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Posted at 11:15 AM ET, 03/29/2010

Geoengineering 'fixes' help us view climate change

By Andrew Freedman

* Damp start to week before big warm-up: CWG's Full Forecast *

Here's a question for you (assuming that you are open to the evidence that recent climate change is largely manmade): How confident are you that humanity will take the necessary steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and limit global climate change to the lower end of the current projections?

Personally, the past few years -- which have featured increasingly urgent scientific warnings about the pace and scope of climate change, coupled with scant political progress -- have made me doubt that we will succeed in preventing very significant climate change through reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions. Part of this doubt is fueled by a view that many people still don't think of human activities as turning the planet's thermostat up to 11, to use a reference from the movie This Is Spinal Tap.

The increasingly serious conversations taking place in the scientific community about a highly controversial 'Plan B,' also known as 'geoengineering,' reflect the growing realization that time is running out to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions enough to constrain climate change to relatively manageable levels. The alternative tactics encompassed by geoengineering scare the heck out of me, but I think that discussing their potential use will help foster improved awareness of global climate change and the mechanisms behind it.

Keep reading for more on geoengineering...


Potential geoengineering strategies. Image credit: Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory, Department of Energy. Enlarge image.

Geoengineering is a fancy term referring to the idea of deliberately modifying the climate system to produce a certain effect, in this case to reduce global warming. It is based on a view that we may be able to manipulate, or hack into, the climate system to alter it for certain purposes. In many ways, geoengineering sounds like an absolutely crazy idea.

Why would we risk unintended blowback by tinkering with the climate?

Fundamentally we are already geoengineering the planet -- by adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere via burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Regardless of the merits of particular geoengineering proposals, I think the concept of geoengineering itself is helpful for understanding climate change, because it inherently involves an active human role in controlling Earth's temperature.

Rolling Stone writer Jeff Goodell, author of a new book on geoengineering, expressed a similar view in a March 26 interview with the radio show "Living on Earth." Goodell stated: "One of the things I like about the discussion about geoengineering is that it makes explicit this idea that we are in control. Right now, we are in control. We are pushing the planet towards a completely different kind of climate, but we're in denial about it."

Geoengineering proposals range from fertilizing the oceans with iron so the seas suck up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere in order to block out incoming solar radiation. The idea is that implementing proposals such as these would help counter the warming that could result from a "too little, too late" approach to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

Such schemes raise a host of thorny scientific, ethical, moral and governance questions, such as: Who has the right to intentionally alter the climate? Do all nations have an equal right? Who is liable if something goes terribly wrong? How should research on these proposals, which could have nasty unintended consequences, be tested? And how should we decide whether/when to implement a proposal?

Last week, more than 175 experts from a variety of fields gathered at a conference on "Climate Intervention Technologies" in California. At the end of the week, the conference organizing committee endorsed geoengineering research, calling it "indispensible" in light of political leaders' failure to date to achieve major cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

"The fact that humanity's efforts to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases (mitigation) have been limited to date is a cause of deep concern," the conference statement said.

"Additionally, uncertainties in the response of the climate system to increased greenhouse gases leave open the possibility of very large future changes. It is thus important to initiate further research in all relevant disciplines to better understand and communicate whether additional strategies to moderate future climate change are, or are not, viable, appropriate and ethical."

The conference statement said a key purpose of geoengineering research is to better quantify the risks associated with various methods. The unknown risks are what scare so many, including myself, about the geoengineering concept. "We do not yet have sufficient knowledge of the risks associated with using methods for climate intervention and remediation, their intended and unintended impacts, and their efficacy in reducing the rate of climatic change to assess whether they should or should not be implemented," the conference organizers concluded.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By Andrew Freedman  | March 29, 2010; 11:15 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman, News & Notes, Policy, Science  
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Comments

As I have stated many times in the past, I think the prudent and reasonable approach would be to begin replacing all existing coal fired power plants with nuclear power plants. But for some reason, that simple and obvious solution just can't get any traction at all; not even serious consideration.

