Saturday, November 24, 2012

Dear Naomi,

Re: 'Geo-engineering: Testing the Waters'

I've read and think quite highly of _The Shock Doctrine_. and just heard you join Bill McKibben on the Boston segment of the 'Do the Math' tour, where you spoke of the great strategy of divesting ourselves from fossil fuel foolery. I feel that your efforts here have been very well thought through.

I also read your 'Geo-engineering - Testing the Waters' NYT article, and it stimulated in me some thoughts and questions. I see this article as addressing very important issues. As you know, the response so far by humanity as a whole to the climate crisis has been underwhelming, and thus we're all endangered: the many innocent along with the industrial guilty. You have called out geo-engineering as too risky, and named geo-engineering as being intentional efforts to affect our climate. But isn't it still geo-engineering even if we didn't mean to? Is not our unprecedented current raising of the earth's temperature geo-engineering, even though inadvertent?

Why does this matter? We need to understand just how risky our current trajectory is as we compare the risks of preceeding as we are, versus attempting to ameliorate this disaster. The 'Do nothing' response has been left behind. We've continued to release carbon every time we raise the thermostat from 'off', every time we switch an electric light or computer on, and every time we drive an automobile. When we compare the risks of geo-engineering we really have nothing to compare this to. We're already altering the climate, we've been doing so for some time, we're accelerating the pace of change as we speak and no one of us has the 'off' switch for this earth-wide process within our grasp.

So what? So we're experimenting without a control, risking our bets without a hedge: What does that have to do with considering geo-engineering concepts proposed to lessen the risk of catastrophic climate change? Here's the nub; if we were comparing new geo-engineering ideas with truly doing nothing; with all humanity unplugging from industrialism completely, then dismissing geo-engineering as risky would clearly be the sane choice. Why risk possible disaster?

But that is not the choice we face, now that an out-of-control USA has been exceeded in GHG emission rates by an even more out-of-control China.
We do not have a 'do nothing' option to choose from, since we're geo-engineering this one and only living planet at ever-accelerating rates as we speak.

It's like we've woken up to find ourselves bicycling but falling, when we don't know how to steer a bike
. Attempting to move the handlebars is possible disaster, but doing nothing as we fall is certain disaster. It makes sense to try to steer, because we're already falling. Some say that were we to simply cease all industrialism-based fossil-fuel use tomorrow, we would still face unacceptable climate change, even though we returned to Stone-age human climatic impact levels. So since we can't seem to avoid risk completely, our choices are continuing to accelerate our disasterous ways, or looking into hedging our bets by considering also-risky conscious, intentional geo-engineering.

So let's consider the geo-engineering options carefully. Don't these seem to separate into two main groups? First are the attempts to shade earth; to reduce sunlight falling to earth. Second are attempts to capture atmospheric carbon by increasing photosynthesis. These each have completely distinct outcomes, apart from both cooling the earth.

The first catagory, reducing sunlight reaching earth's surface, will reduce photosynthesis on earth. The wild plants and plankton will grow more slowly and crops will yield less - earth's carrying capacity will be reduced. As a result, less of us will have enough to eat. Examples of this approach include reflective umbrella satellites and high atmosphere sulfate aerosols. Let's consider other options.

The second catagory of geo-engineering increases earth's photosynthesis by various means. This leads to more food for wild and tame, to a greater carrying capacity for earth, to more of humanity going to bed fed. Some examples of this approach are growing seaweeds, etc. on seawater-flooded deserts and iron fertilization of oceans, the very topic that stimulated Ms. Klein to write 'Testing the Waters'.

So while I agree with Naomi Klein that some geo-engineering efforts should be avoided, I disagree that all geo-engineering can be safely avoided. Indeed, we're already geo-engineering earth, albeit unthinkingly. Let's consider just how unteniable the 'do nothing' option is, and then very carefully and thoughtfully investigate intentional geo-engineering approaches within our reach.

Brian Cady


I Dream on Two Wheels said...

Hi Brian,
I went to a lecture a couple of years ago about geo-engineering and at the end, thought 'we have entered a frightening new world in which all of our options - to do nothing or to act - are scary.'
I believe another concept brought up at the lecture was about carbon sequestration, although not via enhanced photosynthesis. One example, if I recall correctly, would use wave energy to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, although I can't remember what they were then proposing to do with it. Other ideas I've read about involve pumping sequestered carbon deep underground into rock formations. Have you heard of these?

Brian Cady said...

Hi Two Wheel Dream,

I hadn't heard of wave-powered sequestration, I have heard of injecting CO2 into deep wells - I guess things like this are done now to get oil out.
I fear that CO2 Extraction and seequestration will be too energetically expensive and thus too financially costly.
I guess I agree with all our options being scary now. Thanks for your comment, and I hope to hear more from you.