GeoEngineering and the Ooops Factor

November 1, 2013

Someone always asks me about GeoEngineering.

I say, well, 20, 30  years down the road, let’s say, maybe China, or India, starts to really feel a serious food or water pinch from climate change.
And let’s say, they just unilaterally pull the trigger on some kind of geo-engineering scheme – there are many.
And let’s say it works. The rains return, grain crops thrive, the country greens.
But it stops raining in Iowa.

That’s the oops factor. And come to think of it, that’s kind of how we got ourselves in this pickle in the first place.
At the same time, it is an amusing logic loop that emerges from the climate denial conversation on this. We’re told that “humans are far too small to have any effect on the climate system”…but that, if we do – don’t worry, good old engineering  know how will come up with a solution.  As Exxon’s Rex Tillerson famously said, “..its an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions..”.

Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media:

In recent years, Bjorn Lomborg has oftendownplayedthethreats from climate change while pushing geoengineering as a short-term solution. So too haveNewtGingrich, the former EPA staff economistAlanCarlin, and the American Enterprise Institute, which earlier this year posted a seminar calling solar radiation management “an evolving climate policy option” on its website…a sitechock-full of climatecontrarianism.

One environmental group has taken to calling this straddle the “Lomborg maneuver” — “switching from opposing real-world action on climate change to supporting the most extreme possible action on climate change.”

How might one reconcile such seemingly contradictory positions? and why do they often come from politically conservative individuals and organizations? In his recent book, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, Clive Hamilton argues that this pair of positions maintains the dominant power structures of society, especially the roles of the energy mega-corporations that have a great deal to lose from any shift away from fossil fuels.

Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia, writes “…these results are consistent with the more general argument that conservatives tend to take a more hierarchical view of society, as a natural order in which some groups are dominant and some subservient.” He continues:

Like a patient who will accept the doctor’s diagnosis only if the illness is treatable, a solution to global warming that does not destabilize a person’s worldview — but in fact validates it — makes recognizing the problem palatable….As the identity of conservative white males tends to be more strongly bound to the prevailing social structure, geoengineering is the kind of solution to climate change that is less threatening to their values and sense of self….they are consistent with the ideas of control over the environment and the personal liberties associated with free market capitalism. Just as the need to defend a cultural worldview makes conservative white males prone to repudiate climate science, so that worldview will make them prone to support geoengineering solutions.

Now, UCAR has a new study further quantifying the oops parameters.
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research:

The international study, led by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), finds that global warming caused by a massive increase in greenhouse gases would spur a nearly 7 percent average increase in precipitation compared to preindustrial conditions.

But trying to resolve the problem through “geoengineering” could result in monsoonal rains in North America, East Asia, and other regions dropping by 5-7 percent compared to preindustrial conditions. Globally, average precipitation could decrease by about 4.5 percent.

“Geoengineering the planet doesn’t cure the problem,” says NCAR scientist Simone Tilmes, lead author of the new study. “Even if one of these techniques could keep global temperatures approximately balanced, precipitation would not return to preindustrial conditions.”

As concerns have mounted about climate change, scientists have studied geoengineering approaches to reduce future warming. Some of these would capture carbon dioxide before it enters the atmosphere. Others would attempt to essentially shade the atmosphere by injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere or launching mirrors into orbit with the goal of reducing global surface temperatures.

The new study focuses on the second set of approaches, those that would shade the planet. The authors warn, however, that Earth’s climate would not return to its preindustrial state even if the warming itself were successfully mitigated.

“It’s very much a pick-your-poison type of problem,” says NCAR scientist John Fasullo, a co-author. “If you don’t like warming, you can reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the surface and cool the climate. But if you do that, large reductions in rainfall are unavoidable. There’s no win-win option here.”

The study appears in an online issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, published this week by the American Geophysical Union. An international team of scientists from NCAR and 14 other organizations wrote the study, which was funded in part by the National Science Foundation (NSF), NCAR’s sponsor. The team used, among other tools, the NCAR-based Community Earth System Model, which is funded by NSF and the Department of Energy.

Washington Post WonkBlog has an interview with David Keith of Harvard:

BP: There are all sorts of ways we could reflect sunlight to cool the planet. Volcanoes do this by putting sulfate particles in the atmosphere. What are the most realistic options here?

DK: There are a very broad range of things you could put in stratosphere. There are sulfates, which mimic nature, so we have lot of confidence about how they would act, though we also know a lot of the disadvantages there. And then there are other types of engineered particles that might work better, but we also know less about them.

The other idea that’s probably most prominent is that we could add fine sea salt spray to certain kinds of marine clouds and make them a little whiter.

Often people get caught up in scientific reporting about all the different methods here. But they’re all kind of similar. The hard questions aren’t technical but rather about how to manage the risk, about who makes the decisions to use these technologies.

BP: Let’s talk about those risks. What are the biggest ones?

DK: We can say what the technical risks are. Putting sulfates in the stratosphere can accelerate the depletion of ozone that comes from the chlorine that we’ve already put there from CFCs. It could change atmospheric circulation in ways that are hard to predict exactly. The sulfates could also make their way down to the lower atmosphere, where they’ll contribute to air pollution. It’s a small contribution proportionally, but that doesn’t make someone who’s sick because of it feel better.

The bigger risks have to do with misuse. People often talk about using these technologies to return temperatures to pre-industrial levels. If you did that, that would be a dramatic climate cooling, with bad consequences, like reducing precipitation a lot.

And the most fundamental risk is that the technology has enormously high leverage, by which I mean it’s cheap and a single small nation could use it by itself. We lack even the basics of how to create a norm of behaviors around this technology, let alone a treaty to make decisions about how to set the thermostat.

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16 Responses to “GeoEngineering and the Ooops Factor”

  1. Cy Halothrin Says:

    If I’m not mistaken, putting more sulfur-dioxide into the atmosphere would cause acid rain, would it not?

    Fortunately, I don’t think this or any of the other wacky proposed geo-engineering projects will ever come to pass. It’s kind of like proposals to solve the world’s population problem by mass migration to Mars. It’s a nice fantasy, and could provide the plots for a few good science-fiction movies.

    The most realistic science-fiction movies will be those that show us a dystopian future.


    • Sulfate will precipitate out as acid, but the quantities involved would be so small and so evenly distributed that the effect would be minuscule.

      I wonder if there’s a way to increase the albedo of Arctic sea ice and protect it from melting.  If this could be combined with a way of circulating Arctic surface waters to generate more ice during the dark months, that particular “switch” might be kept in the “off” position.


  2. I know that it really isn’t important to mention all of the credentials of academics but in the case of Clive Hamilton, I think just referring to him as a, “professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia…” undervalues his contributions to his field.

    He is also a member of the Board of the Climate Change Authority of the Australian Government. He founded and served as the executive director of the The Australia Institute. He also received an Order of Australia medal in 2009 for “service to public debate and policy development, particularly in the fields of climate change, sustainability and societal trends”.

    Unfortunately being on the CCA means he will lose that position when our extremely backward climate change denying government disband the CCA.


    • Thank you for your comments re Clive Hamilton. His views regarding geoengineering validating views of the present power hierarchy are prescient. Most importantly, he points out that the root of our problems are in the attitudes and beliefs that reflect our behavior. The necessary revolution is within. Are we so desperate that we believe we must tinker with the atmosphere to correct our imbalance? Geoengineering is a questionable technical solution to a behavioral problem. As he points out, it encourages business as usual. That seems to be the case with technical solutions. At the moment, most world leaders are at this stage. We need to come up with a different way of life. Everything. Social. Economic. Values. Cultural.
      It is ironic that moral issues crop up as soon as we consider solutions like geoengineering. Who get’s control? Who get’s to decide? How do we decide? That tells you something. Tech is just a way to control. Figuring out what to do with it is an entirely different matter. What we have discovered is that GW is not merely a technical issue driven by outside forces like economics. We have surrendered our ego to ideas that control us, rather than using our minds and our hearts to become master as Hamilton shows us in Growth Fetish, and The Freedom Paradox. If we fail to realize this, we will soon be faced with the same familiar dilemma. Geongineering seems to be another way to continue an unhealthy love affair with unlimited growth.


