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Geoengineering: Plan B or not plan B?

With serious talk about geoengineering options now on a serious roll (“Not so sotto voce any more” is how RealClimate put it back in August) 80 climate researchers have been polled by the Independent about whether we should prepare techno-fixes such as ocean fertilization or aerosol clouds as an emergency lever on the Earth system.

The paper reports today that 54% – i.e. 43 of them – think we should draw up such plans. Here’s the actual poll question – not reprinted by the Independent, but reproduced by a recipient (via the geoengineering Google Group):

Do you agree that we now need a “Plan B” whereby a geoengineering strategy – research, development and possible implementation – is drawn up in parallel to a treaty to reduce carbon emissions (subject to international agreements and a scientific assessment of risk)?

35% disagreed and 11% were undecided.

This survey of scientists is hardly a scientific survey, as climatologist Myles Allen of Oxford points out in a Tyndall Centre newslist post. But it does give some kind of temperature reading – especially in the scientists’ direct comments, which the Independent has published for about half the respondents (listed roughly in order of famousness).

There’s a lot more nuance in those comments than ‘Plan B or not plan B?’ But the overall temperature? Lukewarm.

No suprise here. Let me count the ways we keep hearing this: the Royal Society is reviewing schemes, the UK government has heard testimony, conference statements have been made and commentaries published. At a recent Royal Society meeting on low-carbon energy, in response to audience questions, Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre Manchester argued that only schemes that pull gases out of the atmosphere directly and have minimal ecological impacts, such as rock weathering, are safe enough to consider. At a climate science briefing for artists and writers organized at the Wellcome Centre in London by the Tipping Points group last month, the University of East Anglia’s Tim Lenton mused that the mistaken notion that there is but one climate tipping point, beyond which lies ‘runaway’ climate change, could lead to panicky support for geoengineering.

And that’s just to clock two meetings I’ve made it to this winter. Nature’s Oliver Morton reports further discussion at the December AGU meeting of new options and costs for geoengineering.


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    Milan said:

    If we find ourselves suddenly on the cusp of the disintegration of Greenland or West Antarctica, the abrupt drying and burning of the Amazon, or the failure of the Asian monsoon, we may find ourselves glad to have conducted this research in advance, even if the ultimate result of that research is the knowledge that geoengineering is actually technically impossible or unacceptably risky. Better to learn that in advance than to roll the die at a time when no room for deliberation remains.

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    Peter McEvoy said:

    Good point, Milan. There’s no reason to avoid the research itself, at least.

    But we should definitely refrain from using it until the potentially massive unintended consequences of geoengineering roughly equal the CLEAR massive obliteration of species and humans from climate change.

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    Charles Higley said:

    Since the world has been cooling for ten years and has cooled more rapidly in the last two years, with more cooling very probable with the currently very quiet solar cycle 24, it would be wise not to start doing incredibly stupid things to fight warming. Nature is doing too good a job with cooling to need our meager help.

    If one is honest and uses temperature data from only rural sites, the last 50 years has all been cooler than the 1920’s through 1940’s. The 1998 peak was barely as warm as 1953, at which time cooling was underway.

    We are panicking over warming from a cooling in which we have not even reached our previous warmth of the first half of the 20th century. This presumed crisis is only happening because human caused global warming is a political agenda in which Europe can balance an agrarian trade imbalance (something like Kyoto would cripple us more than them) and the environmentalists can cripple the world economy (stop the industrialized world and prevent the 3rd world from developing) in a misguided effort to save the world.

    The reality is that we will not be releasing carbon at a sustained rate for much longer even without carbon crippling taxation (It is ingenuous to assume that we will; think about the huge changes of the last 100 years. Do we think that changes will not continue?) and technological development will take us beyond carbon energy and make us more efficient and more environmentally friendly in the near future.

    So, Nature, get off the global warming jag and sniff the thermometer, its cooling, and no amount of bad journalism or misguided, biased papers will change this.

    Referring to the previous comment regarding the possible melting of Greenland and Antarctica. Even with a 6 deg C warming, it would take thousands of years for these to melt. As they are both gaining mass, Antarctica has been cooling for 50 years, Greenland has not warmed and its plateau has cooled, and the Arctic Rim stations report many decades of cooling, wasting time and money on plans to cool the planet is a foolish idea.

    Furthermore, the predicted species extinctions are not going to happen. The fact is that warming makes the world friendlier to life and not more hostile. It is cooling which is a threat. We end up with more species diversity with warming as cold tolerant species spread to new areas and also stay where they were, while other warm-loving species move into the warmer regions. The idea of warming as a threat was cobbled up to scare people, but is is not what honest biologists are seeing in the real world.

    The problem with the global warming alarmists is that everything is bad or disastrous. It’s just too bad to be true. When you have people dying of heat prostration you must also mention fewer people dying from cold. Hurricanes, in fact, were more intense in the colder 70’s than they have been in the last 20 years. It just sounds more alarming to tell people that they would get worse with warming.

    Since warming is not happening, then this is all an exercise in fantasy.

    With all due respect,

    Chrles Higley, PhD

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