Incredibly, the notion is back that the solution to “climate change” is to blast the stratosphere with chemicals designed to cool the Earth and hey presto we reach the ideal temperature. Even the venerable Economist has jumped on this trend, with its “Climate Issue” assuring us that “A study published last week considers what it would take to selectively cool the Arctic and halt, or even reverse, the melting of its ice. It shows that a relatively simple solar geoengineering programme, which would inject sun-reflecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere above both poles, could cool the region by 2°C…”. Woot. What could possibly go wrong?
You might think it’s harmless to insist that “the science” is “settled” with only oil-smeared “deniers” raising questions. Even if the settled science is forever being revealed to be wrong albeit always in the direction of it being worse than scientists said.
For instance, “Some glaciers in Alaska are melting 100 times faster than thought. We are in a #climatecrisis” according to a “Campaigner” with a Bachelor of Education and a Bachelor of Laws who guiltily occupies (drum roll please) unceded aboriginal territory. Or a crisis of climate science. But perish the thought that just because they’re always wrong, climate scientists aren’t always right.
Even this Economist piece says “A decade ago, Arctic temperatures were widely believed to be rising twice as quickly as the global average. Today, we know that was an underestimate: since 1979, they have warmed four times as fast. Global maps coloured in reds and blues to represent current and projected future warming in different regions frequently show the world’s northernmost reaches in deep crimson.” (And if a map is coloured crimson, well…) But the trouble is people might believe you and, worse, act on that delusion.
They might, for instance, suppose that we understand the interactions between various trace elements in the atmosphere and “the climate,” the whole gigantic complex of forces including ocean currents operating on the scale of centuries or longer, and that we can indeed tweak this and fiddle that and bring the temperature down or up by 1.1 degrees or 0.7 or 2.133450987 or whatever it might be. (No, really. The models do claim to know what the temperature will be in 2100 to one-tenth of a degree if we do certain things but not others.) And they might also think we know the answer to a question that climate alarmists actually refuse to address, namely how warm it “should” be.
We don’t want to be too harsh here. The Economist author, Catherine Brahic, does have a “Bachelor’s degree” in Biology, from Columbia and then a “Master of Science” from Imperial College London, though the latter is in “Science communication” which is one of those modern disciplines that sounds undisciplined to us. And her piece does introduce some apparently cautious qualifications, such as that this Earth-conditioner “would take 15 years or more to build. And while such a programme would slow the rise of the sea, it could also disrupt weather systems like seasonal monsoons depending on how the stratospheric sunshade is designed and whether Arctic deployments are counterbalanced by Antarctic ones.”
All of which only amounts to saying when you redesign the planet it would be a good idea to pay attention. It does not take into account that if you didn’t actually understand it, you might achieve the opposite of what you intended, or too much of it.
Those of us who study the past history of the Earth are aware of several key points here. First, it is currently in a much colder phase than is typical, and has been for 2.5 million years, since the start of the first “Ice Age” since before the dinosaurs. Second, we are currently in a warm phase of that cold phase, a relatively hospitable “interglacial” though not as warm as the previous “Eemian” nor, we think, the three before that. What’s more, third, we appear to be nearing the natural end of this interglacial, with temperatures well below what they were eight or ten thousand years ago and the glaciers very probably poised to return. Fourth, the last glacial maximum, between the Eemian interglacial and the current Holocene one, saw a historic and prehistoric low for atmospheric CO2 that was dangerously close to the extinction level for the majority of plants on Earth (all those that use the older C3 photosynthesis, though a more frugal C4 has evolved given these harsh conditions). We might add that the geological record gives no support whatsoever to the notion that CO2 determines temperature but we don’t want to get distracted here from point five, which is that to hear alarmists tell it, the climate is rigged up with countless dangerous “tipping points” where some undesirable change reinforces another and you get an acceleration to disaster.
Given all these things, the risk is that by attempting to cool the Earth we might succeed, and bring back the glaciers, wipe out civilization and cause the worst mass extinction since the Permian-Triassic 252 million years ago. It seems imprudent to risk such a thing especially if you spend most of your time hectoring people about the “Precautionary principle” or saying the risk of global warming is so huge that no cost is too high to try to prevent it based on inadequate knowledge.
The arrogance here is astounding. We keep an eye on it because humans really are dumb and smug enough to try it. As Eric Worrall put it about a different plan to fix the planet with lab coats, machinery, and omnipotent omniscient technique, “Green mechanical climate salvation schemes have killed whales, paralysed crabs, murdered entire forests and incinerated and smashed who knows how many birds from the sky. Now it’s time to finish the job, by sucking all the life giving CO2 from the atmosphere.” It keeps popping up in one form or another. And for some reason Brahic doesn’t link to or otherwise properly identify the study she has in mind, though it might be this one where there’d be 175,000 flights a year (yes, you read that right) to spray tiny particles of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, refreezing the polar ice that has supposedly melted though the main study author hastily assured us that “the plan would treat an important symptom of climate change, not the cause. ‘It’s aspirin, not penicillin. It’s not a substitute for decarbonisation’”. So first we plunge into a new glaciation, then we throw away the furnace fuel.
What could go wrong? Our ancestors believed overweening pride reliably led to disaster. But they were so backward they used Latin terms like “hubris” and “nemesis” whereas modern people regularly tweet vulgarity so there’s no need to listen to them. We got this. When did our last big geoengineering plan fail?
In the Economist piece Brahic touches on the tipping point argument, in the most banal and conventional way possible: “Studies suggest that… the shrinking gap between polar and tropical temperatures – may affect weather patterns and extremes in temperate zones.” Only in bad ways, of course, the science being settled that all impacts of warming are bad. Thus “Positive-feedback loops risk the release of increasing amounts of methane stored in the Arctic’s permafrost. And the accelerating melt of the Greenland ice sheet contributes to rising seas and, as a result, devastating tropical cyclones.” Which have been declining for 40 years but why get hung up on science when we’re busy communicating deep thoughts like: “In the meantime, ice is pitted against oil and gas.”