"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Geoengineering Quandary (In Living Color)

Following up from yesterday, we have a bunch of people being a little bit coy in response to a straightforward statement, Richard Branson's comment that "If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen wouldn’t be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars."

Note that he didn't say all our problems would be solved. The finiteness of fossil fuels is obviously on deck. And while we might manage enough biofuels to keep our airplanes flying, that won't be enough to solve our problems. Still, there's little wrong with the substance of the assertion: if CO2 emissions could be made harmless, they would be harmless.

In response we have a chain of half-stated reactions:
David Roberts: "entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson said something heroically, world-historically stupid" and "The authors of the upcoming book SuperFreakonomics also think that geoengineering is a cheap, easy way to avoid the work of fashioning a more sustainable society." Branson is lumped in with Levitt and Dubner, a place one really doesn't want to be lumped these days.

(What David clearly means is that there are plenty more limits beyond this one, and finding a workaround to one limit without changing our behavior in the long run is not a happy ending, just a prolongation of the inescapable crisis. With this I am in total agreement.)

Keith Kloor: "The irony is that Roberts posts a set of global land use & ecological impact graphs to make his point that geoengineering won’t save humanity from all the upward trends in the graphs. So if every ecological and climate indicator demonstrates that the earth is becoming less livable because of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations and other global land uses, then is it realistic to take geoengineering off the table just because someone like Richard Branson makes a glib and simplistic statement?"

(I kind of agree yet again. Depending on what you mean, I don't think geoengineering should be off the table. Branson is advocating for biochar. Biochar should definitely not be off the table, and I don't think David Roberts wants it off the table anyway.

Where Kloor rubs me the wrong way is in his closing paragraph:
But the truth is that no matter happens at Copenhagen and in the U.S. Congress, some type of adaptation measures will be necessary. Roberts is a very smart guy, and I know he’s capable of chewing gum and talking about climate adaptation at the same time. The fact that he doesn’t want to likely results from his belief–which is shared widely by climate activists–that any discussion of climate adapation is an unwelcome distraction from the debate at hand on mitigation. Why there isn’t room for both discussions to occur beats me.
The idea that there is some sort of zero-sum game between "adaptation" and "mitigation" is really a very half-baked way of thinking about the problem. Forcing things under that rubric is simply a distortion.)

me: My coy statement was: "But what about geoengineering? Is David right? Is Richard Branson right? They are both right, as I'll explain later."

(In that article I tried to explain the very loose coupling between what is normally considered the mitigation community and the multitude of disparate adaptation communities, and the difference in scale of their problems. I explained that thinking of geoengineering as a part of "adaptation" was not splitting nature or the relevant intellectual communities at their joints. It's a very poor apprehension of the situation to find these communities as if they were in competition, and weaker still to assign geoengineering to the wrong side.

But what of geoengineering solutions? I am not in the least averse to using whatever tools we can bring to bear to manage the situation on the way to some sort of sustainability, a sustainability that I can't imagine really coming to fruition for a century or two, while the population slowly drops to a billion or a tenth of a billion.)
We need to use whatever works in the intervening generations. (It seems to me the 350.org folk are in agreement with Branson in supporting biochar as the nicest way to quickly bring the CO2 concentration down. So I can't see how David Roberts chooses to lump Branson in with the egregious Dubn and Dubner).

What works? Well, in addition to a rather ill-informed attempt to create a zero-sum game between "adaptation" and "mitigation" the press seems to be forming a rather confused idea of "geoengineering" (a trap into which Branson has inadvertently walked, though he will likely walk right back out none the worse for it personally), and unfortunately the scientific community writ large is contributing to the confusion on this matter.

Have a look at this figure, from the Royal Society report "Geoengineering the Climate", Sept 1 2009, via 2020Science

The above is from Royal Society’s much-anticipated report on geoengineering. As 2020science puts it:
Aimed at presenting “an independent scientific review of the range of methods proposed [for geoengineering the climate] with the aim of providing an objective view on whether geoengineering could, and should, play a role in addressing climate change, and under what conditions,” it provides what is perhaps the most authoritative and comprehensive assessment of the options to date… It dares to consider the option of actively engineering the climate on a planetary scale to curb the impacts of global warming, and advocates further research into geoengineering. In doing so, it will no doubt simultaneously enrage deniers of anthropogenic climate change, and those who fervently maintain that technological fixes are not the solution to the consequences of humanity’s excesses. ...Yet for anyone mature enough to consider the merits of evidence-based and socially-responsive decision-making, the report offers a clear and insightful perspective.
The figure speaks eloquently for itself. (I'd have made the size of the dots represent the potential scale of the effort, but that is somewhat subsumed under "effectiveness". Roof painting is fine, but of course there really aren't enough roofs to make a difference.) Rather, and somewhat counterintuitively, the size of a bubble indicates how quickly the approach could be brought online. Of course, this sort of chart subsumes a tremendous amount of debate and uncertainty, and is likely far from the final word on any of these approaches, but it's certainly interesting on its own.

