The Intersection

Sheril on this Geoengineering

I’m undoubtedly a big proponent of changing our actions to combat global warming, but you can bet I’m more than wary of ideas to experiment with our home Terra. Namely, because I plan to stick around here for a little while. Someone my age better damn well provide representation at the table and speak up because we’re the ones inheriting the mess that’s being made.

I wonder whether the scientists involved understand the big picture. We can’t expect to fix our global fever piecemeal when the underlying causes are being ignored. Since we don’t know enough about thresholds and complex systems interacting on multiple scales, it’s not good enough to start loading our environment with the ‘best guess‘. Instead, let’s put our efforts into crafting better legislative policy. Too slow you suggest? Well, deforestation is an enormous contributing factor, so how about acting now to support efforts such as which will legitimately help us move toward carbon neutrality? Life isn’t like the movies and we’re not going to get a do-over if we miscalculate. We must address the real problem before we begin playing doctor with our planet.


  1. #1 Fred Bortz
    November 12, 2007

    Why, Sheril, you’re sounding positively conservative on this!

    Oh, yes, we sometimes forget that “conservative” and “conservationist” have the same root.

    Indeed, it has always puzzled me that many on the political right (not all, click my name) seem to regard calls for action on the environment as motivated by liberal politics rather than by a spirit of preseving and conserving our most precious resource, the planet that sustains us all.

  2. #2 AK
    November 12, 2007

    It seems to me that most, if not all, of the GeoEngineering schemes that have been proposed will have a complex mix of interactions with different parts of a very complex and poorly understood system. IMO, research taken with no front-end bias will turn up these complexities, and hopefully discourage some of the get-quick-rich schemes. However, with no money allocated for research, and violent opposition to any private ventures, it’s easy to see why the “cowboys” are jumping in first.

    I think we should distinguish between mitigation with its carbon caps and trading, and remediation which is an effort to reverse one of the linked effects before it triggers another. Spraying sulfur oxides into the air to counteract the exaggerated greenhouse effect is like packing somebody with a high fever in ice: it may prevent brain damage but it doesn’t do anything about the cause of the fever.

    If a centralized and supervised market is set up in “carbon credits”, then some control can be exercised over the “cowboys” because without scientific certification of their “carbon credits” they won’t be able to trade. This can at least allow some verification that the schemes will actually sequester carbon, without causing major damage to ecosystems that would result in large amounts of organic carbon returning to the atmosphere (as CO2).

    Such a system, along with tax credits and (perhaps) subsidies for carbon-free vehicles and power sources, could place some “sanity checks” on mitigation.

    When it comes to remediation, IMO a lot of study should go into it, and the spin-off from that study will have great value in unpredictable places, just as from the space program. The highest priority should be to identify anything(s) our civilization has done to reduce the Earth’s natural ability to handle the extra CO2 load.

    For instance, I wonder if continued over-fishing has reduced the overall biomass of the ocean by extracting critical (micro-)nutrients. If so, replacing those in appropriate amounts might allow the oceans to act as a larger carbon sink. I also wonder whether erosion control during the last century has reduced the level of calcium (and perhaps magnesium and silicon) relative to the “natural” level, reducing the “carbon pump”.

    None of these efforts addresses that fundamental problem, however, which is that every ton of carbon taken out of the ground and burned adds to the total carbon in play, unless and until it is buried again, either as mineral carbonates or reduced carbon. There are only a few places for it to go naturally: as carbonates at the bottom of shallow oceans, as eutrophying organic carbon at the bottom of the ocean, the Black Sea, lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, or as peat moss deposited in deep peat bogs and peatlands.

    Forests and grasslands can accumulate a lot while immature, but once they reach maturity they’re pretty much carbon neutral. While planting forests and grasslands is an essential part of restoring the ecology, the carbon they lay down has pretty much been added when they were destroyed, so they can’t really balance the effects of fossil fuels (IMO).

    In the end, IMO, either our civilization will have to take steps to remove the excess carbon from the system (after or while we’ve stopped adding it), or we’ll have to suffer the results of more carbon in the system, probably including massive eutrophication of the deep sea.

  3. #3 D
    November 12, 2007

    it’s not good enough to start loading our environment with the ‘best guess’.

    Is there some threshold of knowledge where you feel comfortable with the idea of controlling global temperatures, or is no margin of error, however small, allowable in these matters? The latter, I think, is unreasonable. Naturally, the precautionary principle applies here, to put it mildly. However, there is caution and there is Luddism.

    Speaking for myself, I have to say that in the long term (say a hundred years from now. Or two.) I disagree entirely with the notion that we should leave the world as is. I want one day for us to be able to stop / manage earthquakes, divert hurricanes and control the climate. That way we can stop worrying about ‘root causes’, use energy like water, and own this rock we’re on.

