What's worse than geoengineering the climate?

| 23rd December 2014
The SPICE project will investigate the release of small particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting a few percent of incoming solar radiation. Photo: Hugh Hunt CC BY-SA 3.0.
The SPICE project will investigate the release of small particles into the stratosphere to cool the Earth by reflecting a few percent of incoming solar radiation. Photo: Hugh Hunt CC BY-SA 3.0.
Film maker Nick Breeze has conducted a series of interviews with experts on 'geo-engineering' to forestall runaway global warming. Here he presents the distilled wisdom from his meetings - and concludes that we should at least be experimenting with the techniques, and studying their impacts.
We need to research all technologies that have any likelihood of being used. Knee-jerk use of technologies that haven't been researched scares me a lot.

Within the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR5 report are a number of 'scenarios' of carbon dioxide emissions and global temperatures.

The current trajectory that humanity is on is one that is predicted to take us to a global temperature rise of 4C by 2100. When I interviewed IPCC author Dr Saleemul Huq earlier this year he stated:

"Four degrees ... is way beyond ... anything we are likely to be able to cope with. The stated desire for all countries is to stay below two degrees, so we are going in the wrong direction and we need to change course very quickly."

But changing course is not something that we have been able to do and according to Astronomer Royal, Professor Martin Rees, speaking to me in 2013, that's not about to change:

"I honestly would bet, sad though it is, that the annual CO2 emissions are going to rise year by year for at least the next 20 years and that will build up accumulative level close to 500 parts per million by then."

Or as Dr Matt Watson, a volcanologist at the University of Bristol's School of Environmental Sciences, stated in his presentation at the Royal Society recently:

"The very very alarming thing for us is that we are on RCP 8.5... we are slap bang on this trajectory and this puts us on a very very different place in our children's or grandchildren's lifetimes!"

BY 'RCP 8.5' he refers to the 'business as usual' scenario, or 'Representative Concentration Pathway'. Two other RCP's, 2.6' and 4.5' respectively, are supposedly not quite as bad for humanity and that could keep us within the 2 degrees limit by the end of the century.

Geoengineering for CO2 drawdown is built into the models

However, what these more attractive (but in reality still critically risky for forest survival, agriculture and oceans etc) RCP's both assume, is that we are geoengineering the climate by drawing down billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide in order to lessen the greenhouse effect.

This process, known as carbon dioxide removal' (CDR), may sound like the perfect antidote to the global warming crisis, but in practical terms, it is little more than mirage. Dr Piers Fletcher from the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals' (IAGP) made this comment during his Royal Society presentation:

"I'm not going to talk much about the carbon capture technologies today ... you've already heard they are in the IPCC report. We do not have enough technological information about these technologies when they're operating at the very large scales that is proposed.

"They have to take out 20 or 30 gigatonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere annually and we don't have the technological assessment to be really able to investigate them."

None of these carbon capture or 'carbon dioxide removal' (CDR) technologies actually exist on a scale that could extract 20 or 30 gigatonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere.

We need to research all technologies that have any likelihood of being used. Knee-jerk use of technologies that haven't been researched scares me a lot.

As Dr Hugh Hunt, senior lecturer in the Engineering Department at Cambridge University and a co-investigator for SPICE,  stressed in an earlier interview, "We don't handle 30 billion tonnes of anything." Therefore, the barely survivable RCP's are actually not currently viable at all!

'Solar Radiation Management'

This problem of surviving the century is what is prompting considerable research into what can be done. The event at the Royal Society in November focussed on another form of geoengineering called Solar Radiation Management' (SRM).

SRM is often regarded as the most terrifying form of geoengineering because the proposals offer a kind of intervention that resembles scary science-fiction.

For example, the SPICE project, represented at the Royal Society, are proposing we extend 22km pipes into the stratosphere, suspended by balloons the size of a football stadium, and pump millions of tonnes of particles up there constantly to reflect the suns light back into space, in order to cool the planet.

The scepticism and criticism surrounding this project is understandable. What is often not reported is the degree to which the scientists running the project are worried about such proposals.

Matt Watson, Principal Investigator in the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) project, said in his presentation that "this stuff scares me!" - going on to point out that

"I found it very difficult to disentangle my personal feelings about geoengineering, which aren't particularly positive, to professional framings where I have to be absolutely objective about the results I am generating.

"I think it is important to go back to the observations we make about climate change and say there are some very strong drivers for knowing about this stuff ... there is a point at which it would be morally wrong not to intervene somehow ... and we look like we are going there!"

Funding - or lack of it

This sense of the responsibility in the research of solar radiation management is echoed by Dr Hugh Hunt who says:

"My concern is that if it can be cheap [to deploy geoengineering techniques] then politicians are going to use it and if we are going to use that technology that has not been researched properly, that is a dangerous thing to do. We need to research all technologies that have any likelihood of being used. Knee-jerk use of technologies that haven't been researched scares me a lot."

Currently there is very little funding available for researching climate engineering. Many people have previously objected to funding these schemes due to their long-term implications for deployment.

But this claim runs counter to the overarching conclusion that the climate is getting severely worse and engineering solutions are comparatively cheap to other areas of research. If we do not research them thoroughly then the temptation by policymakers to attempt untested deployment to stave off severe impacts may prove too much and leave us with even more disastrous consequences.

As Dr. Hugh Hunt said in an interview in 2013, "if your house catches fire, is that really the time to start designing the fire engine?"

