Geo-engineering remains a bad idea

Earl Killian sends me this WSJ op-ed, “Thinking Big on Global Warming” (subs. req’d.), which I will reprint below in its entirety. He sees some good news in it — the WSJ “published a non-denier [opinion] piece.”

Yes, but geo-engineering is one of the Delayers’ sexiest strategies — holding out the promise of a pure techno-fix that doesn’t require all those annoying regulations needed to completely changing our energy system. The conservative (duh!) authors of the WSJ piece embrace trying to “develop capabilities for increasing the fraction of sunlight that is reflected outward by the upper atmosphere back into space.” They claim:

We know it would work because it happens naturally all the time.

Yes, volcanoes spew out aerosols that cool the Earth. I have previously debunked aerosol geo-engineering. The authors seem unaware of a major study that finds “doing so would cause problems of its own, including potentially catastrophic drought.”

And, of course, this strategy allows unfettered ocean acidification, and as noted recently, “When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans.”

So we might temporarily stave off superheating the planet, but still bring ruinous climate change and destroyed the ocean ecosystem! The authors claim:

Do not try to sell climate geo-engineering to committed enemies of fossil fuels. Although several geo-engineering options appear to be highly cost-effective, ideological opposition to them is often fierce. Fashionable blogs are replete with conspiracy theories and misinformed attacks.

Who are these enemies of fossil fuels? I don’t know such people. I know enemies of greenhouse gases. I am one of those. But we tend to like natural gas, and many of us would be okay with coal if you added permanent carbon capture and storage. Greenhouse gas mitigation avoids catastrophic global warming with high confidence and few negative side effects (and, indeed, many positive side effects). No one has proposed a geo-engineering plan that meets either of those two tests.

Here is the full op-ed:

Thinking Big on Global Warming
October 15, 2007; Page A22

What is to be blamed for global warming?

Since the 1980s, man-made emissions of greenhouse gases have been designated as the principal culprit, especially CO2 emitted by the burning of coal and petroleum products.

Numerous measures have been proposed to reduce these emissions. And since climate change does not stop at national borders, European governments, the United Nations and more recently the United States have tried to establish world-wide emission goals by organizing a cavalcade of international conferences — from the 1997 Kyoto conference to an upcoming convention in Bali.

Yet no binding agreement has been reached on reducing global CO2 levels, let alone on the means to assure compliance. Decades into this debate, we have neither widely agreed-upon limits on future greenhouse gas emissions nor the administrative capabilities to implement such limits. Moreover, climate scientists warn that emission controls alone may not stabilize the climate.

Is there anything that can be done?

Actually, there is. One approach rarely discussed at global warming conferences is to develop capabilities for increasing the fraction of sunlight that is reflected outward by the upper atmosphere back into space. This approach is called “climate geo-engineering.” Expressed in terms of the metaphor of the “greenhouse effect,” it would work like this: Geo-engineering would put a “parasol” over the greenhouse to deflect 1% or 2% of the sunlight that now affects the Earth. Scattering this small fraction into space would reduce global warming.

In the language of climate science, we would increase by a few percent the Earth’s “albedo” — the ratio of incoming sunlight reflected back into space relative to the total inbound from the sun.

We know it would work because it happens naturally all the time. Clouds routinely deflect sunlight and thereby cool the Earth. Volcanoes — when they erupt and inject millions of tons of fine particulate material into the stratosphere (mostly sulfate aerosols) — have also cooled large regions of the globe. Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991 and cooled most of the Earth for a few years, erasing for a short time roughly half of the global warming that took place during the entire 20th century.

The idea of artificially increasing the Earth’s albedo is not new. In 1992, a report by the National Academy of Sciences found the prospect of stratospheric albedo enhancement “feasible, economical, and capable.” And there are a great many geo-engineering options apart from adding sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.

But beware. Do not try to sell climate geo-engineering to committed enemies of fossil fuels. Although several geo-engineering options appear to be highly cost-effective, ideological opposition to them is often fierce. Fashionable blogs are replete with conspiracy theories and misinformed attacks. Because of this intimidating opposition, no serious geo-engineering research programs have been started. And without some small-scale tests, not enough data will be available to assess the benefits, cost and possible harmful side effects of such

Much could be learned about this other half of the global warming picture with a tiny fraction of the funds that have been allocated to climate-change studies focused on greenhouse gas emissions. Those who now oppose climate geo-engineering should understand that none of the suggested options is meant to be a free-standing, long-term solution to global warming. If the greenhouse effect continued to increase, the geo-engineering measures would not only have to be maintained indefinitely but also be gradually augmented to keep pace. Moreover, accumulating CO2 in the atmosphere would make the oceans harmfully acidic over the next few centuries [try “decades” — JR].

