Tag Archives: geoengineering

… like the deserts miss the rain

Speaking as we just were – however tangentially – of climate change, I think that the new decade will provide a lot more stories about deliberate climate change – the first tentative attempts at geoengineering. Here’s your starter for ten: a secret cloud-seeding project in the United Arab Emirates [via TechnOcculT]

As part of a secret program to control the weather in the Middle East, scientists working for the United Arab Emirates government artificially created rain where rain is generally nowhere to be found. The $11 million project, which began in July, put steel lampshade-looking ionizers in the desert to produce charged particles. The negatively charged ions rose with the hot air, attracting dust. Moisture then condensed around the dust and eventually produced a rain cloud. A bunch of rain clouds.

On the 52 days it rained in the region throughout July and August, forecasters did not predict rain once.

At the first glimpse, this looks like a triumph of technology over the caprice of climate: imagine miles and miles of inhospitable desert turned into rolling farmland! But short-term localised benefits are unlikely to be the whole story in a system so complex as our planet’s biosphere. You can’t isolate one part of the world from the rest of it; everything has consequences for everyone. Whatever your political alignment or ideological stake in this interminable debate, you can’t escape the self-evident truth that climate is a system, no matter what you think are the root causes of the changes that system is going through.

Look at it this way: if you were living up on the ISS, how good would you feel about the crew members in the module at the far end fiddling with the life-support systems so they got a little more heat or oxygen than everyone else? Now imagine that said crew members have only the most rudimentary understanding of how the life-support systems actually work, and of the potential repercussions of their fiddling on the rest of the station. Now, which is the more sensible response: do you start your own retaliatory program of fiddling in your end of the station, or do you all get together and figure out how the system works before poking at it with screwdrivers and soldering irons?

The thing with Planet Earth is this: we ain’t got nowhere else to go. Over the long term, your short-term local advantage has pretty good odds of coming back to haunt you as a global disadvantage once it has finished screwing over some other part of the planet. If you’re willing to concede that your views on climate change mitigation are based on securing the best advantage for yourself in your own lifetime, then by all means feel free to try convincing me of the merits of that philosophy; that is a honest debate, and I’ll respect your position while doing my best to counter it. But if you want to dress that philosophy up in a cloak of mealy-mouthed sophistry about the duty of scepticism and the absence of absolute certainty in the scientific method, take it somewhere else.

Yeah, I have a “liberal” agenda; I’d like future generations of every nation to have a world that can support their lives. In my worldview, every living human being – and their future progeny – is a stakeholder of equal status in this planet and its future.

What’s your agenda?

Becoming Planetary Gardeners: Geoengineering

The Earth’s climate is a complex web of systems: ocean temperature and current, sea and glacier ice, air, wind, sun, and more. Strands of that web are being plucked by the variety of things which are causing our climate to change: pollution, extra carbon dioxide, soot, cow farts, and maybe even sunspots. Superpower countries are vying for control of the Northern Passage and energy moguls are making record profits while doing serious damage. We’re letting them do it; it’s convenient to drive and shop and waste and live the lives we were taught we’d have. Me, too. Just as guilty as the next person. Heck, I ordered an ipad the first day I could. I, too, want the newest stuff.

One way out? Undo the damage and apply the principles of engineering to the systems that run the earth. Continue reading Becoming Planetary Gardeners: Geoengineering

Too late for talk? Cascio’s case for environmental geoengineering

Jamais Cascio crops up at no less a venue that the Wall Street Journal talking about climate change and geoengineering, and he’s getting less equivocal as the months slip by. Within the space of a year or so, geoengineering – large-scale projects designed to ameliorate or control the symptoms of climate change – has progressed from being an unpalatable worst-case option to an unpalatable necessity. To put it another way: either we act now, or we lose the opportunity to act at all.

In short, although we know what to do to stop global warming, we’re running out of time to do it and show no interest in moving faster. So here’s where geoengineering steps in: It gives us time to act.

That’s if it’s done wisely. It’s imperative that we increase funding for geoengineering research, building the kinds of models and simulations necessary to allow us to weed out the approaches with dangerous, surprising consequences.

Fortunately, the deployment of geoengineering need not be all or nothing. Though it would have the greatest impact if done globally, some models have shown that intervention just in the polar regions would be enough to hold off the most critical tipping-point events, including ice-cap collapse and a massive methane release.

Polar-only geoengineering strikes me as a plausible compromise position. It could be scaled up if the situation becomes more dire and could be easily shut down with minimal temperature spikes if there were unacceptable side effects.

Still, we can’t forget: Geoengineering is not a solution for global warming. It would simply hold temperatures down temporarily, doing nothing about the causes of climate change, let alone ocean acidification and other symptoms of a carbon overdose. We can’t let ourselves slip back into business-as-usual complacency, because we’d simply be setting ourselves up for a far greater disaster down the road.

