Limits to the feasibility of technological solutions to climate change

Many people want to believe, without adequately reflecting on it, in technological solutions to the problem of climate change. I believe that these solutions will not be forthcoming, and pose risks. The proximate spur to me for writing this post was a posting by Paul Beckwith, with his support, of an email from Paul Beattie from the Arctic Methane Emergency Group’s listserve on NTHE Consciousness & Philosophy Facebook group (I quote his post):

The full email post from Paul Beattie on the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) listserv:

“I had actually already heard of the “Near Term Human Extinction Support Group” and Guy McPherson, and I think actually they do more harm than good, because w
hile they communicate the dire situation that we are in, at the same time they say “Despair! There’s nothing we can do!” So it’s kind of like lighting a low grassfire, which chars all of the driest kindling, and prevents it from being able to grow into a big fire, which we need to really start a movement.

Once every last cent of the GDP of every country in the world – that isn’t being spent on people’s basic necessities – is being used to address this crisis, and once every scientist and engineer in any remotely related field has dropped what they’re doing and focusing solely on solving this, then we’ll begin to be in a position to determine how good our chances are.

But finally, what good does it do to even think about how good your chances are? Before you do something really difficult that makes you nervous, should you sit there wringing your hands and calculating how good your chances are? Or should you just do it? It’s senseless to sit in your armchair and prophesy that we’re all going to die, because it debilitates you, and all that is really relevant at that point is that you have to act.

And even if not for your own good or for the good of the people in your country, what about all the poor illiterate people in the world who have absolutely no power to do anything about this, and are completely at our mercy? Are we willing to just sit there and watch the tidal wave hit them? No. Even if only for them, we have to be intolerant of apathy and act.”

The Rhetoric

For many reasons this set me off. I will go into the substantive ones in detail below. But I wish to mention two questionable rhetorical devices used by Paul Beattie in the above quote.

The first is the “Strawman fallacy.” Beattie puts words into the mouth of Dr. Guy McPherson and others on the Facebook group NTHE Support: “Despair! There is nothing we can do!” This is,of course, not the position of Guy McPherson nor myself as one of the unnamed people on that group. Guy’s position is admirably summarized in Andrew Harvey introduction to McPherson’s and co-author Carolyn Baker’s book, Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind:

The fourth theme that dances like a golden thread throughout this amazing book is that when we do accept our potentially terminal fate, an extreme love for life on its own terms and just as it is, can be exploded within us, along with a radiant gratitude for the simplest things we have taken for granted and a rapture at the beauty of the world we are losing. When we finally face that time is running out not just for the human race but for all life, we can, if we choose, and if we pray and meditate deeply and continue to act humbly and with unconditional love in whatever circumstances that we find ourselves in, live in peace and joy and surrender to Mystery. …”

So rather than stating Guy’s position with honesty, Beattie uses his own words. And he does this to drive the readers to his own conclusion: That what we need is a “big fire… to start a movement” presumably to drive climate change solutions. Beattie advocates the need of producing a galvanizing event to push an agenda. This type of event to catalyse a movement is the tactic used in history known as the false flag. It’s most infamous usage is by demagogues and authoritarians.

The second rhetorical device that Beattie employs is in his last paragraph, and that is the moralistic fallacy. That I have to restate here in full:

Even if not for your own good or for the good of the people in your country, what about all the poor illiterate people in the world who have absolutely no power to do anything about this, and are completely at our mercy? Are we willing to just sit there and watch the tidal wave hit them? No. Even if only for them, we have to be intolerant of apathy and act.

Here we see the appeal to the benefit of others. It has echoes of the oft heard “Do it for your grandchildren.” Often in ecological debate the benefit to others is not even about people but about fish, dolphins, plants, trees, and even Earth as some sort of Gaia-being. But it is key to see the reason for which this fallacious appeal is made: “we have to be intolerant of apathy and act.” The arrogation of action to ourselves, and the denigration of the agency of people who are “at our mercy,” smacks of so much privilege I hear the echoes of the “White-man’s burden” in this (to use a red-herring!). And the call to intolerance of others on the basis of good for the people is at best illogical and at worst totalitarian.

Both of these fallacies are employed to great effect in Beattie’s mail. I don’t subscribe to them and hope that you do not neither.

The main argument

But coming back to the main argument, Paul Beckwith posted this because he is in favor of geo-engineering solutions to counteract climate change. We know that the IPCC Assessment Report 5 has looked at (briefly) the subject of Geoengineering. The mainstream press has reported on this, e.g. from Scientific American from 2013:

Attempts to counter global warming by modifying Earth’s atmosphere have been thrust into the spotlight following last week’s report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Mention of ‘geoengineering’ in the report summary was brief, but it suggests that the controversial area is now firmly on the scientific agenda. Some climate models suggest that geoengineering may even be necessary to keep global temperature rises to below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Most geoengineering technologies generally either reflect sunlight — through artificial ‘clouds’ of stratospheric aerosols, for example — or reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The latter approach, described as ‘negative emissions’, involves capturing carbon dioxide with strategies that range from building towers to collect it from the atmosphere to grinding up rocks to react with CO2 and take it out of circulation.

