle will not get as warm and will get colder than this cycle. Each successive 11 year cycle will be cooler for about another 60 years

    DATAWISE, according to the 2007 IPCC report, the DOE, the EPA, several universities and independent Climatologists:
    95% of Global Warming (GW) is due to water vapor
    5% is due to 5 green house gasses (GHG)
    Only 0.28% is due to man-made GHG
    Only 0.117% is due to CO2
    99.72% of GW is natural

    Reducing the 20% of US man-made GHG by 17% by 2020 as called for by HR 2454 would reduce GW by 17% of 20% of 0.28% or by 0.00952%, or less than one part in ten thousand.

    We taxpayers have spent $79 billion on GW research since 1989. We consumers were charged $126 Billion for the cap and con market in 2008.

    Global political leaders (including Gore and Chirac) hailed Kyota as, “the first component of an authentic global governance.” At the Bali conference they advocated, “the transfer of money from rich to poor nations.” In his books and interviews Obama has advocated redistribution of wealth.

  • http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/ Scott A. Mandia


    Global Warming: Man or Myth – the Science of Climate Change

    Historian of science, Naomi Oreskes of UC San Diego, states “Scientific knowledge is the intellectual and social consensus of affiliated experts based on the weight of available empirical evidence, and evaluated according to accepted methodologies. If we feel that a policy question deserves to be informed by scientific knowledge, then we have no choice but to ask, what is the consensus of experts on this matter.”

    Climate change has been extensively researched and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that the observed modern day global warming is unprecedented and is very likely caused by humans. Although there is little serious debate between climate experts, many in the general public still think that these scientists are unsure about climate change and the role that humans have played in modern day global warming. The Website above summarizes some of the key research that has led scientists to their overwhelming consensus while also addressing some of the unfounded claims by climate change skeptics and denialists.

    The only plausible explanation is that today’s warming is primarily due to human activities. The increase in greenhouse emissions can easily account for this warming. There is robust evidence for the man-made global warming. There are no other known sources of warming that can explain the observed modern climate change. People that claim there is no warming or that the warming is not caused by humans have offered no credible alternate hypotheses. Yes, these folks make claims but none of the claims has stood up to scientific scrutiny. Because I see/hear much disinformation from well-intentioned folks, I feel it is my duty to try to educate people on this very important matter. Unfortunately, it is an uphill battle because most of the real science is discussed in hard-to-read scientific journals and most of the bad science is easily accessible on Web pages, blogs, and other forms of mass media. Worse, there are political organizations such as The Heartland Institute that present themselves as scientific organizations but these organizations are directly and indirectly funded by the fossil fuel industry and others that stand to lose if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

    It is fine to be skeptical, but it is never fine to be a denialist. A skeptic is willing to hear both sides and is honest with his assessment of the information. A denialist blindly accepts everything that supports his opinion and immediately discards everything that does not. Carefully read my Global Warming site with an honest, open mind. Then weigh what I am discussing with what you have heard and where/who you have heard it from.

  • Bob Vorbis

    It’s unfortunate that this board puts oldest comments first. It forces everyone to live with that idiocy from XQZME for as long as this article is posted.

  • Ray

    xqzme should spend more time swimming with polar bears, and less time being a wannabe fixed news hound, puking 1000 word posts.

  • Gadfly

    Yeah, it’s a damn shame XQZME is right, but that won’t stop the koolaid drinkers from insulting him.

  • Bibi

    – National Geographic News (November 19, 2008): High-energy electrons captured over Antarctica could reveal the presence of a nearby but MYSTERIOUS ASTROPHYSICAL OBJECT that’s bombarding Earth with cosmic rays…
    – Aug. 31, 2009 – Coldest, driest, calmest place on Earth found… It’s at bottom of the world, more than 13,000 feet high on Antarctic Plateau
    The search for the best observatory site in the world has led to the discovery of what is thought to be the coldest, driest, calmest place on Earth — a place where no human is thought to have ever set foot…
    – South Pole Telescope (SPT) — America’s New Planet X Tracker
    Yowusa.com, 26-April-2006, Jacco van der Worp.
    Foreword by Marshall Masters – former CNN Science Features producer:

  • choo choo charlie

    Poor Excuse, and Gladfly- If the Earth isn’t warming, then why does the polar ice cap uprecedentedly melt in the summer? When the icecap retreats, less heat is reflected from Earth,
    causing a smaller icecap, and on and on. Your talking points are flawed. If you would cite your sources, we could see whose agenda is being furthered.

