The NRC is wrong – we’re nowhere near ready to research geoengineering

mr burns solar shade
mr burns solar shade

Geoengineering: The Simpsons already did it.

Last week, the National Research Council released a lengthy, two-volume report on geoengineering. The central crux of the report and the surrounding debate seems to be that, sure, geoengineering is a crazy idea, but, we need to at least research it, because we’ve gotten ourselves into this mess, and we need every tool available at our disposal. Even the IPCC has dipped a toe in the water, noting in its Fifth Assessment Report that we will most likely end up surpassing the 2ºC warming threshold if we exceed 450ppm of CO2. The only way to get back under that threshold is through the “widespread deployment of bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage (BECCS) and afforestation in the second half of the century.” Given these realities, it seems logical to at least start researching geoengineering, right? It’s better to have that arrow in the quiver and never need it than need it and not have it.

The risks & rewards of geoengineering

The problem with geoengineering is that even researching it carries clear risks. In July 2013, the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program published a report titled “Backdraft: The Conflict Potential of Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation.” The report includes a chapter on geoengineering (“climate engineering” in their parlance) by Achim Maas and Irina Comardicea of aldephi, a German think tank.

In their piece, Maas and Comardicea lay out the potential benefits and drawbacks of climate engineering. On the one hand, climate engineering would not need to upend our existing fossil fuel-based global energy system and may be a more appealing option for certain actors. This approach would also allow developing states space to continue to exploiting their fossil fuel reserves as a way to lift their citizens out of extreme poverty, helping to level the potential trade-offs between tackling climate change and global poverty.

On the other hand, tinkering with our climate system could generate some severe unintended consequences. First, it fails to tackle the root cause of climate change, so it is far from an actual solution. Second, it does nothing to curb the impacts of climate change outside of global warming, most notably ocean acidification. Third, the potential side effects of climate engineering could be widespread, and we cannot predict them for sure. We may end up altering the color of the sky or the chemistry the oceans. Fourth, once we start playing God with our atmosphere, we can never stop. According to a study in the Journal of Geophysical Research, if we engaged in solar radiation management (SRM) for 50 years, then stopped, we could end up getting all of the delayed warming from that period in just 5 to 10 years. That type of warming would be unprecedented, and we could have no way to adapt.

The trouble with research

But none of the above specifically explains why researching climate engineering is, in and out itself, fraught with risks. Maas and Comardicea delve into this issue at length. Because of the scope and the scale of climate engineering, we cannot accurately replicate it in a lab, and there is no way the international community would sign off on a global chemistry experiment without knowing the real world implications. And that necessitates experimenting outside of the lab.

Say we decided to inject sulfates into the atmosphere on a “small scale” in order to see if we could reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. The risks of even a theoretically controlled experiment could be significant. Thanks to a study that also came out last week, we know that the increase in aerosol emissions in Europe and North America during the Industrial Revolution altered precipitation patterns in the northern tropics, contributing to a “substantial drying trend” after 1850.

The impacts of climate change and, by extension, climate engineering, are so distant in time and space that we would have no way of knowing exacting where, when, and how the potential consequences of this kind of experiment would play out. What if a prolonged drought occurred in the Caribbean or the monsoon shifted dramatically in South Asia? We would be unable to pinpoint the cause of such a change – whether natural or manmade – for several months or years.

And, during this period, all sorts of social and political consequences could occur. We already know, for instance, that aerosol pollution from India has intensified tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea, including a category 4 cyclone that hit Pakistan in June 2010. Pakistan is already acutely aware of the impacts of drifting air pollution from India. What if the country experienced another disaster on the scale of the 2010 Indus River floods and decided that Indian interference in the atmosphere was to blame?

As Maas and Comardicea argue,

Even if there may be no direct connection between a state’s regional climate engineering scheme and the crop failure of another state, it may provide a convenient scapegoat and lead to increased tensions…The possibility of unilaterally implemented climate engineering, either via world powers or smaller coalitions of states, may thus lead to a “climate control race.” In the same way that states raced to develop arsenals of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, states may compete to develop and control climate engineering technology.

