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Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism

By Joe Romm

"Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism"


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Geo-engineering remains at best a secondary climate strategy if you first do really aggressive CO2 reductions and keep concentrations below 450 ppm.  For now, as Obama’s science advisor put it, “The ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.”

At worst, geo-engineering is an utterly false hope that will undercut efforts to achieve the kind of emissions reductions needed for it to have any value.  That, of course, is why conservatives love it, which is the subject of the guest post today by Alex Steffen, Executive Editor, Worldchanging.com (first posted it here).

Here is Steffen’s article.  He notes, “This is a draft essay, and obviously still rough in patches. I’d appreciate feedback!

The Idea of Geoengineering is Being Used Dishonestly

Though we spend our time here at Worldchanging focused on solutions to the planet’s most pressing problems, sometimes the politics around an issue become so twisted that it’s necessary to address the politics before we can have a real discussion about the problems and how to solve them. That’s the case with geoengineering.

Some scientists suggest that certain massive projects — like creating artificial volcanoes to fill the skies with soot, or seeding the oceans with mountains of iron to produce giant algal blooms — might in the future be able put the brakes on climate change. These “geoengineering” ideas are hardly shovel-ready. The field at this point consists essentially of little more than a bunch of proposals, simulations and small-scale experiments: describing these hypothetical approaches as “back up options” crazily overstates their current state of development. Indeed, almost all of the scientists working on them believe that the best answer to our climate problem would be a quick, massive reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

None of this has stopped geoengineering from becoming part of a new attempt to stall those very reductions, though. The same network of think tanks, pundits and lobbying groups that denied climate change for the last 30 years has seized on geoengineering as a chance to undermine new climate regulations and the U.N. climate negotiations to be held at the end of the year in Copenhagen. They’re still using scare tactics about the economic costs of change, but now, instead of just denying the greenhouse effect, they’ve begun trying to convince the rest of us that hacking the planet with giant space-mirrors or artificial volcanoes is so easy that burning a lot more coal and oil really won’t be a problem.

Delay is The Carbon Lobby’s Strategy

It’s a central, yet often forgotten, fact in the climate debate that pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere is incredibly profitable. For a small group of giant corporations (the coal, oil and car companies which we can collectively call the Carbon Lobby), business as usual is big bank. The difficulties of addressing climate change have much more to do with the political power of these corporations than with the technical challenges of building a carbon-neutral economy (a carbon-neutral economy being an engineering and design challenge that we already have the capacity to meet).

For the last thirty years, the Carbon Lobby’s strategy on climate change has been to delay. Almost every informed observer knows, and has known for decades, that the days of fossil fuels are numbered, but how quickly and how completely we shift away from them makes all the difference to these industries. They have a huge investment in oil fields and coal mines and dirty technologies, and each decade they delay the transition away from coal and gas means literally trillions of dollars more profits. Delay = big bucks.

The best way for the Carbon Lobby to delay that transition has been to make regulations and treaties that limit the amount of CO2 emissions politically impossible, especially in the U.S., where the Lobby’s influence is the greatest because of their hold over the Republican party.

That’s why they put such emphasis on attempting to portray the science of climate change as inconclusive or hotly debated (despite the fact that their own scientists told them in 1995 that the science on climate “is well established and cannot be denied”). If they could make people feel uncertain, they could make it safe for politicians to actively oppose new regulations and treaties (a strategy laid out in the famous leaked “Luntz Memo”). Lying about the science made people uncertain; that uncertainty let the Carbon Lobby stall U.S. action; and by stopping the world’s biggest polluter from participating, they stymied any real global deal on greenhouse gasses.

The strategy worked, up to a point. But now most Americans understand that climate change is real and that it demands action. Our new president advocates strong action on climate; business leaders from many industries back him, as do most labor and religious groups; and foreign nations are eager to negotiate (European conservatives are even competing to show leadership on tackling climate emissions, rather than denying that those emissions are a problem). This emerging consensus on the need for regulatory action and effective treaties threatens to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuels much more quickly than anyone expected, so the Carbon Lobby is scrambling to find new reasons for delay.

