Climate Policy: If you don’t like Copenhagen, try Asilomar

I’m a little late getting to the 3 April 2010 issue of New Scientist, but it certainly isn’t too late to comment on the British Magazine’s editorial and article about a geoengineering conference in beautiful Asilomar CA the last week of March.

That’s right. Geoengineering. Engineering the planet for–presumably–the benefit of humankind.

The impetus behind that “gathering of key scientists and policy experts” was the failure to produce a robust agreement on controlling greenhouse gases at last year’s international climate change conference in Copenhagen. Without a viable way to limit the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, every credible climate model predicts significant changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, polar and glacial ice, and sea levels by the end of this century.

By the time the evidence reaches the point that the public will no longer be persuadable by denialists, it may be too late to reverse the trends. The policies advocated for but not achieved in Copenhagen will seem mild compared to what will then be necessary to avert massive relocation of populations and the resultant geopolitical friction.

That is the scenario if nations do not live up to the relatively modest goals set at Copenhagen. There is good reason to believe that those goals will not be achieved. No one made firm promises, and the Copenhagen conference resulted in no treaties with “teeth” to exert political pressure within individual nations.

So if decreasing CO2 emissions seems out of reach, what will be the alternative? More and more, the answer is looking like geoengineering. The conferees discussed everything from artificial trees to absorb CO2 (universally viewed as the safest means if possible and affordable) to launching reflective satellites or artificially lacing the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, as would result from a climate-changing volcanic eruption, to reflect more sunlight. One particularly risky and dubious scheme that, as Maxwell Smart used to say “just might work,” is seeding the Southern Ocean with iron to promote the growth of phytoplankton. The phytoplankton release a cloud-droplet-inducing sulfide into the atmosphere, leading to reflection.

These possible solutions are being considered now because they will need to be tested at least on a small scale if they are to be ready for rapid implementation on a larger scale.

But the article’s title is telling–and frightening in its implication: “Hacking the planet: Who decides?”

Who indeed? If the nations of the world can’t agree on climate treaties now, when the problem still appears to be solvable without resort to such extreme measures, how can we expect them to agree on geoengineering?

The article doesn’t mention that such issues in the past have been decided militarily because what is best for one country or group of countries may be harmful to another. The article doesn’t say anything specifically about international conflict, but it is obvious that harm/benefit tradeoff of changing climate patterns may lay the groundwork for war.

I, for one, would rather solve problems by the approaches discussed at Copenhagen than by those discussed at Asilomar. But I fear that the measures discussed at Asilomar may become necessary because short-term considerations are undermining Copenhagen’s long-term goals.

New Scientist Article Hacking the Planet

New Scientist Editorial To Hack the Planet, First Win Trust

Science Shelf Book Review Archive Weather and Climate Reading List

Fred Bortz

8 thoughts on “Climate Policy: If you don’t like Copenhagen, try Asilomar

  1. And there in lies the problem. What makes a model credible? If it predicts anthropomorphic global warming. What makes a model not credible? If it doesn’t predict anthropomorphic global warming, of course!

    Come on back when the models accurately take into account the highly complex biosphere, which created and maintains the climate. Come on back when the models also take into account precession, orbital variation, glacial cycles, etc. And let me know when super computers are millions of times more powerful than today’s, and so able to handle the truly accurate models. And while you are at it, try dusting off some economic models and predict what it takes to combat a threat to mankind, and what one factor always leads to populations controlling themselves to the point of zero or even negative growth. (Hint: answer to both is more money, in more hands.)

    In summary, even “the most advanced climate models available” as it is often put are as crude as a flaked flint tool. Just because flaked flint is much more advanced than the previous sharpened stick doesn’t make it advanced. The current models, even if credible, are not credible enough to warrant the surrender of our wealth, and the surrender our freedoms. An amazingly short sighted proposal considering, if the “credible” models are true, it requires even more wealth to buy our way out of the mess, and even more freedom to innovate solutions. We’ll not have either if we empower a global totalitarian police state because of fear derived from credible, but crude models.

