Geo-engineering to cure global warming?

by on July 10, 2008 at 8:16 am in Political Science | Permalink

Robin Hanson summarizes one case for it.  I don’t know much about the technologies but my worries are mainly political.  Won’t the Russians benefit greatly from a warming world, both because they are a bit cold and because they will access a warmer Arctic?  Would the UN Security Council approve climate engineering?  Probably not.  If the United States did it on its own, could that be perceived as an act of war?  If geo-engineering is cheap (which is part of its very promise), and unilateral action is acceptable, don’t other countries also get to take their shot at influencing the environment and moving us toward an optimal climate?  What does the resulting equilibrium look like?  Who moves last?  How would we feel if someone changed the U.S. climate to make many parts of the country colder?

Slocum July 10, 2008 at 8:13 am

But there is this, too:

“Much of the climate community still views the idea with deep suspicion or outright hostility. Geoengineering, many say, is a way to feed society’s addiction to fossil fuels. “It’s like a junkie figuring out new ways of stealing from his children”

In other words, ‘much of the climate community’ would not welcome engineering-based cures to global warming on the grounds that they might allow us to continue our sinful addictions and dissolute lifestyles. For these folks, the idea that action on global warming will require us to change our ways of living is not a bug, it’s a feature.

As for the politics of geo-engineering — are they really any more difficult than the politics of establishing and enforcing global carbon limits?

Michael Foody July 10, 2008 at 9:05 am

I think Geo-engineering in pursuit of climate stability is ok to pursue unilaterally and would generally be embraced by the world community, countries have infrastructure for the existing climate and in general would be happy not to incur the short term costs of altering that infrastructure (though Russia might prefer it wasn’t the case). I think altering the climate in novel ways would be viewed negatively.

I think it is sort of amusing that global warming skeptics think that we don’t have the tools to tell if climate change is happening but do, or will soon, have the tools alter the climate in predictable ways.

Garrett Schmitt July 10, 2008 at 10:15 am

MS,

Restricting greenhouse gases is also a bandaid solution that will create more problems than it will solve. Regulations, taxes, and outright bans have secondary (“unintended”) consequences regardless of whether they are applied to greenhouse emissions, cigarettes, or international trade.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol (both in the lack of universal adoption and the likely failure of its signatories) is also a fine example of moral hazard. It and other international discussions/agreements concerning global warming have a cuteness factor on the same level as the Kellog-Briand Pact (1928: War outlawed. Still US law!).

I support the group arguing that geoengineering has the same issues regarding practical implementation as emissions cuts: uncertain results, uncertain costs, certain problems of collective action, etc. Geo-engineering sounds as if it is probably cheaper, but even this could change once a government procurement process gets hold of it.

J Thomas July 10, 2008 at 10:55 am

Increasing CO2 levels is a form of geoengineering, as is decreasing the ozone layer. And how about that acid rain? Canada tried to sue the USA over what it was doing to their forests. “Acid rain? No such thing and it doesn’t do any harm anyway. We’re not doing it and you can’t stop us.”

If we can’t make people stop doing the current geoengineering projects, how would we stop them from doing future ones? They don’t have to admit that’s what they’re doing. They can argue that there’s no proof their actions would have any effect on climate, and by the time it’s proven it’s too late. We can’t prevent unilateral geoengineering any more than we have prevented it already.

Michael Foody is right. We don’t know what results to expect from geoengineering attempts. With only one world climate to try things out on, we’re limited to one experimental group of size one and no control group at all.

So we will attempt geoengineering feats because we can. If we get into a great big crisis then we’ll figure it can’t hurt. When the status quo is completely unacceptable then any random change might be an improvement.

Now about that idea of waging a global thermonuclear war to prevent some other nation from attempting geoengineering….

David Zetland July 10, 2008 at 12:06 pm

Who moves last? Nature. I am willing to bet that Nature’s move is not the one predicted by the so-called “geo-engineers.” As I said to Robin when he first mentioned this idea (and others), engineers have no clue how complex systems work. Bridges? Fine. Buildings? Fine. Don’t let them get near the environment (e.g., levees on the Mississippi, Everglades, Three Gorges, etc.)

