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'Plan B': Seven ways to engineer the climate

David Klein


From: Phys.org

'Plan B': Seven ways to engineer the climate
October 11, 2017 by Marlowe Hood

Dismissed a decade ago as far-fetched and dangerous, schemes to tame global warming by engineering the climate have migrated from the margins of policy debate towards centre stage.

"Plan A" remains tackling the problem at its source. But efforts to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions have fallen woefully short and cannot, most scientists agree, avert catastrophic climate change on their own.

Here is a "Plan B" menu of geoengineering solutions that can be broken down into two categories: dimming the sun, which remains highly controversial, and capturing carbon dioxide (CO2).

Solar radiation management

The goal is simple: prevent some of the sun's rays from hitting the planet's surface, forcing them instead back up into space.

One idea worthy of a "Star Wars" sequel would assemble giant orbiting mirrors to deflect a bit of Earth-bound radiation.

A more feasible scheme—experiments are scheduled for next fall in Arizona—would inject tiny reflective particles into the stratosphere.

Nature sometimes does the same: Debris from the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines lowered the planet's average surface temperature for a year or two afterwards.

Scientists have also calculated ways to alter clouds that could help beat the heat.

One is to brighten the white, billowy ocean clouds that rebound sunlight back up. Another would thin cirrus clouds, which unlike other types absorb more heat than they reflect.

DRAWBACKS: Even if it works as intended, solar radiation management would do nothing to reduce atmospheric CO2, which is making oceans too acidic. There is also the danger of knock-on consequences, including changes in rainfall patterns, and what scientists call "termination shock"—a sudden warming if the system were to fail.

Ocean fertilisation

Microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton gobble up carbon dioxide and drag it to the bottom of the ocean when they die.

Colony size is limited by a lack of natural iron, but experiments have shown that sowing the ocean with iron sulphate powder creates large blooms.

DRAWBACKS: Again, scientists worry about unintended impacts. Die-offs of plankton, for example, use up oxygen, which could create massive "dead zones" in the oceans, something already on the rise.

Enhanced weathering

Natural weathering of rocks—a chemical process—removes about one billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year, about two percent of total manmade C02 emissions. What if technology could accelerate that process?

Spreading a powdered form of a greenish iron silicate called olivine across certain landscapes—especially over the oceans and in the tropics—does just that, experiments have shown.

DRAWBACKS: Enhanced weathering could probably be rapidly scaled up, but it would be expensive to mine and mill enough olivine to make a difference.


Biochar is charcoal made by heating plant waste—rice straw, peanut shells, wood scraps—over long periods in low-oxygen conditions, for example buried in the ground. It can store CO2 for long periods, and also enriches soil.

DRAWBACK: The scientific jury is still out on how quickly this method could be scaled up, and on the stability of biochar used as a fertiliser.


Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) marries a natural process with a high-tech one.

Step 1: Plant rapeseed, sugarcane, corn or "second generation" biofuel crops such as switchgrass, which pull CO2 from the air while growing.

Step 2: While burning the harvested plants for energy, sequester the CO2 produced.

The net result is "negative emissions," with less CO2 in the atmosphere than when the process started.

Virtually all climate change models projecting a future consistent with the Paris Agreement's core goal of capping global warming at "well under" two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) assume a key role for BECCS.

DRAWBACK: Studies calculate that upward of 40 percent of arable land would need to be given over to biofuel crops, putting the scheme in conflict with food crops.

Direct CO2 capture

Experiments have shown it is possible to suck CO2 directly from the air, converting it into fuel pellets or storing it underground.

A Canadian company backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates launched a pilot facility in Canada in 2015, and another company is set to unveil one in Iceland this week.

DRAWBACK: As of now, the technology is prohibitively expensive.

Massive afforestation

Extensive planting of trees could significantly slow the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, which currently stands at more than 400 parts per million.

DRAWBACK: Even if deforestation could be reversed—millions of hectares of tropical forests still disappear each year—the number of trees needed to put a dent in CO2 emissions would clash with food and biofuel drops.

