A little more on Geoengineering

Having spent a fair amount of brainpower and energy over the past month trying to convince right-leaning folks and libertarians that having three bureaucrats sit down and come up with a default ‘vanilla option’ checking account won’t be a first step on the road to serfdom, I’m somewhat confused by the wave of excitement among right-leaning folks and libertarians for having three bureaucrats sit down and come up with the optimal level of sulfur to be pumped into the stratosphere at the north and south poles.

I want to point out a comment from Will Wilkinson, in his “For More Responsible Climate Politics”:

Just suppose that some form of climate engineering could (1) do as much or more to slow or halt warming than could regulatory approaches (2) at a much lower cost while (3) posing no special problem of international coordination. Perhaps Avent has already made the case that some technology (or combination of technologies) meeting this description is less likely to emerge in the coming decades than an effective scheme of international carbon emission controls. If he has, I’ve missed it….

Of course, the probabilities aren’t independent of public opinion, which isn’t independent of our attempts to persuade. I sense that Avent believes that an increased awareness of and interest in climate engineering would come at the cost of public support for domestic climate legislation and international regulatory coordination. That is, I sense that he believes he is combating a danger to the prospects of his favored policy.

This argument cuts both ways though. If the government credibly signals that, past a certain point of carbon levels, it will start pumping sulphur into the stratosphere above the North pole, where is the incentive to come up with other technologies that combat global warming? Why wouldn’t that be a massive moral hazard, akin to a government ‘bailout’ of the environment?

I assume Ryan likes his plan because it involves giving people incentives to come up with new technologies to reduce carbon outputs. If the government decides to go with the plan that it will simply alter the stratosphere sunlight short-term rate in accordance with its projections of the carbon cycle (Go Team Bernanke!), why would anyone pay to reduce carbon? It would just have them have their prices undercut by those relying on the government to up the sulphur emissions to take in their costs. The smart innovative money would be coming up with technology to deal with the new sulphur problems, like tech to fight ocean acidification or ozone depletion.

My background reading

I’d recommend Graeme Wood’s excellent article at The Atlantic, as well as this Real Climate review of a geoengineering conference. There are two levels we talk about with climate engineering. One is carbon capture and sequestration, which I’ll call “air capture.” This is the “Building a Better Tree” style geoengineering. We grab carbon out of the air through some technology – bioengineered plankton blooms with iron sprinkles in the oceans, special tower vents, etc. We take that carbon and store it somewhere – underground, at the bottom of the ocean, etc. This will actually reduce carbon out of the air, and as long as we store it correctly (a big if!) it will reduce carbon in the atmosphere, fighting global warming.

“Air capture” is not what most people, especially economists that you are likely to read, are talking about. A typical report (Real Climate link above) will say something like: “air capture technologies do not appear as promising as solar radiation management from a technical or a cost perspective.” So what’s solar radiation management? This is the plan to inject sulfate aerosol precursors into the stratosphere at the North and South poles using tech like jet fighters, balloons, a hose if we can design it to deliever it – this report (“The Benefits, Risks, and Costs of Stratospheric Geoengineering”) is a good overview. This will block out the sun, in effect engineering a massive volcanic eruption, which would cool the Earth. So that’s a plus.

Minuses are the trade-offs to weigh against. Here’s a list of some negatives. We’d have that ozone depletion problem back on the table. We’d also be effecting wind and precipitation patterns; initial models suggest severe droughts in Asia and Africa. From The Atlantic piece:

But, as with nearly every geo-engineering plan, there are substantial drawbacks to the gas-the-planet [sulfate aerosol] strategy. Opponents say it might produce acid rain and decimate plant and fish life. Perhaps more disturbing, it’s likely to trigger radical shifts in the climate that would hit the globe unevenly. “Plausibly, 6 billion people would benefit and 1 billion would be hurt,” says Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers climate-change policy expert. The billion negatively affected would include many in Africa, who would, perversely, live in a climate even hotter and drier than before. In India, rainfall levels might severely decline; the monsoons rely on temperature differences between the Asian landmass and the ocean, and sulfur aerosols could diminish those differences substantially.

Ah, that old 6 billion up, 1 billion down problem. Seems hard to get around it. Like most government interventions, it would pick winners and it would pick losers – perhaps it can be negotiated, but I’m not necessarily sure how.

What if we want to change course?

