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The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering

by Clive Hamilton

Hardcover, 247 pages, Yale Univ Pr, List Price: $28 |


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The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering
Clive Hamilton

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Clive Hamilton looks at climate change, focusing on collaboration between scientists and big business to develop advances in geoengineering so that humans can fight the warming of the globe.

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Risky Tech Fixes For Climate Becoming Likelier, Critic Warns

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Earthmasters




Copyright © 2013 Clive Hamilton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-18667-3


List of Figures and Tables.......................viiiPreface..........................................ixAcknowledgements.................................xi1 Why Geoengineering?............................12 Sucking Carbon.................................203 Regulating Sunlight............................514 The Players and the Public.....................725 Promethean Dreams..............................1076 Atmospheric Geopolitics........................1387 Ethical Anxieties..............................1588 This Goodly Frame..............................184Notes............................................211Index............................................238

Chapter One

Why Geoengineering?

Climate fix

As the effects of global warming begin to frighten us, geoengineering will come to dominate global politics. Scientists and engineers are now investigating methods to manipulate the Earth's cloud cover, change the oceans' chemical composition and blanket the planet with a layer of sunlight-reflecting particles. Geoengineering – deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system designed to counter global warming or offset some of its effects – is commonly divided into two broad classes. Carbon dioxide removal technologies aim to extract excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it somewhere less dangerous. This approach is a kind of clean-up operation after we have dumped our waste into the sky. Solar radiation management technologies seek to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet, thereby reducing the amount of energy trapped in the atmosphere of 'greenhouse Earth'. This is not a clean-up but an attempt to mask one of the effects of dumping waste into the sky, a warming globe.

Diligent contributors to Wikipedia have listed some 45 proposed geoengineering schemes or variations on schemes. Eight or ten of them are receiving serious attention (and will be considered in the next chapters). Some are grand in conception, some are prosaic; some are purely speculative, some are all too feasible; yet all of them tell us something interesting about how the Earth system works. Taken together they reveal a community of scientists who think about the planet on which we live in a way that is alien to the popular understanding. Let me give a few examples.

It is well known that as the sea-ice in the Arctic melts the Earth loses some of its albedo or reflectivity – white ice is replaced by dark seawater which absorbs more heat. If a large area of the Earth's surface could be whitened then more of the Sun's warmth would be reflected back into space rather than absorbed. A number of schemes have been proposed, including painting roofs white, which is unlikely to make any significant difference globally. What might be helpful would be to cut down all of the forests in Siberia and Canada. While it is generally believed that more forests are a good thing because trees absorb carbon, boreal (northern) forests have a downside. Compared to the snow-covered forest floor beneath, the trees are dark and absorb more solar radiation. If they were felled the exposed ground would reflect a significantly greater proportion of incoming solar radiation and the Earth would therefore be cooler. If such a suggestion appears outrageous it is in part because matters are never so simple in the Earth system. Warming would cause the snow on the denuded lands to melt, and the situation would be worse than before the forests were cleared.

More promisingly perhaps, at least at a local scale, is the attempt to rescue Peruvian glaciers, whose disappearance is depriving the adjacent grasslands and their livestock of their water supply. Painting the newly dark mountains with a white slurry of water, sand and lime keeps them cooler and allows ice to form; at least that is the hope. The World Bank is funding research.

Another idea is to create a particle cloud between the Earth and the Sun from dust mined on the moon and scattered in the optimal place. This is reminiscent of the US military's 'black cloud experiment' of 1973, which simulated the effect on the Earth's climate of reducing incoming solar radiation by a few per cent. Consistent with the long history of military interest in climate control, the study was commissioned by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's technology research arm, and carried out by the RAND Corporation, the secretive think tank described as 'a key institutional building block of the Cold War American empire'. I summon up the black cloud experiment here to flag the nascent military and strategic interest being stirred by geoengineering. As we will see in chapter 5, the attention of the RAND Corporation has recently returned to climate engineering.

In 1993 the esteemed journal Climatic Change published a novel scheme to counter global warming by the Indian physicist P. C. Jain. Professor Jain began by reminding us that the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth varies in inverse square to the distance of the Earth from the Sun. He therefore proposed that the effects of global warming could be countered by increasing the radius of the Earth's orbit around the Sun. An orbital expansion of 1–2 per cent would do it, although one of the side effects would be to add 5.5 days to each year. He then calculated how much energy would be needed to bring about such a shift in the Earth's celestial orbit. The answer is around 1031 joules. How much is that? At the current annual rate of consumption, it is more than the amount of energy humans would consume over 1020 years, or 100 billion billion years (the age of the universe is around 14 billion years). This seems like a lot, yet Professor Jain reminds us that 'in many areas of science, seemingly impossible things at one time have become possible later'. Perhaps, he speculates, nuclear fusion will enable us to harness enough energy to expand the Earth's orbit. He nevertheless counsels caution: 'The whole galactic system is naturally and delicately balanced, and any tinkering with it can bring havoc by bringing alterations in orbits of other planets also.'

