A radical solution to address climate change, with David Keith

Climate change can feel like an impossible crisis these days. Every week there is some new report about the irreversible damage we’re doing to our planet and the havoc it will bring to people’s lives. We all know cutting emissions is the solution, yet governments and companies seem no closer to meeting the goals that scientists say we must hit. It can feel hopeless.

There is one possible controversial solution to climate change many in the mainstream haven’t discussed. It’s so controversial, in fact, that some experts say we shouldn’t even be discussing it. But University of Chicago Professor David Keith says we need to talk about it. It’s called solar geoengineering—the process in which you reflect a small fraction of sunlight back into space using aerosols. As the founding director of the Climate Systems Engineering Initiative at UChicago, Keith is leading a team that will research solar geoengineering and other novel solutions to climate change.

Original post on Big Brains Podcast

The Economist: David Keith on why carbon removal won’t save big oil but may help the climate

Occidental, an American oil major, recently agreed to buy Carbon Engineering, a Canadian carbon-removal company, for $1.6bn. The deal underlines big oil’s growing interest in carbon-capture technologies, which suck carbon dioxide from the air. What does it mean for the climate?

Suppose a trucker dumped a load of manure on your front lawn and then demanded a fee to haul it away. Big oil made the fuel that is cooking our planet, so the idea that it might profit from cleaning it up strikes many people as obscene.

Critics argue that big oil is using carbon removal as a tool to protect its core business. As Occidental’s chief executive, Vicki Hollub, sees it, carbon removal means “we don’t need to ever stop oil.” Defenders argue that big oil can help meet social demands for decarbonisation by pivoting to carbon neutrality while bringing technical expertise to new low-carbon markets.

Greenwash or swords-to-ploughshares? My guess—informed by my experience as a climate-focused academic and as the founder of Carbon Engineering (on whose board I still sit)—is that the oil majors will be unsuccessful at both. Greenwashing will not protect them; nor will they smoothly pivot from being oil suppliers to carbon removers. Yet big oil’s carbon-removal play may nevertheless yield substantial climate benefits, in part because it is unlikely to play out as well as the companies hope.

Big oil will trumpet its green achievements, both real and imaginary. This will dampen public disapproval and help recruit talent, but it is hard to see how it reduces the threat to the core business, which is driven by accelerating climate policies and the decreasing cost of electric vehicles.

A world with large-scale carbon removal is a world with carbon prices high enough and decarbonisation policies strong enough to drive oil demand down sharply. Permanent carbon removal is likely to cost over $150 per tonne of carbon dioxide for at least a decade or two. That is equivalent to a penalty of almost $70 per barrel of oil. Though it may provide a green aura, an oil company’s carbon-removal business, however successful, will not protect its legacy oil business from strong carbon prices and policies. Neither greenwashing nor green reality changes the fundamentals.

The feasibility of a swords-to-ploughshares pivot rests on the premise that expertise transfers from oil and gas to carbon removal—or even beyond to solar power and other clean technologies. Although engineering skills are transferable, the business pivot is less plausible. A management culture built to succeed at making risky bets on big hydrocarbon plays such as ultra-deep offshore oil is different from the management culture needed to succeed in clean energy or carbon removal.

Occidental, an American oil major, recently agreed to buy Carbon Engineering, a Canadian carbon-removal company, for $1.6bn. The deal underlines big oil’s growing interest in carbon-capture technologies, which suck carbon dioxide from the air. What does it mean for the climate?

Suppose a trucker dumped a load of manure on your front lawn and then demanded a fee to haul it away. Big oil made the fuel that is cooking our planet, so the idea that it might profit from cleaning it up strikes many people as obscene.

Critics argue that big oil is using carbon removal as a tool to protect its core business. As Occidental’s chief executive, Vicki Hollub, sees it, carbon removal means “we don’t need to ever stop oil.” Defenders argue that big oil can help meet social demands for decarbonisation by pivoting to carbon neutrality while bringing technical expertise to new low-carbon markets.

