Posts Tagged geoengineering

Climate Shock Bryan Walker Mar 12

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Uncertainties attend the predictions of climate science, as the scientists themselves are careful to acknowledge. Reluctant policy makers use this uncertainty to support a “wait and see” response to climate change. Prominent American economists Gernot Wagner and Martin Weitzman in their recent book Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet are scathing in their condemnation of such a response. They translate “wait and see” as “give up and fold” and call it wilful blindness.

Their own response to the uncertainty surrounding climate predictions is to ask what the worst case scenario looks like.

Here’s what you get: about a 10 percent chance of eventual temperatures exceeding 6 ° C, unless the world acts much more decisively than it has.

This isn’t a figure they’ve made up for themselves. It’s based on IPCC prediction ranges and on the International Energy Agency’s interpretation of current government commitments.

It’s clearly a catastrophic scenario, but with a 10 percent chance of happening it must play a prominent part in our thinking and planning. We take out fire insurance on our homes with a much lower than 10 percent chance of their burning down. It’s called prudence, and most of us don’t think twice about the precaution of insurance.


The book urges a level of response appropriate to an existential planetary risk of catastrophic proportions. There’s no blueprint in the lively discussion about what might be done and why it is proving so difficult to do it, but a price on carbon is one of the essentials, a point repeated many times over in the course of the book. What price? The authors see an appropriate price is one which prevents us getting anywhere close to 6 degrees warming, and offer $40 per ton as a start, the figure the US government estimates for the social cost of carbon. But it’s only a starting point.

What we know of the science points to a higher figure than that. An adequate price on carbon will help channel the human drive and ingenuity which is our best hope of getting out of the threatening situation we are in. The authors quote with approval the words of Richard Branson: “I think a global carbon tax is screaming— blindingly obvious and should have been introduced fifteen years ago…And if that happened, we would get on top of the problem.”

There are many obstacles to effective action on climate change. The temptation to free riding is ever present and often succumbed to. It’s at the heart of the global problem of global warming. Incurring costs which result in common benefit doesn’t come easy to most of us. I reflected at this point in my reading of the book that one only has to listen to the evasive words of ministers in the New Zealand government to be aware of how strong the impulse to free riding is. Apparently we are excused from putting a strong brake on emissions because we would lose competitive advantage if we did so; we can continue to explore for more oil and gas because there could be money in it for us; we can overlook agricultural emissions because we are producing food for the world; in the last resort we are too small to make any difference to the overall picture and in any case we’re only doing what everyone else is. So yes, we’d like to see global emissions come down, but we’ll certainly not offer anything that might be construed as a lead.

But if free riding allows atmospheric carbon to rise to the point where the consequences are causing major damage the authors point to the dangers of a different phenomenon – what they call free driving. Geoengineering by countries desperate to ameliorate warming is the scenario the authors fear. It would be comparatively cheap and straightforward to inject large quantities of sulphur-based particles into the stratosphere and produce a cooling effect. Their book includes an extensive discussion of this type of geoengineering, not advocating it, but finding it difficult to see it being rejected under extreme circumstances. What the authors do advocate is international discussion and an attempt to establish international consensus in advance which would prevent rogue action. The seriousness with which they consider geoengineering is a measure of the seriousness with which they estimate the future risk of warming.

More immediately and positively the authors argue for careful and limited subsidies for low-carbon technologies particularly at the early innovation stages of learning-by-doing. They envisage short term subsidies to enable new technology to get over the initial hump between expensive early production and much cheaper later mass production.  They warn of the trap of long-term subsidies, nowhere better illustrated than in the $500 billion global fossil fuel subsidies.

The book is hardly optimistic. But the authors reject any accusation of alarmism:

We see it as our obligation to paint the full picture of what we know, and to show how what we don’t know might play out. We take no satisfaction in doing so. We can only hope that we are wrong.

Wrong on three counts: because the most drastic outcomes the science points to don’t come to pass; because society really does do what is necessary to rein in emissions; because the seemingly unstoppable drive to geo-engineering can be put under some governing mechanism.

No doubt readers will share the hope that the authors are wrong. But for the present they do a valuable service in underlining to a strangely heedless society that we really are facing terrible human danger and need to take drastic action if we’re to avert it.