If the scientists had not adopted their "pretend there is no uncertainty, overstate the danger, and try to scare the heck out of everybody" approach, they may have been able to convince the vast majority into adopting nuclear power. If they would have come forward and said something like, "We aren't 100% sure about this, but we think the possible danger warrants replacing existing coal powered plants with nuclear plants", I bet the public would have been on board in rather short order. But other than Jim Hansen, nuclear power is not even mentioned. People would rather talk about wind, solar, and geoengineering instead of an existing and proven technology.

I sit and shake my head in both sadness and amazement.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 29, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

I would be remiss if I didn't also blame politicians. I don't want anyone to get the impression that I blame scientists solely for this monumental pooch screw.

If the politicians had not attempted to use the scare as a means of implementing draconian measures and reams of new government bureaucracy, they could have already made significant strides toward CO2 reduction by simply replacing existing coal fired power plants with an off the shelf, existing technology. But nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. That would have been too simple! Made too much sense! Politicians being what they are, they decided that what was needed was more bureaucracy and taxes! And maybe send some money to third world countries while we are at.

Good grief!

And you don't want to get me started on how the media exploited the situation!!! I would get my butt banned here if I posted just a fraction of my opinion our dinosaur media. Let's just say I can't think of a single nice thing to say about them. Not one. Just as bad as the politicians, if not worse.

No. I don't blame just the scientists.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 29, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

The big problem is getting China and India on board - good luck with that...Won't do much good if it is only the US reducing our output. In addition, this would put the US at a major disadvantage in the "Global Economy"

I personally don't believe there is anything that humans can do to change the gradual warming of the Earth - it will take some sort of global event to alter this. It has happened in the Earth past, and it will happen again... IMKO

\/

-Zigszag

Posted by: zigszag | March 29, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

I am amazed that in this otherwise very thoughtful article you have not combined your two arguments. The same objections that you raise against "geoengineering" can and should be raised against what we are now doing to the planet by burning fossil fuels. Are the citizens of the US who produce much of the GHGs any less responsible for their sins of ignorance and denial than the scientists of tomorrow will be for engineering the environment? We should not back away from exploring geoengineering because it is fraught with uncertainties, potential backlashes, political disputes, etc. because we are engaged right now in behavior that is similarly irresponsible.

Posted by: lfmiller1 | March 29, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

While we debate the extent and nature of man's contribution to "global warming" we still are not completely sure how ice ages begin and end.

If the mechanism involves huge amounts of snow that don't completely go away during the summer, our recent experience should be instructive. By now nearly all the snow which fell this past winter is gone. There still may be a pile in Ballston near the Kettler Iceplex.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | March 29, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

lfmiller1: I thought I made it clear that we are already engaged in geoengineering, with similar arguments against it. Thanks for emphasizing it more, though. I am in agreement with you.

Posted by: Andrew-CapitalWeatherGang | March 29, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

I totally agree with Andrew’s pessimism on it being virtually impossible now for the global community to organize and implement actions to mitigate AGW before it is too late to avoid the consequences of significant climate change. I actually agree with Mr. Q (1st time??) that greater reliance on nuclear power might have avoided the difficulties if movement in that direction had begun decades ago. That is, of course, if Mr. Q could have convinced his home state (Oregon), or anywhere else, to serve as the depository of nuclear waste . But that’s water over the dam. Even if a decision were made today to go nuclear, it would take decades to significantly be able to cut back on fossil fuels and, of course, don’t hold your breath for that decision to be made.

But, geoengineering is not, nor could it likely ever be a rational choice for the very reasons Andrew cites – inability to discriminate ahead of time with any reasonable degree of confidence between intended and unintended consequences. Climate models are able to postulate on the future range of climate change on the very largest scales, but cannot now and will not likely in the foreseeable future be capable of providing reliable projections of the regional impacts of climate change - with or without geoengineering strategies. To claim otherwise, as does the recent report, "Global Climate Change; Impacts on the United States", is an unfortunate and misleading extrapolation of the current state of knowledge of the global climate system (personal opinion, of course).

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | March 29, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

True belief is a wonderful thing
And can be vested in things quite unseen
Including "climate change" (what is it? Quien sabe)
That believers see clearly--in virulent gasses of green.

