Alan Roberts outlines the dangers of geo-engineering ‘solutions’ to climate change.
Source: Chain Reaction, August 2009
Many projects have now been suggested that would change fundamental properties of the earth as a planet, the aim being to stop global warming. The idea behind one such project – yearly injections of sulphur into the stratosphere – is explained below as an example of such attempts at ‘geo-engineering’.
It is a common reaction to ridicule such ideas as being ‘a fantasy’, or too expensive, or quite impracticable – perhaps all three – and with little chance of ever going ahead. But such verdicts are not correct. This article describes circumstances that are quite possible – some might even say, likely –in which such a scheme will be proposed, and with the political and financial power to back it up.
Think first of the greenhouse gases emitted from world production systems, and the efforts to have governments agree to control and reduce them. There is no shortage of world leaders who have now proclaimed how urgent it is to check the ravages of climate change. The mainstream media duly report them, along with the summit talks this concern leads to – from Kyoto in 1997 toCopenhagen this year.
If nations disagree over the appropriate time schedule for the steps needed to reach proposed targets, the media will usually pay some attention to this. One nation will accept a certain step towards emission control by, say, 2020; another is unwilling to implement it before 2050. What is less reported is that these targets themselves, laying down an ‘acceptable’ global temperature rise and thus an ‘acceptable’ level for greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, are now woefully inadequate. They are based on older ideas that have been discredited and outdated by more recent scientific findings.
The facts of the matter are well described, and convincingly referenced, in Climate Code Red, by David Spratt and Philip Sutton. This book’s account of the most recent – and alarming –scientific findings makes it clear that, unsurprisingly enough, most countries are putting business-as-usual ahead of preserving the only planet at present open for business. With the policies announced by the Rudd government, Australia fits well into this disastrous pattern.
People in most countries are well in advance of their leaders here, and their growing awareness strengthens the campaigns trying to force governments into action that is adequate rather than cosmetic.
Perhaps these campaigns will succeed; or perhaps not. It is the latter event, in which the leaders continue to fail us and business-almost-as-usual remains the touchstone of policy, that is the case considered here. As the earth warms further, with sea levels rising and some local climatic variations becoming acute, it will become impossible to ignore the dire results. The response by governments may well be to pose the question of geo-engineering.
What it means to geo-engineer is best appreciated by looking at the project most commonly offered and studied in most detail: sulphur injection. It goes like this: Deposit a few million tonnes of sulphur in suitable form (that is, in small particles) into the stratosphere, by using artillery guns, for example, or towing it up in balloons. It will eventually fall down to earth, so that the injection must be repeated each year. Choose the amount of sulphur so that the particles reflect just enough of the sun’s rays, about 4%, to counteract the warming effect of the greenhouse gases due to human industrial activity.
Preliminary studies indicate that the costs are not prohibitive, and that ‘natural’ injections of sulphur (from volcano eruptions) have indeed resulted in a cooler earth, sometimes for a year or more. It is apparent that with a scheme like this, or similar projects, we would be actually altering the nature of the earth as a planet.
Consider a future moment when the effects of global warming are rousing widespread concern and have thus become a political issue that must be dealt with. This moment is likely to arrive much more quickly than most of us realise, as Climate Code Red makes clear. An early symptom could be the presence of tens of millions of environmental refugees, already displaced or threatened by rising sea levels.
Consider the advantages of this ‘geo-engineering’ path, from the viewpoint of a political decision-maker: Any common-sense policy adequate to the situation, one that controls and reduces the dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, would have to go much further than the present cosmetic measures. It would involve a wholesale interference with the electorate’s way of life. We need think only of the impact of carbon pricing on motorists and the consumers in general, or of immigration changes and the disappearance of cheap air travel.
It is easy to see how a politician could prefer an alternative that didn’t seem to bristle with all these unpopular measures. Solve all the problems through geo-engineering – just One Big Hit, and moreover one fully in tune with society’s reliance on the power of science and technology to assure a better future.
- From many indications, we can see the background for such a decision already shaping up. As a sample of some of the significant developments just in 2008:
- The American Enterprise Institute, a very influential right-wing think tank, scheduled a series of conferences on geo-engineering; the first was held in June.
- Britain’s Royal Society saw geo-engineering as important enough to deserve an entire issue of its PhilosophicalAbstracts.
- As the year ended, TheIndependent newspaper in Britain polled 80 ‘international specialists in climate science’, and published the result under the headline, “Climate scientists: it’s time for ‘Plan B'” – Plan B being a ‘backup plan’ to do geo-engineering. It was endorsed by 60% of those with an opinion.
- Geo-engineering projects got increasing mention in the mainstream media– in Australia, for instance, the AustralianFinancial Review devoted the whole of one of its broadsheet pages to the topic.
The overwhelming opinion of climatologists is that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions is by far the better way to go. But they despair of adequate international agreements to achieve this. Nevertheless, until quite recently the bulk of them were reluctant to publish material on geo-engineering projects. This was because they shared a quite reasonable fear: the more a BigHit ‘solution’ became common knowledge, the harder it would be to see adequate emission controls implemented.