Gabe July 10, 2008 at 12:32 pm

Ask your average reputable geologist or climatologist and he/she will tell you that this plan is pretty asinine. While short term cooling may be achieved, the long-term effect of releasing tons of carbon back into the atmosphere would only intensify global warming. Not to mention the fact that with all we know about the earth, we know very little about its insides, and trying something like this would have dangerous consequences.

The earth has a great way of regulating its temperature throgh the carbon-silica cycle. When the earth gets hotter, rainfall increases, moving carbon from the atmosphere into the ground. A by-product of this rain is erosion, which releases calcium ions from the breakdown of silica (one of the most abundant elements in the earth’s crust in rock). Marine organisms combine this carbon with calcium to make shells; they eventually die, sink to the bottom, and lock the carbon away in marine limestone. As the earth cools, this limestone is buried and subducted, thanks to plate tectonics. It eventually melts and is released in volcanoes, where the carbon is put back in the atmosphere.

An understanding of this simple carbon-silica feedback cycle dictates that finding a way to turn carbon into rock on a mass scale and put it back in the ground (where we got oil from in the first place) would be a much better use of money, than releasing carbon back into the atmosphere for short-term cooling.

Sseziwa Mukasa July 10, 2008 at 12:34 pm

“countries have infrastructure for the existing climate and in general would be happy not to incur the short term costs of altering that infrastructure”

I think you misunderstand the goals of the geo-engineers, especially the SO2 seeders, they aren’t going to stabilize the climate, they are going to stabilize one parameter: global average temperature, by manipulating another: albedo, but they are not holding anything else constant, hence acid rain. It’s not holding the climate steady, it’s simply shifting it to a new state which will still impose costs, just difference costs than the albedo change from anthropogenic greenhouse gasses. Furthermore, even if you hold the average temperature constant the climate can still change because there is more than one climatic state in which the global temperature has a certain value, so deserts will still shift in response to new rainfall patterns, acidic or not, and infrastructure costs will still be incurred.

An advantage to pursuing a low greenhouse emission economy is it removes anthropogenic forcing of the climate system (which will still continue to change) restoring it to the control of the much better understood climate forcings prior to the industrial age.

As for Russia warming up, it may be a mixed blessing, a warmer average may come with greater variance in temperature too, as well as shifts in rainfall patterns and desertification which won’t necessarily be a boon.

Reiner July 10, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Our current geo-engineering by free dumping is supposedly too arduous & expensive to control already, so forget about cheap fixes. Human ignorance of the functioning of the global system still allows ‘skeptics’ to assure us we have miniscule effect on the climate, yet we should presume to reform the planet with some theoretical techniques?

Given debates to date, can these be anything else but a strategy for business as usual? An ‘engineering cure’ is clearly an experimental symptomatic treatment. Side-effects are unknown and causes not addressed. Such may offer relief, but are not a cure at all.

The cause is indeed expressed in behaviors – our ‘way of living': We maintain our own dependence on fossil fuels in the face of imminent scarcity. We expand their use despite their undermining the systems that keep us alive & living. We reproduce, we consume and we waste far beyond necessity….I believe you know the rest as well.

The cause is social & cultural rigidity & mal-adaption. The challenge is now adapt or die on a global scale.

Becca July 10, 2008 at 2:10 pm

The Wilson Quarterly had a piece last spring on the history of geo-engineering. http://www.wilsoncenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=wq.essay&essay_id=231274

Barkley Rosser July 10, 2008 at 3:32 pm

Floccina,

We see global warming happening as CO2 rises. Sure it is a complex system, but this is pretty straightforward. The effects of some artificially introduced carbon are very unclear, and could have unwanted effects, with different effects on different countries, especially depending on who does this emitting how and where. The first is trying to reduce something going on that is having unpleasant effects. The second is doing something never done before that has very uncertain effects.

I would say that the view of Thomas Schelling on this matter is reasonable. Geoengineering should be viewed as a backstop in case of disaster, if the more extreme top end of the warming projections come to pass something that could be done. But, barring such more extreme outcomes, trying to mitigate carbon emissions looks a lot safer than going for introducing artificial emissions to offset the carbon.

meter July 10, 2008 at 3:34 pm

Person seems stalkerish.

fulmar July 10, 2008 at 4:08 pm

Crutzen’s plan makes much more sense when paired with direct carbon capture: taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it directly underground. Technically this is more feasible than it sounds; look up Klaus Lackner, David Keith and Wallace Broecker on this subject. This won’t allow us to just emit what we want and just capture it all, but it does allow us to start thinking in terms of net emissions. Use atmospheric SO2 to block the worst of the heat, while reducing emissions and starting direct capture to make up the difference between the reduction goal and what we can actually achieve.