  2. In my latest book for young readers, Seven Wonders of Exploration Technology, my second wonder describes how scientists explore the world’s climate. Below are excerpts from the final draft of that chapter that address what makes a model credible. The intended reader is typically 11-14 years old. (There may have been minor edits in the finished book.)

    “Deny This,” whom I will call DT, is clearly more concerned with the politics than the science, given his incorrect opening assumption of what makes a model credible. (“What makes a model not credible? If it doesn’t predict anthropomorphic global warming, of course!”) He is among those members of the public I was referring to when I wrote, “By the time the evidence reaches the point that the public will no longer be persuadable by denialists, it may be too late to reverse the trends.”

    I posted this blog entry because I am concerned with both science and policy. Our political solutions will fail when we do not base them on our best scientific understanding–our most credible scientific models. It is because people still respond as DT did that the Copenhagen agreement is weak. And if Copenhagen fails, then we will (if the best science is on target) be forced to consider geoengineering. That was my main point.

    Anyway, directly below is my take on what makes a model credible. The main point is that the models’ credibility have been established by comparison with real data.

    If you read the full chapter, you will note that I discuss the limitations of modeling as well as its benefits. It is a scientific presentation, not an ideological one. You’ll note that I consider the IPCC credible, despite the recent “Climategate” flap.

    If you want to argue that point, see one of my earlier blog postings, where I compare the issue that has harmed IPCC’s public image with Mark Fuhrman’s testimony in the OJ Simpson trial. It didn’t change the facts of the murder, but it damaged the prosecution of the criminal case.

    If we make the wrong judgment on climate change by claiming that overzealous interpretation is the same thing as bad data, there will be no civil trial to partially correct the misjudgment. We will all be in the soup together.

    Fred Bortz

    The following is copyrighted material (2010) and is not to be reproduced with the permission of the author, Alfred B. Bortz:

    Using Climate Models
    Besides predicting the current weather or climate, scientists use models to look at climate in the past. They use the models to explain historical climates and understand patterns. For example, geologists have found evidence that Earth’s climate has cycled between ice ages and warm periods. Can a climate model explain that?
    To model past climates, scientists need to use different input data. Astronomers know that Earth’s orbit around the Sun slowly changes shape. Every 100,000 years or so, it cycles from more circular to more oval and back again. When the orbit is nearly circular, Earth gets about the same amount of sunlight every day.

    When the orbit is more oval, the amount of sunlight varies. It is brightest and hottest when Earth reaches its closest point to the Sun. That point is called perihelion. And sunlight is least intense when the Earth is at its farthest point (aphelion).

    Currently, Earth reaches perihelion on January 3. Over the next 21,000 years, perihelion will gradually shift through the calendar until it returns to January.

    If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you may wonder how perihelion occurs in winter. If the Earth is closer to the Sun, why is it so cold? But readers in Australia or Argentina might not ask that. In the Southern Hemisphere, January is mid-summer.

    No matter where you live, the answer is that seasons depend on something else—the tilt of Earth’s axis. Each day, Earth spins around this imaginary line through its poles. In the Northern winter, the North Pole is tilted slightly away from the Sun. That means it gets less sunlight to warm it, even at perihelion.

    The more the axis is tilted toward or away from the Sun, the more extreme our seasons are. The tilt also cycles. Over the course of 41,000 years, the tilt goes back and forth between about 21 and 24 degrees. Could this cycle combine with the changing shape of Earth’s orbit and its varying distance from the Sun to produce the ice ages and warm periods? Climate models say yes.

    Human Activity and Climate Change
    Climate modeling is very important in the twenty-first century. It helps us understand how human activity can change weather patterns. One of the most important changes in modern times is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere.

    Our atmosphere is a mix of different kinds of gases. Some gases are more common than others. Scientists often measure the less common gases in parts per million, or ppm. In 2009 the atmosphere had 385 ppm of CO2. Compared to other gases, the amount of CO2 is tiny. The air we breathe contains 600 molecules of oxygen for each molecule of CO2.

