Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Why geoengineering is like the Manhattan project


ABC Environment | 
Nagasaki bomb
One of the first nuclear weapons goes off, destroying Nagasaki in August 1945.
"Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds." These were the words that went through J. Robert Oppenheimer's mind as he watched the test of the world's first atomic bomb in 1945.

"We knew the world would not be the same," he later remarked.
In a tumult towards the end of the Second World War, American scientists developed the atomic bomb in what was known as the Manhattan Project. A few weeks after the test, it was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with well-known devastating effect. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians were killed and the war skidded to a halt.
A similar tumultuous rush is currently on to develop solutions to global warming. As described in ABC Environment's feature today, ideas such as injecting sulphur into the upper atmosphere and putting mirrors in space are now being considered as real ideas with merit, rather than dismissed out of hand.
If ever there was any doubt about how seriously climate science is taken, look to the regard such crazy-sounding schemes are being given in humanity's quest for solutions to the problem.
As science journalist Eli Kintisch recounts in his brand-new book Hack the Planet, "Since [a 2007 meeting in Harvard], almost every forum relevant to the climate crisis has reached out to embrace, if tentatively, the former pariah called geoengineering."
He lists the Royal Society, the US National Academies, the Pentagon, the American Meteorological Society, and the US Department of Energy as examples of organisations that have looked into the idea of tinkering with our climate systems to undo the damage that has already been done.
Bill Gates is so enamoured of the idea that he devotes US$1.5 million of his vast fortune to research in the area every year.
"Two years ago it was possible to read the relevant literature in the field on a train from Boston to Washington. Now, publications proposing analysing various means of large-scale intervention appear every few weeks," Kintisch writes.
It is a sentiment echoed by Sam Doust, the creative director and co-producer of the ABC's new project, Bluebird AR. Part online game, part entertainment, part thought-experiment, Bluebird explores the scenario of geoengineering technology falling into the wrong hands.
Doust says that when the idea for Bluebird was dreamed up, geoengineering was a niche scientific discipline, the preserve of kooks and retired engineers. But over the development period, all that changed.
"During the initial months of Bluebird AR scoping and pre-production, geoengineering was a fringe subject in the climate change debate and reasonably unknown. In the past 12 months however, geoengineering has become a hot topic and events in the real world have actually played out in uncanny similarity to those in the narrative," says Doust.
Geoengineering is increasingly being touted as our insurance policy for if the world fails to arrest our carbon dioxide emissions. As Kintisch says, "To cogently oppose geoengineering research... one has to accept one of two faulty propositions: either the problem is not that serious, or we're on our way to solving it. These days, one will be hard pressed to find many takers for either."
While it is distasteful to many scientists, such as David Battisti, a professor of atmospheric sciences who Kinitsch's excellent book follows, many acknowledge that at least doing the research is worthwhile. Just in case.
Much like the atomic bomb, it is a morally abhorrent idea that might be worth pursuing as a last resort.
Back in the Manhattan Project's bunker, other reports from the test of the atomic bomb relayed that Oppenheimer had looked pleased with the explosion. One of the military men present described Oppenheimer's reaction as: "his face relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief."
As a scientist intent on a project, no doubt he was pleased on some level that the invention had gone off as expected. The worst-case scenario project - the Plan Z - was ready to roll.
Today's geoengineering researchers are no doubt aware of their ability to become "destroyer of worlds". The question is what kind of calamity is great enough to warrant the deployment of such modern-day Plan Zs. The extreme end of climate change disaster predictions are that sea levels rise by seven metres, whole countries disappear, coral dissolves, seafood disappears and temperatures soar by six or more degrees Celsius triggering drought and famine. Would such a series of events be a sufficient trigger for the untried idea of geoengineering, with its unknown outcomes?
Like dropping a bomb, it may or may not win a war. But like dropping the A-bomb it may trigger unforeseen consequences. Just as we had the nuclear arms race, we one day could see a geoengineering technology race: the first to develop weather-changing technology wins.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

What does geoengineering mean for governance?

07 April 2011, 09:44 BST
Jason Blackstock asks how politics will cope with the uncertainty of new technologies
Governance is a word on everyone's lips these days, and for good reason. Global governance is certainly not getting any easier, with destructive financial ripples, inscrutable oil prices, surging food costs, and unsettling national uprisings. These familiar concerns remind us that even long-established governance systems, with rich historic experience to draw from, are increasingly caught unprepared by the rapidly changing social, political and technological realities of our new century.