  4. #4 Linda
    November 12, 2007

    Scary proposition facing the ‘mess that’s being made’ of our planet. Scarier, still, if we do not. Stuart Pimm, Cassidy Horn, and you make, in my opinion, very good sense. I will check out

  5. #5 D
    November 12, 2007

    Who is this other “D”? It’s not me and I don’t like what he writes.

    Impostor “D” wants to “be able to stop / manage earthquakes, divert hurricanes and control the climate. That way we can stop worrying about ‘root causes’, use energy like water, and own this rock we’re on.”

    If you think we’ll be managing earthquakes, you’ve been watching too much Star Trek.

  6. #6 Daryl McCullough
    November 12, 2007

    Generally speaking, it makes sense to proceed with caution before tinkering with enormously complicated systems such as the Earth’s climate. But what does proceeding with caution mean, exactly?

    Suppose we are considering taking some course of action X that if successful will have some desirable outcome. But given the uncertainties, we have to consider the possibility that it might have a different, much worse, outcome. So to be cautious, we should delay doing X until we are much more certain about its consequences. That sounds like common sense.

    However, let Y be the course of action “Delay X until we understand its consequences better”. Y is itself a proposed course of action. We should consider the possibility that Y may have unintended disastrous consequences. So the same principle of caution should suggest that we not pursue Y until we understand its consequences.

  7. #7 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    November 12, 2007

    Speaking for myself, I have to say that in the long term (say a hundred years from now. Or two.) I disagree entirely with the notion that we should leave the world as is. I want one day for us to be able to stop / manage earthquakes, divert hurricanes and control the climate. That way we can stop worrying about ‘root causes’, use energy like water, and own this rock we’re on.

    ‘D’ #1, This is hubris akin to when Xerxes lashed the Hellespont

    First, ‘owning this rock we’re on’ isn’t an option. We coexist with a great deal of biodiversity on a shared planet. Your long term ‘a hundred years from now’ is not even a blink in cosmic time. Furthermore, no matter what we humans decide to do from here, be assured we are long past the option to ‘leave the world as is’.

    And yes ‘D’ #2 – Plate tectonics are a force of nature. Literally. Earth isn’t a simple input and output black box so tipping pressures in one direction spirals out to have impacts in a myriad of ways we aren’t able to predict or imagine before they occur.

    This post is meant to question why we’re searching for bandaids as the solution to a global crisis more akin to internal bleeding. We understand the repercussions of our actions – we should spend our time and energy promoting ways to change our behavior to recover.

  8. #8 D#1
    November 12, 2007

    I didn’t know I was an imposter heh…I’ve used ‘D’ for as long as I’ve posted on ScienceBlogs, which has been for a while. I’ll follow Sheril’s lead and call myself D#1 in this thread.

    1. It seems probable that for now, at least, nothing we can do should affect plate tectonics significantly. However, we may well learn how to defuse or deflect hurricanes in the making within this century. Meanwhile, we can control planetary temperatures, for better for for worse, *right now*. What we lack is the ability and processing power to model the effects of our tinkering over various timescales. I see no reason why this inability is permanent.

    In any case, my point was not that bringing hurricanes or planetary temperature under control is easy; it is that this is desirable, if we can do so safely. And no, I don’t think it is a sufficient argument against geoengineering that the risks are nonzero – so too are the costs of letting Mother Nature continue to be the bitchy self She has been since time immemorial.

    2. Specifically on climate change, we face primarily a technical challenge, whether it is discovering better fuels, improving consumption efficiency, sequestering carbon or active controlling planetary systems through mad scientist bioengineering schemes. I think your talk of ‘bandaids for internal bleeding’ is better suited to morality play than to discussions of policy.

  9. #9 Wes Rolley
    November 12, 2007

    Andrew Revkin has kicked off a similar discussion on his dot earth blog at the NY Times.

    The discussion is similar. Some are encouraging of research. Almost all are horrified at the idea of trying to actually DO anything.

  10. #10 Fred Bortz
    November 12, 2007

    In trying to decide how much geoengineering we ought to do, I start with the fact that our current version of the species, homo technicus, to coin a phrase, has evolved in tune with the present climate regime.

    As is true for all species, when the environment is relatively unchanged for many generations, we have evolved to be particularly well-suited for it. The aspect of our evolution that has enabled us to flourish is the ability to alter our local environment technologically.

    Changing the global environment, such as we are doing with our emissions, is new. Whether we can adapt to such changes, which I would call inadvertent geoengineering, is yet to be determined.

    The global or regional climate changes resulting from our activity, until the past few years, has not been on a scale that we could notice. The signs that we are seeing, especially in the Arctic but also in other regions, indicate that we face a challenge in the current century.

    We could continue business as usual and trust that our species can adapt to the new climate regime. I have no doubt that our species will survive, but probably not in our current (or projected) numbers, and almost certainly not without serious upheavals–most likely regional (if not global) conflicts over resources.