Kamran Nayeri

Thank you for posting this article. While no one who cares about the future of humanity and life on Earth would rule out geoengineering at the very last resort, that is if and when we cannot stop the anthropocentric capitalist industrial system in time to avert the existential crisis, geoengineering advocates are simply a variety of ecomodernism, the ideology of the very civilization that is causing the crisis. They should be opposed by all means at our disposal, foremost through education, organization, and mobilization of working people.

David Klein

The danger of climate engineering within the framework of capitalism is that its existence would be used to continue or even increase GHG emissions and other environmental destruction, leading to eventual apocalypse. However, if at some time in the future, we are able to abolish capitalism and replace it with some form of ecosocialism, the climate will almost certainly be catastrophic, and climate engineering may be the only hope for human survival. Hansen et al, recently calculated that even with drastic GHG emission reductions and maximum possible afforestation/reforestation, significant carbon dioxide removal would still be necessary to stabilize the climate below 2C.

Now consider that it took more than a century for capitalists to develop the current technology for fossil fuel extraction from the ground, and how much harder it will to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and put it back. According to the IPCC (2014 report), "Carbon Dioxide Reduction [CDR] would need to be deployed at large-scale and over at least one century to be able to significantly reduce CO2 concentrations." Let's hope that research on CDR technology proceeds more rapidly than that and will be available in a post-capitalist world.

Brad H

Geo-Engineering: Can We “Science Our Way” Out Of A Climate Catastrophe?
October 16th, 2017 by Steve Hanley

Ever notice how once something new crops up in your life, suddenly it’s everywhere? In a comment to our recent story about carbon dioxide levels in the Eocene period, some people raised the topic of geo-engineering — ways to mechanically alter the earth’s atmosphere so a portion of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space or schemes that would remove carbon dioxide directly from the air and sequester it somehow.

Photo credit: Alamy via The Guardian

Today, I opened my digital copy of The Guardian while I having my morning cup of Darjeeling and see this headline: “Geo-engineering Is Not A Quick Fix For Climate Change, Experts Warn Trump.” But it’s the sub-head that grabs my attention: “Leading researchers and campaigners express concern that geo-engineering research could be used as an excuse not to reduce CO2 emissions.”

Can We Science Our Way Out Of A Climate Catastrophe?
Yes, friends, the idea that humans will somehow “science our way” out of a climate change catastrophe has now been seized upon by the climate deniers — that well-funded cabal put together by ExxonMobil, the Koch Brothers and the rest of the usual suspects in the fossil fuel club. There new mantra is that geo-engineering means we don’t have to worry about carbon emissions after all. We will simply geo-engineer a solution when the time is right.

Rex Tillerson, the man who led the parade of climate denial at ExxonMobil for years and is now the US Secretary of State (you cannot make this stuff up!) has said that climate change is mostly an “engineering problem.” A tuck here, a snip there, and voila! We can keep on pumping pollutants into the earth, the air, and the seas in perpetuity until the last molecule of fossil fuel has been extracted, transported, refined and burned. Happy days are here again, boys, and the money will just keep rolling in. Ain’t life grand?

Spraying Sulphates Into The Atmosphere
At the center of the discussion is David Keith, a self-styled solar geo-engineering expert at Harvard. He and his colleague Frank Keutsch plan to conduct an experiment that involves spraying sulphate particles into the atmosphere from a high-altitude balloon over Arizona to see what happens. They think the particles will reflect a portion of the sunlight that would otherwise hit the earth back into space, leading to a cooling effect on the land below.

The idea resonates with several people inside the Trump administration. David Schnare played a key role in the EPA transition team. He is strongly in favor of federal support for geo-engineering research and real world testing such as what David Keith plans to do in Arizona next year. Then he wants to deploy massive stratospheric spraying within three years after the testing is completed. Most supporters of geo-engineering think such spraying will need to continue for at least one hundred years to be effective.