The Climate Show #32: a Cook’s tour of the Aussie heat Gareth Renowden Jan 24

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At long last: John Cook from Skeptical Science rejoins the Climate Show team for the first show of 2013. He hooks up with Glenn and Gareth to review Australia’s big heatwave, and stays around to dig into the new Greenpeace report on dirty energy, discuss Obama’s inauguration speech and Boris Johnson’s climate blunder, the latest scary news on sea level rise and the implications for the future. Plus much much more…

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The Climate Show

Story references


Australia bush fires and temperature records: For the first image used in the show and further background, see The Conversation.

Bushfires captured by satellite: NASA Earth Observatory

Global Warming Has Increased Monthly Heat Records Worldwide by a Factor of Five, Study Finds

If global warming continues, the study projects that the number of new monthly records will be 12 times as high in 30 years as it would be without climate change. “Now this doesn’t mean there will be 12 times more hot summers in Europe than today — it actually is worse,” Coumou points out. For the new records set in the 2040s will not just be hot by today’s standards. “To count as new records, they actually have to beat heat records set in the 2020s and 2030s, which will already be hotter than anything we have experienced to date,” explains Coumou. “And this is just the global average — in some continental regions, the increase in new records will be even greater.”

A new report commissioned by Greenpeace says the world could be locked into dangerous levels of global warming if 14 planned fossil fuel projects get the go ahead. The projects in the Point of No Return report include the expansion of Indonesian and Australian coal exports, a tripling of production from the Canadian tar sands and extensive offshore drilling in Brazilian waters.All in all, the 6,340 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2020, more than the total output of the US.
RTCC news, full report pdf.

US media coverage of Climate Change in 2012 fell by 2%! This despite the devastating drought and Hurricane Sandy.

But if Obama has his way that’s all about to change: Youtube video here.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says his top hopes for 2013 are to reach a new agreement on climate change and to urgently end the increasingly deadly and divisive war in Syria.

Dispatch from London…. Shock! Horror! Boris says something really stupid! He says this week’s snow casts doubt on Climate science. Of course, as Leo Hickman points out in The Guardian he’s only trolling BUT it still matters because he could be Britain’s PM one day…

Jason Box’s Dark Snow Project. He is also going to be speaking at a Climate Desk Event in Washington next month. See also: SkS and HT.

Sea level rise: a sequence of stories…

Natural Relationship Between Carbon Dioxide Concentrations and Sea Level Documented

The researchers found that the natural relationship displays a strong rise in sea level for CO2 increase from 180 to 400 parts per million, peaking at CO2 levels close to present-day values, with sea level at 24 +7/-15 metres above the present, at 68 per cent confidence limits.

Richard Alley lecture – final section on the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica.

Which leads us to the ultimate paradox: Sea level rise could lead to cooler, stormier planet, says Jim Hansen.

A catastrophic rise in sea level before the end of the century could have a hitherto unforeseen side effect. Melting icebergs might cool the seas around Greenland and Antarctica so much that the average surface temperature of the planet falls by a degree or two. This is according to unpublished work by climate scientist James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

Plus: Gareth being gloomy.

And this from The Climate Desk: they report that a group of researchers and educators based at San Jose State University think climate science needs a superhero. And they have: Supermandia!


Scott A Mandia’s blog is here.


Sprinkling billions of tonnes of mineral dust across the oceans could quickly remove a vast quantities of climate-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to a new study. The proposed “geoengineering” technique would also offset the acidification of the oceans and could be targeted at endangered coral reefs, but there’s a downside — it would require a mining effort on the same scale as the world’s coal industry and would alter the biology of the oceans.

Thin Film Solar Cells: New World Record for Solar Cell Efficiency

UK scientists bid to mimic plant energy creation

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) are embarking on an £800,000 project to replicate photosynthesis, the process by which plants convert sunlight into sugars to help them grow.

The process will be used to create hydrogen, which can be used as a zero-emission fuel for cars, or converted into green electricity.

It is hoped the method, which involves placing tiny solar panels on microbes to harness sunlight and drive the production of hydrogen, will be a more efficient way of converting the sun’s energy than currently exists.

