Time to Block Out the Sun?

Sharon September 1st, 2008

Ok, maybe the most disheartening bit of news I’ve seen since I saw four hurricanes/tropical depressions lined up in the Gulf on the same track was this article on a new collection of papers from the Royal Society, in which climate scientists argued that we’re doing jack to deal with the climate crisis and that we are now at a point where we may have to seriously consider extremely risky, bizarre engineering solutions to save us from our own folly.

“Political inaction on global warming has become so dire that nations must now consider extreme technical solutions - such as blocking out the sun - to address catastrophic temperature rises, scientists from around the world warn today.

The experts say a reluctance “at virtually all levels” to address soaring greenhouse gas emissions means carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are on track to pass 650 parts-per-million (ppm), which could bring an average global temperature rise of 4C. They call for more research on geo-engineering options to cool the Earth, such as dumping massive quantities of iron into oceans to boost plankton growth, and seeding artificial clouds over oceans to reflect sunlight back into space.

Writing the introduction to a special collection of scientific papers on the subject, published today by the Royal Society, Brian Launder of the University of Manchester and Michael Thompson of the University of Cambridge say: ‘While such geoscale interventions may be risky, the time may well come when they are accepted as less risky than doing nothing.’”

Now even allowing for the enthusiasm of engineers for doing engineering, these are not people saying “this is how we should have addressed global warming” - these are people saying “we have waited too long and the situation is so dire that we may have to take a huge risk to avoid an even worse disaster.”

Now I don’t believe we’re likely to do any such thing successfully, and I suspect that any major geo-engineering we did might have consequences equally unbearable - and these folks know that.  But they are concerned enough to say we have to buy some time, because our society isn’t doing anything about our environmental crisis.

I suspect we probably won’t quite be able to get to 650ppm, simply because our supplies of accessible greenhouse producers may have declined sufficiently by then - but 500 ppm is quite horrifying enough, and we can get there if we burn all the coal available to us. 

There is quite a simple solution, of course, a better one that blocking out the sun, a better one that layering on another set of complex technical and high cost solutions that probably won’t quite do what we hope or expect.  That solution would be the mass migration to a vastly lower energy lifestyle. We are told this is extremely unlikely, and perhaps it is - but we also have not even begun to try - the Riot for Austerity and other movements seem to suggest that many people are subject to moral suasion that makes such a life seem doable and enjoyable. 

Instead, maybe we’ll just block out the sun.

Sharon

19 Responses to “Time to Block Out the Sun?”

  1. Russon 01 Sep 2008 at 10:43 am

    Sharon,
    You write
    “I suspect we probably won’t quite be able to get to 650ppm, simply because our supplies of accessible greenhouse producers may have declined sufficiently by then - but 500 ppm is quite horrifying enough, and we can get there if we burn all the coal available to us.”

    This may be true if you consider only fossil fuels directly. But Joe Romm and others think that even if ffs by themselves couldn’t take us above 550-600 ppm, that this would be enough to melt the permafrost, triggering a massive feedback of methane release which would be enough to send us rocketing toward 1000, with hideous consequences.

    That’s why even though I’m a Peak Oiler (indeed I suppose a “doomer”), I still don’t take the imminent peaks as a consolation vis climate change.

  2. Sharonon 01 Sep 2008 at 10:51 am

    You are, of course, right, Russ - I did mean to imply directly. Frankly, I think we can also gett to the predicted climate *effects* of 650+ pretty easily simply by reducing particulate messision - a logical consequence of reducing FF usage. Global dimming is clearly dramtically reducing the impact of climate change - which is pretty damned scary.

    Sharon

  3. Rebeccaon 01 Sep 2008 at 11:45 am

    As someone who studied engineering in school, I think the first thing that should be drummed into the heads of every freshman is the Law of Unintended Consequences: Never do anything that could really come back to bite you in the a**.

    Dumping massive amounts of iron into the ocean, blocking out the sun, what could possibly go wrong there?
    Look at what we’ve done to the world. Our grandchildren, their children, and so on for many generations may curse our names. The ones that survive, that is.

    Gee, I’m in a real cheery mood this morning. ;-)

  4. Rebeccaon 01 Sep 2008 at 11:53 am

    On a lighter note, Sharon, do you know that your book and John Michael Greer’s new one have the same number of pages? I noticed that while looking at them on Amazon. That’s an intriguing coincidence!

  5. Stephen B.on 01 Sep 2008 at 4:53 pm

    Most of the people I know and come in contact with on a daily basis still think manmade Global Warming is a myth and a subset of these people go further, thinking it is a myth created just to control people economically.

    Basically stated, beyond my Internet hangouts such as this blog, I see very little movement by others towards a lower carbon life, unless you count folks’ electric utility substituting nat. gas for coal.

