'Climate hacking' would be easy – that doesn't mean we should do it

January 5, 2015 by Erik Van Sebille And Katelijn Van Hende, The Conversation
Just mimic this a few dozen times and we’ll be right. Right? Credit: Taro Taylor/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Some people might argue that the greatest moral challenge of our time is serious enough to justify deliberately tampering with our climate to stave off the damaging effects of global warming.

Geoengineering, or "climate hacking", to use its more emotive nickname, is a direct intervention in the natural environments of our planet, including our atmosphere, seas and oceans.

It has been suggested that might buy us time to prevent warming above 2C, and that we should look at it seriously in case everything goes pear-shaped with our climate.

There are two problems with this argument. The first is that we already have an affordable solution with a relatively well-understood outcome: reducing our carbon emissions.

The second is that geoengineering itself is fraught with danger and that, worryingly, the most dangerous version, called solar radiation management, is also the most popular with those exploring this field.

Down in flames

In essence, solar radiation management is about mimicking volcanoes. Climate scientists have known for years that major volcanic eruptions can eject so much ash into the high atmosphere that they effectively dim the sun.

The tiny ash particles block the sunlight, reducing the amount of solar energy that reaches Earth's surface. A major volcanic eruption like that of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 can cause worldwide cooling of about 0.1C for about two or three years.

As global temperatures will rise in the business-as-usual scenario, leading to a projected increase of almost 4C in the coming century, the ash of a few each year could theoretically offset the temperature rise due to the burning of fossil fuels.

Science has also taught us that depositing the ash, or something similar, into the is not very difficult. Some studies show that by using balloons, it could cost as little as a few billion dollars per year.

It certainly sounds like a much cheaper and easier approach than trying to negotiate a worldwide treaty to cut from nations across the globe.

Unlike global emissions cuts, geoengineering has the potential to be financed and implemented by a single wealthy individual, and can arguably be accomplished with a lot less effort.

Major problems

If it is so easy, why aren't we already pumping ash into the sky to dim the Sun? Perhaps predictably, it's because this climate solution is likely to create new problems of its own.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has completely rejected solar radiation management – not because it is too hard, but because there is no guarantee that the consequences will be benign.

There are three major problems that make this form of geoengineering so dangerous that, hopefully, it will never be used.

First, it does not address the root cause of . It only addresses one of the symptoms: , while failing to deal with related issues such as ocean acidification. This is because our will continue to build up in the atmosphere and dissolve in the oceans, making seawater more acidic and making it harder for species like corals and oysters to form their skeletons.

The second problem is also related to the continued build-up of . If, at some point in the future, we stop pumping ash into the skies, the ash will rapidly wash out from the atmosphere in a few years. Yet with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels even higher than before, Earth will experience rapid "catch-up" warming. According to the IPCC, this could be as much as 2C per decade – roughly 10 times the current rate. This would be very troubling, given that many species, including in places such as Sydney, are already struggling to adapt to the current pace of change.

Third, pumping dust into our skies will almost certainly change the weather. In particular, it is likely to alter the amount of rainfall from country to country. Some will become drier, others wetter, with a range of grave impacts on many types of agriculture. It is not yet clear how individual countries will be affected, but we know that unpredictable water and food supplies can provoke regional conflict and even war.

Safeguarding the future

The precautionary principle has been embedded into national environmental laws and some international agreements (such as Article 3 (3) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). While this principle impels countries to act to stave off climate harm, it would also arguably require geoengineering proposals to be scrutinised with care.

It is difficult to design cautious policies, or even draw up regulations, on issues like geoengineering, where the outcome can at best only be partly predictable. Policies and regulations should be designed to have an intended and purposeful effect, which geo-engineering at the moment cannot deliver.

Some researchers have gone as far as to brand geoengineering immoral, while the concept has also been described as an Earth experiment, in addition to the experiment already being done with greenhouse emissions.

Explore further: A multi-model geoengineering assessment looks at potential climate effects

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16 comments

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fire3000
3.6 / 5 (5) Jan 05, 2015
Much more effort is needed in reducing carbon emissions, but forms of geo-engineering may be needed if those efforts fail.
Wake
1.5 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2015
Even the dummies in the crowd can go to Wiklpedia and look up "ice age" to discover that we are presently nearing the end of an ice age. That means that warming is what is to be expected and is an entirely normal and natural event in the earth's climate.

I could repeatedly quote ALL of the science that shows that CO2 has NO effect on the climate but the True Believers are more than willing to use a natural event on the Earth to "prove" that it is ALL man's fault.

Eventually the polar ice caps will mostly disappear. The sea levels will rise. And THIS IS ALL NATURAL. Man did not cause it and man cannot stop it.

Those that claim that they could stop the earth from proceeding out of it's present ice age and somehow keep a status quo should be locked up for their own protection from themselves.
gkam
1.9 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2015
We can do it, . . . . just like we tamed and controlled nuclear power, . . . at Fukushima.
gkam
3 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2015
Wake, we are not coming out of a ice age, we are going into one. Look up the geological records.
TourLooper
1.6 / 5 (7) Jan 05, 2015
Exactly what I've been saying all along: who is to decide how we control the climate? The polar ice caps were once hot tubs infested with dinosaurs; and the Earth was once a complete snowball. The oceans have been 50' higher and 50' lower than current levels. How warm is it supposed to be?
gkam
2 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2015
Do you want to live in such a place?
runrig
5 / 5 (8) Jan 05, 2015
Even the dummies in the crowd can go to Wiklpedia and look up "ice age" to discover that we are presently nearing the end of an ice age. That means that warming is what is to be expected and is an entirely normal and natural event in the earth's climate.