The caution is well taken, although the intricate network of orbital dependence has stimulated another geoengineering suggestion. The thought is to send nuclear-armed rockets to the asteroid belt beyond the planets of our solar system so as to 'nudge' one or more into orbits that would pass closer to the Earth. Properly calibrated, the sling-shot effect from the asteroid's gravity would shift the Earth orbit out a bit. Of course, if the calibration were a little out, the planet could be sent careening off into a cold, dark universe, or suffer a drastic planet-scale freezing from the dust thrown up by an asteroid strike.

Some of these schemes seem properly to belong in an H. G. Wells novel or a geeks' discussion group, and too much emphasis on them for the delights of ridicule would give a very unbalanced impression of the research programme into climate engineering now underway. That imbalance will be rectified in the next chapters where we will see that serious work is being conducted on schemes to regulate the Earth system by changing the chemical composition of the world's oceans, modifying the layer of clouds that covers a large portion of the oceans and installing a 'solar shield', a layer of sulphate particles in the upper atmosphere to reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the planet. There are some who believe that we will have no choice but to resort to these radical interventions. How did we get to this point? The simple answer is that the scientists who understand climate change most deeply have become afraid.

Hope against fear

In 1959 David E. Price, MD, US Assistant Surgeon General, addressed a conference of industrial hygienists with these words:

we live under the shadow of a haunting fear that something may corrupt the environment to the point where man joins the dinosaurs as an obsolete form of life. And what makes these thoughts all the more disturbing is the knowledge that our fate could perhaps be sealed 20 or more years before the development of symptoms.

The shadow under which Americans lived was the dual fear of atomic radiation and chemical pollution. Trepidation that the air might be unsafe to breathe gripped the nation. It was the not-knowing that gave rise to a 'mass investment in worry' unmatched, said Price, by an investment in efforts to find out. All that was to change within a few years, spurred by Rachel Carson's earth-shaking book Silent Spring, published in 1962, which both confirmed American anxieties about the impact of the chemical war in agriculture and triggered the rise of modern environmentalism.

The haunting fear that something is corrupting the environment has returned, at least for some. Within our breasts fear and hope are duelling. For a few, the reasons to be afraid have prevailed; for most, hope fights on valiantly. Yet hope wages a losing battle; as the scientists each month publish more reasons to worry, and the lethargy of political leaders drains the wellsprings of hope. In 1959 Dr Price invoked that all-conquering sentiment of American greatness, unbounded optimism: 'Stronger than fear is the conviction that what may at times appear to be the shadow of extinction is in reality the darkness preceding the dawn of the greatest era of progress man has ever known.' He was right about the post-war decades. But the world has changed, and now there is a constant trickle of defectors, traitors to hope. To pick out one, the chair of the International Risk Governance Council, Donald Johnston, for ten years the secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), recently wrote: 'By nature I am not a pessimist, but it requires more optimism than I can generate to believe' that the world will limit warming to 2°C higher than the pre-industrial level. Business as usual is a more likely scenario, he added, taking the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from its pre-industrial level of 280 parts per million past its current 395 ppm to 700 ppm this century, 'with horrendous climate change and unthinkable economic and societal consequences'.

The anxiety deepened each year through the 2000s as it became clearer that the range of emissions paths mapped out by experts in the 1990s were unduly optimistic and that the actual growth in emissions, boosted by explosive growth in China, has described a pathway that is worse than the worst-case scenario. When scientists announced that the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010 was almost 6 per cent, breaking all previous records and wiping out the benefits of a temporary lull due to the global recession, many climate scientists around the world drew a sharp in-breath.

The International Energy Agency of the OECD is a staid organization that for years has shared the worldview of oil and coal industry executives. It is the last international body that could be accused of green sympathies, other than the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. So a frisson of dread ran through the climate change community in November 2011 when the IEA released its annual World Energy Outlook, the 'bible' of the energy sector. It exposed the target of keeping warming below the 'dangerous' level of 2°C as a pipe-dream; on current projections, the energy infrastructure expected to be in place as early as 2017 will be enough to lock in future carbon emissions that will warm the Earth by much more. Coal-fired power plants have a lifetime of 50 or 60 years. Waiting for new energy technologies is not an option. If governments do no more than implement the policies they are currently committed to, the IEA expects the world to warm by 3.5°C by the end of the century. 'On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.' If those policy goals prove to be more aspirational than actual then the world is on track for average warming of 6°C above pre-industrial levels, which is almost unthinkable.

