Heliophage


The IPCC and geoengineering
September 28, 2013, 3:18 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

The Summary for Policymakers (SPM) just released by the IPCC’s Working Group 1 (pdf) ends with a para on geoengineering (p21), and this fact is receiving some play in media coverage. Not everyone is writing about it, and very few are putting it high up the story, but it’s there, and as various people have pointed out, last time WG1 reported, in 2007, it wasn’t.

Here’s the para is in full. I’ve annotated it to highlight changes made to the authors’ final draft, prepared after all the review stages of the document and thus forming the text that the governments attending the Stockholm plenary started from:

Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed. <Before Stockholm this was just “Methods to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed” so some more definition has been added] Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system. <This was previously the last sentence; I’d assume moving it up is meant to let this point about nescience set the context for the subsequent sentences, rather than to seem to follow from them.] CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale. There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale. Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification. <In draft, this sentence began “Modelling shows that some SRM methods have the potential…”: thus a slightly stronger statement about a subset of SRM has been weakened to include all SRM. ] If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence [emphasis in original] that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing. CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale. <the draft said “unintended side effects” not just “side effects”. Piers Forster, one of the authors, tweeted me that “US wanted “unintentional” dropped in last [sentence]. We agreed – only change.”]

If Russian negotiators tried to strengthen the language on geoengineering at the Stockholm plenary, as The Guardian reported that they wanted to, they were singularly unsuccessful. Nevertheless, the inclusion of this quite anodyne paragraph seems to have significance, at least for some people. The ETC group put out a news release “Concern as IPCC bangs the drum for geoengineering“, though it noted that “the text approved in Stockholm fell far short of endorsing geoengineering”. If you’re puzzled about how it is possible to bang the drum for something you aren’t endorsing, ETC’s Jim Thomas, friend of this blog, makes the point more clearly: “We are beginning to hear a drumbeat where geoengineering advocates will use the IPCC’s reports to press for geoengineering experimentation and, eventually, deployment.” So it’s not the IPCC banging, then.

Jim is probably right that we will see some of this sort of thing, and it will be interesting to trace. But ETCs suggestion that talking about geoengineering in some way strays from the IPCC’s mandate to be policy relevant not policy prescriptive strikes me as quite a stretch; “policy relevant” surely includes “relevant to policy that ETC doesn’t support”. For example, the IPCC spends quite a lot of time on what will happen under business as usual. Should it not be doing this?

Jim’s main worry is that the IPCC even mentioned geoengineering, thus “lending legitimacy and respectability to a set of suggestions that were previously considered unacceptable and should remain so.” Jack Stilgoe takes a somewhat similar view about the “premature legitimacy” conferred by mention of geoengineering in the Working Group 1 SPM in an article for The Guardian:

To include mention of geoengineering, and its supporting “evidence” in a statement of scientific consensus, no matter how layered with caveats, is extraordinary.

It’s really not. To begin with, the IPCC was mandated to talk about geoengineering in this report. The scoping meeting which gave the panel its marching orders for the massive fifth assessment specified that all three working groups look at geoengineering (the first, this one, is on the state of play on climate change in the sciences-previously-known-as-natural; the second is on the impacts of climate change; the third is on responses). It’s worth noting that though a fair amount of geoengineering talk buys into the idea that geoengineering became a bigger part of the conversation after the Copenhagen climate summit, and this may be true, the scoping meeting took place before Copenhagen.

Having to look at geoengineering , though, does not mean having to include it in the highly visible SPM — it could have been left in the vastly longer main report. And it might have been. A leaked copy of the an earlier draft of the SPM had no geoengineering paragraph. According to Piers, the authors decided it was necessary because they were mandated to discuss RCP2.6. The RCPs are “representative concentration pathways” – pictures of how greenhouse gas concentrations in the decades to come. RCP 2.6 is a pathway in which it is unlikely for the temperature to rise two degrees over preindustrial, and in which it is possible for the temperature not to rise more than 1.5 degrees.

These numbers matter because the UNFCCC puts particular stock in the 2 degree limit, and IIRC is bound to consider whether the limit should be tightened to 1.5 degrees in 2015. As the concentration pathway that delivers this, RCP2.6 matters. And as the SPM says (p19) when asked to produce a scenario in which greenhouse gases follow the RCP2.6 pathway,

By the end of the 21st century, about half of the [Earth System Models] infer emissions slightly above zero, while the other half infer a net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. {6.4}

If you have a situation where the scenarios being suggested for crucial policy-relevant outcomes seem likely to involve net removal of carbon from the atmosphere, it makes sense to talk about technologies for carbon-dioxide removal. Thus the geoengineering paragraph in the summary for policy makers. The link to RCP2.6 isn’t explicit, but it’s confirmed by Piers in a couple of tweets.

