Chemotherapy for Climate Change

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With the likelihood of any significant agreement on lowering greenhouse gas emissions coming out of Copenhagen small, attention to geo-engineering has taken a big jump. More than merely refocusing attention, this turn of events has catapaulted geo-engineering from the fringe smak into the center. I find this disturbing and fraught. In an article in Greenbiz, David Keith, one of the more level-headed people in the area of climate change, is quoted:

Geoengineering, says scientist David Keith, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.” But if you can’t avoid cancer, chemotherapy may be your best option. And, if it becomes evident that the earth can’t avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it is not merely possible that governments will turn to geoengineering. Some people believe that it is all but certain.

The analogy to cancer is misleading. Keith says as much at the end of the article. Cancer is a disease that has invaded the body and cannot be reversed. Whatever triggered the symptoms is beyond reach and may not be known or understood. There is llttle left for the healer than to attack the whole system looking to undo the processes that are destroying the body.

Global warming and climate change are not the same and any argument based on the analogy to cancer is built on a shaky foundation. We do know what causes climate change even if that knowledge is incomplete and imprecise. The emission of greenhouse gases is the primary cause as determined by the physics of the phenomenon. This is true, even if we cannot say for certain where these gases are coming from. I am in the school that believes that the emissions from human economic activities is the primary cause of the changes we are observing. I am certain Keith would agree, having listened to him on several occasions.

So, in the case of global warming, unlike that of cancer, we have two distinct, possible routes to treat the illness. One is to strike at the cause and the other is to attack some ongoing contributor to the disease. The first is the drastic reduction in the emissions which create the changes in the earth atmosphere which then trap radiation form the sun and cause the surface to heat up. This path includes replacing carbon producing devices like auto and power plants with much higher efficiency versions or substitutes that work on non-carbon containing fuels. Carbon taxes and cap and trade schemes follow this route as does research into higher efficiency. Worried about the cost and political consequences of this approach, world leaders have shied away form endorsing or actually implementing this route.

Keith is pointing to the other path, interfering in the system, as does chemotherapy, to counteract the affects of greenhouse gases. The treatment he speaks about is a form of reducing the flow of solar energy short of impinging on the Earth’s surface. From the article:

Experts say solar radiation management (SRM), the form of geoengineering that has drawn the most attention lately, can be achieved by adding light-scattering aerosols to the upper atmosphere or increasing the reflectivity of clouds below. What makes scientists think it will work? When the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines erupted in 1991, spewing fine particles of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, enough sunlight was reflected back into space that the earth was cooled by about 0.5 degrees C, at least for a time. The trouble is, solar radiation management surely will have other consequences as well. Some are known — less precipitation and less evaporation, which is bound to affect agriculture — and others are not. “The concerns, really, are the unknown unknowns,” says Keith.

And that is the argument taken by most who oppose these “solutions.” A small error in the models that are used to design any geo-engineering technology on a global scale could have monumental, large-scale unintended consequences that create massive new problems. Global warming is, in essence, such an unintended consequences, springing from the unabated use of fossil fuel based energy production. It’s not a side effect as some would say, but an effect equally as much a result of the way the system works as the intended outcomes. It’s just one we don’t want.

Keith says, as I quoted, that given the costs and time it will take to develop alternate forms of energy production, it is unlikely that those who determine where our resources go will put the requisite effort and resources to this task. If he and others, some from surprising quarters, are right and geo-engineering gets its day in Mother Nature’s court, I expect to see another unintended consequence crop up. With the technical challenge engaging the best minds and the huge business potential engaging entrepreneurs and managers, work toward alternate energy production is almost certainly going to wane. Such forgetting is a common outcome of an excessive reliance on technical fixes like geo-engineering.

Sticking with the chemotherapy analogy, the main concern is remission at some unknown time after the problem appears to have been solved. The argument that chemotherapy, while not curing the patient, can buy time in which a cure can be found is valid largely because massive resources continue to be applied to finding the causes and in developing technologies that eliminate them. There is little evidence that we are moving in a parallel path with climate change. The seduction of a geo-engineering quick fix is beginning to woo our leaders from the more fundamental and, hopefully permanent cure.

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2 Comments

Nicholas Gertler said:

The solution to large-scale man-made interference to natural processes is...more large-scale man-made interference with natural processes?

John Ehrenfeld Author Profile Page said:

Nick,

Unfortunately, this is the direction we seem to be going. The longer we fail to reduce greenhouse emissions, the more pressure we will face to go the technical solution route. What is terribly ironic about this is that many of the same folks who deny the connections between evidence of climate change and economic activity are willing to move to a system that relies entirely on connections between human intervention and changes in the global climate machinery.