This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist and policy wonk, who encourages the scientific community to get engaged in the policy-making process
While many of us were howling about global warming over the last decade, Earth’s surface temperature actually failed to significantly increase. Yes, I said it. Global surface temperature showed little warming between 1998 and 2008. But, don’t go and broadcast the demise of the global warming movement quite yet. The reasons for the cooling trend are not encouraging. In fact, they are quite threatening. And, if environmentalists have their way (and I think they should), global warming will reemerge and may do so at an alarming rate.
A team of researchers led by Harvard professor James Stock have determined that gases resulting from human activities in conjunction with natural variables can explain the “1999-2008 hiatus in warming.” Using published statistical models, they were able to demonstrate that a rapid increase in coal consumption in Asia likely generates sufficient sulfur emissions to reduce global surface temperatures. They write,
We find that this hiatus in warming coincides with a period of little increase in the sum of anthropogenic and natural forcings. Declining solar insolation as part of a normal eleven-year cycle, and a cyclical change from an El Nino to a La Nina dominate our measure of anthropogenic effects because rapid growth in short-lived sulfur emissions partially offsets rising greenhouse gas concentrations.
In other words, despite the influence of other natural variables, sulfur dioxide is the major driver of recent temperature fluctuations. Sulfur dioxide is a natural by-product of burning coal. Accumulation of sulfur dioxide aerosols in the atmosphere reflects the sun’s rays leading to a cooling effect on global surface temperatures. Because emissions from human activities greatly exceed natural production, increased dependence upon coal-based energy production can lead to sulfur dioxide-driven cooling effects that counteract the warming caused by increasing carbon dioxide.
The authors cite China’s growing dependence on coal as an energy source to explain the increase in sulfur emissions. From 2003 to 2007, Chinese coal consumption more than doubled. Prior to that, it took 22 years for China to double its coal usage. Whereas global coal consumption increased by 27% from 1980 to 2002, the recent Chinese growth rate which occurs over a 4 year period (5 times the previous rate) represents 77% of the 26% rise in global coal consumption.
It’s just the next stage in the mainstreaming of geoengineering: Now the House Committee on Science, chaired by Bart Gordon, has released a report supporting further research on the topic–not to the detriment of capping emissions, but because capping emissions might not be enough. Here’s the punchline:
Climate engineering, also known as geoengineering, can be described as the deliberate large scale modification of the earth’s climate systems for the purposes of counteracting and mitigating climate change. As this subject becomes the focus of more serious consideration and scrutiny within the scientific and policy communities, it is important to acknowledge that climate engineering carries with it not only possible benefits, but also an enormous range of uncertainties, ethical and political concerns, and the potential for harmful environmental and economic side effects. I believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the first priority of any domestic or international climate initiative. Nothing should distract us from this priority, and climate engineering must not divert any of the resources dedicated to greenhouse gas reductions and clean energy development. However, we are facing an unfortunate reality. The global climate is already changing and the onset of climate change impacts may outpace the world’s political, technical, and economic capacities to prevent and adapt to them. Therefore, policymakers should begin consideration of climate engineering research now to better understand which technologies or methods, if any, represent viable stopgap strategies for managing our changing climate and which pose unacceptable risks.
You can access the full report here.
Honestly, one shouldn’t find the conclusion surprising. Anyone who really understands the scope of the climate problem, and the cost considerations that go along with mitigation, ends up being forced toward a view like this one. That’s just how reality works these days.
The folks at Blue Ridge are very happy about how widely this column has circulated, especially given this line from the piece:
Unfortunately, you’ve probably never heard of “geoengineering.” Less than 1 percent of Americans currently know what it is, according to a recent poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change.
Perhaps I changed that the tiniest bit with the column (though I can hardly say even 1 percent of Americans read it).