How Geoengineering Becomes an Argument for Delay

Their new justifications for delay are simple. Taking advantage of the economic crisis, they call climate action a job killer. If the Right’s anger and vehemence against the very idea of green jobs has shocked and confused you, well, understand that it’s important that climate change be framed as a threat to the economy, and never an opportunity: the growing importance of clean tech industries and jobs to the American economy must be downplayed in order for this strategy to work (never mind that wind power already employs more Americans than coal mining). Look for this argument to increase in volume as Copenhagen draws near.

But to really make their case for more delay, they can no longer be seen as outright opponents of climate action. They’ve got to have their own plan. And that’s where geoengineering comes in.

The biggest argument for strong actions taken quickly is that delay or weak responses may put us in a position of facing rapid, perhaps even runaway climate change. The longer we wait, the more dangerous our position becomes. The only certain route to safety would be rapid emissions reductions, including programs for ecosystem restoration and other forms of sustainable sequestration to help draw CO2 levels down.

But if we can be made to believe that megascale geoengineering can stop climate change, then delay begins to look not like the dangerous folly it actually is, but a sensible prudence. The prospect of geoegineering is the only thing that can make that delay seem at all morally acceptable.

In other words, combining dire warnings about climate action’s economic costs with exaggerated claims about geoengineering’s potential is the new climate denialism.

The Carbon Lobby Spins Geoengineering Instead of Emissions Reductions

The new climate denialism is all about trying to make the continued burning of fossils fuels seem acceptable, even after the public has come to understand the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real. That’s why denialists present geoengineering as an alternative to emissions reductions, and couch their arguments in tones of reluctant realism.

One of the earliest political calls for geoengineering was Gregory Benford’s essay Climate Controls, written for the Reason Foundation (you can find out more about their links to the Carbon Lobby and their role in climate denialism here). Benford was explicit that he saw geoengineering as a way to avoid reducing CO2 emissions:

“Instead of draconian cutbacks in greenhouse-gas emissions, there may very well be fairly simple ways–even easy ones–to fix our dilemma. …take seriously the concept of “geoengineering,” of consciously altering atmospheric chemistry and conditions, of mitigating the effects of greenhouse gases rather than simply calling for their reduction or outright prohibition.”

Benford is far from alone. One of the major proponents of geoengineering is the American Enterprise Institute. AEI has a long history of working to deny the scientific consensus on climate change. They have strong ties to the Carbon Lobby (ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond served on the AEI board of trustees, and $1,870,000 from ExxonMobil helped fund their anti-climate work).

Now AEI is working both sides of the new climate denialism street. They claim that climate action is too expensive (In a January paper, AEI’s Willem P. Nel and Christopher J. Cooper argue that “The extent of Global Warming may be acceptable and preferable compared to the socio-economic consequences of not exploiting fossil fuel reserves to their full technical potential.” In other words, “It’s more profitable to let the planet roast.”). They also house one of the few funded policy centers on geoengineering, the AEI Geoengineering Project.

The Geoengineering Project is run by Lee Lane. Lane is smart, and so he doesn’t say outright that we should dump climate negotiations and trust in geoengineering, but you don’t need to read too far between the lines to hear that’s what he’s saying.

In 2006, Lane specifically advised the Bush Administration to urge a greater focus both on debating carbon taxes (we know how Republicans like to “debate” taxes) and on geoengineering as “strategic measures” to “block political momentum toward a return to the Kyoto system.” He continues to put forward geoengineering as an alternative to real emissions reductions anytime in the near future. As he said at AEI’s recent geoengineering conference:

“I think in response to all of those difficulties that certainly I am not the only person to see, a growing number of experts are becoming increasingly concerned about the need to broaden the debate on climate policy. What I mean by broaden it is to expand what we consider as serious climate policy options from what has been a very narrow focus on greenhouse gas emissions limitations, and indeed rather steep and rather rapid greenhouse gas emissions limitations, to consider a much broader range of policies that go way beyond simply attempting to make short run reductions in greenhouse gases.”

In other words, Lane wants us to believe that emissions reductions are politically impossible (never mind that he works at an institution which has labored mightily to sabotage emissions reductions treaty negotiations, and that he himself explicitly advised the Bush Administration on how to do the same), so we ought to be considering geoengineering as the “serious” option instead.