Govts asked for it at scoping. We had long discussions about raising it to SPM. Massive CDR in RCP2.6 clinched it

ie. RCP2.6 pathway looks attractive but is unattainable without huge unrealistic CDR with side effects etc.

I’m happy with this: as I have argued before, if you are going to talk seriously about the two degree limit intellectual honesty requires mentioning geoengineering. I’m a little surprised that Jack isn’t. His post shows him OK with, or at least resigned to, more extensive discussion of geoengineering in Working Group 2 and Working Group 3; it’s finding it in Working Group 1′s SPM that’s a problematic legitimisation, and especially in finding it at the very end of the summary, which he regards as a special position. I must say I don’t read the placing that way — it comes off more as a position where you put an afterthought, and Piers’s account of its moderately late addition seems to bear that out. Beyond that, saying it’s OK for WG2 and/or WG3 but not for WG1 seems to represent a privileging of the physical sciences that I wouldn’t expect from Jack. How can it be OK to talk about geoengineering in policy discussions but not in a discussion of the science? I’m not sure I’d go as far as Matt Watson does in an interesting post at The Reluctant Geoengineer:

It appears to me that Jack’s piece counters his position that rational debate is the most desirable outcome.

But I am left unsure how Jack differentiates between venues where that debate is good and where it is “premature legitimisation”.

Update: Jack and Matt continue their discussion in the comments at The Reluctant Geoengineer. More from Jim Thomas in the comments here.



Nitrogen geoengineering
July 15, 2013, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering | Tags:

I have a paper up on the Geoengineering Our Climate site about “nitrogen geoengineering”. It argues that there is at least a case for seeing the human takeover of the nitrogen cycle as an act of geoengineering, and that — to some extent independently of whether you accept that case — the nitrogen takeover has lessons for people with an interest in geoengineering the climate. Some of this material will end up in chapter six of my book (eventually..) though in rather different form (which makes it worth noting that , although this is not explicitly stated on the geoengineeringourclimate.com site, I retain the copyright.)

You can read the piece online here, or download the pdf here. At some point the paper is destined to be part of a book being published by Earthscan.

Some people (including one referee on the paper) have responded by saying that if industrial nitrogen fertilization counts as geoengineering, then so do various other agricultural innovations, and indeed agriculture itself. I can accept that there is perhaps a continuum here, but I think its worth noting that: the nitrogen revolution depends on a specific technological breakthrough which was actively sought due to scientific and political concern about a global problem; it was implemented not in a purely bottom up way but at least in part as an act of deliberate geopolitical policy (“the green revolution”); and it has had effects on the earth system that were global in their significance. To me this all marks it out as being more akin to a piece of geoengineering than anything that had gone before, and indeed anything since.

Extract:

In what ways can this historical analogue inform debates about climate geoengineering? First, it offers an existence proof. It is possible for humans to identify a global problem, create a technology that addresses that problem, and deploy it on a global scale.

It also shows that the scope of such an intervention can greatly outstrip its progenitors’ plans, and perhaps their imaginations. While Sir William Crookes did not put specific numbers on the amount of nitrogen he felt was needed when he raised the issue as president of the British Association, the scale of today’s nitrogen industry and its effects surely far outstrips the consequences he expected. This suggests that those imagining possible futures for climate engineering should take care that they imagine applications of the technology well beyond the minimum that seems to be required—not as necessary endpoints to the programme, but as plausible ones.

There are other aspects of nitrogen geoengineering that climate geoengineers should be aware of. One is that it is deployed inefficiently. Most of the deliberately fixed nitrogen does not get into crops; Vaclav Smil estimates that the overall efficiency of the global food system seen this way is less than 15%. The wasted nitrogen is not just a loss; it often does harm. Over-fertilized soils produce nitrous oxide, which destroys stratospheric ozone and is also powerful greenhouse gas. Nitrate-bearing run-off waters from agricultural watersheds stimulate algal blooms and “dead zones” in coastal seas. While nitrogen fixation has made the world more habitable by humans—more precisely, habitable by more humans—than it could be in a state of nature, it has also done significant damage to biodiversity, human health and ecosystem services in the process.

