{Briefing} Climate change: does the Geoengineering Megaplan start now? And what are the risks?

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The release of the report by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last month confirmed the anthropogenic nature of global warming and once again sounded the direst warning against continued inaction. For the first time, and to the alarm of some, discussion on geoengineering – or climate engineering – was included in the report.

What is geo-engineering?

Geoengineering schemes are large scale projects designed to tackle the effects of climate change directly, usually by removing CO2 from the air or limiting the amount of sunlight reaching the planet’s surface. Those projects include forcing the oceans into absorbing more CO2 through “fertilization”, and they work on carbon sequestration and weather modification.

“Weather and climate modification” was a centrepiece of research in the atmospheric sciences during the 1950s and 1960s, and was viewed as a priority by the American and Soviet governments.

The USSR’s interest in weather modification actually started before World War II. Beginning with the establishment of Leningrad’s Institute of Rainmaking in 1932, and work on cloud modification with airborne cloud seeding experiments using calcium chloride as early as 1934. Work continued after the war with tests using dry ice and silver iodide. In the 1950s and early 1960s Soviet activity reached its zenith: a single experiment during the winter of 1960-1961, for example, is reported to have cleared clouds over an area of 20,000 km2.

In the United States, despite common use of the phrase “weather and climate modification”, the emphasis was almost entirely on weather control, particularly on the enhancement of precipitation. The 1946 discovery of cloud seeding by the General Electric research labs ignited a commercial boom. Within five years, private cloud seeding ventures had total annual income of $3-5 million, and in 1951 had targeted an area equal to 14% of the landmass of the lower 48 states. In the late 1950s weather modification became entangled in the politics of the cold war. Instead of regulating a growing industry, the focus became national security, and during the next decade the issue moved to the top drawer of national science politics.

By 1966 theoretical speculation about use of environmental modification as a tool of warfare became realized as the United States began a campaign of cloud seeding in Vietnam that ultimately flew more than 2600 sorties and had a budget of $3.6 million per year. Public exposure of the program in 1972 generated a rapid and negative public reaction, and lead to an international treaty, the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques.

The gradual demise of weather modification after the mid-1970s may, arguably, be attributed to three forces:
a) the backlash against the use of weather modification by the U.S. military,
b) the growing environmental movement, and
c) the growing realization of the lack of efficacy of cloud seeding.

However it is back on the agenda, and backed by serious money

A small group of leading climate scientists are now lobbying governments and international bodies to back experiments into manipulating the climate on a global scale to avoid catastrophic climate change, if the politicians cannot agree to make the necessary cuts in greenhouse gases.

They believe a quick technological fix could work as politicians fail to reach an agreement to significantly reduce emissions. In 2009-2010, the US government received requests for over $2bn of grants for geoengineering research, but only spent around $100m.

Among the wealthy backers are Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström. They have funded a series of reports into future use of the technology. Branson, who has frequently called for geoengineering to combat climate change, helped fund the Royal Society’s inquiry into solar radiation management last year through his Carbon War Room charity.

On the academic front professors David Keith, of Harvard University, and Ken Caldeira of Stanford, are the world’s two leading advocates of major research into geoengineering the upper atmosphere to provide earth with a reflective shield. They have so far received over $4.6m from Gates to run the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research (Ficer). Nearly half of Ficer’s money, which comes directly from Gates’s personal funds, has so far been used for their own research, but the rest is disbursed by them to fund the work of other advocates of large-scale interventions.

Proposed techniques include:

Solar Radiation Management: techniques aiming to reflect a small proportion of the Sun’s energy back into space.
Albedo enhancement: increasing the reflectiveness of clouds or the land surface so that more of the Sun’s heat is reflected back into space.
Space reflectors: blocking a small proportion of sunlight before it reaches the Earth.
Stratospheric aerosols: introducing small, reflective particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect some sunlight before it reaches the surface of the Earth.

Carbon Dioxide Removal: techniques aiming to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, directly countering the increased greenhouse effect and ocean acidification.
Afforestation: global-scale tree planting effort.
Biochar: ‘Charring’ biomass and burying it so that its carbon is locked up in the soil.
Bio-energy with carbon capture and sequestration: Growing biomass, burning it to create energy and capturing and sequestering the carbon dioxide created in the process.
Ambient Air Capture: building large machines that can remove carbon dioxide directly from ambient air and store it elsewhere.
Ocean Fertilisation: adding nutrients to the ocean in selected locations to increase primary production which draws down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Enhanced Weathering: exposing large quantities of minerals that will react with carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and storing the resulting compound in the ocean or soil.
Ocean Alkalinity Enhancement: grinding up, dispersing, and dissolving rocks such as limestone, silicates, or calcium hydroxide in the ocean to increase its ability to store carbon and directly ameliorate ocean acidification.