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Oceanographers win PM’s science prize for climate work Gareth Renowden Dec 16

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This year’s NZ Prime Minister’s Science Prize — worth $500,000 — has been awarded to a team of scientists working on climate-related issues at the joint Otago University and National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) Centre for Chemical & Physical Oceanography. The team carried out ground-breaking research on using iron to fertilise phytoplankton growth in the southern ocean, and its effectiveness at removing carbon from the atmosphere. Team leader Professor Philip Boyd commented:

Around the world, there is a growing lobby, which includes influential people like Bill Gates, for using geo-engineering to claw back some of the carbon dioxide humans are emitting. Our research has shown that adding iron to the ocean is not going to be an effective way to do that.

You can hear Professor Boyd talking about the research in episode #6 of The Climate Show, and Professor Keith Hunter, co-director of the Centre was interviewed in Climate Show #16. ’It’s the top prize in science in the country and it’s an outstanding award for science at Otago,” Hunter said today. The centre plans to spend most of its winnings on a state-of-the-art phytoplankton culture facility in Dunedin. Other members of the team were Dr Evelyn Armstrong and Dr Kim Currie of NIWA’s research unit, Associate Professor Russell Frew, Dr Sylvia Sander, and Dr Robert Strzepek (all of Otago University), Dr Cliff Law, NIWA principal scientist, and Dr Rob Murdoch, NIWA’s general manager of research.

The 2011 MacDiarmid Emerging Scientist prize was awarded to Dr Rob McKay, a world-leading glacial sedimentologist at VUW’s Antarctic Research Centre for his work using marine sedimentary records and glacial deposits to reconstruct Antarctic climate over the last 13 million years.

The full list of winners is available here. Congratulations to all.

Not a pretty picture: recent science summarised Bryan Walker Oct 17

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A valuable review, Climate Science 2009-2010, has just been published by the World Resources Institute. It’s a summary of major peer-reviewed research in climate change science and technology during those two years. Aimed at policymakers, the NGO community, and the media, it offers succinct summaries of the findings of a wide array of scientific papers, a short discussion of the implications of each paper, and brief overviews along the way of where the research is pointing.

It’s 48 pages in length, not a quick read but tailored for easy comprehension for anyone with a general lay understanding of climate science.  A sample list of some of the findings is provided at the start, but the full survey is well worth reading through. The range of papers is a reminder of how much scientific work is being done and how the full picture is built from many studies and a great variety of detailed investigations. The review is restrained in its drawing of implications from the studies, often pointing to the need for further investigation and certainly not hyping any of the results. Nevertheless it’s apparent that the recent research continues to reveal grim prospects for humanity as emissions continue to rise.

The papers surveyed are grouped into four sections.

Physical climate: In this section the stand-out areas are climate feedbacks and sea level rise. Global temperature is clearly continuing to increase and the climate science literature of 2009 and 2010 has advanced the understanding of climate feedbacks. The review discusses a study of ocean methane hydrates as a slow tipping point in the global carbon cycle, noting the implication that if the Earth warms by 3°C, which is not beyond the scope of possibility during the next century, this feedback could add 17 percent to projected global average temperature increases.  A couple of papers look at the possible effect of climate change on ozone depletion and vice versa. Aerosol effects are examined in two papers: one allows weight to the absorptive effect of black carbon and suggests that the cooling effect of anthropogenic aerosols is less powerful than previously assumed; the other finds that the comparatively accelerated warming of the tropical North Atlantic in the past three decades is partly due to a reduction in cooling dust particles from the Sahara, itself a phenomenon which may be linked to climate change-induced changes in moisture and winds. Andrew Dessler’s important 2010 paper on cloud feedback is described as providing new evidence suggesting that the sign of the cloud feedback is moderately positive. Further papers examine feedbacks from soils, peatlands and the diminution of Arctic ice cover. The effect of the latter is already under way.

There has been considerable change in predictions of sea level rise since the last IPCC report in 2007. They are all higher than the 0.18 to 0.59 metres by 2100 nominated by the IPCC (albeit with the caveat that it could be more depending on the behaviour of polar ice sheets).  The review mentions several studies and focuses especially on two in 2010 which estimated a range between 0.59 and 1.8 metres by 2100. Another study in 2009 approached the question from the standpoint of glacier equilibrium and found that on average glaciers are 23 percent below equilibrium — that is, the area accumulating new snow is far less than that sufficient to maintain the current glacier size even without further global warming. The conclusion was that we are already committed to 1.8 meters of sea level rise resulting from ice loss, and that 3.7 meters is possible over the next century if we continue to warm without climate mitigation activities.  The vulnerability of parts of the US coastline to the uneven effects of sea level rise is addressed in other studies.