There is already a track record to suggest that states can use weather as a tool of war. The US employed cloud seeding techniques from 1967-1972 as part of “Operation Popeye” to try and interrupt movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Such actions directly led to the 1978 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), which barred the using environmental modification to cause harm. But even ENMOD has not halted efforts to control the weather. China, for instance, has widely employed cloud seeding, most famously to clear the skies over Beijing in the run up to the 2008 Olympics.

Governance before research

With all of these potential consequences in mind, what do Maas and Comardicea recommend to stave off the worst effects of climate engineering? In a word, governance:

To reduce the conflict potential of climate engineering, a transparent international dialogue on the research and applications of climate engineering technologies is crucial prior to any field research (emphasis added). Ongoing talks and deliberations should involve a wide variety of stakeholders, and critically evaluate the potential technological benefits and pitfalls, as well as the regulatory development of the range of climate engineering techniques…

In conclusion, the NRC is wrong here. We need governance, first and foremost, before undertaking research and absolutely before trying out any of these crazy ass schemes in the real world. The risks are too great to play it by the seat of our pants. I’m not here to say that we should never employ geoengineering at any point, for any reason. I think it’s a terrible idea with a dramatic downside, but there may come a time when we have no choice. Then, and only then – as a very last resort – should we be ready to employ it. But we are a long way from that point, and we are still a long way from reaching the day at which we can even begin to researching to prepare for this day. Let’s get through Paris first without saddling this conference with yet another intractable problem.

Here’s how climate change will screw up Memorial Day

children kiribati vickers gun
children kiribati vickers gun

Children sit astride a Vickers gun on Tarawa Island, a remnant from the Japanese defenses on the island during World War II (courtesy of The Global Mail).

Memorial Day was yesterday, a solemn holiday to recognize those men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country and did not return home from the field of war.

While President Lyndon B. Johnson officially recognized Waterloo, New York as the birthplace of the holiday, the first Memorial Day took place on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Here, a group of least 10,000 freed slaves staged a parade to commemorate the Union soldiers who had fought and died on their behalf. The parade took place on the site of Washington Race Course and Jockey Club, a race track that Confederate soldiers had converted into an outdoor prison for Union troops. Before the parade, 28 former slaves gathered on the site to provide a proper burial to the 257 soldiers who died in the camp’s deplorable prison and were unceremoniously laid to rest in a shallow, mass grave.

Memorial Day and climate change

Like all holidays, it is unsurprising to see Memorial Day sometimes used to promote political agendas. Joe Romm capitalized on Thomas Friedman’s column from Saturday to discuss the links between climate change and violent conflict. According to the Los Angeles Times, President Obama is expected to highlight that connection in his major foreign policy address at West Point tomorrow.

There has been much ink spilled over the climate-conflict nexus, including a chapter in the latest IPCC Working Group II report (PDF) and the recent update to the landmark 2007 report from the CNA. Accordingly, given these clear and potentially acute links, it is unsurprising to see commentators make the connection.

I want to focus on a different connection between Memorial Day and climate change. Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report documenting how climate change threatens vital national landmarks, including the historical Jamestown settlement and Cape Canaveral. We’ve already seen firsthand how rising seas and more severe storm surges can damage important sites, as evinced by the inundation of Ground Zero during Superstorm Sandy.

The Battle of Tarawa

But not all of these threatened landmarks are located in the US. Halfway around the world lies the small island nation of Kiribati (prounounced KIRR-i-bas), an archipelago of 33 coral atolls and islands that sits astride the Equator in the Pacific Ocean about 3,100 miles east of Australia. The country’s capital and largest city, South Tarawa, sits on the narrow coral atoll of the same name. More than 50,000 Kiribati – almost half of the country’s population – are squeezed onto this small islet just six square miles in area.