Greenwash or swords-to-ploughshares? My guess—informed by my experience as a climate-focused academic and as the founder of Carbon Engineering (on whose board I still sit)—is that the oil majors will be unsuccessful at both. Greenwashing will not protect them; nor will they smoothly pivot from being oil suppliers to carbon removers. Yet big oil’s carbon-removal play may nevertheless yield substantial climate benefits, in part because it is unlikely to play out as well as the companies hope.

Big oil will trumpet its green achievements, both real and imaginary. This will dampen public disapproval and help recruit talent, but it is hard to see how it reduces the threat to the core business, which is driven by accelerating climate policies and the decreasing cost of electric vehicles.

A world with large-scale carbon removal is a world with carbon prices high enough and decarbonisation policies strong enough to drive oil demand down sharply. Permanent carbon removal is likely to cost over $150 per tonne of carbon dioxide for at least a decade or two. That is equivalent to a penalty of almost $70 per barrel of oil. Though it may provide a green aura, an oil company’s carbon-removal business, however successful, will not protect its legacy oil business from strong carbon prices and policies. Neither greenwashing nor green reality changes the fundamentals.

The feasibility of a swords-to-ploughshares pivot rests on the premise that expertise transfers from oil and gas to carbon removal—or even beyond to solar power and other clean technologies. Although engineering skills are transferable, the business pivot is less plausible. A management culture built to succeed at making risky bets on big hydrocarbon plays such as ultra-deep offshore oil is different from the management culture needed to succeed in clean energy or carbon removal.

When oil companies build thriving carbon-removal businesses, the interests of these business units will be misaligned with the legacy oil business. Legacy oil wants low carbon prices and high energy prices. Carbon removal wants the opposite. Big institutional investors such as pension funds prefer pure plays, so they will push to cleave carbon removal from legacy oil. History suggests that incumbents rarely survive fundamental shifts in the underlying business. ibm was an exception, but it is now dwarfed by Apple and Microsoft. The benefits of synergy are usually outweighed by the costs and conflicts of maintaining the legacy business.

So even when big oil succeeds in carbon removal the most likely outcome is freestanding cleantech companies alongside legacy oil rather than successfully integrated conglomerates. Environmentalists can thus welcome big oil’s move into carbon removal for the skills it brings with guarded optimism that the swords-to-ploughshares pivot will do little to protect the legacy oil business.

And the skills are desperately needed. Building billion-dollar battery factories, hydrogen infrastructure or plants to extract carbon from the air requires engineering and management skills that are concentrated in industries like oil and commodity chemicals. Occidental, for example, plans to build plants that can remove and store up to 30m tonnes of carbon per year at King Ranch in Texas. That is the equivalent of decarbonising 30m-60m transatlantic passenger flights per year. Although Occidental has never built a direct-air-capture plant, Carbon Engineering’s technology knits together existing industrial processes to achieve the new goal of carbon removal, and Occidental has experience with almost all the components required for direct air capture, including potassium hydroxide, a chemical used in the process, and CO2 sequestration. A startup cannot build plants with tens of millions of tonnes of capacity without the skills of a company that has built industrial plants at scale.

Big oil’s pivot to clean should be celebrated as a marker of the power of environmental advocacy, not a sign of its weakness. These investments did not happen simply because big oil woke up feeling woke. The driving force is policy. Today’s most important driver is Joe Biden’s clean-energy incentives. But these incentives did not just happen because the American president woke up green. They are the fruit of decades of environmental advocacy.

Greenwashing is a risk. Environmentalists are right to worry. Big oil will try to use carbon removal to defend the status quo. But there is a political upside. In a decarbonising world in which big oil only does oil and gas, its only future is extinction and it will fight progress with its back to the wall. If, however, the industry is also in the decarbonisation business, its interests—and the interests of the communities that depend on it—are split, with the low-carbon business units fighting for strong climate policy even as the legacy businesses oppose it. My hope is that this blurring of interests will lubricate the political bargains needed to accelerate climate progress.