Now against this backdrop, try to design a new international regime that can head off dangerous human interference with the climate system without exacerbating the multitude of other looming calamities which are barely being managed already. With virtually no historic experience to draw upon, forecasts about how climate policies would actually impact those tender bits of our global society – such as jobs, energy supplies and food production – appear at best uncertain. And that's before contesting predictions from differing political camps are washed into the mix. In this context, the continuing lack of a global climate deal, while no less disastrous for our planet's future, is sadly somewhat understandable.
The sense of dismayed 'inevitablism' about climate change evoked by such thinking has been a key factor in bringing the notion of geoengineering into scientific and public prominence. Some hope this might make the climate challenge more manageable, both by limiting the downside risks and costs and – just maybe – by frightening societies into reducing their carbon emissions (because the prospect of having to geoengineer our global climate is quite scary)...!
But as with many well-intentioned notions, it raises more questions than it answers, including:
  • Who will decide when and how much of which type of geoengineering is necessary? What happens when not everyone agrees?
  • If societies do start to feel protected against climate risk, will that reduce the incentive for them to curb carbon emissions – an action which would address that risk in the first place?
  • How would the climate and social changes brought about by geoengineering impact other key issues which societies are increasingly wrestling with?
These questions underpin the new governance challenge that comes with the emergence of geoengineering technologies. Part technology management, part climate policy and part international affairs, it is spiced with all the same complex interdependencies alluded to above for climate change alone. And there is also the added complexity (at least for solar geoengineering) that fast unilateral action appears plausible and cheap for many nations, but could carry with it highly uncertain global climatic consequences.
Attempting to predict how the future will unfold is not a good basis for designing a governance framework: it can lead to myopic thinking about the variety of situations this might have to cope with. That said, thinking through a spectrum of quasi-plausible future scenarios can be a powerful way of getting to grips with the complex dynamics that a governance system may need to grapple with. Take, for example, the hypothetical scenario described in a news feature from 2031:
Emergency UN Session Convened
StratoShield Fleet Continues Sulphur Injections
Even as an emergency session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) begins today in New York, the 20 aircraft currently comprising the so-called 'StratoShield Fleet' are continuing their daily sorties into the upper atmosphere.
Around 100,000 tonnes of sulphate aerosols have now been dispersed during the Fleet's first four months of operation. The UNSC session takes place against a background of growing consensus among experts that the technology is indeed working. The UN's own specialist monitoring group concluded that the coalition of 23 countries actively managing the Fleet has demonstrated that it can fulfil its stated goal of "returning global radiative forcing to 2000 levels within three years".
The coalition claims that achieving this goal will reduce global temperatures to averages similar to the '00s (in other words, around 0.7ËšC cooler than those of the last five years). But critics point out this will only be achieved by dramatically increasing the dispersal rate of stratospheric aerosols, to between two and three million tonnes per year, and that the consequences of such cooling will not be all positive. After heated public exchanges between Chinese, Indian and Russian officials over the past month, observers fear that any notable increase in the dispersal rate could escalate tensions into an economic or even military stand-off.
The UNSC itself is divided. Seven of the 24 current members sponsor or support the Fleet's activities, four oppose it, and the remainder are, for now, cautiously neutral. Officials from the European Union, which called for the session, say their main goal is to "promote agreement on the major issues at stake" amidst the stream of conflicting political and scientific statements flowing weekly from national governments, scientific bodies and NGOs.
Backed by supporters of the Fleet's activities, including the 39 countries of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), Brazil and China will open the session by recounting several widely publicised findings of the IPCC's Seventh Assessment Report. They are expected to focus on the economic and social damages now being attributed to specific climate change impacts, particularly in the least developed countries. In particular, they will point to the fact that the number of registered climate refugees has now topped the two million mark. And they are sure to highlight the latest sea level index, which is now reading 18cm over the norm – largely due, experts say, to increasing losses from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets.
Strong opposition is expected from Russia and Canada, both heavy backers of the multinational Arctic Petroleum Consortium. Over the past eight years, the APC has invested upwards of $500 billion in developing the far north's energy reserves. However, speculators have raised concerns that up to half of these investments might become unviable if the Fleet's global cooling effect were to eventually cause a resurgence of Arctic sea ice. This speculation has already driven oil futures back over $300 per barrel.
