April 24, 2010
Ethical Problems With Climate Engineering
At a conference on the ethical, political, and scientific issues surrounding climate engineering Princeton University climate researcher Robert Socolow laid out a variety of scenarios in which countries decide to do climate engineering unilaterally.
In one, a single country unilaterally pumps aerosols into the stratosphere to block the Sun's rays and preserve — or perhaps create — a climate of its own liking. In another, climate policies result in a world full of forest plantations that are created solely to store the greatest possible amount of carbon, with no regard for preserving biodiversity. Or what if the very possibility of using geoengineering to mitigate climate change gives political leaders cover to say that greenhouse gases aren't a problem?
The morning after Socolow's sobering talk, the conference's scientific organizing committee released a summary statement, based on attendees' comments, that endorsed geoengineering research as a viable way of avoiding possibly catastrophic global warming. But participants came up short on their stated goal of formulating a set of guidelines and principles for scientists working in the field, and conference organizers promised further work on these in the coming weeks. Instead, it was Socolow's cautionary note that resonated as participants departed the beachside Asilomar Conference Center near Monterey, California. "We're scared, and nothing brings people together like fear," says Jane Long, associate director for energy and environment at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
Climate engineering is cheap enough that many countries could carry it out on their own. Low lying Bangladesh with a GDP of about $80 billion could afford a few hundred million dollars worth of climate engineering to prevent the melting of Greenland and resulting flooding of much of Bangladesh. Only a large trade embargo or military attack could stop Bangladesh.
There is climate engineering as an accidental side effect and climate engineering done on purpose to do climate engineering. Currently we are getting climate engineering as a side effect. Is it ethical? Well, we've already decide to do it? Should it be approved by the UN? Well, again, we've already decided to do it. So why shouldn't a country do it on purpose if the goal is to neutralize what we are doing as a side effect?
As our understanding of how we impact climate becomes understood in greater detail the most compelling argument for intentional climate engineering is going to be that we need to counteract climate engineering we are already doing by accident. Those most motivated to do intentional climate engineering will be those most harmed by changes in climate. Looking at losing your city to rising waters? Time to start pumping silicon dioxide into the atmosphere. I'm thinking coastal nuclear power plants that would otherwise be submerged by rising water could be used for this purpose.
Now I hear some of you saying "but global warming is a fraud" and other phrases to that effect. But since climate engineering can be done quickly there'll be no need to start doing it until the evidence (e.g. rapid measurable melting in Greenland) becomes so compelling that the vast bulk of the population agree it is happening.
We ought to study climate engineering in advance to understand the trade-offs and risks of the various choices. We've got plenty of time sitting in 2010 to do that research. Best to understand this when we aren't yet in full panic mode.
Consider the possibilities of competitive climate engineering. Iceland, Canada, and Finland, let us suppose (I think plausibly) all gain by global warming. Bangladesh, the Netherlands, and other countries with low lying coastal areas, lose by it. So the first group does geoengineering to increase global warming, the second to decrease it, both spend money, and the effects cancel.
David, The ideal is highly controlled local climate engineering. This is achievable for some purposes. For example, picture satellites that rotate to do much more extensive sunlight blocking only when they are between the sun and Greenland or between the sun and Antarctica. The idea here is to prevent the ice from melting. Make Greenland dark for more hours of the day.
An interesting side effect of such a scheme: More intense winds across created temperature gradients. Now, if you put massive wind turbines around Greenland you can generate electric power and help maintain the temperature gradients.
But there are troubling limits to climate engineering. I've yet to come across a way to do ocean engineering to prevent ocean acidification from dissolved CO2.
Another idea: Wind turbines around Antarctica that would power desalination and water pumping to pump more water inland. Build up much larger glaciers on Antarctica to compensate for ice losses closer to the oceans. A very expensive project. But might cost less than losing Florida, much of England, and lots of other low lying areas to rising water.
Climate engineering can be used as a strategic weapon? We wouldn't need to control natural patterns, only disrupt them. Do we really want to go down that road?
Randall, does it not strike you that the fears about geoengineering are premature? Any big task like that would or should be approached incrementally, with a test here, a test there, nothing globally significant in one gigantic step. Your attitude about geoengineering strikes me as exactly right: look at it in the context of the alternatives, especially in the context of our ongoing geoengineering via unintended side effects, and then get the research done. There will be plenty of time later for decisions on scaling up the tests to deployment.
We should have already conducted dozens of "ocean fertilization" tests by now instead of the handful that have been tried. Such fertilization might have the interesting side effect of causing more sea life to flourish (more plankton ... more krill and other copepods ... more fish and whales ...) while removing CO2 from the air and sending some of it (not all of it) to burial in sediments. I have heard downright odd objections to those tests, as if some genuine scientists have a kind of knee-jerk opposition to the idea and will seize on any rationale for opposing. I don't fully understand that. It is more like a dogma than an interest in results.
AlanK, Yes, the fears seem very premature. But one of the motives for the fears is that climate scientists fear the news that climate engineering can mitigate some of the damage caused by global warming will cause people to be even more remiss in trying to reduce CO2 emissions.
Ocean fertilization is especially interesting because I it would pull CO2 out of solution and therefore reduce ocean acidification. Though any land-based way of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere would yield similar benefits.
Sorry about the personal note, but I have to explain.
I had to change my name. The local mafia made me an offer. I could not say no. I have left the cows and am taking classes for my new career. This week I have Knee-breaking 110 and Arts 118, Looking Threatening. I have my first apprentice job next week. I am recruting coal-mine bulldozer drivers to drive wind turbine blades instead. Then we follow anyone who flips off the rigs on the highway. I may be too busy to write.
It is going to be hard to experiment on the climate because of politics. There are people who don't want to know.
We did have two experiments already. 9/11 did one on high clouds. The Eastern blackout did one on low haze from powerplants.