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Caldeira calls Lomborgs vision “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story”

By Joe Romm on November 15, 2010 at 10:56 am

"Caldeira calls Lomborgs vision “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story”"


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If you don’t do aggressive greenhouse mitigation starting now, you pretty much take geo-engineering off the table as a very limited (but still dubious) add-on strategy.

Bjorn Lomborg has one thing right about messaging — if you just keep repeating your disinformation and long-debunked arguments over and over and over again, you can break through to the media and general public.  This is doubly true because the debunkers usually get tired of repeating themselves first.

Now the discredited Dane has a documentary film out, “Cool It” pushing his favorite ‘solutions’ to global warming — R&D plus the (false) hope of geo-engineering — while repeating his fatally-wrong core message that under no circumstances should humanity start aggressive mitigation of carbon dioxide.

Few people have been as thoroughly debunked as Bjorn Lomborg (see “The Bjorn Irrelevancy: Duke dean disses Danish delayer” and “Lomborg’s main argument has collapsed“).  Heck not only has the trailer for his film been debunked, there’s a whole book, The Lomborg Deception, eviscerates his writing and even his footnotes.

Lomborg’s view of geo-engineering in particular is almost completely backwards from what the science suggests.

First, as science advisor John Holdren resasserted in 2009 of strategies such as space mirrors or aerosol injection, “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.

Second, of course, those ‘solutions’ do nothing to stop the consequences of ocean acidification, which recent studies suggest will be devastating all by itself (see Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century”).

Third, a major analysis in Science this year by leading experts on volcanoes and/or climate “” Alan Robock, Martin Bunzl, Ben Kravitz, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov “” “A Test for Geoengineering?” (online here), concluded:

Stratospheric geoengineering cannot be tested in the atmosphere without full-scale implementation.

Indeed, they found “weather and climate variability preclude observation of the climate response without a large, decade-long forcing. Such full-scale implementation could disrupt food production on a large scale” “” for two billion people!  For Bunzl’s discussion of this, see “the definitive killer objection to geoengineering as even a temporary fix.”

So Lomborg has it exactly backwards in an extended piece of nonsense Time magazine lets him post, “Geoengineering: A Quick, Clean Fix?“:

This is where geoengineering comes in: it’s not a long-term solution but a way to keep the earth from overheating while we wait for truly efficient and affordable green-energy technologies to come on line.


I’ve seen many of the reviewers of the movie pick up this absurd myth that geo-engineering is a way to “buy time” while we wait for technology breakthroughs. With apologies to my long-time readers, if Lombardi is going to keep repeating his disinformation (and the media is going to pick it up and run with it), I am going to start excerpting some of the prior debunkings of Lomborg, starting with this 2009 Caldeira interview whose opening paragraph I quote at the top:

If you don’t do aggressive greenhouse mitigation starting now, you pretty much take geo-engineering off the table as a very limited (but still dubious) add-on strategy.

Bjorn Lomborg is getting a lot of media coverage for his do-nothing climate “consensus.”  The Washington Post Juliet Eilperin had a good piece, which included a response from real climate scientists:

The group, headed by statistician Bjorn Lomborg, issued a report by five economists that suggested it made more sense to spend money on marine cloud whitening research and green energy development than to protect forests, clean up diesel emissions or significantly raise the price of carbon”¦.

Several scientists questioned whether focusing on geoengineered solutions at the expense of major carbon reductions would adequately address the effects of climate change. Carnegie Institution senior scientist Ken Caldeira, a geoengineering expert, said such a strategy “misses the point.”

“Geoengineering is not an alternative to carbon emissions reductions,” he said. “If emissions keep going up and up, and you use geoengineering as a way to deal with it, it’s pretty clear the endgame of that process is pretty ugly.”

Brad Warren, who directs the ocean health program at the advocacy group Sustainable Fisheries Partnership, noted that even if marine cloud whitening worked, it would fail to address the fact that human-generated carbon emissions are making the seas more acidic and threatening marine life.

“I haven’t seen anything in the area of geoengineering that protects the ocean from the chemical consequences of greenhouse gas emissions,” Warren said.

The group’s inane results are here.  The comment of Ken Caldeira caught my eye.  I’ve known him for many years and I asked him if he could explain his remarks.  His response (boldface added):

Nobody has written about this that I know of, but “¦.

