Regional climate response to solar-radiation management

Geoengineering is getting more and more attention in political discussions as well as research. I am by no means a proponent of any geoengineering scheme I have heard of and the majority of them try to address surface temperature only and therefore do nothing about “the other CO2 problem”, aka ocean acidification.

I must confess that H. E. Taylor’s article a while back went some way in convincing me that like it or not we need to be considering these perilous pathways. He basically makes the compelling argument that we are in fact now, unwittingly or not, geoengineering our global climate so best if we do it with our eyes open.

It comes up in the contrarian arguments frequently as the magic bullet reason there is no need to worry in the first place. I have always marveled at the cognitive dissonance required in that mindset that arises from despising the notion of international cooperation or governance yet sanguinely assuming that humanity can “fix” whatever we want to via geoengineering when the need arises. Somehow in the future, this miraculous cooperation is just a given though today it is impossible.

If you think agreeing to binding emissions reductions is difficult, try getting a global accord on climate manipulation, especially on who should fund and who should control it. Does the US want the UN’s hand on the control knob? Does China want the US’s? Who will host the machinary? And talk about putting our future in the hands of climate models!

And even more intractable a problem, what do we do if the effects are not uniform? After all climate is not just surface temperature. Rainfall patterns and storms are all in the mix as well. There could be winners and losers in such a brave new world.

A new study in Nature magazine by Katharine L. Ricke, M. Granger Morgan and Myles R. Allen has taken a look at just what kind of regional variation we might experience if any of the various solar-reduction geo-experiments were actually implemented. These ideas typically range from injecting SO2 into the stratosphere (as large volcanic eruptions can do) to orbiting sunshades or mirrors, but I don’t know specifically what scenarios they examined in this study or even if particular methods were relevant. They found that temperatures could indeed theoretically be lowered, but the abstract concludes:

Over time, simulated temperature and precipitation in large regions such as China and India vary significantly with different trajectories for solar-radiation management, and they diverge from historical baselines in different directions. Hence, it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously using solar-radiation management.

And while the final sentence in the abstract is definately outside of the scope of this study, it is pretty hard argue with its statement of obvious political implications:

Regional diversity in the response to different levels of solar-radiation management could make consensus about the optimal level of geoengineering difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

I think by far the easier task is to avoid this faustian bargain in the first place and just reduce our greenhouse gas emissions now.

63 thoughts on “Regional climate response to solar-radiation management

  1. crakar,

    Oh – you are obviously not a trekkie (I am), so I will forgive your misquote about ‘Dr’ Spock. Dr Spock was a sixties pediatrician who wrote a famous book on how to raise children. ‘Mr’ Spock is a Vulcan from Star Trek who said the quote “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (in the movie the Wrath of Khan).

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  2. crakar

    Oh, and you are obviously not a trekkie (I am) so I will forgive your misquote about ‘Dr’ Spock. Dr Spock was a sixties pediatrician who wrote a famous book about raising children. ‘Mr’ Spock is a Vulcan from Star Trek who said the famous quote “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (from the Wrath of Khan).

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  3. Sorry to hog the thread, but just a final word for now on the issue of solar energy.

    It is a fallacy that solar is unable to deliver baseload power. That may well be true of photo voltaic power generation, but it is not the case for solar thermal power, which use mirrors to concentrate sunlight which is then used to heat a fluid which is then stored and used to generate power on demand. Here is a link to some information from a University of Sydney pilot project:

    http://sydney.edu.au/warrencentre/bulletin/NO51/ed51art6.htm

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  4. Mandas,

    I do enjoy the odd startrek movie, i would not consider myself a trekkie but i do appologies for getting the Dr and Mr wrong. I am more of a BSG fan (have the complete series if interested).

    Once again let me stress i acknowledge your points re dams/environmental damage and i realise this is your area of expertise so far be it from me to disagree. However having spent a considerable time near these salt lakes the only animal life i have seen is the odd Emu and Kangaroo they are only there because the water pipes from Woomera to the range leak.

    There is a town near Lake Eyre called William Creek have you been there? The north side of the main road is private? land the south is Womera rocket range if travelling from Roxby to William creek you pass what is know as the bubbler.

    The bubbler is where the great artesian basin water pushes out to the surface, my old boss told me when he first saw it the water would gush out 12 feet high then it was only about 6 feet. I went back there not long ago and it was lucky to be 2 feet this is due to Olympic Dam sucking out all the water so they can mine uranium etc.

    Anyway my point is that around this bubbler ther is life for about 20 meters then beyond that it goes back to a dry dusty lifeless desert (yes i know some little creatures live in the desert).

    Look at Lake Eyre when it is dry, very little life exists on it but now it is wet life is plentiful.

    Now once again i am not disagreeing with you but…..if you did fill some of these lakes with water would this increase the biodiversity of the region? I would have thought overall this would be a good thing for both man and beast.

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  5. Mandas re 53,

    Dont worry about hogging the thread i do it all the time and have yet to be told off by Coby.

    I looked at the link (thanks) and i have seen this on top gear well something James May was in anyway and they were trying to make petrol using this system.