Clearly, we need both: adequately explored geo-engineering options for contingent climate stabilization, and truly effective, practical measures to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

Mankind’s current energy system evolved during the 20th century as an offspring of the Industrial Revolution. It may take almost as long to replace this system with the novel energy sources and distribution networks that future generations will need. This huge transition would be greatly facilitated if geo-engineering options are developed and tested to provide a safe breathing space without a massive global-warming crisis.

Mr. Ikl©, an undersecretary of defense policy for President Ronald
Reagan, is with the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Mr.
Wood, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, is affiliated with
the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Intellectual Ventures LLC. A version of this article will be published in the January issue of The National Interest.

6 Responses to Geo-engineering remains a bad idea

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    A new step in the progression of GW deniers.

    The planet’s not warming. Oh, it is.

    It’s not man-made (human beings couldn’t possibly warm the whole planet!). Oh, we did.

    There’s nothing to be done about it. Oh, the costs of doing nothing far outstrip the costs of taking action.

    We can geoengineer the planet (hey, we CAN change things!), and it’s cheaper than fixing the root problem, CO2 emissions. Oh, that’s too risky.

    Oh, brother.

  2. David Appell says:

    Joe, you repeatedly claim that geoengineering is a bad idea, but you have never once offered a reasonable alternative. Not one of your ideas will cut GHG emissions by 80% over the next several decades. Not one. You’re just hoping for pie-in-the-sky, and you and your side have never shown how we can reach such GHG cuts while maintaining our standard of living. And one thing is sure, people WILL NOT give up their standard of living….

  3. Joe says:

    The idea is mitigation — you might read my book for more details, though the essential strategy has been posted here. But I’ll run through the solution in November, I think.

  4. AVE_fan says:

    The term “geoengineering” is being applied only to the use of sulfate aerosols to block incoming sunlight. For a different version, involving the facilitation of rapid transfer of warm surface air to the upper layer of the troposphere, see the website and link to the July article in the Toronto Star for additional details.

  5. paulm says:

    Of course things are getting bad…I think that geoengineering is going to be used at some point by the good and bad guys. One way of injecting aerosols in to the atmosphere that I have not come across – would be provoking volcanic eruptions. This is something that should be achievable. Of course we must reach a state of virtual Zero CO2 emission also!

  6. Fred says:

    It is universally agreed that reverse greenhouse effects are caused by such phenomena as haze or dust in the atmosphere. To illustrate this, visualize a green house with reflective film put on the glass. Because much of the radiant energy is reflected, it will be cooler than a greenhouse without reflective film.

    For the past 100 years CO2 concentrations have increased, but temperatures have fluctuated down as well as up. Including the effects of reverse greenhouse effects explains this.

    From 1900 till 1942, temperatures rose as anticipated. From 1943-1979 temperature trends remained constant, contrary to increased greenhouse gases. From 1980-2002 temperatures showed large temperature increases, followed by five years trending no change, then the past two years have shown dramatic temperature drops. The 2008 global temperature is lower than 12 years ago.

    What happened in the 40’s? Industry and manufacturing expanded at an unprecedented rate producing massive air pollution, which produces a reverse greenhouse effect.

    What changed in the 70’s and 80’s? The EPA started reducing air pollution, especially sulfides, thereby reducing the reverse greenhouse effect. Similar actions were instituted by other industrial nations. This explains the “global warming” that followed.

    The recent lack of temperature rise and “global cooling” is explained by the effect of air pollution now being produced by China and other emerging countries?

    I don’t advocate burning high sulfer coal to control global temperatures, but there are other Geo-engineering techniques such as cloud whitening which are safe, low cost, controlable and reversabile. We sure could use some public exposure and research on reverse greenhouse techniques to better determine sensible carbon policies.

    Seawater spray
    Various schemes have been suggested, such as that proposed by John Latham and Stephen Salter, which works by spraying seawater in the atmosphere to increase the reflectiveness of clouds. The extra condensation nuclei created by the spray will change the size distribution of the drops in existing clouds to make them whiter. The sprayers would use fleets of unmanned Rotor ships known as Flettner vessels to spray mist created from seawater into the air to thicken clouds and thus reflect more radiation from the Earth.The whitening is achieved as a result of the Twomey effect.
    This technique can give >3.7W/m2 of globally-averaged negative forcing, which is sufficient to reverse the warming effect of a doubling of CO2.

    There are three approaches to dealing with global warming. Mitigation (renewable energy), Adaptation(if it is going to flood, move or build levies) and null-engineering( reverse greenhouse effects). I believe the best solution , with the least social consequences, is an economical combination of all three.