Tag Archives: geoengineering

Are Geoengineering Proposals EcoOptimistic?


Image source: climatecentral.org

Image source: climatecentral.org

They’re very seductive – proposed solutions to climate disruption that don’t involve carbon fees or changing our modern comforts and habits. Geoengineering – altering the planet instead of altering people’s lives – includes ideas such as creating giant algae blooms in the oceans to remove carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and seeding the atmosphere with sulfur to reflect sunlight. Some proposals even suggest putting mirrors in space. The New York Times just wrote about a more earthbound proposal to use a mineral called olivine to absorb CO2.

At first blush, these might seem like EcoOptimistic approaches: they would supposedly solve the issue of global warming while not harming the economy. (Note that EcoOptimism holds that we can improve the economy while improving the environment.) However, there are some faults with this line of thinking.

Geoengineering comes in two forms: carbon absorption and solar radiation management. Sulfur seeding and mirrors are the latter while olivine and algae blooms are the former. But so is tree planting, so the line between geoengineering and mitigation can be fuzzy.

Tree planting aside, geoengineering is, at its core, incredibly hubristic. It says that we can take the environment that we’ve defiled and fix it by altering the delicate balance of natural systems. The risks are obvious; we don’t know how much sulfur or algae or mirrors or whatever would be needed and miscalculations could be disastrous. The idea goes completely against the precautionary principle, which says “an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.” Even if we did know amounts, we couldn’t accurately predict either the side effects or local climate impacts. Which leads, of course, to geopolitical questions.

Large scale geoengineering also builds upon the idea that technology will always come to our rescue. This, too, is problematic as it gives us cover to simply continue business as usual and not deal with the core problems.

From what is perhaps an EcoPessimistic point of view, the best rationalization for geoengineering research is that we’d have a worst case, last resort plan. If we pass that notorious 2o centigrade rise, if we hit runaway global warming, we would have emergency actions available.

But does the pursuit of geoengineering distract from or negate the need for mitigation and adaptation? The Times article tackles this question and makes some interesting points. First, it seems unlikely that the U.S., given the number of politicians who don’t even believe climate change is happening, will support geoengineering. Second — and a more subtle point – as the riskiness of geoengineering becomes more apparent, that may actually increase interest in less drastic paths. “If people realize that the dangers of climate change are such that geoengineering is being considered, they may work harder to avoid the need for it.”

That would be a happy, if indirect, result: geoengineering research as a means to a different end. It just seems unfortunate that we’d need to waste money and attention on geoengineering in order to get where we should be going in the first place.

How to Ruin a Perfectly Good Word

Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester. Sequester.

There, the word is now meaningless. There’s a linguistic term for this effect: semantic satiation. Supposedly it’s only temporary, so we may in time retrieve the proper use of the word. Good thing, too, because its current usage both is incorrect and has overtaken its use as an important environmental concept.

First, the incorrect part. The word sequester has several related meanings: to  set apart, as in sequester a jury; to legally seize, as in hold until a law or court order is complied with;  to place in custody. Note that, in all those cases, the sequestration is temporary (as, oddly enough, is semantic satiation). That would mean that the items sequestered from the federal budget are to be returned when (if?) the government gets its act together enough to, er, govern.

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

Sequestering carbon (as opposed to that other so-called sequester) Image source

But I’m not concerned with that misappropriation (pun intended) of the word. My objection has to do with its prior usage in the context of the environment and climate change. The word is used there to refer to sequestering carbon, as in temporarily removing it from the atmosphere.  It’s the reason tree planting is often an integral part of fighting climate change; trees draw carbon (in the form of CO2) from the atmosphere and convert it to oxygen while retaining the carbon in the tree’s cells. So we refer to plants in general and trees especially as carbon sequesterers. The fewer forests we have, the less CO2 is absorbed. And burning trees or forests re-releases the carbon back into the atmosphere.

Fossil fuels are also carbon sequesterers since they are composed of the remains of ancient animals and plants (which are, of course, carbon based). Burn that fuel, and all the carbon that’s been stored there for millennia goes into the atmosphere.

