On “geo-engineering”

I had intended my next post to present an expanded version of the basic argument. However, I ran across a recent essay calling geo-engineering a form of climate change denial. Normally I’d just comment there, but now I have a climate blog of my own to develop, I see it would be wiser to express myself here – I need more for the casual visitor to read.

Geo-engineering is a very broad term. Potentially it encompasses any madcap scheme meant to change the physical state of the planet in a big way; but it’s specifically climate engineering that everyone is talking about. On this blog I expect to take a major interest in “air capture”, the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, especially via accelerated mineral carbonation. In mineral carbonation, gaseous CO2 becomes part of a carbonate (…CO3) rock, and is removed from the organic carbon cycle into the inorganic carbon cycle. Problem solved. And this happens naturally, but far too slowly to offset human emissions. However, we can accelerate the process; for example, by grinding up the rock, so as to increase the surface area for the reaction to take place. There are billions of tons of excess CO2 in the atmosphere now, so to get rid of it in this way would require grinding up and moving around billions of tons of rock. It would be an industry in itself. So it’s not an effortless answer to the problem; but it proves we can do it, and it certainly ought to be on the agenda, as we try to figure out the best way forward.

There are, however, other forms of geo-engineering which sound unwise. I expect that I will be talking about aerosol-induced cooling here, as well. My position on cooling via aerosols is that it should only be regarded as a palliative or an emergency measure, if we reach a point where we think we need sharp cooling right away. Offsetting CO2 warming with aerosol cooling does nothing about ocean acidification; the aerosols would have to constantly be replenished to maintain the effect (since they wash out of the air within a few years); and experience with volcanic eruptions like that of Mount Pinatubo (which cooled the world for a few years in the early 1990s) suggests that the aerosols will concentrate around the equator, whereas it’s the poles (the Antarctic peninsula, and all of the Arctic) which are warming most rapidly. (I would think it possible to release aerosols in a pattern designed to produce cooling only in a particular global region, and we might want to do this if the Arctic situation gets really bad, but regional climate engineering is still a relatively unexplored topic.)

And as for carbon capture via giant algal blooms in the ocean, a geo-engineering proposal which rates a mention in the essay which prompted this post, I agree that it sounds like a bad idea. Doing it on a scale that could make a difference would require the blooms to be absolutely huge as well as long-lasting. We’d be giving the earth new features, like the Red Spot of Jupiter. It would be a transformation of ocean ecosystems, possibly a pathological one, and certainly one whose effects would be hard to predict with any assurance.

However, having offered that small token of agreement, I must now disagree with the author’s general thesis. His overall view is that global warming is a symptom of capitalism, and that geo-engineering is a risky or even doomed attempt to solve the problem without changing the capitalist system, and that the real solution is some combination of sustainability and social justice. I seem to see here a mode of argument taken over from Marxist moralizing about the contradictions of capitalism, which are supposed to make a transition to socialism inevitable, but which may meanwhile prompt futile reformist efforts meant to save the system. (My own view is that many forms of social system are possible, and that while ideological critics may be good at diagnosing the chronic problems characteristic of a particular system, they tend to radically underestimate the degree to which a given social order may limp along for decades or even centuries, and then only to perish or transform for some entirely other reason.)

So I object to the collective dismissal from consideration of everything labelled as “geo-engineering”, and I find this conclusion to be ideologically rather than factually determined. The author rejects a world in which some people are rich while others starve, he hopes to solve that sort of problem at the same time that he solves the climate problem, and the common solution is egalitarian levelling and restraint of personal desire. If only some people didn’t want so much, there would be more for others, and if only some people didn’t emit so much carbon, there would be less warming. The idea that we might be able to actively drain CO2 from the atmosphere subverts the solution-template of restraint and egalitarian sharing (of emission rights, e.g. via personal carbon quotas), and so is rejected without really being examined.

In the real world, industrial-scale air capture and mineral carbonation is not yet being considered as the basis of a solution. Instead we have proposals to capture CO2 at coal-burning power stations and pipe it to distant underground aquifers, an enterprise to be made economical by imposition of a “carbon price” via cap-and-trade or perhaps a carbon tax. Sequestration in solid form sounds better to me, and it would be better if we didn’t need a ubiquitous new economic regime of carbon accounting. We could instead just build lots of air-scrubbing installations, enough to make human civilization carbon-negative in the aggregate, and run them until the CO2 concentrations in parts-per-million were back at preindustrial levels. If they can’t pay for themselves, they can be funded by the world’s governments, proportionately according to the legacy emissions of each society. That would require a lot of diplomacy and a lot of fact-finding, but it would surely be less work than will occur under the emerging regime of carbon markets, whereby individual industrial enterprises will need to track their emissions and buy the corresponding number of permits. However, the latter is the regime we are going to get in the short term, and I may eventually post some musings about the optimal path from a Copenhagen-style regime aimed nominally at 450 ppm (which is what we’ll have from 2010 forwards), to an air-capture regime aimed at a return to 300 ppm. But this blog’s initial purpose is just to argue that the problem will be solved, not that my favorite solution is the best way to do it.

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