  • Gadfly

    Same to you, choo choo. My source is similar to the one cited by XQZME… it’s called common sense. If the total contribution of humanity is .28%, .0028 of all greenhouse gases it defies common sense that humanity is making any notable impact. Several critics have come forth and admitted that if you propose a “scientific” study that supports humanity is causing global warming you’ll get plenty of funding. If you propose a study that questions that conclusion, you won’t. Simple survival indicates that most studies set out to prove humanities impact. XQZME is not lying in his above analysis. Look at the stats. The earth has not been warming for 10 years. Yet greenhouse gases continue to climb. Hello? Anyone out there? Clearly there is no causal relationship. Funny how statistics that support your view are legit, statistics that don’t are discounted.

  • http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/ Scott A. Mandia

    By volume (rounded), the gas concentration of air includes 78% nitrogen (N2) and 21% oxygen (O2) with the remaining made up of gases including argon (1%), water vapor (0-1%), carbon dioxide (.04%), and other trace gases. The greenhouse effect from natural greenhouse gas concentrations prior to the Industrial Revolution has kept the Earth’s surface about 33 oC warmer than with an atmosphere with no greenhouse gases. Although greenhouse gas concentrations appear to be small, their effect is certainly not.

    There is a common misconception that the concentration levels of carbon dioxide are so small that they could not possibly be causing global warming. As mentioned previously, the natural greenhouse effect (from gas concentrations before the Industrial Revolution) has kept the Earth’s surface about 33 oC warmer than with an atmosphere with no greenhouse gases. Pre-Industrial Revolution CO2 levels ranged between 190 ppm and 300 ppm. Today they are rapidly approaching 400 ppm. Because levels of carbon dioxide are well above natural levels, it should not be hard to see how these increases could cause temperatures to rise at least a few degrees C. The 0.7 degree C warming since 1880 has already caused many problems, especially to ecosystems. A 2 degree warming would be quite catastrophic in many ways.

  • http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/ Scott A. Mandia

    Global cooling is a myth attributed to cherry-picking data. I detail this obvious fallacy at:


  • John

    Why do we have to do anything at all?
    The planet will be much better off with a lot less humans around!
    And lots stop calling it Global Warming, call it what it really is
    “Climate Change’ which is an on-going occurrence

  • Brian

    I maintain that the issue of whether climate change is caused by humans is a secondary concern.

    It does not matter who or what caused it. The climate is changing and the only questions that matter are:

    1). Should we do something about it?

    2). If so, what should we do about it?

    Skeptics will likely argue until the sun goes dark about who did what to whom. This is a delaying sideline that takes us away from the more important questions.

  • seth

    According to an Aug 19 article in huffingtonpost by steve-kirsch, we need to add-a-gigawatt-a-day of capacity starting today if we are to have any chance of averting a civilization destroying climate catastrophe. His numbers are unassailable.

    Unfortunately, he may be optimistic. Scientists are telling us that there is some chance we are as little as 10 years away from falling off a climate precipice with permafrost methane emissions and ocean acidification forming the leading edge of a very steep slope.

    Have you global warming deniers never heard of insurance? What if they are right and you are wrong and in 10 years we hit an irreversible climate slide. Do we throw y’all in slave labor camps as punishment for your stupidity?

    He lends his voice to the fury of who have studied the issue seeing us wasting time and treasure on too little too late technologies like wind, solar. biomass, carbon sequestration, conservation and silly tax schemes like cap and trade.

    Meanwhile a workable extremely low cost liquid fluorine thorium reactor design is sitting on the shelf at at a government research site in Idaho put there by that philandering fat head Bill Clinton.

    Senator Lamar Alexander advocates building 100 new nuclear power plants in the US over the next 20 years. He is way short. We need to start building one mass produced nuclear plant every day for the next 30 years, if we are to have any hope. Westinghouse’s recent sale to China pegs the cost at less than 2 cents a kilowatt hour. In the US,and around the world, it would end the recession putting everybody back to work and would be paid for by ending oil imports.