It was partly concern over tightening global energy supply back in the mid-20s that prompted Canada, Russia, India and South Africa to walk out of talks on the Arctic cooling experiments proposed by the (now defunct) International Solar Geoengineering Research Collaborative. Today, India and South Africa are expected to align with the majority of Security Council members who fall publically into the 'sceptical but undecided' camp. These countries are broadly pressing for answers on how significantly reducing radiative forcing might impact various long-standing concerns, while acknowledging the negative impacts climate change is already having. Food and energy prices will be among the hottest topics. But other issues too are expected to surface in the discussions, from biodiversity loss to immigration pressures, and the fate of climate-sensitive national infrastructure investments.
One wildcard at the Council will be the United States. Here, embattled President Gabriel Hernandez is still attempting to negotiate a compromise between the highly polarised energy and climate interests, currently fighting each other to a standstill in Congress and the courts. One senior administration official, venting anonymously, told us: "This domestic and geopolitical mess would have been a hell of a lot easier to manage if we'd started seriously curbing carbon emissions in the 2010s, rather than late last decade!
This scenario hardly depicts the sort of positive 'green future' that we would hope for. In fact, those of us thinking carefully about how to govern geoengineering research and technology development rather hope that prudent forethought can help avoid similar situations. But it highlights important drivers – some of which are extremely difficult to predict and impossible to control – that will inevitably shape how, when and if geoengineering evolves from concept to reality.
The most obvious of these is the evolution of climate change itself. If climate impacts over the next two decades are mild, there is unlikely to be much pressure for active deployment of geoengineering. If, by contrast, we see increasingly extreme weather, along with rapid sea level rise, it will surely rise quickly up the political agenda. This will particularly be the case if we reach one or more 'climate tipping points'. These are hard-to-predict thresholds beyond which parts of the climate system undergo rapid non-linear change – such as melting permafrost releasing vast quantities of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas.
We can expect such scenarios would have increasingly bad net consequences for global societies, but our understanding of exactly how and for whom they will be bad (and also who might benefit in the short term) remains sketchy. Even sketchier are guesses about how domestic populations and national governments 20 years hence would respond to the multitude of pressures such events could induce.
Nonetheless, whether and which countries develop the political will to launch a serious geoengineering effort will clearly be a core driver of how these technologies evolve. One suggestion, unsubtly laced throughout the above scenario, is that such political calculations are unlikely to be based purely on long-term altruism. Important and realistic near-term considerations, such as jobs, energy prices and the cost of food, seem likely to be as dominant in climate-related decisions two decades from now as they are today. Any governance framework for deploying geoengineering needs to recognise this.
For both these important drivers – climate consequences and political landscapes – broad projections into the future are possible. But just how complex the reality of both (and their interactions) will be cannot be fully appreciated until we're living right in the middle of it. A perfect reminder of how uncertain even the immediate future can be is the recent and unpredicted Tunisian revolution – sparked in part by protests over rising food prices – and the unprecedented political uprisings it ignited in Egypt and throughout the region.
So, accepting inevitable uncertainty where it exists, how can prudent forethought still help develop a governance system for geoengineering that may just safeguard us from undesirable futures, such as our 2031 scenario?
First, scientific research can provide considerable insight into what geoengineering technologies could and could not be useful for. Future political decisions about using geoengineering will be based largely on how useful it is seen in addressing whatever climate-derived threats are being felt at that time. Building robust, internationally accepted scientific knowledge about the potential benefits and risks of geoengineering technologies is therefore a critical step towards ensuring such perceptions are grounded in reality. This reduces the risk that misguided experiments with our global climate could be launched due to either naïve optimism or political opportunism winning over public opinion.
At the same time, how that research is conducted, and by whom, will be at least as important as the knowledge the research generates. We are just entering the early days of serious geoengineering research and technology development. If we can create frameworks for global transparency and inclusiveness now, it can lay foundations –normative and institutional – that could make it much harder for a subset of nations to launch geoengineering actions that disregard global welfare. In other words, whatever governance system (formal or informal) is established for geoengineering research in the next few years will set important precedents for how the future is governed.
In this context, building robust traditions of transparency and inclusiveness also means more than just international collaboration between scientists. The best foundation for future political cooperation on geoengineering is a broad and inclusive conversation that includes scientists, policymakers and publics around the world.
Such a conversation would have two important goals.
First, to create a shared conception of what geoengineering is, what we know about it and, crucially, what we do not know, at any given time. This will help politicians and the public understand the risks and limits of geoengineering, and why geoengineering does not reduce our need to mitigate global carbon emissions.