The Distortion of Geoengineering has Become Widespread

Turn over denialist rocks and you’ll find political advocates for geoengineering a-plenty. For instance:

*The Cato Institute (denialists), whose senior fellow and director of natural resource studies, Jerry Taylor, says that if we end up forced do something about global warming, “geo-engineering is more cost-effective than emissions controls altogether.”

*The Heartland Institute (denialists), whose David Schnare now advocates geoengineering as quicker and less costly to the economy than greenhouse gas reductions:

“In addition to being much less expensive than seeking to stem temperature rise solely through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, geo-engineering has the benefit of delivering measurable results in a matter of weeks rather than the decades or centuries required for greenhouse gas reductions to take full effect.”

*The Hudson Institute (denialists) advocates geoengineering as substitute for reductions:

“Successful geoengineering would permit Earth’s population to make far smaller reductions in carbon use and still achieve the same retarding effect on global warming at a lower cost. The cuts in carbon use proposed by international leaders and presidential candidates would have a drastic effect on the economy, especially since substitutes for fossil fuels will be expensive and limited for a number of years.”

*The Hoover Institution (denialists) is home to not only to senior fellow Thomas Gale Moore, author of “Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn’t Worry About Global Warming” but also nuclear weapons engineer and original SDI “Star Wars” proponent Lowell Wood. Wood has become an outspoken geoengineering proponent and co-authored a recent WSJ op-ed in which he warns “But beware. Do not try to sell climate geo-engineering to committed enemies of fossil fuels,” thus revealing that the point is to be friendly to fossil fuels.

And, of course, denialists’ allies in the media and the blogosphere have been quick to take up the call. Conservative columnist (and climate “contrarian”) John Tierney thinks geoengineering makes superfluous emissions reductions (“a futile strategy”) and wants “a geoengineering fix for global warming,” to provide an alternative to the idea that “the only cure [is] to reduce CO2 emissions.” Wayne Crews of the denialist site globalwarming.org (a project of the Carbon-Lobby-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute) likes geoengineering strategies as possible “options apart from carbon constraint,” while climate treaty opponent and “delayer” Roger Pielke, Jr. finds it encouraging that geoengineering’s getting so much buzz.

It would be easy to go on. But the point is obvious: the Carbon Lobby, no longer able to deny the reality of climate change, is hoping to use the idea of geoengineering to undermine political progress towards reducing climate emissions through sensible, intelligent regulations and international treaties. Big Oil, Big Coal and the auto companies want you to believe that reducing emissions is too expensive to work, climate negotiations are too unrealistic to succeed, but we can keep burning fossil fuels anyways because geoengineering gives us a plan B. If you think that, you’ve been spun.

How to De-Spin Geoengineering

None of this is to say that megascale geoengineering should be a taboo subject. We need a smart debate here, where we explore the subject honestly and without industry spin. Here are six suggestions for returning reality to the geoengineering debate in these critical months leading up to Copenhagen:

First, Demand that bold emissions reductions be acknowledged as the only sound foundation for any climate action plan. The Carbon Lobby thrives on half-truths and obfuscation. Ethical people — whether geoengineering proponents, opponents or doubters — all need to be extremely clear in saying that a strong, rapid movement away from fossil fuels and toward climate neutrality is non-negotiable. Many leading thinkers on geoengineering (such as Paul Crutzen and Ken Caldeira) already make clear that immediate action on reducing greenhouse pollution (on both the national and global levels) is the first step, period. We should follow their lead.

Second, Point out that a climate-neutral world is realistic. One of the public debate’s biggest failures is the extent to which we’ve let people be convinced that a climate-neutral planet is some distant, improbable fantasy world. It’s not. We know, already, right now, how to dramatically slash emissions using currently available technologies, and make a profit. Economists (like Lord Nicholas Stern, former Chief Economist at the World Bank) estimate that the total cost of pursuing climate neutrality could be as little as 1% of GDP (far lower than the anticipated costs of allowing climate change to worsen). But there may not even be a cost: a great many of the actions we need to take (like rebuilding our cities and using energy more efficiently) return greater economic benefits than they demand, and when something pays you money, it’s not a cost, it’s an investment.