As I said, the whole thing is here. Feedback welcome, as ever.



Climate geoengineering for natural disasters
March 31, 2013, 5:17 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Interventions in the carbon/climate crisis

You can imagine the start of a climate geoengineering programme in a number of ways. The way that most appeals to me is as part of a policy portfolio aimed at reducing the future risks of climate change. This would entail careful consideration of a variety of proposals for reducing incoming sunlight, research into the weaknesses of all of them and the choice of a preferred option. Then, if as the result of a deliberative process that has been going on in parallel to this, with each informing the other, you — for a suitably inclusive, legitimate value of “you” — decide that such risk management is worth trying you start implementing on such a programme, with the aim of slowly but steadily ramping up to the level of offset you have decide is wise, while continuing with other mitigation and adaptation measures.

On the other hand, a programme might be triggered by a specific event — for example, something sudden and dire happening in the Arctic. Some such events (lots of methane coming out of permafrost) might indeed be checked by prompt cooling, though you might need rather a lot of it. Other catastrophes (radical destabilisation of Greenland ice) probably wouldn’t be helped at all. But such an emergency might trigger demands for prompt climate action that politicians found hard to ignore, and climate geoengineering might be the prompt action they turned to whether or not it met the needs of the specific emergency.

I’ve always seen this as a rather worrying scenario. Much better to think carefully about climate geoengineering’s merits and dangers and build it into a portfolio of climate action than to be bounced into it as some sort of new alternative. Among other drawbacks, a programme put together in the context of a climate emergency might have to be sized so as to deliver a dramatic effect — one with a cooling that might be measured in watts per square metre, rather than something a tenth that size — right away. This seems likely to be imprudent.

A new paper by Jim Haywood and colleagues at the Met Office and the University of Exeter in Nature Climate Change brings up a new version of this question, though, one which I find intriguing. What about the use of geoengineering to counteract a natural, rather than man-made, climatic event? Continue reading



Some of what I think about geoengineering

I recently had the great pleasure of attending this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue at Cavallo Point, an event at which the Breakthrough Institute brought together kindred spirits of disparate views to hash out some of the many issues that that Institute takes an interest in. On the basis of this Economist special report I was invited to talk about nuclear power, but in the many fruitful interstices of the meeting found myself talking about geoengineering quite a lot, because this is the sort of crowd where that sort of discussion makes sense, and because I am working on a book on the subject.

Towards the end of the meeting, a friend mentioned to me that perhaps I should be more careful in such conversations – people seemed to be getting the wrong idea about what I believed. This may be the case – I can’t really vouch for what message people were picking up, and I’ll admit that I sometimes run off at the mouth and that jet lag when drink has been taken doesn’t always help matters.

That said, I think there is a danger to being too careful in talking about geoengineering. If all the people who know about geoengineering are meticulous in the care that they take in talking about it, they will create no new misapprehensions – but they may do little to dispel old misapprehensions, and they may pass up the opportunity to carve out for geoengineering a more central place in our ongoing discussion on climate. I think it deserves that place; if I didn’t I wouldn’t be writing a book about it.

But while there may be good reason to be expansive in one’s talk, there’s no good reason for being careless, or even sloppy, in one’s reasoning. I have tried to be pretty careful in published stuff in the past, such as this 2007 piece in Nature and this 2010 piece in Prospect. Some time in the future I hope to provide all the clarity and nuance one could wish for in the book. But for the time being, here are a few key points in my current thinking, expressed with what I hope is appropriate care. Continue reading



All that is solid…
August 6, 2010, 8:23 am
Filed under: Earth history, Geoengineering, Nature writing, Published stuff

The Economist has an occasional column called Green View which looks at all sorts of environmental issues, though with a preponderance of climate stuff: in the past few months we’ve looked at arctic ice, business and biodiversity, tuna farming, Svalbard (of course), Climategate, malaria and climate change, the Hartwell paper, future urbanisation and a bunch of other stuff. Since I’m the Energy and Environment Editor I sort of own this slot, though I don’t write every one of the pieces that goes in. And since there’s a lot less blogging around these parts than there used used to be, I thought some of you might like to know this.

