The New York Times has now started seeing the necessity of climate intervention. It response to their article (see here) we extend the arguments that they have presented further.
Geo-engineering v climate restoration and its objectives.
Proposals for geo-engineering were first postulated back in the 1960s with misplaced utopian ideas about improving the climate for mankind – we should be under no illusions that this is not what we are about now and I believe that we should avoid using the term geo-engineering. Instead, what we are faced with now is the necessity of making a last ditch attempt at climate restoration and we believe that it is thus important to use this as the primary terminology. While this is more politically acceptable, it also alludes to far bigger and more dangerous issue which is the restoration of stability and consequences of the failure of achieving this.
For want of a better analogy, I would suggest that life on earth exists in a state similar to a ball on a seal’s nose that is held in position by a myriad of small correcting inputs where static stability is achieved in the absence of dynamic stability.
In the same way that the stable position for the seal’s ball is at the rest on the ground, then the stable position for the planet’s environment is either a lifeless hothouse or an equally lifeless frozen snowball Earth. As the snowball Earth future is now dismissible, we have to acknowledge that the stable state of our planet is a lifeless hothouse.
Consideration of the earth’s ecosystem through the perspective of its existence in either stable or unstable states has profound consequences for our approach to climate restoration. It warns that we will have a binary outcome to anything that we try – we will either succeed or we will fail. The prospect of half measures is so remote that it can be excluded.
Timescale for action
With every passing year, we move closer to an ice free Arctic Ocean in the May/June period. When this happens the loss of albedo will result in such an increase of additional heating that the planet will face a near step change to heat input and the temperature will respond accordingly. The fact that this heat build-up will occur directly in the Arctic which is already the fastest heating part of the planet will increase Arctic amplification further. It will also significantly reduce the temperature difference between the equatorial regions and the Arctic which drives the climate system and which in turn drives the heat transfer from the equatorial to the Arctic regions for subsequent radiation to space and planetary cooling. Furthermore, this intensification of the heat in the Arctic will further destabilise the frozen methane clathrates.
There is an ongoing and intense debate within the science community as to how long it will take to get to an ice free Arctic Ocean in the critical May/June period. It is the view of experts such as Professor Peter Wadhams that with the observational records and collapse of the ice sheet in September this year, it is inconceivable that any significant Arctic sea ice will exist during this critical period after the end of this decade.
In addition to problem of rapidly melting Arctic Ice, we still don’t know what the time constant is between a step change in the atmospheric CO2 and the planet coming to its new thermal equilibrium. It is most likely well over ten years meaning that we have barely even felt the impact of the huge CO2 additions from the recent years. That delay could, in fact, be as much as a century or more.
Thus we see that the first component of the climate restoration strategy must be to cool the planet and we must do this before the ice cap melts otherwise the additional heat that the planet absorbs is likely to render our attempts futile.
The only way this can be done is with the Marine Cloud Brightening approach that we envisage and which uses fluidic oscillators to create the nano-droplet sprays. However, it will take some time to complete the scientific research, to start the deployment and wait for the time constant between the start of the intervention and the planet stabilising at its new thermal equilibrium.
Thus we are already in a deadly race to ensure that we get sufficient cooling in place before the ice cap goes and thermal inertia from the recent increases in CO2 heat the planet beyond its stability range. Waiting any longer, or waiting for the ice to go before we implement a cooling strategy will make the efforts futile.
In this context we have probably passed the tipping point, but we are continuing to pursue our climate intervention strategy in the hope that we have not.
The risk assessment that we prepared on the consequences of delaying implementation is available here.
Other critical failures of the ecosystem
Most of the trapped heat in the planet goes into the oceans, not the atmosphere. Once in the ocean it gets largely trapped in the surface layers which lowers the density of the water. This is happening as the ocean surface is also acidifying. The warming of the water then reduces the ability of the ocean to sequestrate CO2 from the atmosphere, the acidification of the ocean reduces phytoplankton growth preventing conversion of CO2 into biomass and the lower density prevents sinking of the ocean surface water at the poles which drives the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current (AMOC) that would normally transport CO2 to the depths.
These three factors are already having a measurable impact in the ability of the planet to sequestrate the additional atmospheric CO2 and are further amplifying the situation we find ourselves in. This can be clearly observed in the Mauna Loa records.
It is now increasingly clear that the AMOC, which has been critical to the operation of climate, has operated within a very small window of stability that was governed by precise balances of ocean temperature, salinity and CO2 levels.
Thus the basis of our proposal is that the buoyant flakes will work together with the MCB to re-establish this balance, such that the cooling the MCB delivers combined with the increased conversion of CO2 to biomass from increased phytoplankton growth allows a return to the previous ecosystem.
The final part of our strategy is to thicken and re-establish the Arctic Ice Cap by pumping water from beneath the ice cap on to its surface over the colder months. This will achieve several critical objectives. It will preserve ice over the critical May/June period and hence increase albedo, it will trap releasing methane from the sea bed and it will increase the salinity of the ocean in the Arctic thereby re-establishing the AMOC.
The total fallacy of BECCS
In stark contrast to the above, the intergovernmental position on CO2 removal is generally to move down the Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) route. This is a level of stupidity that almost defies belief.
Firstly, the best possible thermal efficiency of a power plant is about 45% and once the energy is factored in that is needed to separate and compress the CO2 gas, it falls to about 20%. This will fall further when the energy needed for transporting the fuel and growing the crops is taken into account. As the ethos of BECCS is to provide a profitable way to tackle climate change, it catastrophically fails its first test with little more than the most basic undergraduate knowledge of the second law of the thermodynamics.
Secondly, the loss of sequestration ability from the collapsing eco-system that I briefly describe above will be on an order of magnitude greater than the CO2 that can be sequestered from BECCS, even with the most widely optimistic assumptions on its roll out.
We have tried to explain this to government officials in the UK, and met with a level of intransigence and ignorance that one would normally expect from some dysfunctional government of the type that runs North Korea.
Who sets the thermometer?
We offer a different take to the setting of the thermometer, which is a normal objection to climate intervention.
The fundamental challenge that the world faces is that the COP climate change negotiations must continue to prevent a descent into a free-for-all. This requires a positive spin on the probability of success and an underplaying of warnings from the science.
To pursue the strategy that we propose, requires the opposite. It requires an acknowledgement that climate change is heading beyond the worst case scenario and that we accept that the existing strategy has failed, thus risking free-for-all conflict. By way of contrast, the existing strategy ultimately guarantees a free-for-all by ensuring that the actions we need are not pursued in time.
As we move towards this free-for-all situation with the current strategy, then nations will seek to survive this hyper competitive environment for as long as possible by building up their economic and military strengths, irrespective of the carbon impacts and ultimately driving a global death spiral.
Those nations that realise they cannot compete in this have one option left, that is to start localised climate restoration, and ironically therein lies some hope. If many localised actions can take place, the cumulative effect may be to cool planet and the technologies that we propose are cheap enough for developing nations to pursue. We are finding developing nations are far more proactive in these areas than developed nations, and it is something that game theory helps predict.
See here for a further discussion on the dynamics of free-for-alls.
In the video that we submitted to the MacArthur Foundation competition, we state that it is almost inconceivable to envisage any way that runaway climate change can be stopped without the use of our three, or similar, technologies. This hypothesis is not changing, instead it is becoming stronger with every new piece of evidence published and with every new geo-political event.