Geoengineering down under: Is Stratospheric Sulphate Injection Completely Reversible?

This guest post is by Simon Terry, Executive Director of the Sustainability Council of New Zealand. The risk rating on stratospheric sulphate injection went up another notch on the basis of material presented at a recent geoengineering symposium in Australia organised by the Australian Academy of Science, while the existing climate change risks did not get any better. The event made a useful contribution to the understanding down under of so called ‘geoengineering’ and delivered some perspectives that will be useful internationally, including a review of sulphate injection that raised a new issue: is it completely reversible? More on that below.

While not exactly the “southern hemisphere perspective” that was billed (as the contributors barely exceeded Australia’s borders), it nonetheless delivered strong presentations and discussion — partly as a result of most speakers being specialists in the field related to each technique reviewed but not technique proponents themselves.

Continue reading “Geoengineering down under: Is Stratospheric Sulphate Injection Completely Reversible?”

Not good news

My reading this morning didn’t incline me to optimism. I don’t actually need reminding, but in case I did two items underlined that we remain very much on course for a 3 to 4 degree global temperature rise by the end of the century.  A new report published by the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency describes a 45 percent increase in global CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2010, reaching an all-time annual high in 2010. Continue reading “Not good news”

The Climate Show #8: Kevin Trenberth and our shaky future

The Climate Show returns with a packed show, featuring one of the world’s best known climate scientists, NZ-born, Colorado-based Dr Kevin Trenberth — star of the Climategate “where’s the missing heat” emails. He’s been in New Zealand to visit family (experiencing the Christchurch quake in the process) and to attend a conference, and his comments on the state of our understanding of climate change should not be missed. John Cook of Skeptical Science returns with his new short urls and an explanation of why declines have never been hidden, and Gareth and Glenn muse on Arnie “Governator” Schwarzenegger riding to the rescue of climate science, cryospheric forcing and carbon cycle feedbacks from melting permafrost, and a new paper that suggests that current policies are pointing us towards extremely dangerous climate change. All that and hyperbranched aminosilica too…

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Show notes below the fold.

Continue reading “The Climate Show #8: Kevin Trenberth and our shaky future”

Fixing the Sky

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (Columbia Studies in International and Global History)

The notion that if it comes to the worst in climate change we can fall back on geoengineering  receives little credence in James Rodger Fleming’s new book Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate control. Fleming is a science historian and in the claims of some of today’s would-be climate engineers he sees a continuity with a long history of human attempts to control weather and climate. Most of the book traverses that history, which he urges we should understand and heed as we consider some of the proposed modern-day technological fixes to counter the effects of global warming.

He opens with the Greek myth of Phaeton who begged his father Helios to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun for one day but proved unable to hold the reins and keep to the middle course which Helios advised as safest and best. Only the intervention of Zeus with a fatal lightning bolt saved Earth from the consequent devouring flame. Fleming has something to say about the middle course when he gets to our own day, but in between he has many stories to tell in which hubris and ineptitude are combined, supported by “largely pathological” science, by opportunistic appeals to new technologies, and by “the false sense that macro-engineering will solve more problems than it creates”.

Rainmaking figures early and large in the book’s narrative. The first US government-employed meteorologist, James Espy (1795-1860), is well regarded in the history of science, but strayed from the scientific mainstream when promoting his  idea that significant rains of commercial importance could be generated by cutting and burning vast tracts of forest. Fortunately his grandiose plans were not supported. Other scientific rain kings of the 19th century used a variety of explosive means, sometimes with public funding, with very uncertain results. Fleming describes them as altruistic monomaniacs with a vision of a prosperous and healthy world if precipitation could be controlled. Not charlatans, but sincere albeit deluded. However charlatans did appear on the scene, mixing secret chemicals, preying on misguided hope and gullibility, and the book devotes an entertaining chapter to them.

One of the ironic characters of the story as it carries into the 20th century is Irving Langmuir (1881-1957), Nobel Laureate in chemistry and associate director of research at General Electric. Fleming comments that, brilliant though Langmuir was in chemistry, his extensive work in weather control exemplified his own warnings about pathological possibilities of science gone awry. Langmuir argued in a 1953 seminar that science conducted at the limits of observation or measurement may become pathological if the participants make excessive claims for their results. Yet he himself made highly dubious and unsupported claims for the efficacy of cloud seeding on a large scale. His biographer comments that he simply “did not appreciate the complexity of meteorology as a science”.

