Climate change meets star wars


Geo – logic ?

You’ve basically got three ways of dealing with climate change. 1. You can stop pumping out CO2 and methane and switch to zero carbon energy—like solar energy, wind power and electric vehicles, or 2.  You can keep going with business as usual but try to capture the gases as they come out and stick them some place where they won’t cause too much damage—which usually means underground, or 3. You can keep pumping out the stuff but find a way to compensate for their annoying tendency to increase global warming. This means trying to find a way to cool the planet down, because—as we all know– greenhouse gases like CO2 tend to heat the planet up.

Yes that’s right; we’re gonna try and cool the planet down: the whole planet. This one’s a bit tricky.

Since the effects of increasing levels of greenhouse gases are very predictable and hard to mitigate without actually reducing emissions, you basically have to bring other chemical and physical agents into play.  And on a global scale.

So how to cool down a planet?

Vulcan to the rescue?

How about volcanoes?  Volcanoes would be good. You gotta think big if you want to tackle climate change.

When Mount Pinatubo in Indonesia erupted in 1991, the impact on the global climate was immediate. The volcano pumped a massive amount of ash particles and sulphur dioxide more than 12 miles into the atmosphere.

Volcanoes may only erupt for a few days, but the injection of huge amounts of gases and ash can affect  the global climate for years  Sulphuric gases are converted to sulphate aerosols—which reduce the amount of solar radiation penetrating the atmosphere by reflecting a greater fraction of the incoming radiation back into space. The Earth’s energy balance shifts ever so slightly back towards equilibrium and global warming slows down.

So to test out how we might replicate this effect, engineers at Harvard University will reportedly inject aerosols 12 miles up into the atmosphere in the largest geoengineering study so far every attempted.

The first test run will disperse water and calcium carbonate aerosols into the atmosphere as a proof of concept trial. It’s a 20 M$ escapade reportedly funded by Bill Gates. This is the same Bill Gates who can’t get his head around the Kaya identity and so thinks that only big stuff works.

The risks involved with playing with global atmospherics are off the chart. None of the models can possibly predict with any accuracy what the effects of the shift in the energy balance will be. We know that volcano eruptions have led to global cooling in the past, but we also know that the local and regional impacts of the disrupted climate have often been catastrophic. There are no climate models that are capable of reliably predicting the consequences of meddling with the global energy balance in this way. What follows volcanic eruptions is always, without exception, weird weather. While on a global scale there may be a cooling effect, on a local and regional level there is certain to be extreme weather:  prolonged drought, massive flooding, extreme cold followed by heatwaves—it’s all totally unpredictable.

Apart from the mind-bending hubris of engineers imagining that they are clever enough to harness and control the planet’s enormous thermodynamic energy fluxes, there is the simple fact that much better options are available.

Unlike untested space-age technologies the effects of which are unpredictable, zero carbon energy technologies like photovoltaics and windpower are commercially viable, economically sustainable, and already producing power at gigawatt scale. We know how to do this stuff. The problem of electrical energy storage is rapidly being solved. The sophisticated grid management of intermittent power supply is becoming standard technology. This is where the engineers should be working.  On the ground.  Not 12 miles above it.

But the options are never either or.  Why not tackle climate change at both ends?  Reduce emissions by globally shifting to renewable energy and EVs, while at the same time blocking and reflecting back incoming radiation by injecting aerosols into the atmosphere?  Is that win-win or what?

Well, there’s a thing called the precautionary principle.  It basically says that if you’re not totally sure what the impact of what you’re doing is, then maybe you shouldn’t do it. Or at least wait a bit until you know a bit more about what’s going on.

That sounds sensible.

Not if you’re Donald Trump. The Trump administration is not interested in taking precautions. That would imply a measured approach with a careful evaluation of the pros and cons of a proposed action.  Does that sound like Donald Trump?

There’s another more sordid angle.  Big engineering projets attract serious funding from agencies that like the idea of bold moves. Combatting global warming was always a star wars mission.  Shooting tons of calcium carbonate into the stratosphere gets a lot of media attention and the spotlight focuses admiringly on the university involved.

Yep, Harvard has it. The Right Stuff.

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