Monday, February 28, 2011

A Reply to Geo-Engineering Trepidation

Asked to comment about the probability of geo-engineering deployment in the future, this was the response: [Might be the first time the first person is used at Bastion of Reason]

With all due respect (ah that notorious loaded statement) we will no longer live a ‘comfortable’ existence, able to listen to Taylor Swift and the like, go out for sushi, etc. without some form of geo-engineering. It would be wonderful if we could address progressive climate destabilization with mitigation strategies like increasing efficiency and transferring fossil fuel based energy to trace emission based energy alone, but do you honestly believe that is possible? Sadly sometimes I lament that at the rate things are going the epithet for the human species will be ‘Still waiting for the miracle that never came because we acted too late.’

I envision the most realistic miraculous scenario for emission reduction as: some genius individual or group within the next two years develops greater than break-even hot fusion (or something equivalent). This group then takes another two to three years to optimize the technology and over the next ten years after the optimization process fusion reactors are installed throughout the world both as energy providers and for transport reducing global carbon emissions to single digit percentages relative to 2005. That still puts emission reduction reaching single digits at 2025 notwithstanding the probability of such a scenario occurring is unfathomably small. Even if it does occur there is already so much slow feedback in the ‘pipeline’ that it is a debatable whether or not it is already too late without a form of significant ‘carbon dioxide removal’ based geo-engineering (planting trees and creating biochar will be useful, but definitely not fast enough to cut down positive feedback effects if this is the case).

If we cannot count on a miracle, what is the fastest rate of turnover? As previously mentioned in ‘Bastion of Reason’, some people want to drive a WWII mentality for clean energy deployment and conservation, but those individuals seem to have no plan beyond ‘build a lot of solar and wind power’. They take the attitude that 300-500 GW of trace emission energy can emerge if people just really wish that it would. It takes money, which is becoming less and less flexible and available at the Federal, State and entrepreneurial level and shows no signs of changing for the better at any point in the future, especially at the Federal level because Congress refuses to cut military spending. Side note: want to take a huge chunk out of the deficit make DARPA and anything related to direct funding for military personnel (salary, health benefits, GI bill, etc.) off-limits and then freeze any new military contracts for the next 10 years outside a declared state of emergency (initiated by 90% majorities in both houses of Congress and Presidential approval) and see how much money ‘magically’ becomes available.

However, I digress, not only is money required but so is time. It routinely takes 5-10 years to construct power plants and similar new infrastructure with any significant capacity where the probability of going over-budget is in the upper 90%. I laugh at anti-nuclear power individuals when they cite costs for nuclear power on the grounds that plant x is going over-budget because almost everything that is built goes over-budget both in money and time (solar and wind as well, yet conveniently anti-nuclear individuals rarely, if ever, address those delays). So it will take decades for these hundreds of GW of energy to be constructed, if they are constructed at all, all the while even in the best scenario humans are still emitting enough carbon into the atmosphere to raise the concentrations by at least 1.5 to 2 ppm per year.

Then there is everyone’s favorite red elephant… China. Some environmentalists like to proclaim that China is doing their part because of the billions that they are investing in clean energy over the coming decade, but based on energy requirement projections this investment is just a drop in the bucket; depending on what source you use China is still building a new coal plant every 8-14 days. Also they have ‘promised’ to cut their carbon intensity by 45%. Please, anyone that uses ratios in a discussion about carbon emissions whether it is carbon intensity or emissions per capita needs to realize that absolute values are all that matter. The environment does not give bonus points if country x is emitting 10 Gt per year, but has an emissions per capita of 10 tons vs. if that same country is emitting 10 Gt per year, but has an emissions per capita of 70 tons. (These numbers are merely for example purposes and do not reflect any specific country).

Carbon intensity is even worse than emissions per capita because as long as the economy continues to grow absolute emissions can continue to increase. Seeing that realistically the only thing that is stopping the Chinese populous from carrying out a revolt that would make anything that has happened in the Middle East look like nothing is the fact that the oppressive ruling party can point to the economic growth and say ‘Look at all the wealth we are creating leave us in power and some may “trickle” down to you’ it is logical to anticipate continued economic growth over the coming years for China. Tie this ‘avoid revolution’ philosophy to the theory that some economics have that China’s large economic growth values are artificially bolstered by an infrastructure craze (build, destroy, build, build, destroy, build…) China can ‘report’ large economic growth even if most of it is superficial. Gee I wonder why they ‘conceded’ to reducing carbon intensity instead of reducing absolute emissions? Heck, most Chinese officials that go public state that coal use will climb until at least 2025 probably longer. And that is just China, no one really talks about what India and Russia are doing, Russia being especially important because its economic stability is completely tied to their export of oil and natural gas occasional heat wave notwithstanding.

Another issue is that environmentalists like to lament that if only United States Republicans would stop being illogical and listen to the science of global warming everything would be ok; they seem to be missing the point that no other country outside of Western Europe (largely supported by France’s nuclear and pumped hydro trace emission energy backbone) seem to be actually reducing carbon emissions at any real significant rate when factoring out the effects of the global recession (at least as it is being reported). So even if these other countries ‘get it’ they are not applying that ‘getting it’ to making actual emission reductions. It reminds me of the old Samuel Clemens quote “Those who do not read good books have no advantage over those who cannot read them." The environmental equivalent: “Those who understand global warming yet do not reduce emissions should have no sense of superiority over those that do not understand or deny global warming.”