If we keep emitting greenhouse gases with the intent of offsetting the global warming with ever increasing loadings of particles in the stratosphere, we will be heading to a planet with extremely high greenhouse gases and a thick stratospheric haze that we would need to main[tain] more-or-less indefinitely. This seems to be a dystopic world out of a science fiction story. First, we can assume the oceans have been heavily acidified with shellfish and corals largely a thing of the past. We can assume that ecosystems will be greatly affected by the high CO2 / low sunlight conditions “” similar to what Earth experienced hundreds of millions years ago. The sunlight would likely be very diffuse “” maybe good for portrait photography, but with unknown consequences for ecosystems.

We know also that CO2 and sunlight affect Earth’s climate system in different ways. For the same amount of change in rainfall, CO2 affects temperature more than sunlight, so if we are to try to correct for changes in precipitation patterns, we will be left with some residual warming that would grow with time.

And what will this increasing loading of particles in the stratosphere do to the ozone layer and the other parts of Earth’s climate system that we depend on?

On top of all of these environmental considerations, there are socio-political considerations: We we have a cooperative world government deciding exactly how much geoengineering to deploy where? What if China were to go into decades of drought? Would they sit idly by as the Climate Intervention Bureau apparently ignores their plight? And what if political instability where to mean that for a few years, the intervention system were not maintained “¦ all of that accumulated pent-up climate change would be unleashed upon the Earth “¦ and perhaps make “The Day After” movie look less silly than it does.

Long-term risk reduction depends on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Nevertheless, there is a chance that some of these options might be able to diminish short-term risk in the event of a climate crisis.

I would add the grave risk that that after injecting massive amounts of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere for a decade or more, we might discover some unexpected bad side effect that just gets worse and worse.  After all, the top climate scientists underestimated the speed and scale of greenhouse gas impacts (and the magnitude of synergistic ones, like bark beetle infestations and forest fires).

We would be in incompletely unexplored territory “” what I call an experimental chemotherapy and radiation therapy combined.  There is no possible way of predicting the long-term effect of the thick stratospheric haze (which, unlike GHGs, has no recent or paleoclimate analog).  If it turned out to have unexpected catastrophic impacts of its own (other than drought), we’d be totally screwed.

Even geoengineering advocate Tom Wigley is only defending “a complementary combined mitigation/geoengineering scenario, an overshoot concentration pathway where atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches 530 ppm before falling back to 450 ppm, coupled with low-intensity geoengineering,” with the goal of stabilizing global temperature rise at 2°C, in case we can’t stabilize at 450 ppm. You can see a good discussion of that at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientistsexpert roundtable response to Alan Robocks’ excellent piece, “20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea.”

Well, stabilizing at 530 ppm requires doing a massive amount of mitigation starting now “” only 2 or 3 fewer wedges than what is needed for 450 (see “How the world can stabilize at 350 to 450 ppm: The full global warming solution“).

The Danish delayer makes for great (status quo) media.  But his Siren song of “don’t aggressively mitigate now but buy time for breakthroughs with geo-engineering” is as fatally flawed as ever.

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    22 Responses to Caldeira calls Lomborgs vision “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story”

    1. Dean says:

      One reason that the strategy of repeating a lie and it will be believed works for Lomborg is that it is a message people want to hear – that they can deal with a problem with no real cost, one of the Happy Days solutions. No need to change lifestyles (that part is for most of us) and no need to challenge powerful interests (that part is for the politicians). They say that politics is the art of the possible, but the art of politics is making the impossible possible.

    2. MightyDrunken says:

      I don’t get those who argue for geo-engineering and mitigation instead of carbon reduction, or for delaying carbon reduction. The reason I don’t think it makes sense is they admit there is a problem with human induced warming, but their solution is really no solution at all. It is an ongoing effort which simply makes the problem harder to resolve the longer you wait. It makes more sense to me to use options which solve the problem long term.
      There again the geo-engineering option is usually advocated by those who seem to hold economic growth as the most important factor. Not something which I think is really that important. And as this site has tried to show green options will not bring down the economy anyway.

    3. Wit's End says:

      Not only does geoengineering do nothing about ocean acidification, which all by itself is enough to kill pretty much all of life in the sea, eventually – it also does nothing about the ozone problem in the atmosphere, which all by itself IS KILLING essential terrestrial life forms, like trees. Watch them die.

    4. Leif says:

      We have had over two hundred ++ years of geo-engineering and have been quite successful at… screwing things up to a fair-the-well. Deforestation, ocean harvesting, top soil erosion, fresh water neglect, ozone depletion, species extinction, acid rain and acid oceans and of course green house gasses. Each and every attempt has already or will bite humanity where it hurts. What makes folks like the Lomborg and the other “Borgs” think we will be any more productive. Are they expressing “Faith” in the very science that they currently vilify? In each and every case listed above science has been ahead of the curve in issuing warnings that have gone unheeded. Is there something to be learned here?
      Stop digging, start back filling! Reverse geo-engineer.

