Ex Machina: No Techno-Fix For Irreversible Ocean Collapse From Carbon Pollution


A new study finds there is no “deus ex machina” way to prevent a catastrophic collapse of ocean life for centuries if not millennia — if we don’t start slashing carbon pollution ASAP.

The Nature Climate Change study examined what would happen if we continue current CO2 emissions trends through 2050 and then try to remove huge volumes of CO2 from the air after the fact with some techno-fix. The result, as co-author John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, put it, is “we will not be able to preserve ocean life as we know it.”

A “Deus ex machina” — literally “God from the machine” — originated in Greek tragedy (and comedy) where a machine (like a crane) delivers actors who play gods to the stage to magically resolve all of the dramatic problems. Today it means, “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.”

Geo-engineering is a classic last-minute techno-fix or deus ex machina offered by some to the (solvable) problem of human-caused global warming. It does this either by blocking sunlight (e.g. with mass injection of sulfate aerosols) or by post-facto carbon dioxide removal (CDR).


As we reported in February, the whole notion is so dubious, so fraught with obvious danger, that even the staid National Academy of Sciences felt compelled to eviscerate the whole idea in two separate reports. Indeed, the reports were on “climate intervention,” since the Academy panel rejected the term “geoengineering.” Why? Because “we felt ‘engineering’ implied a level of control that is illusory,” explained Marcia McNutt who led the report committee.

The panel warned of the huge risks with the more invasive strategies to reduce the amount of sunlight absorbed by the Earth: “There is significant potential for unanticipated, unmanageable, and regrettable consequences in multiple human dimensions from albedo modification at climate altering scales, including political, social, legal, economic, and ethical dimensions.”

CREDIT: Wikipedia
CREDIT: Wikipedia

This is commonly known as the Frankenstein’s monster problem, where your advanced techno-creation turns against you. The modern retelling of that story this year was a poignant sci-fi thriller, appropriately titled “Ex Machina.” Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for the techno-geek who tries to play God and create an “artificial intelligence.”

“There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, and concurrently to reduce ocean acidification,” the Academy panel concluded, a point the new study on acidification underscores.

The paper looked at the impact on the ocean ecosystem of acidification combined with “increasing temperatures and decreasing concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the sea.” As the news release notes, “Earlier in Earth’s history, such changes have led to mass extinctions.”


Indeed, a 2010 study showed that humans are acidifying the oceans 10 times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred. And a 2015 study in Science concluded that the Permo-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago — considered the “the greatest extinction of all time” — happened during the time when massive amounts carbon dioxide were injected into the atmosphere, first slowly and then quickly (driven by volcanic eruptions). The researchers found that “during the second extinction pulse, however, a rapid and large injection of carbon caused an abrupt acidification event that drove the preferential loss of heavily calcified marine biota.” How bad was this extinction? Besides killing over 90 percent of marine life, it wiped out some 70 percent of land-based animal and plant life.

As discussed a year ago, when the world’s leading scientists and governments released the final “Synthesis” report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they made clear that it is the long-term irreversibility of climate change that makes it so immoral. For every scenario they looked at — other than the one that keeps total warming below 2°C — the IPCC warns:

A large fraction of anthropogenic climate change resulting from CO2 emissions is irreversible on a multi-century to millennial time scale, except in the case of a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period.

And this new study now aims directly at the IPCC’s one (tiny) exception. “Large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period” won’t help large parts of the ocean stave off catastrophic long-term destruction. Again, there is no deus ex machina that will save us if we shun the one strategy we know will work (slashing carbon pollution).

As co-author Ken Caldeira, a climate and geo-engineering, expert told me: “Our paper shows that emitting CO2 today and taking it out sometime later is not the same as never emitting it at all.” The changes in large parts of the ocean, “may be reversible on the time scale of many thousands of years, but if these changes cause extinctions they will produce changes that are not reversible.’

And these changes are likely to cause mass extinction. But, hey, what’s wrong with playing God and deciding that a couple more decades of unsustainable carbon pollution from homo sapiens is better than the relatively super-cheap actions needed to avoid massive species loss (and catastrophic sea level rise and all those other irreversible impacts)?

That always works out well.