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..”.
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.