Well, maybe not completely eloquently. "BECS" is "bio-energy with carbon sequestration".

What I'd like to point out is that there are two very different classes of strategy being discussed here: carbon sequestration strategies and radiative transfer balance strategies. It is easy to tell them apart. All the green dots (except for the low-effectiveness urban rooftop one) are carbon sequestration strategies. Those are considered safe. All the red ones are radiative transfer strategies. Those are considered high risk.

This is not a coincidence! These are really two very separate categories of idea! I am increasingly frustrated at the extent to which they are being confused. It amounts to retrograde progress in public understanding. Can we please distinguish between them?

Removing the carbon from the atmosphere solves the carbon problem. The climate disruption goes away. The direct ecosystem disruption goes away. The ocean acidification goes away. The cost is pulling out the carbon. The effect is that there is no extra carbon! It's pretty difficult in practice, but in principle it's a no-brainer!

Changing the radiative properties of the atmosphere is global climate engineering. It has numerous and extremely spooky consequences. It's like drinking more and more liquor every night and drinking more and more coffee every morning to compensate. You may crudely cancel out a few of the symptoms, but you're getting more and more unhealthy with every passing day, and anyway, plenty of the symptoms are still with you.

Part of this traces back to the earlier mistake of calling the problem "global warming" in the first place. Our problem is accelerating climate change, not global temperature. Global temperature is merely an easy-to-measure symptom (and is relatively easy to obtain from paleodata as well). No doubt it is an interesting quantity. But the change in global temperature is not the problem, and never has been. The problem is that the atmosphere is a forced fluid flow, and relatively small changes in the forcing can have very large changes in the flow as a consequence.

It is easy to counteract the changes in global temperature by cancelling out an inadvertent heating with a deliberate cooling. But it's really a desperation move. It might keep our ice sheets from falling apart, and that is a big goal, but it will add to climate change, not cancel it out!

Now, neither approach will solve all of our problems. But the sequestration approach will solve one of our problems, and it is a big one. If you don't believe in any of the sequestration approaches, you;d better take off that "350" cap, mate, because we need at least one of them to work if we're going to get to 350 before Greenland melts.

My bottom line, then, is all about nomenclature.

The "adaptation" community deals with local change on decadal time scales. The "mitigation" community deals with global change on longer time scales, and with forcing. There is no real competition between the adaptation and mitigation communities and certainly no zero-sum game. It's irresponsible to try to drum one up.

Technologies that can affect the forcing on a global scale are not really part of the adaptation conversation but rather part of the mitigation one. There are two main types of global strategy that don't address emissions directly: radiative and geochemical. The word "Geoengineering" is often applied to both but should probably only be applied to the radiative class of strategy.

Studying radiative geoengineering in this sense is probably justified, but anyone thinking that sort of geoengineering provides a free pass is indulging in childish wishful thinking. (One surely shouldn't publish a reputation-bearing book making such a case.) Also, of course these symptomatic approaches do not save the oceans from death by acidification, another environmental problem of the highest order.

Sequestration strategies are commonly lumped under geoengineering, but they are very different in strategy. They deal with the carbon problem itself, not just with one of its symptoms.

Solving the carbon problem will not suffice to bring us into balance with the world, but it will help a lot. It will help us survive to the day when we can achieve sustainability. If you dismiss every one of these ideas you need to hang up your "350" cap because we need at least one of them to work to get to 350.

PS - It's still a good idea to have a reflective roof if you are in a hot climate. It just won't fix global warming to any significant extent, okay?

PPS - Wow. A long article for a short attention-span world. David, can I borrow some puppies? (OK, I did some coloring, hope that helps.)