Weather control has had particular interest for the military; their entry into the issue brings “a darkening mood”. The book covers a variety of involvements, from the need to disperse fog from British airfields during the conflicts of WW2 (involving a massive and successful use of fire) to the “sordid episode” of attempted rainmaking during the Vietnam war to try to impede the passage of North Vietnam soldiers along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A UN Convention now prohibits military environmental modification techniques, though only if the effects are “widespread, long-lasting and severe”, a qualification insisted on by the US.

“Promethean possibilities” of climate tinkering using digital computing, satellite remote sensing, and nuclear power were part of the mid-20th century consideration of the subject. The scope of some of the dreams is startling – mega-construction projects to free the Arctic Ocean of ice or to lower the Mediterranean Sea, climate engineering to control weather vagaries.  Fleming describes many of them, and the seriousness with which some were taken, recording with some relief the words of Harry Wexler, chief of scientific services at the US Weather Bureau. Wexler was interested in purposeful intervention, but warned that it contained “the inherent risk of irremediable harm to our planet of side-effects counterbalancing the possible short-term benefits”.

Against the background of his “long and chequered history of weather and climate control populated by a colourful cast of dreamers and losers” Fleming moves to a consideration of the geoengineering proposals of today. Not surprisingly he views them with a jaundiced eye. He doesn’t deny the seriousness of human-caused climate change, but he sees little to recommend the various climate engineering schemes put forward. Indeed they are jointly characterised as “largely fantastic”.

None escape that characterisation. Aerosols, arrays of reflective material in space, iron fertilisation of the ocean, are readily swept aside. But it was a little surprising to see carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and biochar similarly treated. Admittedly there is much uncertainty surrounding CCS and it is more talked of than practised. It may indeed turn out to be impracticable, but it seems a little premature to condemn it as a possibility.  Biochar as a form of sequestration he claims would mark the end of composting and would generate a massive amount of the known carcinogen benzoapyrene.  I don’t know about the carcinogen, but I fail to see where the end of composting is involved. Klaus Lackner’s artificial trees are discussed in some detail and described as untenable.

Fleming advocates the “middle course” in dealing with climate change. That means reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases and adaptation to the measure of changing climate that we can no longer avoid.  The risks associated with moving into geoengineering measures are too great. To those who ask if that risk is worse than the risk of global warming he replies that it just might be, “especially if we neglect the historical precedents and cultural implications”. However he speaks approvingly of colleagues who support middle course solutions but also advocate responsible geoengineering research, so presumably his rejection is not as total as it sometimes seems. That was reassuring because as a reader I sometimes wondered whether he was fully cognisant of the magnitude of the threat from global warming.

However we surely need to be cautioned against those who rush to the grand fixes. Fleming is right to strongly reject economist William Nordhaus’s conclusion that “geoengineering produces major benefits whereas emissions stabilisation and climate stabilisation are projected to be worse than inaction”. He also does well to remind us of the inadequacy of “back-of-the-envelope” calculations to support geoengineering proposals. And to point to the fact that those who understand the climate system best are most humbled by its complexity and are among the least likely to claim that they have simple, safe, or cheap ways to fix it.

His book is often fascinating reading. Its comedic treatment of the history which comprises most of its content is nuanced and satisfyingly complex. What initially struck me as a lighthearted survey turned rapidly into a rewarding engagement with a gallery of characters, many of them intelligent and able, whose mistakes and failings we may learn from and hopefully not replicate.

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Challenged by Carbon

Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate ChangeOil industry geologists have hardly been noted for their readiness to accept the findings of climate science. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists, a large international organisation of 31,000 members, is non-committal in its 2007 statement, though that was admittedly an advance on their previous rejection of anthropogenic warming.  Bryan Lovell has worked as a BP geologist as well as an academic, but the title of his book is enough to indicate that non-committal is not for him: Challenged by Carbon: The Oil Industry and Climate Change.


In his acceptance of the case for anthropogenic global warming Lovell lays great stress on the evidence from the past, long before there were any of the human species to influence what happened. The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a warming event 55 million years ago, is his focus. It is preserved in the geological record and the changes it caused to life on the planet mark the boundary between the two epochs. First, a large quantity of carbon was released into the ocean-atmosphere over the geologically short period of some 10,000 years. Second, the temperature at the bottom of the ocean increased rapidly by more than 4 degrees over the same short period. Third, the oceans became notably more acidic. All this was accompanied by a general and significant global warming. It took some 200,000 years for the planet to return to something resembling the conditions prevailing before the massive and sudden release of carbon. Lovell remarks an ominously striking correspondence between the rate at which large volumes of carbon were introduced 55 million years ago and the rate at which large volumes are now being put into the atmosphere by us.

