The geoengineering double catastrophe

I recently attended the World Congress on Risk in Sydney, primarily to see some sessions on ‘global catastrophic risk’. There were some presentations on the ‘tail risk’ of climate change that made me think that I should take it more seriously as a catastrophic risk than I have over the last few years. Despite some promising signs to the contrary, I am pessimistic that we will have enough incentive to limit emissions individually, or be able to coordinate to limit emissions collectively. It looks as though we are on track to burn most of easily accessed oil and gas, and much of the coal. If we do continue with ‘business as usual’ then I am told to expect temperature increases of at least 4 degrees Celsius over the next 100-200 years.

If temperatures rise that far then it will be very tempting to try to suppress them with geoengineering. One of the cheaper options is to release aerosols into the atmosphere. Another suggestion is to use chemicals or sea spray to seed clouds, or make them more reflective. A single country could afford to do this for the whole planet if they chose, which makes it much more likely that someone eventually will.

While this geoengineering might be better than nothing, a new paper (currently under review for publication) by Seth Baum, Tim Maher, and Jacob Haqq-Misra of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute points out that it would leave humanity as a whole in a precarious position. Aerosols and sea spray gradually fall out of the atmosphere, so these geoengineering activities would need to be kept up continuously. If a disaster ever occurred that interfered with the project, for example a serious pandemic, then temperatures could start rising very quickly. This would lead to a second disaster – unpredictable and dramatic climate change – that humanity would have to deal with on top of the first.

Given that we should be focussed on the worst risks that threaten humanity as a whole, this kind of double-punch is particularly worrisome. That said, even if significant parts of the planet were made unliveable for mammals, it still seems improbable that climate change would lead to extinction. Some of the planet would still be suitable for humans, even if in the worst case they had to return to subsistence farming. However, having to deal with rising temperatures when our ability to adapt has already been compromised would increase the chance of a cascading collapse of law and order and sophistication in the economy, which would take us away from achieving the technologies or space colonisation that would safeguard us for the long term.

If rising carbon emissions are nonetheless inevitable an option would be to find geoengineering projects that continue working for some time without ongoing maintenance – perhaps mirrors in space or reflective white surfaces.

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  • V V

    I tend to be wary of these privately-founded apocalyptic research institutes.
    If anything, they have all the incentives to exagerate whatever risk they are talking about in order to keep the donations flowing.

    I’m not a climate scientst, but global warming being so extreme to make large regions of the planet uninhabitable due to hyperthermia hazard seems unlikely.

    I think that realistically the biggest problem will be reduced food supply due to increased water evaporation. This may well reduce the Earth carrying capacity and cause major disruptions and even increase the mortality rates until the world population stabilizes to a lower level, famines, wars, etc., however, that’s unlikely to be a human extiction event.

    • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

       Did you read the PNAS article?  If the wet bulb temperature is above 35 C for any extended period of time (a few hours), humans cannot survive. 

      I would like to see your analysis of why this is unlikely. 

      • Kevin Dick

        How about because we’ve seen no evidence of such extreme temperatures being common at any time since the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation 2.5MYA?

      • http://profiles.google.com/davidmanheim David Manheim

        Based on the current historical data, there is a relationship between the two quantities such that a 1.2 degree increase in temperature for every 10 ppm increase in Co2. ( http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/paleo/globalwarming/images/temperature-change.jpg )This may not be a fair relationship, but it’s a first approximation. If the CO2 concentration moves from 350 to 450, we have 12 degree increase in long term temperature. Extrapolate the Co2 level to the point where humanity has burned all of the hydrocarbons, and it starts looking reasonable that this can occur.

        Why do you think this isn’t possible?

      • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

        CO2 levels right now, are about 1/3 higher (about 100 ppm higher) than they have been in the last ~25 million years. It is not a surprise that there were no periods during that time of temperatures much higher than at present. Temperature is going up, there is a lag because there is a lot to heat up.