    Ten years from now I would hope fast breeder nukes like the liquid fluorine thorium reactor and fusion technologies like polywell and focus fusion become usable on an industrial scale.

  • http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/ Scott A. Mandia

    Brian and Seth are correct.

    “What’s the use of having developed a science well enough to make predictions if, in the end, all we’re willing to do is stand around and wait for them to come true?”
    — Nobel Laureate Sherwood Rowland (referring then to ozone depletion)

  • tonto

    When Mother Nature is chaffed enough, she will douche. “We gone”

    I hope we do a better job next time. It sucks that we tend to eradicate any groups of men that have harmonized with nature. Comanches
    lived on the plains for a thousand years, yet it took us less than 150 to create the dustbowl on the same ground.

  • Greg

    If we all listen to mindless idiots like gadfly and XQZME who parrot whatever propaganda that big oil is spewing into the mainstream media then our surviving descendants will all be living in Canada and Russia in a hundred years. Regions of the U.S. will either be too hot to live in and devoid of freshwater, too hot to grow crops in to sustain any population, or completely under the ocean. Miami, Boston, and NYC will be the first of the casualties. Ignoring all of the hard to digest atmospheric data, these simple minded fools only have to consider one question. If there is no global warming then why are more than 99 percent of all glaciers outside of the arctic retreating or gone, the greenland and west antarctic ice shelfs receding and breaking off, and the north polar ice cap shrinking so that the fabled northwest passage is now a reality? Plan B is a reasonable alternative due to the gross negligence of leading world nations to protect the future welfare of their citizens by acting responsibly instead of selfishly.

  • Gadfly

    Greg is a moron. I don’t care what the proportion of CO2 makes up in the atmosphere. Irelevant. The factor is — you all claim that warming is proportionate to total greenhouse gas. And humanity contributes .28% of the total being added each year by natural sources. That means if we reduce by 20% then 99.76 comes from natural sources instead of 99.72%. Wow, that’s going to make a difference. So, yeah, we should cripple our economy like Europe has FOR NOTHING. Talk about parroting propaganda. Go suck Al Gore’s toes….

  • chuck

    I don’t like to say things that are not nice, but Gadfly should stop pretending to be a scientist and stop talking.

  • darth dakyne

    well i was quite tempted to comment on Gadfly and XQZME and thier rediculous comments, but i got an idea I need to share,
    instead of useing carbon capture and storage to store the carbon under the ground, why don’t we find a way to manufacture it into carbon fiber?? I’m in the automotive industry and alot of people can gain from the weight savings of using carbonfiber componants instead of steel on their vehilces,(helping fuel economy and thusly polution and airquality) the only problem is that a limited manufacturing process has to supply all of northamerica, and they are going full boar, but it barely cuts it, keeping carbon fiber at a very high price, why not capture it and refine it into more raw materials, which can be used for everything from houses, cars, bicycles, and almost anything that is made from steel????? I dunno, it would seem more benificial and cheaper in the long run to do this, although the initial cost would be heafty, I’m sure it will be cheaper in the long run than when lets say and limestone or whatever actually leaks the carbon out again or somthing and we’re back to square one

  • http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/ Scott A. Mandia

    For those of you who might believe Gadfly and wish to see the observed data please see:



    Of course, natural sources are NOT contributing to the rapid increases in greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.


    Current data, longer term data, broader based data, seven years of corrected NASA GISS data, data from unrelated fields have all undermined the theories of the AGW promoters. All the models and projections of the IPCC and other AGW promoters differ considerably from observations. Many early AGW supporters are now DEBUNKING AGW in light of overwhelming, new evidence.


    ALL FOUR MAJOR GLOBAL TEMPERATURE MEASURERS recorded declining temperatures in the last few years. Scroll half way down to “MEASURING THE MEASURERS” at

    Several independent, peer reviewed investigations over various time periods (one was 420,000 years) show conclusively that changes in the air’s CO2 content cannot be responsible for major climate changes, for it would be a strange cause indeed that followed its effect!
    See page 3: http://english.pravda.ru/science/earth/106922-earth_ice_age-0

    A graph of temperature and Beryllium isotope concentration demonstrates that the warming of the 20th century was SOLAR-DRIVEN.