Oh hello TROLL...
Dummies eh? well you even failed at that as the Earth has mostly been cooling since the end of the HCO (Holocene climatic optimum - Google it and while you're at it, Mr Milankovitch) and is certainly NOT "nearing the end of an ice age".
I could repeatedly quote ALL of the science that shows that CO2 has NO effect on the climate but the True Believers are more than willing to use a natural event on the Earth to "prove" that it is ALL man's fault.

I'm sure you could - but it would be "science" from a Blog. The world's experts create the science my friend and as they agree on AGW that would be mutually exclusive.
Losik
Jan 05, 2015
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
crusher
5 / 5 (3) Jan 05, 2015
"it certainly sounds like a much cheaper and easier approach than trying to negotiate a worldwide treaty to cut carbon emissions from nations across the globe."

geoenginnering by itself is not a solution. Unless we control co2 and methane emissions we will have to loft an increasing amount of sun blocking stuff into the atmosphere. Geoengineering should be regarded as the last resort if everything else fails.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.8 / 5 (6) Jan 05, 2015
"pumping dust into our skies will almost certainly change the weather. In particular, it is likely to alter the amount of rainfall from country to country. Some will become drier, others wetter"

-The weather is already changing. And putting dust into the atmosphere isnt going to change the weather any differently than any volcano that has erupted recently. And it would be temporary, lasting only a few years.

Importantly it would be an attempt at a controlled experiment into the possibility of reducing warming. We ought to try it now before the need becomes critical.
Geoengineering should be regarded as the last resort if everything else fails
We ought to begin experimenting now so we have a better idea of what our options are. We can consider it a last resort but we dont know if it is or not without some experimentation.
EyeNStein
4.5 / 5 (2) Jan 05, 2015
We need to improve our climate models before we can consider such "solutions" to warming.
We are already geo-engineering by default - Analyse that first.
Then perhaps 'solar heat chimney/convection pumping' the LA or Delhi or Beijing etc. smogs up into the upper atmosphere would be a great idea and a good use for the unwanted smoke particulates.
Our climate models are getting to the point where El'nino and major airstream kinks are predictable. We 'just' need to improve the detail and accuracy to the point where such a risky step could be agreed internationally.

Shootist
1 / 5 (6) Jan 05, 2015
AGW is appearing more and more to be a house of cards built upon fraud and greed. The "hocky" stick never hunted and now all ocean acidification studies are under question because of research fraud.

Yes. Yes. Spend some money on research and data gathering. Make sure you leave 10% for the non-consensus folks to play with.

Take cheer, and heed Freeman Dyson, who says, "the polar bears will be fine."

"Generally speaking, I'm much more of a conformist, but it happens I have strong views about climate because I think the majority is badly wrong, and you have to make sure if the majority is saying something that they're not talking nonsense." - Freeman Dyson
alfie_null
5 / 5 (6) Jan 06, 2015
Take cheer, and heed Freeman Dyson, who says, "the polar bears will be fine."

This seems to be one of your favorite quips. Any space up there for more thoughts, or is that it? Please try to impress us with your ability to write something original.

Dyson said (and wrote) lots of other stuff. Including an acknowledgement that AGW is real, and that we will need to devote lots of resources to understanding it (meaning, spending more money, something you just noted you are against).
crusher
5 / 5 (2) Jan 09, 2015
We can do it, . . . . just like we tamed and controlled nuclear power, . . . at Fukushima.

LOL
axemaster
5 / 5 (3) Jan 10, 2015
You know, when most scientists are freaked out by an idea, maybe that idea isn't so great after all? Climate engineering falls under this category.

There are serious problems with climate engineering. For one, it doesn't stop the CO2 increase - this means that the EXTREMELY SERIOUS problem of ocean acidification will continue to get worse, threatening the marine food chain - and by extension a huge chunk of the world's food supply. For another, any climate modification would have to be actively maintained by us - if somebody forgets to feed the beast, it'll come back with a vengeance pretty quickly.

An analogy that just occurred to me: somebody comes into the hospital with their leg cut off, bleeding to death. The doctor puts a tube in their arm and sends them home with a bunch of bloodbags.

Patient - Can't you just make it stop bleeding?
Doc - That'll cost $10000, this is cheaper at $500 per day.

This is the breathtaking logic that underlies global warming deniers.
crusher
5 / 5 (1) Jan 10, 2015
Take cheer, and heed Freeman Dyson, who says, "the polar bears will be fine."

This seems to be one of your favorite quips. Any space up there for more thoughts, or is that it? Please try to impress us with your ability to write something original.

Dyson said (and wrote) lots of other stuff. Including an acknowledgement that AGW is real, and that we will need to devote lots of resources to understanding it (meaning, spending more money, something you just noted you are against).

Freeman Dyson is a nuclear physicist, what does he know about climatology and ecology?
He is not an expert.

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