Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Alex Steffen has another post at WorldChanging outlining his reasons for opposing geoengineering proposals and looking at the background of one unsavoury set of cheerleaders - Geoengineering and the New Climate Denialism.

Some scientists suggest that certain massive projects -- like creating artificial volcanoes to fill the skies with soot, or seeding the oceans with mountains of iron to produce giant algal blooms -- might in the future be able put the brakes on climate change. These "geoengineering" ideas are hardly shovel-ready. The field at this point consists essentially of little more than a bunch of proposals, simulations and small-scale experiments: describing these hypothetical approaches as "back up options" crazily overstates their current state of development. Indeed, almost all of the scientists working on them believe that the best answer to our climate problem would be a quick, massive reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions.

None of this has stopped geoengineering from becoming part of a new attempt to stall those very reductions, though. The same network of think tanks, pundits and lobbying groups that denied climate change for the last 30 years has seized on geoengineering as a chance to undermine new climate regulations and the U.N. climate negotiations to be held at the end of the year in Copenhagen. They're still using scare tactics about the economic costs of change, but now, instead of just denying the greenhouse effect, they've begun trying to convince the rest of us that hacking the planet with giant space-mirrors or artificial volcanoes is so easy that burning a lot more coal and oil really won't be a problem. ...

Turn over denialist rocks and you'll find political advocates for geoengineering a-plenty. For instance:

*The Cato Institute (denialists), whose senior fellow and director of natural resource studies, Jerry Taylor, says that if we end up forced do something about global warming, "geo-engineering is more cost-effective than emissions controls altogether."

*The Heartland Institute (denialists), whose David Schnare now advocates geoengineering as quicker and less costly to the economy than greenhouse gas reductions:
"In addition to being much less expensive than seeking to stem temperature rise solely through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, geo-engineering has the benefit of delivering measurable results in a matter of weeks rather than the decades or centuries required for greenhouse gas reductions to take full effect."

*The Hudson Institute (denialists) advocates geoengineering as substitute for reductions:
"Successful geoengineering would permit Earth's population to make far smaller reductions in carbon use and still achieve the same retarding effect on global warming at a lower cost. The cuts in carbon use proposed by international leaders and presidential candidates would have a drastic effect on the economy, especially since substitutes for fossil fuels will be expensive and limited for a number of years."

*The Hoover Institution (denialists) is home to not only to senior fellow Thomas Gale Moore, author of "Climate of Fear: Why We Shouldn't Worry About Global Warming" but also nuclear weapons engineer and original SDI "Star Wars" proponent Lowell Wood. Wood has become an outspoken geoengineering proponent and co-authored a recent WSJ op-ed in which he warns "But beware. Do not try to sell climate geo-engineering to committed enemies of fossil fuels," thus revealing that the point is to be friendly to fossil fuels.

And, of course, denialists' allies in the media and the blogosphere have been quick to take up the call. Conservative columnist (and climate "contrarian") John Tierney thinks geoengineering makes superfluous emissions reductions ("a futile strategy") and wants "a geoengineering fix for global warming," to provide an alternative to the idea that "the only cure [is] to reduce CO2 emissions." Wayne Crews of the denialist site globalwarming.org (a project of the Carbon-Lobby-funded Competitive Enterprise Institute) likes geoengineering strategies as possible "options apart from carbon constraint," while climate treaty opponent and "delayer" Roger Pielke, Jr. finds it encouraging that geoengineering's getting so much buzz.

It would be easy to go on. But the point is obvious: the Carbon Lobby, no longer able to deny the reality of climate change, is hoping to use the idea of geoengineering to undermine political progress towards reducing climate emissions through sensible, intelligent regulations and international treaties. Big Oil, Big Coal and the auto companies want you to believe that reducing emissions is too expensive to work, climate negotiations are too unrealistic to succeed, but we can keep burning fossil fuels anyways because geoengineering gives us a plan B. If you think that, you've been spun.