        It is pretty clear why there is AGW denial. It is about money. Rolling Stone has a good article on it.

        http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719

        The value of fossil fuel deposits is based on burning them as fuel. There is about 5 times more carbon in fossil fuel deposits than can be burned without causing catastrophic climate change. The value of entities that control those deposits is predicated on burning them as fuel with zero cost to emitting that CO2.

        If that externality (putting CO2 into the atmosphere) is accounted for, then the value of those fossil fuel deposits drops. Creditors who have loaned money based on using those deposits as collateral will demand more collateral and the whole economy will suffer a gigantic shock as the unsustainable fossil fuel bubble bursts.

        The sooner the fossil fuel bubble bursts, the easier it will be to maintain civilization and transition to a sustainable economy not based on fossil fuels. Those vested in a fossil fuel economy will try and delay that for as long as possible, as we are seeing.

      • V V

        @google-ba7070f00215f37cf7588d09b36d0ee8:disqus

        that a 1.2 degree increase in temperature for every 10 ppm increase in Co2.

        How does that affect peak wet-bulb temperature?

      • V V

         @google-ba7070f00215f37cf7588d09b36d0ee8:disqus AGW is indeed a serious problem, but there is no need to exagerate it to the apocalyptic scenario “it’s so hot that you overheat and die”.

      • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

         VV, What basis do you have for saying apocalyptic predictions are exaggeration? 

        Did you read the PNAS paper?  Did you read the Rolling Stone article?  What in there is exaggeration? 

        Please tell me.  I have read these (and much more), and understood them, and I don’t see the exaggeration. 

        What is going to stop CO2 emissions before AGW does become apocalyptic?  

      • V V

        According to Wikipedia:

         “Climate model projections are summarized in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
        (IPCC). They indicate that during the 21st century the global surface
        temperature is likely to rise a further 1.1 to 2.9 °C (2 to 5.2 °F) for
        their lowest emissions scenario and 2.4 to 6.4 °C (4.3 to 11.5 °F) for their highest.”

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming

        As distruptive as this can be, it’s nowhere near the 12 °C average temperature increase you were talking about.

      • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

         The IPCC Fourth assessment report only used data published before 2006.  It is already out of date.  Emissions of greenhouse gases have been considerably higher than the worst-case scenario considered in the IPCC IV. 

        http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/nov/04/greenhouse-gases-rise-record-levels

        Headline:  “Greenhouse gases rise by record amount”

        “Levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago”

        They report:

        “Even though global warming sceptics have criticised the climate change panel as being too alarmist, scientists have generally found their predictions too conservative, Reilly said. He said his university worked on emissions scenarios, their likelihood, and what would happen. The IPCC’s worst case scenario was only about in the middle of what MIT calculated are likely scenarios.”

        Those projections stop at 2100.   AGW will not stop at 2100, it will continue.  How high AGW will go depends on what the final CO2 levels are.

        The IPCC only projects based on emissions that are known or can be projected.  How much methane and CO2 will be emitted from thawed permafrost?  No one knows, so the IPCC assumes it is zero.

      • roystgnr

        No, based on the *prehistorical* data, there is a 10ppm increase in CO2 for every 1.2 degree increase in temperature.  Based on the *historical* data, there is a 1 degree increase in temperature for a 100ppm increase in CO2.  So either our current temperature is already *way* below equilibrium (possible – CO2 affects heat via radiation, which works on a timescale of hours, but it may take much longer for various heat sinks to warm and/or melt) or our current CO2 levels are way above equilibrium (also likely – carbon sinks include biological and diffusion based processes which operate more slowly than we’ve been dumping CO2).

      • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

         roystgnr, do you have a citation for that prehistoric correlation?  I think you are off by an order of magnitude. 

      • roystgnr

         David Whitlock, for prehistoric data I’m just looking at the same NOAA figure that David Manheim linked.  Is there something wrong with it?  “nearly 300ppm during interglacials, ~200ppm during full-blown ice age, nearly a dozen Kelvin difference between them” roughly accords with my memory as well.

      • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

        roystgnr, you are right, I was thinking of the projections of climate change which are about an order of magnitude less, but they all truncate at 2100 and don’t include any unknown factors, so they would be less than what will happen.

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  • Albert_kallio

    The world leaders have gradually come to conclusion since
    UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Conference of Parties 15
    (COP15) in Copenhagen in December 2009 that addressing the climate change by
    emissions cuts is economically and politically unattainable. As a sponsor of
    Geoengineering Session at the Copenhagen follow-up meeting, the CMPCC Summit,
    or the Cochabamba Climate Summit that prepared for the COP16 at Cancun, I have
    come gradually to the position that cutting carbon dioxide emissions since the
    collapse of the Kyoto Protocol (COP3) and the Bali Road Map (COP13) there won’t
    be any further attempts made. The switch to costly renewable energy is never
    going to be taken seriously in quantity that suppresses a global rise in fossil
    fuel use. Geoengineering as a further remediate move to correct climate
    excesses, therefore, will always remain in realms of ‘technological promise’
    riddled with accusations of scientists ‘playing God’ and creating
    “research for the sake of research”.

    Like the rise of National Socialism in the 1930’s Europe was unstoppable, the
    United States’ Republican Party dogma of our world based on “market
    economy based on infinite economic growth attainable by the fossil-fuelled
    consumption of goods and services”, no amount of opposition to moneyed
    people will be enough to stop the injustice just like the Civil Society
    organisations could not stop the Nazi Final Solution which ended in the
    extermination of 6 million Jews, Gipsys, Slavs, and other unwannabes.

    The manifestation of the above is clear by the ‘Arrogant Acts’ that place the
    Republican Legislatures over and above the Natural Laws which is obviously
    impossible for any country or state to change by legislation. The purpose of
    “Arrogant Acts” must be seen as a propaganda measure much alike the
    National Socialism’s and Mein Kampf portrayal of the Jewish people as cause of
    all and everything that was conceived ill and obstacle to the progressive state
    that the Nazi Germans saw themselves to get the human race perfected socially,
    physically and economically to their earthly utopias.

    The ‘Act of God’ by the
    Republican Party demands that sea level rise must stop by the law enforcement
    of the State of North Carolina: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/06/01/sea-level-bill-would-allow-north-carolina-to-stick-its-head-in-the-sand

    Similar propaganda moves took place at the UN Conference of Parties 15 in
    Copenhagen when Professor Ian Plimer’s ridiculous conjectures were disseminated
    as copies of British newspaper (Daily Express) were handed out stating that in
    the past carbon dioxide level had been 1000 times higher than at the present
    air and the carbon dioxide levels could easily be raised to 400,000 parts per
    million (40%). Please note that the available O2 level in the air is at 210,000
    parts per million. When I raised a complaint to the UK Press Complaints
    Commission (PCC) they insisted this was a debatable “matter of
    opinion” that does not constitute a lie, nor a misrepresentation of facts
    banned by the UK Press Complaints’ Commission “Ethical Code”. So, how
    come 400,000 C + 210,000 O2 = 400,000 CO2? In my calculus 400,000 C + 210,000
    O2 = 210,000 CO2 + 190,000 C (uncombusted). As we see from the above the
    corruption in quasi-UK-government quango that regulates Ethical Code is also
    present by the press incapacity to regulate themselves against the
    misrepresentation of facts.

    A further aggravating factor is that Professor Ian Plimer who claims that air
    at 40% CO2 (or 400,000 p.p.m.) is breathable is himself a mining expert: the
    Professor of Mining Geology at the University of Adelaide and the University of
    Melbourne. Where is the “old Canary in a coal mine” to tell Professor
    Plimer that air in a mine would be breathable and a safe working environment
    when he knows it fully well that it is toxic at 400,000 p.p.m. Beside these
    ridiculous newspapers disseminated to confuse COP15 proceedings, Professor Ian
    Plimer also contradicted himself as in another media he had quoted the same
    figure of the past atmospheric concentrations peaking at 40,000 parts per
    million, with 360,000 parts per million gone missing between the interviews A
    and B within six months. Even to this the corrupt UK Press Complaints
    Commission did not intervene.