Original post on The Economist

Crooked: There Goes the Sun?

We have every reason in the world to try to stop climate change. But when it comes to geoengineering––lacing the atmosphere with particles to block the sun’s warming effect––experts are split on whether the intervention would create more problems than it would solve. At this rate of global warming, though, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which humans won’t eventually try it out. Inadvertently, we’ve already piloted the method through air pollution. Is the geoengineering genie already out of the bottle? Should we even want to stop it? Are there ways to deploy these efforts that will insure against scenarios where we wish we’d never tried? Host Brian Beutler is joined by Elizabeth Kolbert, a New Yorker staff writer and author of Under a White Sky, and Dr. David Keith, a professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago and an advocate for geoengineering research.

Original post on Crooked

Freakonomics: Solar Geoengineering Would Be Radical. It Might Also Be Necessary.

The New York Times: What’s the Least Bad Way to Cool the Planet?

How to cool the planet?

The energy infrastructure that powers our civilization must be rebuilt, replacing fossil fuels with carbon-free sources such as solar or nuclear. But even then, zeroing out emissions will not cool the planet. This is a direct consequence of the single most important fact about climate change: Warming is proportional to the cumulative emissions over the industrial era.

Eliminating emissions by about 2050 is a difficult but achievable goal. Suppose it is met. Average temperatures will stop increasing when emissions stop, but cooling will take thousands of years as greenhouse gases slowly dissipate from the atmosphere. Because the world will be a lot hotter by the time emissions reach zero, heat waves and storms will be worse than they are today. And while the heat will stop getting worse, sea level will continue to rise for centuries as polar ice melts in a warmer world. This July was the hottest month ever recorded, but it is likely to be one of the coolest Julys for centuries after emissions reach zero.

Stopping emissions stops making the climate worse. But repairing the damage, insofar as repair is possible, will require more than emissions cuts.

To cool the planet in this century, humans must either remove carbon from the air or use solar geoengineering, a temporary measure that may reduce peak temperatures, extreme storms and other climatic changes. Humans might make the planet Earth more reflective by adding tiny sulfuric acid droplets to the stratosphere from aircraft, whitening low-level clouds over the ocean by spraying sea salt into the air or by other interventions.

Yes, this is what it comes down to: carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both. At least one of them is required to cool the planet this century. There are no other options.

Carbon removal would no doubt trounce geoengineering in a straw poll of climate experts. Removal is riding a wave of support among centrist environmental groups, governments and industry. Solar geoengineering is seen as such a desperate gamble that it was dropped from the important “summary for policymakers” in the United Nations’ latest climate report.

Yet if I were asked which method could cut midcentury temperatures with the least environmental risk, I would say geoengineering.

Lest you dismiss me, I founded Carbon Engineering, one of the most visible companies developing technology to capture carbon directly from the air and then pump it underground or use it to make products that contain carbon dioxide. The company’s interests could be hurt if geoengineering were seen as an acceptable option. I was also an early proponent for burning biofuels like wood waste, capturing the resulting carbon at the smokestack and storing it underground. I am proud to be a part of the community developing carbon removal. These approaches can help manage hard-to-abate emissions, and they are the only way to reduce the long-term climate risks that will remain when net emissions reach zero.

But the problem with these carbon removal technologies is that they are inherently slow because the carbon that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution must be removed ton by ton. Still, the technology provides a long-term cure.

Geoengineering, on the other hand, is cheap and acts fast, but it cannot deflate the carbon bubble. It is a Band-Aid, not a cure.

The trade-off between geoengineering and carbon removal depends on one’s time horizon. The sooner cooling is pursued, the greater the environmental and social impacts of carbon removal.

Suppose emissions were under control and you wanted to cool the planet an additional degree by midcentury. How would removal and geoengineering compare?