Critics say that the technologies are unproven, will have unforeseen impacts and could distract from attempts to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. But advocates point to language in the summary for policy-makers produced by the IPCC working group that assessed the scientific evidence for climate change as evidence that reducing emissions will not be enough.

The document notes that a “large fraction” of anthropogenic climate change is irreversible except with a “large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period”. Under some climate models, keeping temperature rise below 2 °C will require negative emissions.

The summary reads: “Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed. Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system.”

In other words we know that these solutions are being pursued and pushed to policy makers. We should expect a further increase in the clamor for these solutions in the next few months leading up to the COP 21 Conference in Paris in December of 2015. But what are the chances that these solutions will be able to deliver a slowdown in climate change to stave off near term human extinction? THere are several strands of assumptions in the case for geo-engineering that I would like to cover.

1. The technology exists

Any geo-engineering solution must assert, believably that the technology exists. I.e. there is a scientific causal relationship between the technology proposed and mitigation of either the causes or the effects of climate change. For example plans for CO2 sequestration by either planting more trees (actually a bio-engineering solution) or Carbon Capture and Sequestration seeks to work directly on the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The approach which has be put forward by Paul Beckwith is the Artificial Arctic Volcano, a form of Solar Radiation Management, where Sulfur is aerosolized over the Arctic seeks to reflect more sunlight back into space like a volcanic eruption would.

2. There is an investment at the scale needed

All of the geo-engineering solutions require that people and capital are deployed to implement the solution. In market based economies the cost-benefit analysis shows that these costs will not be borne by companies in the absence of strong regulation and governmental incentives. This inevitably means that governmental investment is needed. Which means in turn that politics comes into play.

There are some efforts to try the altruistic appeal on some billionaires to invest in these technologies. In fact to me this looks like the most likely route for at least one of these technologies to be tried, but not on a global scale needed.

3. There is the political will to invest at the scale needed.

This may mean that there is a global coordination, such as COP 21, or that there is local fiscal redirection of national or regional governmental and public groups policies. Some scientists are talking of a “mobilization on the scale of World War II “in the US needed to address climate mitigation and adaption. Paul Beattie assumes a level of political will that can direct the energies of every scientist and engineer in any remotely related field to the task at hand, and shelving anything other than the “people’s basic necessities.” To me this is an implausible fantasy. This to me sounds like a global totalitarian state!

Over the course of over 50 years of climate warnings we have seen nothing like the political will needed to address even the mildest climate actions. SOme things last one term of office, such as President’s Carter’s putting a solar array on the roof of the White House. Actually in our democratic Western political economies as well as in the single party political economy of China there are few incentives for politicians to support policies beyond the next election or five year plan. In the West the corruption of the political class by carbon industry money flows has pretty much thwarted the ability to form any effective carbon policy.

4. There is the time to do it before things unravel

The argument of the people who talk about NTHE, Near Term Human Extinction, are based on the fact that our industrial civilization has created so many intractable and accelerating problems that are sufficient to wipe out the ability of the ecosystem to support humans. Scientist who have looked at this have posited that “Near term” means within the next 30 years. Even if that estimate is wrong it is clear that we need to act urgently to have any success.

5. Work starts on the projects

First of all we need to start the projects of geoengineering. It is unlikely that projects in large scale geoengineering will start before COP21 in December 2015.

6  We can progress at the speed necessary

Once the projects start the build out needs to be done quickly. Large scale Carbon Capture and Storage would require retrofitting all of the carbon based power plants in the USA, Europe India and China, building the pipelines and drilling the injection wells at suitable sites. A prospect that will take YEARS. The aerosolization of sulfur may be possible by retrofitting cargo planes with something like crop-spraying machinery. Which may be feasible in timeframes of less than a year.

7.  We can measure results

In order to know if the projects are working we need to have a measurement system in place, and time series long enough to see if we are having the desired result. It is true we have a planetary Co2 measurement network and satellite methane measurements. We would also need to allow time for the actions to have effect, a time frame of 5 to 10 years may be needed to see reduction in GHGs.

It is worthwhile to note that even the most aggressive model of the IPCC does not see greenhouse gas concentrations DECLINING until sometime after 2040.

8. The results are as good or better than expected

The investment is worthless if we do not see results. If we measure for 5 or 10 years and see we are not having the desired reduction in GHG or on global temperatures, then what?

9. The unforeseen consequences are small and manageable

Actually, the investment may be worse than worthless if the unintended consequences of the technology are worse than expected. All technologies have unintended consequences. Some end up making the technology obsolete, or worse toxic.

All of these are hurdles that any technological solution for climate change must address and overcome. I see the possibility of doing this as vanishingly small, and the possibility for severe negative, toxic side effects as non-trivial. I don’t think there is a technological fix to climate change in our future.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>