    I do my part to cut out the carbon, but the vast majority of humans, esp. in developed or developing countries don’t give a damn about GW or their carbon use if it means getting in the way of the material goodies they want out of life. Most people are going to use as much carbon as they please and that as a whole, the human race is about to become one of Nature’s major failures and dead ends, only in this failure, a goodly part of the whole biosphere is going to be severely altered in a massive climate shift for many centuries to come too. Most creatures can’t and don’t care that they are overshoot. The proverbial yeast in the dish doesn’t care and humans, in the aggregate, are and will be no better, plain and simple.

    Humans never care about the environment until they become forced to live with the effects of their own poison. Given the somewhat slow nature of the Global Warming buildup phenomenon, it will simply be too late by the time 100s of millions start starving, dying in sweltering heat, etc.

    I think I’m usually more useful in my posts than this, but, frankly this is the way I see it.

  6. Brad K.on 01 Sep 2008 at 10:15 pm

    Sharon, you remain dedicated to managing fossil fuels. I am more concerned about the ecological devastation of the Amazon rain forest - that my teachers in 1967 warned would damage the oceans and global weather. The rainforests in Asia are reputed to be well on the way to being cleared, to provide lumber for China’s expansion and for charcoal for home heating.

    We know that massive deforestation accompanied settling in North America and Australia.

    Is is your understanding that massive reforestation in Asia, Brazil, and the US would have no net impact, or would it hurt the global balance?

  7. Squrrlon 01 Sep 2008 at 11:12 pm

    I think that my most memorably depressing moment regarding general understanding of global warming has to be getting into an argument (quite accidentally, really, I just made a casual comment) with an _organic farmer_ at the farmer’s market, for pete’s sake, about the reality of global warming. I thought, god, if even he doesn’t believe… so, yeah, it wouldn’t surprise me if humanity waited ’til the eleventh hour to try and pull some crazy stunt and save us all. For one thing, it’s properly heroic and epic and therefore a whole lot more appealing than “use less energy”.

  8. […] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Time to Block Out the Sun? Ok, maybe the most disheartening bit of news I’ve seen since I saw four hurricanes/tropical depressions lined up in the Gulf on the same track was this article on a new collection of papers from the Royal Society, in which climate scientists argued that we’re doing jack to deal with the climate crisis and that we are now at a point where we may have to seriously consider extremely risky, bizarre engineering solutions to save us from our own folly. […]

  9. Hummingbirdon 02 Sep 2008 at 5:23 am

    Also depressing (aren’t we a cheery bunch?) is a series of letters to the editor I read yesterday in Audubon magazine in response to a suggestion that maybe we could all reduce our energy intensive lifestyle to prevent global catastrophe. The answers all went something like this. “Are you crazy? How dare you suggest that we reduce our standard of living to save the planet. Technological advances will save us.”

  10. Sharonon 02 Sep 2008 at 6:50 am

    Generally speaking I agree with y’all that there’s very little constraint, but since I’m in a cheery mood this morning for some strange reason, I would observe that you can read our present, disastrous plight requiring a Simpson’s-esque solution in one of two ways. The first is that it is horrifying how few people have responded rationally. The second is that it is quite remarkable, in a world where almost no one ever calls for anything but growth, and where the orthodoxy of technosolutions is absolute, that so very many people consider constraining their lives.

    Brad, I think reforestation would be good, but of course, newly planted saplings aren’t the same as mature rainforest. As I understand it, in temperate areas, forestation is about neutral, but good for a host of other reasons - but on the other hand, it may not be so long before the great northeastern forest is the next tropical rainforest ;-P.

    Sharon

  11. Stephen B.on 02 Sep 2008 at 8:39 am

    It’s not exactly related to this Global Warming essay, but rather more tied into things such as the Mommy Wars and work subjects discussed here in the past:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/02/opinion/02conley.html

    “Perhaps for the first time since we’ve kept track of such things, higher-income folks work more hours than lower-wage earners do. Since 1980, the number of men in the bottom fifth of the income ladder who work long hours (over 49 hours per week) has dropped by half, according to a study by the economists Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano. But among the top fifth of earners, long weeks have increased by 80 percent.

    “This is a stunning moment in economic history: At one time we worked hard so that someday we (or our children) wouldn’t have to. Today, the more we earn, the more we work, since the opportunity cost of not working is all the greater (and since the higher we go, the more relatively deprived we feel).”

  12. Rosaon 02 Sep 2008 at 8:41 am

    I’ve read that newly-established trees do a lot more to suck up carbon than already-mature ones, just because they’re growing so much faster. And we’re lucky in the temperate areas - we have a lot of deforestation we can reverse.

    Of course, first we have to figure out what the heck will still grow here - the great northern forest is having pest, misplaced-water (can’t even call it drought - half the time it’s dryer than the trees need and half the time it’s too much water) and species-drift issues.

    This weekend I heard a state forester talking about how many seedlings they’ve been losing every spring - almost 99% - because of low snow cover, deer, and no rain when they need it.