Carbon removal could work. But it will require an enormous industry. Trees are touted as a natural climate solution, and there are some opportunities to protect natural systems while capturing carbon by allowing deforested landscapes to regrow and pull in carbon dioxide as they do. But cooling this fast cannot be achieved by letting nature run free. Ecosystems would need to be manipulated using irrigation, fire suppression or genetically modified plants whose roots are resistant to rot. This helps to increase the buildup of carbon in soils. To cool a degree by midcentury, this ecological engineering would need to happen at a scale comparable to that of global agriculture or forestry, causing profound disruption of natural ecosystems and the too-often-marginalized people who depend on them.

Industrial removal methods have a much smaller land footprint; a single carbon capture facility occupying a square mile of land could remove a million tons of carbon from the air a year. But building and running this equipment would require energy, steel and cement from a global supply chain. And removing the few hundred billion tons required to cool a degree by midcentury requires a supply chain that might be smaller than what feeds the construction industry but larger than what supports the global mining industry.

The challenge is that a carbon removal operation — industrial or biological — achieves nothing the day it starts, but only cumulatively, year upon year. So, the faster one seeks that one degree of cooling, the faster one must build the removal industry, and the higher the social costs and environmental impacts per degree of cooling.

Geoengineering could also work. The physical scale of intervention is — in some respects — small. Less than two million tons of sulfur per year injected into the stratosphere from a fleet of about a hundred high-flying aircraft would reflect away sunlight and cool the planet by a degree. The sulfur falls out of the stratosphere in about two years, so cooling is inherently short term and could be adjusted based on political decisions about risk and benefit.

Adding two million tons of sulfur to the atmosphere sounds reckless, yet this is only about one-twentieth of the annual sulfur pollution from today’s fossil fuels. Geoengineering might worsen air pollution or damage the global ozone layer, and it will certainly exacerbate some climate changes, making some regions wetter or drier even as it cools the world. While limited, the science so far suggests that the harms that would result from shaving a degree off global temperatures would be small compared with the benefits. Air pollution deaths from the added sulfur in the air would be more than offset by declines in the number of deaths from extreme heat, which would be 10 to 100 times larger.

Geoengineering’s grand challenge is geopolitical: Which country or countries get to decide to inject aerosols into the atmosphere, on what scale and for how long? There is no easy path to a stable and legitimate governance process for a cheap, high-leverage technology in an unstable world.

Which is better? Carbon removal is doubtless the safest path to permanent cooling, but solar geoengineering may well be able to cool the world this century with fewer environmental impacts and less social and economic disruption. Yet no one knows, because the question is not being asked. Geoengineering research budgets are minuscule, and much of the work is accomplished after hours by scientists acting outside their institutions’ priorities.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assumes enormous use of carbon removal to meet the Paris Agreement target of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), but not because scientists carefully compared removal and geoengineering. This was a glaring omission in the I.P.C.C. report, given that one of the very few areas of agreement about geoengineering is that it could lower global temperatures.

Research is minimal because geoengineering has influential opponents. The strongest opposition to geoengineering research stems from fear that the technology will be exploited by the powerful to maintain the status quo. Why cut emissions if we can seed the atmosphere with sulfur and keep the planet cool? This is geoengineering’s moral hazard.

This threat is real, but I don’t find it a convincing basis to forgo research, particularly given evidence that support for geoengineering research is stronger in regions that are poorer and more vulnerable to climate change, regions that would benefit most from cooling.

Some will no doubt exaggerate the benefits of solar geoengineering to protect the fossil fuel industry. But this threat is not unique to geoengineering. Carbon removal may pose a stronger moral hazard today. Activists like Al Gore once opposed adaptive measures such as flood protection, out of fear it would distract from emission cuts. They now embrace such measures, yet support for emissions cuts has never been higher, proving that support for one method of limiting climate risks need not reduce support for others.

Emissions cuts are necessary. But pretending that climate change can be solved with emissions cuts alone is a dangerous fantasy. If you want to reduce risks from the emissions already in the atmosphere — whether that’s to prevent forest fires in Algeria, heat waves in British Columbia or floods in Germany — you must look to carbon removal, solar geoengineering and local adaptation.