Third, Be extremely clear about geoengineering’s real possibilities and actual limitations. Journalists tend to sell the planetary engineering sizzle, rather than serve the heavily-caveated steak. Advocates need to continue to emphasize that geoegineering proposals are still extremely early-stage, experimental and surrounded with unknowns. (On the other side, even determined opponents of geoengineering need to acknowledge the good intent and sound reasoning of scientists who are doing their best to add new insight to an extremely important debate.)

Fourth, Get the order right: zero-out first, adapt next, engineer last.. We need to be clear that because of the experimental nature of geoengineering projects, their use should be a last resort, not a primary option. Megascale geoengineering should not yet be part of any national strategies for addressing climate change, or a part of any offset systems in carbon trading regimes. We need first to drive greenhouse gas concentrations down with proven methods, and then begin preparing to adapt to the climate change we know we’ve already set in motion. We should only turn to megascale geoengineering as a last resort.

Fifth, Keep a wary eye on the Arctic ocean and other tipping points. Last year, scientists conducting research in the Arctic made a startling discovery: what might perhaps be formerly-frozen methane was bubbling to the surface of the warming ocean in alarming amounts. Their work demands corroboration, but if confirmed, this should cause us all to worry. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas and huge amounts of it are trapped beneath frigid waters and frozen permafrost, waiting perhaps to be released by rising temperatures.That methane could set off runaway climate change. Even if their findings are refuted, though, potential tipping points need to be watched. If we find we’ve blundered into rapid runaway climate change, some forms of geoengineering, however poorly understood, may quickly move from “last resort” to “needed option.”

Sixth and last, Continue outing the Carbon Lobby and its cronies, and reject their intervention in the debate. Legitimate debates about the possible uses of megascale geoengineering should not include people whose institutions have been consistently and intentionally dishonest about science and science policy.

The next two decades will have an almost unparalleled importance in human history, and the decisions we make during this time could have almost unthinkable impacts for millennia. The world in which scores of future generations will live — its climate, the plants and animals that make up its biosphere, the material possibilities of its cultures — will to an astonishing degree be influenced by the choices we make in the next score of years.

How we interpret the possibilities of (and understand the limitations to) large-scale geoengineering projects will help shape the clarity and velocity with which we act on reducing emissions and building a new, climate-neutral economy. These questions matter too much to allow them be twisted by a bunch of shills for fossil fuel industries.

We need to reclaim the debate about our planet’s future, together.

[JR:  I'd just add that for conservatives to push geo-engineering is the height of hypocrisy since actually deployment of "hard geo-engineering" (like injecting aerosols into the air) requires strongly believing in two things that conservatives completely reject today "” climate scientists and climate models.  If you don't believe climate models, then you would never contemplate geo-engineering in a million years.  Only models can tell you what geo-engineering might do --  there is no way to run a global experiment at scale and there are no paleoclimate analogs of the kind of geo-engineering that is being contemplated.  But this is the Catch-22.  Long before you had enough faith in climate scientists and climate models to justify geo-engineering, you would have a near certain understanding of the catastrophic global warming impacts we face on our current emissions path and a near certain understanding of how mitigation is the wisest and safest response.]

‹ Energy and Global Warming News for April 29: Profiles of the two key “W’s” — Waxman and Wellinghoff

Must have PPT in disappointing issue of Nature devoted to “The Coming Climate Crunch” ›

16 Responses to Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism

  1. david g swanger says:

    I happen to know Greg Benford, and I know that he is not any type of denier, nor does he think geoengineering a cure-all. He has said that that there is no technical fix for ocean acidification. He has recently co-written (with Stuart Strand), in Environmental Science and Technology, a paper on sequestering crop residues in the deep ocean to prevent the release of cabon as they rot. And he believes that between the quickening pace of the Arctic sea ice loss and the positive feedbacks it will bring, and the politics here and in China, meaningful emission controls will not be possible in the time left. I wish I could dismiss that as an irrational fear, but I can’t; and so I reluctantly agree we should pursue geoengineering, _along with all other approaches_ , in case things get truly desperate and we have to buy time.