Update: A related conversation last January on Brave New Climate. A salient point for the Freakonomists out there from Prof. Brook:
Needless to say, no one would credibly argue that geo-engineering is a replacement for mitigation of carbon emissions. A business-as-usual scenario of coal burning, taking atmospheric CO2 to 750 to >1000 ppm (directly or via carbon-cycle feedbacks), will force the climate system so far out of whack that no ‘patch up job’ will be sufficient. No, the context under which geo-engineering might need to be considered is if a measured analysis shows that even with major emissions reductions, the impacts of committed warming will be so bad as to warrant using additional ‘terraforming’ of planet Earth. Are we at that point already? Dunno. But let’s have that risk assessment and necessary R&D done, just in case.
Needless to say? Nothing is needless to say anymore, apparently.

Update: Related article on RC. (With a link back to here, thanks!) The crucially relevant point which seems invariably forgotten by people who wish there were an easy solution so they could trumpet how blind we all are, is explained thus:
The point is that a planet with increased CO2 and ever-increasing levels of sulphates in the stratosphere is not going to be the same as one without either. The problem is that we don’t know more than roughly what such a planet would be like. The issues I listed above are the ‘known unknowns’ – things we know that we don’t know (to quote a recent US defense secretary). These are issues that have been raised in existing (very preliminary) simulations. There would almost certainly be ‘unknown unknowns’ – things we don’t yet know that we don’t know. A great example of that was the creation of the Antarctic polar ozone hole as a function of the increased amount of CFCs which was not predicted by any model beforehand because the chemistry involved (heterogeneous reactions on the surface of polar stratospheric cloud particles) hadn’t been thought about. There will very likely be ‘unknown unknowns’ to come under a standard business as usual scenario as well – another reason to avoid that too.

There is one further contradiction in the idea that geo-engineering is a fix. In order to proceed with such an intervention one would clearly need to rely absolutely on climate model simulations and have enormous confidence that they were correct (otherwise the danger of over-compensation is very real even if you decided to start off small). As with early attempts to steer hurricanes, the moment the planet did something unexpected, it is very likely the whole thing would be called off. It is precisely because climate modellers understand that climate models do not provide precise predictions that they have argued for a reduction in the forces driving climate change. The existence of a near-perfect climate model is therefore a sine qua non for responsible geo-engineering, but should such a model exist, it would likely alleviate the need for geo-engineering in the first place since we would know exactly what to prepare for and how to prevent it.
This is why all intervention has to be about reducing net carbon. Anything else is a desperation backstop and probably won't work for all sorts of reasons.

Update: RP Jr shows up to say that
"Here is what I have said recently (for example) on adaptation vs. mitigation:

"I think that mitigation policies should be completely decoupled from adaptation policies and they should proceed on separate tracks. They are not trade-offs but complements."
If this is his opinion I have indeed misrepresented it and apologize. I would like to register complete agreement with the above and regret any inconvenience. I have removed the reference to Dr Pielke's opinion within the text and apologize for my error.


Brian said...

Very nice post. I think people put biochar and other geoengineering in the adaptation category because the dichotomy they look at is whether we act to change our GHG-emitting behavior versus acting to change the effect of our GHG-emitting behavior. I probably prefer your approach though.

I would say there is a conflict between adaptation and mitigation in that there's a limit to the political will to devote resources to this problem, and the two approaches are competing with those resources.

Some years ago I suggested to RP Jr. that emitters should pay a carbon tax to pay for adaptation costs, which would both increase the resources available and decrease emissions, but he didn't seem too interested. Don't know where he'd stand on that now.

William T said...

My take on this is that the term 'geo-engineering' for most people really does mean the shiny technologies to 'cool' the planet. Absorbing CO2, especially by means such as biochar is just too much like - well, like growing things - to be thought of as 'engineering'.

In fact I think it is different - as you point out - it is 'carbon cycle management' and because it directly affects the net emissions it is really just like any other CO2 reduction attempt. At the end of the day it doesn't matter whether there is CO2 being pumped into the air in one place and pumped out somewhere else - it is the global net change in the atmosphere over the next few decades that matters.

In my mind whenever 'geo-engineering' is mentioned I really only think of the 'shiny technology' kinds of proposals. CO2 management is a fundamental part of mitigation.

Unknown said...


My response to your charge is here:


In sum, I agree with Brian in this thread, who asserts that "there is conflict between adaptation and mitigation...and the two approaches are competing..."

I believe you ignore the obvious: climate activists loathe discussing adaptation because they believe it's a misdirection. That's the point I tried making in both of my posts related to this.


Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aaron said...

Climate effects are coming at us 10 to 100 times faster than predicted by the climate model. This basically puts reengineering solutions out of the realm of possibility. These days it takes 20 years to bring any kind of a public infrastructure project into existence. We still have major opposition to such projects, so there are political barriers. Who has the capital at this time? How much carbon would the building and operation of a technical/mechanical solution require? Carbon restraints rather limit us to reforestation/ revegetation type projects – that require large land area (or sea area). Who is going to give up their land/sea rights? What are you going to do (feed, house) with the people that move off their land?

