The politics of climate fixes

Nov 06, 2009 by David Chandler
Graphic: Christine Daniloff

In the middle of a day filled with a stream of information-packed PowerPoint displays and alarming projections of what the future holds for our planet and our civilization, Judith Layzer’s talk was something of an anomaly.

Layzer, an assistant professor of environmental policy in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, was among the speakers at last Friday’s daylong symposium on “Engineering a Cooler Earth.” She immediately changed the tone of the day’s presentations by dispensing with graphs and charts and speaking only with the aid of her quite expressive gestures.

The symposium was a detailed exploration of a subject that has long been nearly taboo even for polite discussion: that instead of, or in addition to, the emissions-reduction strategies usually looked at as a way to stave off the dangers of global , there might be other ways of solving or at least reducing some of the effects faster, more inexpensively or both, through grand schemes collectively known as geo-engineering. These include two major approaches: pulling right out of the air, or blocking some percentage of incoming sunlight to reduce temperatures.

Drawing upon colorful anecdotes and historical references, Layzer described the uphill battle the world faces in dealing with the social and political realities of trying to change deeply entrenched habits, systems and interests.

She began by talking about the new bestseller, “SuperFreakonomics,” which ends with a chapter about geo-engineering and has attracted a storm of controversy for its suggestion of a possible cheap, easy fix. “[The authors] begin by saying that catastrophic climate change is unlikely,” Layzer explained, and then go on to suggest that any efforts to curb emissions, though worth pursuing, are likely to be “too little, too late,” but that instead the geo-engineering approach offers an “easy fix.”

The chapter focuses on one particular approach to reducing sunlight: injecting massive amounts of sulfur into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling effect observed after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991. “There’s a fundamental disagreement,” she suggested, “over whether the risks of geo-engineering exceed the risks of climate change.”

The risks, as several symposium speakers described in detail, include the fact that such an approach would require an essentially permanent commitment to a massive project — injecting two Pinatubo’s-worth of sulfur into the stratosphere every year — that, if stopped at any time, could lead to an even more rapid rise in global temperatures than would happen with no intervention. And the fact that, with increased concentrations of carbon dioxide, oceans would continue to grow more acidic and thwart the growth of any marine shellfish and coral.

Virtually all of the symposium’s presenters agreed that the methods based on reducing sunlight, as with the sulfur injections, are too uncertain and prone to side effects to be serious candidates for solving the problem. Carbon-removal schemes, however, might have some promise and are worth at least researching. These ideas include enhancements to natural biological processes that remove carbon from the air, or the development of technological substitutes such as “artificial trees” that could have the same effect.

Layzer, like most of the symposium’s speakers, framed geo-engineering approaches as something that might turn out to be necessary if other measures fail to take hold, or if the rate of climate change turns out to be worse than expected. In short, something that should be studied just in case.

At its core, the intense over global warming, and over concepts for ameliorating its effects through geo-engineering, is not so much about the science or the technology, she suggested. “The debate is and will continue to be driven by political considerations.”

She said she sees some hope for a common-sense path that may bypass the very different world views of the often-acrimonious sides in debates over global-warming policy. Increasingly, she said, big businesses that for many years were pressuring political leaders to delay any action on controlling carbon emissions now see a new clean-energy future as an opportunity. Helped along by President Barack Obama’s framing of the issue, she said, they have increasingly “changed the image from sacrifice to business gains.”

Nobody thinks the road to mitigating climate change will be easy. Any such efforts involve “going up against the biggest industry in the history of mankind,” Layzer points out. Still, “the political momentum does seem to be real,” she said, “and the collapse of coalitions that have opposed it is the best evidence of that.”

The main focus, she and most of the other symposium speakers emphasized, should remain on curbing greenhouse gas emissions. But with a problem so fraught with uncertainties and political complexities, it makes sense to hedge our bets.

And that’s a point that’s clear enough, without the need for a chart or a graph.

Provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (news : web)

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User comments : 7

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defunctdiety
3.9 / 5 (13) Nov 06, 2009
This is pure insanity. How can any rational person believe that man's actions have caused a catastrophic change in climate but at the same time assert that we need to introduce even more radical changes to fix it?! This is absolutely terrifying and has no basis in science or ethics.

“changed the image from sacrifice to business gains.”

This sums it up right here. BUSINESS gains. No mention, or even concern, for gains in the ENVIRONMENT or of the PEOPLE!! That's because the environment and the People LOSE. It further drives the environment from it's natural state and costs the People money.

I hope everyone who agrees with me has the will and ability to SPEAK OUT against this ridiculousness.
superhuman
3.6 / 5 (11) Nov 06, 2009
Geoengineering is not an option. The effects are completely unpredictable. If things go wrong we may face not only an unprecedented climate disaster but also a global conflict with countries blaming each other and fighting over compensation.
jerryd
1.9 / 5 (13) Nov 06, 2009
Defuckdiety, sadly it's your ideas that are defunked. Just because you can't wrap your mind around the facts of climate change doesn't mean it's not there.

I'd bet you think we are cooling when it's only if you take 1 yr that was really hot from a powerful El Nino as the starting point that you could get anything to show it. Yet if you take any other yr or 5-10 yr rolling averages, it shows clearly we are warming.

But the facts are using fossil fuels not only raises GW, but also costs too much and the other pollution damage the air, land, water and as importantly, our health, adding more cost.

Next fossil fuels are rising in cost fast vs RE which is dropping in price. RE in many places is already getting lower cost than fossil fuels, especially in home size units even if you don't include fossil fuels huge subsidies both direct and socialized.

So try to get beyond your bias and open your mind to learn something. Or be lost as the world changes to lower cost, cleaner energy.
defunctdiety
3.8 / 5 (11) Nov 06, 2009
Yes, good, jerryd. It's very nice that you can make wild suppositions, simultaneously demonstrating your emotional dependency on the issue as well as your lack of participation on this forum and flat out juvenile intellect and understanding of the issue, quite the feat cramming that all into one failed post, but sadly you're completely incorrect in your impositions and present yourself like a buffoon. Congratulations, enjoy your stay as laughing stock of Physorg.

Now, I'm not going to waste my time telling you what I think, and don't think, regarding AGW here in this article. It's out there in a hundred others on Physorg which actually relate directly to AGW. I'll keep it on topic, which is of course geoengineering. Which you managed to completely miss mentioning in your elementary summation of a pathetic argument for AGW.

Care to try again? Why is it you think geoengineering is a good way to go? Do try and sound rational this time please.
Noumenon
4 / 5 (6) Nov 06, 2009
Humans can't even prevent wars, starvation, or genecide,... yet these dimwits think they can fix the weather. Defunctdiety, don't worry about it, none of this buffonary will go anywhere.
GrayMouser
4.2 / 5 (6) Nov 06, 2009
I'd bet you think we are cooling when it's only if you take 1 yr that was really hot from a powerful El Nino as the starting point that you could get anything to show it. Yet if you take any other yr or 5-10 yr rolling averages, it shows clearly we are warming.

Of course that warming trend is only true if you pick some arbitrary starting point, like the low point in the last ice age, or the low point in the Maunder Minimum, or the end of the last cooling trend (that many of us remember) in the 1970s-1980s.

Try picking a point a billion years ago and see what the graph looks like.
peteone1
4 / 5 (5) Nov 07, 2009
jerryd said...{{Just because you can't wrap your mind around the facts of climate change doesn't mean it's not there.}}
Oh jerry, we know t hat the climate does indeed change, but not at the behest and whim of human industrial activity. That honor is reserved for nature itself in the form of the almost one-to-one correlation with sunspot activity (solar max and min) that occurs on a cyclic level.

The idea of AGW is pure anti-capitalist propaganda dreamed up by Al Gore and his anti-capitalist leftwing allies in the radical environmentalist movement.

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