Thursday, February 23, 2017

Book Review: David Keith, A case for climate engineering

David Keith: A case for climate geoengineering (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013), 2013, 174 pages, chapter notes. No index, glossary, photos or graphics. Compact, may serve as an introduction and even as basic reference text (alas! - for the lack of an index and glossary).

Abbreviations used in article

CC: climate change

CO2: carbon dioxide

GHG: greenhouse gases. GHG are responsible for global warming and climate change. The most important GHG are carbon dioxide and methane.

GW: global warming

            Global warming (GW) and the subsequent climate change (CC) threaten, in the next few decades, to disrupt regional climates upon which traditional food production systems depend, affecting crop and livestock choices, yields, timing of planting and harvesting, pest and disease risks, droughts, extreme weather damage risks, erosion rates, availability of water.. - note 1. Such regional disruption of food production would likely entail great misery, large scale population declines and an enormous rise is the risk of war and terrorism. For example GW causes sea levels to rise: through the thermal expansion of water and glacial melt in north and south polar regions.

impact of sea level rise on Pakistan coastal zone 

             If things get really bad, low lying countries like Pakistan with nuclear weapons might be tempted to clear adjacent regions of their neighbor's territory of their population with exterminating nuclear strikes before invading and resettling their threatened coastal population on the "cleared" land. (Historical analog: the clearing and resettling of aboriginal populations by European colonists in North and South America.) 

            Since attempts to reduce GHG emissions to safe levels have failed - a case of "too little, too late" - some researches have proposed "geoengineering" fixes to compensate the negative impact of GW / CC. 

book review: Earthmasters by Clive Hamilton 

            Geoengineering technologies fall into several broad categories: 

1- carbon removal: offending GHG are removed directly at the source or from the atmosphere. Some technologies attempt to "sequester" or lock up carbon in a secure place: exhausted oil fields, natural underground caverns, absorption by minerals or photosynthetic algae or bacteria (to produce food and biofuels). Generally, these schemes propose capturing CO2 emissions at the site of production although some recent proposals are based on chemical absorption from the general atmosphere.

2- solar geoengineering: these technologies attempt to compensate for the increased quantity of heat retained by the atmosphere by reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth's surface. They aim to reduce the flow of energy heating the earth.

                A case for geoengineering pleads for a well-studied, gradually phased-in multilateral (global) adoption of solar geoengineering. The technologies reviewed by Keith may be described as first generation: the "low hanging fruit", the most obvious and least costly applications. 

"It is possible to cool the planet by injecting reflective particles of sulfuric acid into the upper atmosphere where they would scatter a tiny fraction of incoming sunlight back to space, creating a thin sunshade for the ground beneath.. it is cheap and technically easy. The specialized aircraft and dispersal systems required to get started could be deployed in a few years for the price of a Hollywood blockbuster.. [It could] stop GW; it could increase crop yields, particularly those in the hottest and poorest parts of the world."

"Solar geoengineering is an extraordinarily powerful tool. But it is also dangerous. It entails novel environmental risks. And, like CC itself, its effects are unequal, so even if it makes many farmers better off, others will be worse off. It is so cheap that almost any nation could afford to alter the earth's climate, a fact that may accelerate the shifting balance of global power, raising security concerns that could, in the worst case, lead to war. If misused, geoengineering could drive extraordinarily rapid CC, imperiling global food supply. In the long run, stable control of geoengineering may require new forms of global governance and prove as disruptive to the political order of the 21st century as nuclear weapons were for the 20th." Pages X - XI (emphasis added)

         One of the virtues of this compact, easy reading text is that the author aims for a "neutral objectivity". He states what geoengineering is - he is a researcher in the field - and what are the plausible (and implausible) risks of employing it. He describes why we might need to use it in the next few decades: disruptive GW / CC and resultant geopolitical instability. Then he presents the case why he advocates a cautious, gradual deployment within the next few years.