He considers the evidence of this event is more likely to carry weight with oil industry geologists than the computer-based models of complicated natural systems employed by climatologists. Geologists are “happiest when basing their predictions on the solid ground of rocks”. This may be a useful insight into the slowness of some geologists to take climate change seriously, but it left me wondering at the somewhat blinkered intellectual world which it suggests. I also wondered whether Lovell sufficiently appreciated the attention climatologists pay to the past in their predictions of what lies ahead. He acknowledges that the picture is somewhat mixed, but broadly sees climatologists focusing on predictions of the future, relying on a combination of past trends and computer modelling to make their forecasts, by contrast with geologists who look back in time. Is this contrast real? Leading climatologist James Hansen frequently stresses that his order of importance is first paleoclimate studies, then ongoing climate observations, with climate models in third place. Also detailed discussions of the PETM and other significant global change events in the past are common in books concerned with climate change.  However, if only the story told by rocks will suffice for oil geologists so be it. It has certainly brought Lovell on board.

“It is now plausible for the geological community at large, not least those in the oil industry, to join with the climatologists and conclude that if we continue to release carbon dioxide  into the atmosphere at the present rate we shall, this century, experience among other effects significant acidification of the world’s oceans and an overall global rise in sea level. Even at the lowest likely level these changes will have a significant adverse effect on our species and at their upper  likely levels would be disastrous for many of us. How will the oil industry react?”

Lovell comments that protestations of virtue concerning climate change by oil companies have become a commonplace this century. Some may maintain a degree of cynicism as they read his descriptions of how this plays out within the industry itself, but he makes a reasonable case that there has been some change in industry perception.  He acknowledges the contradiction in accepting the reality of anthropogenic climate change, yet predicting that fossil fuels will form an essential part of energy provision through to the middle of this century and beyond. He calls it not contradiction but paradox, as indeed it could prove if the serious industry investment in carbon capture and storage he urges were carried through to success.

It is this prospect which is the main burden of the book. Lovell sees little possibility of the world forsaking fossil fuels. “Lofty and high-level” arguments are unlikely to prevail in either the comfortable developed countries or the aspiring developing nations. They would need to be convinced that the rapid elimination of the oil and coal industries is really necessary. His book is not intended to offer such conviction.

What he does offer and advise is the engagement of the oil industry in carbon capture and storage. The scientific expertise it has gathered is highly relevant to the task:

“Petroleum engineers and petroleum geologists seek to understand the rocks beneath our feet, how fluids move through those rocks and how those elements may interact with the minerals lining the pore spaces and pore throats through which they travel. This understanding is just what is required to assess the suitability of any given location for the safe storage of carbon dioxide and to then store that gas securely within the rocks below.”

The details are followed through in some detail in a chapter headed Safe Storage: From Villain to Hero. Existing oil reservoirs offer useable opportunities, but not sufficient to satisfy the very large requirements.  For that the use of saline aquifers will be needed. Lovell reports studies on the feasibility of such storage, some of them dealing with the reaction of the reservoir rock to fluids made more acid by the addition of injected carbon dioxide. Careful assessment of prospective sites is required. He is cautious in his appraisal, but optimistic that carbon dioxide can be safely trapped in reservoirs over geological timescales. Along the way he acknowledges the work of Kelemen and Matter (reported here in Hot Topic) on the possibility of trapping carbon dioxide in a type of igneous rock – peridotite – with which it would react rapidly. The concern for him is the absence of natural seals in such a process, and he considers pilot ventures are likely to remain focused on sealed reservoirs.

Oil companies work for profit. That is why the issue of a carbon price is critical if the expertise of those companies is going to be harnessed to capture and store carbon.  The price, says Lovell, has to reflect a real understanding of the danger of not controlling the release of carbon dioxide. Increased government regulation is essential to set the scene.

The book is lively and engaging and well worth attention. Lovell straddles two worlds which often enough appear to have little intercourse. Carbon capture and storage gets a mixed press in discussions of climate change mitigation. But if it really is feasible, and if setting a price on carbon will make it doable by those with the necessary expertise and finance, it has the potential to be a significant contributor to emissions reduction. Even if we find ways to replace fossil fuel much more quickly than Lovell envisages we will still need to sequester some of the excess carbon with which the atmosphere is already overloaded.

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