  2. SecularAnimist says:

    If “meaningful emission controls will not be possible in the time left” then geoengineering schemes are moot since there are no such schemes even envisioned that could plausibly counter the effect of continued, accelerating emissions.

    Moreover, if meaningful emission controls are not implemented, it will be for political reasons (i.e. the entrenched power of fossil fuel interests) and not for technical reasons. We know that emissions reductions will work. We know very well how to reduce emissions quickly. It isn’t even all that difficult. But wealthy, politically powerful, entrenched interests oppose it for short-sighted greed-driven reasons, so it isn’t done.

    Given that, it seems extremely implausible that a human society that is politically unable or unwilling to implement emissions reductions will be politically able and willing to implement large-scale, risky, dangerous, expensive geoengineering schemes of uncertain efficacy.

    Imagine a Kyoto-like process to get global agreement on implementation of a large-scale geoengineering scheme. Why should such a process be more successful than Kyoto?

    Having said that, in addition to phasing out emissions, we do need to draw down the anthropogenic excess CO2 in the atmosphere, which is clearly already at dangerous levels, and bring it back to pre-industrial levels. This can be done through an intensive world-wide reforestation program along with organic agriculture techniques, to sequester CO2 in the biosphere and soil. Such an approach uses natural processes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, has numerous other benefits, low cost, and none of the risks of geoengineering schemes.

  3. Lou Grinzo says:

    Climate change is like comedy: Timing is everything.

    Put another way, the real question hanging over our heads right now is how close are we to the proverbial point of no return, when positive feedbacks take over and even very dramatic emissions reductions (far below and far quicker than anything commonly talked about) won’t be enough. I don’t think anyone truly knows the answer to that question; our grasp of how the climate works just isn’t advanced enough.

    With the potential game changers out there, most notably methane hydrates and defrosting permafrost, oceans warming enough to give back some of their CO2, and deforestation and wildfires flipping forests from being a carbon sink into a source, I’m not at all confident we can avoid resorting to geo-engineering.

    Had we figured out the climate science (not just the “CO2 is a GHG” part) much earlier, it would/could have been a much different story. But now we could well be into the “red zone”, where we have to do everything we can to cut CO2 emissions AND roll the dice with geo-engineering. That makes me very, very nervous…

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the Benford essay quoted in the post is from November, 1997 (according to the page linked to on Reason’s web site). I don’t know Benford, but I think it’s quite plausible that his views regarding climate change have changed significantly in the last 11.5 years.

  5. MikeB says:

    I have to agree with david swanger: there’s a good chance that reducing emissions just isn’t going to happen fast enough, we need a backup plan.

    Ideally, we study a whole bunch of backup plans, find they are all horribly expensive, and realize that cutting emissions is by far the most cost effective path. But we still need to do the research in order to make that argument.

    Btw, I like to think that the only thing scarier than deliberate geoengineering is *accidental* geoengineering. And by accidental geoengineering, I mean raising our planet’s CO2 levels because we weren’t paying attention to the consequences of our actions.

  6. Phillip Huggan says:

    It needs to be clarified in any scenario where you would implement radical geoengineering, you are doing so because you are already faced with a pre-WWII developed world standard of living and trying to avoid a middle ages standard of living.

  7. Leland Palmer says:

    Hi MikeB-

    Btw, I like to think that the only thing scarier than deliberate geoengineering is *accidental* geoengineering. And by accidental geoengineering, I mean raising our planet’s CO2 levels because we weren’t paying attention to the consequences of our actions.

    Oh, our financial elites were paying attention, all right, in my opinion.

    Times Online – JASON and the Secret Climate Change War


    These reports involve a secret organisation of American scientists reporting to the US Department of Defense. At the highest levels of the American government, officials pondered whether global warming was a significant new threat to civilisation. They turned for advice to the elite special forces of the scientific world – a shadowy organisation known as Jason. Even today few people have heard of Jason. It was established in 1960 at the height of the cold war when a group of physicists who had helped to develop the atomic bomb proposed a new organisation that would – to quote one of its founders – “inject new ideas into national defense”.

