GeoEngineering: A Mirage?

August 13, 2018


Rob Meyer in The Atlantic is doing some of the best reporting right now on climate change. Here’s one of his latest.

The Atlantic:

Over the past few years, I’ve heard dozens of scientists talk about solar geo-engineering, the once outlandish idea that humanity should counteract climate change by releasing special gases into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the planet.

But I’ve never heard it discussed in quite the terms of Jonathan Proctor, an agricultural economist at UC Berkeley.

“You’re in an arena with a big bear,” he told me. (The bear is climate change.) “And the question is: Should you throw a lion into the arena? You know, maybe they’ll fight and kill each other. Or maybe they’ll just both kill you.”

That lion is looking worse and worse. Recently, a surge of academic research has revealed that solar geo-engineering will be anything but straightforward. Solar geo-engineering is now taken seriously at the highest echelons of science: It commands its own research center at Harvard, a serious book from an Economist editor, and a private triennial global meeting. Even as some of its most devoted researchers doubt it will succeed, they add that climate change’s severe consequences may make it a necessity.

On Wednesday, Proctor and his colleagues added to that growing literature, as they unveiled the first global economic projection of how solar geo-engineering will affect the world’s crops. Its conclusions, which are not positive, should not inspire confidence in our ability to reverse climate change in a simple way.

“You’re in an arena with a big bear,” he told me. (The bear is climate change.) “And the question is: Should you throw a lion into the arena? You know, maybe they’ll fight and kill each other. Or maybe they’ll just both kill you.”

According to the new paper, solar geo-engineering’s consequences will override its benefits. Proctor and his colleagues find that spraying volcanic gas into the air will reduce global temperatures, aiding crops. But those same gases will also scatter sunlight and reduce the amount of radiation that reaches the surface, hampering photosynthesis.

The net effect is roughly nil: Global yields will not emerge from a geo-engineered world any more bountiful than they were before. Solar geo-engineering cannot reverse the worldwide agricultural damage wrought by climate change.

The results were published in this week’s edition of the scientific journal Nature. Proctor compared them to a disappointing clinical trial.

“If you think of solar geo-engineering as an experimental surgery, then the side effects of the treatment—the changes in sunlight—are kind of just as bad as the original disease,” he told me.

But he didn’t want to throw out the idea just yet. “Just because the first test of an experimental surgery had bad side effects for a particular part of the body, it doesn’t mean the procedure should be automatically abandoned,” he said.

Proctor and his colleagues were only able to run the test because something like solar geo-engineering has happened before—in fact, it occurred in living memory.

In 1991, the Philippine volcano Mount Pinatubo erupted, injecting 20 megatons of sulfur dioxide into the high atmosphere.* Within a few weeks, the sulfate gas—which can reflect away enormous amounts of visible light—enveloped the planet. Eventually, this new layer of sulfate scattered so much sunlight that the planet cooled by roughly half a degree Celsius (or 1 degree Fahrenheit). The sulfates fell out of the atmosphere a couple years later, and climate change continued its steady march.

Plants seemed to prosper in Pinatubo’s dimmer, chillier world. Forests, especially, flourished: One study found that photosynthesis in a tract of Massachusetts woodsincreased by 23 percent on sunny days in 1992, as compared with before Pinatubo’s eruption. Biologists speculated that the volcanic gas scattered the sun’s rays in every direction, allowing more of them to dodge the dense leaves in a forest’s canopy and reach its understory.

So Proctor and his colleagues expected solar geo-engineering to boost global agriculture as well. After all, solar geo-engineering is nothing more than an endless Pinatubo: If humanity commits to solar geo-engineering the planet, then it will have to regularly spray sulfate gas into the sky in order to keep a lid on Earth’s temperature.

But when the team looked at how agriculture reacted to Pinatubo—and to the eruption of Mexico’s El Chichón volcano in 1982—it found that global crop yields fell, even after controlling for temperature. Global corn yields decreased by 9.3 percent in Pinatubo’s aftermath; wheat, soy, and rice yields fell by 4.8 percent.

“I was expecting this to go in the opposite direction,” Proctor said. He hypothesized that crops react differently to sulfates “because crops have a very different spacial structure than forests do. Forests have a big canopy, and then light fades in below. But crops are tightly spaced already and open to the sky.”

After they isolated these global crop effects, the team added them to a general climate model, projecting Earth’s conditions from 2050 to 2069. They mimicked how crops would fare on dozens of simulated Earths: In some, humanity begins to deploy solar geo-engineering as carbon emissions continue to rise; in others, geo-engineering never kicks in but climate change still continues unabated.