This page lists a whole lot of the columns (and a few other things that have strayed in by mistake), but as of a few weeks ago it is probably not being updated any more due to a change in the way we publish things on line. A couple of weeks ago there was a piece on what geoengineering could mean for different regions that might be of some interest to readers of this blog. Excerpt:

Uncertainty about who might do best from what sort of project allows discussions of geoengineering to take place without the parties to the debate knowing in any detail where any nation’s specific interests might lie. This introduces what the philosopher John Rawls called a “veil of ignorance”; making decisions as if such a veil existed, Rawls thought, was a good basis for justice. (If regional outcomes could be predicted accurately, a different Rawlsian idea, that of the difference principle, might come into play. This states that just action consist not just of improving things for everyone, but specifically for improving things for the worst off, and would give the effects of geoengineering on the least developed countries a particular importance.)

And this week, rather atypically, there’s a piece on the Earth’s core, and the way things you don’t expect to be transitory turn out so to be. Excerpt:

The Earth is a recycling scheme that has been running for a third of the age of the universe. Microbes and plants endlessly pull carbon, nitrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere and pump them back out in different forms. Water evaporates from the oceans, rains down on the land, pours back to the seas. As it does so it washes away whole mountain ranges—which then rise again from sea-floor sediments when oceans squeeze themselves shut. As oceans reopen new crust is pulled forth from volcanoes; old crust is destroyed as tectonic plates return to the depths from which those volcanoes ultimately draw their fire.

Anyone who likes that second piece might want to check out the essay in Seeing Further (Amazon UK) which I blogged about here, or the Earthrise piece I did for the Times a few years ago, which also covers some similar ground. (Out of ideas, or following a ceaseless process of re-creation? You decide…)



Steve Schneider, 1945-2010

This week’s Economist carries an obituary of Steve Schneider. Excerpt:

Mr Schneider’s high profile as a proponent of action on climate change—he was the editor of an important journal, Climatic Change, and an influential member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) more or less from its inception—would have made him a favourite target for such antagonists anyway, but he came in for particular scorn because of his willingness to discuss the inevitable tensions between advocacy and academic integrity. Critics of Mr Schneider, including this newspaper, portrayed him as giving in to this tension, and being willing to tell “necessary lies” when it suited his purposes. He countered such attacks vehemently, saying such a conclusion rested on a slanted reading of what he had said on the subject. He had no time for advocacy without truth.

Many comments and memories on this post of Andy Revkin’s

Also, here’s a review of Steve’s last book, Science as a Contact Sport (Amazon UK|US) I did for China Dialogue. Excerpt:

To sit next to Steve Schneider while listening to someone else give a talk about climate science is like watching a DVD with a commentary track by an insightful but rather grumpy director. As the speaker makes her points, Schneider, a veteran climate scientist now at Stanford University, will mutter about who first made all the interesting points in the talk, and when this or that bit of science was first appreciated, and how stupid people have been not to act on this knowledge years ago.

The purpose is to remind anyone listening than climate science has a history, if a fairly brief one, and that the message of that history is reasonably consistent — scientists have believed much what they believe now about global warming for decades, and if climate scientists in general and Schneider in particular had been listened to better, the world would have faced up to the issue better and sooner.

This personal memoir by Schneider provides a similar effect…

Image courtesy of Stanford, I believe



George Hay lecture
April 18, 2010, 8:26 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Nature writing

The Science Fiction Foundation kindly asked me to give the George Hay lecture at this year’s Eastercon, on the subject of geoengineering. Quite a lot of the talk explored my ideas about how the issues raised by geoengineering resemble in many ways those raised by nuclear power and weaponry, and on this occasion I tried to put them together in the tradition of the technological sublime, as discussed by Leo Marx, David Nye, Lyotard and others. It’s possible that the SFF will at some point put up a video. I don’t have a complete text, and didn’t clear copyright on most of teh images, so I won’t be putting the whole thing up, but here’s the conclusion, or perhaps the coda — an appreciation of Olafur Eliasson’s remarkable and unforgettable Weather Project:

The turbine hall of Tate Modern is a vast space, and much of the art that has been shown in it over the past ten years has failed in the face of its immensity; little things were daunted by it, big things cluttering it up to ill effect. Olafur Eliasson’s work, though, brought the sublime to it. Undaunted by the huge volume, Eliasson effectively doubled it by mirroring the ceiling, making a spaceship hold large enough for other spaceships to chase through. And within that space, he recreated the sun, encapsulated and encompassed in an idea of art. To quote Edmund Burke again — “Such a light as that of the sun, immediately exerted on the eye, as it overpowers the sense, is a very great idea”. Throughout the hall, 200 metres long, people stared at something more vast than they were used to indoors, more present than they were used to outdoors, an idea that was also an experience. And when they looked up – or lay down, as we did, in large numbers, unbidden – they saw themselves, in the mirrored ceiling, clearly down on the floor, and clearly high above the sun in which they basked. It was a shrunken world, but not a constraining one.