It can be argued that these countries are waiting for the United States to make a move because China is waiting for the United States to make a move and unless the United States and China get on board any environmental concessions will probably be meaningless. Therefore Republicans are indeed those primarily responsible for blame; however, with all of the limitations in current growth models (peak oil, peak coal, peak phosphorous, etc.) and a natural emission abatement when switching to a more trace emission driven economy, blaming the United States for a ‘lack of will’ to evolve seems foolish; however, the above statement in no way shape or form is meant to excuse the utter embarrassment the United States should feel for dragging its feet with respect to reducing emissions.

Additionally I am not sure if the contention that geo-engineering cannot address increasing ozone concentrations or ocean acidity is accurate. While I have little expertise in the field of and I am not a fan of its application, the use of Solar Radiation Management (SRM) techniques, depending on the atmospheric application would reduce the total amount of sunlight that is available to catalyze ozone synthesis reactions in the trophosphere reducing total ozone concentrations. While the reduction may not be overwhelming there exists the possibility for a significant reduction, dependent on how the SRM technique(s) is(are) applied. Also carbon reduction techniques like ambient air capture can reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to a point that changes oceans from carbon sinks to carbon sources (emitting CO2 taken up over the last century) reducing acidity. Granted it is debatable how effective either of these strategies would be at reducing ozone concentrations or ocean acidity, but it may become necessary if mitigation efforts continue to only slug along.

Concern regarding the magnitude and uncertainty surrounding execution of geo-engineering technology is certainly appropriate; however, I believe most concern seems to be biased as it is immediately presumed that a higher probability for negative outcome over positive outcome is appropriate without taking into consideration the circumstances of its deployment. Regarding the uncertainty one can equate the situation to a patient with a severe disease. Geo-engineering is the untested experimental treatment: it can aid in curing the disease, do nothing or hasten the patient’s death. With anything the more study and preparation in the interim the higher the probability for success. Granted because of the black box of knowledge surrounding environmental complexities success can never be assured to be 100%, but we also have the ability of observation and adjustment.

However, the issue boils down to when does an individual stop waiting for the bus. The bus relates to an adage of a man waiting at a bus stop for a bus and the question of how long does the man continue to wait after the scheduled time if the bus has yet to come until finding another way to his destination. The bus may only be a few minutes late or may not come, how long does one wait? If one waits too long and the bus does not come then he will be quite late arriving at his destination, if he is too impatient he leaves before the bus arrives. The question is what rationality does he have for waiting vs. leaving. For the above analogy how long until humans believe the disease moves into a stage that requires the experimental treatment as a part of the treatment required to ward off death? The ironic thing about geo-engineering is that most of the difficulties will stem from not the techniques themselves, but their application. Just like mitigation it requires global cooperation as one or two ‘rouge’ nations looking out for their best interest(s) over that of the global community could spoil the entire strategy.

The conservation proposal put forth by environmentalists is all well and good, but it is what I call a ‘white board’ idea now one needs to step away from the ‘white board’ and outline the finer details of how that proposal will be executed. For example for the conservation frequently suggestion four issues immediately pop to my mind (although I am sure many more exist): 1. What definition will be used for ‘essential purposes’ when rationing energy and fuel? 2. How will governments take control of supply lines to limit access for general use to rationed items in our private corporation capitalistic driven world (using WWII as an example is probably not going to work because the logistics of rationing were much simpler then)? 3. How will government enforce this definition ensuring that people do not simply ignore or rebel against the rationing measures (the creation of black markets where there is money to be made…)? 4. Depending on the answers to the above three questions, what will prevent the world from plunging into the greatest (in magnitude and span) global depression ever while cleaner energy technologies take decades to fill the void left by the rationed products?

Question 4 is the issue that is apparently not considered by those that say ‘We need to stop all coal burning now’. Dr. James Hansen understands this unfortunate reality that alternatives are not ready to fill the void and advocates 20-25 years time frame to wean off coal. Finally the concern with the conservation method is its feasibility without strong-arm action. Environmentalists have advocated conservation for decades and yet that message has not accomplished what is deemed necessary. As cynical as it sounds environmentalist might not win until they can get Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber to walk on a concert stage wearing a green t-shirt that says ‘Save the Earth: Conserve Resources and Reduce Carbon Emissions with a Price on Carbon!’ or such.

Another problem is that right now too many are allowing the free market to dictate the evolution of a trace emission society without addressing future issues… hmmm last time I checked ignoring the future is what got us into this original environmental problem. For example look at this blog post, I rarely see anyone address these issues regarding energy generation (outside of those regarding nuclear power because of the fervor of the anti-nuclear crowd). What about the potential for average wind speed reduction in the future? Why do some laud the physics of human driven global warming, yet ignore valid potential consequences stemming directly from the physics of that warming which could cripple a highly touted solution? Even in the field of geo-engineering we need crazy ideas and then thorough analysis of those ideas. Realistically the best idea may not even exist yet. Take Erwin Schrodinger and transport him from 1911 to 2011 and upon seeing society his first words would probably be ‘how is this possible?’.

I could go on, but I think the point has been made. Reiterating from above, I would love it if mitigation and conservation were all it would take; it probably cannot be quantified how beautiful that would be, but there does not appear to be sufficient evidence to support that position. It appears that some form of technology-based geo-engineering will be required to abate carbon emissions and/or their consequences until the slow crawl of mitigation can do what is necessary. Remember I believe global society has reached the point where both mitigation and geo-engineering is possible; geo-engineering is not some magic bullet that can be used in lieu of mitigation. However, people need to start acting and studying geo-engineering in a manner that presumes one or more methods will be applied (too few legitimately study it at the moment), even if it turns out that they are not necessary because if they are needed and have not been effectively studied because of concerns about what they cannot do or their uncertainties we will be in even more trouble. Overall it seems the burden of proof has shifted to those who oppose geo-engineering to demonstrate that it will not be necessary at some point in the future rather than those that support its study proving that it will be necessary.

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