How to De-Spin Geoengineering

None of this is to say that megascale geoengineering should be a taboo subject. We need a smart debate here, where we explore the subject honestly and without industry spin. Here are six suggestions for returning reality to the geoengineering debate in these critical months leading up to Copenhagen:

First, Demand that bold emissions reductions be acknowledged as the only sound foundation for any climate action plan. The Carbon Lobby thrives on half-truths and obfuscation. Ethical people -- whether geoengineering proponents, opponents or doubters -- all need to be extremely clear in saying that a strong, rapid movement away from fossil fuels and toward climate neutrality is non-negotiable. Many leading thinkers on geoengineering (such as Paul Crutzen and Ken Caldeira) already make clear that immediate action on reducing greenhouse pollution (on both the national and global levels) is the first step, period. We should follow their lead.

Second, Point out that a climate-neutral world is realistic. One of the public debate's biggest failures is the extent to which we've let people be convinced that a climate-neutral planet is some distant, improbable fantasy world. It's not. We know, already, right now, how to dramatically slash emissions using currently available technologies, and make a profit. Economists (like Lord Nicholas Stern, former Chief Economist at the World Bank) estimate that the total cost of pursuing climate neutrality could be as little as 1% of GDP (far lower than the anticipated costs of allowing climate change to worsen). But there may not even be a cost: a great many of the actions we need to take (like rebuilding our cities and using energy more efficiently) return greater economic benefits than they demand, and when something pays you money, it's not a cost, it's an investment.

Third, Be extremely clear about geoengineering's real possibilities and actual limitations. Journalists tend to sell the planetary engineering sizzle, rather than serve the heavily-caveated steak. Advocates need to continue to emphasize that geoegineering proposals are still extremely early-stage, experimental and surrounded with unknowns. (On the other side, even determined opponents of geoengineering need to acknowledge the good intent and sound reasoning of scientists who are doing their best to add new insight to an extremely important debate.)

Fourth, Get the order right: zero-out first, adapt next, engineer last.. We need to be clear that because of the experimental nature of geoengineering projects, their use should be a last resort, not a primary option. Megascale geoengineering should not yet be part of any national strategies for addressing climate change, or a part of any offset systems in carbon trading regimes. We need first to drive greenhouse gas concentrations down with proven methods, and then begin preparing to adapt to the climate change we know we've already set in motion. We should only turn to megascale geoengineering as a last resort.

Fifth, Keep a wary eye on the Arctic ocean and other tipping points. Last year, scientists conducting research in the Arctic made a startling discovery: what might perhaps be formerly-frozen methane was bubbling to the surface of the warming ocean in alarming amounts. Their work demands corroboration, but if confirmed, this should cause us all to worry. Methane is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas and huge amounts of it are trapped beneath frigid waters and frozen permafrost, waiting perhaps to be released by rising temperatures.That methane could set off runaway climate change. Even if their findings are refuted, though, potential tipping points need to be watched. If we find we've blundered into rapid runaway climate change, some forms of geoengineering, however poorly understood, may quickly move from "last resort" to "needed option."

Sixth and last, Continue outing the Carbon Lobby and its cronies, and reject their intervention in the debate. Legitimate debates about the possible uses of megascale geoengineering should not include people whose institutions have been consistently and intentionally dishonest about science and science policy.

The next two decades will have an almost unparalleled importance in human history, and the decisions we make during this time could have almost unthinkable impacts for millennia. The world in which scores of future generations will live -- its climate, the plants and animals that make up its biosphere, the material possibilities of its cultures -- will to an astonishing degree be influenced by the choices we make in the next score of years.

How we interpret the possibilities of (and understand the limitations to) large-scale geoengineering projects will help shape the clarity and velocity with which we act on reducing emissions and building a new, climate-neutral economy. These questions matter too much to allow them be twisted by a bunch of shills for fossil fuel industries.

We need to reclaim the debate about our planet's future, together.