And urge all others to be converted
From clear allegiance to nature's laws
To belief that man can control global climate--
Despite the presence of local weather forecasting flaws.

Having failed in gentle proselytization
Designed to bring deniers and agnostics into the fold,
True believers resort to cataclysmic forecasting
Involving the prospect of horror untold.

At some point they should be ready to report
A global average temperature value each day--
And comparable values for say, 10 years ago--
That some hint of what's going on might convey.

Based on past performance, however, it seems likely
That true believers in climatological manipulation
Will continue to accuse agnostics of wanting to, e.g., "parboil the planet",
While remaining a source of intense aggravation.

Posted by: Gonzage1 | March 29, 2010 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Andrew, your post made the connection clear to me at least. :)

I do think it would be a good investment to research potential geoengineering impacts a lot more, so we can better understand the risks involved.

Steve, I looked at that regional impacts document when it came out about a year ago. My recollection is that it did emphasize the uncertainties of downscaling. Where did it go overboard?

Posted by: imback | March 29, 2010 6:39 PM | Report abuse

Folks it is time to get on with this. The deniers are marginalized due to lack of creditability, the media has to take a real hard look at climate change (Oceans included) and do it's job which is to raise the alarm and stay on message. Media has to once and for all expose this debate for what it is, a massive diversion by some who don't really care about generations to come! If you are not concerned about what we are doing to this planet then get out of the way. For the rest of us, lets roll up our sleeves and do this, clean up our mess and move on!

Posted by: jpraucoin | March 29, 2010 8:55 PM | Report abuse

Is that the best that 175 of the smartest, most concerned climate change experts can do when they put their heads together for an entire week? I would have expected something more tangible, like: this list of geoengineering ideas are the most wacky; and this other list appear to be the most benign or reversible. With well over 2 degrees C. warming irreversibly in the pipeline, we need to get off the Copenhagen train and see immediate, real progress on all fronts.

Posted by: atmoceankithil | March 29, 2010 11:59 PM | Report abuse

The main problem with geo-engineering, is that we already have such an incomplete understanding of how global systems are driven. This in turn means that by attempting to force changes, which have been given merit by certain individuals living upon this planet, we might very well be guilty of purposely doing the exact same thing which these individuals claim we are currently doing by accident (ie, AGW is far from a certainty, but attempting to purposely force changes in turn, leaves no doubt about anthropogenic forcing).

For instance, most people don't even realize that the current geological climate cycle represents one of only five peak warm periods during the past 400,000 years. All of organized society has only existed within the current peak, and should we ever find ourselves yet again in a trough, there is no telling what impact THAT might have upon our civilization.

For further proof of geo-engineering problems, take a look at what happened recently as a direct result of mankinds meddling with "Green Technology":

http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2010-03/does-geothermal-power-cause-earthquakes


Even if AGW is determined to be absolute truth, attempting to "cure" it with certain geo-engineering feats might very well be akin to attempting to remove a non-life threatening bullet fragment in a patient, by cutting dangerously close to the heart, or into the brain. In other words, sometimes the prospective solutions are worse than the alleged problems, and they can be unnecessarily dangerous as well.

Posted by: TheAnalyst | March 30, 2010 1:06 AM | Report abuse

The Earth has been hotter and the Earth has been colder way before there was industry.

What caused those extremes?

Posted by: irish031 | March 30, 2010 8:37 AM | Report abuse

HACK THE PLANET

Posted by: steampunk | March 30, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

From the Yale Environment 360 website and Watts Up With That.

--begin quote--
Climate science, even at its most uncontroversial, could never motivate the remaking of the entire global energy economy.
--end quote--

Duh.

--begin quote--
Efforts to use climate science to threaten an apocalyptic future should we fail to embrace green proposals, and to characterize present-day natural disasters as terrifying previews of an impending day of reckoning, have only served to undermine the credibility of both climate science and progressive energy policy.
--end quote--

Double Duh!

--begin quote--
Greens pushed climate scientists to become outspoken advocates of action to address global warming. Captivated by the notion that their voices and expertise were singularly necessary to save the world, some climate scientists attempted to oblige. The result is that the use, and misuse, of climate science by advocates began to wash back into the science itself.
--end quote--

And this was ENTIRELY foreseeable!

