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.

Cosmic rays, cancer and Iain Banks
September 11, 2013, 3:13 pm
Filed under: Published stuff, Science fiction

My Intelligent Life column on Iain’s fateful cosmic context is up here. Excerpt

Iain Banks lived for 21,662 days—the only number in any of this of which we can be certain. There are a good 10 trillion cells in a human body, maybe more. The number of times his DNA was damaged was thus in the same ballpark as the number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth. It’s a number that outdoes the number of stars in the galaxy by a factor of a billion.

More of my “Music of Science” columns can be found here. And here is me on Iain in a previous century.

And here are some other pieces on Banks, in the contexts of religion, writing and science fiction, by friends of his and mine: Francis Spufford in The New Humanist ; Simon Ings at ArcKen Macleod in The Guardian.

Oscars 2014: Metaprediction
August 23, 2013, 12:49 pm
Filed under: film, Media

I notice that the Oscar prediction season has started. I can understand why this is of no interest to many sane people, but I quite enjoy it. And I may enjoy it even more this year (though that will depend to a certain extent on the movies…) This is because last year, as I blogged, the excellent Kris Tapley told his podcast sparring-partner Anne Thompson that “There’s no way to Nate Silver this kind of thing” — and this year Nate Silver plans to Nate Silver not just this kind of thing, but the thing itself.

His track record is held by some to suggest that he won’t do very well. But it seems to me that the way to measure his predictions is not against the outcome per se, but against other people making predictions, such as those pooled together at the Gurus o’ Gold site. Last year the statistical model put together by Ben Zauzmer did better than half the gurus and not as well as the other half, though this was because he felt there was insufficient data to call some of the races: on the races he called, Ben did as well as one of the better gurus. I suspect that, with more experience, more resources and quite a strong incentive to shine Nate Silver may do better than Ben.

So my metaprediction is that, if Silver chooses to predict all of the races, or a large majority of them, he will beat most of the gurus, but not all of them; the best of the gurus will do better. My further prediction is that if he keeps it up over five years, no single human predictor will beat him continuously.

And while I am at it, I predict that the predictinator will predict that Gravity will win the special effects oscar — and that it will be right.


Monocosms. They’re a thing now, apparently
August 21, 2013, 8:00 pm
Filed under: Books, Science fiction

A colleague asked me today if there was a word for planets that only have one landscape — places like Trantor, the city-planet that ruled Isaac Asimov’s Galactic Empire, or Arrakis, the desert-planet of Dune. These are a very widespread feature of science fiction, and frequently look like symptoms of limited imaginative investment: planets as a single type of place photocopied many times over and pasted onto the face of a very large sphere. In other hands, though, they can work rather well; the fact that all of Arrakis is a desert, one richly imagined, actually adds a great deal to the atmosphere of Dune, even if the ecosystem is a little hard to take seriously.

Thinking about it, I realised that, as far as I could tell, there wasn’t. Tvtropes offers “single-biome planet“, but that doesn’t have quite the right feel for a term of art to be used by fans and critics alike. So I asked a few friends by twitter, and the magnificent Roz Kaveney came up trumps with the word “monocosm”.  A monocosm is any big, free-standing thing — often a planet, but possibly something else — based on a single idea or effect. Trantor and Arrakis are planetary monocosms in the most obvious way. See also Hoth and Tatooine.

More subtly (though this may be the only way in which it is subtle), Pyrrus, in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld, is a monocosm of affect rather than landscape, being a planet of danger. The Space Merchants is a monocosm of consumerism. Part of the success of Avatar 2 may lie in the degree to which Pandora is revealed not to be a monocosm. Is Escher’s Print gallery a monocosm? And so on.

It seems to me that this is a word that does something which other words have not, so far, been doing, and thus adds to our abilities to express ourselves. So there it is, a gift to the world, for use in criticism, essays and discussion in convention bars: the monocosm, a Kaveneologism.

The Deeply Summery
August 18, 2013, 7:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

One and half shots of Pincer botanical vodka

Shot of fresh lime juice

Half shot of St Germain

Half shot of Gomme Syrup

Dash of pastis (I used Henri Bardouin)

Shake over ice, pour into a large wine glass with a few ice cubes, add prosecco.

I don’t often note down a cocktail I have busked, but this (obviously in the Southside Fizz/French 75 family) really wowed me.