    The historical correlation between the regular fluctuations of THE SUN and earthly climate changes are so good that the odds of the correlation existing by chance are one in 100.

    There were four climate change consensuses in the last century. Consensus is not proof of a scientific theory. A petition by a substantial quantity of qualified scientists disclaiming a consensus is sufficient to REFUTE THE CLAIM OF CONSENSUS. 31,478 qualified scientists say there is no convincing scientific evidence that so-called greenhouse gasses are causing catastrophic heating of the earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the earth’s climate.

    Those who disregard the preceding scientific data, depend upon the following MYTHS.

    Many observers on either side can not answer the following 10 QUESTIONS correctly.

  • FrankLee

    I’ve tried to post a comment with links over 3 days and it was not posted. It appears you can not dispute the author! So I changed my name. If this works, look for more to come.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/ Eliza Strickland

    Hi. Apparently some people are having trouble getting their comments through. Let me assure you this is not a conspiracy — I don’t bar people from commenting just because they disagree with me.

    But this blog gets a ton of spam comments, which are filtered out by an automatic program. I don’t have the time (or a strong enough stomach–you should see some of the filth we get) to check through the spam filter every day. One tip: don’t put tooooo many links in your comment. That’s one of the red flags the program looks for in determining what’s spam. The above comment by XQZME, for example — I just fished that out of the spam filter.

  • http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/mandias/global_warming/ Scott A. Mandia

    There is not a single peer-reviewed (reliable) journal article that refutes AGW.

    The Oregon Petition is a well-documented fraud – I am surprised you did not realize that.

    Beginning in 1998 and continuing today, a petition has been circulated that asks people to sign a statement indicating that global warming is beneficial to mankind and that humans are not responsible for the current climate change observed today. The petition, organized by the Oregon Institute for Science and Medicine (OISM), includes a letter of support from Frederick Seitz, former President of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, along with a Wall Street Journal editorial and an article from The Journal of Physicians and Surgeons. This journal is not a peer-reviewed journal for climate science nor any other atmosphere-related field. In essence, anything published in this journal that relates to climate science must be considered “questionable” at best.

    The National Academy of Sciences has released the following statement regarding the OISM Petition:

    The petition project was a deliberate attempt to mislead scientists and to rally them in an attempt to undermine support for the Kyoto Protocol. The petition was not based on a review of the science of global climate change, nor were its signers experts in the field of climate science.

    When questioned in 1998, OISM’s Arthur Robinson admitted that only 2,100 signers of the Oregon Petition had identified themselves as physicists, geophysicists, climatologists, or meteorologists, “and of those the greatest number are physicists.” This grouping of fields concealed the fact that only a few dozen, at most, of the signatories were drawn from the core disciplines of climate science – such as meteorology, oceanography, and glaciology – and almost none were climate specialists. The names of the signers are available on the OISM’s website, but without listing any institutional affiliations or even city of residence, making it very difficult to determine their credentials or even whether they exist at all. OISM has refused to release information on the number of mailings it made.

    Because this petition is still being circulated today, one would think that the OISM would support their dubious claims by including a recent article from a peer-reviewed climate-related publication. Because OISM has not done so, it speaks volumes to these unfounded claims. This petition can only be considered as fraud.

    The IPCC 2007 and the Copenhagen 2009 Synthesis Report show that there is a virtual certainty about AGW and the unprecedented nature of AGW. You do not need to take my word for it. These are the experts from around the world. When we stop listening to experts in any field then we might as well stop going to school, stop reading, and stay in our caves.

    The denialists all differ in their finger pointing while the climate experts are all stating the same thing. Denialists will point to changes in ocean circulation, land surface changes, solar fluctuations, cloud fluctuation, volcanic activity, cosmic rays, etc. but NONE of these has been shown with any consensus to be the underlying driver of climate change. Man-made greenhouse gas emissions HAVE been shown with great consensus. The IPCC 2007 and the Copenhagen 2009 Synthesis Report show that there is a virtual certainty about AGW and the unprecedented nature of AGW.