What they found was sobering. In the geo-engineered world, maize yields did increase by 6.3 percent due to cooler temperatures (compared with the climate-changed world). But they decreased by 5.3 percent due to the reduction in light. When accounting for a few other side effects of geo-engineering, there was essentially zero benefit.

These results held for every type of crop. Solar geo-engineering a warming world has no “statistically discernible effect on yields,” the paper concludes.

9 Responses to “GeoEngineering: A Mirage?”

  1. Roger Walker Says:

    I’m surprised and disappointed to learn that “Solar geo-engineering is now taken seriously at the highest echelons of science”. I must confess I thought Clive Hamilton’s “Earthmasters” had knocked that one on the head once and for all.

    Hamilton demonstrates that all prospective geoengineering projects (atmospheric injection, stratospheric injection, cloud seeding, sea seeding…) have one thing in common. They all boil down to replacing one huge, expensive, profit-making network of networks (fossil fuels) by another huge, expensive, profit-making network.

    What’s missing from Meyer’s perspective is the fucking big elephant in the room: capitalism!

    Renewables are springing up everywhere for the simple reason that the numbers add up. They benefit everyone. They are, virtually by definition, decentralised and locally controlled, and the revenue they generate is not farmed by the multinationals.

    I smell a rat here. Remember all those fake-real “scientific” studies set up first by the tobacco industry, then by big oil?

    Following the link to “private triennial global meeting” I found this:

    “This fall, Harvard University will also launch its own solar geoengineering research with $7.5 million in funding from private sources. Its leaders hope to eventually amass a budget of $20 million.”

    But the link to “private sources” goes… nowhere!

    • dumboldguy Says:

      “Solar geo-engineering is now taken seriously at the highest echelons of science” only because we may soon need to mount a last-ditch, Hail Mary, go-for-broke situation with regard to our failure to adequately address AGW. As many volcanic eruptions have shown over the last 2500 years, shooting sulfates and small particulates high into the atmosphere CAN produce a cooling effect, and that can be duplicated easily and cheaply by the geo-engineers. A dangerous band-aid because of the many unknowns, but desperate times will call for desperate measures.

      And you’re right that the big elephant (and the rat) in the room is capitalism—-the need for the greedy to keep making money through “growth” is unstoppable. I fully expect many “entrepreneurs” to form Solar Roadway type enterprises in an effort to make money from SRM, and many scientists to seek funding from “private sources”—-remember Willie Soon stating that he didn’t care where the money came from if it kept him going (Willie took about $100K a year for 10 years from fossil fuel companies).

      I myself think that Trump should send the Space Force Seabees to the L1 point to construct a huge “sunshade”.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      While opportunistic capitalism would play a major role in any geoengineering project, don’t underestimate the instinct to engineer our way out of any problem.

  2. grindupbaker Says:

    First thing I thought of years ago when I heard the concept. I searched for any information on the effects of less “sunlight” and more “heat lamp”, found nothing and assumed that the tiny %age change would have no effect. I never did find any science actually stating that though.

  3. Gingerbaker Says:

    “The net effect is roughly nil:”

    Ummm… really? In this scenario, global temperature rise was halted, and crops did the same as before.

    Isn’t that a HUGE win?

    People are going to die from global warming for a lot of reasons. But the most dangerous one is economic collapse. Three days of no food and all those post-apocalyptic movies you’ve seen? They become true.

  4. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Trivia: The post-apocalyptic movie *Snowpiercer*, set on a frozen Earth, used the premise of a failed geoengineering project as the cause of worldwide winter.

    • jfon Says:

      Don’t get your science from Hollywood – most of their efforts at climate change movies have been awful. We know what stratospheric sulfate addition would do because Pinatubo did it for us – a year or two of cooling. If things go wrong, we stop.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        “If things go wrong, we stop”? ROTFLMAO!

        I’ll grant that we DID “stop” with the CFC’s when the ozone hole formed and put scrubbers on stacks when acid rain got big, but it took a looooong time to “stop” with tobacco, and the Moron-in-Chief and his stooges are again pushing coal and fossil fuels to MAGA. Since they have NO conception of right or wrong in so many areas, what makes you think they’d pay any attention to the scientists who will say “it’s going wrong” if (when) it does?

        (PS Insert appropriate word for G in MAGA—-groan, grimace, grit teeth)

  5. No Chemtrails Says:

    Well,don’t be mad my friends,this Rottchilds and Rockefellers are financing these experiments, meanwhile our kids still coughing with stupid allergies and people dying at the age of 50,God I hate this fucking system!!

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