Geoengineering. Sounds great. Treat the Earth like one big motoring machine, get under the hood (bonnet) and tinker with it.
But what if actually this is the equivalent of putting the Planet on a life support system ventilator, and the plug could be pulled at any time ?
How sustainable are some of the Geoengineering proposals ? Are they guaranteed to work ? Won’t they have knock-on side-effects ? Are they reversible if they prove unhelpful ? And how much will they cost ?
Attempts to seed clouds have been going on for decades, for the express purpose of creating rain, but this is perhaps the first time this mechanism has been seriously suggested as a way to slow down Global Warming.
Originally proposed by Professors Stephen Salter and John Latham, their “cloudseeder” ships could theoretically increase the reflectivity of the Earth’s cloud cover, thereby preventing some of the Sun’s heat being absorbed by the lower atmosphere :-
“Thursday, 15 February 2007 : Futuristic fleet of ‘cloudseeders'”
“Technology Corner : 1,500 ships to fight climate change? : According to UK and U.S. researchers, it should be possible to fight the global warming effects associated with an increase of dioxide levels by using autonomous cloud-seeding ships to spray salt water into the air. This project would require the deployment of a worldwide fleet of 1,500 unmanned ships to cool the Earth even if the level of carbon dioxide doubled. These 300-tonne ships ‘would be powered by the wind, but would not use conventional sails. Instead they would be fitted with a number of 20 m-high, 2.5 m-diameter cylinders known as Flettner rotors…”
Surreal and a little hazy, the idea went to ground. But now it’s back, and it seems to have some traction, particularly with Bjørn Lomborg, director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre think tank, who reckons it would be a lot cheaper than other options :-
“Report touts cloud ships as climate salvation : Green groups argue geo-engineering concepts are dangerous and distracting : James Murray, BusinessGreen, 10 Aug 2009 : So-called geo-engineering projects capable of tinkering with the climate could provide a more cost-effective means of lowering global temperatures than cutting carbon emissions, according to a highly controversial new report from Danish think tank the Copenhagen Consensus Centre. The study, “An Analysis of Climate Engineering as a Response to Climate Change”, calculates that proposals for a fleet of 1,900 unmanned ships capable of spraying water into the air to seed clouds would cost just $9bn. The clouds would then reflect one to two per cent of the sun’s energy back into space, effectively cancelling out the warming effect generated by the past century’s carbon emissions…”
“From The Times : August 7, 2009 : Cloud ships on course to beat climate change, says Copenhagen study…“The space sunshade is really just science fiction but cloud whitening ships deserve serious scrutiny,” said Bjorn Lomborg, director of the think-tank…”
“Call for cheap ways to stem climate change : By Fiona Harvey in London : Published: August 7 2009 00:00 : Engineering techniques to deflect sunlight from the face of the earth could reduce global warming for just 5 per cent of the cost of cutting carbon emissions, according to a paper published on Friday by two climate change economists…”
“The cloud ships that could cancel out effects of global warming this century for £5.3bn : By Claire Bates : 07th August 2009 : Special ships that create clouds by spraying seawater into the air could be the most cost effective way of tackling climate change, new research has found. The technique, known as marine cloud whitening, would create clouds above the Pacific Ocean that would have a cooling effect by reflecting sunlight away from Earth. A wind-powered fleet of nearly 2,000 ships would criss-cross the sea, sucking up sea water and spraying it upwards through tall funnels…”
But in amongst the enthusiasm there are notes of caution being sounded. If Carbon Dioxide emissions are not brought down, marine habitats will continue to suffer from the effects of “acid ocean”. Cloud ships would do nothing to prevent that.