    So we are left with three possible conclusions:

    1) An overwhelimg majority of climate experts agree on AGW and are honest.

    2) An overwhelming majority of climate experts are ignorant about their “expertise”. Basically they all have sudden and collective Alzheimer’s.

    3) They have all agreed to conspire to delude the billions of folks on the planet and just a very small % of them – the denialists – are trying to save us all from this mass hoax.

    Common sense and a sense of probability should lead you to the likely correct choice above.

    One final comment: The first person to show proof of what IS causing the unprecedented modern day global warming and that it is NOT greenhouse gas emissions by humans is the next Nobel Science winner.

    Perhaps you should consider reading what is being discussed in the peer-reviewed literature because when you cite Watts and Monckton you immediately lose credibility.

  • Ray R

    Hold on Scott, its the warmies with the burden of proof. To demand society prove this negative is ridiculous and no differant than requiring our defence from the usual crazies claiming the end is near.

    A political consensus is not science…proof is science and you have failed to provide it.

  • ben

    I really wish both sides of this discussion would stop throwing around insults, it does nothing but crystalise opposition to your arguments.

    XQZME, no-one is denying that the world has technically “cooled” since 1998. That’s far from incompatible with anthropogenic climate change, because the relevant scientific bodies never suggested that the change would be exactly linear. Climate is extremely complex, and it’s absurd to suggest that unless every single year is warmer than the last, then global warming is a “hoax”. There are other factors at play. 1998 is the global hottest year on record partly because of the enhancing effect of El Nino, amongst other factors. (Yes, I read your link – NASA does say that 1934 takes top spot, but that’s for the hottest year IN THE U.S, which covers a tiny fraction of the globe. Even if 1934 is were the hottest global temperature, that far from disproves man-contributed global warming) At least 4 of the 10 hottest years on record have been in the 11 years since then.

    Of course there are a minority of skeptics, as there should be with any scientific theory, even one as well proven as this. But the fact still remains that every major scientific organisation in the world, every relevant peer-reviewed paper in the world and the vast majority of climatologists all support the consensus. It’s very easy to scream “conspiracy” without evidence to dismiss arguments that you disagree with, but that doesn’t change the facts.

  • JJ

    The Earth is billions of years old, yet scientists are using less than 200 years of data, hardly a representative sample. We know, for a fact, that Earth was much warmer in it’s history than it is today. People don’t trust climatologists because their AGW claims have been highly politicized by Al Gore and those on the left. If anyone is angry, they should be angry at Al Gore for using ( and abusing) science to push a leftist agenda. He’s spewed numerous fallacies about global warming, as did a climatologist at the IPCC recently, along with those hacked e-mails that drew much suspicion. The IPCC is also part of the United Nations and the primary source referenced by those in Washington (conflict of interest?). It’s no wonder why people don’t trust them anymore. Politics has no place in science, it’s ruined the credibility of all involved in this debate.

  • http://www-affiliatedotcom.com Affiliatedotcom

    By volume (rounded), the gasoline concentration of air consists of 78% nitrogen (N2) and 21% oxygen (O2) using the remaining produced up of gases including argon (1%), water vapor (0-1%), carbon dioxide (.04%), and other trace gases. The greenhouse impact from natural greenhouse gasoline concentrations prior towards the Industrial Revolution has kept the Earth’s surface area about 33 oC warmer than with an atmosphere with no greenhouse gases. Despite the fact that greenhouse gasoline concentrations appear to become smaller, their impact is definitely not.

    There is a common misconception that the concentration ranges of carbon dioxide are so tiny that they could not possibly be causing global warming. As described previously, the normal greenhouse effect (from gasoline concentrations prior to the Industrial Revolution) has kept the Earth’s surface about 33 oC warmer than with an atmosphere without any greenhouse gases. Pre-Industrial Revolution CO2 amounts ranged between 190 ppm and 300 ppm. These days they’re quickly approaching 400 ppm. Mainly because levels of carbon dioxide are properly above normal levels, it should not be difficult to view how these increases could cause temperatures to rise a minimum of a handful of degrees C. The 0.7 degree C warming due to the fact 1880 has already triggered quite a few issues, especially to ecosystems. A 2 degree warming will be quite catastrophic in numerous methods.

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