Gwynne Dyer: Geo-engineering is in trouble

Bad news on the climate front. It was already clear that we are very likely to break through all the "do not exceed" limits and go into runaway warming later this century, because greenhouse emissions have not dropped, are not dropping, and probably will not drop. We did have a fall-back position, which was to counter the warming by geo-engineering—but now the leading technique for geo-engineering also looks like it will not work.

In a paper published this month in Environmental Research Letters, three researchers at Reading University in England have shown that trying to cool the planet by putting large amounts of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere would lead to a 30 percent decline in rainfall in most of the tropics. That would mean permanent drought conditions in countries like Indonesia, and millions would starve.

Starvation is the main impact that higher average global temperatures will have on human beings, as they will cause a big loss in food production, particularly in the tropics and sub-tropics. But the standard assumption was that there would still be as much rain in the tropics as before. Maybe even too much rain, as the heat would mean higher rates of evaporation and more powerful tropical storms.

What Drs. Angus Ferraro, Ellie Highwood, and Andrew Charlton-Perez have done is to use several climate model simulations to examine the effect of geo-engineering on the tropical overturning circulation. This circulation is largely responsible for lifting water vapour that has evaporated at the surface high enough up into the atmosphere that it turns back into water droplets and falls as rain. If the circulation gets weaker, so does the rainfall.

Putting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to cut the amount of incoming sunlight and reduce heating at the surface was first suggested by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, in 2006. At that time, talking about geo-engineering was taboo among scientists, because they feared that if the general public knew that the heating could be held down that way, they’d stop trying to curb their greenhouse gas emissions.

Crutzen violated the taboo because countries and people were not cutting their emissions, and there was no reasonable prospect that they would. (This is still largely the case, by the way.) So the world definitely needed a Plan B if we did not want to see a planet that is 4 degrees C hotter by the end of the century.

Crutzen pointed out that large volcanoes, when they explode, put substantial amounts of sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere. That causes significant cooling at the surface for one or two years, until it all comes down again—and it does no apparent harm in the process. The last big volcano to explode, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, reduced the average global temperature at peak by half a degree C.

Human beings could also put sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere (on a rather larger scale), to hold the temperature down, said Crutzen. The ice caps wouldn’t melt, our agriculture would continue to get the familiar weather it needs, and we would win ourselves more time to get our emissions down. We still have to get our emissions down in the end, he stressed, but it would be better not to have a global calamity on the way from here to there.

There was so much outrage at Crutzen’s suggestion that he had a nervous breakdown, but then lots of other scientists came out of hiding to admit that they also thought the human race needed a fall-back position. Various other proposals for holding the temperature down were put on the table, and by now there are dozens of them, but the idea of putting sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere still led the field. Until now.

But the Reading University scientists have discovered a hitherto unsuspected side-effect of this kind of geo-engineering. The sulphur dioxide particles don’t just reflect back a portion of the incoming sunlight from above. They also reflect a portion of the long-wave radiation (heat) coming back up from the surface, and that heats the top of the troposphere.

The troposphere is the lower part of the atmosphere, where all the weather happens. If you heat the top of the troposphere, you reduce the temperature difference between there and the surface, so the tropical overturning circulation weakens. That means less water vapour is carried up, and less rain falls back down. Result: drought and famine.

This is exactly the kind of scientific investigation that Crutzen wanted. He understood clearly that we were venturing into dangerous territory when we start intervening in a system as complex as the climate, and he stressed that what was needed was lots more research before we have to gamble on geo-engineering to halt an imminent disaster. But it’s a very discouraging conclusion.

The sulphur dioxide option was the cheapest and seemingly the best understood option for holding the temperature down. A great many people were glad that it was there, as a kind of safety net if we really don’t get our act together in time to halt the warming by less intrusive means. Now there’s no safety net.

Comments (14) Add New Comment
John Deacon
To quote Bob Dylan, "Let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late" It's time we faced the music and met the challenge of human induced Climate Change, head on. The longer we wait, the more we deny, the more limited and drastic the solutions open to us will become. We need national leadership that recognizes and embraces this reality, and that unites us in this common cause and that leads us to find and implement a collective action plan to deal with the greatest collective challenge yet to face human kind. The alternative? Do nothing, and face extinction. It's time to wake up and smell the bitumen!
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McROCKET
You want a fall back position?

Okay...the end of humanity as we know it.

And what would be so terrible about that?

If humanity is so monumentally stupid that it knowingly destroys itself...then I say let them. People that pathetically stupid/undisciplined are, IMO, no loss to the universe.


I say to keep telling the world how stupid they are acting, do the right thing yourself and wait to see if humanity smarten up.

If they don't...lost cause.
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anonymous
You might also be interested in our work, published in Nature Climate Change this week, on the public reaction to Climate Engineering. Stratospheric Aerosols were already poorly perceived by the public, but there are other options that generate a more positive reaction.