There are a few problems with atmospheric spraying, however. One, sulphates and water can combine to create sulfuric acid. Does anyone remember acid rain? Apparently no one in the atmospheric spraying movement does. Two, “atmospheric modelling has shown that stratospheric spraying could drastically curtail rainfall throughout Asia, Africa and South America, causing severe droughts and threatening food supply for billions of people,” The Guardian reports.

Politics Rears Its Ugly Head
“Clearly parts of the Trump administration are very willing to open the door to reckless schemes like David Keith’s, and may well have quietly given the nod to open-air experiments,” said Silvia Riberio, with technology watchdog ETC Group. “Worryingly, geoengineering may emerge as this administration’s preferred approach to global warming. In their view, building a big beautiful wall of sulphate in the sky could be a perfect excuse to allow uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction. We need to be focusing on radical emissions cuts, not dangerous and unjust techno-fixes.”

Serial philanderer Newt Gingrich is solidly in favor of geo-engineering, which should send a cautionary message all by itself. “Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year,” he said in 2008. While heading right-wing think tank the American Economic Enterprise, (why do these lunatics all wrap themselves in the flag? Because it works.) he helping launch a geo-engineering unit to promote research into the idea. “We would have an option to address global warming by rewarding scientific innovation. Bring on American ingenuity. Stop the green pig.” And put lots of dollars in Snooty Newtie’s wallet at the same time, one suspects.

The National Academy of Sciences Report
A report released on Tuesday by the US National Academies of Sciences says tinkering with the planet through geo-engineering now would be “irrational and irresponsible.” First and foremost, humanity must begin by drastically cutting emissions, something the fossil fuel vultures are implacably opposed to doing.

The 16 scientists who wrote the report did advocate for further research into geo-engineering techniques as a hedge against a future climate emergency. “Should there come a time when the world must consider more extreme interventions in the climate, do we want those decisions to be knee jerk reactions? Or do we want them to be made with a wealth of information?” asks Marcia McNutt, the chair of the NAS committee responsible for the report.

Credit: National Academy of Sciences

Two Kinds Of Geo-Engineering
The report separates geo-engineering into two distinct classes. The first, darbon dioxide removal (CDR), would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sequester it deep in the ground or in the oceans. The second is called albedo modification (AM), which involves increasing the reflectivity (albedo) of the earth so the warming effect from the sun is diminished.

It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to figure out that more carbon dioxide in the oceans means more acidic seawater, which will lead directly to a dramatic reduction in seafood, a staple food that billions of people rely on. But hey, what’s a little starvation to Republicans? Those people don’t vote, and as Mitch McConnell likes to snarl, the winners get to make the rules.

The ideas range from planting more trees (which also means stopping the clear cutting of forests to grow crops to feed cattle) to ringing the earth with space dust to block some of the sun’s rays from reaching the surface of the earth. The NAS report says removing carbon from the atmosphere is less risky but more expensive. It is also a long way in the future, as the technology does not presently exist. Altering the earth’s albedo could be done now at less cost but its consequences are unknown and could be massive — as in billions of people dying from hunger and thirst.

Stuart Haszeldine, a professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, says: “The US National Academy report makes a smart distinction between slowly and deliberately putting carbon back underground and tinkering with sunlight reflection and adjusting the atmosphere. The first is slower, do-able, visible, and controllable but will cost more. The second is cheaper in the short term, but is poorly understood, will create global regions who are losers, and also means that humans have to keep maintaining the earth’s annual atmospheric injection.”

Carbon capture is no different than sequestering carbon in the permafrost found throughout the world. Melting of that permafrost is now one of the greatest threats to the environment as carbon locked up for millenia now is being released back into the atmosphere. Wouldn’t it be better and cheaper to take prudent steps to prevent melting of the permafrost in the first place?

What’s Wrong With This Picture?
What could possibly go wrong? Well, some countries might be upset if sulphate seeding causes droughts, famine and political upheaval. Wars could be fought over increasing scarce resources like food and water, but that’s of no concern to the advocates for these cockamamie ideas.

