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Geoengineering the Climate: Bad for You and Our Energy Future
3 May, 2009 06:29 pm
Proposals to reduce global warming through giant engineering projects or so-called geoengineering abound. Almost all are in the idea stage. But even if they were ready to deploy today, they would be dangerous for the planet, counterproductive for our energy future and unfair to the public.
All of these schemes are still only that, schemes. But, the increasingly dire news about how fast the planet is warming has some serious scientists thinking we may need to do some kind of geoengineering . Even to these scientists, though, geoengineering ought to be a last resort for reasons I'll detail below.
Not so with the fossil fuel industry boosters. Alex Stiffen at WorldChanging has provided a catalogue of their arguments which go something like this: Yes, the world is warming. (They've given up denying this fact.) But instead of limiting greenhouse gases, we could just put mirrors in space to reflect some of the sunlight and reduce the warming. Or we could spew millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to perform the reflection task closer to Earth. The Mt. Pinatubo eruption in 1991 proved that this will work. Or we could seed the oceans with iron which will create algal blooms that then die and carry the carbon dioxide trapped in them to the bottom of the ocean. Any of these would be cheaper than limits on greenhouse gas emissions which will probably be politically impossible to pass anyway. And, by the way, those who advocate carbon emission reductions are denying the poor of the world a chance to rise out of poverty which will require the burning of our remaining stocks of fossil fuels.
Where to begin?
1. None of the proposed fixes are actually ready to go. They would require many more years of investigation, testing, refinement and engineering. This actually isn't a problem for the fossil fuel industry. Its favored strategy to date has been not to win the climate change argument, but to delay action on greenhouse gas emission limits long enough to dispose of its valuable below-ground inventories of fossil fuels. From the beginning, the industry did this by exclaiming that the science on climate change was not settled. We now know for certain that industry insiders didn't actually believe this themselves, but merely adopted it as a useful deception. The New York Times reported recently that the industry's own scientists said in a 1995 internal report for its most important climate lobbying group that “[t]he scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.” You can't be clearer than that!
A now retired newspaper reporter wise to the ways of the fossil fuel industry once described carbon capture and sequestration proposals from the coal industry as a strategy of "delay and fail." It works like this: Promise a technological solution sometime in the future, say, 15 years from now. Then, when it fails to deliver the promised fix, explain that we'll just have to keep on using fossil fuels anyway because that's all we have. The fossil fuel industry's call for geoengineering solutions to climate change is another "delay and fail" stratagem.
2. The risks of geoengineering the climate are little discussed, but they are legion. There is no guarantee that geoengineering would work as advertised. The climate system is immensely complex. We could underdo it or overdo it. We could also affect regional and local climate conditions in unanticipated ways by, for example, creating excessive rainfall in some areas and droughts in others. Or we may get no effect at all if we miscalculate. For the iron in the oceans proposal, the algae might very well decay and release their carbon dioxide before they reach the ocean bottom and are buried in the seabed.
There are other collateral effects, some known and perhaps many others unknown. Putting sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere might work to lower temperature, but it could also result in increased acid rain which forms in the presence of sulfur dioxide. It would also do nothing to slow or reverse the acidification of the oceans which would continue to absorb carbon dioxide. This increased acidity is already affecting marine life and possibly the marine food chain.
3. No one in the fossil fuel industry is offering to pay the costs of these projects. That means that if they ever get off the ground, taxpayers will most likely end up paying the bill. And, that means that the geoengineering of the climate will essentially be a huge subsidy provided by the public to the fossil fuel industry. For mirrors in space, the projected cost runs from $800 billion to $400 trillion. That's right, trillion with a "T"! The $800 billion figure presumes we can bring costs down from $10,000 per pound to $20 per pound. (Any guesses on when that might be? See "delay and fail" under item number 1 above.)
Also not frequently discussed is that some solutions require expenditures year after year for the indefinite future. The atmosphere would require regular injections of sulfur dioxide since the gas eventually dissipates. The oceans would require continual seeding with iron using a vast fleet of ships in order to create algal blooms to absorb the carbon dioxide that we would continue to emit.
4. Geoengineering the climate implies that we have vast reserves of readily available hydrocarbons left for society to burn. It is true that the world does have vast resources of hydrocarbons left, but not reserves. The difference in terminology is, to borrow from Mark Twain, the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. Reserves are resources that can be converted into useful energy now using existing technology at current prices. Resources are simply the amount in the ground, and no resource can ever be exploited to 100 percent. The key question is whether it is feasible to extract a resource. The gold resource in the ocean is enough to make everyone reading this sentence rich beyond the dreams of avarice. But to date no one has figured out how to get it out without spending more money than its worth. In other words, nobody has figured out how to turn the gold resource in the ocean into gold reserves.
We face the same problems with fossil fuels. In fact, most of the oil ever discovered has been left in the ground. That's because what remains is too difficult to extract. This problem applies to natural gas and coal as well. Much of the fossil fuel that remains in the ground is either inaccessible with current technology or too expensive in terms of money or energy to extract. The portion that can be extracted is now costing more money and more energy to get than in the past. At the point at which it costs more energy to get these fuels than they produce, they will cease to be energy resources (though they might still be useful as feedstocks for petrochemicals).
Some will, of course, say that technology will allow us to get much more of the oil and other fossil fuels which have been left behind or which are currently inaccessible. This is always a possibility. But it is important to keep in mind that technology has not always overcome geology. For oil, for example, yearly worldwide discoveries have been declining since the 1960s despite all the the advanced technology that has been applied to oil exploration in the last 40 years. Also critical is the rate at which we can obtain these harder-to-get resources. Technology is in a race with depletion when it comes to fossil fuels. If the harder-to-get resources only come out at a trickle, then they will never be able to make up for the decline in production from existing fields. Peak worldwide oil production is variously thought to have already occurred or predicted to occur between now and 2037 because of this.
Sooner rather than later, society will have to make a transition away from fossil fuels as its main energy source. Even if we could confidently engineer the climate, would it make sense to spend tens of trillions or perhaps hundreds of trillions of dollars over the next several decades to do so knowing that we are running out of the very fuels upon which all that engineering is premised? Wouldn't it be much wiser to spend this money to build a renewable energy infrastructure that can function as long as the sun shines, the wind blows and the waters move?
5. One of the main reasons that limits on greenhouse gas emissions have been so difficult to enact is the lavishly funded campaign to confuse the public and corrupt the world's legislatures by the very fossil fuel industry that now claims it's impossible politically to enact such limits. Simple solution: Just get out of the way and let the science (which the industry's own scientists admit is correct) determine policy. As for the industry's newfound concern for the poor, this seems more like crocodile tears from an industry that has frequently shown little concern for the poor whenever they were in the way of a profitable fossil fuel reserve.
It is conceivable that human society may find itself in such danger from climate change that it will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and engage in some kind of geoengineering of the climate in order to survive. But the path of least danger lies with reducing drastically our emissions. For those who believe technology should play a central role in addressing climate change, this will give them plenty to do. But even so, the key to changing our energy system into one that is sustainable and that doesn't threaten the climate will be to alter our expectations about how much energy we need and what we need it for.