A group of scientists, funded generously by Big Green, which includes the Environmental Defense Fund, have released a report to coincide with the efforts of the Durban Global Warming Conference, COP 17. This reports asks that the world consider geo-engineering as a potential solution to (yet-to-be-realized-but-coming-soon) rampant global warming.
The Guardian reports on several ideas that have been bruited: “huge space reflectors in orbit”, “stratospheric aerosols released in the upper atmosphere”; they even mention “the mechanics of inserting such aerosols” by the means of a “hosepipe attached to a giant balloon.”
The Solar Radiation Management Research Governance Initiative (with the thankfully unpronouncable acronym SRMRGI), which issued the report, is a newly minted group, formed from Big Green largess in response to a 2009 Royal Society report Geoengineering the Climate. The Royal Society said, “It won’t work”, while the folks that created the SRMRGI begged (literally) to differ.
The SRMRGI has “unleased” several ideas on how to best “cool the Earth by reflecting a small percentage of inbound sunlight back into space, in order to reduce global warming.” Such ideas consist of two main thrusts:
- Marine cloud brightening instantiated by “spraying seawater droplets into the lower atmosphere”;
- Increasing stratospheric aerosols via “artificial injection.”
What good ideas.
I mean in the sense that if rampant (but-yet-to-be) global warming does strike, what better than a solution that requires merely spritzing the air with a giant squeeze bottle? But I also mean good in the political sense. The reaction to geo-engineering will be a telling yardstick to judge the sincerity of politicians who claim we have to “do something” about climate change.
If the politician under consideration is adamant about the perils that await us yet refuses to consider geo-engineering, saying perhaps that the “science is not well understood” and that instead increased control by governments and government agencies is the ticket, we may be justifiably suspicious that the politician cares more about increasing control by governments—which is to say, his control—than in “saving” the planet.
Now, it is by no means clear if planting a few (thousand? million?) mirrors in space, or directing a fire hose loaded with cloud nucleii upwards, or whatever, will work. We may as a species labor mightily to heft a few tons of reflecting objects into space only to discover that the sun bakes right through them. And then there is the unimpeachable Doctrine of Unintended Consequences, which is ever with us. What’s to stop the mirrors from aligning just so and turning the sun’s ray into a laser beam which smites the planet’s surface? Or what’s to prevent the cloud nucleii from doing their job too well and causing a cataract of forty days and forty nights?
If you say, and say rightly, that we don’t know what will happen if we tinker with the air on such a magisterial scale, then you will also be admitting that we can’t know much about what will happen if we add a few dozen molecules of carbon dioxide to every square meter of air. The effects of forcing due to geo-engineering, since it can be controlled exactly, should be eminently predictable—if we can predict what the atmosphere on global scale will do in absence of geo-engineering.
Restated: if you can’t predict what will happen under geo-engineering, you can’t predict what will happen under increasing carbon dioxide.
Geo-engineering will probably be cheaper than trying to coerce and finagle the world into a carbon usage plan. It will also be more politically tractable, given the honor system in countries holding to agreements hasn’t worked especially well through history.
As far as costs go, we learn from The Telegraph that the UK “has spent more than Â£600 million on securing an international agreement on climate change and promoting green technologies in developing countries since April 2006.” That’s not a lot of years, but it is a lot of money. And this is money merely spent in lobbying, not in building space missiles or, say, paying the salary of the folks at the University of East Anglia (which has just closed its school of music).
How much more money was spent if we total across countries, each lobbying the other? We could have ploughed that cash into building space elevators or giant balloon-borne misters. We could have, that is, taken it out of the hands on politicians and done something useful with it.