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Climate Change Conundrums

Mike Treder

Ethical Technology

September 02, 2009

At least four big conundrums must be confronted if we are to make anything close to sufficient progress in preventing the worst outcomes from global warming.

From a recent Washington Post column by Ezra Klein:

Last week, the British medical journal The Lancet released the product of a year-long partnership with the University College London that attempted to assess the impact of global warming on global health. “Climate change,” they concluded, “is the biggest global health threat of the 21 century.” But crucially, it’s a terribly unequal threat.

The graphic below presents two distorted maps. The first shows the world in terms of carbon emissions. America, for instance, is huge. So is China. And Europe. Africa is hardly visible. The second map shows the world in terms of increased mortality—that is to say, deaths—from climate change. Suddenly, America virtually disappears. So does Europe. Africa, however, is grotesquely distended. South Asia inflates.

Ezra Klein continues:

“Loss of healthy life years as a result of global environmental change (including climate change) is predicted to be 500 times greater in poor African populations than in European populations,” predicts the report. Which presents a particularly tricky political problem. The developed countries that benefit most from fossil fuels will suffer least. The countries with the maximum incentive to prevent climate change have no power to do it.

And it gets worse.

Not only are the impacts of climate change disproportionately falling on the world’s least powerful populations—and on those least responsible for creating the problem—but also on future generations not yet born. Although those of us alive today are almost certain to see dramatic and disastrous consequences of global warming, the worst effects will not be experienced until the latter half of this century when sea levels could rise several feet at least, tens of millions of poor people will become environmental refugees, droughts and forest fires and floods will soar in frequency and intensity, species will disappear at accelerated rates, and pandemic diseases will thrive.

But if all those apocalyptic predictions are limited to the world of fifty or a hundred years from now, what incentive do we have to do anything serious about it now? Over at WorldChanging, Alex Steffen is wondering the same thing:

Some people seem to have a hard time even understanding the concept of the rights of future generations. The idea that people who do not yet exist have the right to assert their needs in our lives is one that seems to be hard to fully grasp.

Think of this example: If someone set a bomb to go off in a public square 100 years from now, is he committing a crime? Should he be stopped? Almost everyone would say yes. Should he be tried before a court of law and prevented from doing further harm? Most of us would agree that he should.

Now, here’s the tricky part: climate change is the bomb, and your great-grandkids are the victims. . .

Unfortunately, nearly everyone in the developed world now enriches their lives at the cost of future generations. As Paul Hawken says, “We have an economy where we steal the future, sell it in the present, and call it G.D.P.”

Getting people motivated about a problem set far in the future, no matter how cataclysmic it might prove to be, is a major challenge.

And there are other obstacles we have to negotiate as well.

First, not everyone agrees that the climate change models being used are dependable, and second, even if enough of us can agree that something must be done, what that something might be is an open question.

On the first difficulty, that of disagreement on the reality or the severity of global warming impacts, climate scientists—especially those who’ve studied the issues the longest and who know the most about it—are losing patience with the naysayers:

Fifteen senior Australian climate scientists have hit back at the resurgence of climate scepticism among the nation’s politicians and the media, warning that the threat from climate change is real, urgent and approaching a series of ‘‘tipping points’’ where it will feed on itself.

‘‘New findings suggest that the situation is, if anything, more serious than the assessment of just a few years ago’’, say the scientists, who include the CSIRO’s Dr. Michael Raupach and Dr. John Church, along with the Australian National University’s Professor Will Steffen, who recently completed a report on climate change science for the Federal Government.

Writing in today’s Herald, the scientists, many of whom worked with the top United Nations scientific body on climate change, argue ‘‘rapid, sustained and effective’’ cuts in the world’s greenhouse gas emissions are needed to avoid dangerous climate change.

Dr. Raupach, who monitors greenhouse gas emissions globally, said the scientists joined together because of their growing concern about climate scepticism in the Australian debate.

‘‘It’s a concern that I think is widely felt among many climate scientists in Australia,’’ he said. He referred to sceptics’ claims that the earth was cooling and that solar flares and sunspots were responsible for increasing warming, not human-caused emissions from burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests. ‘‘These arguments keep being recycled even though they have been rebutted in public many times,’’ Dr. Raupach said. ‘‘We felt the need to state the evidence-based position as we see it.’’

While the article above focuses on Australian politics and scientific reaction, it is aptly representative of struggles going on in many countries around the globe. The overwhelming majority of researchers say we’ve got a big problem on our hands, interest groups and lobbyists for oil companies and auto makers say it isn’t so, the public is generally confused though leaning toward desiring action, and politicians are as usual slow to do anything meaningful. It’s a recipe for disaster.