But the biggest problem, you may have notice, is that we aren’t removing any carbon from the air in this strategy. Thought exercise: the carbon could be at a point where global temperatures would rise 5 degrees, but we’ve engineered the stratosphere to be 5 degrees cooler by putting sulfur in the stratosphere. So we are net neutral temperature. Things that are related to carbon in the atmosphere that aren’t temperature related, like ocean acidification, would continue to go crazy.

But now let’s then assume that the sulfur is causing too many side effects, and we want to shut it down. Then what happens? The sulfur rains out over the course of a short time period, say a year, and then the Earth heats up 5 degrees very, very quickly. No gradual increase over this time period; we have the same carbon amount as we had before. We haven’t lost any weight, we were just wearing bigger pants. That would be a nightmare situation, and as such even if the side-effects were terrible it would be difficult to “turn off” such a plan.

So given that there’s a moral hazard to the problem – once government agents commit to doing it, we alter any subsequent decision by private agents to invest in carbon removing technologies – and there’s a series path dependency with turning it on – once we start doing this it is incredibly dangerous to stop doing this – I wouldn’t treat the decision for the government to add this to our intellectual and global warming portfolio of options as trivial.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to A little more on Geoengineering

  1. Pingback: Solution: Geoengineer Trees That Will Eat Electromagnetic Pulses « Around The Sphere

  2. Canada Guy says:

    Here’s a summary of some of the environmental threats to our oceans. The way things are going, there could be no fish left in the oceans in as little as 40 years.

    http://selfdestructivebastards.blogspot.com/2009/10/our-oceans-are-dying.html

  3. Pingback: Matthew Yglesias » Endgame

  4. Fine post, but one shouldn’t equate your “air capture” with all carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Doing CCS at power plants outputs where the percent of CO2 is 50% or more is much more feasible than pulling it out of the open air at <<0.1% concentration.

    Regular CCS is still controversial and mostly unproven, but much more mainstream than air capture.

  5. I have a lot of comments and can’t be brief.

    1) You seem to assume that if one advocates geoengineering then one must decide to at least reduce efforts to cut emissions. This does not follow logically. I am ignorant and my opinion doesn’t matter but I sincerely believe that we should do everything politically possible to reduce emissions and send sulfate precursers up 18 mile long tubes. The discussion of the effects of geoengineering has become linked to opinions about cap and trade and carbon taxes. This is illogical and ideological.

    2) relatedly, some people seem to use the logic “If Bjorn Lomborg says it’s good it must be bad.” This is not completely reliable. Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn.

    3) acid rain — the amount of Sulfur Dioxide under discussion is less than one half of current US Sulfur Dioxide emissions (which are a modest fraction of the world total). The acid precipitation will be spread over the world not concentrated at lethal (to spruce trees not humans) levels (like the smoke the US used to send across the border to Canada)The claim that that amount of Sulfur Dioxide will directly cause serious damage to the environment tends to be contradicted by the scientific analysis by Kravitz et al (pdf warning http://tinyurl.com/yzyw2cm). I am ignorant and their conclusion might be contested. However, the confident claim from a non expert that they are definitely wrong does not impress me.

    4) Moral hazard and hurting a billion people. The two points don’t fit together comfortably. As noted in another paper the same group at Rutgers (and others) predict that the main problem with sulfur based geoengineering is that it will cause reduced precipitation in India and China. This (unlike acid rain) is a real problem. It does not, however, create a moral hazard problem. The USA can honestly tell India and China

    “we want to stop global warming. If you don’t reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, then we will feel forced to send millions of tons of Sulfur Dioxide up 18 mile tubes. We really don’t want to do this as it will hurt you badly. That’s a nice monsoon you have there. It would be a pity if something were to happen to it.”

    I don’t mean to be flippant. Reduced rain in India and China is one of the climate changes which would do the most to incrrease huiman suffering. That, and not acid rain, is the serious problem with Sulfur based geoengineering.

    5) “Moral hazard” is a very respected phrase. However the logic of the moral hazard argument is Leninist “The worse it is the better it is.” Now Leninist is not a nice word, but what exactly is the difference in the reasoning. Of course a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn and Lenin’s argument might be valid in this case.

    • Jon H says:

      How about we just let experts from India and Africa pick the geoengineering approach they like best, and we pay to implement it.

  6. ysk says:

    In response to this:

    “The USA can honestly tell India and China

    “we want to stop global warming. If you don’t reduce your greenhouse gas emissions, then we will feel forced to send millions of tons of Sulfur Dioxide up 18 mile tubes. We really don’t want to do this as it will hurt you badly. That’s a nice monsoon you have there. It would be a pity if something were to happen to it.”

