Gwynne Dyer: Geo-engineering delves into some risky territory

“We are getting into very risky territory,” said Christiana Figueres, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, last week. But she acknowledged that we may have to go there anyway.

She was talking about geo-engineering, the manipulation of the world’s climate to avoid catastrophic warming. Nobody actually wants to do that, because we don’t understand the climate system well enough to foresee all the possible side-effects. But a large number of people think that in the end we’ll have to do it anyway, because we’re not going to get the warming under control in time without it.

Geo-engineering might involve putting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere (to reflect some incoming sunlight), spraying fine droplets of seawater into low-lying marine clouds to thicken them up (and reflect more sunlight), or painting the world’s roads and roofs white. There are also proposed techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for slowing the acidification of the oceans. In fact, there are dozens of proposals in all.

The topic is now on the table because 60 scientific experts are meeting in Peru on June 20 to begin an exploration of geo-engineering options that will probably end up in the next report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014. This has caused outrage in some sections of the environmental movement, and 125 organizations wrote an open letter to the IPCC head, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, condemning the whole concept.

“The IPCC”¦must take great care not to squander its credibility on geo-engineering, a topic that is gathering steam precisely when there is no real progress on mitigation and adaptation,” said the letter. “International peasant organizations, indigenous peoples, and social movements have all expressed outright opposition to such measures as a false solution to the climate crisis.”

Then came a sly suggestion that scientists in this field are a bunch of greedy frauds: “Asking a group of geo-engineering scientists if more research should be done on the topic is like asking a group of hungry bears if they would like honey.” This is clearly a subject that inspires passionate opposition on the left, although the geo-engineers themselves spread right across the political spectrum.

The overwhelming majority of the open letter’s signatories are organizations you have never heard of—Terra-1530 Moldova, the Dogwood Alliance of North Carolina, and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, for example—but they include a few well-known organizations like Friends of the Earth International. Their goal is not just to ban large-scale geo-engineering. It is to ban even small-scale experiments in geo-engineering. Why so angry?

Part of the problem is that there has indeed been “no real progress on mitigation and adaptation” in recent years, and the enemies of geo-engineering are afraid that efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions will be abandoned in favour of just trying to hold the temperature down artificially. I have never met a geo-engineer who thought that would work, but there is profound suspicion of them among the Greens.

There has been a remarkable reversal of roles in environmental issues over the past century. The old left loved industry, modernity, man “conquering” nature, whereas the old right believed in tradition, conservation and preserving nature. The new left, or large parts of it, hugs trees and romanticizes peasants, while the new right, at least in the United States, denies climate change outright.

They are both wrong, and it is not an ideological issue at all. The problem the scientists see, and many other people too, is that an industrializing world of seven billion people poses a grave threat to the very environment it depends on, notably in terms of changing the climate.

Ending greenhouse-gas emissions, reducing population, and adopting sustainable patterns of consumption are the necessary long-term responses to the threat of runaway warming, but they are not happening fast enough to avoid catastrophic changes and mass death. At the moment, in fact, they are not happening at all. So we had better come up with some stopgap measures that give us more time to make the long-term changes.

That is what geo-engineering is about: holding the global average temperature down below the tipping point at 2 degrees C higher after which we get runaway heating, while we work frantically to get our emissions down and restore the self-regulating, comfortable climate that we have already destabilized. We have not yet begun to work on that agenda seriously, let alone frantically.

On our current course, according a study released by the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research 18 months ago, the average global temperature will be 4 degrees C higher by 2060. If that happens, billions will probably die. If it stays below 2 degrees C hotter, on the other hand, most of them will probably live.

So do the research on geo-engineering now: what works, what doesn’t; what are the side-effects? Do it on a small scale, in local areas, as safely as possible. Because when we are passing through plus two degrees C and the famines are spreading, there will be overwhelming demands to do something now to halt the warming.

At that point, we had better already know the answers to those questions, because the technologies will then be deployed, ready or not.

Comments

11 Comments

McRocket

Jun 16, 2011 at 12:33pm

Very interesting article Gwynne Dyer, thank you.