But assuming we can reach consensus that climate change is real and that it’s bad enough to require an urgent and dramatic response—as is patently obvious to us—then what do we do about it?

Proposed solutions fall into three general areas: 1) Rapid, near-total reduction of greenhouse gas emissions; 2) Mass conversion to renewable, carbon-free energy production, whether solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, etc.; and 3) Large-scale projects to directly manipulate the Earth’s climate, known collectively as geoengineering. None of these are mutually exclusive, of course, and many experts advocate a combination of all three.

For today, let’s look at the third area—geoengineering—which over the last year or so has received a surprising amount of serious attention:

Hacking the planet to rein in humanity’s effect on the climate has been given a scientific stamp of approval.

The umbrella body for meteorological scientists in the US is about to endorse research into geoengineering as part of a three-pronged approach to coping with climate change, alongside national policies to reduce emissions.

New Scientist has seen the final draft of the American Meteorological Society’s carefully worded position paper on geoengineering. The AMS is the first major scientific body to officially endorse research into geoengineering.

The document states that “deliberately manipulating physical, chemical, or biological aspects of the Earth system” should be explored alongside the more conventional approaches to climate change. Conventional approaches means reducing emissions – “mitigation” in policy-speak – and adjusting to the unavoidable effect of climate change – known as “adaptation”.

The paper states that “even aggressive mitigation of future emissions cannot avoid dangerous climate changes resulting from past emissions. Furthermore, it is unlikely that all of the expected climate-change impacts can be managed through adaptation. Thus, it is prudent to consider geoengineering’s potential benefits, to understand its limitations, and to avoid ill-considered deployment”.

A few weeks ago, The Atlantic magazine published a feature on “Re-Engineering the Earth” that began:

If we were transported forward in time, to an Earth ravaged by catastrophic climate change, we might see long, delicate strands of fire hose stretching into the sky, like spaghetti, attached to zeppelins hovering 65,000 feet in the air. Factories on the ground would pump 10 kilos of sulfur dioxide up through those hoses every second. And at the top, the hoses would cough a sulfurous pall into the sky. At sunset on some parts of the planet, these puffs of aerosolized pollutant would glow a dramatic red. During the day, they would shield the planet from the sun’s full force, keeping temperatures cool—as long as the puffing never ceased.

Technology that could redden the skies and chill the planet is available right now. Within a few years we could cool the Earth to temperatures not regularly seen since James Watt’s steam engine belched its first smoky plume in the late 18th century. And we could do it cheaply: $100 billion could reverse anthropogenic climate change entirely, and some experts suspect that a hundredth of that sum could suffice. To stop global warming the old-fashioned way, by cutting carbon emissions, would cost on the order of $1 trillion yearly. If this idea sounds unlikely, consider that President Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, said in April that he thought the administration would consider it, “if we get desperate enough.”

It’s a peculiarly modern and characteristically American response: Got a problem caused by technology? Fix it with more and bigger technology!

That quintessential U.S. enthusiasm for making the world better through engineering is not limited to Yanks though:

A plan to build a 6,000 km-long wall across the Sahara Desert to stop the spread of the desert has been outlined. The barrier—formed by solidifying sand dunes—would stretch from Mauritania in the west of Africa to Djibouti in the east. The plan was put forward by architect Magnus Larsson at the TED Global conference in Oxford.

A 2007 UN study described desertification as “the greatest environmental challenge of our times”.

“The threat is desertification. My response is a sandstone wall made from solidified sand,” said Mr Larsson, who describes himself as a dune architect. The sand would be stabilised by flooding it with bacteria that can set it like concrete in a matter of hours.

North African nations have promoted the idea of planting trees to form a Great Green Belt to prevent the spread of the sand. A similar proposal—known as the Green Wall of China—has also been proposed to stop the spread of the Gobi Desert.

Fleets of zeppelins trolling the atmosphere, continent-spanning walls—and these, believe it or not, are among the milder proposals for hacking our planet.

More visionary concepts include things like a giant space shield, 2,000 kilometers in diameter and 10 microns thick with a weight of about 100 megatons under Earth’s gravity; or a constellation consisting of trillions of small free-flying spacecraft a million miles above Earth in an orbit aligned with the sun; or tiny balloons with mirrors inside that would cover the entire Earth and control climate.

None of the big ideas in the paragraph above could be accomplished with today’s technology; all would require the development of emerging technologies, most notably molecular manufacturing.