    You do know that both these countries have nuclear weapons, right? India will have no option but to use weapons if another country does something that can turn the monsoons off.

  7. Pingback: Engineering a Cooler Planet - The Opinionator Blog - NYTimes.com

  8. Barry says:

    “2) relatedly, some people seem to use the logic “If Bjorn Lomborg says it’s good it must be bad.” This is not completely reliable. Even a blind squirrel occasionally finds an acorn. ”

    Wrong – a blind squirrel finds death, rather quickly. There are a lot of predators which will take care of that.

    As for your specific example, when a lying wh*reson whose job is being a junk science propagandist advocates something, that something is fraudulent until proven otherwise.

  9. “Fine post, but one shouldn’t equate your “air capture” with all carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Doing CCS at power plants outputs where the percent of CO2 is 50% or more is much more feasible than pulling it out of the open air at <<0.1% concentration.

    Regular CCS is still controversial and mostly unproven, but much more mainstream than air capture.
    "

    Uhh, no, the percentage of CO2 in power plants is NOT 50% — for the simple reason that air is made mainly of nitrogen.

    CO2 capture is much discussed, but very little implemented in the context of power plants. People who want to talk about how great it is confuse power plants with other places where capture has been used, generally oil, gas and coal mining, where the CO2 concentrations are high, are not at high temperatures, and the air flow is not part of something predetermined like a power plant. These projects have, to some extent, demonstrated the feasibility of storing liquid CO2 underground — that is they have validated the STORAGE part of capture and storage, not the CAPTURE part.

    As far as I know, the closest real-world examples of CO2 capture outside of mining are various (currently small-scale) processes that capture CO2 chemically, in the process creating building material (that is, stuff like gravel). These are (under current economic conditions, with no carbon taxes) as I understand it barely economically viable.

    It seems to me unlikely that there is enough demand for this type of (very low value) building material that this particular process is scalable.
    Alternative processes (to deal with this low concentration, hot gas) require more complicated chemistry, plus some mechanism to get the (eventually liquified) gas from power plants to suitable geologic storage.

    To suggest that power plant CCS is even slightly mainstream (as opposed to a dream) is, I think, unrealistic. It strikes me that the problems of actually implementing it in the real world (as opposed to taking about it), for example the battles over the construction of liquified CO2 pipelines, make it every bit as ethereal as dreams of high-carbon trees.

    I see no obvious modification of the biology of trees to get them to start pumping charcoal out their roots — and I see no obvious political path from where we are now to a world of widespread CCS in power plants.

  10. homunq says:

    If siberian methane and antarctic methane hydrates start to go into the atmosphere, we will be in a serious positive feedback loop that could raise temperatures by unthinkable amounts – over 10 degrees celsius. 6 degrees would be apocalyptic, anything over 10 is one of the two worst crises that terrestrial life has EVER faced, and make the Holocaust as (in)significant as the Colfax Massacre. Faced with such absolute catastrophe, we would be able to put the needed sulphur into the atmosphere – and we’d suffer the consequences. Note that the chances of this are low, but not negligible – it is certainly among the greatest threats to human life we currently know of.

    In other words, geoengineering is not a solution to global warming. It’s just another horrible potential consequence – not the worst one, but certainly scarier than, say, a couple of Katrinas per decade.

  11. roger says:

    re Robert Waldman’s comment: “You seem to assume that if one advocates geoengineering then one must decide to at least reduce efforts to cut emissions. This does not follow logically.”
    While this is true, it is claimed by the currently most prominent geo-engineering freaks, Levitt and Dubner. In fact, they have the gall to claim that geo-engineering would be cheaper. But, of course, if we do geo-engineering and CO2 mitigation, then they will be more expensive. This I know through a thing I learned in the first grade called addition.

    This is, of course, at the whole base of the idiocy of Superfreakonomics. Their very source has told them that geo-engineering is a collateral strategy with CO2 mitigation. With is one of those English words best translated as “+”. Now, it may be the case that the high price they put on stopping CO2 emissions – a trillion per annum – could be sorta stretched out in coordination with geo-engineering, but – if it is a true figure, which I doubt – it can’t be avoided. L & D’s argument is like that of someone who gets a subprime mortgage and mistakes the first payment for paying for the house. Nope, honey, you still have to pay the full mortgage.

    As long as geo-engineering is presented as collateral to CO2 mitigation, but its costs are presented as a substitute for the cost of CO2 mitigation, its a doddle. A sham. A fraud.

  12. Pingback: Superfreaky: The Wild World of Geoengineering » New Deal 2.0

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s