Mother Nature has solutions that she can implement (full scale) faster than a UN delegate can pick up a pen. Mother Nature’s solutions involve biomass blooms in polar seas followed by settling biomass into polar basins. She just needs to move some ice out of the way to get on with the job. She has done that before and can do it with dispatch. I do not see any way for people to do the job before Mother Nature gets around to clearing the ice. (Which will rather mess up our infrastructure.)

Michael Tobis said...

Duplicate comment removed.

GRLCowan said...

"Removing the carbon from the atmosphere solves the carbon problem. The climate disruption goes away. The direct ecosystem disruption goes away. The ocean acidification goes away. The cost is pulling out the carbon. The effect is that there is no extra carbon!"

I often say similar things. I like to call CO2 removal strategies BTRO strategies, and the scary sun-blocking ones SACTCAR, after the nursery rhyme about the old lady who swallowed the horse. ("She died. Of course.")

(How fire can be domesticated)

Michael Tobis said...

Board of Towing and Recovery Operation?

Bristol County Republican Organization?

Blacksburg Transit Runsheets Online?

GRLCowan said...

Well, SACTCAR stands for Swallow A Cat To Catch A Rat ... and BTRO stands for Barf The Rat Out.

William T said...

There is also a clear difference in terms of how easily the proposals can fit into a 'carbon trading' scheme. Biochar is a straightforward extension of growing or preserving trees, and thus could be easily slotted into a carbon-trading system. However any solar-related technology cannot be directly accommodated within a carbon trading system.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Michael- why do you feel it necessary to periodically completely misrepresent my views?

Here is what I have said recently (for example) on adaptation vs. mitigation:

"I think that mitigation policies should be completely decoupled from adaptation policies and they should proceed on separate tracks. They are not trade-offs but complements."

Are you incapable of reading what I actually write?

I said as much in a 1998 peer-reviewed paper on the importance of adaptation as a complement to mitigation:


Is it too much to ask for accuracy in your representation of my views?

Anonymous said...

I find the following schematic a useful distinction between the different approaches:

process / problem -> measure / "solution"

Emissions -> Emission reduction / mitigation

Atmospheric concentration -> Air capture and storage

Global warming -> Artificial cooling / geoengineering

Dangerous interference -> Adaptation

(from (State of the art of mitigation & relation mitigation/adaptation, chapter 6)


bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

OK, so here's what I hear:

Keith Kloor thinks adaptation and mitigation are in conflict and therefore we should pay less attention to mitigation

Pielke Jr. thinks adaptation and mitigation are not in conflict and therefore ... we should pay less attention to mitigation. Or something.

Aaron thinks that we just need to pray to God^H^H^HMother Nature to magically solve all our problems. And therefore we should pay less attention to mitigation.

* * *

Oh well. In a way, I guess it's true that, just as carbon sequestration and cloud whitening require investment into infrastructure and research and stuff, so wind power and solar power and nuclear power also require investment into infrastructure and research and stuff.

For what it's worth, my opinion is that we should just view all of them as potential solutions, each with its benefits and risks. Is it more worthwhile to wait until carbon sequestration is viable enough to? Or is it more worthwhile to try to get wind power to generate half as much energy as coal and oil can at the moment? Tradeoffs, tradeoffs...

-- bi

Hank Roberts said...

As featured by Benny Peiser's CCNet:

Adaptation seems to write off the oceans. Articles like the one linked above seem to write off mitigation as useless and adaptation as the best use of the money.

I'd like to see Dr. Peiser go spend a week hands-on with the scientists who are studying ocean pH change, and then say whether the experience changes his perspective about what's needed.

Go to sea. Go to the labs.

Ecology is sometimes understood by policymakers who go and actually spend time with ecologists rather than just reading papers.

Roger Pielke, Jr. said...

Thank you Michael.

David B. Benson said...

Here is a way to remove lots of CO2 from the atmosphere:
Irrigated afforestation of the Sahara and Australian Outback to end global warming
(The pdf is open access; just click on the link.)

EliRabett said...

Never apologize. You messed up again. What Roger meant is that when it suits his current argument...

skanky said...

Instead of BTRO, how about the TRUE way? Throw Rat Up, Efficiently.

Or does that pander to the AGW-as-religion strawmen?

Michael Tobis said...

