If There Is Global Warming . . . Why The Aversion To A Technological Fix?

Okay, I still don’t a hundred percent buy man-made global warming. But that’s not this thread.

And okay, I agree that reducing hydrocarbon use could be called a technological fix (but not here to debate that either).

What I have in mind is proposals I’ve seen discussed for, say, seeding the oceans with iron to promote phytoplankton blooms to soak up CO2, or triggering volcanic eruptions to eject lots of heat-reflecting dust into the upper atmosphere.

When I’ve discussed these with those of the worrying-a-lot-about-global-warming persuasion, there has been a visceral “we’re not going to go there,” “you’re crazy,” or “you just don’t get it” reaction.

This reaction alone has led me to wonder if the global warming skeptics who call environmentalism a crypto-religion. The reactions I’ve encountered suggested that my counterparts were very upset with the belief that we could have our technologically-advanced-consumerist-society cake and eat it too. Damn it, no fair using technology to escape the problems technology wrought! You need to sacrifice and change the consumerist society!

But why? If human industrial activity can raise temperatures, human activity could surely lower them. Why not just calibrate the two, everybody wins?

I’m imagining any serious (non-quasi-religious) response to this would be that it risks introducing new unknowns, and possibly causing greater harm, in the environment. Okay, fine, but so does any other plan, we’ve got plenty of smart scientists, and we could do things on a trial basis and stop if they were causing mischief beyond the intended effect of stalling warming.

So why the resistance I’ve encountered?

Because they are really stupid ideas.

Because a significant fraction of the AGW crowd in fact are eco-socialists and neo-Luddites. Which is regrettable because I believe AGW is almost certainly true, needs to be addressed, and almost certainly is not the apocalypse that some people paint it as. But probably the solutions in fact will be technogically based because the alternative- crippling civilization in the name of reducing CO2- just isn’t going to happen. Kyoto was a pipe dream.

You’ve persuaded me with that well-reasoned argument! No doubt you went and field tested all such ideas to determine them stupid?

There is an equal or greater basis for labeling corn ethanol or wind-power or “hydrogen” as a stupid pipe dream that won’t readily replace our hydrocarbon/internal combustion based economy. It’s not the one I’m here to make, but if I did, I’d provide detailed reasons for why those would fall short.

It’s almost as if the neo-Luddite talk is a very public penance for the practical inability of most modern Westerners to perform the (very difficult, unpleasant, and probably unnecessary) neo-Luddite walk. I have yet to hear Al Gore explain away the carbon footprint of his 10,000 square foot house and his failure to limit his travel to places within bicycling distance (oh wait – carbon credits! always kind of reminded me of hiring a whipping boy or replacement soldier in the Civil War).

You see that there is some ideology or self-flagellation going on even when choosing among alternative energy options. The Democratic Party platform this year referred to solar and wind (there’s a surprise – those are perennial warm, fluffy, and as-yet-impractical favorites) but not to nuclear. Would anyone serious about scientifically moving away from oil/coal forget to mention nuclear?

I think scientific “cooling technology” proposals fall in the same camp (maybe a worse camp) as nuclear. The solution to what bad icky dead white male scientists and industrialists did when they invented the modern economy can’t possibly be the application of more dead white male science trickeration!

Your thinking science , they are thinking culture/religion.

If we could do it , it would just promote the culture of waste and that would be a [Trademark]Bad thing [/Trademark].

If the person your talking to gives you a reasoned response , fine but for the most part if you get a shrill screeching response, then someone thinks your a heretic.


I think some people worry that it’s a cheat, or a way to put off fixing the real problem. Remember, some people are less concerned with AGW than with fossil fuel conservation, & understandably so.

That said, I think anything to counteract ocean acidification would be welcome at this point. Too many dead zones to do nothing.

The people I’ve encountered very much act like it is a cheat. I do think your reference to the “real problem” points to what I think is question-begging on their part. If they really thought the real problem was “man made heating,” then man made cooling is a perfect and potentially total fix to that real problem. Which makes me think that they define the “real problem” as something different from or additional to “temperatures going up because of man.”

Really? I meet few or none of them. People who are worried that we are going to run out of oil but are not panicked over GW generally can persuade themselves that we’ll find an alternative to fuel vehicles (tar sands, shale, coal-to-oil). The AGW talk about our depleting supplies of oil, but do so in tandem with talking about how we shouldn’t be using it at all (unless we’re on our way to burn 29,000 gallons of AvGas to collect a Nobel Prize in Oslo).

I’m not entirely sure if I see the issue.

Some people certainly have a “we’ve meddled enough!” panic, but if we’re facing being past the tipping point, we’ll really have no choice but to toss the dice.

That said, there’s still debate about how much average global warming is anthropogenic, and how much comes from other factors. We know that it’s us that’s been the straw- but the size of the straw isn’t completely calculated.