While this nation exists as little more than a blip in international politics or the global economy, it played an outsized role in the fight for supremacy in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. As The New York Times discussed on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Tarawa,

By themselves, the islands held little value to the Japanese or the American government. They were situated about halfway between Pearl Harbor and the Philippines and were barely large enough to hold an airfield. But they served as an essential steppingstone across the Pacific: If American bombers wanted to reach Japan, they would need an air base in the Mariana Islands; to capture the Marianas, they would first need the Marshall Islands; and for the Marshalls, they needed Tarawa. To fortify the atoll, the Japanese sent in 3,800 imperial troops, along with 1,200 enslaved Korean laborers to be thrust onto the front lines. They spent a year building concrete bunkers and planting massive cannons along the beaches. The leader of the Japanese garrison, Rear Adm. Keiji Shibazaki, predicted that it would take “one million men, 100 years” to seize the islands.

Beginning November 20, 1943, some 35,000 Marines stormed the island in an attempt to wrest it from Japanese control. By the time the fighting ended three days later, roughly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans died. This number included around 1,100 Marines who, though they fell, did not die in vain. Their sacrifice allowed their comrades to seize the island and establish an essential foothold for Admiral Chester Nimitz’ island hopping strategy. Adm. Nimitz reportedly said that “The capture of Tarawa knocked down the front door to the Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific.”

Unfortunately, the tropical heat eliminated any hope for a proper, dignified burial of the dead. The surviving Marines quickly buried their fallen comrades in shallow graves (due, in part, to the island’s low water table), then moved on. Military engineers soon moved in to pave over much of the island and construct an airfield. When crews returned to Tarawa in 1946 to exhume the remains of the Marines, the haste of the burials and poor record keeping made their task nearly impossible.

Forensic investigators located just half of the buried Marines. Supplemental crews, both official and volunteers, have helped to locate the unidentified remains of just over 100 others. But perhaps 520 Marines remain buried somewhere in the sands of South Tarawa.

north and south tarawa

North and South Tarawa islands in Kiribati (courtesy of The Guardian).

Climate change in Kiribati

Today, as in 1943, Kiribati sits on the front lines of the world’s greatest crisis. This crisis is not a world war, but the battle against global climate change. Most of Tarawa lies less than three meters above sea level, while the country’s entire land area sits, on average, just 1.3 meters above the Pacific. Under a high emissions scenario, the IPCC projects that global sea levels will rise by 52-98 centimeters by 2100. That number is likely low, however, as the report excludes recent research that shows more ominous trends, such as the news this month that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has entered an irreversible (if gradual) collapse.

Additionally, Kiribati’s location makes it even more vulnerable to sea level rise (SLR). It is located in the Western Pacific Ocean, where seas have been rising three times faster than the rest of the globe. According to the World Bank, by 2050 – within my lifetime – some 54-80% of South Tarawa could be fully inundated (PDF).

sea level rise rate western pacific

Rates of sea level rise in the Pacific Ocean (courtesy of NOAA).

Clearly, Kiribati is at tremendous risk. Anote Tong, the country’s president, has been pushing a policy of “migration with dignity,” whereby he works with neighboring states to take Kiribati migrants. Stating that his country has perhaps three decades before it becomes uninhabitable, President Tong recently purchased more than 6,000 hectares of land in Fiji. This represents just one of his contingency plans for his endangered (and rapidly growing) population of more than 100,000.

Ultimately, it won’t be too much water but, rather, too little water that dooms Kiribati and other small island states. That’s because, as sea levels rise, saltwater pushes into underground freshwater reserves. This process, known as saltwater intrusion, contaminates the freshwater resources upon which the islands’ residents depend. The IPCC has projected that South Tarawa’s supply of underground freshwater will shrink by two-thirds through 2050. This, along with the repeated impacts of more intense storm surges on infrastructure and crops will likely push those left on the islands to flee long before the seas reach their doorsteps.