    5. George Ennis says:

      The New Yorker has an interesting article on the GOP assuming control of the House of Representatives Oversight Committee and what it portends for the investigation of climate scientists.

    6. I agree completely that we should reduce ghg emissions as aggressively as possible. But there is also a benign form of geoengineering that we should be implementing: the albedo effect. We should be painting roads, roofs, and parking lots white so they reflect heat instead of absorbing heat.

    7. Jeff Huggins says:

      Blunt Regarding Bjorn

      Time is limited. If folks on our side can’t, and don’t, bury (figuratively speaking) the whole Bjorn BS via two arguments, we should flunk ourselves.

      First, from the standpoint of economics, there’s the Milton Friedman quote and all sorts of other quotes and arguments that make the same point. Coming from Milton Friedman, it’s a powerful quote.

      And also, from the ethical standpoint and involving the interface between ethics and economics, there’s the point that Donald Brown makes very well — that the fact that doing “B” may be more expensive than continuing to do “A” is NOT a valid reason to continue to do “A” if “A” is causing harms, or will cause harms, to other people. PERIOD.

      Given the stakes involved, it’s not clear to me why we can’t make that argument much louder and clearer, and it’s not clear to my why the media don’t feel downright OBLIGATED to convey such arguments loud and clear.


    8. Lou Grinzo says:

      Jeff: You’re not nearly blunt enough for the task at hand. Making those arguments in this situation is akin to Frasier Crane whipping out his thesaurus at the beginning of a fight in a bike bar and expecting to win the day with a witty turn of phrase. (The sarcasm in that statement is meant for all of us and how we approach these arguments, not just you, Jeff.)

      We need to boil this down to the bare metal: “Geohacking is an expensive, endless commitment to fixing just part of a problem that will kill BILLIONS of people if left unchecked. It’s like telling someone with heart disease, ‘You go ahead, keep eating a high fat diet and avoiding exercise. We’ll just put you on an artificial heart when the time comes.’”

      (And by the way, with China, India, and the US seemingly competing to see who can drive us the quickest towards the cliff, what do you think will happen when we resort to something like massive sulfate aerosol spraying? It will reduce the incentive for countries to cut emissions, making meaningful mitigation even tougher to achieve.)

    9. Chris Winter says:

      Picture caption: “If you don’t do aggressive greenhouse mitigation starting now, you pretty much take geo-engineering off the table as a very limited (but still dubious) add-on strategy.”

      Thanks for expanding on that. As it stands, it strikes me as counter-intuitive in that, if we don’t reduce GHGs, pressure for some sort of geo-engineering becomes greater. That is, not doing mitigation puts geo-engineering back on the table.

    10. KeenOn350 says:

      Joe –
      Typo in comment of Ken Caldeira?
      to maintain more-or-less indefinitely. (?)

    11. Windsong says:

      According to the London Review (October issue, 2010), very few Russians believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming, because of a “documentary” which aired on Channel One of their local TV stations which intended to show that Al Gore was in cahoots with the Media in making up the story of human-caused global warming. They realize that global warming is occurring because Russia is heating up even faster than the rest of the planet. But very view attribute it to humans, thanks to the bull story which aired on Channel One.

      Wonder if the same thing will occur here? The Evil ones are determined to win!

    12. Jeff Huggins says:

      Regarding Lou Grinzo’s Comment 9

      Hi Lou. I think I didn’t communicate clearly, or you misunderstood me. I agree that all sorts of approaches are needed, and that we need to be tough and make tough arguments, and there is no silver bullet of course.

      But the arguments I’m talking about are not “soft” arguments, properly understood, or dodge-able, nor am I suggesting that we whisper them, say them twice, put them into a few academic papers, and so forth.

      Indeed, the reason I’m making this comment is that I think the movements, among other things, are not very good at conveying actual arguments clearly, persistently, forcefully, simply, widely, compellingly, and so forth. Often we give up on the arguments themselves, partly because (too often) we pick ones that are easy to dodge, we don’t quote the right folks and use the other side’s own “authorities” against them, we don’t pick the right venues, we give up too soon, and so forth. There is nothing soft or dodge-able about the two components of the argument I mentioned earlier, and we are, actually, dropping a big ball if we don’t learn how to use them forcefully and actually do so.