It's hard to communicate to the public what a world warmed by 3.5°C will be like, let alone 6°C, or even that the IEA, and all the other organizations saying the same thing, should be taken seriously. After all, for many people one unseasonable snowstorm is enough to nullify decades of painstaking scientific study. And psychologists have discovered that, after accounting for all other factors, when people are put in a room and asked about climate change they are significantly more likely to agree that global warming is 'a proven fact' if the thermostat is turned up. Patients with diseases they believe to be serious but untreatable are markedly less likely to agree to diagnostic tests. If it's bad, I don't want to know. Suffice it to say here that 3.5°C means a different kind of world, one hotter than it has been for 15 million years, and not the kind of world on which modern life forms evolved. It would be, eventually, a world without ice – no glaciers, no Arctic sea-ice, no Greenland ice sheet and, almost inconceivably, no Antarctic ice mass. The destabilization of the Earth's climate and natural systems expected this century under the IEA's more 'optimistic' scenario would cascade through the centuries beyond.

For at least a decade, climate scientists and environmental groups have been disturbed by the widening gap between the actions demanded by the evidence and those being implemented or even considered by the major emitting nations. A creeping fear took hold that the truth would be faced too late. After the 1997 Kyoto agreement to reduce global emissions there was an expectation that, having recognized the danger, the world would respond with policies to turn the curve of global emissions downwards. Despite the almost immediate repudiation of the protocol by the United States and Australia it was possible to retain the hope that good sense would prevail. Yet the attacks on the protocol were so persistent and effective that even today journalists unthinkingly reproduce talking points of climate change deniers such as that 'China refused to sign' the treaty. (In fact, China ratified the protocol in August 2002.)

By 2005 the Kyoto Protocol had been ratified by enough nations for it to enter into force. Yet by then it seemed like a pyrrhic victory, its inadequacy highlighted by the fact that growth in world emissions, far from turning down or even stabilizing, had actually accelerated. In the 1970s and 1980s global emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels grew at 2 per cent each year. In the 1990s they had fallen to 1 per cent, giving some grounds for cheer. However, from the year 2000, driven mostly by China's astonishing economic expansion, the growth rate of the world's carbon dioxide emissions almost trebled to 3 per cent each year. For those who grasped the enormity of what was at stake, the remnant forces of hope for international action were gathered together for one last mighty push at the Copenhagen conference in 2009. The collapse of the talks left an abyss of despair for the future of the world, one that was not papered over by the milquetoast agreement in Durban in 2011 to begin negotiations for a treaty, to be agreed in 2015, to take effect not before 2020. It is as if the ostriches had awarded themselves another decade to bury their heads. As philosopher René Girard asked: What do we make of today's political leaders 'who claim to be saving us when in fact they are plunging us deeper into devastation each day?'

While governments have been dragging their feet on abatement measures, there has been no shortage of enthusiasm to open up new sources of fossil energy. The Canadian government has facilitated the development of that country's vast tar sands, the most environmentally destructive source of oil. The Russian government, after sending a submarine to plant a flag on the floor of the ice-depleted Arctic sea, encourages its firms to drill for oil, while other oil companies circle. To fend off peak oil (the point after which petroleum production goes into decline because oil fields are being depleted and no new ones can be found), governments in China, South Africa, India and Australia are backing companies that want to revive processes that convert coal into oil. Each of these is worse for the environment than existing sources of fossil fuels, yet they present lucrative commercial opportunities and attract official backing. After pointing out that the amount of carbon in the world's proven coal, oil and gas reserves is five times greater than the amount scientists say it is safe to put into the atmosphere, Bill McKibben notes the irony of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton travelling to the Arctic to see the damage caused by warming – 'sobering', she called it – before getting down to negotiations with other foreign ministers about how to get access to the new Arctic oil reserves. In this schizoid world, perhaps no nation can compete with Australia. While a modest price was introduced on carbon emissions in 2012, the expansion of new mines to augment the nation's coal exports, already the largest in the world, proceeds apace. According to one estimate, over the next decade the impact on global greenhouse gas emissions of the expansion of Australian coal exports will be 11 times greater than the reduction due to the carbon price legislation.