For an experience of the sublime, it was unusual in many ways. One was that it was enclosed, not open. The great electric architecture of the building itself stood in for our power to encompass anything – even the weather, even the sun – with our minds. And that made it reflexive, too. To experience it was to see not just the sun, but to see yourself in the sun, seeing the sun.

And not just yourself. Because another oddity was the sense of solar solidarity. Mostly, in facing the sublime, one is alone – that is, in fact, the point. The weather project didn’t allow solitude. You, anyone you were with, anyone else who was there, were all in it together – down on the roof, up in the mirrors, flanking the sun. It was a sublime with a sense of the personal – and the collective. As such, it was an inspiration.

UPDATE: Looking at this post I realise that out of context it is pretty much impenetrable. The idea was to try and find an image for what the sort of solidarity that might make geoengineering governable might actually feel like.

Images from Flickr users Mushkush and Istvan under a Creative Commons licence; more nice flickr images here



Some catching up: Asilomar
April 18, 2010, 8:19 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Published stuff

Asilomar morningSpending a week on the beautiful North California coastline with a bunch of interesting people talking about a fascinating topic is obviously a chore, but I girded my loins and took the plunge. The Asilomar meeting on the regulation of geoengineering research was intended to echo the Asilomar meeting of 1975, which set out procedures for moving beyond the moratorium on genetic engineering experiments that had been set up the year before. Alexis Madrigal looked at the historical precedent in some detail. Not an exact parallel, as pointed out by various people at the meeting, whose views were taken on board by The Economist

There are, however, important differences between the subjects. One is that in the 1970s it was clear that the ability to move genes between creatures was going to bring about a huge change in the practice of science itself, and biologists were eager for that to happen. Modern climate scientists, by contrast, usually see geoengineering research as niche, if not fringe, stuff. Many wish it would go away completely. Another difference is that in the 1970s there was a worry that DNA experiments could in themselves present dangers. With geoengineering the dangers are more likely to be caused by large-scale deployment than by any individual scientific experiment.

There was no consensus at the end of the meeting, but there was a statement by the steering committee. The Economist concludes

The participants … generally endorsed a set of five overarching principles for the regulation of the field that were presented recently to the British Parliament by Steve Rayner, a professor at the Saïd Business School, in Oxford.

The “Oxford principles”, as they are known, hold that geoengineering should be regulated as a public good, in that, since people cannot opt out, the whole proceeding has to be in a well-defined public interest; that decisions defining the extent of that interest should be made with public participation; that all attempts at geoengineering research should be made public and their results disseminated openly; that there should be an independent assessment of the impacts of any geoengineering research proposal; and that governing arrangements be made clear prior to any actual use of the technologies.

The conference’s organising committee is now working on a further statement of principles, to be released later. Meanwhile Britain’s main scientific academy, the Royal Society, and the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, which has members from around 90 countries, are planning further discussions that will culminate at a meeting to be held this November.

Producing plausible policies and ways for the public to have a say on them will be hard—harder, perhaps, than the practical problem of coming up with ways to suck up a bit of carbon or reduce incoming sunshine. As Andrew Mathews, an anthropologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, puts it, it is not just a matter of constructing a switch, it is a matter of constructing a hand you trust to flip it.

Both the fine people with books out on the topic were there and gave their own accounts. Here’s a bit of Eli Kintisch, author of “Hack the Planet“, in Science:

Although the climate scientists may have accomplished less in a week than did their biologist forebears, they did make progress. The conference organizers declared that geoengineering research is “indispensable” but said that it should be done with “humility.” Governments and the public should work together to decide what schemes are “viable, appropriate, and ethical,” the statement added. Cuts in greenhouse emissions should be a priority, it said, mirroring statements by the American Geophysical Union and the U.K. Royal Society.

Most conferees believe the possibility of climate tipping points has placed geoengineering on the global agenda. And so last week’s meeting—The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, or Asilomar 2, as it was dubbed—was driven both by fears of climate catastrophes and the potentially dangerous steps that scientists or politicians might take to avert them. It was “a meeting … we all wished was not necessary,” conference organizer Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund in Alexandria, Virginia, told the participants.