      This is not to say that we don’t need all the other key facts, including the (validly) scary ones, to make the arguments to various people. I’m not arguing against the use of other arguments, in addition to the ones I mentioned. Instead, I’m saying that the ones I mentioned are pivotal, for the right audiences, and that we should learn how to make them clearly and loudly and persistently.

      Cheers for now,


    13. Solar Jim says:

      I think Lomborg should try out for the lead character in A Clockwork Orange. He seems to have a similar “dispensation.”

      Tick-tock goes the climate clock.

    14. Tom Huntington says:

      To me one of the most troubling consequences of geo-engineering is the possibility that we could unwittingly trigger disastrous droughts in some regions. The “natural experiment” of the injection of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere following the eruption of Mt Pinatubo resulted in a significant decline in rainfall and runoff on a global basis:
      Trenberth, K. E., and Dai, A. (2007). Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L15720, doi:10.1029/2007GL030524.

      Another potential problem is that sulfate fallout will accelerate the ongoing terrestrial acidification of soils, lakes, and streams and the resulting loss of base cations from soils will necessitate higher rates of liming for crops and could likely reduce the productivity of forests in poorly buffered systems.

      Wouldn’t permanent global dimming that reduced photosynthetically active radiation result in a reduction in crop yields?

    15. Omega Centauri says:

      Chris @6 “That is, not doing mitigation puts geo-engineering back on the table.”
      I don’t see any way we will avoid doing at least some geo-engineering. The issue becomes whether we will be able to stop with the more benign version, like comment #6, or be forced to risk large scale ones, like sulphate injection. Even if we
      begin mitigation now, weak form geo-engineering is likely needed.

      Stronger geo-engineering has serious issues of attribution. I would argue that
      weaker monsoon’s are a transient effect -if you suddenly turn on cooling the land will respond faster than the ocean, and that weakens monsoons. That is because the monsoon is caused by differential heating the land heats up more than the ocean during summer. The longer term effect, after ocean/atmospheric cooling is likely different, and a short time span experiment (like observing the results of an eruption) won’t allow you to determine it. In any case any large scale geo-engineering has an attribution problem, where those who don’t like their current climate may blame the geo-engineering even though the evidence is inconclusive.

    16. Dean says:

      I saw an interview of Lomborg today. He didn’t mention geo-engineering strategies. He just said that we should invest in technology, basically the Breakthrough thing. That when we make solar energy cheaper, the problem will be solved. And that spending money on mitigation takes it away from technology R&D.

    17. David B. Benson says:

      Here is what appears to be an actually helpful form of geo-engineering:
      Irrigated afforestation of the Sahara and Australian Outback to end global warming

      I do not view it as a replacement for eliminating burning fossil carbon but rather a suppliment to help bring CO2 levels down to an acceptable level; too hgh already.

    18. jorleh says:

      Methinks we are heading for extinction.

      Homo idioticus does´t care.

      We must take a big step as a last resort: IFR is the only hope to put fossile fuels out of action. The sure death must be attacked with all force, even with some risk. To die and not try all weapons available is stupid.

    19. Chris Winter says:

      Omega Centauri (#16):

      I expect some form of geo-engineering will be used eventually. I only hope it will be something that has been researched, so its effects are well understood.

      I used to assume that orbiting solar mirrors (or sunshades) would be totally benign, although expensive. I’m not confident of that now, but I still think they should be looked at carefully. From what I’ve read, reducing total insolation by 2 percent would do the trick. That doesn’t seem so harmful.

      I do take your point about the effect on monsoons, however.

    20. I’d been hoping Joe Romm would put up a link to my American Scholar piece on geoengineering (hint, hint :) ) but for those on the comment board, you may want to check it out:


    21. It seems unlikely that the world community will act in time to hold the eventual increase in global temperatures to 2 degrees Centigrade. Even if we do achieve that goal, scientists tell us that the global warming which is bound to occur will have effects that can properly be termed disastrous. These include:
      • The extinction of one-sixth or more of all terrestrial species.
      • Catastrophic impacts on marine species and habitats.
      • Major losses in food production.
      • Droughts leading to horrendous wildfires and loss of human life.
      • Severe shortages of fresh water.
      • Calamities in poor nations due to sea-level rise and more
      intense hurricanes.

      Therefore, it would be highly desirable to have the option of cooling the earth via geoengineering, and not just as a “last resort.” We should move rapidly to establish a robust, well-funded, internationally coordinated program of geoengineering research, and to negotiate the global treaty that will be required for major geoengineering experiments and for any use of geoengineering to cool the earth.

      The case for moving rapidly to make the geoengineering option available is set forth on my website, http://coolerearth.net.

      Thomas B. Stoel, Jr.