Emissions monomania is not an ethical climate policy because those three approaches together do what emissions cuts cannot: They reduce the future harms caused by historical emissions and provide a reason to hope that collective action can begin repairing Earth’s climate within a human lifetime.

Perhaps the best reason to take cooling seriously is that benefits seem likely to go to the poorest countries. Heat reduces intellectual and physical productivity with economywide consequences. Hotter regions are more sensitive to extra degrees of warming, while some cool regions may even benefit. A year that’s a degree warmer than normal will see economic growth in India reduced by about 17 percent, while Sweden will see growth increased by about 22 percent.

Poor people tend to live in hot places. This, combined with the fact that an added degree causes more harm in warmer climates, explains why the costs of climate change fall heaviest on the poor — and why the benefits of cooling will be felt the most in the hottest regions.

This dynamic explains why the one study to quantitatively examine the consequences of geoengineering for global inequality found that it might reduce economic inequality by about 25 percent, similar to the impressive reduction the United States achieved in the four decades following the New Deal.

Cooling the planet to reduce human suffering in this century will require carbon removal or solar geoengineering or both. The trade-offs between them are uncertain because little comparative research has been done. The fact that one or both are taboo in some green circles is a dreadful misstep of contemporary environmentalism. Climate justice demands fast action to cut emissions and serious exploration of pathways to a cooler future.

Original post on New York Times

Council on Foreign Relations: Can Solar Geoengineering Be Used as a Weapon?

The following is a guest post by Joshua Horton, research director, geoengineering, at the Harvard Kennedy School; and David Keith, former professor of public policy and professor of engineering at Harvard University.

Solar geoengineering—the idea of using technology to reflect a small fraction of incoming sunlight away from Earth to partially offset climate change—poses many problems, including its potential to discourage emissions cuts, its uncertain distributive consequences, and the possibility that suddenly stopping implementation might result in dangerously rapid warming. And yet available evidence shows that moderate use of solar geoengineering may offer an opportunity to mitigate climate hazards beyond what is possible even if all emissions could be eliminated tomorrow. In our view, the prospect that solar geoengineering could significantly reduce risks for the world’s poorest, reducing income inequality, is a strong basis for pursuing research and international governance.

Debate on solar geoengineering, however, is haunted by a concern that such technology might be weaponized. This concern stems from longstanding military interest in weather modification technologies, most notably the U.S. use of cloud-seeding during the Vietnam War, which led to adoption of the 1976 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) restricting hostile use of environmental modification techniques. It also stems from suggestions that governance of nuclear weapons may serve as a useful analog for governance of solar geoengineering.

Fears about the dual-use nature of solar geoengineering are sometimes stated explicitly (e.g., at 51:30 in this recent Rolling Stone debate), but more often implied in terms of vaguely defined security threats or speculation about “predatory geoengineering.” In a recent guest blog for the Internationalist, for example, Elizabeth Chalecki argues that “Just as nuclear fission can produce both weapons and energy, so too can geoengineering provide benefits if applied judiciously;” unsaid but insinuated is that solar geoengineering might also be used to wage war, which justifies placing it under international control in the same way the Baruch Plan of 1946 sought to internationalize atomic energy. (For other recent examples see here and here.)

The premise that solar geoengineering is weaponizable, however, is either false or grossly overstated and inapplicable to those technologies that might plausibly be deployed. Precision is a defining attribute of weaponry; indeed, the so-called revolution in military affairs has made it the most prized attribute for many strategists, as exemplified by the dominant role now played by precision-guided munitions. One hallmark of solar geoengineering, however, would be its imprecision.

Take stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI), which would disperse aerosols in the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and reduce some harmful aspects of climate change. SAI is the most prominent type of solar geoengineering and the one most associated with fears about weaponization. Yet injected materials cannot be contained along lines of latitude and would quickly encircle the globe. Some north-south control is possible, but only at a very crude level using just a few knobs like dispersing in equatorial versus polar regions or in northern versus southern hemispheres. Only climate effects—changes in average temperature and precipitation—could plausibly be induced; weather control at the level of individual storms or heat waves would be impossible to engineer. Moreover, there would be several steps between any induced climate change and the types of climate impacts—like changes in water availability or crop yields—that might affect states and societies in a somewhat predictable manner. There is simply no physical basis for believing that significant—large compared to natural variability—impacts could be targeted at the level of the nation-state.