And here’s Jeff Goodell, author of  “How to Cool the Planet“, afforded more opportunity for opinion and colour over at Yale360,

Lesson one: Geoengineering is a tabula rasa in the public mind. Like most of the attendees, I was well aware of the fact that geoengineering is an unfamiliar idea to many people. But I had not seen any actual data on this. Nor had I really grasped the implications of it.

One of the most enlightening presentations of the week was from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, who presented the results of a long-running study on the public perception of global warming. In his most recent survey, he had thrown in a few questions about geoengineering. When asked, “How much, if anything, have you heard about geoengineering as a possible response to climate change,” 74 percent of respondents said “nothing.” The 26 percent that had heard about geoengineering turned out to be wildly misinformed — more than half thought it referred to geothermal energy. Only 3 percent of the people who had heard about geoengineering were correctly informed about it. “The public basically knows nothing about this,” Leiserowitz told the attendees. “That is both a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”

The other 4 lessons are: Nobody has any clear idea how to resolve the inequalities inherent in geoengineering; People will be talking about banning field experiments; It’s all about the money; and trust is everything.

Jeff Tollefson at Nature leads with Rob Socolow, who gave one of the meeting’s best talks (ppt, html)

“Be very careful.” The warning, from Robert Socolow, a climate researcher at Princeton University in New Jersey, came at the end of a meeting last week that aimed to thrash out guidelines for the nascent field of geoengineering. The discipline aims to use global-scale efforts to control the climate and mitigate the worst effects of anthropogenic warming — but the techniques used could also have far-reaching, unintended consequences.

Jeff also gets the best of many quotes from David Keith (“People aren’t discussing apples and oranges, they are talking about apples and oranges and Porsches and whales and moons”) that enliven much of the coverage. (Pablo Suarez probably runs him a close second for most quoted non-organiser)

Jim Giles at New Scientist takes in more of the science than most accounts, neatly highlighting some new wrinkles, before ending up with the opposition to the ideas (which was aired in the local paper, among other places):

A lack of consultation could fuel campaigns against geoengineering similar to those that have derailed the use of genetically modified crops in Europe, Shobita Parthasarathy warns. Such protests seem to be taking off already. While delegates were talking in Asilomar, a body of over 70 environmental, health and social groups published an open letter attacking the meeting. “Such a discussion cannot happen without the participation of the full membership of the United Nations,” it reads. “Determining guidelines for geoengineering research and testing in the absence of that debate is premature and irresponsible.”

Also worth mentioning: the California poppies, which I fell for the first time I visited the site, and still find entrancing.

Images by me: licensed under creative commons



Another geoengineering piece
December 23, 2009, 4:54 pm
Filed under: Geoengineering, Published stuff

Catch-up blogging part 3: While I was in Copenhagen Prospect published a longish piece on geoengineering which I wrote shortly before rejoining The Economist. A taster:

To understand geoengineering better, concentrate not on what it isn’t, or what you don’t want it to be; look instead at what it is, and what it could become. Geoengineering is not an alternative, but it can be an addition. This neglected set of ways in which people can alter climate should be part of mainstream debate on climate change, studied and assessed as a part of the whole. And that is going to require a far greater level of research. Despite all the public discussion there are only a few dozen people in the world contributing to the scientific literature.

Continue reading



Why people disagree about geoengineering
October 26, 2009, 11:08 am
Filed under: Geoengineering, Media, Uncategorized

Steven Levitt, at the end of a long post on his freakonomics blog about Superfreakonomics and geoengineering:

For all the blogosphere shouting against our chapter, I have to be honest and say that I just don’t get it. I can’t understand why any environmentalist who really cares about the Earth’s future could say with a straight face that geoengineering doesn’t deserve a seat at the table as the global-warming debate heats up.

This mischaracterises the debate/furore/ritual clubbing/whatever (see previous posts). Quite a lot of the people attacking superfreakonomics — eg Brad Delong — *do* want geoengineering to have a seat at the table. It’s just that they don’t like the superfreaks’ treatment of the subject — and may, as I do, think such treatment is going to make it harder to get that seat, not easier. They, and I, are criticising the chapter not because geoengineering shouldn’t be taken seriously, but because Levitt and Dubner don’t seem to be trying to take it seriously: their handling of the issue  is partial and unsatisfactory. It mixes a poorly tempered enthusiasm for geoengineering with some tired tropes of global warming denialism (which serve no clear purpose in the argument), and it frames the idea specifically as an alternative to emissions reductions (“Mt Pinatubo versus Al Gore”, “solve the whole global warming problem”) rather than as an additional strategy should there be a need for prompt cooling.