This informal ‘silence’ was decisively broken a few years ago, when the highly respected Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen wrote an editorial (August 2006) on the sulphur project. He was clear, however, that “Reductions inCO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions are clearly the main priorities”, and listed some of the unsolved research questions that needed study before the project was launched.
Climatologists generally present such projects as advisable only to gain time for proper emission controls to be agreed on. And they follow Crutzen in emphasising the need for extensive research beforehand.
They do not appear, however, to recognise the sort of circumstances sketched above, in which the decision would be made. When an issue enters the sphere of politics, it is political considerations that decide what happens to it, not the advice of experts. The saying is attributed to Winston Churchill, that ‘scientists should be on tap but not on top’, and this is the view generally held by politicians.
There are thorny questions involved, like: Should we decide to launch the engineering gamble? If so, which project should be chosen? Are there unresolved questions about possible unwanted effects that need research before going ahead?
It will not be Paul Crutzen or indeed any climatologist who resolves such issues, but rather the political leaders who hold the responsibility and the power. This needs emphasis, because experts often prescribe the care and precautions necessary in terms that make it sound as though the decision will be theirs. They will of course offer the best advice available, but whether it is accepted is a different matter. Political considerations tend to swamp all others.
A project like the sulphur injection would be massive, but still within the capacity of a single large nation or group of nations. It is obviously desirable, however, that any such project should be handled by an international body, and not launched by one national grouping with its own special interests to protect. But securing international agreement would face much greater problems than even the squabbles over emission controls. For example: what should be the final global temperature aimed at? Russia, contemplating the resources locked up in sub-Arctic Siberia, could well favour a higher temperature than, say, the USA. And special national interests include, of course, military ones.
All this overlooks perhaps the most important aspect of all: that we cannot be sure of what effects the sulphur project would produce – including ones separate from the cooling effect aimed at and quite unexpected. The same uncertainty surrounds any attempt to reshape the planet fundamentally. Our knowledge of the factors determining earth’s climate has enormous gaps, as testified by the ‘surprises’ this highly complex system has given us even in recent years. This is why some people say we should replace the term ‘geo-engineering’ by the more honest ‘geo-gambling’.
If the moment of decision as sketched above seems a future scenario which is at least plausible, one thing is reasonably clear: we should do our utmost to ensure that it remains hypothetical, that it never comes about. And this means doing our utmost to obtain emission controls that have a real chance of averting such a moment of possible disaster.
Dr Alan Roberts is a retired physics lecturer. His research work is on problems of theoretical ecology.
Asking the hard questions about geo-engineering
As alarm about the climate crisis grows, it’s important to make sure that the cures we propose are not worse than the disease – and that they do not exacerbate other critical crises we face, including the food crisis, the water crisis and the threat of extinction of many species.
The injection of sulphate particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight and reduce global temperatures is one of the most talked about climate manipulation proposals, and so it is worthwhile to look at some of the issues it raises. Here is a quick overview of some of the challenges:
- Uncertainty and human error. Complex climate modeling is difficult, natural systems are complex, and humans make mistakes. The best climate science in the world is still being consistently questioned and revised. We don’t know if – or how quickly – scientists and geo-engineers could shut down a malfunctioning geo-engineering system if things go wrong.
- Commercial and/or geopolitical control of technology. Geo-engineering could enable renegade research groups, companies or governments to carry out their own projects, without consulting anyone, and without even alerting the rest of the world. Geo-engineers could be motivated by sectional or private interests, with little or no accountability to the rest of us.
- Military use. There is a long history of using weather modification for military purposes. Could techniques developed to manipulate global climate be always limited to peaceful uses?
- Disruption of rain and precipitation cycles. Proponents argue that sulphate injection mimics a natural process – that of large volcanic eruptions. But eruptions have also been associated with regional-scale disruption to hydrological and precipitation cycles, in some cases resulting in continent-wide droughts over several years.
- Increased acid rain and ocean acidification. Sulphate particles also have a relatively short life in the upper atmosphere, and when they fall to earth or into the sea could cause acid rain. Failing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions will result in ongoing ocean acidification as the ocean absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the air.
- Ozone depletion. Aerosol particles in the stratosphere serve as surfaces for chemical reactions that destroy ozone.
- Undermining emissions mitigation measures. Perhaps the strongest argument against climate manipulation is that the prospect of a ‘techno-fix’ around the corner could undermine calls for an immediate and substantial cut to emissions.
- Undermining support for safer, decentralised efforts to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Soil scientists have suggested that increasing soil carbon content and restoring degraded soils could make a huge contribution to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Others suggest that by reforesting cleared land that is not being used for agriculture, cloud cover would be increased and solar radiation reduced naturally.
For more information, contact FoE Australia’s nanotechnology campaign, <http://nano.foe.org.au>, Georgia Miller <firstname.lastname@example.org>, 0437 979402 or Rye Senjen <email@example.com>.
See also the articles and debate in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, <www.thebulletin.org/web-edition/roundtables/archive>