           Injection of a fine mist of sulfuric acid droplets in the upper atmosphere, reflecting sunlight back into space, is perhaps the easiest, cheapest and most well understood proposal to date. It is founded on the observation of planetary cooling following massive volcanic eruptions which inject sulfuric acid aerosols into the stratosphere such as the massive Mt Pinatubo eruption (Philippines) of 1991 which produced a global cooling of .6 C (1 degree Fahrenheit).

                                     Thar she blows! Mount Pinatubo, 1991

           Cooling the earth to a significant degree would require a fleet of modified commercial or military jets. It could be implemented today.. Demonstration projects - to test the technology and observe negative side effects - could cost a "mere" $700 million annually. This is a bit less than half the US military budget of 2015 ($1,600 million), and the burden would be shared among the nations of the earth..

            Sulfuric acid aerosol injection has side effects, often opposing, and not distributed equally around the world. Algal growth would be stimulated in some parts of the world ocean, producing more food for fish and possibly absorbing a bit of CO2 in the process. Other parts of the ocean would reach toxic levels of acidity, reducing photosynthetic activity and biomass production. Some regions of the globe will cool more than others; modification of temperature regimes disrupts weather patterns and weather regulating oceanic currents like the Gulf Stream. Some regions will receive more rain, others will become drier. Though the planet will cool and agricultural production rise, there will be winners and losers. The big problem here, of course, is how to redistribute gains - and compensate losses - on a global scale in a just, equitable fashion. Given current geo-political tensions, such redistribution will prove much, much harder than actually implementing aerosol injection and monitoring its effects.  Dr Keith, to his credit, addresses such difficulties, being forced finally to admit that a new system of international governance will be required. Good luck on that one!

             Aerosol injection should be "ramped up" gradually with close monitoring of side effects, both positive and negative. Fortunately, its effects are reversible. Stop injecting aerosols into the stratosphere and, in a year or two, the droplets have descended. In aerosol injection's favor, Dr Keith argues that crop loss due to heat stress and flooding afflicts most harshly on the world' poorest. It is thus the poorest who could benefit the most - if aerosol injection "works" ( produces more positive effects than negative ones).

             Why GW is really badThe unprecedented speed of GW / CC will prove costly. Sea costs will flood forcing mass inland migrations. This is really bad because most people actually live near costs and much of the world is already overpopulated. Eleven of the fifteen largest cities of the world lie along sea coasts or on river estuaries. 53% of the US population lives near a seacoast. Relocating climate refugees inland (where else can they go ?) steals land from agricultural production. Our overpopulated world has already put all the arable land under the plow. Where, then, will hundreds of millions of coastal climate refugees go? The moon? Mars? Not likely..

             Then there's the question of the increasing frequency of extreme weather events 

          As the world warms, evaporation increases. Water vapor carries with it the energy which was required to raise the energy of water molecules from the liquid state to vapor (the "heat of evaporation" or "latent heat"). The hydrological cycle comprises the cyclic movement of water from the liquid state (lakes, oceans), through

- evaporation,
- transport of vapor by circulating air currents, 
- recondensation of vapor as precipitation, 
- flow of water downhill to lakes and oceans, completing the cycle. 

         Increased evaporation means two things: 1- more energy (latent heat) carried by the atmosphere, 2- increased speed circulation of water in the hydrological cycle. The big wheel in the sky turns faster and faster. 

            The result? More droughts in arid regions, greater storm violence with increased risk of flood, high wind, hail and lightning damage.The real costs of GW / CC arise not from a mediocre global temperature rise of a 1 - 2 C but from the increased frequency of extreme weather events, something insurance companies are well aware of. 

"The study of Swiss Re and ETH showed a clear trend: in addition to intensifying storms, the storm paths will shift further northwards, resulting in a higher storm frequency and higher losses in the regions affected. For the period 1975-2085, for instance, we expect losses from winter storms to increase in real terms by 16 to 68 percent, depending on the region."