From the evidence of his post Levitt sort-of-gets some of this: that is why he says that the chapter in question is really about “how could we most efficiently cool the earth fast”, rather than other questions such as “how can we most equitably manage the risk of climate change”. But: a) while it may well be that a close reading provides textual support for the idea that the superfreaks acknowledge the narrow focus of their question, the chapter sure gives the impression that it is about climate change in general; b) asking “how can we most efficiently cool the earth fast” without asking broader questions about climate change is intellectually shallow; c) even in the narrow frame, surely “how could we most efficiently cool the earth fast and keep it cool” is a better question, with a more complex answer.

Generosity dictates, though, that we should also look more generally at the real phenomenon that Levitt points to: people who don’t want geoengineering discussed at all, or only under the strictest of limits. I disagree with these people. But I don’t find it very hard to understand where they are coming from. Here are five components to their arguments, as I see them.

  1. Geongineering adds to the climate risks unconscionably. Volcanoes, and by implication other stratospheric-veil schemes, screw with hydrology; cloud brightening can change ocean currents; ocean fertilization radically rearranges ecosystems: we don’t know how to do any of these things well, and if we sanction the general idea that geoengineering is plausible we are prohibitively unlikely to retire all these risks before going ahead with a scheme. As applied to geoengineering research this is partly an epistemological argument (the impossibility of getting knowledge of a high enough quality) and partly a slippery slope argument. I think in general slippery slope arguments are overblown, but I can see where this line of reasoning is coming from. (There is also a linked concern about crowding out research money for other aspects of climate, but I think that’s a sceond tier argument)
  2. It is reasonable to distrust a priori the motives of anyone who tries to argue for any approach to global warming other than emissions reduction. People feel this because they know, from experience and analysis, that that there are extremely powerful lobbies which want to slow or derail emissions reduction, and assume that pretty much anyone saying anything along those lines is doing so as either a dupe or a tool of those lobbies. There is an element of cognitive miserliness in this; but where one person says cognitive miser another might say cognitively prudent, and ask why he or she should bother wasting cognition on a subject when past experience has given them a pretty damn good inductive basis for thinking such an investment of thought will be wasted.
  3. I think its clearly true that many environmentalists have a pre-existing desire for people to live low-impact, low-consumption lives, often because they sincerely believe that this will make everyone happier. To some extent, and with various levels of awareness that they are behaving in this way, some of these people see concern about global warming as an instrumental way to bring a low-consumption low-impact work of some sort about. This is not to say they are insincere in their concern about global warming: merely that it is overdetermined. I personally would rather people separated out these two strands of their thought, but I can see as a matter of fact that they frequently don’t, and I’m sure if Steve Levitt was really trying to “get” things he could see that to.
  4. The first moral argument. At an everything-I-need-to-know-I-learned-in-kindergarten level people think that when you make a mess you should clean it up, not paint over it, even if painting over it is much easier. This is not a particularly good argument, and will have little if any traction with people who see the world in terms of costs and benefits — but it is an argument that people can feel easily and clearly, and feelings about the morality of pollution run deep.
  5. The second moral argument: the purpose of environmental action is to restore nature. This means getting back to a preindustrial sort of a climate, with lower greenhouse gases and no permanent high-altitude smogs. For me, this is a flawed argument, a planet-wide application of the naturalistic fallacy; I think correct environmental action is much more complex, and that increasing the possibilities for human happiness matters more than an idealised concern for nature. But I understand that other people don’t feel this way.

There is doubtless more to geoengineering opposition than this, but these five points seem to me to cover a great deal of it. The important thing is to grasp that geoengineering is at some level just another form of climate change, that there are a great many of ways in which people disagree about climate change, and that it helps to understand them. If Steven Levitt wants to understand all this better, then he ought to buy a copy of  Mike Hulme’s “Why we disagree about global warming” (Amazon US|UK), as discussed in the Copenhagen reading list post.

PS: Recent useful contributions to the superfreakonomics debate: an interview with Ken Caldeira by Jeff Goodell, whose book on all this is going to be way better than Superfreakonomics, and Daniel Davies on what contrarians should expect.




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