  13. Lynneton 02 Sep 2008 at 9:02 am

    The latest conservative buzz phrase is Global Whining. By this they mean the liberal-fomented myth of global warming.

    I’ve even seen bumper stickers “Stop Global Whining” plastered on giant SUVs.

    These people are personally offended by any suggestion at all that they should actually cut back on their consumption. “They’re going to take away our pickups and MAKE US LIVE LIKE EUROPEANS.” (obviously a fate far worse than death; and just which THEY are they talking about?)

    This crowd used to say that the scientists were in major disagreement about global warming. Now that practically every reputable scientist in the world is on board with it, they are saying, “It’s a religious issue for the liberals; they’ve stopped paying attention to facts. It’s just a scam to get research money.”

    If there’s not enough sand to stick their heads into, they’ll dig a big hole and use that. Sometimes I despair. But all you can do is keep going regardless.

  14. Greenpaon 02 Sep 2008 at 10:41 am

    Cheer up, Brian! Fings could be wuss! :-) One of my all time favorites.

    Cheer up, Sharon! Most geo-engineering schemes are SO expensive- that (drum roll please; major prediction:) the money involved will attract all the sharks- and the actual engineering event will not ever happen- it will be “coming soon, technical difficulties, you know” forever - while the money just keeps disappearing down into the mudslide.

    Wanna bet?

  15. Sharonon 02 Sep 2008 at 10:47 am

    Umm, are you asking me to bet that we’re not really going to block out the sun, short of the sudden coming-to-life of Monty Burns? I don’t think so - I save my money for things I don’t think are sure things.

    I think what’s interesting about this piece is that despite the fact that engineers like imagining cool things, the real worry is the level of fear that underlies this piece.

    Sharon

  16. ann & timon 02 Sep 2008 at 11:33 am

    I saw the various references to this recommendation yesterday as well on the climate ark newsfeed (www.climateark.org). It was for me as well, one of the most depressing pieces of news in a long time. At first I thought it was along the lines of your scenario 1, a techno fix that allows us to continue with our current wicked ways. Then I started to think about it more and realized that it is more of a last ditch effort of people (scientists) desperate to stop a runaway train. And then I got really angry and depressed and my sleep last night was filled with images of mass extinction, etc. All day I’ve been having conversations in my mind with “the other side” trying to come up with arguments that might bring them on board with the goal and urgency.

    One thing I did find interesting with yesterday’s news release is that Climate ark usually runs about 25 articles a day from news agencies around the world. Yesterday there were 50 references to climate change. Many from Australia and the UK (guardian in particular). The US news just doesn’t contribute as much.

  17. Greenpaon 02 Sep 2008 at 11:40 am

    :-) and here I thought I’d been so lucid. What I was suggesting a bet on was: geo-engineering projects WILL be set in motion- but the level of corruption involved in these hugely expensive programs will be so high that the projects will never actually be installed- thus avoiding all the collateral damages. Good thing, huh? I really don’t think we have the ability, as a species, to launch such huge projects successfully right now.

    I agree the fear level is rising- but really still not fast enough to generate useful action. The news a couple days ago that you can now sail a ship all the way around the Arctic Ocean (for the first time in 120,000 years) should have absolutely terrified everyone on the planet- but it’s hard to find it mentioned anywhere.

    Not to add any angst here- but- the responsible climate modelers are looking at the arctic now and saying it might be totally ice free- from July through August - in just 5 years. That’s going to do very very big things to the global climate, and none of the options are at all good.

  18. Sharonon 02 Sep 2008 at 12:12 pm

    No, I’m not sure I’d bet money on that one either. As Dmitry Orlov says “boondoggles will set us free” ;-). And having grownup around Boston’s Big Dig, I’m certainly not betting *against* corruption. Gotta find yourself another sucker ;-).

    Yeah, I know - the tipping points are coming up fast, aren’t they. Ugh.

    Sharon

  19. TJon 02 Sep 2008 at 1:04 pm

    I have to strongly disagree with one of the posts above - yes geo-engineering would (will) be hugely expensive.
    But that is precisely what is so brilliant about the “real politic” being played out -
    1. there is no issue (we keep making money)
    2. lets get energy independence (we need subsidies to make more money)
    3. OMG its very bad - rally around the “cause” (remove all the hindering regulation - we need to make a LOT more money)
    4. that’s it - we are f…ed - lets block out the sun (we will make sooo much money saving you - the starving masses)
    5. now thats its dark and cool and the ice age is just a decade away enjoy the comforts (we make ever more money selling air filters and asthma pills)
    6. well apparently the nasty insects could not live out in the dark/cold and have all moved inside your clothing (can we interest you in the newest patented ..)

    sorry if I got carried away … we are not going to see any of this ( our babies will )

    cheerful as always TJ

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