The other great natural carbon sequesterers (or “carbon dumps”) are the oceans. They currently absorb a huge percentage of both natural and anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and they can continue to absorb more. And there are proposals to increase, via geoengineering, the amount of carbon stored in the oceans. Problem is: the oceans’ chemistry changes as more carbon is absorbed, and mucking with ecosystems that are so fundamental to the planet’s workings carries the potential of unforeseeable risks.

There are other methods of carbon sequestration, often referred to these days as carbon capture and storage or CSS. Storing it underground, perhaps in large natural geological caverns (or ones left over after drilling operations), is one such suggestion. But this brings us back to my initial problem with the current use of the word sequester: that a sequester is temporary. At best, carbon sequestration merely defers the problem to later generations, assuming the oceans can handle it or our underground storage systems don’t leak. At worst, it deceives us into thinking we can continue emitting carbon as we currently do (or emit increasing amounts).

Were the budget sequester actually a sequester, it too would just be kicking the bucket down the road in that the funds would be restored at some (presumably near) future point. I’ll leave it Washington pundits to discuss whether that would be better or worse than the sequester we’ve got. But in its environmental usage, carbon sequestration, except perhaps in the case of reforestation, is not a solution. It’s only a temporary mitigation. And that’s if it works according to plan.

“If we can put a man on the moon…” version 2.0?

On the occasion of Curiosity’s spectacular landing on Mars, a couple of articles discussed the positive ramifications for Earthly problems. On NPR, a headline reads “‘Curiosity’ Signals From Mars That We Can Solve Our Problems On Earth.” The gist of the article is that, amidst our seemingly intractable political and cultural divides in which nothing gets resolved, the level of technical achievement necessary to overcome the “seven minutes of terror” illustrates:

We can solve problems. We can solve really big, really scary and really impossible problems. We can do amazing things. But we can only do these things when, collectively, we step up and take on the mantle of adulthood. We can only do these amazing things when we set aside the childish pleasures of fits and tantrums and rise to the level of responsibility that maturity demands.

There aren’t many problems bigger and scarier than global climate disruption (let’s face it; “climate change” is way too timid sounding). The author, Adam Frank, goes on to write “You don’t alter your planet’s atmospheric chemistry unless you have reached a certain level of, let’s say, “ability”.” One would hope that level of ability corresponds at least somewhat to the aforementioned mature level of responsibility.








Cost isn’t the point we’re making in this post, and it’s kind of irrelevant to compare Curiosity’s cost to the Olympics’, but this graph does add a bit of perspective.
Anyone want to make a similar graph comparing Curiosity’s budget to, say, fossil fuel subsidies or the defense budget?


As if to prove Frank’s point on the ecological and Earth-bound relevancy of planting some cameras and drills on a planet that’s somewhere around 200 million kilometers away and has an ecosystem nothing like ours (if indeed it has an ecosystem at all), a post in The Atlantic Cities discusses “What Mars Can Teach Us About Climate Change.”

We only have one climate to test our hypotheses in. We can’t irreversibly hack Earth’s climate (by pumping it full of toxic gases, for example) to test whether our assumptions are right or wrong—that, obviously, would be disastrous for Earth’s inhabitants. That means climate models are loaded with historical and empirical data to make them function.

If only we could take the model to another planet to really test the underpinning physics.

Bingo. Curiosity, the car-sized mobile chemistry lab that dropped spectacularly onto the surface of Mars yesterday, will give scientists a rare chance to test their assumptions about how climate change works on Earth. It will hunt the surface of Mars for sediment to pick up and drop into its sophisticated onboard machinery, then send back critical insights into how the climate of Mars—once warmer, with rain, rivers, and deltas—has changed over billions of years, lashed by solar winds.

This optimism, inescapable to the EcoOptimist, is heartwarming in its relevance to global warming. But one has to recall that it wasn’t long after the Apollo moon landings that a disparaging metaphorical question arose. As the EcoOptimist, I suppose I shouldn’t make this kind of conjecture, but will we soon be saying “If we can put an SUV on Mars, why can’t we…?” Let’s hope not.