In any event, the point of the piece is to highlight the difference between the lack of public awareness about geoengineering and the ferment among scientists:
The utter lack of public awareness sharply contrasts with what’s happening in the expert arena, where talk of geoengineering the planet has become common. Top scientific organizations like the British Royal Society and the American Meteorological Society have suggested that scientists should at least study the possibility of interfering with the climate system, while Russian scientists have begun small-scale geoengineering field trials.
That’s right — this thing you’ve never heard of could soon be on a fast track to happening.
The time may yet come when they get it.
Much of the lengthy post seems devoted to highly rhetorical nitpicking, but it is fun to read:
No, I am saying that the futurological discourse of “geo-engineering” actually functions to create the appearance of a phenomenon where there is none, it functions as futurological frames tend to do as a derangement of sense, a distraction from substance onto non-substance, a substitute of frivolous over-generalities and hyperbolic promises for deliberation about actually complex, actually contingent technodevelopmental problems with a diversity of stakeholders.
I agree with Amor Mundi that the definition of geoengineering that I gave in my post (“engaging in some type of deliberate intervention to alter the planet and thereby counteract global warming”) was probably too broad. Chalk it up to blogspeed; but of course, we both know what we’re talking about. And if you change “deliberate intervention” to “large-scale, deliberate, and immediate technological intervention” then we’re probably fine.
But even this definition is not as good as Amor Mundi’s version contribution: “a ramifying suite of mega-engineering wet-dreams.” Now that is a definition.
There is a good point here–all “geoengineering” is not the same:
Not to put too fine a point on it, the notion of “geo-engineering” seems to me to subsume far too many actually substantially different techniques in the service of far too many actually substantially different outcomes to be of much practical use in any of the deliberations into which it is being injected so enthusiastically by futurologists.
Yes, and similarly, the term “New Atheists” is often used to describe a group of people who aren’t necessarily homogeneous. Still, the concepts are not meaningless; and they are useful.
I really object to this, though:
To the extent that the glossy mega-engineering fantasies of “geo-engineering” futurologists distract our attention from the efforts of more mainstream-legible educational, agitational, organizational, and regulatory environmentalist efforts — or take for granted the failure of these — they should be seen as a second wave of denialism. This time the denialism is not about the fact or human causation of climate catastrophe itself (since “geo-engineering” contains an implicit admission of both of these), but a denialism about the possibility or effectiveness of any democratic response to that crisis.
But what if it is completely accurate and realistic to question whether we seem capable of an adequate response to climate change? To doubt this capacity makes us–us here includes many top scientists–into denialists?
That’s just weird.
In a breakout session here at Techonomy, David Keith of the University of Calgary and Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund led a discussion of the prospect of geoengineering the climate—in other words, engaging in some type of deliberate intervention to alter the planet and thereby counteract global warming.
The reason scientists and policymakers are increasingly thinking about geoengineering is clear: Major climate change now looks increasingly unstoppable. As Leinen put it, even if the proposals on the table at Copenhagen had been adopted, we’d still end the century with an atmospheric carbon dioxide of 700 parts per million–more than enough to cause climate upheaval, raise seas dramatically, and so forth.
So it seems clear that if we can’t cut emissions, at some point we’ll be forced to consider a more radical alternative, at least if we want to preserve a planet anything like the one our species evolved on.
And as it happens, geoengineering does indeed appear to be on offer. According to Keith, the most popular and prominent idea for doing it—injecting sulfur particles into the stratosphere that would reflect sunlight away from the Earth, thereby causing a global cooling—could be begun almost immediately. “You could do this with current technology now,” Keith said, and he estimates that moreover, you could do so for about $ 1 billion a year. “Venice could pay to do it based solely on real estate prices,” said Keith. Read on….
Yesterday at Techonomy–before the fun started–we heard from Stewart Brand, famed founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and author most recently of Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. With his latest book, Brand is pioneering a new brand of environmentalism that discards some of the movement’s anti-technology habits, and reacquaints the green impulse with an openness to innovations that may be the key to solving our biggest problem—climate change.