Note to Gabe: the proposal does not involve releasing carbon into the atmosphere, but SO2. It has side effects but they don’t include adding to the carbon in circulation.

J Thomas July 10, 2008 at 4:36 pm

If we could come up with geoengineering approaches that don’t have many side effects, then maybe the big question would be to make sure they aren’t done too much. If you don’t do too much you might ameliorate the global warming problem, and if you can’t predict exactly how much you’ll ameliorate it still within a wide range it would do more good than harm.

Rather than sulfate crystals in the atmosphere we might have extremely thin mirrors in LEO. They could reduce insolation before they leave orbit and as continuing solids might not make too much problem when they come down. Could we afford to put enough mirrors in orbit to do some good? That would depend on how cheap they were to make and how thin and lightweight they could be and still be effective.

It would be important not to put up too many. If they disappeared at a reasonable rate we could adjust their total surface area after we decided it should change, whatever method we found to decide that.

There could be some potential for remediation. We’d have nothing to lose except the cost of doing it, provided that the side effects (from production, and expended rocket fuel, and discarded mirrors etc) didn’t amount to much. And provided we were careful not to overshoot on the effect.

Pepe July 10, 2008 at 7:15 pm

“Who moves last? Nature. I am willing to bet that Nature’s move is not the one predicted by the so-called “global warming ‘climantologists’.” As I said to whoever, when he first mentioned this idea (and others), climantologists have no clue how complex systems work. Forecasting weather?”

MS July 10, 2008 at 9:13 pm

I cannot believe people are seriously comparing climate change to forecasting weather. By the same logic, we have no idea if any particular coin toss will be heads or tails, but we know that if we throw a coin up a million times, we will get about 500k heads and about similar amount of tails. At the micro level, weather is chaotic and hard to predict. At the macro level, climate can be understood and modeled. That isn’t to say we understand it well today, but you are comparing apples to oranges.

Valuethinker July 11, 2008 at 6:34 am

http://www.ucalgary.ca/~keith/papers/89.Keith.EngineeringThePlanet.p.pdf

Just about everything David Keith says about climate is worth reading (eg wind power and climate, etc.).

http://www.ucalgary.ca/~keith/papers/44.Keith.2002.GeoengOxfordEncy.f.pdf

Below is his 20 minute video on TED:

http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/david_keith_s_surprising_ideas_on_climate_change.html

The main issue to my mind is ‘will it work?’

And the answers are:

– we don’t know
– the side effects could be as bad as the condition we are trying to cure
– there are big geostrategic implications: weather control might lead to war
– we’re almost certain to try at some point

MS July 11, 2008 at 7:33 am

Pepe, what do you want, a quantum physics analogy? The point is predicting specific behavior at the micro level can be much more difficult than predicting general trends in the future.

Andrew July 11, 2008 at 10:22 am

Every time I read about geo-engineering, a song begins to run through my head:

“There was an old woman who swallowed a fly,

I don’t know why she swallowed a fly…”

J Thomas July 11, 2008 at 10:24 am

“Finally: if one worries about war due to unilateral geoengineering, doesn’t that same argument apply to the CO2 emissions in the first place? Or is it that the countries most negatively affected by warming are relatively less powerful?”

Got it in one.

If US:Canadian military might were the other way round US acid rain on canada would have gotten cleared up pretty quick.

Ben Kalafut July 11, 2008 at 3:19 pm

Ozone depletion is more serious a worry than Robin Hanson makes it out to be, but more importantly, one must remember that AGW is not the only problem associated with CO2 pollution (yes, pollution: fouling the nest by putting too much of it in the atmosphere). CO2 cap-and-trade brought about due to concern over AGW also remedies ocean acidification.

However, on that note: Geoengineering may be our only means to mitigating ocean acidification, which becomes (increasingly) problematic on a much faster timescale than AGW.

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