In the interests of brevity I’ll list some of the samples provided for the other three sections.

Hydrological Cycle:

  • Observations show that multi-year (MY) winter sea ice area decreased by 42 percent between 2005 and 2008 and that there was a thinning of ~0.6 m in MY ice thickness over the same 4 years (average thickness of the seasonal ice in midwinter is ~2 m)
  • As much as 12 percent of the volume of Swiss alpine glaciers was lost over the period from 1999 to 2008.
  • The rate of mass loss in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet may be greater than previously estimated.
  • Changing ice dynamics in the Arctic may be leading to an increase in observed ’winter weather’ including more snow and colder temperatures in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.

Ecosystems and Ecosystem Services:

  • Ocean acidification, which only recently was recognized a threat to coral in areas such as the Great Barrier Reef (and is happening much more quickly than anticipated), is now recognized as having implications for the entire ocean food web which is critical to whales, fish, and molluscs.
  • Based on human physiological estimates, a global average temperature increase of 7° C, which is toward the extreme upper part of the range of current projections, would make large portions of the world uninhabitable.
  • The impacts of projected climate change on emperor penguin populations are likely to be significant; with a 36 percent probability of ’quasi extinction’ (greater than 95 percent decline) by 2100.
  • A 28 cm future sea level rise is projected to reduce the current Bengal tiger habitat in the Sundarban region of Bangladesh by 96 percent and would likely reduce tiger numbers to 20 breeding pairs.

Climate Change Mitigation Technologies and Geoengineering:

  • Land-use change associated with planting biofuel crops can have implications on the regional average temperatures through an albedo effect.
  • Advances in more flexible, cheaper small-scale solar photovoltaics could make it easier and less expensive to integrate solar-powered electricity generation into building materials.
  • If all urban surfaces worldwide were made reflective, the heat trapping effects of urban surfaces would be eliminated, an impact greater than eliminating the annual anthropogenic emissions of the entire globe.
  • Geoengineering is being more widely studied in terms of its potential to limit global warming if efforts to reduce emissions fail, as well as its implications. The review summarizes various proposals and preliminary findings in two categories — carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management.

When I’d finished reading the review I thought about the patient careful scientific work that it represented. The review doesn’t report any single research paper as authoritative, but there’s no denying that the credibility of climate science as a whole is only confirmed as the body of work increases.  In the political arena the strength and clarity of the science may be shouted down by blustering denial or muted by electoral timorousness, but it’s there, it’s real, and what it points to is unavoidable.

I hope a review such as this receives the attention of the policy makers for whom it is written and that our political leaders are fully aware of the science they are or are not engaging with. The media, too, owe us a proper acquaintance with the science which the review demonstrates is well within the intellectual reach of any intelligent journalist given sufficient time to absorb it.

The Climate Show #6: Monckton and the iron in the ocean Gareth Renowden Feb 03

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A very wide ranging Climate Show this week, with Dr Philip Boyd of NIWA and Otago University explaining why fertilising the oceans to soak up more carbon is not likely to be our “get out of jail free” card, John Cook of Skeptical Science introducing the new Monckton Myths section of the site, plus interesting new papers on Atlantic warming adding to the Arctic’s problems, an accurate prediction of last year’s Pakistan flooding, and the coolest 1970s Datsun on the planet.

Watch The Climate Show on our Youtube channel, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, or listen direct/download here:

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Show notes below the fold.

Arctic currents warmer than at any time in last 2000 years: Discovery blog with nice map.