The truth has a way of eventually catching up to 99.9% of the people. If may be slow sometimes, but it does eventually catch up.

When you make claims of an impending apocalypse two things are guaranteed to happen -
1. Your claims and the science behind them will receive unimaginable scrutiny.
2. You either need to have an actual apocalypse or you lose all credibility and you look like one of those disheveled, wild eyed people on the street corner with their "The World is going to end tomorrow" signs.

I am surprised it has taken this long to catch up! And it hasn't caught up completely. But it will. Unless there is some extreme heat in the near future, the backlash against science and the media will be unfrickin believable. I tried to warn you guys years ago that this was coming. How could you not see it coming?

They exaggerated the claims. They pretended it was a certainty. And the media and the politicians exploited and compounded those exaggerated claims and false certitude. And the truth is slowly but surely catching up to them.

You have made your bed, now get ready to lie in it.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 30, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Trying to shove more CO2 into the oceans would be an extremely bad idea... the oceans are natural carbon sinks, but they're already absorbed so much CO2 that it's affecting the PH balance and killing off species. We might save ourselves but doom the planet anyway by killing off our oceans if we tried something like that.

I think it's too late to stop Global Climate change. We're going to have to live with the consequences for a couple centuries while we change technologies. Hopefully it won't be self perpetuating as methane gases get released from the warmer oceans, etc. and things will reset given time.

Posted by: Krista_L | March 30, 2010 12:19 PM | Report abuse

"Climategate" was the classic smear job. It did expose some arrogance and rude behavior on the part of scientists, but it did not prove that global warming was a hoax or that the CRU surface temperature record was wrong. By the way, surface temperature records can be readily found online, as the blog "Open Mind" has shown.

Screaming "Global warming is a hoax" proves nothing, other than as a reflection on the screamer's character.

Questioning global warming is one thing; calling scientists liars is something else entirely.

Posted by: Dadmeister | March 30, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

--begin quote--
Watch how the cooling trend of the 1960’s to 1970’s is steadily adjusted up so that 0.3 degrees cooler gradually becomes 0.03 warmer (notice the red and blue horizontal lines in the graphs above).

Mathews Graph 1976: 1955 – 1965 was around 0.3C warmer than 1970’s

Hansen/GISS 1980: 1955 – 1965 was around 0.1C warmer than 1970’s

Hansen/GISS 1987: 1955 – 1965 was around 0.05C warmer than 1970’s

Hansen/GISS 2007: 1955 – 1965 was around 0.03C cooler than 1970’s

Here is what we had thought was the historic temperature, back in the mid-1970s before the deception began. Note how much warmer the ’30s and ’40s looked then, and how in the charts above it shrinks in significance:
--end quote--

Source of the above quote.

I would ignore the charts. They don't use the same scale and because of that I consider them misleading. But the numbers themselves are correct. They have steadily reduced the past temperatures and generated dire looking graphs because of those adjustments.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 30, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Must get rid of that spike on our graphs that is larger than current temperatures! We can't have that. That just won't do!

--begin quote--
From: Tom Wigley
To: Phil Jones
Subject: 1940s
Date: Sun, 27 Sep 2009 23:25:38 -0600
Cc: Ben Santer


Phil,

Here are some speculations on correcting SSTs to partly explain the 1940s warming blip.

If you look at the attached plot you will see that the land also shows the 1940s blip (as I'm sure you know).

So, if we could reduce the ocean blip by, say, 0.15 degC, then this would be significant for the global mean -- but we'd still have to explain the land blip.

I've chosen 0.15 here deliberately. This still leaves an ocean blip, and i think one needs to have some form of ocean blip to explain the land blip (via either some common forcing, or ocean forcing land, or vice versa, or all of
these). When you look at other blips, the land blips are 1.5 to 2 times (roughly) the ocean blips -- higher sensitivity plus thermal inertia effects. My 0.15 adjustment leaves things consistent with this, so you can see where I am coming from.

...