Thus, SAI would be much too imprecise to function as a useful weapon. To take just one scenario, suppose the United States wished to attack Venezuela. The most predictable damage the United States could inflict using SAI would be a reduction in precipitation caused by dispersing aerosols solely in the southern hemisphere; doing so would shift the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), an equatorial band of tropical rainfall northward, leading to decreased rainfall over Caribbean South America. But since the ITCZ circles the globe, this action would disrupt (sub)tropical precipitation worldwide. Indiscriminate climate modification of this nature would surely not be welcomed by China (America’s principal rival), India (the linchpin of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy), or Mexico (America’s southern neighbor and third largest trading partner).

Furthermore, the effect would be slow-moving within Venezuela, requiring perhaps years to determine whether reduced rainfall was responsible for observed impacts like droughts or food shortages. And it would be even harder to link this intervention to combat readiness, battlefield conditions, and other operational variables with clear implications for warfighting. Whatever strategic or tactical benefits might accrue to the United States, they would be dwarfed by the costs, risks, and uncertainties produced by worldwide rainfall disruptions affecting friends and enemies alike. SAI lacks the minimum level of precision—in space, time, and effect—implicit in the concept of a weapon.

The other two solar geoengineering technologies regularly discussed—low-level marine cloud brightening (MCB) using seawater spray to block incoming sunlight, and high-altitude cirrus cloud thinning (CCT) via dissipative seeding to enable more outgoing heat to escape the atmosphere—could be deployed with far more precision in space and time, yet it would still be extraordinarily difficult to use them to produce strong local effects, and such effects would inevitably cause significant distant consequences. It is conceivable that if MCB or CCT were deployed at global scale then they could be fine-tuned using meteorological data to enable limited weather control. But this is unproven, and even if possible, the physical consequences might be too diffuse or easily countered to have significant military value.

This is not to say that weaponization is utterly impossible. If solar geoengineering was implemented using low-Earth orbiting sunshades adjustable in real time, then some more precise military applications are imaginable. Yet this form of solar geoengineering is so far from practical reality as to be science fiction.

Weaponization might therefore be at least theoretically possible in a few exceptional cases, but in terms of real world policy relevance, the kinds of solar geoengineering that might plausibly be deployed in the next half-century—including SAI—would simply not be weaponizable. This conclusion does not depend on any assumption of goodwill, but instead follows directly from an understanding of the physical limits of practical technologies. For this reason, serious assessments of solar geoengineering—like the recently released National Academies of Sciences report—ignore the issue altogether.

This is encouraging, and yet the persistence of hints and suggestions that solar geoengineering might be weaponizable has the cumulative effect of helping shift attention away from hard, unavoidable problems toward more fantastical concerns regarding nebulous threats to national and global security. As discussions about solar geoengineering start to move from academic forums to policy circles, it is time to leave such distractions behind and focus more squarely on those aspects of this otherwise promising technology with real potential to cause harm and destabilize world politics.

Original post on Council on Foreign Relations

Rolling Stone: The Climate Debates: How Dangerous Is Solar Geoengineering?

More and more people have come to understand the urgency of the climate crisis in recent years, and Americans have elected a president in Joe Biden who has pledged to make addressing climate the centerpiece of his administration, but there is much debate about exactly how we should go about confronting our collective climate challenge. Choices we make today will echo for generations into the future.

In the run-up to Earth Day, Rolling Stone held a series of three debates, each focusing on a different contentious climate solution: solar geoengineering, carbon removal, and how quickly we can and should stop using natural gas.

Geoengineering may be the biggest, most controversial idea that scientists and engineers have cooked up since the nuclear bomb. In this debate, we focus on solar engineering, technology that would cool the planet’s temperature by spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect away a fraction of the sunlight that is hitting the Earth. Building a sun shade for the planet is one way to think about it.