  3. Best Geo-engineering scheme I can think of is to stop chopping down forests and plant new trees wherever possible. Oh, and of course, stop filling the atmosphere with 35 billion+ tonnes of CO2 every year.


    • I’m all for that.  I also recognize that any demand that people radically change their lifestyle is going to be fought tooth and nail.  This is why I’m for nuclear power; people get electricity but do away with the carbon.

      Nuclear power makes other changes easier also.  Electric vehicles can no longer be called “coal-powered”.  Anything that’s powered by, or can be converted to, electricity can be de-carbonized.  Off-peak power that’s available every night and weekend is much more attractive than power that’s only available at irregular intervals.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Scotland is trying to rebuild their forests to cover 25% of their land – the same extent that was there before farming got going. I think they’re around the 17% mark, currently.

  4. omnologos Says:

    Geoengineering is one of the few initiatives that would make me join guerrilla warfare against the madness. The only remotely acceptable solutions would have to be switchable on and off at will, if only to avoid the risk of falling into a climate precipice due to the law of unexpected consequences. So a very cautious yes for space mirrors (that can be reoriented at will) and a big no for sulphates (that are completely uncontrollable).

    I am not impressed with Hamilton’s political analysis skills though. To say conservatives tend to take a more hierarchical view of society is extremely naive and wholly risible. For example, contemporary leftist thinking since the times of Marx is based on the idea that the masses must be directed by enlightened Leaders. It is really a pity when cheap, petty political shots are inserted in the climate discourse.

    • redskylite Says:

      “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.” – I got disillusioned regarding politics about around 30 years ago, both left, right and centre, but Karl Marx is one fascinating intellectual individual who seems to make a lot of sense to me.


    • “For example, contemporary leftist thinking since the times of Marx is based on the idea that the masses must be directed by enlightened Leaders.”

      As opposed to contemporary rightist thinking, which is based on the idea that the masses must be directed by unenlightened corrupt leaders who don’t believe in government I’ll take leadership by the enlightened any day, thanks.

      • omnologos Says:

        have you studied politics with Hamilton? /sarc


      • We seem to have jumped immediately to politics before we observe economics. Strictly speaking, capitalism is not politics, its economics. As such, although somewhat obscure given the nature of human behavior, it can be analyzed mathematically and abstractly. Behind it all, is the notion of compound interest. The only possible result of that form of economics is unsustainable, exponential growth. Do the math. The subject of politics is secondary to this, except where psychology is concerned. That is, behavior is also behind the growth. The Adam Smith assumptions are questionable from this perspective. And the politics is related to the economics through behavior and attitudes. Politics seems more like a way of justifying a pre-existing set of behaviors than an engine that drives them. The economics is what drives an unquestioning populace to follow in lockstep. Seldom does anyone question why. Why the 1%?


    • Read “The Republican Brain” and research the scientific literature referenced. Your response proves the theory. The analysis is not political, but rather psychological. Perhaps you should read the scientific paper before denying it. Your assertion that it is “cheap, petty political shots” otherwise seems a bit odd and inappropriate. Debate minus research equals bloviation.

      http://www.desmogblog.com/science-truthiness-why-conservatives-deny-global-warming

      http://www.culturalcognition.net/browse-papers/cultural-cognition-of-scientific-consensus.html

      • omnologos Says:

        Christopher – I explained why it is a cheap political shot…love for hierarchies isn’t a specific “conservative” trait and it has never been.

        But your answer cannot be about “appropriateness”. Please demonstrate that Hamilton knows what he is talking about when he is talking about “conservatives” and “society” (he doesn’t do it in a “scientific paper”; also, politics and society aren’t part of his professional expertise).

        Mooney’s book (whose last chapter appears to be among the least-read parts of his oeuvre) cannot apply. Hamilton is Australian. Mooney’s Republicans are Americans.

  5. astrostevo Says:

    “In his recent book, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, Clive Hamilton argues .. “

    and writes very well.

    Bought and read that book earlier this year and would certainly highly recommend it.


  6. It’s great that Hamilton has figured out that behavior and economics are at the nexus of our environmental dilemma. Are there any thoughts from the book you can enlighten us with?


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