    This highlights what i have said in the past and i think? it touches on what Paul is saying (correct if wrong Paul).

    You see there are plenty of new technologies out there, granted some are in their infancy and others maybe on the cusp of worthy large scale applications but apparently the only answer to reducing CO2 is to tax the crap out of it.

    This is where we/us differ i feel. 20 years ago they had a theory that CO2 may be a problem down the track so Ok throw a bit of money at it and in 5 years decide if it has merit but what do you do then?

    Well you have two options, one is to spend the next 15 years pissing money up against the wall by having meetings in exotic localities staying in 5 star resorts and gorging yourselves at the cracked crab buffets. Wasting money hand over fist on “research” studying CO2 effects of the reproduction systems of the common house fly, the effects on migratory locusts and now Frankenstien theories of geo engineering and all the other gravy train bullshit research in between.

    The option not taken was to say well CO2 might be a problem in a few years and this fact coupled with our knowledge that fossil fuel will run out (peak oil etc) why dont we (as in the UN) create a body that can organise and manage a world wide effort into creating a new energy source we could call this body the International Petro Chemical Commission or IPCC for short.

    Can you imagine if for the last 15 years instead of dicking about trying to prove the unprovable we poured the countless billions into replacing coal etc, what wonders would have been discovered.

    Instead after all this time the best we can come up with is a TAX a TAX that will not achieve a bloody thing except make certain prophets of doom rich. The bottom line is we have no realistic, viable alternative to coal and gas and it is a blight on humanity that we dont.

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  6. crakar

    It is a common misconception about life in the arid lands of Australia that it somehow only bursts into life when it is wet – or around springs or bubblers such as you have described. Remember what I said about an anthropomorphic view of these things. Whilst it is true that the place greens and birds etc flock to the place and we humans gasp in awe at the transformation, a lot of life already exists there – it is just not the sort of thing we usually associate with because we humans don’t live in the same ecosystem.

    Places such as Lake Eyre (for example) are important for a whole range of reasons. There are a lot of reptiles and amphibians which are adapted to the conditions as they are now – not as they would be if it was permanently wet there. Many tend to ‘hibernate’ under the surface during the dry, and when it rains (as it does most years for a limited time) they emerge from underground and go through a very brief life cycle before ‘hibernating’ again. The lakes also support a variety of migratory birdlife which nests on the small ‘islands’ on the dry lake beds and feed on the emerging reptiles etc. If the lakes were permanently flooded, this whole life system would be irrevocably altered. Some people may look at that and say it was great that more life had come to the region, but it would be a different life to what had evolved there – it would, in fact, be life that existed solely because man had altered the ecosystem, and the species which were endemic to the region would probably be unable to survive.

    And where man alters the ecosystem, man’s problems also follow. Invasive faunal species (and floral species) such as cats, foxes, carp and cane toads would probably find their way there, with devastating consequences for those species which did manage to hang on.

    We have only just rediscovered a species of lizard (Tiliqua adelaidensis – pygmy blue tongue) that was thought to be extinct, and we don’t know enough about the region to start making substantial changes to the ecosystem. It may just be because of my background, but I am dead against any proposal such as flooding the lakes to benefit humans at the cost of the possible extinction of the indigenous species – as unimportant as some people think they may be.

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  7. You need to remember crakar. Some people did make a start, Jimmy Carter’s solar panels on the roof of the White House, for instance.

    What happened? Ronald Reagan had them dismantled and removed. If we hop into our tardis and go back to then, how much difference would it have made in the USA if people had been using the White House as an example of the sensible use of solar power for 30+ years?

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  8. Crakar I have no problem with an aggressive international approach to securing alternatives but a gradually increased tax on fossils is an *honest* approach. It forces our generation to face the real cost of their use and not just defer it to the future. We will hand our children not only renewable power (or at least a path to it), but a cleaner environment *and* less swollen national deficits.

    Its a simple matter of accepting *cost* now–although I’m close to giving up on convincing Paul that it isn’t lethal. Groan.

    Re: Mandas:

    Living in the desert I confess some speciesism. Sorry. Call me a traitor/prick/hypocrite but just this morning mt. biking in the foothills of Northern Nevada, I couldn’t help but look around and wonder just *how* crucial all the sage and red rock really is. I mean, whats a couple of jack rabbits more or less? But I understand your point at a rational/ethical level.

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  9. skip

    “….I couldn’t help but look around and wonder just *how* crucial all the sage and red rock really is….

    Crucial to who? To us? And crucial to what? To the ecosystem? To the planet? And how crucial are polar bears? Pandas? Spiders? Blue Whales? Honey Bees? Humans?

    In the end, nothing is crucial, and everything is. While this may sound philosophical, the concept of a ‘web of life’ and the ecosystem is fundamental to everything we do and what is going to happen to us in the long run. Do we wipe out everything that we do not see an immediate use for, or do we try and save things for their own sakes? Do we try and change the world to fit our own anthropomorphic idealised picture of what we would like the world to look like? Deserts and/or icecaps – who needs them? Wouldn’t it be better if the whole world was green? Cockroaches! Bloody pests. Exterminate them all! Jackrabbits! They don’t contribute anything to the world – who cares if we destroy their habitat?