    So the Jasons (as they style themselves) were born; a self-selected group of brilliant minds free to think the unthinkable in the knowledge that their work was classified. Membership was by invitation only and they are indeed the cream. Of the roughly 100 Jasons over the years, 11 have won Nobel prizes and 43 have been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.

    For years, being a Jason was just about the best job going in American science. Every summer the Jasons all moved to San Diego in California to devote six weeks to working together. They were paid well and rented houses by the beach. The kids surfed while their dads saved the world. Less James Bond, more Club Med.

    Today the Jasons still meet in San Diego in a quaint postwar construction with more than a hint of Thunderbirds about it. In 1977 they got to work on global warming. There was one potential problem. Only a few of them knew anything about climatology. To get a better understanding they relocated for a few days to Boulder, Colorado, the base for NCAR – the National Center for Atmospheric Research – where they heard the latest information on climate change. Then, being physicists, they went back to first principles and decided to build a model of the climate system. Officially it was called Features of Energy-Budget Climate Models: An Example of Weather-Driven Climate Stability, but it was dubbed the Jason Model of the World.

    In 1979 they produced their report: coded JSR-78-07 and entitled The Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate. Now, with the benefit of hind-sight, it is remarkable how prescient it was.

    Right on the first page, the Jasons predicted that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would double from their preindustrial levels by about 2035. Today it’s expected this will happen by about 2050. They suggested that this doubling of carbon dioxide would lead to an average warming across the planet of 2-3C. Again, that’s smack in the middle of today’s predictions. They warned that polar regions would warm by much more than the average, perhaps by as much as 10C or 12C. That prediction is already coming true – last year the Arctic sea ice melted to a new record low. This year may well set another record.

    Nor were the Jasons frightened of drawing the obvious conclusions for civilisation: the cause for concern was clear when one noted “the fragility of the world’s crop-producing capacity, particularly in those marginal areas where small alterations in temperature and precipitation can bring about major changes in total productivity”.

    Scientific research has since added detail to the predictions but has not changed the basic forecast. The Jason report was never officially released but was read at the highest levels of the US government. At the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Frank Press, science adviser to President Jimmy Carter, asked the National Academy of Sciences for a second opinion. This time from climate scientists.

    The academy committee, headed by Jule Charney, a meteorologist from Massachu-setts Institute of Technology (MIT), backed up the Jason conclusions. The Charney report said climate change was on the way and was likely to have big impacts. So by the late 1970s scientists were already confident that they knew what rising carbon dioxide levels would mean for the future. Then politics got in the way. And with it came the birth of climate change scepticism.

    Unfortunately, the Jason report seems to be a linear extrapolation of the data known 30 years ago, not a nonlinear one. The readers of this report may have overestimated its accuracy.

    The attitudes of many of our financial elites can best be summed up by the testimony of the Council on Foreign Relation’s Scott Borgerson before the House Foreign Relations committee on March 25, 2009. Google Borgerson at the House congressional website, and it will pop right up:

    The Arctic is on pace to be ice-free in the summer by 2013, said Scott Borgerson, a visiting fellow for ocean governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. “That’s soon, and our country is not prepared,” he said.

    Borgerson warned lawmakers that the region holds a tremendous amount of oil and gas resources and lines on state sovereignty in the region are blurred, so “there are all the ingredients for trouble.”

    “Those have been sleeping dogs up until now,” he added, “but with dramatic climate change happening there, sleeping dogs might not lie.”

    According to a report released last summer by the U.S. Geological Survey, the region north of the Arctic Circle accounts for 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its undiscovered natural gas.

    Nations bordering the Arctic are already making claims on the oil-, gas- and mineral-rich territory, but several disputes have already arisen over competing claims and witnesses warned lawmakers that more disputes would likely arise if stronger international policies are not developed.

    Just before leaving office, the Bush administration called on federal agencies to begin preparing a U.S. claim. The revised U.S. Arctic Policy directed federal agencies to “take all actions necessary” to determine potential U.S. claims to the Arctic seabed (ClimateWire, Jan. 13).

    But for the United States, making a claim in the Arctic will be difficult unless the Senate ratifies

    Oh, heck yes, our financial elites knew exactly what they were doing, and look forward to exploiting the Arctic resources. This testimony before Congress followed a series of articles by Borgerson in Foreign Affairs, the NYT, and several other major newspapers, full of such advice as “go North, young man”, and so on.