Eli, I don't think any of us matter that much as individuals. Reputation is secondary to getting the policy right.

If Pielke Jr. is on record saying that adaptation and mitigation are complementary rather than competitive, that is a true statement well formulated, and I think it best to emphasize that and give credit where it is due.

If he said something contrary in the past, I really don't care that much. Those of us (including you and me as well as Roger) who write a lot on these matters cannot be expected to achieve perfect coherence across all time and all contexts. I think it's fair just to let more recent statements guide the conversation without nitpicking. Without conceptual white-out there is no progress.

This is not to say that Pielke has or hasn't said contrary things. My memory of the matter may be faulty in any case.

It's only to say that the most recent thing he has said on the subject is correct, well-spoken, and entirely constructive. I feel content to leave it at that, and don't see the point of trying to dredge up controversy ad hominem unless it is current.

EliRabett said...

No Michael, the point is he bitch slapped you again and you took it. His take on mitigation and adaptation as with everything else, depends on what URL he finds useful to point you to.

Reasonable Roger is well put in his 2006 Congressional Testimony which says that mitigation and adaptation in his view are linked but will have effects at different times, they are complementary, but not disjoint in time.

You adapt to the present and mitigate for the future but adaptation without mitigation is futile and therefore they are perforce linked on any but the most infantile level. There might be some debate about the reverse, but only because the delayers and denialists have cost us expensive opportunities. A URL to some of the testimony is here (Ethon ate the Colorado link)

"Take Home Points
1. Human-caused climate change is real and requires attention by policy makers to both mitigation and adaptation - but there is no quick fix; the issue will be with us for decades and longer.

2. Any conceivable emissions reductions policies, even if successful, cannot have a perceptible impact on the climate for many decades.

3. Consequently, costs (whatever they may be) are borne in the near term and benefits related to influencing the climate system are achieved in the distant future.

4. However, many policies that result in a reduction in emissions also provide benefits in the short term unrelated to climate change.

5. Similarly adaptation policies can provide immediate benefits.

6. But climate policy, particularly international climate policy under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, has been structured to keep policy related to long-term climate change distinct from policies related to shorter-term issues of energy policy and adaptation.

7. Following the political organization of international climate change policy, research agendas have emphasized the long-term, meaning that relatively very little attention is paid to developing specific policy options or near-term technologies that might be put into place with both short-term and long-term benefits.

8. The climate debate may have begun to slowly reflect these realities, but the research and development community has not yet focused much attention on developing policy and technological options that might be politically viable, cost effective, and practically feasible."

On the economist's other hand Roger and friends have always showcased adaptation (see the Breakthrough Institute and CO2 capture among other enthusiasms) and mumbled about mitigation (at best).

We are going to pay procrastination penalties and you should be more judgemental about the procrastinators. Remember the whole point about the Breakdown thing is we only have to do research now (hmm, maybe Roger does think that mitigation is disjoint, if not delayable, but, then again, But then again, Roger vs. Roger is a game anybunny can play

Hank Roberts said...

For those who didn't click earlier, the piece ends with:

"As long as leaders of the climate movement continue to pretend that progress is being made, the climate policy charade will go on for a while longer, while business proceeds as usual."

-- RP Jr., as featured by Benny Peiser's CCNet link to:

Hank Roberts said...

Assuming neither business nor 'environmental' groups nor governments are serious about limiting the problem, but are giving it lip service, that leaves only citizen action, eh? Hansen's out front on that

Now, something like the EPA Toxic Release Inventory can make enforcement of limits by citizen action possible, if they want to:


Sunday, March 22, 2009
2007 TRI released
The latest version of the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) came out on the 19th, with RTK Net's version
open a day later.

This year, RTK NET's version also supplies RSEI risk screening numbers -- for the first time, an at least partial answer to the question "How important is this particular release of pollution, anyways?"

EPA continued its recent trend of downplaying the data release. I don't think that they announced they'd be releasing it far in advance -- I had to find out about it through the grapevine after it was already up. I didn't see much news about it, and the news there was was unspecific. For instance, the overall release trend was down, but PCB releases jumped 40%. Why? According to this story, for one example, "EPA said that the jump was probably due to disposal of old equipment or clean up at industrial sites."

Probably? The vast majority of the increase seems to be due to one site, Chemical Waste Management in Emelle, Alabama.

Why not call that facility and get the actual cause for the jump? That's one of the things that would change this from a contextless, uninvestigated number into a story that people could begin to understand.

---- end quote ---

Paragraph breaks added for readability - hr