Some people are suggesting that we try to geo-engineer our way out of the problem, intervening in the climate system to moderate warming. I’m very, very nervous about that. It shows a level of arrogance that we know how to manage our environment. It certainly needs a lot of research.
- Professor Robert Watson, former head of IPCC
In response the the growing climate crisis, a number of scientists and engineers are proposing engineering solutions on a massive, geological scale. Such solutions are called geo-engineering. Activists such as Clive Hamilton have very grave concerns about such efforts. The risks of performing global experiments on the extremely complex climate system are very high. Fossil fuels, which are in large part responsible for today’s climate chaos is global civilization’s most dangerous progress trap. If we now proceed with geoengineering solutions without sufficient research, we will simply be creating yet another progress trap and jump from the frying pan into the fire.
Recent results from a study from the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP) show just how potentially harmful the current set of engineering proposals are. The results are available here:
The study uses computer models to simulate the impact of 6 Solar Radiation Management (SRM) proposals. The model found that although all proposed methods reduced temperatures, they also had unexpected side-effects of worsening floods or droughts for 25%-65% of the global population, compared to the baseline of expected impact of climate change. The study found that the following SRM techniques adversely affected the following number of people:
- mimicking a volcano by spraying sulphate particles high into the atmosphere to block sunlight: 2.8bn people
- spraying salt water above the oceans to whiten low clouds and reflect sunlight: 3bn people
- thinning high cirrus clouds to allow more heat to escape Earth: 2.4bn people
- generating microbubbles on the ocean surface to whiten it and reflect more sunlight: 2bn people
- covering all deserts in shiny material: 4.1bn people
- growing shinier crops: 1.4bn people
Notably, rainfall impacts were impacted by SRM techniques, which brought about alterations in the differences in temperature between the oceans and land. These SRM-induced changes disrupt atmospheric circulation, most notably monsoons over SE Asia.
What if there were a magic bullet to fix our ailing planet? What if it meant seizing control of Earth’s climate? Clive Hamilton investigates the huge risks of reaching for desperate measures to save the planet, explains the science accessibly and uncovers the worrying motives of those promoting them. While Washington, London and Canberra fiddle, the planet burns. It has become painfully clear that the big democracies won’t take the hard decisions to halt climate change. Climate scientists now expect the worst, and they’re considering a response which sounds like science fiction: climate engineering. This means large-scale manipulation of the Earth’s climate using grand technological interventions, like spraying sulphur compounds into the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet, or transforming the chemistry of the world’s oceans so they soak up more carbon. The potential risks are enormous: disrupting the food chain, damaging the ozone layer, the loss of monsoon rains in Asia – the list goes on. It is messing with nature on a scale we’ve never before seen, and it’s attracting a flood of interest from scientists, venture capitalists and oil companies. We have reached the end of the epoch of climate stability that allowed human civilisation to flourish, and the end of the era of ‘progress’. Like an angry beast woken from a long slumber, climate instability is dangerous and resists efforts to control it. Given the complexity involved, such solutions are seen by many as potentially causing even more harm than the problem it’s trying to fix. – Clive Hamilton, author of Earthmasters
Human beings are blindsided by our own ingenuity. Ever since our ancestor fashioned the first stone tool, human ingenuity has continued down an unbroken lineage to this day. Along the way, our ability to excel at reasoning seem to have bought us major evolutionary wins. One by one, we learned to harness nature in ways no other mammal could conceive of. First fire, then stone tools, metalwork, agriculture, industrialization, computing devices, electricty. It is only now, standing on the precipice of a world built upon the foundation of our ingenuity that we can look back and discover a horrible truth – that what we mistake for progress may be what ultimately dooms us all. The energy systems which we have developed and only recently proudly displayed as among the highest forms of human achievement are now the achilles heel which threatens to unravel our entire human civilization.
Lack of knowledge can cause our Best laid plans to Backfire on a Global Scale
There is so much information missing, even in our best climate models. Those unknowns can cause geo-engineering attempts to go badly wrong – on a global scale. Critics such as Clive Hamilton raise legitimate concerns. It is the hubris of human intelligence that got us into this predicament to begin with. If the countless thousands of the brightest minds of many centuries who designed our technocracy today could not foresee the unintended consequences of their engineering work, how much confidence does that give us in the monumental work ahead of us in the next few years?
While we thought we have been making continual progress, the truth is beginning to dawn that we may have been slowly building our worst nightmare. We haven’t been progress, but regressing. And we haven’t made progress as much as progress traps.
Rogue Experiments can throw Another Unpredictable Variable into the Picture
A recent “rogue” experiment (that is, one that is not approved or condoned by the scientific community) proves that groups of people and even nation states may unilaterally take matters into their own hands, with consequences that may affect the entire planet.
In July 2012, the Haida Gwai Restoration Corporation (HGRC) located in Old Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands of Northern British Columbia, Canada contracted scientist and businessman Russ George to seed a plot of ocean with iron dust. The Haida people, who depend on the salmon run have seen their salmon runs diminish significantly with devastating social effects such as 70% unemployment and high suicide rate. This experiment was seen as a bid to replenish the stocks.
George is convinced that iron fertilization can be a solution to bring back fish stocks as well as to sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere into the deep ocean. He cites as evidence an August 2008 volcanic eruption that dusted the northeastern Pacific Ocean with a layer of ash, causing the formation of a massive plankton bloom. That year, 40 million fish came home instead of the projected one million. He also cites further evidence to support his thesis – that there have been three volcanic events in the last 100 years, each paired with record sockeye salmon runs.