           An additional problem, rarely discussed. Some northern nations like Canada, Sweden, Norway, Russia.. may, in the long run benefit from GW. Their growing seasons will be longer and slightly warmer. GW temperatures rise faster in polar regions; northern temperatures rise about double the global average. The recently implemented Paris Climate Agreement seeks to limit GW to 1.5 C. In fact, the measures stipulated in the Accord fall short of the mark and will lead to a 2 C or greater increase in global temperature. Therefore Canada should, conservatively speaking, expect a 4 to 6 C (7 to 11 degree Fahrenheit!!) rise in annual temperature by century's end. Such a rise could, "all things being equal" (they may not be though!), boost agricultural ouputs significantly. The hick is that the transition to the warmer "Northern Bread Basket" climate will require decades (??) of unstable, "kaleidoscopically shifting", weather patterns, highly variable from one year to the next, and, in any case, "out of synch" with traditional farming practices and crop choices. If northern countries benefit from GW in the long run, the short and medium terms promise a chaotic transition with reduced agricultural outputs, social and political disruption. We even have an historical analog to study. A similar phase of acute climate instability marked the end of the Little Ice Age (1300 - 1850) in western Europe. Recurrent local and regional crop failures contributed to the social strife that fueled the French Revolution. See, for example, Simon Schama: Citizens, a chronicle of the French Revolution (Random House, 1990).

               Prof Keith argues convincingly that geoengineering, judiciously chosen and democratically implemented (with full compensation to those negatively affected), with all its risks, may be less costly (in lives and money) than current wimpy GHG reduction and green energy policies. These "policies", be it admitted, are a lot of hot air: CO2 levels now stand 50% above pre-industrial levels (as measured from glacial ice cores). They are still rising with no end in sight.

              Keith proposes research on the development of geoengineering technologies. Then if, at some time in the near future, it is decided that we need geoengineering to avoid catastrophic ecological and social breakdown, we will have a viable Plan B, ready to go.

              Keith emphasizes that geoengineering should not be taken as a substitute for renewable energy development, GHG emission reduction or CC mitigation strategies (reclaiming wetlands, sea walls, alternative crops, water conservation, tree planting in arid zones..) A rational approach to geoengineering, cautions prof Keith, is to employ it as an emergency measure to buy more time for green energy deployment and CC mitigation.

 "Cutting [GHG] emissions to zero means replacing a big chunk of the heavy infrastructure on which our society rests." Page 31
               And that, of course, takes time - too much of which we have frittered away and wasted, to date..

               Where we disagree Prof Keith believes that nuclear energy provides a viable transitional technology to a green future. I don't. This probably arises from the fact that I am less of an optimist (and certainly less of a techno-optimist) than he is. At this late date, I no longer believe that a smooth, peaceful transition to a green energy future is possible. I believe in the near inevitability of large scale societal breakdown and rapid regional population collapse. To deal with the Hard Days Ahead, we need simple technologies to maintain Cultural Refugia.

"At this time of planetary crisis, I propose we should take a page from those great survivalists of Late Antiquity, the early Christians. Christian monasteries preserved a good part of the philosophy, law, science and mathematics of antiquity during the Dark Ages which followed the breakup of the Roman Empire. These preserved teachings served a vital role in the Renaissance of Western civilization and the birth of Modernity (12th through 17th centuries). 

            We need to think of doing something similar today, to preserve what is worth saving in our civilization so that the survivors won't have to start from scratch, so they will have the best seed from which to grow a new civilizational cycle. I call communities designed to preserve and pass on our civilization's knowledge and our best values, Cultural Refugia. We have payed a high price for our science, we should not throw it away lightly (very bad karma!) We need to preserve the Periodic Table, Calculus, Physics, Chemistry, Ecology... We need to preserve essential technologies to kick start a new cycle of civilization. Ideally, the larger Refugia would maintain 19th century metalurgy and electrical technology, early 20th century vacuum tube technology (intergrated circuitry is probably too high tech to survive the social chaos I see coming. Ditto for nuclear reactors: too complex, too demanding of infrastructure and capital). To the degree possible, we should attempt to maintain mid-20th century medicine.. Above all, we need to preserve our most precious spiritual acquisitions like Civil or Human Rights: liberty, equality, fraternity; the belief in the dignity of the human person and the Universality of human nature; the gains of modern feminism,.."