Climate change will seriously challenge our existing international law system. Will we redefine refugee to include climate-induced migration? Can our definition of national sovereignty stay the same in a greenhouse world? Is it really possible for a nation-state to exist when its people have all left and its territory lies under the sea?

President Tong has proposed one possible solution to the latter issue. He has suggested that, in a worst case scenario, the Kiribati government could establish an outpost on Banaba atoll, which, at 81 meters above sea level, is the highest point in the country. This would allow the Kiribati state to maintain at least a ceremonial presence in its territory, even if most of it lies empty.

But the 520 US Marines who lie buried under the beaches of South Tarawa will not be so fortunate. They will not get the same dignified burial as those 257 Union soldiers in Charleston, nor will they get a tangible memorial like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery. Unless we act immediately, both to search for their remains and to curb the carbon pollution that is driving climate change, these brave men who fought and died for their country will end up interred, anonymously, under the sea forever.


Ocean acidification will make global warming even worse

Most of the focus and the words spilled on climate change tend to focus on the effects of increasing temperatures, changes in precipitation, and sea level rise. One issue that largely gets mentioned in passing or ignored altogether is ocean acidification.

Much like the way that the oceans have recently absorbed most of the heat trapped on Earth, our oceans have taken up roughly 25-50% of the CO2 which humans have released since 1850. Because carbon dioxide is soluble in water, it dissolves and bonds with the oxygen molecule and one of the hydrogen molecules to form carbonic acid (HCO3). As a result, the IPCC noted in its Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) that the pH level of the ocean has dropped by at least 0.1 units. Under a high emissions scenario (SRES A2), Feeley, Doney and Cooley (2009) project that the pH level of the ocean will fall from a pre-industrial level of 8.2 to roughly 7.8, equivalent to a 150% increase in acidity (PDF).

Graph of Ocean pH projections

The range of potential pH levels for the world’s oceans through 2100, based on the various IPCC emissions scenarios. Even under the best case scenario, which is becoming increasingly unlikely by the day, pH will fall below 8 for the first time in at least 800,000 years (courtesy of the IPCC).

We already know that ocean acidification will wreak havoc on ocean ecosystems by degrading coral reefs and dissolving aquatic creatures with calcium carbonite shells. These outcomes, in turn, will likely increase food insecurity for the more than one billion people who rely on fish for their primary source of protein. In other words, it’s going to suck – a lot.

image of dissolving aquatic snail shell

Side-by-side images of the aquatic snail Limacina helicina antarctica. The image on the left shows an intact snail shell, while the image on the right shows the same species in a severe state of dissolution from ocean acidification. Shelled aquatic organisms which live in the Southern Ocean, like Limicina helicina antarctica, are uniquely susceptible to acidification (courtesy of the British Antarctic Survey).

But thanks to a new article published this week (paywalled) in Nature Climate Change, we know that ocean acidification may produce another drastic outcome – amplifying global warming. According to the study, seawater that is more acidic is less saturated with dimethylsulphide (DMS), a compound of sulfur that is a byproduct of phytoplankton production. As the authors note (emphasis mine):

[It has been] observed that DMS, a by-product of phytoplankton production, showed significantly lower concentrations in water with low pH. When DMS is emitted to the atmosphere its oxidation products include gas-phase sulphuric acid, which can condense onto aerosol particles or nucleate to form new particles, impacting cloud condensation nuclei that, in turn, change cloud albedo and longevity. As oceanic DMS emissions constitute the largest natural source of atmospheric sulphur, changes in DMS could affect the radiative balance and alter the heat budget of the atmosphere.

Using data from a mecosm study conducted in 2010 off the coast of Svalbard, Norway, the researchers attempted to analyze the relationship between ocean acidity and DMS levels and the associated impact upon radiative forcing in the Earth’s atmosphere. In their analysis, they project that DMS production will decrease 26% by 2100, leading to a drop in DMS emissions of roughly 12-24%.

