Geoengineering taboo is waning, but urgency still missing

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NOTE: I will continue my discussion of humankind’s response to the ecological crisis in a few weeks, after initiating a construction project.  In the meantime I will post brief comments on hot topics and current developments in the environmental arena.

A few days ago the Guardian newspaper printed an article by Martin Lukacs that criticized an upcoming experiment on solar geoengineering (i.e., solar radiation management or SRM).  In today’s Guardian the main target of that criticism, David Keith, offered an effective rebuttal.  The only problem with Keith’s position is that it continues to downplay the extreme urgency of our climate predicament.

Lukacs’ article offered the well-known progressive position on geoengineering: it’s dangerous, it succumbs to the Trump administration’s narrow worldview, and it diverts attention from the real solution – emissions mitigation.  To provide comments on this issue the writer chose the ETC group, a Canadian organization that has only a superficial grasp of the perils we face and the extreme remedial measures that are now required.  The key ETC quote is this: “We need to be focusing on radical emissions cuts, not dangerous and unjust technofixes.”

As I have explained, this is a scientifically untenable stance.  Although radical emissions cuts are necessary to slow the Earth’s warming, they cannot achieve the Earth’s cooling.  Unless the group can convincingly argue that the planet’s current and committed warming is not dangerous, it is talking scientific nonsense.  Isn’t it time for Lukacs, the ETC group, and progressives generally to confront these unavoidable facts?

Moving on to David Keith, he tells us that, “The emphasis [in the upcoming experiment] is on study.  It would be reckless to deploy solar geoengineering based on today’s limited research.”  This statement is typical of Keith’s hyper-cautious approach, which is also prominent in his book, A Case for Climate Engineering.  In one way he can’t be blamed for this – the taboo against geoengineering over the past few decades pretty well forced his hand.  However, it must be recognized that the situation in the Arctic is an extreme emergency, and that immediate and decisive action is required.

The conceptual problem with Keith’s stance is that it acknowledges the risks of prematurely deploying SRM but fails to acknowledge the risks of not doing so.  This is called special pleading: it ignores a factor that is inconvenient for his argument.  It is quite possible that a point of no return (PONR) will be reached in the Arctic while Keith and his Harvard team are still laboring to, “… quantify the microphysics of introducing tiny particles into the stratosphere to improve estimates of the risks and benefits of solar geoengineering in large atmospheric models.”  We may end up being exquisitely informed about these matters as we slide uncontrollably into ecological oblivion.

Despite this, the news is good.  The longstanding taboo against geoengineering is finally dissipating, with both the Guardian and New Scientist recently printing honest assessments of its potential.  Even Keith is starting to admit that the risks may be far greater than he previously thought.  Near the end of his article he mentions the “tail risks” of climate change.  This refers to the so-called “fat tails” of the risk distribution, which in plain language means that there is a substantial probability of extreme climate events.  I eagerly await the day when this courageous pioneer fully applies this perception to the urgency of his proposed solutions.

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