Professor Steve Rayner of Oxford University’s geo-engineering program and co-author of one of the most influential reports on the subject in 2009, addressed the likelihood of international conflict. “There are issues to do with the perceptions of the technology that make doing the stratospheric aerosol injection something that would be politically very dangerous to do without an international agreement… If you were to do it, any negative event that occurred would be attributed by some party or another to that intervention.”

Raymond Pierrehumbert, one of the authors of the NAS report, says of albedo modification research, “What is the point of actually investing in a research program that is specifically targeted at some aspects of the technology of albedo modification that you wouldn’t do for understanding climate in general. The report leaves the door open for doing some of those things… But my own feeling is that albedo modification really is a distraction from the main job of keeping the carbon dioxide emissions down.”

Biomass To The Rescue?
BECCS, the model depicted in the lower right corner of the graphic above, is what most climate scientists would like to see happen, but the carbon capture piece is just theoretical at this point. “You have to build an industry that is essentially reverse engineering two hundred years of the fossil fuel industry on a global scale,” says Steve Rayner. “There are real problems there with the length of time it would take to ramp up an industry on a scale that is actually going to make a difference to the atmosphere.”

This Is Too Important To Leave To Politicians
The NAS report adds, “Mitigation, although technologically feasible, has been difficult to achieve for political, economic, and social reasons that may persist well into the future… For that reason, it may be prudent to examine additional options for limiting the risks from climate change.”

Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales, Australia, believes this could have serious implications for the politics of climate change. “The (NAS) report treats as only a theoretical concern the possibility that a major geoengineering research program would reduce political incentives to reduce carbon emissions. But anyone who has watched world leaders seize on carbon capture and storage as a means of having our cake and eating it can see what is coming. The world lost 10 years chasing the chimera of ‘clean coal’.”

Naomi Klein, in her latest book about climate change, “This Changes Everything,” says geo-engineering could be seen as a kind of Noah’s ark, a Deus ex machina type of supernatural intervention. “If geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative… It’s the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved.”

Rachel Smolker of the NGO BiofuelWatch goes even further. She suggests that geo-engineering research is being actively promoted by fossil fuel acolytes. “The geo-engineering clique is taking advantage of this situation to promote their planetary technological manipulations. Some of the most avid promoters of geo-engineering have links to the fossil fuel industries and to institutions that have backed climate denial.” And we know who is behind those institutions, don’t we, boys and girls?

David Keith Defends Research But Hopes He Is Wrong
Remember David Keith, the fellow who plans to conduct some sulphate spraying experiments over Arizona next year? Don’t mark him down as one of the bad guys. “One of the main concerns I and everyone involved in this have, is that Trump might tweet ‘geoengineering solves everything — we don’t have to bother about emissions.’

“That would break the slow moving agreement among many environmental groups that sound research in this field makes sense.” At the best, climate engineering is a supplement, and “it could be that we shouldn’t do it,” he insists.

“Our work is to inform better choices and it would actually be very useful to know for sure it didn’t work.

“Right now there are heads of state and others in leadership who are explicitly assuming it could work, that it’s there if we need it. But let’s say we found something deep in the climate models which suggested we were overoptimistic about solar geoengineering, then I would say ‘abandon it’. That would be great. I’d love to publish that.”

Cognitive Dissonance In The First Degree
The willingness of some people to actively discredit climate scientists in general while embracing geo-engineering science should tell you all you need to know about the climate denial industry. Just as long as they and their handlers are making a buck, they are perfectly willing to watch billions die, provoke world wars, or stand idly by while thousands of species are exterminated from the face of the earth — including perhaps the human species.

Anyone who treats the health and welfare of others with such callous disregard would ordinarily be regarded as a criminal, but if you have enough money and influence, the laws don’t apply to you. It is up to us, the little people, to scream and yell, kick up a fuss and advocate for policies that reduce carbon emissions and the sooner the better.

Our world is too precious to be left to liars, cheats and crooks. A good start would be to throw all of the corrupt legislators in the US Congress — the ones who slavishly follow the orders of the Koch Brothers — out in the street. November 2018 is not far away. The need is now and the urgency is great.

Source: The Guardian