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Slowing global warming: Not a job for the Washington Post

Another day, another baffling and/or pointless Washington Post climate article.

Today’s winner is “Turning down the world’s temperature: A job for a fake tree? A boat?” It begins promisingly enough:

In case you haven’t heard, the Earth is getting hotter, and most scientists blame mankind. The average global temperature has risen 1.3 degrees in the last century, and the future might be quite a bit warmer. As international climate negotiators convene in Cancun, Mexico, this week, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is projecting that the temperature could rise as many as 10 degrees more by the year 2100 if we do nothing to stop it.

I know what you’re thinking — this is a great lead paragraph for a story on all of the things that we can do to stop that catastrophic 10°F warming. Not.

Is there any way to get ourselves back to those 19th-century temperatures in a hurry?

Not without extraordinary risk. Even if we immediately stopped burning fossil fuels and all became vegans, average temperatures probably wouldn’t drop much for about 500 years, according to Ken Caldeira, a climatologist at the Carnegie Institution and Stanford University.

Whoa! The Post jumps immediately from “we face 10° warming if we do nothing to stop it” — a challenging but ultimately straightforward problem — to immediately stopping temperature rise and going back to 19th century temps — an all but impossible endeavor.

There are two reasons for that. First, carbon is really persistent. For every four molecules we release into the atmosphere, one will still be there five millennia later. Second, the oceans have been absorbing extra heat for a long time, and it would take more than a century for all of it to radiate through the atmosphere and into space.

Uhh, well, yes. That’s why it is so important to embrace low-cost commercial clean energy strategies that avoid putting carbon into the atmosphere in the first place — and that have myriad positive co-benefits, like reduced urban air pollution. But hey, the Post’s wants to write an article about high cost, uncommercial strategies that have many dangerous risks, mostly don’t address dangerous ocean acidification, and leave readers with the impression that there’s nothing we can do to avoid putting carbon into the atmosphere.

The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which released 20 million tons of sulfur and cooled the Earth by about a degree for a year, proved that shading can affect the temperature rather quickly. Some models suggest that, if we were really aggressive and everything worked out just right, shading could return us to 19th-century temperatures.

Nevertheless, shading is a last resort because it could have terrifying side effects, according to Damon Matthews, a climate scientist at Concordia University in Montreal. The shade might diminish or stop the monsoons that water South Asia’s crops. It would undermine the solar panels that help cut our fossil fuel use. And who knows how it would affect plants and the animals that rely on them, including us?

There might be geopolitical consequences as well. Some countries, such as Russia, stand to gain a relative advantage from a little global warming. They might not be happy if another country unilaterally dimmed the sun. (The United Nations has issued a moratorium on geo-engineering.)

Note: If we listen to the Washington Post and ignore all the strategies to reduce emissions, then there isn’t going to be a little global warming — and there is no evidence whatsoever that Russia stands to gain an advantage — see Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” NYT: “Russia Bans Grain Exports After Drought Shrivels Crop.”

See also Martin Bunzl on “the definitive killer objection to geoengineering as even a temporary fix.”

There are also less drastic proposals to manage solar radiation. For example, some have suggested sending ships to the equatorial seas to continuously foam up the water. The white surface would absorb less sunlight than the great blue expanse. Such plans are in their infancy, though, says Jay Gulledge of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, and no one knows how much they would affect the temperature.

Another option is to filter excess CO2 out of the atmosphere. Researchers have developed synthetic trees that might do the job. They’re capable of extracting carbon from the air 1,000 times as fast as regular trees, according to Columbia University’s Klaus Lackner, one of the scientists behind the technology. But it’ll be a while before we build a synthetic forest.

Removing carbon from the open air is far more challenging than just catching it from the business end of a smokestack, a process that could slow, but not reverse, climate change. It would be expensive as well. Right now, it would cost about $1 trillion to filter out 10 billion tons of carbon using the smokestack method; climate scientists are estimating about $100 per ton using current technology. To capture carbon from free air probably would cost two or three times that much. And scientists aren’t even certain how much the scheme would lower temperatures. It’s unlikely we could safely scrub out enough carbon to cool down the planet within the next century.

Huh. So it’s a really expensive, untested strategy that wouldn’t actually cool the planet down. Thanks for telling us about it. Hey, thanks for writing this whole article about how hopeless the problem is — or, I should say, how hopeless the problem you defined for the reader (reducing temperatures from current levels) is.

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If only you had addressed the problem laid out in the opening paragraph — avoiding that possible 10°F warming by 2100. But I’m sure your editor said that story has been done to death. Still, it’s impressive that the WashPost published a whole article on reversing global warming without mentioning a single strategy to cut fossil fuel consumption. That might be a record.

And for the record, since the WashPost quoted Caldeira at the start of the piece, it would have been nice had they merely repeated the quote from a 2009 WashPost piece on the same subject, explaining how counterproductive it is to just focus on geo-engineering without aggressive mitigation, the way, say Bjorn Lomborg does (see Caldeira calls Lomborg’s vision “a dystopic world out of a science fiction story”):

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.

And folks wonder why the public is confused on this subject.