                   Prof Keith spends much time deflating "propagandistic" distortions and selective readings of geoengineering research by the environmental Left. Example: solar geoengineering necessarily causes droughts which will afflict poor farmers in the third world. Once again - alas! - we encounter that ancient - but always forgotten - truth: in war the first casualty is truth.

              As an environmentalist, I found Keith's discussion of the Left's propagandistic distortions to be a healthy corrective to the natural human failing of seeing one's own camp as virtuous and our opponent's camp as a cesspit of iniquity. Such hypocrisy is all too evident when one takes the time to look. Liberal professionals in North America decry geoengineering as "technological hubris". Yet, geoengineering may be the fastest stopgap measure to reduce Third World drought and famine until renewable energy technologies really kick in and reduce our carbon footprint to zero. Meanwhile, the same liberal professionals continue to buy gas guzzling, GHG spewing SUVs, nor do they militate for GHG reducing public transport and green energy. Collectively, we speak from both sides of our mouths..

 "It's vital that the debate about geoengineering shift from the physics of climate models to focus on human and environmental impacts. The risks of geoengineering need urgent attention, along with the benefits. But the current debate reveals the extent to which people fit geoengineering into convenient narratives while ignoring facts that don't fit their theory." Page 61, emphasis added. 

               To this I can only say "amen!" I remain skeptical about the feasibility of a global program of gradually phased in and moderately dosed geoengineering in today's increasingly chaotic, divided and conflictual world. Given the speed of climate deterioration, the world's leaders may soon be forced to deploy geoengineering within the framework of a scientifically based United Nations administered program. Unfortunately, it is as least as likely that rogue states, heavily impacted by CC, will undertake ill-advised, crisis driven climate modification projects - and to hell with the neighbors! Think: Kim's North Korea, Putin's Russia, Trump's America..

              If Keith is right, a judicious mix of green technologies and palliative geoengineering could allow technical civilization to scrape through the Hard Days Ahead. The real problem, though, is not sciento-technological in nature, but spiritual: as a world we lack the collective, political will to work together for the Common Good of all.


1- GHG: Greenhouse effect. The most important GHG are carbon dioxide and methane. These gases are produced naturally by respiration, the decomposition of organic matter, and volcanism. Carbon naturally cycles in the the earth's ecosystems and between ecosystems and geological reservoirs (sedimentary rock produced by compression of ocean sediment..) These fluxes maintain a rough equilibrium over long periods of time, geologically speaking. Excesses of GHG produced by the combustion of fossil fuels and modern agriculture are responsible for GW and CC.

       In the last two centuries, industrial activities, rising living standards and rapid population growth have increased global atmospheric levels of CO2. Carbon which was once harmlessly sequestered in subterranean reservoirs of coal, petroleum and natural gas has been burned to sustain increased industrialization, living standards and population. Likewise, forest and grassland clearing for agricultural activities and settlement release carbon stored in soil humus to the atmosphere as CO2. Rice cultivation and livestock production are net sources of methane. 

         Like the glass wall of a greenhouse, GHG trap heat radiated by earth and water heated by the sun, thus raising the earth's average temperature. GW, in turn, profoundly affects the productivity and timing of biological processes such as maturation, migration and the geographical distribution of species. The planet's average temperature also profoundly affects average weather patterns: precipitation, extent and location of deserts, the trajectory of agriculturally vital monsoon rains and the availability of mountain glacial melt water. A complicating factor, increasing the uncertainty in predicting the evolution of tomorrow's climate: GW is not uniform in time and space. Nigh time temperatures are raised more than daily temperature maxima. Northern and southern polar regions warm faster than for lands falling near the equator.

click on the image for enlargement