Our overall goal must remain the reduction and then elimination of greenhouse-gas emissions as swiftly as humanly possible. This will require feats of political will and courage around the world. What geoengineering offers us is the time to make it happen.

I’ve been following Cascio’s writing since he was a columnist here at Futurismic a few years ago, and I’ve a great deal of respect for his thinking. That said, advocating geoengineering as a necessity alarms me considerably – not because I think it’s unnecessary, but because of the potential for messy side-effects, be they environmental or political.

But as Cascio points out, despite finally reaching a point where politics has acknowledged that climate change is a major issue, nothing is happening other than blame-laying and jockeying for advantage, and the opportunity to act is slipping away. Whether geoengineering is an easier pill for nation-states to swallow than emissions control and rational energy policies remains to be seen.

[ It should be obvious, but just in case: yes, this post and Cascio’s essay are predicated on the notion that anthropic climate change is not only supported by the bulk of pertinent scientific research but a very probable threat to our existence on a species-wide scale. I am aware that there are those who disagree with those statements, and those people are welcome to their opinions. However, anyone popping up in the comments to this post with no better a contribution than to say climate change is a {hoax/sham/conspiracy/Liberal plot/Illuminati plot} will have their comment removed. If you can’t join the debate on the debate’s own terms, please go find one where you can. Your cooperation is appreciated. ]

When geoengineering goes wrong

Barcelona sunsetWhile it’s probably a bit too soon to go rushing into geoengineering projects in an attempt to readjust the earth’s runaway climate, discussing the ideas thoroughly is of great benefit – principally because it gives people a chance to pick holes in the plans and think of potential downsides before we do something irreversible.

Exhibit A: seeding the atmosphere with dust to increase the amount of sunlight reflected away into space might actually be shooting ourselves in our renewable foot, so to speak:

While such atmospheric modifications would only be expected to deflect about 3 percent of the sunlight incident on the earth, Murphy has found that solar energy collectors would face a reduction of up to one-fifth of the usable energy that they collect presently. Even though 97 percent of the sun’s light will make it through the Earth’s modified stratosphere, much of it will be scattered, making the light diffuse. Diffuse light cannot be focused in the same manner that direct light can be, which lessens its usability in most optical systems. Almost all projects that harness solar energy require a large portion direct sunlight that can be focused and concentrated on a cell of some kind.

So: reduce the bad effects of sunlight, and you’ll reduce the useful ones as well. Best relegate that plan to the back-burner… at least until someone finally develops a usable fusion system.

On a similar note, it looks like iron-dumping in the ocean is off the menu at least for us. For a certain type of shrimp, however, it’s very much on the menu:

The iron triggered a bloom of phytoplankton, which doubled their biomass within two weeks by taking in carbon dioxide from the seawater. Dead bloom particles were then expected to sink to the ocean bed, dragging carbon along with them.

Instead, the bloom attracted a swarm of hungry copepods. The tiny crustaceans graze on phytoplankton, which keeps the carbon in the food chain and prevents it from being stored in the ocean sink.

Back to the drawing board. Thank goodness for thinking ahead, eh? [image by papalars]

Is geoengineering our last worst hope?

Whatever you think might have caused global climate change, you’d be hard pressed to claim that we don’t need to do something about it – after all, we don’t yet have another planet to go to, and the results are going to have real effects on real people.

But what are our options? Emissions controls would be a great start, but we’re struggling to get any political agreement on how much and how soon, and the clock is ticking all the while. Hence the increasing prevalence of suggestions from the field of geoengineering – planet-hacking, in other words.

New Scientist has a lengthy article looking at the potential pitfalls of geoengineering, which include not just the risk of tweaking something the wrong way and making things worse (whether for everyone or just a certain locality) but the inevitable geopolitical hazards. Not every nation has the resources to take direct action at the required scale, and – because that action could affect the rest of the planet in unexpected ways – no one’s going to be happy with any nation (or group or individual) that decides to jump the gun and take matters into its own hands.

It’ll be a while before these questions work their way into mainstream politics (especially considering the rather more immediate  issues of the financial implosion), but I doubt it’ll be all that long in real terms – nor does Jamais Cascio, who has been beating the drum about geoengineering for a good few years already. That the scientific field is starting to consider geongineering as a serious option is a sobering thought – these are the guys who know the system best, and if they’re suggesting jury-rigging might be our only way out then things may be grimmer than anyone is willing to admit.

[Yes, this post is predicated on the notion that climate change is a genuine phenomenon, a genuine threat and likely human in origin. As much as I respect your right to disagree with any or all of those three statements, if that’s all you have to bring to this discussion I’d like to ask you to sit it out for once. Cheers.]