Toward Climate Geoengineering?

With global atmospheric CO2 levels rising at about 2 ppm/year toward 388 ppm, or near-440 ppm CO2-e (including methane effects), John Holdren, in his first interview since being appointed as Obama’s new science adviser, revealed in an interview with AP (8 April, 09) “global warming is so dire, the Obama administration is discussing radical technologies to cool Earth’s air” which “as an experimental measure would only be used as a last resort … It’s got to be looked at … We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table … One such extreme option includes shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun’s ray.”

Holdren compared the way humanity is facing dangerous climate change to passengers in a car with bad brakes heading toward a cliff in a fog, saying “The sensible passengers will certainly say: ‘Let’s put on the brakes, even if we don’t know it will save us. It may be too late. We don’t know exactly where the cliff is. … Let’s get on with it.'”.

Holdren is not alone in considering geoengineering. The National Academy of Science is also looking at the subject in its new multidiscipline climate challenges program. The American Meteorological Society is preparing a statement on geoengineering, stating “it is prudent to consider geoengineering’s potential, to understand its limits and to avoid rash deployment.” The British parliament has discussed the idea.

Climate geoengineering ideas fall into at least four principal categories:

(1) increased reflectivity (albedo) of the atmosphere, injecting sulphur dioxide (suggested by Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize winner atmospheric chemist), or alumina particles, or even installing reflectors in space. The effects of Sulphur injections would simulate volcanic events, such as of Pinatubo (1991) or Tambora (1816), which resulted in cooling of the Earth surface by about 0.5 degrees. At best albedo enhancement represents a short term band aid solution to the fundamental greenhouse problem, and will not be able to prevent ocean acidification.

(2) Increased sequestration of CO2 in the oceans, enhancing algal blooms and phytoplankton photosynthesis through fertilization with iron filings, or constructing vertical pipe systems designed to enhance oceanic circulation and CO2 intake from the atmosphere.

(3) Biochar burial and soil enrichment. Combustion of plant waste under low oxygen conditions and burial as charcoal, removing carbon from atmospheric circulation and enhancing plant growth and photosynthesis, as well as soil enrichment. A major controversy erupted with objections to Biochar by George Monbiot, involving James Lovelock and James Hansen.

(4) Chemical sequestration involving combination of CO2 with sodium hydroxide (NaOH) installed in pipe systems (“Sodium trees”), followed by separation and burial of CO2, costed at about $US300 a ton. A back of an envelope calculation suggests the reduction of atmospheric CO2 by 50 ppm would cost about $US 10-15 trillion (although mass production may lessen the cost, as well as contribute to employment), less than 10 times the global military expenditure in 2007.

Increasingly a “technological fix” may look attractive to Obama and possibly the EU (and Rudd?), in view of at least three major obstacles to CPRS and ETS schemes:

First, due to the cumulative nature of atmospheric CO2, neither 5/15% nor 25/40% emission reduction by 2020 relative to 2000 would be able to prevent runaway climate change. This is because CO2 levels, now at 387 ppm and rising by 2 ppm/year, will exceed 400 ppm by 2020, well into the high danger zone. Assuming CO2 emissions are reduced by even 40% relative to 2000, it would keep rising by a minimum of 1.2 ppm/year reaching levels near or above 450 ppm by 2050, and this is without even accounting for the effects of methane, likely reduced CO2 intake by the oceans and increase in positive feedbacks from the biosphere. At 450 ppm, with lag effects, polar ice sheets undergo advanced melting, with consequent major sea level rise.

It is not clear how many of the submissions made to the Australian Senate Inquiry into the CPRS take account of this factor.

Second, it is a good question whether even such feeble CPRS attempts would not be squashed by the all powerful fossil fuel lobby, currently supporting a massive well-funded disinformation campaign, including claims as if the Earth is “cooling”, accusing scientists and environmentalists of “environmental thuggery” , including threats such as by Republican congress woman Michelle Bachmann (“I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us” adding “The science is on our side on this one.”

Third, The preoccupation of suburbia international with economic issues. Until people fully understand the implications of runaway climate change, government actions are likely to be restricted within the context of the virtual reality of economic boom-bust bubbles, where greed and fear obscure the physical realities of the environment and of agricultural food production, a consequence of over 60 years of commercial propaganda rendering populations victims of ruthless vested interests at the expense of future generations.