Press release: e! Science News

Cite: Enhanced Modern Heat Transfer to the Arctic by Warm Atlantic Water
Robert F. Spielhagen, Kirstin Werner, Steffen Aagaard Sørensen, Katarzyna Zamelczyk, Evguenia Kandiano, Gereon Budeus, Katrine Husum, Thomas M. Marchitto, and Morten Hald
Science 28 January 2011: 331 (6016), 450-453. [DOI:10.1126/science.1197397]

Abstract: The Arctic is responding more rapidly to global warming than most other areas on our planet. Northward-flowing Atlantic Water is the major means of heat advection toward the Arctic and strongly affects the sea ice distribution. Records of its natural variability are critical for the understanding of feedback mechanisms and the future of the Arctic climate system, but continuous historical records reach back only ~150 years. Here, we present a multidecadal-scale record of ocean temperature variations during the past 2000 years, derived from marine sediments off Western Svalbard (79°N). We find that early—21st-century temperatures of Atlantic Water entering the Arctic Ocean are unprecedented over the past 2000 years and are presumably linked to the Arctic amplification of global warming.

Source data:

Pakistan floods ’could have been predicted”.

ECMWF long range forecasts here (click on the map, and then select the part of the world you want to see).

Feature interview

Dr Philip Boyd of NIWA and the University of Otago discusses the new IGBP report on ocean fertilisation as a means of sequestering carbon. He’s phytoplankton ecologist whose research interests include the environmental control of phytoplankton processes, the oceans iron biogeochemical cycle, and the biogeochemical coupling of surface ocean with deep water processes (the so-called biological pump).

Press release

Report pdf

The Monckton Special, with John Cook of Skeptical Science.

Monckton Myths

Climate Sensitivity

Sea level rise

It was Tom Lehrer, Glenn…


It’s the year of green vehicles, and EVs in particular:

Tesla announce an electric SUV

EV racing is”>taking off

Quite some Datsun…

Thanks to our media partners:, Scoop and KiwiFM.

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The Climate Show #1 (Astral Express) Gareth Renowden Nov 04

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The Climate Show comes out of beta testing today, with the release of the first full show, code-named Astral Express after the yacht that kiwi yachtsman Graeme Kendall sailed through the North West Passage in record time a couple of months ago. Graeme’s our star guest, but we’re also pleased to welcome to the programme John Cook, the creator of that superb climate science resource Skeptical Science. John will be joining us on a regular basis to look at favourite climate sceptic arguments, but for his first appearance we talk about the so-called Climategate emails. Also covered: what may be the worst ever coral bleaching event, narwhals as oceanographers, geoengineering, and GM’s EV with a petrol engine, the Chevy Volt, aka Vauxhall/Opel Ampera.

The Climate Show is also available as a podcast via iTunes, or listen direct/download here:

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Follow The Climate Show on Facebook and Twitter, and soon at The Climate Show web site.

Show notes below the fold.

Coral bleaching in the Caribbean and SE Asia: Maribo and Climate Shifts.

Next IPCC report will consider geo-engineering schemes: Reuters

Narwhals measure sea temps off Greenland: Nature News.

Feature interview – Graeme Kendall’s Astral Express web site (with lots of nice pics).

Debunking the skeptic with John Cook from Skeptical Science. This week: Climategate.

Solutions: This week: electric cars with two motors — the Chevy Volt (etc) at The Economist’s Intelligent Life.

New climate computer game Fate Of The World released: Guardian coverage.

Not forgetting our media partners: and KiwiFM.

Fixing the Sky Bryan Walker Oct 08

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Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control (Columbia Studies in International and Global History)The notion that if it comes to the worst in climate change we can fall back on geoengineering  receives little credence in James Rodger Fleming’s new book Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate control. Fleming is a science historian and in the claims of some of today’s would-be climate engineers he sees a continuity with a long history of human attempts to control weather and climate. Most of the book traverses that history, which he urges we should understand and heed as we consider some of the proposed modern-day technological fixes to counter the effects of global warming.

He opens with the Greek myth of Phaeton who begged his father Helios to allow him to drive the chariot of the sun for one day but proved unable to hold the reins and keep to the middle course which Helios advised as safest and best. Only the intervention of Zeus with a fatal lightning bolt saved Earth from the consequent devouring flame. Fleming has something to say about the middle course when he gets to our own day, but in between he has many stories to tell in which hubris and ineptitude are combined, supported by ’largely pathological’ science, by opportunistic appeals to new technologies, and by ’the false sense that macro-engineering will solve more problems than it creates’.