David Brin popped up in the comments making an interesting proposal:
Alex, to my mind, the issue isn't whether or not geoengineering belongs on the table. It does. Some proposals do seem intrinsically more sane while others appear outrageously lunatic. For example, if, instead of dumping iron, we simply stirred the ocean bottom in a few locations, we would imitate nature's precise method for creating vast fisheries, creating food while sucking carbon out of the air... something inherently less risky than starting up volcanoes. (I illustrate this in EARTH (1989).)

But no, the isue at hand is not the merits of any indvidual geoenginering scheme. It is instead the need to finally diagnose genuine, bona fide insanity when we see it. The climate change denier movement stands esposed for what it has always been, a frenzied quasi-religious cult, bereft of even marginal logic.

In desperate, successive phases, the members of this cult first sneeringly dismissed the notion that warming is occurring at all, as a secular trend.

Then, when forced to admit that it is so, they denied that human-generated activities could possibly affect Earth's climate.

Then, when science came in overwhelmingly against that position, their gambit was to minimize likely effects.

Then, when the US Navy announced plans to deal with an ice-free Arctic, they began promulgating the notion that it all will turn out to be beneficial(!), and/or that "anyway, it's already too late, so don't bother." Many people have unblinkingly gone from one position to the next, without even glancing in the dictionary, under "inconsitency" or "hypocrisy" or "credibility."

Now comes geoengineering, under which they admit that their earlier positions were absolutely and completely wrong in every possible way, and yet continue to insist on their right to sneer at the other side, which proved right on every single count! Such gall! Such Chutzpah!

Why are these jerks doing this? It does not really map on to "conservatism" which used to preach wisdom like "waste not" and "a penny saved" and "cleanliness is next to godliness" and which used to adore efficincy. That THIS is "conservatism would send everyone from Cotton Mather to Barry Goldwater to even Richrd Nixon spinning in their graves. (A possible new energy source?)

Is it really at the behest of a few carbon fuel moguls, the same way that shills also ranted distractions for so long, on behalf of Big Tobacco? Can it really be as simple as that?

I suspect deeper psychology is involved, e.g the trumped-up treason that is called "culture war" - whose effect has been to oversimplify all complex issues and effectively lobotomize the greatest problem-solving nation in history. The same reflex that made this same clade oppose civil rights and every other reform of the last 75 years. In the end, it has nothing to do with "left vs right". (I happen to be a big fan of Adam Smith) Rather, it is about biliously hatred of "smartypants." And anything at all proposed by wiseguys.

There is a solution. Let a consortium be formed with one aim, to collect names and public statements, with an openly stated goal:

"These people clearly have followed a pattern of obstructing humanity's efforts to come to grips, to innovate and to solve a desperate threat to our nation, world, children and planetary survival. Their eagerness to jump from one failed rationalization to another has only one common theme -- a relentless eagerness to block civilization's efforts to become more energy efficient.

"Since there are NO other commen elements to their positions, we shall operate under the assujmption that blocking energy efficiency is their central goal."

This consortium should go on to make a simple declartion:

"From this moment on, we serve notice. All evidence gathered will go toward building a case for civil lawuits, to be filed in future years, holding these people financially responsible for tort damages done to our nation, people, children, civilization and planet, by a conspiracy whose sole aim was to prevent the amelioration of a deadly threat to public health and public welfare. Based upon the utter consistency of their behavior -- similar to that of the tobacco companies, during their own denial and obstruction epoch -- we plan to reduce some of the pain and damages that this conspiracy will have caused, by seeking civil damages plus major punitive penalties.

"Individuals have perfect freedom of speech. But when lies are spread with malicious and selfish intent that results in palpable harm to others, the victims (we and our posterity) do have recourse in court. Participants in this conspiracy are served notice. They should step back and view their relentless campaign against energy efficiency in this light."