According to Brand, environmentalism has a “legacy resistance” to nuclear power, and to transgenic crops or GMOs. In other words, the resistance isn’t really based on strong evidence of dangers, so much as an instinctive distrust of certain types of meddling with “nature.”…READ ON.
The latest episode of Point of Inquiry just went up, with Bill McKibben, the author most recently of Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, a truly intense read (as I say on the show). You can download it here, and stream it here. Here’s the show’s description:
Global warming, we’re often told, is an issue we must address for the sake of our grandchildren. We need to cut carbon because of our moral obligation to future generations.
But according to Bill McKibben, that’s a 1980s view. As McKibben writes in his new book Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet, the increasingly open secret is that global warming happened already. We’ve passed the threshold, and the planet isn’t at all the same. It’s less climatically stable. Its weather is haywire. It has less ice, more drought, higher seas, heavier storms. It even appears different from space.
And that’s just the beginning of the earth-shattering changes in store—a small sampling of what it’s like to trade a familiar planet (Earth) for one that’s new and strange (Eaarth). We’ll survive on this sci-fi world, this terra incognita—but we may not like it very much. And we may have to change some fundamental habits along the way.
Eaarth, argues McKibben, is our greatest failure.
Another scientist is taking a different approach to geoengineering. Instead of looking to the sky for solutions, he’s looking to the ocean. Victor Smetacek, a German oceanographer, is trying to cool the planet by growing carbon-absorbing gardens in parts of the ocean with little life.
In 2009, Smetacek and a team of Indian and German scientists added 6 tons of iron into a section of the Southern Ocean, which rings Antarctica, to see if they could get a massive bloom of algae to flourish. Read More
On the left wing, there’s this strange notion that geoengineering is a new corporate obsession. Scientists interested in the topic are accused of being part of a “geoengineering lobby” that wants to mess with the planet for fun and profit.
Alas, there’s no evidence to support this idea. In fact, as recent Point of Inquiry guest Eli Kintisch reports over at CNN Money (clarification: the article is actually from Fortune, and CNN picked it up), government regulations so far have quashed those few attempts to profit off of geoengineering that have made it to the trial stage.
Kintisch’s piece is called “Climate Hacking and Geoengineering: A Good Way to Go Broke.” You can read it here.
This is the second in a series of guest posts by science writer Eli Kintisch, author of Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope–or Worst Nightmare–for Averting Climate Catastrophe, and climate change reporter for Science magazine. We’ve invited Kintisch to contribute regular guest posts at the Intersection on the topic; my take on his excellent book, just out from John Wiley, is here.
In this latest post, Kintisch has contributed a small excerpt from Chapter 10 of his book, on the subject of how conservatives are exploiting geoengineering. Some lines have been edited for clarity in this shortened form, and the full chapter quotes this essay by Alex Steffen.
Why do some of the same people who believe human activities are not warming the globe—or that climate change isn’t a crisis—feel that geoengineering is required to fix the problem?…
Like a climate policy Swiss Army knife, geoengineering has proven useful to support a number of talking points on the subject. First, the promise of geoengineering as a technical fix to the problem has allowed conservatives to present a solution to global warming instead of being seen as simply blocking liberals’ proposed carbon regulations. Furthermore, strategies that involve blocking the sun turn a pollution problem–there’s too much carbon dioxide in the air—into a temperature problem—it’s too hot. By championing a technique that directly alters the temperature of the planet instead of the composition of the atmosphere, conservative advocates of geoengineering have a “solution” that fits the argument they been making all along. And conservatives cite liberal distrust of planet-hacking as evidence that they don’t really want to solve the problem—or even that they have more ulterior motives.
The spring of 2008 would see geoengineering emerge as a new focus for the right wing of the climate policy crowd. In June of that year, the American Enterprise Institute, Washington’s premier right-wing think tank, embraced the push for geoengineering research with the first of six planned workshops on the topic. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and leading nuclear hawk Fred Ikle of the Center for Strategic and International Studies were part of an invitation-only discussion of geoengineering hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations. Read More