    The corrupt UK Press Complaints Commission ignored the Workplace Health and
    Safety Executive’s advice for good indoor CO2 level that suggests that carbon
    dioxide becomes mildly toxic for human beings at 1,000 p.p.m. when it starts to
    affect the powers of concentration: http://www.analox.net/carbon-dioxide-dangers.php

    At Rio+20 Lord Christopher Monckton, UK Government’s Chief Science Advisor
    during the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, gave in some ways more honest
    assessment than the scientists have been willing to admit about the likelihood
    of the outcome of carbon dioxide emissions reduction:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D3bH3_-dQVs

    Lord Monckton (and his clones) at recent Rio+20 summit were very skilful as
    they were tactfully appealed and implied how the climate scientists are
    “out there just to steal money through taxes”, while other scientists
    are clearly out there just to “steal God”, and still others hold onto
    their Darwinist philosophy, may be ,trying to “starve out the world’s
    poor”, namely the black Africans, by measures of aiming to get CO2
    regulating world government.

    In addition to being toxic for humans and animals at 1,000 p.p.m. and above,
    carbon dioxide acidifies oceans where organisms relying on exoskeletons made of
    calcium have difficulties to build or maintain their shells in the ever more
    acidic ocean.

    Veli Albert Kallio, FRGS

    Vice-President Environmental Affairs, Sea Research Society

  • Veli Albert Kallio, FRGS

    The world leaders have gradually come to conclusion since UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Conference of Parties 15 (COP15) in Copenhagen in December 2009 that addressing the climate change by emissions cuts is economically and politically unattainable. As a sponsor of Geoengineering Session at the Copenhagen follow-up meeting, the CMPCC Summit, or the Cochabamba Climate Summit that prepared for the COP16 at Cancun, I have come gradually to the position that cutting carbon dioxide emissions since the collapse of the Kyoto Protocol (COP3) and the Bali Road Map (COP13) there won’t be any further attempts made. The switch to costly renewable energy is never going to be taken seriously in quantity that suppresses a global rise in fossil fuel use. Geoengineering as a further remediate move to correct climate excesses, therefore, will always remain in realms of ‘technological promise’ riddled with accusations of scientists ‘playing God’ and creating “research for the sake of research”.
    Like the rise of National Socialism in the 1930’s Europe was unstoppable, the United States’ Republican Party dogma of our world based on “market economy based on infinite economic growth attainable by the fossil-fuelled consumption of goods and services”, no amount of opposition to moneyed people will be enough to stop the injustice just like the Civil Society organisations could not stop the Nazi Final Solution which ended in the extermination of 6 million Jews, Gipsys, Slavs, and other unwannabes.
    The manifestation of the above is clear by the ‘Arrogant Acts’ that place the Republican Legislatures over and above the Natural Laws which is obviously impossible for any country or state to change by legislation. The purpose of “Arrogant Acts” must be seen as a propaganda measure much alike the National Socialism’s and Mein Kampf portrayal of the Jewish people as cause of all and everything that was conceived ill and obstacle to the progressive state that the Nazi Germans saw themselves to get the human race perfected socially, physically and economically to their earthly utopias.
    The ‘Act of God’ by the Republican Party demands that sea level rise must stop by the law enforcement of the State of North Carolina: http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2012/06/01/sea-level-bill-would-allow-north-carolina-to-stick-its-head-in-the-sand
