Guest Post by Ivor Williams
Many scientists around the world have realised that the major emitters of greenhouse gases are not likely to cut back and cripple their economies any time soon. Even China has admitted their peak emissions will not be reached until 2030, and have promised only ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2060. Those two very carefully chosen words have been interpreted by the media to mean ‘zero carbon’, but nobody seems to have noticed that if a country is chucking out 20 Gigatons of CO2 and also removing 20 Gt — thereby achieving carbon neutrality — the total CO2 content of the atmosphere does not change. Luckily (or maybe not, see later) science has a Plan B: they will control the weather.
It has been tried before. In the mid-1800s huge bonfires were lit in parts of the USA to make it rain harder. A century later dry ice pellets were tossed into clouds from aeroplanes for the same reason. The latest theories — this time to modify the climate — are called geoengineering, are more serious, more comprehensive, and far more worrying. Other labels (possibly seen as less frightening) are ‘climate intervention’ or ‘climate repair’.
There are numerous projects to manage solar radiation by deflecting some sunlight using mirrors orbiting the earth, by injecting aerosols into the high atmosphere, or by spraying clouds to make them brighter and more reflective. Alternative theories: prevent emissions by capturing the carbon in smoky chimneys, compressing it then keeping it safe somewhere for a century or two. Or remove the carbon dioxide by planting a trillion trees. These methods could be both cheaper and safer than messing about with the atmosphere, but would take a very long time.
Solar radiation management is at the moment one of the only ways that would achieve Prince Charles’ call for ‘swift and immediate action’. However, experiments with orbiting mirrors or chemicals scattered across the high atmosphere may not be quite as easy to control as heating a test tube in the lab. Tinkering with the earth’s delicate weather systems on such a massive scale could either be the miracle solution to our climate problem, or be a catastrophe the like of which this poor old world has not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out by a flying comet.
David Shukman, the BBC’s Science Editor, is well aware of this: ‘Schemes to tackle climate change could prove disastrous for billions of people,’ he commented, ‘but might be required for the good of the planet, scientists say.’ In November 2017 Nature magazine website carried a feature headed: ‘We can and must govern climate engineering.’ Their contributor, Stephen Anderson, warned that ‘scientists do not yet know what the adverse consequences of climate engineering could be.’ More recent comments from a Harvard scientist: ‘solar geoengineering (is) an awful action that might nevertheless be needed.’
No-one seemed to worry too much about consequences in 1958; the then Director of the US Weather Bureau wrote about dropping 10 ‘clean’ megaton bombs over the Arctic, or at least consider blackening the icecap to reduce its albedo. There have been other attempts to affect the climate. In 1982 the United Nations was given similar advice: to turn deserts and snowfields black, this time to ward off what they thought was the imminent ice age. Or the ‘inventor’ (that’s what the newspapers called him) who set out with four workmen in 2010 to paint the peaks of the Andes white to combat global warming. This was a serious project funded by the World Bank. Are they still at it, I wonder?
But at that United Nations conference in 1982 the expert’s advice was not only about dropping soot on the icecaps, but also to raise vast quantities of water vapour from the oceans with H-bombs. (What is it about meteorology and big bangs?) This was another casually mentioned but potentially disastrous solution to the supposed ice age threat.
So the world turns, and we are today gripped by messages of doom about the end of civilisation unless we can avoid, mitigate or somehow prevent our precious earth heating up while we lobsters do nothing. The UK’s aim for zero carbon by 2050, by the way, is of no use; to reduce our measly 1% contribution to the emission total — even by the full amount — would have little or no effect, as it would be far outweighed by the increase elsewhere. The ‘do nothing’ phase may continue for some time, which favours the expensive, dangerous but temptingly fast-acting solar radiation projects.
As climate agitation takes firmer hold, some country’s leader, anxious about waning support (as they all are eventually), will say to his scientists: go ahead, save the world. When that happens, remember that ‘while it could prove disastrous for billions of people … it might be required for the good of the planet.’ So that’s all right then. Science is coming to our rescue. Prince Charles might get what he wished for.
Credentials: 7 years in the Met Office, Fellow of the R Met Soc since 1983, long-time freelance on meteorology and climate change, careful research for article above. Scanned copies could be sent as evidence for all points mentioned.