“Nature runs full news article on geo-engineering without mentioning ocean acidification : August 7, 2009 : Nature News has a new piece on geo-engineering up which fails to mention, even once, that virtually all proposed geo-engineering schemes will do nothing to mitigate “the other CO2 problem”: ocean acidification. This is especially perplexing given the rather higher profile that acidification has been enjoying, especially of late. Just this June, a huge number of national science academies (70)- including the NAS and Royal Society- released a joint statement on the severity of the ocean acidification threat, pushing for large CO2 emissions cuts by 2050, and further cuts thereafter. It’s perhaps even more strange because one of the other, less well known consequences of geo-engineering received quite a bit of attention in the Nature piece: weakening/disruption of the hydrological cycle. Now this is certainly a problem with geo-engineering worth talking about, and calling attention to Susan Solomon’s new paper in Science Express on it is decidedly helpful, but mentioning it while ignoring ocean acidification is a bit like talking about smoking and emphysema while avoiding any discussion of lung cancer…”
Yes, there’s this question of changed rainfall patterns : if you throw up clouds in various places to control air temperatures it will automatically interfere with wind patterns, which will alter where rain lands :-
“From Times Online : August 7, 2009 : Quick climate changes fixes come with huge dangers, warn scientists : Hannah Devlin : Plans to reduce global warming by blasting jets of water into the atmosphere or placing mirrors in space could have devastating consequences, two climate scientists warn today. They say that while such ideas may be highly effective, they could lead to severe droughts. Susan Solomon, a climate scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Gabi Hegerl, a climate scientist at the University of Edinburgh, caution against the entrepreneurial “we can fix this thing” approach and say that a calm, methodical inquiry is needed. “We’re not against climate engineering but we need to understand the consequences better than we do now before rushing into such a massive experiment,” Professor Hegerl said. They say in the journal Science that climate modelling has focused largely on temperatures and that current models do a poor job at predicting rainfall. Increases in CO2 influence rainfall in two ways. A warmer climate means that more water evaporates from oceans and lakes, which would tend to result in more rain. However, the Earth’s blanket of CO2 traps heat which needs to escape from clouds for condensation to occur, meaning that although more water evaporates it takes longer for it to fall as rain. Blocking incoming sunlight using mirrors or by seeding clouds, while leaving CO2 to build up could unbalance a delicate equilibrium. “One of the attractions of climate engineering is the effectiveness and rapidity with which it could reduce warming, but it is also connected with considerable risks,” the authors write.”
“Friday, 7 August 2009 : Climate fixes ‘pose drought risk’ : By Judith Burns : Science reporter, BBC News : Attempts to control the climate might change precipitation, say researchers : The use of geo-engineering to slow global warming may increase the risk of drought, according to a paper in Science journal. Methods put forward include reflecting solar radiation back into space using giant mirrors or aerosol particles. But the authors warn that such attempts to control the climate could also cause major changes in precipitation. They want the effect on rainfall to be assessed before any action is taken. Gabriele Hegerl of the Grant Institute at University of Edinburgh and Susan Solomon of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at Boulder, Colorado, write that “if geo-engineering studies focus too heavily on warming, critical risks associated with such possible “cures” will not be evaluated appropriately”. They argue that climate change is about much more than changes in temperature. So using temperature alone to monitor the effects of geo-engineering could be dangerous.”
“Thursday, August 6, 2009 : Gabriele C. Hegerl & Susan Solomon, Science, 2009, Risks of Climate Engineering : Science, published online August 6, 2009; DOI: 10.1126/science.1178530 : Perspectives : Submitted on July 1, 2009; accepted on July 29, 2009. : “Risks of Climate Engineering” Gabriele C. Hegerl (Grant Institute, Kings Buildings, West Mains Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JW, U.K.) and Susan Solomon (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth System Research Laboratory, 325 Broadway R/CSD, Boulder, CO 80305–3337, U.S.A.) : Abstract : Observations indicate that attempts to limit climate warming by reducing incoming shortwave radiation risk major precipitation changes. [ Correspondence: Gabriele C. Hegerl, e-mail: email@example.com and Susan Solomon, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ]”
An interesting aside : because he’s taken with the idea of Geoengineering, several commentators have decided that Bjørn Lomborg has finally come down from the Climate Skeptical mountain to the reality of Global Warming in the flooded valley below.