Every time I read an article about global warming, I come away thinking of humanity as remarkably juvenile.

I feel stronger and stronger that humanity is - more or less - doomed and that nothing substantial will be done to stop global warming until it is too late because people are just too greedy and selfish.

And then I often think 'So what. If humanity is too stupid to stop itself from abusing it's surrounding's so much that it exterminates itself; even though it had ample warming over many generations to stop it...I say, no great loss to the universe.'
And right now? It seems too stupid.

Meme Mine

Jun 16, 2011 at 12:59pm

Gwinny also predicted 10k deaths of American soldiers in the first Gulf War. If anything, climate change has become the Iraq War of climate WMD's and lies and fear mongering for hysterical progressivism.
The Quantum Climatology Problem:
Climate Change has done to journalism, science and trusting political agendas what nasty priests and suicide bombers did for organized religion. It’s phony moralized dogma made well intentioned people into fear mongering neocons as billions of children and future children were condemned to a CO2 death. History is watching this madness. Has anyone considered that it was scientists who also gave us cruise missiles, cancer causing chemical cocktails, land mine technology, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, cluster bombs, strip mining technology, Y2K, Y2Kyoto, deep sea drilling technology, AND the cancer causing chemicals and pesticides that polluted the planet originally and made environmentalism necessary in the first place? And just how did these thousands of nameless and faceless scientists strangely out number the protesters? And shouldn’t a “comet hit” of an emergency such as catastrophic climate crisis be mentioned at least once in Obama’s state of the union speech? And still the scientists didn’t “act” like it was still an emergency as they say it is, er was. If this army of saintly scientists marches on Washington, THEN I’ll start to believe in a CO2 crisis.
If you love the planet, be happy for it and be relieved that the planet you love so much will not experience a life ending crisis of climate change. Climate change was a political and cultural industry, not science and not pollution, or energy or waste or population it was a mistake and a criminal exaggeration served as a comfortable lie. Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of the obviously needed population control. Nice job!
I'm not the only one contacting authorities and law makers and the justice departments to have the leading scientists and NEWS EDITORS charged for this needless panic of a false war called Climate Change. We missed getting Bush.............

Meme Mine

Jun 16, 2011 at 1:22pm

I have the greatest respect for Dyer and I have followed his work for many years. Keep up the good fight GD.
Climate Change has done to journalism, science and trusting political agendas what nasty priests and suicide bombers did for organized religion. It’s phony moralized dogma made well intentioned people into fear mongering neocons as billions of children and future children were condemned to a CO2 death. History is watching this madness. Has anyone considered that it was scientists who also gave us cruise missiles, cancer causing chemical cocktails, land mine technology, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, cluster bombs, strip mining technology, Y2K, Y2Kyoto, deep sea drilling technology, AND the cancer causing chemicals and pesticides that polluted the planet originally and made environmentalism necessary in the first place? And just how did these thousands of nameless and faceless scientists strangely out number the protesters? And shouldn’t a “comet hit” of an emergency such as catastrophic climate crisis be mentioned at least once in Obama’s state of the union speech? And still the scientists didn’t “act” like it was still an emergency as they say it is, er was. If this army of saintly scientists marches on Washington, THEN I’ll start to believe in a CO2 crisis.
If you love the planet, be happy for it and be relieved that the planet you love so much will not experience a life ending crisis of climate change. Climate change was a political and cultural industry, not science and not pollution, or energy or waste or population it was a mistake and a criminal exaggeration served as a comfortable lie. Meanwhile, the UN had allowed carbon trading to trump 3rd world fresh water relief, starvation rescue and 3rd world education for just over 25 years of climate control instead of the obviously needed population control. Nice job!
I'm not the only one contacting authorities and law makers and the justice departments to have the leading scientists and NEWS EDITORS charged for this needless panic of a false war called Climate Change. We missed getting Bush.............

seth

Jun 16, 2011 at 2:46pm

You saw it here first - global warming ended by the never before discussed anywhere in the blogosphere technique, I modestly call it Sethquestering.

