Geoengineering – for emergency use only

This article from Guardian Science (Ian Sample, 31 March 2013) is a timely reminder of what we already knew: geoengineering is a very dodgy business. If it’s also a sign of the times, it’s not an encouraging one.

Sample summarises:

Geoengineering comes in many flavours, but among the more plausible are “solar radiation management” (SRM) schemes that would spray huge amounts of sun-reflecting particles high into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions.

Other techniques involve seeding the oceans with iron or the permafrost with diatoms, or using supersonic water cannon to provoke cloud formation, for example.

By definition, geoengineering is not something you can test. You get one go and it has to be right. So research is limited to the development of computer models which, to be fair, appear to be making considerable progress. But the complexity of the biosphere is such that the only reasonable assumption has to be that we don’t know what would happen. The potential for global and catastrophic cock-up is enormous.

Nonetheless, reading between the lines of this and a spate of other recent articles, I suspect that geoengineering is working its way up the agenda. That in turn means there’s an implicit assumption that we shall continue with what Dan Miller calls “business as usual” until the show blows up in our faces. Then we’ll try to stop the explosion. I think that’s probably what it will come to.

Consider:

  • So far we’ve only managed to heat the planet by (almost) one degree. Yet look at the damage already. The models said the Larson-B ice shelf in eastern Antarctica should last for another 10,000 years, but in 2002 it broke up in 3 days. Greenland is losing ice at the rate of 300 cubic kilometres per year… and accelerating. If – or rather when – it all melts, that alone will provoke a 7m rise in sea level. Across the Thwaite glacier in western Antarctica a huge crevasse has opened up, 8m wide and 30km long. Basically, the end of the glacier is going to drop off and cause everything behind it to accelerate. Not to mention the permafrost…
  • The mind boggles at what a full 2° will lead to.
  • The politicians would still have us believe the damage can be limited to +2°.
  • But the MIT specialists predict a rise in temperature of at least 3.5° by year 2100, with95% probability.
  • And a recent study indicates that those models at least are right on the nail.
  • Finally, there’s the probability that deterioration with not be linear but exponential.

Basically, the problem is that there are 380ppm of C02 in the atmosphere and that is 100ppm more than is good for us. Yet not only are we doing sod all to get rid of the excess, we’re still producing more and more of the stuff.

So yes, the way things look, we shall probably have to resort to geoengineering. But remember the basic rule: anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Heads we’re fucked, tails we’re buggered.

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