Dr. Matt Watson also highlighted that huge companies like Apple spend billions in research and development for their products and yet, in this field of near emergency technology, we are spending a minuscule fraction of that amount.

Yet the seriousness of the issue is reflected in the broad number of organisations that are involved in the discussion taking place at the Royal Society. These include: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Met Office, Tyndall Centre, more than 10 British Universities among others.

In the final debate, the discussion got lively when Dr. Alison Wall from NERC stated: "the Research Council has an open door all the time for projects to come in and we have seen very very few in geoengineering."

This was immediately contradicted by Dr Alan Gadian of the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences at Leeds University, who countered that NERC has refused funding to Edinburgh University's Professor Stephen Salter for Cloud Brightening SRM techniques at least three times, and they are now having to seek overseas funding.

Governance - what governance?

The main question being asked is how could climate engineering schemes be governed when the effects could have global implications. Regarding global climate engineering, Dr Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University made the point:

"Certainly we can cool it but it is not going to be uniform around the world and its going to have a lot of knock on consequences. There will be changes in precipitation patterns, and how do you say to a country that's experiencing a big drought for example, whether it was the geoengineering that did it, or whether it was going to happen naturally?

"If they are in dire straits they're going to blame the people who decided to do the geoengineering. It opens up a whole can of worms in terms of attribution and when we have extreme events, you can probably be find a scientists to say 'Yes it was the geoengineering that did it.' and so a whole set of lawsuits."

Martin Rees suggests that apart from the complexity of attribution, it is the political system that is not focusing enough on this issue:

"The trouble is, of course, that it is very hard in politics to get these long-term issues to rise high on the agenda because most politicians are focused on the short-term agenda between now and the next general election.

"We are also focussed on what happens locally as opposed to what happens globally, so it is a big ask politicians to prioritise issues that will affect people in remote parts of the world 50 or 100 years ahead but that is what you have to do if you want to tackle the issues of climate change which is caused by an unprecedented change in the Earth's atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels."

But what is happening globally is affecting us all, even at 0.8 C temperature increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

With dying oceans and rain forests, droughts affecting agriculture, extreme weather impacts in both the developed and developing world, the conversation about research into a controlled intervention into our climate is one that must be had.

Dr Clive Hamilton, author of Earthmasters', a wide-ranging critique of geoengineering, says "We've screwed up so badly. Not just with the burning of fossil fuels but in all sorts of areas ...

"To argue that the problem is that we have not had enough technical intervention seems to me to be wilfully ignoring the kind of reckless use that humans have made of our technology."

One counter to this argument is that the industrial burning of fossil fuels is essentially 19th century technology and our addiction to it is due largely to the vested interests of those who benefit from the profits and subsidy.

If we were to bring in the technology of the 21st century, there is a good chance we could engineer ourselves out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into.

A 'Manhattan Project' for climate?

Current predictions for climate change impacts are now too serious to be ignored. Dr Saleemul Huq states:

"What we are seeing now since the last 2 decades of the IPCC reporting on the science of climate change is ... [that] the actual temperature rise and associated impacts that we see including sea ice and glacier ice melt are way above the upper range of the predictions ...

"We are hitting the upper end of that range consistently ... it is quite possible that the ranges that we gave are underestimates and the reality is much worse than we imagined."

Solar radiation management is not a cure for the climate changes that are a result of burning coal, oil and gas, nor for ocean acidification. It is utterly useless without immediate decline in the use of fossil fuels to power our civilisation.

However, it could provide a bridge whilst we research and implement a safe carbon dioxide removal programme to undo some of the greenhouse effects. This would require enormous international agreements and governance structures to defend the most vulnerable.

When I spoke to Professor Peter Wadhams from the University of Cambridge regarding how we can possibly stay within a safe range of atmospheric concentrations of CO2, he said,

"I would say it can only be done by some complete breakthrough in CO2 removal technology. Which really does need a global Manhattan-style project." 

This idea of a Manhattan Project' to draw down carbon dioxide has been mooted for sometime, but as yet there are still no plans on the table and certainly no significant funding body to assist in implementing the research required to literally save humanity from a catastrophic fate.

In this context we need to double down our efforts and include research into solar radiation management on an equal scale as our worst case scenario insurance policy.

And it goes without saying, all this needs to be achieved at the same time as with immediate reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from all areas, especially including energy and agriculture.

Perhaps one thoughtful conclusion to end is a quote from former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who summarised:

"I am certainly not an advocate of climate engineering but I would like to know what it is that I am saying no to, if I do want to say no to it, and I want to know how we balance short term needs to save lives and protect the vulnerable with the long-term anxieties we naturally have about governance and other effects that go with exploring more aggressive approaches to controlling our environment."



Nick Breeze is a film maker and writer on climate change and other environmental topics. He has been interviewing a range of experts relating to the field of climate change and science for over four years. These include interviews with Dr James Hansen, Professor Martin Rees, Professor James Lovelock, Dr Rowan Williams, Dr Natalia Shakhova, Dr Michael Mann, Dr Hugh Hunt, among others.

Additional articles can also be read on his blog Envisionation.

A further debate on Solar Radiation Management (SRM) climate engineering will take place on 12th March, 2015 at Cambridge University, featuring Nobel Prize Winner Amartya Sen, Philosopher, Onora O'Neill, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, Gordon Mckay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard University, David Kieth www.srms-cambridge.eng.cam.ac.uk , hosted by the SPICE project.

RCP image from Nature journal.



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