{ click to magnify – source:  Source: Brahic, C. (2009). “Earth’s Plan B.” The New Scientist 201(2697): 8-10. }

geoengineering

It is also causing consternation among those who think we are about to let another genie out of another bottle

Geoengineering techniques are highly controversial: while some scientists believe they may prove a quick and relatively cheap way to slow global warming, others fear that when conducted in the upper atmosphere, they could irrevocably alter rainfall patterns and interfere with the earth’s climate. So the technology is opposed by many environmentalists who say it could undermine efforts to reduce emissions, and by developing countries who fear it could be used as a weapon by rich countries to their advantage. To the point that in 2010, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity declared a moratorium on experiments in the sea and space, except for small-scale scientific studies.

However, with the recent interest of the aforementioned billionaires and the IPCC mention, concern is now growing that a small but influential group of scientists, and their backers, may have a disproportionate effect on major decisions about geoengineering research and policy.

As Montreal-based geoengineering watchdog ETC points out “There are clear conflicts of interest between many of the people involved in the debate. What is really worrying is that the same small group working on high-risk technologies that will geoengineer the planet is also trying to engineer the discussion around international rules and regulations. We cannot put the fox in charge of the chicken coop.” (add proofs of vested interest?)

For Clive Hamilton, professor of Public Ethics at the Australian National University, this small group of Geoengineering supporters “dominate virtually every inquiry into geoengineering. They are present in almost all of the expert deliberations. They have been the leading advisers to parliamentary and congressional inquiries and their views will, in all likelihood, dominate the deliberations of the UN’s IPCC as it grapples for the first time with the scientific and ethical tangle that is climate engineering.

Even the World Economic Forum has identified Rogue Geoengineering as a “X Factor” risk in its Global Risks 2013 report.

The report notes that sulphur injection via aircraft into the stratosphere could offset roughly half of the global warming experienced to date – for US$ 1 billion-US$ 2 billion annually. In theory, the technology would be tantamount to a planetary thermostat, giving humans direct control over global temperature. The direct impact of dimming the sun would be felt within weeks to months. The problem is that incoming solar radiation drives the entire climate system, so reducing sunlight would fundamentally alter the way energy and water move around the planet. Almost any change in weather and climate patterns is likely to create winners and losers, but determining causation and quantifying impacts on any given region or country would be a huge challenge.

Another problem is is that the only way to truly test solar radiation management is at scale. This potentially conflates large-scale research with deployment, thereby giving rogue nations political cover under the guise of science.

Due to such complexities, most of the science to date has been conducted via computer modelling, although scientists are looking for ways to test these ideas with local experiments. But overall, despite calls for more coordinated government science programmes, the landscape for this kind of science remains spotty.

This leaves a gap for unregulated experimentation by rogue parties. There are signs that this is already starting to occur. In July 2012, an American businessman sparked controversy when he dumped about 100 tonnes of iron sulphate into the Pacific Ocean off the west coast of Canada in a scheme to spawn an artificial plankton bloom. The plankton absorbs carbon dioxide and may then sink to the ocean bed, removing the carbon – another type of geoengineering, known as ocean fertilization. Satellite images confirm that his actions succeeded in producing an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres.

Conclusion: Man Versus Climate

Geoengineering poses risks that combine natural and social aspects, and that may be roughly divided into two types; risk of side effect and risk that the manipulation will fail to achieve its central aim.

The trouble is that the risks posed by geoengineering are too novel: the relevant biological and geophysical science and data are too insufficient to allow quantitative assessment

Decisions about implementation, judgment about the risks of geoengineering would also depend on the scalability and reversibility of the project: Can the project be tested at small scale, and can the project be readily reversed if it goes awry?

Separate from the actual feasibility is also the concern that geoengineering may present a moral hazard. The root problem is simple: Would mere knowledge of a geoengineering method that was demonstrably low in cost and risk weaken the political will to mitigate anthropogenic climate forcing?

The conclusion is a fairly open one: the jury is still out to tell if geoengineering was a passing aberration, an idea that originated with a few speculative papers in the 1950s that reached a peak of public exposure and will fade away, or if it will develop into a tangible mitigation plan for the climate modifications created by our industrial activity. However, whilst the global coordinated master plan has not been agreed yet, it is clear that a number of experiments have started, deserving due-diligence and governance.

Xavier Rizos – 26/10/2013

Terraforming Earth: Does the Geoengineering megaplan start now?
Methods and locations where planetary geoengineering may have to take place

{ click to magnify the map – source: http://www.newscientist.com }

terraforming mg22029382.500-2_3292

Pearltrees Geoengineering: http://pear.ly/cs0yz

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