January 26, 2004
Cambridge UK Conference Looks Into Climate Engineering

A recent scientific conference looked into methods for climate engineering to counteract global warming. (same press release here)

The meeting is being jointly hosted by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and the Cambridge-MIT Institute.

The symposium, called “Macro-engineering options for climate change management and mitigation” is at the Isaac Newton Institute in Cambridge from 7-9 January.

“We urgently need to explore the feasibility of imaginative new ideas for reducing global warming in the future, either by slashing carbon dioxide emissions, or by counteracting its effects, if we are to avoid dangerous climate change”, says Professor John Shepherd, a Director of the Tyndall Centre.

Proposed options for reducing carbon dioxide pollution currently include underground burying of liquefied carbon dioxide; disposal in the sea; fertilising its absorption by marine algae; reflecting the sun’s rays in the atmosphere; and stabilizing sea-level rise. These and other macro-engineering ideas will be evaluated against a strict set of criteria, including effectiveness, environmental impacts, cost, public acceptability, and reversibility. All of these options go beyond the conventional approaches of improving energy efficiency and reducing carbon intensity by using more renewable energy sources, and may be needed in addition to these conventional approaches.

“Because of the urgency of implementing climate-change management, more innovative approaches to the mitigation of climate change might be needed. This is really a big thought experiment, to critically evaluate which macro-engineering options might be feasible and worth pursuing” comments John Shepherd. “Some of the macro-engineering options which have been suggested are big and rather scary, and some may even appear to be crazy. That is precisely why they should be evaluated – and if necessary dismissed – as soon as possible, so that society can decide which should be developed as serious options for future use, if & when they are needed.”

“Most of these macro-engineering options are not yet in the mainstream for climate policy, but the mere fact that they have been suggested places an obligation on scientists from many disciplines to explore their feasibility and evaluate their consequences and their wider implications” comments Shepherd.

Bubble-making machines could delay global warming for decades.

Instead, the scientists backed more way-out systems for reflecting the sun's rays back into space. Plan A would float thousands of bubble-making machines across the world's oceans to send huge amounts of salt spray into the atmosphere. The trillions of tiny droplets would make the clouds bigger, whiter, and more reflective -- enough, in theory, to shut down several decades worth of global warming.

Plan B would flood the stratosphere with billions of tiny metal-coated balloons, "optical chaff" to backscatter the sun's rays. Most sophisticated of all, Plan C would assemble giant mirrors in orbit, ready to be positioned at will by a global climate controller.

The BBC reports on 4 major categories of conceivable climate engineering approaches.

  • "sequestering" (storing) carbon dioxide, for example in the oceans, by removing it from the air for storage, or by improved ways of locking it up in forests
  • "insolation management" - modifying the albedo (reflectivity) of clouds and other surfaces to affect the amount of the Sun's energy reaching the Earth
  • climate design, for example by long-term management of carbon for photosynthesis, or by glaciation control
  • impacts reduction, which includes stabilising ocean currents by river deviation, and providing large-scale migration corridors for wildlife.

A test of one technique for climate engineering is currently underway. A German scientific team led by Victor Smetacek set sail on January 21, 2004 on board the research ship Polarstern headed for the Antarctic to try a massive experiment at salting the ocean with iron to encourage phytoplankton to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

The team plans to dissolve an iron sulphate solution in a in a 150-200 square-kilometre patch of the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica, where currents are expected to keep the iron within a limited area. The team will then monitor the growth of phytoplankton from a helicopter, and examine which kinds of algae and other creatures flourish for a period of eight to ten weeks.

If and when global warming becomes a net harm to humanity climate engineering may turn out to be a far more cost-effective way to mitigate it. If atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could rise without causing global warming then there would be benefits in terms of faster growing crops and also from the growth of plants into areas that are currently deserts. Israeli scientists attribute the expansion of a forest into the Negev desert to the results of higher atmospheric CO2 levels.

Update: Even without the formation of an international committee to choose climate engineering projects the impact of human activity on the climate is going to become a far more politically contentious subject. The reason is that advances in climate science will improve our ability to model and predict how each human activity will change the climate all over the world. So, for instance, it will become possible to know how much the burning of coal in China increases or decreases rainfall in Saharan Africa. It will become possible to know how much car exhaust fumes in the United States change temperatures in Europe in different seasons. It will become possible to know how cutting down rainforests in Brazil or Indonesia affects rainfall in Peru or Australia. As people become more aware of how activities by other people cause impacts in their own lives then it seems reasonable to expect animosities between countries to rise as a consequence.

If normal human activities in each country come to be seen as causing problems in other countries then it will not take the formation of an international climate engineering organization for climate changes to be the source of focused resentments and animosities. To the extent that science causes the weather to seem less like a consequence of acts of God and more like the consequence of acts of humans climate will become a source of political strife and possibly terrorism and war.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 January 26 12:52 PM  Engineering Large Scale

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at January 26, 2004 9:05 PM:

This is very nice to see. There used to be a lot of resistance to any research that might help cope with or reduce global warming by means other than emissions reduction. Perhaps that is now changing.

Nice catch.