We discuss some of the central issues: Is the climate crisis so far gone that we need to consider risky ideas like solar engineering? Is solar engineering a hubristic dream of techno-elitists or the best tool we have to reduce the impacts of a warming climate for millions of people in the developing world? Who would be the winners and losers in a geoengineered world?

Joining Rolling Stone for the debate are David Keith and Alex Steffen. Keith has been thinking about and researching geoengineering for as long as anyone (I first met him while reporting my 2011 book How to Cool the Planet). He is a professor of applied physics at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as a professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. In 2013, he wrote A Case for Climate Engineering, which is a nuts-and bolts tour of the potential risks and benefits of geoengineering. You can follow his work on Twitter @DKeithClimate.

Alex Steffen is an award-winning writer and futurist who has spent the last 30 years or so exploring the growing planetary crisis and what lies ahead for humanity. Steffen’s books include WorldchangingCarbon Zero and the forthcoming The Snap Forward: Climate Leadership in the Real World. You can follow his work on Twitter @alexsteffen.

Watch the debate on carbon removal, featuring Julio Friedmann and Elizabeth Yeampierre, here. Watch the debate on natural gas, featuring Julian Brave NoiseCat and Arvind Ravikumar, here.

Original post on Rolling Stone

SCoPEx, Harvard University: New Frontiers in Climate Change Research

SCoPEx is a scientific experiment to advance understanding of stratospheric aerosols that could be relevant to solar geoengineering. It aims to improve the fidelity of simulations (computer models) of solar geoengineering by providing modellers with experimental results vital to addressing specific science questions. Such simulations are the primary tool for estimating the risks and benefits of solar geoengineering, but current limitations may make the simulations look too good. SCoPEx will make quantitative measurements of aspects of the aerosol microphysics and atmospheric chemistry that are currently highly uncertain in the simulations. It is not a test of solar geoengineering per se. Instead, it will observe how particles interact with one another, with the background stratospheric air, and with solar and infrared radiation. Improved understanding of these processes will help answer applied questions such as, is it possible to find aerosols that can reduce or eliminate ozone loss, without increasing other physical risks?

Boston Globe: The world needs to explore solar geoengineering as a tool to fight climate change

By David Keith

Solar geoengineering, also called solar climate intervention, is the idea that humans could make the planet a bit more reflective to reduce temperatures and other climate changes caused by accumulating carbon emissions. But at what cost?

A casual observer will read that geoengineering causes droughts, makes weather less predictable, dims the blue sky, and threatens the food supply of billions who depend on monsoon rains. And that’s the short list. But is it fair?

A technology’s risks depend on how it’s used. Antibiotics save lives, but if overused to make cheap beef in feedlots they breed deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria. As with other technologies, the risks of geoengineering cannot be evaluated without a scenario for goals and governance. Like antibiotics, geoengineering could be deadly if overused.

A worthy goal for solar geoengineering is to slow climate change without making any region worse off. Plausible methods include spraying sea salt into the air to brighten marine clouds or injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to reflect some sunlight back to space. A fairly uniform application of geoengineering across the globe is less prone to make some regions worse off because atmospheric teleconnections mean that a strong localized application may cause unwanted climate changes elsewhere. While there will certainly be harmful impacts of geoengineering under such a scenario, evidence suggests that it would reduce heat waves, extreme storms, and rising seas, and the benefits would greatly outweigh direct physical risks, such as added air pollution. Studies suggest that such geoengineering would increase crop yields, and it would not perceptibly dim the blue sky. And because the benefits of reduced climate change are felt most strongly in the hottest and poorest parts of the world, it would reduce global income inequality.