The Wilkins ice shelf collapse is but the latest symptom of fast-melting polar ice. Last year was the first during which the huge (13,680 square kilometers) shelf, which bridges the West Antarctic peninsula with the Charcot and Latady islands, developed fractures during mid-winter. Now advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (ASAR) images acquired on 2 April, 09, by the European Earth Observation (ESA’s) Envisat satellite confirm the ice shelf is collapsing into thousands of ice bergs, removing the barrier for the flow of continental glaciers into the ocean.

Climate geoengineering is fiercely feared and resisted by many scientists and environmentalists, due to the collateral damage and side effects, and as it would take pressure of the carbon polluters. Moreover, that the powers-to-be reached an impasse with CPRS schemes suggests to many a moral bankruptcy of institutions and a failure of democracy.

It is likely only a combination of deep urgent cuts in carbon emissions, coupled with major investments in fast-tracked development of a wide range of effective carbon dioxide draw-down methods may be capable of making the difference.

Dr Andrew Glikson is with the Research School of Earth Science & School of Archaeology & Anthropology at Australian National University in Canberra. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Andrew.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Don Hawkins said on April 18th, 2009 at 10:00am #

    Put those boots on and think of this as kind of a war. Watch the United States Senate the next few months and you tell me if we all will need those boots.

  2. Russell Olausen said on April 18th, 2009 at 11:41pm #

    It sounds cheaper to bring L. S. D. back.

  3. Russ said on April 19th, 2009 at 1:48pm #

    What of the more than1000 billion tonnes of CO2 already spewed into the air over the course of the fossil fuel age. It’s barely begun to be absorbed by ecosystems, about 1/4 to date, with this it’s brought ocean ecosystems to the point of deadly collapse with the tipping point at 2030. This already airborne deadly carbon bomb is more than sufficient to change the oceans back into seas of slime regardless of whether we emit even one single molecule more CO2. Got it! Slowing emissions or even stopping emissions won’t save the oceans. You know that 70% part of this small blue planet.

    What do you propose to do about the first carbon bomb now exploding. Surely you do not believe all will be well if we simply let nature take its course. The change won’t be simply the down fall of technological society. The change will be a reboot of the planetary ecosystem back to the sea state of bacteria before the evolution of green plants and animal life.

    The ONLY force on this plant capable of tackling the chemical shock treatment of those 1000+ billion tonnes of CO2 are the ocean plants. But wait, 12% of ocean plants in the Southern Ocean have been destroyed in the past 30 years alone, 17% in the North Atlantic, 26% in the North Pacific, and 50% in some tropical seas. These losses are directly resulting from the high CO2 that acidifies the oceans and simultaneously denies those oceans vital dust in the wind and the micronutrient iron and other minerals ocean plant life must have.

    Those who demand we kill the ocean ecosystems to give them political power ought to be recognized for thier evil whether they hide behind a green veil or not. Replenish and restore the oceans before it is too late. We have until 2030 to succeed not merely to begin.

  4. Andrew said on April 19th, 2009 at 6:34pm #

    Thanks Russ, Even though it all sounds like science fiction, I am afraid you may be right!
    Particularly, in view of the cumulative nature of CO2, if they continue to emit.
    Note, in the mid-Pliocene, at 400 ppm CO2, 2 to 3 degrees C rise and 25+/- sea level rise, the oceans did not acidify.
    But 55 Ma ago (Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum) some 2000 billion tons carbon were released as methane, triggering mass extinction.

    I will be interested in your further comments, particularly in view of the mid-Pliocene and PETM events.

  5. Russell Olausen said on April 19th, 2009 at 9:40pm #

    Human life in its present state, has been around only a small fraction of a per cent of the time beasts of our bulk have been present. Any baseball manager would not pencil in a player for the next game given such a pathetic statistic. Mother nature is umping this game and we have not been around long enough to know the rules, barring mansion owning, jet setting, Nobel Peace prize holding Al Gore. Right now fire is power, the society building myth, is the capture of fire.Strip yourself of fire and you will be gone long before global warming even gives you a sun tan.I notice when big Al was second in command of your military he kept his opinion on military fuel consumption to himself. We will have to downsize,no doubt, but probably somebody a lot sneakier is considering our options for us.Just so I get some scientific respect I will point out the missing link is still missing and maybe the ‘turn out the lights’ gang does not get picked up when the next Galactic bus, stops.