    Similar propaganda moves took place at the UN Conference of Parties 15 in Copenhagen when Professor Ian Plimer’s ridiculous conjectures were disseminated as copies of British newspaper (Daily Express) were handed out stating that in the past carbon dioxide level had been 1000 times higher than at the present air and the carbon dioxide levels could easily be raised to 400,000 parts per million (40%). Please note that the available O2 level in the air is at 210,000 parts per million. When I raised a complaint to the UK Press Complaints Commission (PCC) they insisted this was a debatable “matter of opinion” that does not constitute a lie, nor a misrepresentation of facts banned by the UK Press Complaints’ Commission “Ethical Code”. So, how come 400,000 C + 210,000 O2 = 400,000 CO2? In my calculus 400,000 C + 210,000 O2 = 210,000 CO2 + 190,000 C (uncombusted). As we see from the above the corruption in quasi-UK-government quango that regulates Ethical Code is also present by the press incapacity to regulate themselves against the misrepresentation of facts.
    A further aggravating factor is that Professor Ian Plimer who claims that air at 40% CO2 (or 400,000 p.p.m.) is breathable is himself a mining expert: the Professor of Mining Geology at the University of Adelaide and the University of Melbourne. Where is the “old Canary in a coal mine” to tell Professor Plimer that air in a mine would be breathable and a safe working environment when he knows it fully well that it is toxic at 400,000 p.p.m. Beside above ridiculous newspapers disseminated to confuse COP15 proceedings, Professor Ian Plimer also contradicted himself as in another media he had quoted the same figure of the past atmospheric concentrations peaking at 40,000 parts per million, with 360,000 parts per million gone missing between the interviews A and B within six months. Even to this the corrupt UK Press Complaints Commission did not intervene.
    The corrupt UK Press Complaints Commission ignored the Workplace Health and Safety Executive’s advice for good indoor CO2 level that suggests that carbon dioxide becomes mildly toxic for human beings at 1,000 p.p.m. when it starts to affect the powers of concentration: http://www.analox.net/carbon-dioxide-dangers.php
    At Rio+20 Lord Christopher Monckton, UK Government’s Chief Science Advisor during the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, gave in some ways more honest assessment than the scientists have been willing to admit about the likelihood of the outcome of carbon dioxide emissions reduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=D3bH3_-dQVs
    Lord Monckton (and his clones) at recent Rio+20 summit were very skilful as they were tactfully appealed and implied how the climate scientists are “out there just to steal money through taxes”, while other scientists are clearly out there just to “steal God”, and still others hold onto their Darwinist philosophy, may be ,trying to “starve out the world’s poor”, namely the black Africans, by measures of aiming to get CO2 regulating world government.
    In addition to being toxic for humans and animals at 1,000 p.p.m. and above, carbon dioxide acidifies oceans where organisms relying on exoskeletons made of calcium have difficulties to build or maintain their shells in the ever more acidic ocean.
    Veli Albert Kallio, FRGSVice-President Environmental Affairs, Sea Research Society

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_A4VNWL5SJ5TXC7NYQUGTNZGHSI Jim

    It may turn out that a low carbon tax teamed with a payout for removal of co2 from the air will get us to a balance where co2 remains constant.  Biochar would be one means to remove co2 from the air cheaply.

    • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

      The heat of combustion of biochar is ~14,000 btu/lb. That is 28 million btu/ton. Natural gas is ~$3/ MM btu. To make it economic to bury biochar instead of burning it, the carbon tax would have to exceed the value of burning the biochar as fuel, or ~$84 per ton.

      Fuel oil is $2.90 per gallon at ~140,000 btu/gallon. That is ~$20/MM btu, or a break-even price of over $500 per ton of biochar. 

      I don’t think anyone would characterize those as “low” carbon taxes. 

      To make the atmosphere steady-state in CO2, carbon needs to be removed as fast as it is being added.  The easiest way to do that is to not generate CO2 in the first place.  A tax of $84 per ton of carbon emitted as CO2 would make wind, solar, hydro-power and nuclear enormously more competitive than coal and oil. 

      That kind of tax only doubles the cost of energy from fossil fuels. Doubling the cost of energy from fossil fuel is pretty cheap if it prevents catastrophic AGW.  