    Sorry if I am going off on a rant here, but I am strongly of the view that we should try and prevent gross ecosystem changes because we simply don’t know enough to comprehend the consequences of our actions. You can take a very simple case of the wolves in Yellowstone NP that crakar raised a little while ago (and one of my favourite discussion points by the way). We now know that this action had major consequences for the riparian vegetation, and consequently the health of the river system. And I am certain there are other cascading consequences that we aren’t aware of (such as downstream soil fertility) because they haven’t been studied in any great detail.

    I few less sage bushes and jackrabbits may seem unimportant. But how would that effect the species which live in those sage bushes? What about the species which prey on the jackrabbits (I bet dhogoza might have something to say about the effects on raptors)? I could go on and on about this, but I hope you are getting the picture. You can’t just make a change to one small part of an ecosystem without it having consequences elsewhere. And the whole concept of ‘geo-engineering’ and ecosystem manipulation scares the crap out of me. The changes we are making to the environment have consequences not just for other species – they have consequences for us as well.

    It’s about time we started to understand that a hell of a lot better than we do.

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  10. A metaphor from the book Silent Summer: Imagine taking a jumbo jet apart and laying all the pieces on the ground. Then select the smallest pieces and throw them away. Then put the plane together again and invite your friends to fly in it.

    Which of those small parts are ‘crucial’ and which aren’t.

    More importantly perhaps; where do we draw the line? And who gets to decide?

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  11. Skip,

    What would the tax be used for? Who gets to control the money? Would the tax go towards ridding ourselves of antiquated power generation or would it simply line ones pocket?

    If you want a tax then it needs to have a purpose apart from making electricity so exspensive that people use less.

    Scenario.

    Lets put a tax on CO2. Result is it costs more for energy companies to make a Kilowatt of power so in order to maintain profits they raise the cost of electricty. This raises the cost of just about every product you buy because producers are having to increase prices to cover the increase in electricity costs. So now you have a double whammy effect on the consumer.

    What are they going to do next? Well thats easy they will use less electricity because it is too expensive next thing you know the energy companies are selling less electricity and their profits are dropping they will in turn raise the cost of electricity to maintain profits and on it goes.

    What choice does the consumer have? Well we can buy “green energy” if we want which is just as if not more expensive than the other.

    The whole point of a tax is to raise the cost of a product, a tax will not stop us from producing CO2.

    We need to think a bit bigger here Skip we need to have vision we need to think on a grand scale. Simply applying a tax does not cut the mustard this time.

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  12. Mandas,

    I hear what you are saying and i agree. The problem you face here is that man has been influencing the environment since time immortal, every civilisation has influenced it in one way or another. The Aborigines started changing the environment the moment they set foot in Australia with their scorched earth policy.

    If man had not done this we would still be swinging in the trees or at best huddled together in a cave. I am not saying this is a good thing but these are just the facts.

    I suppose we have to draw a line in the sand one day and promise ourselves not to cross it. Unfortunately that is a promise we will not be able to keep as greed and profits tend to dictate these things.

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  13. crakar

    Absolutely correct – we have been changing the ecosystem for millenia and will continue to do so. And yes, the Aboriginal people completely reshaped the ecosystem and caused the extinction of many species and introduced species which are now considered native (but which did not originate here eg dingoes). When Europeans arrived in this country they changed what the Aboriginals had been doing, and once again the ecosystem changed. For example, the Sclerophyll vegetation which is such a feature of the Australian landscape was only a minor component vegetation type prior to the arrival of the Aboriginals, and did not exist in its current form prior to the arrival of Europeans (the woody understory is a result of the cessation of Aboriginal firestick practices). The semi-arid centre of NSW was quite fertile 200 years ago, and only changed because of grazing by hard hoofed animals (macropods have very little impact on the soil).

    There are always consequences to any action to change the environment. This is not about drawing a line in the sand and saying ‘no more changes’, because that will never happen. What it is about is thinking a lot more deeply about proposed changes, developing a far better understanding about what we do, and adopting an adaptive management approach to sustainable development.

    It is unlikely that we will ever truly understand the consequences of the things we do – the environment is just too complex. But that’s why we study it – so we can look at what we have done in the past and make reasonable extrapolations on what the consequences of future actions might be.

    We know that if you introduce an exotic species you can have devastating consequences (think rabbit, cane toad, carp, lantana, willow, cat, fox, goat, etc), and we know that if you remove a species you can have similar consequences. When you change one aspect of an ecosystem you fundamentally change the whole thing, because effects cascade and things happen that are very difficult to predict. That’s why geo-engineering scares me and why I am dead against major changes to any ecosystem based solely on some sort of perceived human need. When these things are done on a small scale, the effects generally tend to be localised and we can adapt. Other species may not be able to, and they often go extinct, which can have unintended consequences for us as well. But when we make nationwide or even planetwide changes the ability to adapt is somewhat limited.

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