29 January 2007

Global War on Sunshine

Ok, so lately we've seen what appears to be a sea change in the attitudes of the pro-fossil fuel folks regarding climate change. We seem to have finally progressed to the point where mainstream conservatism no longer claims that global temperatures aren't trending up and the issue of anthropogenic-ness is only argued by dead-enders. We've seen this in Canada, where the minority conservatives suddenly announced hundreds of millions for nukes and clean coal, over a billion for solar and wind, and millions for efficiency programs. In the states, Bush mentioned climate change in his State of the Union address, but does anyone else remember the results from when Bush told us all that "America is addicted to Oil"? Me neither.

So what does the US propose to do about climate change now? Why, pollute our atmosphere with sulfates and launch space mirrors. So now to go along with the Global War on Terrorism, the War on Drug, the War on Crime, and the War on Poverty we've got the new, the exciting, Global War on Sunshine. That's right kids, not only is CO2 good for you the sun is an evil thing that threatens the existence of the corn lobby and threatens to drown the oil lobby in litigation papers.

This is, I believe, what is known as bargaining.


Doug said...

You should have a more open mind about geo-engineering proposals. Even if we took all steps to get our CO2 emissions under control, a lot of future warming is already (pardon the pun) baked in because of past damage. Add to that the fact that many developing countries are expanding their use of coal, and the fact that deforestation is likely to continue in the Amazon, and finally throw in that some of the warming might even be natural, and I think a solid case can be made for considering geo-engineering in addition to cleaning up our act on the energy front. I have to agree with you dumping pollutants into the atmosphere sounds unappealing. Space mirrors have more appeal to me.

By the way, an interesting article recently suggested that if it were not for mankind, we would be well into a natural cooling cycle, driven by three long cycles linked to the earth's axial tilt versus the sun. These cycles are every 100k, 40, and 21k years. All three are now in their "getting cooler" phase. The article theorizes that the development of agriculture 8000+ years ago caused methane releases that stabilised the warmer climate and prevented the move towards another ice age. This is apparently backed up by looking at 400k years of ice cores.

The bottom line is, climate is always changing, and if we think the climate of the last few 1000 years is ideal and that only minor changes are acceptable, we may need geo-engineering solutions to maintain the status quo over the long haul.

Robert McLeod said...

I can think of a number of good reasons why geoengineering isn't a serious option.

First the, "you break it, you buy it" principle. You can't afford to buy the Earth back from everyone else if you screw up ... which you probably will because it's an enormously complicated system with feedbacks everywhere that defies our empirical models.

The other reason is that it is going to be used by the likes of Exxon as a bargaining method. Just like how some scientists allowed themselves to be used as bogus critics in the original climate science arguments, they'll find someone with a weak ego who will argue the point just to try and prove to everyone that they're the smartest. I for one am not interested in being played for a sucker.

Doug said...

Well, then just what are we going to do if, as predicted, the planet continues to warm throughout the century and sea levels begin to rise? I live in the SF bay area, and I can tell you a 10 foot rise would wipe out communities around the bay, including mine. Something like this could happen even if we reduced our CO2 emissions to zero immediately. Would a space mirror be cheaper than, say, building a dam under the golden gate bridge? Cheaper than all the other similar measures that would be taken world-wide? We already do things to try to correct ecological damage, only on a smaller scale. I agree that something of this scale would have higher risks. That said, nothing says we'd have to deploy a full system immediately. Supposing the 2% figure to be correct, an initial system that did 0.2% could be tried, and the effects studied for a while before implementing the next phase.

GreenEngineer said...

The option of geoengineering is probably a good thing to have in our back pocket, in case the impacts of "in the pipeline" global warming turn out to be on the bad end of the spectrum.

However, it's entirely stupid to look at geoengineering as a first line of defence. We're overdriving a complex system. The way to stablize an overdriven system is not to apply an additional layer of controls, it's to stop overdriving the damn thing in the first place.

As the folks at RealClimate said Think of the climate as a small boat on a rather choppy ocean. Under normal circumstances the boat will rock to and fro, and there is a finite risk that the boat could be overturned by a rogue wave. But now one of the passengers has decided to stand up and is deliberately rocking the boat ever more violently. Someone suggests that this is likely to increase the chances of the boat capsizing. Another passenger then proposes that with his knowledge of chaotic dynamics he can counterbalance the first passenger and indeed, counter the natural rocking caused by the waves. But to do so he needs a huge array of sensors and enormous computational reasources to be ready to react efficiently but still wouldn't be able to guarantee absolute stability, and indeed, since the system is untested it might make things worse.

So is the answer to a known and increasing human influence on climate an ever more elaborate system to control the climate? Or should the person rocking the boat just sit down?

Engineer-Poet said...

I think the folks at Real Climate are overstating the case for inaction.  We've got several examples of the sorts of results we'd get from geoengineering, and the worst that ever happened was "The Year without a Summer".  Further, we can adjust aerosols a lot faster than the climate can react.

Heat waves have already killed tens of thousands in Europe, and we've still got plenty of thermal inertia to work out of the system.  With the sort of heating still in store if we don't do anything, a few years without summers might sound pretty good!

What we could probably do is shoot for a Pinatubo every couple of years.  This would take a million tons or so of aerosol in the upper stratosphere.  If we got the same effects as last time, we'd see:
* A small but sharp decline in sea-surface temperatures.
* A halt to atmospheric CO2 increases (perhaps due to reduced water stress on plants, or better oceanic uptake with the cooler water).

If it turned out to be bad for us, we could always stop.  I'd much rather try to preserve our arctic and antarctic species, our coral reefs and other things than let them go just as object lessons to ourselves.  Future generations will benefit far more from what we preserve than what we let go in the name of non-interference.

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