We use dirt cheap clean and green nuclear power, now approaching $1B/GW with factory production ramping up in China.

It would take about 70 nukes running 24/7 built in Greenland, Ellesmere Island or Antarctica to turn 1 PPM of atmospheric CO2 into 1 cu mile of dry ice. A coupla of canyons filled with dry ice should do'er. To take us down 40 ppm to the recommended 350 ppm over the ten years we'd need to build the 10000 nukes costing $10000B replacing fossil fuels world wide, would take roughly 300 nukes temporarily tasked. When the job was done the dry ice would be layered over with ice, one or two of the nukes would be used to keep it all frozen, and the rest assuming the units are MSR's transported south on barges.

Hopefully, those future nuke builds will use GenIV reactors requiring our corrupt politicians all on Big Oil's payroll, to end their thieving treasonous ways.

Faint hope, I know but perhaps somebody in the US (hello Dr. Chu are you listening?) will now get behind the US invented nuke waste burning Molten Salt Reactor. The US can spent $100B's on weapons R&D but we have nothing for something as fundamental as the nation's power and the Sethquestered end of the global warming.

David LeBlanc at the U of Ottawa has redesigned the Molten salt reactor as a nuke waste burning DMSR which would resolve all safety and cost issues with nuclear. This tech was actually built and ran in a reactor for many years - even flown around on an airplane. By using existing nuclear waste for fuel it could power the world for hundreds of years.

All it needs is $5B, 5 years, and a place to build em , and factory produced units would be streaming out fast enough to eliminate fossil fuels 5 years later.

Nuke waste could be remanufactured into DMSR fuel right at existing nuke sites.

Call your politicians and ask them if all that Big Oil graft is enough pay to sell out their country.
seth

Meme Mine

Jun 17, 2011 at 2:24am

Call it what ever you want but history will show that climate change was about control and taxing the air to control the climate of the planet Earth and make the weather colder.

Bill Cameron

Jun 17, 2011 at 5:08am

So, the stop-gap response to global warming is chemical geo-engineering of the high atmosphere, by sowing brimstone into the sky like a big volcano? The problem of man-made atmospheric carbonification and climate change is mostly biological, and so is the solution.

Clean power generation, & large scale water desalination to support the surface hydrology of agriculture and carbon-fixing afforestation of continental deserts may be just within reach. Let us prove the potential of the existing technologies of solar chimney power plants at scale (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_Updraft_Tower). This is a peaceful, constructive shovel-ready economic stimulus in itself, by the way.

The problem is in our own hands on the surface of the earth, and so is the solution. Meanwhile, feed the fish in the sea, to replenish the mined-out carbon sink of marine biomass of coastal fish stocks. Think biology, not chemistry.

scissorpaws

Jun 17, 2011 at 6:55am

It's damned interesting, like living in a real time SciFi movie, and like most things, until it gets bad it's good. It's the fact that we really have sold out the planet for chintz, junk, SUVs that we really didn't need, probably didn't want. Megahomes that aren't more comfortable but expensive and difficult to heat, demanding long commutes. Crap appliances that clutter up our cupboards rarely, if ever, to be used.

We needed leadership along the lines of Dion and May in '08 but enough of the electorate preferred and believed in the status quo to return it to government. The environment was barely mentioned in '11 and the naysayers certainly got everything they wanted. That's the path we're on and Harper is investing heavily in carbon sequestration, which is his way of voting for the deniers. China is giving up on nukes after Fukushima, which means more coal. Likewise Germany. The Americans are likely to be the Last Deniers Standing courtesy of their weird electoral system, although they are daring to suggest pulling subsidies from ethanol. It doesn't take a soothsayer or political genius to realize we're about to find out just how wrong these deniers are.

Malcolm Newell

Jun 17, 2011 at 9:32am

The whole theme of this discussion is slightly off track, you all seem to be scared witless about the idea that the human race may (want?) have? to deliberately interfere in natural processes.

I would refer you all to a publication by Mike Sandiford (Mike is director of the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne)

How we are (Already) geo-engineering the planet

http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/how-were-geo-engineering-p...