“From The Sunday Times : August 9, 2009 : Profile: Bjorn Lomborg : The Danish scientist provoked fury with his scepticism over global warming. Now he’s whipping up a different storm : Single-handedly, Bjorn Lomborg caused global warming pundits to overheat beyond safety levels. The Danish heretic has been called a Nazi for his denial of the pundits’ cherished beliefs and his life has been threatened. But his latest crusade could make his own supporters explode. The 44-year-old contrarian, who argues that spending billions on reducing CO2 emissions is a waste of money, has thrown his weight behind a wheeze to create vast clouds that would reflect the sun’s energy back into space. The plan requires a wind-powered fleet of 1,900 ships that crisscross the oceans, sucking up sea water and spraying it from tall funnels. It is something of a U-turn for Lomborg, hailed as a people’s hero by anti-climate-change groups after his 2001 bestseller, The Skeptical Environmentalist, contended that global warming was less important than other world problems. His admission now that the subject is pressing could be seen as a betrayal. With typical insouciance, Lomborg said he could not care less: “If that disappoints people who are sceptics, I am not the least bit unhappy.” Cloud-creating ships would have been dismissed as science fiction a decade ago, but the Royal Society is expected to endorse the idea and British and American scientists are seeking funds for sea trials of prototype vessels. Lomborg claims the fleet would cost £5.3 billion, a fraction of the $250 billion (£150 billion) that leading nations are thinking about spending each year to cut carbon emissions. The concept was one of the innovative ideas espoused by the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, a think tank of which he is director…”
But, in truth, he hasn’t really switched from his original position – that of questioning the benefits of acting immediately on Climate Change :-
“Sceptic switches tack : By Fiona Harvey in London : Published: August 7 2009 : Bjorn Lomborg, an influential figure among climate change sceptics, has thrown his weight behind a drive to forge a global deal to halt rising world temperatures at a summit in Copenhagen this year. “It’s incredibly important. We need a global deal on the climate,” Mr Lomborg told the Financial Times. The comments – from the author of the 2001 book The Sceptical Environmentalist and a 2007 follow-up saying climate change was less important than other world problems – are likely to be greeted with dismay by climate change sceptics who have seen him as an ally on the public stage. “If that disappoints some people who are sceptics, I am not the least bit unhappy. I hope to have more people enthused [in thinking about how to tackle climate change],” he said. He is concerned that the United Nations-led consensus that a climate treaty must focus on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from rich countries is mistaken. “It’s a costly way to achieve very little,” he said. Instead, Mr Lomborg argues, there are cheaper ways of halting temperature rises. These include tackling sources of climate change other than carbon dioxide, such as methane and soot; investing in new technologies; adapting to the effects of climate change; planting more forests; and weighing up whether emissions cuts are cheaper to do now or later…”
“9 August 09 : Incorrigible Lomborg: Defending the right of rich people to pollute : The Disingenuous Environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg has once again celebrated a public epiphany on climate change, bringing him. once again, to the conclusion that the globe is warming, that humans are to blame and that we – especially we rich people – shouldn’t do anything about it. In Lomborg’s latest feint, he suckered some reporter at London’s Financial Times into reporting that he has broken common cause with the “climate sceptics” and called for an a global agreement on climate change in this December’s Kyoto negotiations in Copenhagen. But if you read the details, his position is the same as ever: that it would be a “mistake” to try to get rich countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Lomborg’s choice is to concentrate on every other thing – and especially to think about ignoring the problem in the short term, putting our energies into adaptation and “weighing up whether emission cuts are cheaper to do now or later.” This is insincere drivel, typical of everything that Lomborg has been saying about climate change for years. He has positioned himself as an “environmentalist” – as someone who acknowledges the danger of climate change. But he has then built carefully contrived arguments that totally ignore the cumulative nature of the climate change threat. His “let’s-do’nothing-soon” strategy also serves perfectly the agenda of the big energy producers – and the think tanks that so frequently hire Lomborg as a guest speaker – all of whom want to maintain the profitable status quo, leaving the problem to be solved by developing nations or by future generations. There is nothing new in this “new” position. It’s straight out of the Exxon playbook and the Financial Times should be embarrassed to have been led by the nose to reporting this as if it is a legitimate update. [ Richard Littlemore’s blog ]
He pulled this trick a few months back with his public support for a Carbon Tax :-
What does he really think, himself :-
“When treason’s in the air, it’s a bad day for democracy : Bjorn Lomborg : August 08. 2009…Mr Gore and others often argue that if the science of climate change concludes that CO2 emissions are harmful, it follows that we are morally obliged to stop those harmful emissions. But this misses half the story. We could just as well point out that since science tells us that speeding cars kill people, we should cut speed limits to almost zero. We do no such thing, because we recognise that the costs of speeding cars must be weighed against the benefits of a mobile society. Indeed, nobody emits CO2 for fun. These emissions result from other, generally beneficial acts, such as burning coal to keep warm, burning kerosene to cook, or burning petrol to transport people. The benefits of fossil fuels must be weighed against the costs of global warming…”
Clearly he doesn’t understand the projection that damages caused by Climate Change could soon outstrip economic growth (even though the Insurance industry do very well).
“Title: Did the Stern Review underestimate U.S. and global climate damages? Stern’s estimates […] implied that mean business-as-usual damages in 2100 would represent just 0.4 percent of GDP for the United States and 2.2 percent of GDP for the world. Our revisions and reinterpretation of the PAGE model imply that climate damages in 2100 could reach 2.6 percent of GDP for the United States and 10.8 percent for the world.”
“In an official letter, Joan Ruddock dismissed the criticisms of Dasgupta, Mendelsohn, Nordhaus, Tol, Weitzman and Yohe as these economists suffer from “a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of formal, highly aggregated economic modelling in evaluating a policy issue”.”