Potential climate solutions, but a lack of urgency

The Royal Society today gave us permission to consider maybe using geoengineering solutions at some point in the future in “an emergency”. The press conference, in the glorious Carlton Place buildings, felt very much like a school assembly, in which we were reluctantly being allowed to consider the treat of geoengineering, even though it was undeserved because we hadn’t been good and cut our emissions. The whole issue is so suffused with guilt and moral implications that the panel of scientists and a lawyer could barely talk about the actual report into which engineering solutions are the most feasible (stratospheric aerosols for the symptoms; CO2 air capture for the cure), because they were so busy endlessly reminding us that we have to cut our emissions, and that geoengineering is “no magic bullet”. The printed handout is bizarrely entitled: ‘Stop emitting CO2 or geoengineering could be our only hope‘. Is that a threat?

Trouble is, millions of people are already being impacted by climate change, and would continue to be even if we stopped emitting carbon today, because of the longevity of CO2 in the atmosphere. It is unrealistic to think we can avoid 2 degrees of temperature rise through emissions cuts alone. Which means looking at alternatives.

Please sir, can we talk about geoengineering? I have talked about this rather Victorian attitude to climate mitigation before, in which I detect a distinct impression that because we did some bad, dirty polluting we should be taught the hard way to stop, and not allowed ‘easy options’. There still exists a fear that should people consider miraculous geoengineering cures, they won’t put in the proper adaptation and mitigation efforts, rather like a dieter who learns about stomach stapelling and so happily eats cake.

The panel was very keen to remind us that geoengineering options have social, ethical, and economic problems. Yes, but so does climate change, and it is causing impacts in all these spheres right now.

John Shepherd, who chaired the panel, told us that the best option is for “early emissions reduction”. Sorry, John, early emissions reductions would have been reductions in the 1980s or 90s. ‘Early’ has been and gone now. Of course we need to reduce our emissions, but let’s face it, they are going up and up and earth is getting hotter.

It’s a scandal that the 12 experts who compiled the report for the Royal Society had to base their findings on computer simulations of apparatus or small lab experiments. Why, in 2009 after decades of knowledge about the greenhouse effect, are there no robust data from practical-scale trials? I don’t mean dumping tonnes of iron filings into the ocean, there are plenty of alternatives. We should not be waiting for some sort of emergency (whatever that entails – Ken Caldeira suggests the melting of Greenland’s glaciers, to which I say: too damn late by then), we need to start sucking CO2 out of the air as soon as possible.

The panel seems to dismiss some ‘solutions’ as unfeasible because they are not globally effective, such as cheaply painting roofs of buildings white; and others as too expensive, such as CO2 air capture. Let’s do the cheap stuff right now, and get working on the efficiency of the pricey stuff. Reducing emissions is itself pretty costly, as the report shows – equivalent almost to CO2 air capture and considerably more than other geoengineering solutions. I am not, needless to say (I hope) advocating crazy plans like dumping iron in the oceans or planting forests across the Arctic. But the RS has identified relatively safe options and let’s get to it – remembering that leaving the earth to warm is very unsafe for our species.

A magic bullet would not be a bad thing, it would be fantastic and save billions of people’s livelihoods and lives. I am reminded of those peculiarly cruel people who won’t have their daughters vaccinated against HPV because of the moral implications of condoning unsafe sex.

I was struck by the absence of any sense of urgency at the conference today. There was a lot of “cautious acceptance that we should look into the possibility… at some point in the future…” “Geoengineering methods could potentially be useful in future to augment efforts … and should be subject to more detailed research and analysis.” Why is the Royal Society not calling for research right now into the urgent task of finding a magic bullet; into large-scale trials of CO2 capture from air?

Let’s remember that climate change is caused by a chemical in the atmosphere. We need less of this chemical and we’re running out of time.

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