“Frustrated fliers in the eastern states will know that volcanoes vent a lot of gas and particulate matter from the interior of the Earth. Over geological time, that material is returned to the Earth through natural mineralisation, but we know that it can and does impact climate.
Our best estimates place human industrial emissions of sulfur dioxide and CO2 at five and 100 times natural volcanic emissions, respectively.

The rate heat is released from the earth – a measure of its natural “metabolic rate” – is well understood. It’s about 44 trillion watts, and reflects the average rate of energy transferred in moving all the continents, making all the mountains, the earthquakes and the volcanoes on our planet in a process we call plate tectonics.
By way of contrast, the International Energy Agency estimates our human “energy system” operates at a rate of some 16 trillion watts.
So we are already operating at one-third the rate of plate tectonics, and with our energy use doubling every 34 years we are on course to surpass plate tectonics by about 2060.
Climate scientists talk about the climate sensitivity in terms of a “radiative forcing” – an obscure term that accounts for the rate of heat energy gain or loss due to a change in a climate parameter.
The radiative forcing of a doubling of CO2 is about 1300 trillion watts – or 28 times the energy released by plate tectonics.
And we are well on the way to doubling CO2. In the past 100 years we have added almost 40 per cent, and warming that can only plausibly be attributed to a greenhouse effect is not only heating the atmosphere, but is also pumping heat into the oceans and the crust at a phenomenal rate. Recent measurements suggest the oceans have been heating at 300 trillion watts over the last few decades.
The scale of our energy use is truly mind-boggling. In fact, the sheer size of these numbers makes it difficult for most people to grasp and comprehend their significance; few of us have any useful reference frame for comparison.
To put these numbers into a more human context we need a new measure for our energy use. The “Hiro” is one. It is the equivalent to the energy released by detonating one Hiroshima “Little Boy” bomb every second. One Hiro equals 60 trillion watts.
In these terms, our Global human energy system operates at a rate of 0.25 Hiros, or one Hiroshima bomb every four seconds. That is the equivalent of more than eight million Hiroshima bombs going off each year.
And we are on a trajectory towards the one Hiro mark by 2100, equivalent to the energy release of one bomb each year for every five-square kilometre patch of land on the planet.
The ocean heating is at 5 Hiros over the last few decades – the energy equivalent of detonating more than a 150 million Hiroshima bombs in our oceans each year and the radiative forcing of the CO2 we have already put in the atmosphere in the last century is a staggering 13 Hiros. The equivalent in energy terms to almost half a billion Hiroshima bombs each year.

If you have any doubt that we are well on the way to obliterating ALL life on this planet-spend some time trying to pull Mike’s figures to pieces-you will find that you cannot.

We NEED geo-engineering-to COOL things.

David Wilson

Jun 18, 2011 at 2:10pm

What these greedy knuckleheads will do to the planet with geoengineering will make what they have already done with coal, oil, & nuclear energy look like tiddley-winks.

If you want to see what a realistic Plan B looks like check out Lester Brown.

I have always liked Gwynne Dyer, but on this point he is simply ... wrong.

Pat Jensen

Jun 27, 2011 at 8:07pm

Well....better civilizations than ours have bit the dust...Egyptians, Greeks, Romans. Mass media and marketing have got most of the 7 billion human beans on this planet wanting 'the good life'. I can sometimes feel the pull myself. Better enjoy that new home, fast car or fly around the world while I still can. Advertising pays...and the amount being spent to convince us to reduce consumption pales in comparison to the amount being spent to increase sales. Besides, we can't afford to get rid of the car (for example). Just think how many that industry employs...all the way from mining to marketing to infrastructure and upkeep. How are we going to keep those 7 billion employed? Hmmm...7 billion. Any other creature with those numbers and causing as much havoc with the planet we would surely call an 'infestation' and would deal with rather harshly I think. But not us. No, we would rather develop a whole new industry to control the damage. Geo- engineering! Just think how many that could employ! Then even MORE could enjoy'the good life'. You know the ad's...'help us find a cure'.