    If we want to minimize social upheaval, we would do best to aim for a world with a climate and environments much like the ones in which we have developed. The challenge is achieving such conditions.

    We could respond to that challenge by continuing what we are doing but adding more technology to counteract the bad effects. That deliberate geoengineering is like taking a potassium supplement to counteract the loss of K+ ions due to a blood-pressure drug regime that includes a diuretic.

    Or, if our high blood pressure is due to lifestyle, we could try to change that lifestyle and eliminate the need for medication altogether.

    At this point, I would prefer that we look at solutions that lead to less of the geoengineering we have been doing, e.g., replace CO2-adding energy sources with sustainable ones.

    If we go the route of geoengineering, we will be taking pill B to counteract the side effects of pill A, only to discover that we need pill C to counteract the side effects of pill B, which will lead to pill D and procedure E, which will…

    In other words, I’m looking for rational technologies that minimize the impact on the environment that has nurtured our species and to which we are, therefore, so well-attuned.

    We need to minimize both deliberate and inadvertent geoengineering, not because it is necessarily a bad idea to change the planet, but because we have evolved to be suitable to the planet we have now.

  11. #11 bigTom
    November 12, 2007

    eets try to build a framework that will help us see more clearly:

    The major problem is that it would be highly desirable if we could keep the climate within some reasonable range of where it has been the past few thousand years. Significant departure from that state would be bad for nature, because ecosystems have adapted to that state. Also our human infrastructure has been built assuming that many variables, such as water flow in rivers, sea level etc. stay pretty close to historical levels.

    Now to zeroth order we descibe the climate by global average temperature. This is controlled by the balance (or lack thereof) between shortwave radiation from the sun, and long-wave reradiation of heat to space.

    We are changing things because of what has been called the tyranny of small decisions. Every small player on the earth does what is convienient for his purposes. The small increment this has on the rest of the globe is ignored. If on average these decisions favor change in one direction or another too strongly sufficient climate forcing will be generated to push the climate away from this happy equilibrium.

    The main forcing we are concerned with is the shortwave one, greenhouse gases reduce the atmospheric transparency in the infrared region where the earth reradiates the heat, so an imbalance is generated. Our problem stems (largely) from the fact that the totality of our small decisions are generating more CO2 than the earth’s system can dispose of. Balance could be obtained if we caused roughly as much extra absortion of CO2 as we create. We can change this balance in many ways:
    (1) Burn less high carbon fuel.
    (2) capture and sequester CO2 from industrial processes that generate it.
    (3) Use large scale industrial processes to capture CO2 from free air and sequester it.
    (4) Modify biological/ecosystems to increase CO2 uptake.

    Additionally some methods have been proposed to decrease the amount of shortwave radiation absorbed by the system. These include:
    (1) Sulfate injection into the strasphere.
    (2) Increasing the quantities of lower atmospheric condensation nuclei to make low altitude clouds whiter and more prevalent.
    (3) Changing land use to encourage higher surface albedo.

    This later category attempts to shift the temperature versus CO2 concentration towards cooler climate, but does nothing about chemical changes in the oceans and atmosphere.

    There also exist poorly understood feedback mechanisms, which in the right circumstances can amplify small changes. The instability of the Pleisticene climate, driven we think by small changes in insolation are proof of this later concept.

    Even if we weren’t dramatically changing atmospheric cheistry, it is possible that the earth would naturally enter into a period of intense climate change.

    Given these facts, does it make sense to invest in insurance, i.e. learn about what actions could (note could not should) be taken to what effect on the system? IMHO the answer is yes. Should we ever get desperate the more knowledge we have about methods, and their likely side effects the more likely we are to make the better choices. To attach to Freds drug example, it would be nice if the side-effects and risks of the drugs were well known before the patient got sick. Yes the drugs will have side-effects. If we have done our homework properly the can know with fairly high probability that the negative effects of those side effects are less damaging then the condition for which they are being prescribed. Of course we should moniter the patient so that we can stop or modify the treatment as time goes by.

    Now this doesn’t say it is wise for the patient to attempt to cure himself by taking the advice of nonexerts, and prescribing medicine that has not been well studied. We don’t want people running off onto largescale geo-engineering without strict scientific oversight. We would want to favor methods that can be reversed if dangerous surprises are observed. That likley means that things like genetic maodifications of biological systems to deliberately change the ecosystem would be disfavored.

  12. #12 Chris Rowan
    November 13, 2007

    I’m still waiting for someone to answer the question I asked when I discussed this a couple of months ago – given that the major obstacle to any effort to mitigate (or even adapt) to climate change is not a lack of ideas or technologies, but the sustained mustering of political will and resources required to implement them, why would taking the geo-engineering route be any different?

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