It’s hard to argue against funding scientific research. But let me try.
This past week 18 experts assembled as the Task Force on Climate Remediation Research released the product of its collective wisdom. A creation of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which the New York Times‘ Cornelia Dean describes as “a research organization based in Washington founded by four senators — Democrats and Republicans — to offer policy advice to the government,” the task force concluded that the U.S. should be spending unspecified sums on research into what is colloquially known as climate hacking. Most everyone knows it as geoengineering, but the policy center wonks decided “climate remediation” is a less scary term.
Joe Romm weighs in, and talks with former and current members of the task force (including one who quit out of frustation with where the group was headed), at Climate Progress. I share his problems with the report, but want to delve more deeply into the speciific, as I suspect this issues is going to be a big deal for the foreseeble future.
First, let’s deal with the semantic sophistry:
Geoengineering is controversial–indeed, the term itself is controversial because it is both broad and imprecise. The task force avoids using the term “geoengineering” in the body of this report. We prefer the term “climate remediation,” which describes technologies that are intentionally designed to counteract the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.
In other words, climate remediation = geoengineering. Misleading euphemisms we do not need. We’re talking about strategies to engineer the earth’s climate. So what’s the justification for rejecting the most accurate language? In an endnote, the panel writes that
it should be noted that the term “geoengineering” is used in other disciplines to describe any engineering applied to a geological problem or in a geological setting, including in water resources management; extraction of minerals, oil, and natural gas; environmental restoration; and earthquake diagnostics, just to name a few areas.
This is just a matter of scale. There is no reason not to apply the term to planet-wide schemes.
It’s a bad way to start, but then things get better. They also state right up front that:
This task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e. Reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e. Enhancing the resilience of man-made and natural systems to climate changes).
This task force has not recommended deployment of climate remediation technologies, because far more research is needed to understand the potential impacts, risks, and costs associated with specific technologies. The purpose of this report, rather, is to describe how the task force believes the U.S. government should go about improving its understanding of climate remediation options and how it should work with other countries to foster procedures for research based on that understanding.
In fact, the vast majority of the report consists of eminently reasonable summaries of the problems facing civilization as the climate warms and the consequences of pursuing various geogineering options, which are divided into carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM)
For example, spewing sulfur particulates in the higher altitudes of the atmosphere (SRM) is anything but a safe bet:
…the destruction of ozone by halogens can take place in the presence of sulfur particles, as was observed following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. This occurrence suggests that ozone destruction could be exacerbated by the climate
remediation methods that involve injecting sulfur into the stratosphere as a way to reflect solar radiation. impacts on ozone are a major issue for climate remediation research, particularly for those options that involve sulfate aerosols.
And when it comes to trying to amp up the ocean’s ability to suck up carbon dioxide (CDR):
ocean fertilization would involve seeding large marine areas with iron or other nutrients to foster the growth of plankton blooms. The plankton would draw
significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and incorporate CO2 into organic matter or carbonate shells, which–if they sink deep into the ocean or to the ocean floor–would remove this carbon from the atmosphere for centuries. The risk, though, is that such interventions presumably could have big effects on ocean ecosystems.
Then there’s the problem that SRM options are basically forever options:
Absent efforts to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through mitigation or CDR, SRM (assuming it was a safe and effective technique) would have to be used continuously for centuries to stave off further climate change.
Of course, the key problem with every SRM option:
Although SRM may be able to mask some impacts of greenhouse gases on the climate system, it would do nothing to deal with the chemical consequences
of increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, including ocean acidification–a phenomenon that poses significant risks, particularly for marine life.
Significant risks is another weak term for dire consequences. We are talking about massive disruption to the entire marine food web. Of course, acidification has happened before, but never this fast, and there is no guarantee that the resulting new equilibrium will be conducive to exploitation by the billions of humans who rely on the oceans for their primary source of protein.
Perhaps more important from a politician’s point of view is how any of these options, all of which come with global effects, will be managed by the world’s 200-plus natton states
…deployment of SRM could raise particularly difficult national security questions and could create challenges for international policy coordination because it could help some regions while harming others. The crudest of SRM techniques could be
deployed relatively easily and by a country with modest financial or technical capabilities. Those attributes of SRM technology raise the specter of possible unilateral decisions by countries to deploy such systems, thereby exposing other nations to side effects and to the burden of long-term management of SRM systems that cannot be stopped without creating harmful, sudden increases in global temperature.
When you consider all these irrefutable facts —and the reality that “A world cooled by managing sunlight will not be the same as a world cooled by lowering emissions” — it’s hard not to reach two very simple conclusions. First, geogineering is going to be at least as difficult to manage and afford as finding a way get stop burning fossil fuels. Second, while most CDR options, with the exception of ocean fertilization, have few serious risks, all SRM options carry enormous known risks and untold unknown risks, neither of which we are prepared to handle.
(The report hints at unspecified risks from CDR, but as panel member Ken Caldeira told the New York Times, they are “generally uncontroversial and don’t introduce new global risks.”)
So why then does the task force end up recommending pouring scarce resources into both CDR (research into which is already underway on several front) and SRM? The answer evokes Dr. Strangelove’s specter of a mine shaft gap:
Governments and private entities in Germany, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom are exploring or moving ahead with their own climate remediation research efforts…
We note that significant research related to some CDR techniques is already underway but that work on SRM, especially, is still in its infancy. Because time is of the essence in
establishing a thoughtful research program–especially in SRM where a sustained research effort is overdue–we urge the federal government to draw on existing financial and institutional resources to jumpstart the effort.
That line of reasoning will appeal to certain folks, although I suspect many of that ilk will be the same ones who balk at the notion of devoting what little resources are available in these troubled economic times to what are easily derided as outlandish research schemes. And the task force is sincere in arguing that the number of unknowns means we should be doing the research, if for no other reason that to rule out some options. But reading the report, it’s seems clear to me that we already do know enough about most of the options to make a decision on they make any sense. And when it comes to SRM options, the answer is that the potentials risks will invariably exceed the possible benefits.
So if I had been writing the report, my recommendations would be: full steam ahead on the CDR (except ocean fertilization) but don’t waste what few research dollars we will be able to squeeze out of Congress on SRM.