Rainmaking figures early and large in the book’s narrative. The first US government-employed meteorologist, James Espy (1795-1860), is well regarded in the history of science, but strayed from the scientific mainstream when promoting his  idea that significant rains of commercial importance could be generated by cutting and burning vast tracts of forest. Fortunately his grandiose plans were not supported. Other scientific rain kings of the 19th century used a variety of explosive means, sometimes with public funding, with very uncertain results. Fleming describes them as altruistic monomaniacs with a vision of a prosperous and healthy world if precipitation could be controlled. Not charlatans, but sincere albeit deluded. However charlatans did appear on the scene, mixing secret chemicals, preying on misguided hope and gullibility, and the book devotes an entertaining chapter to them.

One of the ironic characters of the story as it carries into the 20th century is Irving Langmuir (1881-1957), Nobel Laureate in chemistry and associate director of research at General Electric. Fleming comments that, brilliant though Langmuir was in chemistry, his extensive work in weather control exemplified his own warnings about pathological possibilities of science gone awry. Langmuir argued in a 1953 seminar that science conducted at the limits of observation or measurement may become pathological if the participants make excessive claims for their results. Yet he himself made highly dubious and unsupported claims for the efficacy of cloud seeding on a large scale. His biographer comments that he simply ’did not appreciate the complexity of meteorology as a science’.

Weather control has had particular interest for the military; their entry into the issue brings ’a darkening mood’. The book covers a variety of involvements, from the need to disperse fog from British airfields during the conflicts of WW2 (involving a massive and successful use of fire) to the ’sordid episode’ of attempted rainmaking during the Vietnam war to try to impede the passage of North Vietnam soldiers along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. A UN Convention now prohibits military environmental modification techniques, though only if the effects are ’widespread, long-lasting and severe’, a qualification insisted on by the US.

’Promethean possibilities’ of climate tinkering using digital computing, satellite remote sensing, and nuclear power were part of the mid-20th century consideration of the subject. The scope of some of the dreams is startling — mega-construction projects to free the Arctic Ocean of ice or to lower the Mediterranean Sea, climate engineering to control weather vagaries.  Fleming describes many of them, and the seriousness with which some were taken, recording with some relief the words of Harry Wexler, chief of scientific services at the US Weather Bureau. Wexler was interested in purposeful intervention, but warned that it contained ’the inherent risk of irremediable harm to our planet of side-effects counterbalancing the possible short-term benefits’.

Against the background of his ’long and chequered history of weather and climate control populated by a colourful cast of dreamers and losers’ Fleming moves to a consideration of the geoengineering proposals of today. Not surprisingly he views them with a jaundiced eye. He doesn’t deny the seriousness of human-caused climate change, but he sees little to recommend the various climate engineering schemes put forward. Indeed they are jointly characterised as ’largely fantastic’.

None escape that characterisation. Aerosols, arrays of reflective material in space, iron fertilisation of the ocean, are readily swept aside. But it was a little surprising to see carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) and biochar similarly treated. Admittedly there is much uncertainty surrounding CCS and it is more talked of than practised. It may indeed turn out to be impracticable, but it seems a little premature to condemn it as a possibility.  Biochar as a form of sequestration he claims would mark the end of composting and would generate a massive amount of the known carcinogen benzoapyrene.  I don’t know about the carcinogen, but I fail to see where the end of composting is involved. Klaus Lackner’s artificial trees are discussed in some detail and described as untenable.

Fleming advocates the ’middle course’ in dealing with climate change. That means reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases and adaptation to the measure of changing climate that we can no longer avoid.  The risks associated with moving into geoengineering measures are too great. To those who ask if that risk is worse than the risk of global warming he replies that it just might be, ’especially if we neglect the historical precedents and cultural implications’. However he speaks approvingly of colleagues who support middle course solutions but also advocate responsible geoengineering research, so presumably his rejection is not as total as it sometimes seems. That was reassuring because as a reader I sometimes wondered whether he was fully cognisant of the magnitude of the threat from global warming.

However we surely need to be cautioned against those who rush to the grand fixes. Fleming is right to strongly reject economist William Nordhaus’s conclusion that ’geoengineering produces major benefits whereas emissions stabilisation and climate stabilisation are projected to be worse than inaction’. He also does well to remind us of the inadequacy of ’back-of-the-envelope’ calculations to support geoengineering proposals. And to point to the fact that those who understand the climate system best are most humbled by its complexity and are among the least likely to claim that they have simple, safe, or cheap ways to fix it.