In general, I heartily recommend Pincer. I’ve had it neat and in a variety of off-dry martinis where it has excelled. A sugar cube soaked with Peychaud’s bitters and a shot of Pincers is a very good basis for a champagne cocktail. My only problem with Pincers is that the bottle is sillily dark and stops me from seeing how much I have left.

Update: I always meant to call this cocktail the Deeply Summery, but for some reason this post originally called in merely Deep. It is actually fully adverbially Deeply

A sense of planet and a sense of place
July 26, 2013, 12:53 pm
Filed under: By, with or from EtS, Nature writing

I was touched and flattered to find myself recruited to the ranks of nature writers by their dean, Richard Mabey, in his defence of their genre against an attack by Steven Poole.

Poole’s phrases “recent nature writing” and “nature writers” amount to an indiscriminate homogenisation; current nature writing is the broadest of secular churches. Oliver Morton’s engaging personal saunter through the world of photosynthesis, Eating the Sun, for example, might be more properly labelled imaginative science writing, just as Robert Macfarlane‘s literal wanderings in his masterpiece The Old Ways is really imaginative travel literature.

Quite how well I fit there, though, I don’t know. I was thinking of exploring the matter in a blog post, but then realised that to quite a large extent I have already done so on this very blog, responding to a 2007 piece by MacFarlane that talks about the essence of nature writing.

Eating the Sun is definitely “in search of some version of ‘nature’”, and it is more of a first-person narrative than I necessarily expected it to be. But it does not share “a passionate engagement with ‘the land’”. Indeed rather the reverse. One of its original aims, which I think is probably fulfilled to some extent, but perhaps not as explicitly as it might have been, was to celebrate air as the basis of life — which it is for plants and thus, indirectly, for us. One aspect of this is to encourage an appreciation that the air is universal where the land is particular — the carbon taken in by trees in Brazil has come in part from your lungs and mine, the carbon taken in by the rose on my terrace has come from all the lungs of the world, not to mention coals that have sat buried for a million centuries.

One of my reasons for writing about photosyntheses was specifically this — that it was a way to talk about the living earth that did not have to be a way of talking about specific places (though there are specific places in the book, some of which I love deeply). I find ideologies of land and rootedness worrying intellectually and hard to partake in emotionally; I suspect them of being innately regressive and conservative. One of the great opportunities of the current carbon/climate crisis is to create what might be called an ideology of air — of valuing and caring for something common to all and intrinsically global, and of creating a passionate engagement with the open sky and the endless sun.

That still holds pretty true, and I am struck, re-reading it, by how well the ideology-of-air stuff at the end sits remarkably with my current conception of what the geoengineering book needs to do.

A passage from Eating the Sun takes on a similar set of distinctions:

I am not as sensitive as I might be to the subtleties of place. I lack a capacity for the sure recognition and the ready retention of names and distinctive detail. Learning to parse the shapes of leaves or the textures of rocks does not come easily to me, and I have never lived long enough in a non-urban landscape for such things to have seeped in through the capillaries of unattended observation. Given all this, the belief that life’s nature needs to be captured at the levels of the molecule and the planet—at levels perceived by the intellect and not the senses—provides me with some succour. It is far more abstracted than traditional ways of feeling close to nature; it is argued more than absorbed. Yet though it doesn’t grow out of the experience of life in the world, I find that it still serves to enrich that experience and to render it more profound. It ties the sky to the seed and the rain to the rock in a way the details of rustic experience cannot. I can see that there is something sad about a oneness with the world that can be felt as easily—sometimes more easily—from the window seat of an hermetically sealed and environmentally damaging passenger jet than when sitting on a riverbank and picking out the trout swimming upstream. But for all that this belief is a creature of the mind, rather than a sentiment grounded in birdsong and summer scents, it has meaning to me that I cannot reduce to analysis and it has the power to move me. And I think it can enhance more traditional forms of empathy with nature. It enriches the way I see trees on a scarp, or grass in the wind, or moss on a cliff, or a star in the sky, even though I can rarely recognise the species, rocks or constellations I may be looking at. A sense of planet can amplify a sense of place.

So I am not entirely sure I really belong there — but I am more than happy to be included in Mabey’s broad church, and flattered to be singled out. As long as no one minds that I don’t know the scriptures or when to genuflect.

PS — there’s more along this line in the “Nature writing” category on this blog, including, as it happens, previous posts inspired by Steven Poole and Richard Mabey.

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.


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.


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