Because DMS emissions can alter cloud dynamics, the authors project that ocean acidification will lead to an additional radiative forcing of 0.40 watts per square meter (remember that burning fossil fuels since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has so far led to an additional 1.6 W m−2). They conclude (emphasis mine):

We find that even in a future CO2 emission scenario as moderate as the IPCC SRES A1B, pH changes in sea water are large enough to significantly reduce marine DMS emissions by the end of the twenty-first century, causing an additional radiative forcing of 0.40 W m−2. This would be tantamount to a 10% additional increase of the radiative forcing estimated for a doubling of CO2.

As the authors note, ocean acidification may increase global temperatures by an additional 10%, equivalent to perhaps 0.2-0.3C by 2100. This study presents another important piece in the equation for estimating the potential scope and scale of the consequences of our meddling with our Earth’s climate. The climate is one of the most complicated phenomenon in the universe, and our best scientists are only beginning to understand some of its most nuanced facets. For hundreds of years, we have been blindly pulling levers and turning knobs on the machine that controls the habitability of our planet, blissfully ignorant of the implications. We are the guinea pigs in a global experiment of our own making, and the time to stop is now.

The next time the Plain Dealer writes about climate change, maybe it should interview an actual scientist

On July 23, Plain Dealer reporter and editor Cliff Pinckard published an article titled “A ‘pause’ in global warming keeps the climate-change debate in play.” As you can probably guess from the title, the post – which purported to report on recent research regarding the so-called “warming plateau” – ended up turning into a flawed, irresponsible piece that misrepresented climate science and gave climate deniers disproportionate footing and credibility.

The piece begins with a brief discussion of a recent series of three reports released by the Met Office Hadley Centre on the recent “pause” in global warming during the last 15 years. It is accurate to say that global surface temperatures have not increased at as rapid a rate since 1998 as they did in the previous 30 years. As the first of the three Met Office reports (PDF) notes, “Global mean surface temperatures rose rapidly from the 1970s, but have been relatively flat over the most recent 15 years to 2013.”

Climate deniers routinely use 1998 as the year to begin making their patently absurd claim that the Earth has been cooling over the past 15 years. This decision is strategic, as an abnormally active El Niño event that year led to a massive transfer of heat from the Pacific Ocean to the atmosphere. Since this point, the Pacific Ocean has largely remained in a neutral state, though a moderate La Niña period in the past few years has contributed to a moderate cooling trend in the region. Additionally, 1998 is no longer the warmest year on record. According to the World Meteorological Organization (PDF), 9 of the years from 2000-2010 were among the 10 warmest in recorded history, with 2010 and 2005 ranking first and second, respectively.

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

Decadal global average surface air temperatures for each 10-year period since 1891. As the chart illustrates, the period from 2000-2010 was the warmest decade on record, with a temperature anomaly of 0.84°C above the mean (courtesy of the WMO).

It is important to note, as Mr. Pinckard does briefly, that the Met Office and other climate scientists have attributed this purported “pause” in warming to a variety of potential causes, particularly the trapping of heat in the deep oceans. The first report continues:

Careful processing of the available deep ocean records shows that the heat content of the upper 2,000m increased by 24 x 1022J over the 1955–2010 period (Levitus, 2012), equivalent to 0.09°C warming of this layer. To put this into context, if the same energy had warmed the lower 10km of the atmosphere, it would have warmed by 36°C! While this will not happen, it does illustrate the importance of the ocean as a heat store.

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

The vast majority of global warming is stored in the oceans, particularly below 700 meters, due to sheer size of the oceans, compared to land area, and the ability of water to trap and store heat (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Had Mr. Pinckard stopped there, his article would have been relatively accurate and innocuous. But instead, he ventured into false equivalence land, feeling the irrepressible need to provide “balance” by quoting climate deniers. James Fallows, who has spent far too much of his outstanding career at The Atlantic reporting on the media’s penchant for false equivalence, has settled on its definition:

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

False equivalence, the definition (courtesy of James Fallows & @natpkguy).