    But even though the air contains so little CO2, it is very important to the climate. It keeps our planet’s warmth from escaping into space. Like the glass of a greenhouse, CO2 allows sunlight to reach the ground below and holds in some of the heat from the sun. Without CO2’s “greenhouse effect,” Earth’s average temperature would be cooler by about 50°F (28°C).

    We know that natural processes have changed the amount of CO2 in the air over Earth’s history. And those changes in CO2 have caused changes in climate. During ice ages, the CO2 level was lower and the planet was cooler. And during the tropical period when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, the air had more CO2. You might think a warmer planet might be a better one. But scientists are learning that adding more CO2 to the air might be too much of a good thing—especially when we add it too fast.

    Life on Earth is always changing. Plants and animals can adapt to different conditions by moving locations or by evolving. But evolution is a slow process. And sometimes the places where a creature can move are worse than where it is already.

    That’s why climate scientists are concerned about how fast humans have been adding CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil. A hundred years ago, the CO2 level was only 300 ppm. For the ten thousand years that human civilization existed before that, the amount of CO2 in the air was between 280 and 300 ppm.

    Fossil-fuel burning in the twentieth century raised the CO2 level a remarkable 85 ppm. And if we keep burning fossil fuel at the same rate, CO2 could rise to 650 ppm in your lifetime. Some climate models predict that if that happens, Earth’s average temperature will rise more than 10°F (6°C) by the year 2100.

    Ten degrees doesn’t seem like much compared to the day-to-day changes you experience all the time. But if every day was 10 degrees warmer, think of how different the climate would be. Mid-winter would be like late fall or early spring. And in most parts of the world, many days in mid-summer would be dangerously hot.

    Temperature changes are not our only concerns. Rainfall and snowfall patterns will also change. Melting snow and ice feed many important rivers. So if there is less snow and ice to melt, many areas will have less water for drinking, washing, and irrigating farmland. Such changes in climate will force farmers around the world to change what they grow. Everywhere, the ecology—the mix of plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi—will change dramatically.

    Climate models predict not only warmer weather, but also more extreme conditions. And they also predict that the increase in average temperature will not be the same everywhere. The polar regions will probably have the greatest temperature rise. Earth’s ice caps will slowly melt and raise sea levels. That could be a major problem all around the world because so many people live in cities and villages near seacoasts.

    Are Climate Models Correct?
    If the climate models are correct, humans are going to have to make major changes in the way we live—and quickly—if we want to slow global warming. To keep the CO2 levels down, we’ll have to stop burning so much fossil fuel. That will be difficult. We use those fuels for our homes, cars, factories, and most of our electricity.

    But those predictions are only from models, and models might be incorrect. Should we really worry so much about what those models tell us? How do we know whether to make major changes or keep going as we have been?

    To answer those questions, the United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988. The IPCC’s main job is to keep us from acting on bad information. It doesn’t rely on any single climate model. It looks at the predictions of the models from the world’s best climate scientists using the world’s most powerful computers.

    The IPCC models all agree that the world is warming dramatically. They also agree that climate change can create very serious problems. But they disagree on how soon and in which ways we will have to act to prevent them.

    World leaders would prefer more definite answers to make better decisions. But they realize that one set of questions often leads to another. Climate modelers have produced many important discoveries, but much more exploring lies ahead. The more they discover, the more likely we are to make decisions that are good for humanity—and for the world.

  3. Are you saying we should do nothing until we have much better climate models? That seems to me like saying that we shouldn’t apply our car’s brakes right now because a better technology is coming.

    Good policy-making is an exercise of making choices using the best available information and applying our best judgment to it.

    Today’s climate models are tested and are undergoing constant refinement. They are reliable but have known limitations. The scientific and policy-making challenges are inter-related. Given the strengths and limitations of those models, we construct and analyze reasonable scenarios and set a policy course based both on what the scenarios tell us and on the margins of error.

    Of course we all want innovative solutions. But denying the best scientific evidence because we don’t like the implications will not get us where we need to be.

    Fred Bortz

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