At the same time, such a bloom would then take in CO2 as it grows and then when the algae dies, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean, taking the CO2 with it. If the plankton is entirely eaten before it dies and sinks to the bottom of the ocean, however, then animal metabolism will reemit the CO2, sending it back to the atmosphere. Earlier iron fertilization experiments have shown that it is relatively easy to get plankton to bloom, but much more difficult for that bloom to sink to the bottom of the ocean, taking the CO2 with it. Instead, the plankton is eaten by tiny animals, which are in turn eaten by larger animals until, ultimately, all or most of the CO2 initially absorbed by the tinyplants during their photosynthetic life spans finds its way back to the atmosphere in relatively short order. In order for plankton to actually transport the CO2 to the bottom, it must be very specialized species of plankton and this species has not been isolated by science yet. As early as 2009, groups of scientists have called for abandonment of iron fertilization experiments.
Nevertheless, George systematically seeded 120 tons of iron dust in the ocean. He claims that Australia sells China 600 million tons annually and the amount of iron dust lost due to that is far greater than the amount he used in his experiment.Asked by Scientific America about the success of the experiment, George said “Life appeared. The nightly migration of zooplankton from the thermocline [a layer of water in the ocean that marks the transition from warmer surface waters to colder deep waters] to the surface, we saw that. Copepods, salps, all the little fish. We have thousands and thousands of biological samples now going under microscopes around the world to be identified and quantified.”
George claims that he had collected baseline data for months before the actual seeding by enlisting ships of opportunities to collect water samples. Currently, 10,000 water samples are in labs being analyzed for 20 different parameters. When asked about the legality of the experiment, George responded by saying ” This is Canada so it’s British law, not American law. In British law, if you want to do something and you’re not sure whether it’s legal or not, you commission officers of the court to do an analysis and produce an official document, a legal opinion as to whether it breaks the law or not. This was done. The opinion was that with comparative studies and international laws we were absolutely in the clear.”
In fact, George expertise as a grass expert offers up an intriguing theory on the relationship between the dramatic decline of ocean productivity and rising atmospheric CO2 levels . He believes that ocean net primary productivity has declined drastically due to high atmospheric CO2 levels promoting plant growth. He reasons as follows:
- The earth is a planet of grass, not trees
- Dust comes from all kinds of dry areas but the vast majority of dust-producing regions are drylands
- In these drylands, there is a natural cycle of grass growing and green in spring but dying and brown in summer
- When it’s green and growing well, it’s good ground cover but in summer, it shrivels up and becomes poor ground cover, releasing iron-rich Aeolian dust that is blown into the oceans, fertilizing and inducing plankton blooms
- Due to global warming, dryland grasses grow longer and their cover is extended
- This causes an extension in the period and scale of the ground cover and subsequently, a shorter dry season with less Aeolian dust generated
George believes that the major mechanism for controlling CO2 is solubility in water. “ CO2’s destiny is to dissolve in water. The only source of a nonpolluting amount of energy to match the fossil fuel that won’t add more CO2 to the atmosphere is sunlight and photosynthesis. The photosynthetic potential of plankton in the ocean, if restored to 50 years ago, is more than sufficient to manage a large part of the CO2 problem.” says George.
Finally, George sees the presses global negative publicity as a smear campaign by some scientists. By definition, geo-engineering must have global impact and George’s experiment does not meet that requirement. The HGRC may perform a second experiment if the funds are available. The original experiment was funded with $2.5 million from the Old Masset Village Council, a loan it took that represents more than 20 percent of the annual budget for this village of 2,500 people. The community will judge the success of the experiment in 2014 by the size of the salmon run.
A few months after the “rogue” experiment was performed, a scientific paper entitled Role of biogenic silica in the removal of iron from the Antarctic seas was published in Nature Communications which brings into question whether anthropogenically-induced algal blooms are actually effective in trapping and capturing CO2 as has been previously thought. These blooms contain iron-eating microscopic phytoplankton that absorb CO2 from the air through the process of photosynthesis and provide nutrients for marine life. Dr. William Calvin and other scientists have surmised that seeding the ocean with iron can create more algae which in turn act as a transport mechanism to capture extra CO2 and move it down to the ocean floor when they die.
But the researchers discovered that one type of phytoplankton, a diatom, is using more iron that it needs for photosynthesis and storing the extra in its silica skeletons and shells, according to an X-ray analysis of phytoplankton conducted at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. This reduces the amount of iron left over to support the carbon-eating plankton. Over the long term, this hoarding behavior of the diatom can conceivably achieve the opposite effect and reduce the ocean’s CO2 absorbing capabiilty:
- Rather than feed the growth of extra plankton and trigger algal blooms, iron fertilization may instead stimulate the gluttonous diatoms to take up even more iron to build larger shells
- When the shells get large enough, they sink to the ocean floor, sequestering the iron and starving off the diatom’s plankton peers
- Over time, this reduction in the amount of iron in surface waters could trigger the growth of microbial populations that require less iron for nutrients
- The overall effect would be to reduce the amount of phytoplankton blooms available to take in CO2 and to feed marine life
This experiment highlights the dangers of proceeding with large scale geo-engineering without sufficient knowledge of complex ecosystems.
A Map of Geo-engineering
To bring attention to this growing concern and to illusrate the already number of geo-engineering projects already underway, the ETC Group has compiled the first ever global Geo-engineering map.
Iron Fertilization and Plankton
Dr. William Calvin of the university of Washington is another advocate of the use of Plantkton to sequester carbon to the deep ocean