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Keith McNeill
While we might need geo-engineering techniques as stopgap measures, we are extremely unlikely to achieve anything without addressing the root of the problem. Climate scientist James Hansen has called for a global carbon tax with the proceeds to be distributed to all, a proposal he calls fee-and-dividend. I have posted a petition based on his proposal on Care2. You can view the petition (and hopefully put your name on it) at www.thepetitionsite.com/286/384/042/petition-for-a-referendum-on-a-globa...
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Denise
Thanks for the article and the comments but honestly you all need to give your heads a shake. We have to stop digging up and burning fossil fuels period. We have to plant trees and repair riparian zones. Stop this crap about making more money on inventing new ways to reflect sunlight, etc. its garbage You are not Gods, fix what we broke, by replenishing natural systems. And you Malcolm above, you are cheeky, posting your silly ideas that we have to buy to read. This is a great example of what is wrong with the world!
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ReneeF
I find it curious that articles about geoengineering are popping up and insinuate that it is some kind of theory that the scientists are mulling over. The fact is, geoengineering has been happening right over our heads and without our consent for well over a decade and is way out of control. These airline tankers have been spraying a constant barrage of aluminum, barium, strontium, and goodness knows what else and is damaging our atmosphere at a catastrophic level and will have disastrous consequences for all life on earth if this is not stopped. And shame on the bought and paid for media for continuing to dance around and ignore this issue.
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Gerry Kachmarski
Gwynne Dyer's cautious optimism regarding geoengineering as a potential stopgap measure against climate catastrophe was not even warranted in 2008 when his book Climate Wars was published. In the meantime, the impending catastrophe has accelerated, something which Dyer, believe it or not, continues to downplay. Interested readers should check out the latest from Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov of the International Arctic Center at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, among others, concerning the increased release of methane gas in Siberia. If not geoengineering, I suppose we can all hope for an economic collapse as a possible mitigator. Where is that global crisis of capitalism when you really need it?
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Brad Arnold
There is a very very cheap, and super easy way to immediately cool down the Earth: just add a little (more) sun dimming pollution to the air. We already inadvertently cool down the Earth significantly with our short-lived sun dimming pollution. If we don't like the results, we can just stop, and it will wash out of the air.

Besides, if looked at as a short term strategy, it doesn't seem near as bad. There is a new very very cheap, clean, and super abundant energy technology about to emerge onto the market: LENR. Using nickel, it makes hydrogen 5 orders of magnitude more energy dense as gasoline!

Check out this third-party verification of a LENR reactor that will soon hit the market: http://arxiv.org/abs/1305.3913
"Given the deliberately conservative choices made in performing the measurement, we can reasonably state that the E-Cat HT is a non-conventional source of energy which lies between conventional chemical sources of energy and nuclear ones." (i.e. about five orders of magnitude more energy dense than gasoline, and a COP of almost 6).

This phenomenon (LENR) has been confirmed in hundreds of published scientific papers: http://lenr-canr.org/acrobat/RothwellJtallyofcol.pdf

"LENR has the demonstrated ability to produce excess amounts of energy, cleanly, without hazardous ionizing radiation, without producing nasty waste.” - Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA Langley Research Center

"Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry." --Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

By the way, here is a survey of some of the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization: http://www.cleantechblog.com/blog/2011/08/the-new-breed-of-energy-cataly...

For those who still aren't convinced, here is a paper I wrote that contains some pretty convincing evidence: http://coldfusionnow.org/the-evidence-for-lenr/
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A Scientist
Look up CO2 storage in peridote via natural carbonizaiton reactions.

There is more going on and efforts being put in they you know about.

Look up laser drills which is being invested in by both Google and Chevron. What does laser drills have to do with anything??? Well geothermal energy has not taken off because it is ridiculously expensive to drill into the earth making it not feasible to tap into geothermal energy for the average citizen. Laser drills are up to 10 x faster and thus 1/10 the cost of conventional drilling atm and open up the potential for geothermal heat.
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Donald
What could be so bad about the end of humanity?

1% profitting from the eforced stupidity of another 10%, which leads to the deaths of 7 billion people, and the extinction of most other forms of life on planet earth. Nope nothing bad there! [/sarc]
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It's called chemtrails
They've been doing this for over a decade labelling anyone who questions it conspiracy theorists. It's not a theory if it's right in your face. WAKE UP ROBOTS! The greeniac churnalists will kill the planet if sanity doesn't prevail. And sanity will prevail.
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Angus Ferraro
Hello - I'm one of the authors of the study you mention.

Just to clarify one thing in particular. It is not obvious that 'millions will starve'. We didn't analyse the impacts of this on food supplies.

Now, we modelled a very extreme geoengineering scenario. Our reasons for doing this were scientific - it's easier to see what physical processes are going on if you make big changes. However, I don't think the geoengineering implementation used in our study is sensible, or even viable! This is important to recognise, and means we might not see the big 30% reduction in rainfall in the tropics, but something rather smaller.
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ReneeF
@ Angus Ferraro. You don't need to analyse your climate models. You just need to take a good hard objective look at what's actually happening on the ground to find out what kind of devastating effects geoengineering can have. Look at the extreme drought conditions that have been created in the Western half of the US, for starters.
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Glen Riley
OK So correct me if I'm wrong but, wouldn't the best way to improve the earth's atmosphere be through planting trees, plants in general like flowers, food, and reducing emissions along with producing less trash overall? It seriously wouldn't be that hard.
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