Second, to help policymakers and scientists understand how the public connects the idea and potential realities of geoengineering to their daily lives. This is not meant as PR for geoengineering technologies. Quite the opposite: it is needed to ensure that the individual and cultural issues most important to our global societies are carefully woven into the governance framework for emerging geoengineering research.
Anticipating future challenges is difficult in any policy arena, and especially in one with technologies that are in the earliest days of their exploration and development. The approach outlined above can help us prepare as best we can. Playing through a range of possible future scenarios can also help us develop governance systems that are as robust as possible against undesirable outcomes.
But in the end, will such prudent forethought be enough to make the potential benefits of geoengineering outweigh the potential risks? Sadly, there are no guarantees. Geoengineering concepts and research do bring with them new risks, and this is certainly a thought that rests heavy in my mind when I write or speak about this topic.
However, the risks we already run with our global climate system are profound and increasing. Human societies and natural ecosystems alike could come under unprecedented threat from climate change this century, and thus far we have collectively failed to limit that threat. If geoengineering can potentially provide another recourse for future generations, then careful exploration of these ideas, with appropriate early governance, seems to me the best option, on balance.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that limiting the threat of climate change through mitigation is still our best option to begin with!
Jason Blackstock is Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment, Centre for International Governance Innovation (Canada) and Visiting Research Scholar, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (Austria).
This article is taken from the Green Futures Special Edition Under New Management.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

From the Blaze


CHICHELEY, England (AP) — To the quiet green solitude of an English country estate they retreated, to think the unthinkable.
Scientists of earth, sea and sky, scholars of law, politics and philosophy: In three intense days cloistered behind Chicheley Hall’s old brick walls, where British saboteurs once secretly trained, four dozen international thinkers pondered the planet’s fate as it grows warmer, weighed the idea of reflecting the sun to cool the atmosphere, debated the question of who would make the decision.
The unknown risks of “geoengineering” — in this case, tweaking Earth’s climate by dimming the skies — left many uneasy.
“If we could experiment with the atmosphere and literally play God, it’s very tempting to a scientist,” said Kenyan earth scientist Richard Odingo. “But I worry.”
Arrayed against that worry is the worry that global warming — in 20 years? 50 years? — may abruptly upend the world we know, by melting much of Greenland into the sea, by shifting India’s life-giving monsoon, by killing off marine life.
If climate engineering research isn’t done now, climatologists say, the world will face grim choices in an emergency. “If we don’t understand the implications and we reach a crisis point and deploy geoengineering with only a modicum of information, we really will be playing Russian roulette,” said Steven Hamburg, a U.S. Environmental Defense Fund scientist.
The question’s urgency has grown as nations have failed, in years of talks, to agree on a binding long-term deal to rein in their carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.N.-sponsored science network, foresees temperatures rising as much as 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, swelling the seas and disrupting the climate patterns that nurtured human civilization.

Science committees of the British Parliament and the U.S. Congress urged their governments last year to look at immediately undertaking climate engineering research — to have a “Plan B” ready, as the British panel put it, in case the diplomatic logjam persists.
Britain’s national science academy, the Royal Society, subsequently organized the Chicheley Hall conference with Hamburg’s EDF and the association of developing-world science academies. From six continents, they invited a blue-ribbon cross-section of atmospheric physicists, oceanographers, geochemists, environmentalists, international lawyers, psychologists, policy experts and others, to discuss how the world should oversee such unprecedented — and unsettling — research.
An Associated Press reporter was invited to sit in on their discussions, generally off the record, as they met in large and small groups in plush wood-paneled rooms, in conference halls, or outdoors among the manicured trees and formal gardens of this 300-year-old Royal Society property 40 miles (64 kilometers) northwest of London, a secluded spot where Britain’s Special Operations Executive trained for secret missions in World War II.
Provoking and parrying each other over questions never before raised in human history, the conferees were sensitive to how the outside world might react.
“There‘s the ’slippery slope’ view that as soon as you start to do this research, you say it‘s OK to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Steve Rayner, co-director of Oxford University’s geoengineering program. Many geoengineering techniques they have thought about look either impractical or ineffective.
Painting rooftops white to reflect the sun’s heat is a feeble gesture. Blanketing deserts with a reflective material is logistically challenging and a likely environmental threat. Launching giant mirrors into space orbit is exorbitantly expensive.
On the other hand, fertilizing the ocean with iron to grow CO2-eating plankton has shown some workability, and Massachusetts’ prestigious Woods Hole research center is planning the biggest such experiment. Marine clouds are another route: Scientists at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado are designing a test of brightening ocean clouds with sea-salt particles to reflect the sun.