    We need to slap these people, hard, and take their coal fired power plants and oil corporations away from them. It’s looking like coal fired power plants are more dangerous than nuclear weapons – and nobody advocates private control of nuclear weapons.

  8. max says:

    Given that the arctic will be ice free soon- is there a plausible way to mimic the albedo of ice in the arctic to prevent some of the positive feedbacks?

  9. GFW says:

    Max, it’s been demonstrated in the Alps that existing land glaciers can be significantly protected by sheets of white plastic. So covering Greenland and Antarctica with such sheeting is a theoretical possibility that would slow sea level rise. I don’t think we can simulate sea ice though. Of course, just increasing the albedo of the roofs of every building more sophisticated than a mud hut might compensate for decreased sea ice.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Massive scale geo-engineering project (probably expensive, too):

    Solar powered desalination stations on the coasts of the Sahara (and other) deserts; solar powered pumping stations; grow whatever will grow, maybe Miscanthus or switchgrass; pyrolysize into pyrolysis oil and biochar; either bury biochar or use to replace coal.

    Think in terms of about 10 gigatons of biochar per year at, about 4.5 t biochar/ha/yr. So need 2.25 gigahectares of Miscanthus fields. (A gigahectare is, at 100 ha/km^2, 10 million km^2, all of the Sahara with another million km^2 in other deserts.)

  11. David B. Benson says:

    9 million km^2

    0.65 million km^2

    0.2 million km^2

    1.371 million km^2

    sums to 11.221 million km^2, about half enough.

  12. David B. Benson says:

    Forgot the pyrolysis oil, which can be used as a heating oil and probably diesel engines can be modified to use it. With that, the idea of using all those deserts just to grow biofuel meets (approximately) the target of replacing 10 GtC of fossil fuel and deforestation.

  13. Maybe it is just the luddite in me, but Geo-engineering schemes always remind me of the old lady who swallowed a fly:


    This method strikes me as escalating the unknowns in order to compensate for the knowns. If it works, it is not because we are clever, but only lucky. Frankly, I’ve never felt that lucky, nor have circumstances ever conspired to suggest that the rest of us are either.

  14. Ian Forrester says:

    David B.Benson, I have been following your comments (and those of others) on pyrolysis and biochar for some time now. I worked on pyrolysis of agricultural waste (mostly straw) and wood chips. Pyrolysis oils are not too useful since they contain a lot of water, are very polar and are not stable either polymerizing or precipitating on storage. They are not miscible with either gasoline or diesel, my first thought for their use was as fuel extenders. They can be burned but why not just burn the biomass? We looked at upgrading the PO using hydrogen and a cheap catalyst. The products from this process, more deoxygenation than hydrogenation, produced a hydrocarbon which was miscible with gasoline and diesel thus could be used as a fuel extender. I had plans on using the char as a source of hydrogen, simple water gas reaction.

    Unfortunately I was doing this work in the mid 1980′s just as the price of oil plummeted to about $8 a barrel. Couldn’t get any investors interested then.

    I think that thermo-chemical processing of biomass (especially dry biomass) is a much better route to go than hydrolysis and fermentation. For wet biomass the best route is anaerobic digestion to methane.

    Whether there will be any excess bio-char with my process to bury is a good question since we never really did enough work on the hydrogen production to tell if there would be any extra.

  15. ecostew says:

    Indeed, “the old lady who swallowed the fly” – it’s SiFi – put some peer-reviewed science on the table and we can have a discussion. What a sick joke.

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Ian Forrester — Thanks. There is a Canadian compnay based in Vancouver BC which builds fast pyrolysis units, so the primary product is the oil. Their adverts claim it is similar to #2 and #4 heating oils, so despite undesirable properties, could replace those. See

    With slow pyrolysis, approximately 40% of dry weight become oil and 40% char. The advantage in both cases is transport is less expensive than for the biomass. Furthermore, biochar simply replaces fossil coal, essentially no adjustments are required.

    Whether one uses pyrolysis or anaerobic digestion for the methane depends upon having enough water, yes, but also on the market for each of the products.