Before that, Ed Teller, Lowell Wood and Ken Caldeira had urged us to develop a new "sulfate particle" geoengineering technology, which would cost maybe on the order of a billion dollars per year for airplanes to disperse reflective particles to reduce global warming. Many conservatives supported this idea, in part because it would be a lot less expensive than climate bills, but they did not support it all that hard, and the politically correct segment on the left basically vetoed it based on the following arguments:
(1) Since it would not reduce CO2, it would not stop the absorption of CO2 into the ocean, raising the acidity of the ocean. When I was in Specter's office, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) did an excellent report on ocean acidity, saying that under business as usual there was a threat that in the next century
the pH of the ocean might fall not just from 8.0 to 7.9 (as predicted) but possibly as far as 7.7 or 7.8. For comparison, fresh water is 7.0, and pH as low as 5 or less was a key symptom of past eras in the ocean.
(2) It would be premature to start this now, when there is still hope of doing things the right way, reducing CO2 in the atmosphere and making changes we want for other reasons. (Certainly reduced dependence on oil imports is one of those important other changes, but the big climate bills were not really relevant to that,
though they sometimes pretended to be.)
(3) Extending (2) -- it might reduce the pressure for parallel activities to reduce CO2.
(4) We don't yet know what the most cost-effective form of geoengineering would be, or the unintended consequences. For example, what happens when the sulfates get into the oceans?
Based on new information, I really hope someone serious in the political sphere
(US or overseas) would be willing to reconsider. Above all, I hope someone would be willing to consider some kind of international crash program to
try to deploy the Teller/Wood/Caldeira technology over and around the Antarctic
so as to reverse the loss we have already experienced of the primary ocean current which previously brought oxygen to the deep oceans.
Even the hardest core climate skeptics know by now that there is a big thick ring of fresh water and fresh water ice which has grown around the Antarctic continent.
We certainly could use more and better focused research to assess why.
For example, how much is runoff from the surface of the Antarctic, and how much is a release of water much deeper in the continent? But regardless of those details, there may at least be some hope that cooling of the Antarctic might measurably reduce the flow of fresh water, enough to solve the problem or at least justify a larger effort capable of doing so.
The point is: argument (2) against geoengineering is now out of date, because changes have ALREADY occurred. Regardless of who should be blamed for
these changes (humans, nature, a mix...), the loss of this oxygen-bearing current is life-threatening. It seems very unlikely that we can reduce CO2 emissions fast enough, on a large enough scale, to reverse what has happened.
Re argument (4): I became aware of this, ironically, because of active discussions of space technology, where I have pushed for OTHER approaches to geoengineering which might be better in the long-term. (For example, there are ways to reduce the cost of getting to orbit by orders of magnitude, and lots of recent progress in thin light materials for solar sails or mirrors or lenses.) But it is too late, too risky, to wait, and the Teller/Wood/Caldeira approach is well enough worked out and affordable enough that there is no rational excuse for delay.
I DO strongly hope that we can work on those alternative types of geoengineering as well, but they are not available today.
Likewise, for (2) -- energy security remains an issue on the table, even if we do
solve the most serious climate threat facing us.
By the way, news of a big crack on the surface of the Antarctic also raises my sense of urgency here. And other news, beyond the scope of this post.
As for (1) ... acid ocean is a bad thing, but the Teller/Wood/Caldeira scheme would not make it worse, for God's sake! And a ph of 7.7 would simply be far less of a threat to life on earth to what happens when we create conditions for a vast growth of H2S-producing archaea. (It is unfortunate that Peter Ward, a great historian of life on earth, did not think harder about the paper by Kump which he cited. Acid ocean is not a key condition for the proliferation of archaea; one need only consider the Black Sea to see that!)
COULD we push the Antarctic back over the safe side of the narrow line, using the Teller/Wood/Caldeira technology? GIven how much is at risk, it seems absurd to me that we do not yet try.
Best of luck,
P.S. As for the sulfate particles... I suspect they already have some first-order calculations, and that any risks are trivial compared to what is at risk if we do not act.
This comes to mind... as a way of balancing my actions on the OTHER approaches. I would feel dishonest to push various types of solar energy, and new geoengineering, without also doing justice to this one.
I will still do my best on the other good things... but let us not forget survival and what it requires in the big picture.
Some further discussion:
Some further discussion:
To be fair, there is another argument against geoengineering: that geoengineering + carbon emissions maintains global temperatures on average, but not in specific regions. Therefore going down this route will involve making decisions as to whether, for example, certain parts of the world will get rainfall or not, determining new patterns of drought, and so on.Thus geoengineering requires international agreement as well, with countries jockeying over the correct "global thermostat" (or, in the worst case, different countries starting their geoengineering projects independently).
Certainly the Antarctic has been under international agreements for some time, and
doing anything would require international agreement. But must it be unanimous?
One might even hope for the UN security council to weigh in, since it really is a matter of life or death.
Certainly there are nations ruled by "tough deal makers"who would be willing to play chicken with the world, and insist on unfair side payments right until the last moment, when human survival is...
50-50? (Actually, it may be worse than that already, but a certain kind of narcissistic deal making
dictator would also deny reality right to the end.) I do hope the security council could come to agreement, but that is certainly part of the challenge.
The regional aspect of the proposal is pretty simple: try to cool the Antarctic itself as such,
leaving any additional such actions to future discussion. If we can't just move forward to do what we must to survive... if we are that insane... well, yes, we may be that insane, and we may be doomed in the end as a result of the prevalence of insanity. That is a realistic possibility,
but I hope that some of us who are not insane, and who do care about survival, can at least give a good try...