      • Daniel Graft

        Only if you care about catastrophic AGW, which will happen in the future when we’re all either dead, or post-singularity and laughing about AGW as we swirl around the sun as digital minds in a Dyson sphere looking forward to our billion-year lifespan spent on simulated supersex.

  • Ignacio

    A hundred years ago, the world’s
    population was less than two billion people. If the people from a century ago
    had been sufficiently concerned with a three-fold increase in human population,
    they would have probably tried to take measures to stop such population
    increase. Those measures would have caused tremendous suffering (due to oppression
    and reduction in liberties, economic slowdown, etc.) and likely been ineffective.

    However, the increase in population took
    place and the world is significantly different than a century ago (our
    ancestors would probably be surprised to realize the degree of urbanization and
    skill specialization that we have endeavored). However, few besides romantics
    would say that people lived better then.

    I think something similar happens with
    global warming. The world is changing but it is a gradual change and we will
    adapt. Maybe people will move away from the coasts and into Canada and Siberia.
    But global warming is a first world problem.

    The best protection for the changes coming
    from global warming is wealth and richer nations will be able to deal with the change
    in better conditions. Writing from South America, I can say that it is of greater
    concern to lift the people from poverty than trying to deal with this change.

    • juliawise

      >global warming is a first world problem.

      Wha? The first world is notably located in colder parts of the globe, and has more money to relocate.  If/when rain patterns change and food becomes harder to grow, the people who have trouble affording food will not be the rich ones.

      • Ignacio

        It is a
        first world problem because people in the first world have most of their needs
        met and can worry about events that may affect their grandkids in a hundred
        years. Poor people are more concerned about satisfying their current needs and
        it does not make sense for them to stop trying to satisfy such needs by
        adopting policies that will affect economic growth, especially because being
        wealthier will allow them to adapt to global warming better.

         

        This is
        akin to two rich men living in an island with ten homeless men, where the two
        rich men cut half the forest to build their mansions and prohibit the homeless
        men to cut a few trees to build decent shelter because such cutting of trees may
        deprive all of them from firewood in a hundred years. The homeless men would
        rather build their shelters so they can live better today and so they do not
        need so much firewood later (since their shelter will protect them from the elements).

         

        If the
        rich world wants to convince the rest of the countries to deal with global
        warming, they should dismantle their mansions and share the wood they have so the
        poor countries can build their shelters.

    • http://profiles.google.com/daedalus4u David Whitlock

      The idea that the best protection for AGW is wealth is completely wrong. 

      The best protection for AGW is the wisdom to do the right and effective thing at the right time.  Sadly, the correlation between wealth acquisition and wisdom to do the right thing is decreasing and right now is at an all time low. 

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  • TerjeP

    Temperature increases are proportional to the log of CO2 concentration rather than correlated in a linear fashion. Temperature sensitivity is dependent on feedback factors with the theoretical greenhouse effect of increased CO2 being very modest. Some feedback factors may be negative and some positive but what matters is the total feedback effect and whether it significantly enhances (or dampens) the CO2 effect. Nobody knows the size of these factors other than via inference. You can look at the last 150 years and say temperature went up by T and guess that x% of this was due to global warming rather than other events (solar flares, statistical variation, inaccurate measurement etc) and so the sensitivity is some factor K greater than the theoretical effect from CO2 alone. There are a lot of assumptions in all of this and it may turn out that the temperature isn’t very sensitive to CO2 at all. Only time will tell.

  • http://www.gwern.net/ gwern

    > Aerosols and sea spray gradually fall out of the atmosphere, so these
    geoengineering activities would need to be kept up continuously. If a
    disaster ever occurred that interfered with the project, for example a
    serious pandemic, then temperatures could start rising very quickly.
    This would lead to a second disaster – unpredictable and dramatic
    climate change – that humanity would have to deal with on top of the
    first.

    These would lead to negative feedback: a pandemic will crush economic activity and shrink the human population, simultaneously reducing inputs to global warming and also making it easier for the remaining humans to accommodate themselves to the effects of global warming (fewer humans means it’s easier to fit everyone into the habitable areas).

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