An Internet search for “geoengineering and drought” turns up thousands of hits, most prominently a Guardian article titled “Geoengineering could bring severe drought to the tropics, research shows.” But despite widespread reporting, not a single scientific article demonstrates that geoengineering increases droughts. This disconnect is not confined to the popular press. The only article on geoengineering to make the cover of Nature, the world’s most prestigious scientific journal, did so under the headline “Veiled threat.” Yet the research article simply showed that geoengineering might not have an effect on crop yields, in contrast to previous research that suggested geoengineering would increase yields.

Why the sharp divergence between media and science? It’s driven, in part, by a well-intentioned sense of caution that solar geoengineering will weaken efforts to cut carbon emissions. This is geoengineering’s addiction problem, often called its moral hazard. If it encourages more fossil emissions by masking the climate pain they cause, then it is addictive because every ton of extra fossil carbon emissions increases climate risks, thereby increasing the demand for geoengineering to mask the pain.

It’s a reasonable fear. Heat waves, storms, and other climate changes grow in proportion to cumulative emissions of carbon. That is to the cumulative amount of coal, gas, and oil that humanity has used since the Industrial Revolution. Solar geoengineering acts quickly and temporarily, but it can only partially reduce climate risk, and it brings risks of its own. Suppose geoengineering were used to stop the rise in global temperatures while fossil fuel burning continued unabated. One would then need to keep increasing the geoengineering dose just to hold temperatures constant against the rising tide of carbon. This path leads to disaster.

Addiction is an apt analogy. Used wisely, morphine is a wonder drug, but using morphine to mask the pain while avoiding the exercise needed to cure it puts one on a path to disaster.

My guess is that many environmental scientists highlight the risks of geoengineering and downplay its benefits out of a well-founded concern of the potential for addiction. Many journalists share these instincts and further amplify this tendency, thus explaining the sharp divergence between media and geoengineering science.

The intentions are good, but the consequences are not. Decision-makers and the public they serve need balanced information about the effectiveness and risks of geoengineering. They are ill-served if the geoengineering’s real physical risks are conflated with the equally real political threat that geoengineering will be exploited by fossil fuel interest groups to block the transformation of our energy infrastructure away from carbon.

How to address the political risk of geoengineering addiction? First, the research community working on geoengineering must speak unequivocally about the dangers of the continued reliance on fossil fuels and confront attempts by fossil fuel interests to exploit geoengineering research by falsely arguing that it justifies inaction. More important, policy makers can build governance that links decisions about the implementation of geoengineering to accelerated efforts to cut emissions.

Climate advocates, including the big environmental groups, have generally avoided talk of geoengineering out of concern that it will divert attention from the urgent goal of cutting emissions. With a few exceptions, their strategy has generally been to wish the geoengineering issue away. There are three things wrong with this.

First, it’s not likely to go away. Some crude methods of geoengineering could be implemented cheaply with technologies accessible to all but the smallest countries. The likelihood that a coalition of countries facing extreme climate damages will move toward ill-considered deployment of geoengineering grows with the increase in climate risks and the gradual accumulation of knowledge and technological capability. Second, the wish-it-away strategy blocks development of a serious research effort that could reduce uncertainty. Less than 1 percent of climate science funds are focused on geoengineering. Finally, there is the prospect that geoengineering could substantially reduce climate risks for most humans and reduce the net human impact on the natural world.

We must be wary of errors of both commission and omission. The obvious nightmare is that the future possibility of geoengineering slows efforts to stop emissions but that the technology turns out to be infeasible. People are right to fear over-reliance on technofixes. But there’s another nightmare: It’s that after bringing emissions to zero, we realize in hindsight that early use of geoengineering could have saved millions of lives lost in heat waves and helped preserve some of the natural world. The rise of the antivax movement sadly demonstrates the dangers of prejudice against life-saving technologies.

There are no easy answers. Both errors are possible. But societies have the best chance to make good decisions if they distinguish the very real political risks of geoengineering addiction from the equally real physical risks and benefits of solar geoengineering. It would be crazy to start deploying solar geoengineering today. It’s perhaps equally crazy to keep ignoring it. Our children will be better served by a serious international open-access research effort coupled with stronger action to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Original post on Boston Globe