His book is often fascinating reading. Its comedic treatment of the history which comprises most of its content is nuanced and satisfyingly complex. What initially struck me as a lighthearted survey turned rapidly into a rewarding engagement with a gallery of characters, many of them intelligent and able, whose mistakes and failings we may learn from and hopefully not replicate.

[Buy at Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, free shipping worldwide).]

An eyeful of Eyjafjallajökull: no cooling threat (yet) Gareth Renowden Apr 16

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NASA’s Terra satellite captured this spectacular image of a plume of volcanic dust from the ongoing eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland. It’s blowing south and east from Iceland (top left) towards Scotland and Norway, and has caused the cancellation of most aircraft movement over Western Europe, with knock-on disruption around the world. New Scientist explains why here. It’s well known that large volcanic eruptions can cause the earth to cool, as they can push large amounts of sulphur aerosols into the stratosphere, reflecting away incoming solar radiation. The eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 is the most recent example. It caused a global cooling of about 0.5ºC over the 18 months following the eruption. Artificially creating the same effect by injecting sulphur into the stratosphere has been suggested as one possible method of geoengineering a response to global warming.

Could the current eruption cause significant global or regional cooling? That question is already being asked, but the answer seems to be no — at least for the time being. Jeff Masters has a good post discussing the issue, and points out that volcanic eruptions in the tropics have the biggest effect because the atmospheric circulation tends to rise and spread dust and aerosols both south and north of the equator around the whole planet. At mid or high latitudes, the circulation tends to be moving polewards and sinking, and this limits the effects to one hemisphere. However, truly massive eruptions, such as that of Eyjafjallajökull’s neighbour Laki in 1783-4, can cause dramatic regional effects. There are good descriptions of the disruptions to European and North American weather at the time at the Wikipedia page: it quotes British naturalist Gilbert White’s journal for summer 1783:

The sun, at noon, looked as blank as a clouded moon, and shed a rust- coloured ferruginous light on the ground, and floors of rooms; but was particularly lurid and blood-coloured at rising and setting. All the time the heat was so intense that butchers’ meat could hardly be eaten on the day after it was killed; and the flies swarmed so in the lanes and hedges that they rendered the horses half frantic, and riding irksome. The country people began to look with a superstitious awe, at the red, louring aspect of the sun.

Eyjafjallajökull’s current eruption has not approached the scale of that 18th century event, but there are fears that it could trigger new eruptions in neighbouring volcanoes. A good place to monitor what’s going on is Dr Erik Klemetti’s Eruptions blog at Scienceblogs. If you want to know how to pronounce the name, try this, and this recent video of the eruption is well worth a look.

Requiem for a Species Bryan Walker Mar 20

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Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate ChangeEighteen months ago Clive Hamilton finally admitted to himself that we’re not going to act with the urgency needed to meet the action required by the science.  Hence his new book Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth About Climate Change .

It is now too late to prevent far-reaching changes in the earth’s climate. An  optimistic outlook could see global emissions peaking in 2020 then declining by 3 percent each year, with emissions in rich countries falling by 6-7 percent.  It’s not enough.  Drawing particularly on the 2008 paper by Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows from the UK’s Tyndall Centre Hamilton concludes that this would see the greenhouse gas concentration rise over the century to 650 parts per million, far in excess of the ‘safe’ 450 ppm talked about. Four degrees of warming is more likely by the century’s end than two degrees. The assumptions on which international negotiations and national policies are proceeding have no foundation in the way in which the Earth’s climate system actually behaves.  

After that grim assessment of the science Hamilton turns to topics for which he is well known through previous writing, as he seeks to explain why we failed to respond in time to the threat.  The first is growth fetishism.  All of the arguments for the sanctity of growth have been marshalled to resist measures to cut carbon emissions. Even the small decreases in GDP growth posited by Nicholas Stern if we take measures to reduce emissions are too much for governments to contemplate.  In the rich countries growth has become an unreasoning obsession.  Hamilton has no argument with growth to lift people out of poverty, but notes that in China and India the process is creating a vast army of middle-class consumers, like their counterparts in the West unreflective materialists whose desires are insatiable.

