June 10, 2012

The scientific and moral hazards of geoengineering

 New Scientist - Blue skies would fade to hazy white if geoengineers inject light-scattering aerosols into the upper atmosphere to offset global warming. Critics have already warned that this might happen, but now the effect has been quantified.

Releasing sulphate aerosols high in the atmosphere should in theory reduce global temperatures by reflecting a small percentage of the incoming sunlight away from the Earth. However, the extra particles would also scatter more of the remaining light into the atmosphere. This would reduce by 20 per cent the amount of sunlight that takes a direct route to the ground, and it would increase levels of softer, diffuse scattered light, says Ben Kravitz of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Stanford, California.

Keep in mind that Bill Gates is the guy deeply involved in the war on public education as well

Christopher Minus,  Grist - Geoengineering — the notion that we might blunt some of the effects of climate change by, for example, creating an artificial volcano to shade earth’s surface and cool the planet — is picking up steam among rich people. And not just Montgomery Burns! Philanthropists too!

The latest to join the fray are Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and “tar-sands magnate Murray Edwards,” reports the Guardian. Just goes to show you what strange bedfellows geoengineering makes.

The motivation for doing these experiments is straightforward: There’s already good evidence that geoengineering works (from models and natural experiments like volcanic eruptions), and it could be done fairly easily, but we’d better mess around with it a little so that we understand its negative consequences. Because the last thing we want is for it to be 2050, with the world’s leaders feeling like their backs are against the wall, and somebody decides to unilaterally start geoengineering the planet without knowing the potential consequences. Which are myriad.

Guardian, UK - Concern is now growing that the small but influential group of scientists, and their backers, may have a disproportionate effect on major decisions about geoengineering research and policy.

"We will need to protect ourselves from vested interests [and] be sure that choices are not influenced by parties who might make significant amounts of money through a choice to modify climate, especially using proprietary intellectual property," said Jane Long, director at large for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US, in a paper delivered to a recent geoengineering conference on ethics.

"The stakes are very high and scientists are not the best people to deal with the social, ethical or political issues that geoengineering raises," said Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace. "The idea that a self-selected group should have so much influence is bizarre."

As well as Gates, other wealthy individuals including Sir Richard Branson, tar sands magnate Murray Edwards and the co-founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström, have funded a series of official reports into future use of the technology. Branson, who has frequently called for geoengineering to combat climate change, helped fund the Royal Society's inquiry into solar radiation management last year through his Carbon War Room charity. It is not known how much he contributed.

Professors David Keith, of Harvard University, and Ken Caldeira of Stanford, [see footnote] are the world's two leading advocates of major research into geoengineering the upper atmosphere to provide earth with a reflective shield. They have so far received over $4.6m from Gates to run the Fund for Innovative Climate and Energy Research  Nearly half Ficer's money, which comes directly from Gates's personal funds, has so far been used for their own research, but the rest is disbursed by them to fund the work of other advocates of large-scale interventions.

According to statements of financial interests, Keith receives an undisclosed sum from Bill Gates each year, and is the president and majority owner of the geoengineering company Carbon Engineering, in which both Gates and Edwards have major stakes – believed to be together worth over $10m.

Another Edwards company, Canadian Natural Resources, has plans to spend $25bn to turn the bitumen-bearing sand found in northern Alberta into barrels of crude oil. Caldeira says he receives $375,000 a year from Gates, holds a carbon capture patent and works for Intellectual Ventures, a private geoegineering research company part-owned by Gates and run by Nathan Myhrvold, former head of technology at Microsoft.

According to the latest Ficer accounts, the two scientists have so far given $300,000 of Gates money to part-fund three prominent reviews and assessments of geoengineering – the UK Royal Society report on Solar Radiation Management, the US Taskforce on Geoengineering and a 2009 report by Novin a science thinktank based in Santa Barbara, California. Keith and Caldeira either sat on the panels that produced the reports or contributed evidence. All three reports strongly recommended more research into solar radiation management.

The fund also gave $600,000 to Phil Rasch, chief climate scientist for the Pacific Northwest national laboratory, one of 10 research institutions funded by the US energy department.

Analysis of the eight major national and international inquiries into geoengineering over the past three years shows that Keith and Caldeira, Rasch and Prof Granger Morgan the head of department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University where Keith works, have sat on seven panels, including one set up by the UN. Three other strong advocates of solar radiation geoengineering, including Rasch, have sat on national inquiries part-funded by Ficer.

"There are clear conflicts of interest between many of the people involved in the debate," said Diana Bronson, a researcher with Montreal-based geoengineering watchdog ETC.

"What is really worrying is that the same small group working on high-risk technologies that will geoengineer the planet is also trying to engineer the discussion around international rules and regulations. We cannot put the fox in charge of the chicken coop."

Rasch added: "I don't feel there is any conflict of interest. I don't lobby, work with patents or intellectual property, do classified research or work with for-profit companies. The research I do on geoengineering involves computer simulations and thinking about possible consequences. The Ficer foundation that has funded my research tries to be transparent in their activities, as do I."

• This article was amended on 8 February 2012. The original stated that Phil Rasch worked for Intellectual Ventures. This has been corrected. This article was further amended on 13 February 2012. Prof Caldeira has asked us to make clear that the fact that he advocates research into geoengineering does not mean he advocates geoengineering.


Strelnikov said...

It's all a desperate attempt to keep the oil and coal industries going as they are.

Anonymous said...

Since blocking sunlight will cut down on the energy available to plant life, it should be reserved as the last-resort effort.

A much safer, more certain, and even cheaper alternative would be to get rid of Capitalism, commit to a crash program of re-forestation, commit to providing support for people who would normally have large families, and enforce postpartum sterilisation globally after 0.5 live births per person, any male impregnating more than one female concurrently except by bona-fide accident loses his dangly bits.

A quick spreadsheet hack with some simplifying assumptions (everyone chooses to have their half kid at age 20, everyone lives to exactly age 100) says that if we do that starting in 2020, we'll be home and dry by 2140 without killing anybody via war, famine, or plague, and with luck without forcing any other species (I'm thinking in particular of the orangs, the Amur tigers, the Florida panthers, and similar non-humans) to go extinct.

It's got to be worth a try.

Mark Robinowitz said...

It's a good thing that oil has peaked, coal is near or at peak (it's past peak BTU in the US) and natural gas peaked in the US in 1973. Sure, the toxic impacts are increasing as we extract the nastier, bottom of the barrel fuels (as predicted by the Limits to Growth study in 1972), but in general, natural limits will trump any desires to increase extraction rates. We cannot burn fuel that does not exist. Growth of consumption is over. There's enough remaining fuel to further foul the planet but not enough to keep growth going.

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