Those techniques are necessarily limited in scale, however, and unable to alter planet-wide warming. Only one idea has emerged with that potential.
“By most accounts, the leading contender is stratospheric aerosol particles,” said climatologist John Shepherd of Britain’s Southampton University.
The particles would be sun-reflecting sulfates spewed into the lower stratosphere from aircraft, balloons or other devices — much like the sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991, estimated to have cooled the world by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) for a year or so.
Engineers from the University of Bristol, England, plan to test the feasibility of feeding sulfates into the atmosphere via a kilometers-long (miles-long) hose attached to a tethered balloon.
Shepherd and others stressed that any sun-blocking “SRM” technique — for solar radiation management — would have to be accompanied by sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions on the ground and some form of carbon dioxide removal, preferably via a chemical-mechanical process not yet perfected, to suck the gas out of the air and neutralize it.
Otherwise, they point out, the stratospheric sulfate layer would have to be built up indefinitely, to counter the growing greenhouse effect of accumulating carbon dioxide. And if that SRM operation shut down for any reason, temperatures on Earth would shoot upward.
The technique has other downsides: The sulfates would likely damage the ozone layer shielding Earth from damaging ultraviolet rays; they don’t stop atmospheric carbon dioxide from acidifying the oceans; and sudden cooling of the Earth would itself alter climate patterns in unknown ways.
“These scenarios create winners and losers,” said Shepherd, lead author of a pivotal 2009 Royal Society study of geoengineering. “Who is going to decide?”
Many here worried that someone, some group, some government would decide on its own to conduct large-scale atmospheric experiments, raising global concerns — and resentment if it’s the U.S. that acts, since it has done the least among industrial nations to cut greenhouse emissions. They fear some in America might push for going straight to “Plan B,” rather than doing the hard work of emissions reductions.
In addition, “one of the challenges is identifying intentions, one of which could be offensive military use,” said Indian development specialist Arunabha Ghosh.
Experts point out, for example, that cloud experimentation or localized solar “dimming” could — intentionally or unintentionally — cause droughts or floods in neighboring areas, arousing suspicions and international disputes.
“In some plausible but unfortunate future you could have shooting wars between your country and mine over proposals on what to do on climate change,‘ said the University of Michigan’s Ted Parson, an environmental policy expert.
The conferees worried, too, that a “geoengineering industrial complex” might emerge, pushing to profit from deployment of its technology. And Australian economist-ethicist Clive Hamilton saw other go-it-alone threats — “cowboys” and “scientific heroes.”
“I’m queasy about some billionaire with a messiah complex having a major role in geoengineering research,” Hamilton said.
All discussions led to the central theme of how to oversee research.
Many environmentalists categorically oppose intentional fiddling with Earth’s atmosphere, or at least insist that such important decisions rest in the hands of the U.N., since every nation on Earth has a stake in the skies above.
But at the meeting in March, Chicheley Hall experts largely assumed that a coalition of scientifically capable nations, led by the U.S. and Britain, would arise to organize “sunshade” or other engineering research, perhaps inviting China, India, Brazil and others to join in a G20-style “club” of major powers.
Then, the conferees said, an independent panel of experts would have to be formed to review the risks of proposed experiments, and give go-aheads — for research, not deployment, which would be a step awaiting fateful debates down the road.
Like Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, John Shepherd is a fellow of the venerable Royal Society, but one facing a world those scientific pioneers could not have imagined.
“I am not enthusiastic about these ideas,” Shepherd told his Chicheley Hall colleagues. But like many here he felt the world has no choice but to investigate. “You would have a risk-risk calculation to make.”
Some are also making a political calculation.
If research shows the stratospheric pollutants would reverse global warming, unhappy people “would realize the alternative to reducing emissions is blocking out the sun,” Hamilton observed. “We might never see blue sky again.”
If, on the other hand, the results are negative, or the risks too high, and global warming’s impact becomes increasingly obvious, people will see “you have no Plan B,” said EDF’s Hamburg — no alternative to slashing use of fossil fuels.
Either way, popular support should grow for cutting emissions.
At least that’s the hope. But hope wasn’t the order of the day in Chicheley Hall as Shepherd wrapped up his briefing and a troubled Odingo silenced the room.
“We have a lot of thinking to do,” the Kenyan told the others. “I don’t know how many of us can sleep well tonight.”  http://www.theblaze.com/stories/geoengineering-global-warming-crowd-contemplates-tricks-to-tweak-our-climate/