The consumer self is his next topic: ’…our individual sense of self has become bound up with how we consume.’ This makes the task of persuading citizens of affluent countries to change their behaviour in response to the climate crisis more intractable. When we ask the affluent to change their consumption behaviour we are asking of them much more than we realise. The campaign to maintain a livable climate may be a war against our own sense of who we are. This is not unfamiliar ground.  I always read it with dismay and, I confess, a pinch of scepticism.  Part of me thinks (or is it hopes?) that if people really understand what is at stake most of them would be able to transcend their consumer self. Hamilton is made of sterner stuff.

He moves on to considering the many forms of denial. For the roots of climate denial he turns to American conservatism’s anxiety over national sovereignty and disquiet at environmentalism’s destabilisation of the idea of progress and mastery over nature. This is the context for the break from their mainstream science colleagues of three prominent physicists who joined the anti-environment movement in the 1980s. Frederick Seitz, Robert Jarrow and William Nierenberg founded the George C. Marshall Institute in 1984. Initially a Washington think tank devoted to defending Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ programme, in the 1990s it moved to attacking climate change science, and Exxon began providing funding. Various other groups, especially The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition also funded by Exxon and other oil companies, have since joined the campaign. Climate denial and political conservatism have become entwined, at least in the US. Neo-conservatives do not accept the elevation of matters of fact over matters of belief. 

On the personal level denial is an understandable part of our psychology, which has made it easier for the organised campaign of denialism to succeed. Hamilton writes of the fear of uncertainty and of the difficulties humans have in responding to risk through cognitive processing rather than immediate feelings. He covers some maladaptive strategies for coping such as downplaying the threat, pushing it into the vague future, escaping through pleasure-seeking, resting in blame-shifting. Optimism comes under scrutiny: the observations of climate change have taken such an alarming turn in the last few years, and global action remains so inadequate, that maintaining optimism seems more and more like a disconnection from reality. 

But setting aside talk about consciousness are there not prosaic things that can be done immediately to avoid climate disruption?  Hamilton considers three of those commonly advanced. Carbon capture and storage he dismisses as a fossil industry delaying tactic. It’s expensive, it’s too slow to be of use and it’s not being funded by the industry itself but by governments. Renewable energy combined with energy efficiency is feasible technically and at reasonable cost, but he fears that no government is willing to undertake the emergency response needed over the next decade. Nuclear energy he has no objection to in principle but questions its costs and timing.  The fall-back of climate engineering is fraught with dangers. A unilateral deployment of geoengineering techniques is a frightening prospect and should be pre-empted by international agreement.

Perhaps the most sobering chapter of the book is a short account of a conference Hamilton attended in Oxford in September 2009 when some 100 climate scientists met to discuss the implications of a 4 degrees global change for people, eco-systems and the earth-system.  When the conference was mooted the objective was to explore the end of the probability distribution that people don’t like talking about. By the time the conference came round 4 degrees had moved to the middle of the probability distribution. This would be hotter than any time since the Miocene era 25 million years ago. We are staring into the abyss. ’The future looks impossible,’ said Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre.

However that future has to be faced. We will have to allow ourselves to enter a phase of desolation and hopelessness, ’in short, to grieve’. Hamilton explores the likely elements of our mourning for a lost future. That is the stage of Despair. Beyond that he hopes for a resurgence of resourcefulness and selflessness, for the emergence of values of moderation, humility, and respect for the natural world. That stage he calls Accept. His third stage is Act. Here he speaks of vigorous political engagement to build democracies that can ensure the best defences against a more hostile climate, protect the poor and vulnerable and restrain the rich and powerful who may well try to control dwindling resources for themselves.

It’s a sombre picture.  Whether Hamilton has correctly located the reasons for our failure to meet the crisis may be arguable. There’s a sense in which it doesn’t matter. The weight of the book for me was not so much in its analyses of society as in the author’s acceptance that we are not going to avoid major and frightening climate disruption, his description of the turmoil that such a recognition involves for the psyche, and his sketching of how we may best carry on into a diminished human future. This thread in the book is less formulated than the critiques of society, but will nevertheless carry a lot of interest for others who feel themselves on the brink of hopelessness.  Not least because Hamilton sees things worth doing and ways worth being on the other side of despair.

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