It’s remarkable, though—and probably an indicator of how bad things might actually get—that we are even discussing proposals formerly consigned to science fiction.

So, is geoengineering the answer to climate change?

Not so fast, say some scientists:

As the risks of climate change and the difficulty of effectively reducing greenhouse gas emissions become increasingly obvious, potential geoengineering solutions are widely discussed. For example, in a recent report, Blackstock et al. explore the feasibility, potential impact, and dangers of shortwave climate engineering, which aims to reduce the incoming solar radiation and thereby reduce climate warming. Proposed geoengineering solutions tend to be controversial among climate scientists and attract considerable media attention. However, by focusing on limiting warming, the debate creates a false sense of certainty and downplays the impacts of geoengineering solutions.

That’s from a must-read article by climate expert Joe Romm, who adds:

I see the liability issue as enormous. Right now, we’re all liable for climate change, though obviously the rich countries are far more to blame. But the bulk of the liability extends back many decades and involves many hundreds of millions of people and thousands of industries. A major geo-engineering effort, however, would put all of the liability for any adverse impacts on those who undertake it.

The liability could be huge but the number of parties involved might be small if it proves impossible to get a global agreement to adopt that strategy. Yet if we fail to aggressively pursue mitigation, then the very countries who would likely be the leaders on geoengineering are going to be global pariahs for having greedily refused to spend a modest amount of money needed to reduce emissions in the first place. So if there were, say, a massive drought in India and Bangladesh in the few years after a geoengineering effort a particulate-based effort began (the mirrors strategy seems likely to be too expensive and impractical), those behind the effort would bear tremendous responsibility.

Thus, from a purely practical perspective, a true geoengineering strategy is going to be much tougher to pursue than is widely realized.

He’s right, of course, that even if one or more of these planet-scale engineering proposals could gain enough traction, political support, and funding to be attempted, it’s far from easy to predict exactly what the results would be, what sort of unintended consequences might arise, and how liability issues would be handled.

Fortunately, Britain’s Royal Society has just produced a comprehensive evaluation of geoengineering options. On his excellent 2020 Science blog, our friend Andrew Maynard describes the report:

Aimed at presenting “an independent scientific review of the range of methods proposed [for geoengineering the climate] with the aim of providing an objective view on whether geoengineering could, and should, play a role in addressing climate change, and under what conditions,” it provides what is perhaps the most authoritative and comprehensive assessment of the options to date. . .

From the outset, the report presents geoengineering as a far from ideal but perhaps necessary option to curbing global warming. In the foreword, Lord Reese – President of the Royal Society – stresses that “nothing should divert us from the main priority of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.” Even more strongly, the top headline message of the report states:

The safest and most predictable method of moderating climate change is to take early and effective action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. No geoengineering method can provide an easy or readily acceptable alternative solution to the problem of climate change.

Yet, as the report’s authors point out, neither can we afford to be complacent in assuming that global emissions of greenhouse gases will be curbed sufficiently to avoid widespread economic, social and political impacts over the coming decades. In the event that active interventions are needed, the report’s subtext is clear: we will need to face the scientific, social and political challenges up-front, openly and honestly if we are to have a hope of making smart decisions.

Andrew also writes:

An interesting aspect of today’s Royal Society report on geoengineering is the attempt to rate twelve potential approaches to engineering the climate by effectiveness, affordability, timeliness and safety – and to graphically compare the approaches in terms of these criteria.

While the ratings and the resulting diagram are somewhat subjective (the report’s authors call them “tentative and approximate”), they have some merit in helping make sense of a complex and uncertain bunch of data.

Everything is still tentative and approximate, but meanwhile CO2 levels are rising precipitously, glaciers are melting, methane is leaking from the bottom of the ocean, and the point of no return is racing ever closer.

*          *          *

At least four big conundrums must be confronted if we are to make anything close to sufficient progress in preventing the worst outcomes from global warming:

1. Those who can make the biggest difference seem to have the least to lose.

2. Future generations who will inherit the consequences of our actions have no voice.

3. Climate change science is still in its infancy and often raises more questions than answers.

4. The proposed cure—geoengineering—could prove worse than the disease.

(Moreover, as Alex Steffan warns in another essay at WorldChanging, climate change deniers and industry lobbyists are not above using the supposed magic bullet of geoengineering as another excuse for delays in cutting emissions.)

I’m not suggesting that we should not take a very close look at the potential strategies for mitigation offered by planet-scale engineering. We should. But it should be just that—a very close look including a careful analysis of costs, benefits, risks, and contingency plans—before anything major is attempted.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.


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