Monday, January 13, 2014

geoengineering -- can we reduce risk of death by fire and brimstone?

My thanks to a friend from DOD  for posting this important link on an important issue,
on a policy discussion list:

Now that I have seen the whole thing, I do have additional comments,
starting with:

> 2. Martha's comment is that the problem with the sulfate spraying
> proposition is you can't test it in the lab first to see what the bugs might
> be.  That's a big engineering problem.  I'm not willing to let you operate
> on my heart with an experimental drug.  Especially when we have
> alternatives.

By the end of the video, all the panel agreed that major new research is needed in
order to make geoengineering LESS of an "experimental drug." If you
are in the middle of a heart seizure,  you may know that exercise and
diet are a better way to prevent it, but here and now... if the
experimental drug is all you have which can act fast enough, it's
better to have some chance of survival than none.

I don't agree with EVERYTHING that David Keith (author of The Case for
Climate Control) said, but he was a model of clear thinking, even if he
doesn't quite support the school of utilitarianism which put me on a
path to my own variation of rational thinking.
(I would say the problem he cites is not with utilitarianism but the
choice of utility function.)

Aside from all the nonsense chaff, there were two valid serious
worries he introduced about the specific type of geoengineering he
advocates, using sulfate particles to reflect away the light of the
sun enough to reduce warming:

(1) The possibility of stratospheric ozone depletion, the focus of
research he is now doing (and presumably would want to expand). I will
always remember that the mass extinctions of life on earth in the past
mainly came with levels of H2S poisoning and radiation (from ozone
depletion) enough to kill at least all mammals bigger than a mouse. My
quick run of the numbers suggest that radiation poison reaches fatal
levels long before H2S concentrations, if we go over the threshold
with "black water/green sky" problems. We really need to keep an eye
on this. I have sometimes suggested to colleagues that we should have
a focused R&D call for ideas for ozone layer geoengineering ideas --
just my opinion, which I haven't spent much time pushing.

(2) The problem of what happens when geoengineering is discontinued,
if even more CO2 has accumulated in the atmosphere in the meantime.
Forgive me, but I even checked wikipedia -- opinions about "the
lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere" are divided, centering around 90
years, but with heavy support for 200 years or for less than 90; it's
basically an issue of rates in the natural system, which depend in
part on what we do. We do need to consider the lifetime issue,
somehow... but the risk of being killed tomorrow does not justify
dying today. There are ways we can keep going.

Beyond those worries are two more concerns worth acting on:

(1) The concern about political factors. I for one am glad that so
many conservative thinktanks seem to be supporting geoengineering,
whatever their reasons. (Too much self-manipulation of PR and counter
PR can land us in a death spiral, if we don't cut the Gordian knot and
simply focus on what needs to be done objectively.) I was glad to hear
that all three viewpoints on the panel agreed that Keith's kind of
geoengineering could be done at a low price tag, "doable by Hindustani
HERE. In fact, is creating a treaty the most important precautionary
"R&D" we need to buy the ability to act quickly? I was glad to see
that David Keith clearly understands the crucial importance of delayed
reaction effects in determining what actually has hope of avoiding
extinction of the human species.

(2) Alternatives -- of two kinds, geoengineering and reduction in net
CO2 emission -- must of course ALSO be on the table of those of us who
care about human survival.
(As are W/M/D issues, and even EMP.)

For the space mirror concept -- I did mention that Abdul Kalam of
India is a strong supporter of that one, and that he has a relatively
strong understanding of the concrete opportunities to dramatically
reduce launch costs (dollars per kg to orbit, and also emissions per
kg to orbit). India has elections in March which currently occupy most
of his attention. I am VERY concerned that DARPA's XS-1 program, the
best we have had in a long time in that direction, may not be enough
even to preserve our CAPABILITY to get to low-cost launch; it doesn't
include the crucial filter of structure testing at the unique WPAFB
test facility before heavy investment, and doesn't seem likely to
involve key folks either at Boeing Seattle or NASA Langley with
knowledge of how one would pass those crucial tests. Also, there is a
simple intellectual problem which is ONE of the factors that has
screwed up US launch efforts; so many people "understand the rocket
equation, the poor specific impulse you need to get thrust enough to
exceed the pull of gravity" -- not understanding that horizontally
launched craft with wings CAN have thrust less than their weight,
allowing more fuel efficiency and thus more payload per fuel and per
flight. Such a simple thing, like not wanting to melt on the way back
to earth! Yet lack of clear understanding of simple things keeps
screwing us up... in aerospace
as in climate policy.

But iron fertilization, yet a third geoengineering approach, has more
than just "black water" costs. Biochar has already had a lot of the
required research (some NSF supported), and is more in the stage where
deployment and incentives are the issue.

People talked a lot about "solar geoengineering," which logically
includes BOTH the sulfate approach David Keith was discussing, AND the
space mirrors approach.

One questioner said "ocean acidification is the big gorilla." David
Keith acknowledged that solar geoengineering would do nothing for
that.  While I am grateful to Peter Ward for what I learned from his
book Under a Green Sky, I don't believe the politically correct
section on ocean acidification, or, even worse, the movement to view his book as
just another data point to support concern about ocean acidification. The more
rational section of his book is where he urges us to look more closely
in a new way to thermohaline currents -- and that's what I've been
doing, and what motivates me to worry about the ocean surface
temperature at the poles as the key tripwire of life or death. How bad
IS ocean acidification? In 2009, I had access to the CRS report, which
cites folks like Caldeira saying "Ocean acidification may be much
worse than we thought.  At present rates, it might drop down from ph
of 8.0 to 7.7 as soon as 2100." Fresh water is 7.0. Fresh water is
compatible with ordinary life as we know it. Yes, there are risks of
extinctions, but nothing even close to the scale of green sky events.
Corals are most at risk, but it sounds as if a lot of other things
(like nutrients and oxygen levels and temperature) may have been
hurting them more lately.

In discussing "alarmists," Keith referred to those UK people who worry
about methane cycles due to melting in northern Siberia. That's not my
major worry... but sulfate geoengineering focusing on Arctic and
Antarctic areas  would also help with that one.
Many folks in Russia would actually appreciate a little warming (if
they can avoid
poison, radiation and drowning)... but they probably don't really want
to move to North Siberia in most cases anyway. In some parts of
Siberia, people actually like their snow.
But what about the Chinese folks who might want to move a bit north?
Beyond the scope of this panel, and of this email.

All for now. Best of luck to us all...

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