Robert Beck said at January 27, 2004 7:29 AM:

If they talked about terra-forming Mars, every luddite-infested 'nature' group in the country would lay siege to Boston, pitchforks at the ready. Instead, they talk about terra-forming the Earth, making it conform to someone's vision of an ideal Earth that probably never existed in reality. To fine-tune climate, about which we know next-to-nothing, is to invite disaster that could truly be called apocalyptic. Giant mirrors in orbit to centrally control climate? Billions of metallic balloons in the stratosphere? Clouds so dense that sunlight cannot penetrate to warm the surface/atmosphere? Somebody has got to be kidding. Maybe someday, but only after humans get to be a lot smarter and wiser than they are now. I cannot imagine that global warming could possibly be more dangerous than an international committee with the power to modify and control the Earth's climate.

erjaz icbal said at January 27, 2004 11:47 AM:

I have come to the conclusion that those who believe that global warming is caused by man (AGW advocates) are really against change. These must be people who are timid about their chances of doing OK in a changing world, are very comfy in their situations and don't want to take a chance on change, are people who are control freaks and don't like anything outside of their control, or they make money from fostering the myth of AGW.

Thus, since it seems the climate is getting warmer, they want to wrest control of it from mother nature to their own ends.

I laugh at the ideas in the essay above. What if those techniques trigger another ice age?

It is all so laughable.

Fly said at January 27, 2004 4:27 PM:

We are flying the spaceship Earth. Its battered hull testifies to a troubling history. Ancient passengers went extinct when the earth became less hospitable. We don’t know how the ship works but we do know the atmosphere is changing and has been changing since long before man came aboard. Some believe that the wise course is to stop breathing and touch nothing. I think we’d better learn to fly this ship.

Actively managing our planet through ocean gardening, cloud formation, space mirrors, carbon sequestering, or limiting CO2 production may be the best way to reduce climatic disruption.

Randall Parker said at January 27, 2004 5:04 PM:

Robert Beck, There is already an international committee intervening in the Earth's climate: it is called the human race. We all intervene. We all cause it to be different than it would have been absent our activities. Still, yes, making the intervention a conscious collective mutually agreed upon choice would create some major political problems.

Erjaz, I agree that knee-jerk opposition to change is behind a fair amount of the opposition to global warming. While the proponents of reducing CO2 emissions cite all sorts of examples of potential costs of the warming they do not bother to tote up the potential benefits to try to decide whether warming would really produce a net harm even if it happened as a result of human activity. Some of the beneficial effects of higher CO2 on plant growth suggests that at least there are potential large benefits from higher CO2.

Fly, My own fear about climate engineering is political: it would require an international organization authorized to decide whether to turn the thermostat up or down and there would be all sorts of consequences from any method used to do so. For instance, the bubble machines would produce more precipitation. Depending on when and where the rain fell that would make some people either very happy or very angry. This could lead to terrorism against governments that support the climate engineering organization.

Patrick said at January 27, 2004 9:45 PM:

Many of those proposed schemes have direct, local advantages in addition to the global temperature ones.

As mentioned, the bubble machines will increase precipitation of the areas downwind. You might convince Australia to endure droughts so as not to lower global temperatures without international permission, but I doubt Africa/India/China/whatever will take the slightest bit of notice.

Likewise ocean fertilization, it may or may not affect CO2 levels, but who cares when Chile and Fiji can now create huge, rich fisheries in their patch of the ocean. The ability to create rich fishing grounds will probably do more for the third world than any global warming thing anyway.

Once these technologies are proven, who will restrict their use to internationally approved levels?

Robert Beck said at January 28, 2004 9:23 AM:

Randall Parker, It is true that we humans are involved with the planet, and therefore affect it for better or worse. It is also true that we know very little about the effects we have -- It is not at all clear how (or if) our activities contribute significantly to climate, which varies naturally on many time-scales for many reasons, many of which are poorly understood and some of which are probably not even known as yet. When we understand all of the natural contributors to climate change, and their interaction with human-induced changes, it will be time to discuss controlling them. Until then, central control of climate induces in me the same fear that central control of economies does. We just don't know enough yet to be able to do it well -- and if anything would need to be done well, it is climate control. And the political ramifications of climate control will require human wisdom that is obviously beyond us, as a species, for the foreseeable future. To unify humanity on an issue such as this will require an impending catastrophe greater than that posed by global warming. The next cycle of advancing glaciers might do it, though.

Derek Kelly said at February 19, 2005 5:30 AM:

Robert Beck seems to have a keen insight into some forces driving the Kyoto scam people. There is a fear of change. It is allied to a failure to see or admit variability in both weather and climate. There also seems to be some sort of Garden of Eden view of the present climate, as if everything that now exists is ideal and should be preserved (by using a reversion strategy to return to some presumed ideal level of CO2), assuming for a moment that in fact anthropogenic CO2 is a direct cause of warming, even more so than any of the many other possible factors. In fact, levels of CO2 have been declining over the last million years, so that eventually we might end up like Mars, cold and lifeless. Instead of reducing emissions, maybe we should be increasing them to try to keep the earth warm and increase its warmth. Yes, we'd maybe lose the polar bears and Maldives and New York City, among others, but maybe we'd gain in other ways: forests in the deserts, bikinis in Stockholm, avocados in Maine...Instead of allowing bureaucrats to make global policy (the reversion hypothesis), or scientists with great imagnations but little realism to try to mitigate global warming (as the conference above wants to do), why not just adapt, the way for example the Dutch do, to the changes as they occur? If the changes are too abrupt and too severe, there's probably little we can do anyway.

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