Mr. Pinckard devotes the next 329 words of his article – 36.4% of the whole piece! – to quoting at length from professional climate denier/right wing columnist Rupert Darwall (who has no background in climate science) and someone named Nirav Kothari writing on a random Indian financial site. I’m not sure how these two gentlemen warrant mentioning or quoting at length, but actual climate scientists are shut out of the piece. Perhaps Mr. Picknard can elaborate.

Even more disturbingly, Mr. Pinckard grants equal footing to the claims of these deniers. He argues in both the piece’s headline and the caption under its sole picture that the Met Office’s work means the “the climate-change debate is in play” and that “some people [are] wondering if man-made emissions really have an impact on the environment.”

Mr. Pinckard’s decision to use a complex debate within the climate science community as a reason to launch these patently false and absurd claims is highly irresponsible, if not journalistic malpractice.

There is no debate within the scientific community as whether or not anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions “have an impact on the environment.” Svante Arrenhius first discovered that greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, could alter the heat budget of the atmosphere and lead to global warming in 1895.

We know for a fact that  greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are increasing the heat-trapping potential of the atmosphere. Based on evidence from tree rings and ice cores, we know that the average concentrate of CO2 in the atmosphere during the Holocene, the mild and fair geological age in which human civilization has developed, stood at a fairly stead 280ppm. This changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and C02 concentrations have spiked by more than 40%, reaching 400ppm in May for the first time in at least 3,000,000 years.

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly after 1850 (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Historical concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, as measured over the last 800,000 years. As the chart suggests, the historical measure stayed at or below 280ppm throughout this period, but the number spiked rapidly within the last 200 years (courtesy of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

During this period, the atmosphere has begun trapping an additional 1.6 watts per square meter of heat every second, equivalent to the amount of energy stored in four Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs.

We know that the warming has primarily been caused by increasing concentrations of CO2 and, to a lesser extent, other heat-trapping gases like methane and nitrous oxide. Scientists are able to determine this by measuring the wavelengths of long-wave infrared radiation as it reaches the ground and as it leaves the Earth. Sure enough, the mass spectrometers show spikes in radiation levels grouped around CO2 and other known greenhouse gases.

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth, drawn from Evans (2006). As the chart shows, the overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from CH4 (methane), O3 (ozone), and N2O (nitrous oxide), all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Spectrum measurements of the various wavelengths of greenhouse gas radiation at the surface of the Earth. The overwhelming majority of radiation falls within the spectrum of CO2, with significant contributions from methane, ozone, and nitrous oxide, all of which are known greenhouse gases (courtesy of Skeptical Science).

Moreover, had Mr. Pinckard bothered to actually read the reports from the Met Office, he might have discovered that a decade or two of relatively flat temperatures has been predicted by climate models.

[T]he results show that a pause of 10 years’ duration is likely to occur due to internal fluctuations about twice every century.

The third Met Office report (PDF) also notes that the recent pause will not continue for long and will have almost no impact on the long-term trends in warming. The authors conclude first that “the physical basis of climate models and the projections they produce have not been invalidated by the recent pause.” Additionally, they argue “the recent pause in global surface temperature rise does not materially alter the risks of dangerous climate change.”

Mr. Pinckard fails to provide this important context to his readers or offer the additional evidence, besides average land surface temperatures, that global warming has continued apace. It is called global warming, not land warming, for a reason.

The next time that The Plain Dealer wants to cover an issue involving our global climate, which is easily one of the most complex and misunderstood topics in the world, I would suggest their reporter(s) do the following:

    • Go to Google and type the following: climate-related search term.
    • Watch the following video from NASA for further proof that, yes, the planet is warming