2 comments

Anonymous   says 5:31 AM

Reporting on geoengineering is wrought with a clear political agenda. That is to foster the emission reduction strategy and ignore the more dire immediate problem. While it is true that most true geoengineering ideas are immature and not 'shovel ready', to add replenishment of ocean ecosystems into that mileau illustrates ignorance or intent to misinform on that truely green option. The politically correct climate change response for many is to argue against the use of fossil fuels and in favour of emission reduction. This path ignores the deadly carbon bomb already unleashed into the atmosphere in the form of more than 1000 billion tonnes of CO2, today only 1/4 reabsorbed by earth, oceans, and ecosystems and the death and destruction wrought by yesterdays CO2. The remaining payload of yesterdays emissions is more than deadly enough to destroy the ocean ecosystems and cause that 70% blue part of this planet to re-boot to the bacterial seas of slime that pre-dated green plant and animal evolution back to a billion years ago. The impact of yesterday's CO2 is today seen in the 30% acidification of the oceans but even more dire in the many fold decimation of ocean green plants and the pastures they provide for all forms of sea life. The Southern Ocean, least afflicted wih 10% of its phyto-plankton having been observed to disappear in the past 30 years, is reported in many journals to be facing a CO2 tipping point of 2030. But the North Atlantic has suffered more, it has lost 17% of it's ocean plants, the North Pacific 26%, and some tropical sea regions 50%.

The primary cause of ocean plant losses is the observed decline in mineral micro-nutrient carrying dust that blows in the wind and nourishes or ought to nourish the oceans. As terrestrial plants benefit and grow better under the high and rising CO2 regime they serve as much better ground cover denying the ocean pastures dust and vital mineral micro-nutrients. The result in the oceans pastures are becoming deserts.

There is an immediately available deployable mitigation means to replenish and restore the ocean palnts and that is simply to return the mineral micro-nutrients to the ocean pastures in proper spatial and temporal fashion and restore the oceans and all life that lives within them. Some would call this replenishment of what we have denied the oceans geoengineering or iron fetilization and spin meister the dessriptions as if this is some sort of risky new creation. It is not creation it is restoration of the natural state with natural mineral dust. ONLY replenishment and restoration of ocean plants and trees can compete for yesterdays CO2 and change it into life instead of death.

The naysayers and monkey wrenchers especially from the dark and sinister green & greed world fear this most of all as if the ocean pastures were restored to the state of health of just 30 years ago they would again, as they did then, convert 4-5 billion tonnes of deadly CO2 into ocean life instead of acid death. The problem the sinister cynical elements of the green world have with this is that replenishing and restoring the oceans and solving half the CO2 problem would cost less than 1% of the amount being spent today to not even meet a 10% reduction of CO2 emissions. It would, as the head of the European Carbon Fund has stated, make ocean replenishment and restoration the 'killer app (application)' in the world markets of climate change mitigation technologies. It would be so affordable, this restoring the oceans and having those healthy oceans convert half the deadly problem of climate change into life, it would be an economic challange to other technologies. Perhaps even moving climate change action to treating the mortally wounded patient, Mother Earth, before chasing down and arresting or redesigning the fossil fueled truck that ruthlessly ran her down in her garden.

But isn't that the point of being concerned about CO2. We are concerned about how it is destroying our ecosystems or so we thought. But for many, and sadly many of the biggest so called green organizations, the concern is first and foremost about the vast climate change economic trough at which they seek as many snoutfulls as possible. Restoring the SEAS and TREES and solving half the crisis by restoring life is treated as the "killer app" to be denied by any and all means when it is in fact the "living app." Saving life on this planet is thus is attacked through countless stories that try to sell the idea that its part of the evil 'geoengineering' or worse might be done in the context of the climate markets and actually be profitable.

Read more about replenishing and restoring the SEAS and TREES at www.planktos-science.com

Choose LIfe

You aren't addressing the criticisms - just name-calling and spreading FUD.

I doubt anyone reading this blog is against healthy seas and forests - but I suspect many have qualms that some geoengineering proposals have some outrageous risks associated with them and are being used by the fossil fuel industries to delay taking action to eliminate the cause of the problem.

If you'd like to convince us that a particular proposal can be safely implemented while we also switch to clean energy sources, be my guest.

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