"Caldeira: 99% of Effort to Avoid Climate Change Should Be on Emissions Cuts, Liability Risks Make Geoengineering Unlikely"
Last week I wrote about the dysfunctional, lop-sided geoengineering panel that is trying to launch the greenwashing euphemism, “Climate Remediation.” Many others joined in the criticism.
In particular, freelance science journalist James Hrynyshyn has a devastating critique of the report at ScienceBlogs, “The Task Force on Climate Remediation Research is wrong, and here’s why.”
I interviewed an ethicist who withdrew from the panel, Prof. Stephen Gardiner. I also interviewed climatologist Ken Caldeira. I asked him about the euphemism, “Climate Remediation.” I also asked him if he stood behind his 2009 statement:
Thinking of geoengineering as a substitute for emissions reduction is analogous to saying, “Now that I’ve got the seatbelts on, I can just take my hands off the wheel and turn around and talk to people in the back seat. It’s crazy…. If I had to wager, I would wager that we would never deploy any geoengineering system.”
Below is the email he sent me (and above is a figure he created that the Task Force embraced).
Note: Caldeira is heavily involved in geo-engineering research and at the end I’ll include an earlier statement he sent me laying out his involvement with that research and Bill Gates.
When I am putting my name on a scientific paper, that means I agree with everything in the paper.
When I put my name on a document like this report, it means that on balance I think this document will do more good than harm and there is no recommendation in the report that I am unable to live with. I conceive of it more like voting for some omnibus legislation where there may be some particular things that do not make me happy, but overall I think the report makes a positive contribution.
I was arguing that we should not issue one report, but two: one on carbon dioxide removal and one on sunlight reflection methods. If I had my way, there would be no reason to coin any term to refer to this disparate collection of possible activities.
Most carbon dioxide removal proposals are either expensive or marginally effective (e.g., massive planting of trees), but most of these proposals do not pose new kinds of climate risk. In contrast, the sunlight reflection approaches introduce a range of new environmental and political risks, and therefore should be treated differently.
My perspective is nicely summarized in the attached figure. I see the climate problem as threatening enough that we need to explore every possible intervention point.
As I mentioned in my 2007 New York Times Op-Ed piece (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/24/opinion/24caldiera.html), I think that 99% of our effort to avoid climate change should be put on emissions reduction, and 1% of our effort should be looking into these options. So, just because this report emphasizes “after the tailpipe” approaches to attempt to diminish climate risk, there is no question that the main thing we need to work on is making sure that greenhouse gases do not come out of the tailpipe in the first place.
We have been subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry by allowing it to use our atmosphere as a waste dump. It is time for us to reclaim our atmosphere, and refuse to provide this subsidy to the fossil-fuel industry. We need to develop energy and transportation systems that do not rely on using the sky as a sewer.
I see the term “climate remediation” as aspirational: the goal is to try to remedy some of the causes or consequences of climate change. The extent to which such efforts can be successful is an open question, but there is no doubt that the environmentally safest path is to avoid emitting greenhouse gases in the first place.
If by “geoengineering” or “climate remediation”, we mean to include things like planting trees, then I think we can see deployment absent a climate emergency. If, however, we are speaking about the sunlight reflection approaches, then I still think it unlikely that these would ever be deployed unless there is some kind of crisis.
Let’s imagine the sunlight reflection method worked as advertised. How could anybody ever tell whether a weather event was due to the stratospheric aerosols, excess greenhouse gases, or natural variability in the climate system? If some region has a major drought in the decade after the introduction of the stratospheric aerosol spray, aren’t they likely to attribute that change to the aerosol spray system? Isn’t that likely to generate political friction and possibly even military conflict?
So, even if the system worked as advertised, there is still great potential that socio-political risks could outweigh climate benefits.
Of course, the system will not work as advertised. The Earth system is much more complex than any model, and so we can expect surprises to occur if a system is deployed. This adds another layer of risk.
On the other hand, if continued heating of the planet results in massive crop failures throughout the tropics and threatens huge loss of life, then it is possible that such risks would seem like a good bargain. Outside of such extreme outcomes, I do not see deployment of a sunlight reflection system to be politically attractive, even if there was an expectation that such a deployment would diminish environmental risks.
I see research into these risky options as kind of an insurance policy. If you see a bunch of kids playing with matches on your wooden deck, your first impulse should be to get the kids to stop playing with matches. You might also want fire insurance, but our first responsibility is to try to prevent the fire.
So, there is a danger if people come to believe that carbon dioxide removal or sunlight reflection methods can substitute for emissions reduction. Outside of a few nutters, I don’t think anybody thinks that the prospect of deploying these approaches mean it is OK to relax and that we can continue dumping our waste CO2 into the atmosphere.
My experience is that people who think climate catastrophe is a real possibility want both to reduce emissions and to study options that might be deployed if those emissions reductions do not come fast enough or are not deep enough to avoid such a catastrophe. People who don’t worry about climate change don’t want to bother with emissions reductions or studying these proposals.
There are very few people who say: “I think the risk of climate catastrophe is real, and therefore we should study these options, but we should not undertake efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” From my perspective, the few people who do say things like that fall squarely in the nutter camp.
I do agree that humanity will reorganize itself to stop hundreds of millions if not billions from starving from catastrophic climate change, possibly as early as the 2030s. Exactly how that will play itself out is hard to imagine, especially given the staggering amount of denial continues in this country. Humanity’s desperation will lead to all sorts of schemes, though I am skeptical that solar radiation management such as sulfate aerosols will be among them, since that also risks major crop damage (see Martin Bunzl on “the definitive killer objection to geoengineering as even a temporary fix”).
A year ago, Caldeira e-mailed me his financial connection to geoengineering research:
1. Funds made available by Bill Gates support several post-doctoral researchers in my lab, as well as access to computational facilities. Some, but far from all, of this research was geoengineering-related. (I attach the most recent paper supported by these funds, showing that about 1/4 of Chinese CO2 emissions support consumption, primarily in the developed world.)
2. David Keith and I have used some of these funds to support meetings at which geoengineering was discussed. The flow of money was uniformly out and not in. All of the participants at these meetings were fully informed of their nature. No funds were ever raised in activities surrounding these meeting.
3. I am listed as an inventor on patents related to vertically pumping water in the ocean and related to storing carbon dioxide in the ocean by dissolving carbonate minerals. I have publicly stated that if any of these patents are used for climate modification purposes, I will donate my share of the proceeds to non-profit charities and NGOs.
I do think that the “Climate Remediation” Task Force should have spelled out all such interests for all its participants.
- Geoengineering “not a solution” to sea-level rise
- Science on the Risks of Climate Engineering: “Optimism about a geoengineered ‘easy way out’ should be tempered by examination of currently observed climate changes”
- Nature: Ocean fertilization for geoengineering “should be abandoned”
- British coal industry flack pushes geo-engineering “ploy” to give politicians “viable reason to do nothing” about global warming. Is that why Lomborg supports such a smoke-and-mirrors approach?
- Nature Geoscience: Oceans are acidifying 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred.