Saturday, September 03, 2011

Planetary liposuction

Monbiot stole my analogy. I have had a post drafted for the last couple of months based on the idea that geoengineering attempts to rapidly modify the climate with techno-fixes are the equivalent of liposuction for an obese planet, retrospective attempts to undo slowly accumulated damage overnight that may bring temporary cosmetic improvements (and perhaps mild benefits of more valuable kinds) at significant risk of their own.

I intend to say quite a bit more about geoeingeering, as I suspect that it is not going to go away, but will only become more significant in and ethical and political debates about climate change. This is another topic that Christian ethicists will need to contemplate, and once again, there are no shortcuts to learning about the details of the various proposals, which range from putting millions of tiny mirrors in space to reflect a small amount of incoming sunlight, to seeding the ocean with iron filings to generate algal blooms that soak up carbon dioxide and fall to the ocean floor, to adding sulphur to aviation fuel (a substance that we've been trying to get out of the atmosphere for other reasons for some time) to reduce solar radiation entering the atmosphere, to crushing certain kinds of rock into powder and scattering them on the ground to accelerate a natural carbon sink (this last proposal may have some merit, by the way).

26 comments:

Sarah said...

Never heard of that last one, spreading a certain rock powder around. could you elaborate, please?

Byron Smith said...

The technique is generally known as enhanced weathering. Like many of these ideas, it is questionable whether it can be scaled up, but unlike some of the others it (a) actually reduces CO2, rather than just reducing solar radiation (which does nothing about ocean acidification) and (b) doesn't involve as much messing around with potentially nasty side-effects (though it may just be that we're not yet aware of possible side-effects - at least, I haven't read of any, but I've only heard of the idea recently and I don't think it's received as much attention as some of the others).

Sarah said...

Fascinating. Thanks for passing that along. Sounds a lot better (and safer) than oceanic iron fertilization, that's for sure!

Have you ever looked into agricultural soil-building? It seems to be a much more powerful and economical way to sequester carbon than this method (though I have to say, I find the idea of peppering the ocean with gigatons of rock dust interesting...)

byron smith said...

I've done a little reading, but not much. Can you suggest a good summary?

Sarah said...

Sorry, it took me a while to respond to this. I spent a Summer working on an organic dairy farm in Vermont, but what the farm manager was *really* obsessed about was carbon sequestration. His name is Abe Collins, and he's quite intelligent. He taught me a simple technique to convert 18 inches of subsoil into topsoil in only 3 years (he didn't think it up himself; it's a combination of Allan Savory's Holistic Management and P.A. Yeomans inverse tilling)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-Uzbumjt4c
http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=q0F5VEqXq4g
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-uXJeEVrc-A

You can watch some lectures on YouTube by searching for his name "Abe Collins". Also, Abe's YouTube channel is "justuscarbonfarmers", where you can watch some of his grazing in action.

byron smith said...

Thanks for the links. I'll check them out. I feel far more positively about carbon sequestration through shifts in farming technique than the various forms of solar radiation management currently under discussion.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: The risks of (non-metaphorical) liposuction. I'd been wondering about the precise medical risks associated with liposuction and this article helpfully lays them out, starting with death.

byron smith said...

New Scientist: CO2 removal may require the largest industry ever created.

"SOME schemes to save the Earth just might cost the Earth. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that scaling up proposals to scrub the atmosphere of carbon dioxide would mean creating the biggest industry there has ever been. [...] Axon says his calculations are rough. "Still, I'm confident that a CO2 removal scheme would have to be in the order of 1000 times larger than any existing industry.""

I've seen other calculations that are considerably more optimistic for olivine (enhanced rock weathering). I'm not sure where the differences in assumptions lie.

byron smith said...

Clive Hamilton: Ethical anxieties about geoengineering: Moral hazard, slippery slope and playing God. Great stuff.

"Elsewhere I have attempted to explain widespread denial and evasion in terms of the self-preoccupation and comfortable conservatism of consumer society. Yet there is a tendency to view these as immutable facts of modern life. Instead of promoting change in political and social structures, which are acknowledged as the source of the problem, we resort to technological solutions that we hope will bypass the blockages. In addition to the modern preoccupation with techno-fixes, advocating far-reaching social change is dismissed as utopian. Yet from the time of the French Revolution until the 1980s thinking about and advocating radical social change was part of the daily discourse of Western society, so the unwillingness to consider changes to economic, social and political structures is all the more striking in the face of a threat as grave as the climate crisis. Shunning deeper questioning of the roots of the climate crisis avoids uncomfortable conclusions about social dysfunction and the need to directly challenge powerful interests. In this way, global warming becomes no longer a profound threat to our future security and survival but just another problem that must be approached like others. Calls for a techno-fix, including geoengineering, are thus deeply conformable with existing structures of power and a society based on continued consumerism."

byron smith said...

And a further one from Hamilton: The ethical foundations of climate engineering.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Geoengineering experiment cancelled due to possible conflict of interest. Turns out that some of the scientists involved had submitted patents for the technology being tested.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Bariatric surgery works. This piece argues that surgery to reduce weight is often effective, perhaps denting the credibility of this analogy somewhat.

byron smith said...

Except here is a 2005 study finding high mortality rates amongst those who have Bariatric surgery.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Bill Gates funding geoeng solar radiation management experiment.

byron smith said...

Kate has a post on modelling geoengineering, which makes some very points.

Solar radiation management could conceivably mask temp increases, but precipitation changes could still lead to significant forest die off and perhaps a major weakening of the tropical monsoon.

The end of such solar management would almost immediately spell disaster, with temps jumping back to where they would have been without it, including temp rises of up to 4ºC per decade.

byron smith said...

Guardian: New experiment with iron filings shows some promise, but only on modest scale.

byron smith said...

CBD: Geoengineering and biodiversity.

byron smith said...

Marine cloud brightening. This is another form of solar radiation management, though one with (maybe) fewer side-effects than sulphur injection.

byron smith said...

David Karoly: Talking about geo-engineering may prevent us needing it.

"The symposium found there was a sizeable difference between the perceived potential of these approaches [involving CCS] and what is realistically achievable in the next 40 years."
[...]
"As a group these solar radiation management technologies were considered to be the most risky. The symposium found reducing sunlight has a significantly different effect than reducing greenhouse gas emissions in terms of resultant spatial effects, changes to temperature patterns over time, and effects on rainfall. Reducing sunlight leads to more cooling in the day time and in summer, whereas reducing greenhouse gases leads to more cooling at night and in winter. Hence, reducing sunlight cannot exactly offset the warming patterns due to increasing greenhouse gases. The immediate climate responses may be local but would almost certainly have unpredictable knock-on effects for the climates of distant areas. Reflecting more sunlight in one region would cool the climate locally but, since the variations in climate are globally connected, such changes would likely affect weather and rainfall patterns all around the globe. There may also be uncertain impacts on the ozone layer and other important areas in the stratosphere."

byron smith said...

Guardian: Illegal geoengineering experiment carried out, likely with the collusion of several North American agencies.

Grist: Another medical analogy - geoengineering as planetary chemotherapy.

byron smith said...

Naomi Klein on geoengineering, reflecting on the recent event off the coast of Canada.

byron smith said...

Here is my reply to a suggestion in a FB discussion that a "sulphur shield" could be a cheap way of slowing warming.

______________

And Russian roulette is a cheap form of entertainment on a winter's evening. Sometimes there's a reason that "cheap" is put together with "nasty". The calculated costs of implementation may be relatively "cheap"; the true costs are basically unknown.

Geoengineering (esp solar radiation management through atmospheric sulphur injection) is often proposed in good faith (I take it), but its function in the present political climate - in the absence of genuine ambitious international mitigation efforts - is, by and large, as a placebo distracting from the real issue (or worse - see next paragraph). This is still the case when those who in good faith propose it also add that, of course, we also need mitigation and sulphur injection is merely to buy us some time.

Sometimes this approach is spoken of as a tourniquet: a terrible response causing damage but which is at least better than bleeding to death, a stopgap measure to slow the problem until it can be properly addressed. The problem with this analogy is that the enemy chopping off limbs is still standing and swinging his sword (i.e. rising GHG concentrations). There's actually something to be done before applying a tourniquet: dispatching (or at least disabling) the crazy dude with a sword! If we jump in an start wrapping up the bleeding stump while ignoring this, then the tourniquet has done nothing but distract us from the ongoing danger.

To cash this out in the real world: yes, it is possible for us to do two things at once - implement atmospheric sulphur injection and pursue aggressive mitigation (or apply tourniquet while fighting). But presently, the latter is not really on the table, and getting agreement between at least the major players requires at least a moderate level of trust and coordination (since any free-rider on the system can undermine the whole thing). I would argue that, given the deeply asymmetrical historical responsibility for the issue, for US scientists to be proposing geoengineering while the US government drags its feet (at best), sounds to many ears in the developing world like a shirking of responsibility, especially when the models (without a high degree of confidence) show the possible side-effects could hit the developing world harder than the developed world. In this context, proposing geoengineering, especially unilateral geoengineering, (even as merely a stopgap) undermines the international trust required for mitigation.

It could be, in theory, that there are forms of geoengineering that could make a net positive contribution to the geophysical problem. But geoengineering (esp solar radiation management), by its nature, is a novel form of international relations and so is an irreducibly geopolitical act. Even proposing or researching it is a geopolitical act, especially when these arise from government funds or with tacit government approval.

Politics really matter here. Climate change is not merely a technical problem.

byron smith said...

Clive Hamilton: The philosophy of geoengineering.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Rogue geoengineering could 'hijack' world's climate.

byron smith said...

Slate: CIA funding geoengineering research.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Why we'd be mad to rule out climate engineering.