--end quote--

Source of the above quote.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 30, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

It is possible to reproduce the warming trend in CRU and NCDC surface temperatures from reanalyses of atmospheric data (radiosondes, satellite data, etc) without including the surface temperature measurements themselves. In fact one such effort produced more of a trend than the CRU surface temperatures for the period since 1979.

That the earth has been warming is evident from many different sources.

Posted by: Dadmeister | March 30, 2010 12:49 PM | Report abuse

Re the email from Wigley to Jones, I would need to see the context. Is there a reason to apply the correction? Bucket vs intake SST for example.

Posted by: Dadmeister | March 30, 2010 2:38 PM | Report abuse

Re: Dadmeister: "Re the email from Wigley to Jones, I would need to see the context. Is there a reason to apply the correction? Bucket vs intake SST for example."

Yes. See: Thompson et al. (Nature, 453, 646-649 (29 May 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature06982: "Between January 1942 and August 1945, approx 80% of the observations are from ships of US origin and approx5% are from ships of UK origin; between late 1945 and 1949 only approx30% of the observations are of US origin and about 50% are of UK origin." US vessels used intake valve whereas UK vessels used buckets at that time.

Posted by: marcusmarcus | March 30, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Also, Mr. Q., the "numbers" may be "correct", but they all describe different things: Mathews (1976) the Northern Hemisphere (as labeled on the graph), and I am not sure whether all the Hansen graphs are land-only or land-ocean - I suspect some of both. The post-1950 cooling is known to have been much stronger in the NH, usually ascribed to more aerosols, which is consistent with the difference between Mathews and the global Hansen graphs.

Also, science does improve over time, as it identifies issues like the bucket/intake correction etc.

Posted by: marcusmarcus | March 30, 2010 4:00 PM | Report abuse

Here is a more detailed look at the temperature disparity (between what the temperature once was and what they now say it was) of the northern hemisphere.

Take a minute and get a good look at the Newsweek NCAR graphic. It is stunning.

Fortunately, modern science now tells us that those weren't the right/real temperatures. ;)

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 30, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Speaking of geoengineering!

--begin quote--
Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve. But the scientists see few signs that government leaders anywhere are even prepared to take the simple measures of stockpiling food or of introducing the variables of climatic uncertainty into economic projections of future food supplies.
--end quote--

Source of the above quote - The Cooling World, Newsweek, April 28, 1975

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 30, 2010 6:13 PM | Report abuse

marcusmarcus wrote, "Yes. See: Thompson et al. (Nature, 453, 646-649 (29 May 2008)"

As you point out, that paper was published in May 2008. That email, and the adjustment he proposes, is from September 2009. That is a difference of 16 months.

Thompson et al concluded that an adjustment of 0.3 degree C was warranted. Not 0.15 degree C, as Wigley is suggesting in his email.

And lastly, less you argue that science moves that slowly or perhaps they were not aware of the Thompson et al paper in Nature of May 2008, they were not only aware of it, but they were apparently passing around embargoed copies of it via email, and had already drafted a press release!

It seems highly unlikely (not impossible, but extremely unlikely) that the 0.15 degree C that Wigley suggests in this email is related to the Thompson et al paper of over one year prior.

As far as your criticism of the Hansen graphics vs the Mathew graph, I accept that. I don't know if the Hansen graph refers to global or just NH. You make a valid point.

However, the CRU/Brohan 2006 graph is clearly labeled Northern Hemisphere. It is a direct apples to apples comparison with Mathews. And it is from 2006. Two years prior to the Thompson et al paper.

Lastly, as far as the Thompson et al paper is concerned, I wouldn't be too quick to point to that. People have found fault with it and taken issue with it. Apparently, nearly all of the post WW2 buckets were insulated. A fact apparently overlooked by Thompson et al. And the temperature difference between the engine intake vs the insulated bucket is only 0.1 degree C. Not the 0.3 degree C difference between the uninsulated bucket and engine intake that Thompson calculated. Making Thompson et al off by a factor of 200%.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | March 31, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

This should tickle Mr. Freedman - NOAA ice core data does reveal a hockey stick.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | April 1, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

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