If we don’t fully understand all the mechanisms, how the hell can we predict the fallout of our solutions? I mean, we could seed the atmosphere with chloro-fluorocarbons and cool things off just fine. We could kill off life by doing it, too, or at least make every living thing sick as hell.

From a scientific perspective, my thought is that most people don’t understand that we’re talking about a solution that needs to effect a change in equilibrium in a dynamic system that shows characteristics of both very short and very long relaxation times. Ironically, it’s the same opinion I have about the economy . . .

I think realistically any fix would comprise of both approaches. Limiting consumption and offsetting the damage done.

Right. AGW gives a focus to the panic, as opposed to just knowing that one day petroleum will become prohibitively expensive.

And it’s the loss of cheap petroleum that makes people crazy. So the logic in some quarters (where there’s little faith in the reality of AGW) goes: AGW may scare people enough to get them to conserve now rather than running the global supply out. So amp up the scare. But dumping iron in the oceans in vast quantities would also use vast amounts of energy, & might not work anyway, so don’t encourage that.

Ever seen how lakes can turn into weed chocked messes when too much fertilizer washes in?

Uh and the people who live near these vulcanos? Not to mention the health problems this would cause.

That’s uncontrolled and incidental run-off. The proposal here is to calibrate it. Yes, how easy that is to do is the $64 question.

Instead of volcanoes it might be possible to simulate the effect by some other form of releasing fine particulate or liquid/gas matter high in the atmosphere. Sulphate aerosol injection, perhaps.

Because it makes you look like a super villain?

Remember the story of rabbits on Australia. They were introduced to make for some good hunting- and they quickly became on of the biggest pests the world has ever seen, causing no end of trouble.

The point is that things that we do can create problem we can’t foresee. So when dealing with things like the entire ocean, we have to be a little bit careful. I’m not saying there isn’t a technological solution, just that we need to be very sure before embarking on one.

The word "science’ doesn’t keep us from making terrible mistakes. Lobotomies were science. Thalidomide was science. Not that science is bad, just that we can’t trust that just because something is “scientific” it is instantly all good.

I’m sure there’s some of that out there. Maybe I’m just reading the wrong places, but I don’t see a hell of a lot of that.

A quick summary of what I see: the idea that carbon should be taxed, either by direct, increasing tax, or by fully auctionable cap and trade. You can use as much carbon as you like, so long as you’re willing to pay for your increased carbon footprint. In that environment where the price of carbon emissions can be relied on to gradually increase, wind, solar, nuclear, and the existing fossil fuels can duke it out on a fair footing. If carbon sequestration can work and turns out to be economical in that pricing environment (I see both believers and confirmed nonbelievers on this), then that’ll raise the competitive advantage of fossil fuels. Similarly, different kinds of personal vehicles can also duke it out in the market. But just as highways were paid for by massive government spending, we’re going to need serious government spending for intracity and intercity public transportation, with regs that minimize barriers to density near transit stops: discarding of off-street parking requirements, height limitations, density limitations, and whatnot. You can live far away from cities if you want to, but you’d like the market to reward those who do choose to live in dense neighborhoods near public transit.

That’s pretty much the outline.

But I read bloggers like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias and Ryan Avent and, of course, Atrios. So I may get a skewed view of what the let’s-solve-global-warming crowd wants.

The purpose of this inventory isn’t to debate the worthiness of this outline; it’s just to say that the people I read who are discussing AGW with a view to reducing carbon outputs seem to have a fairly practical program that might be improved on, but seems to have a basic soundness. It hardly seems to be a religious sort of thing. And there’s no let’s-do-without attitude, more of a ‘let’s gradually make carbon emissions more expensive, and let the market reward efficiencies’ attitude. I see a general belief that we can continue living as comfortably as we do now, partly by using a lot less energy to do some of the same tasks, partly by using different sources of energy, and partly through making it more possible to live with less reliance on cars. BTW, this certainly sounds to me like using a combination of technology and public policy to solve the problems our technology has created.

Now, getting to the OP: I’m game for a technological fix of the sorts you have in mind, if there is one. It would help if (a) we could test it on a small scale before going global with it; or (b) we could turn it on and off (or at least, ratchet it up and down) once we start using it. For instance, it sounds like the volcano stuff falls into both categories, which is doubly good, if it is indeed possible for us to make volcanoes go ‘boom’ more often than they otherwise would.

Lots of other questions: how much would these methods cost, and who would pay for them? What do we know about how effective any of these would be? Should be pursue one or more technological fixes, and a conventional approach (such as I’ve outlined above) at the same time, until we have a credible technological fix that doesn’t, say, cause algae to choke out all other forms of sea life?

I’m a hell of a lot less concerned about a ‘cheat’ than I am about pursuing some fix of this sort while not addressing global warming in a more conventional way, and then finding out in 20 years that the fix ain’t gonna work. It’s bad enough, IMHO, that we’ve wasted the past eight years: the visible signs of global warming have become a hell of a lot more visible in the past few years - a lot faster than the scientists were expecting, AFAICT - so my intuition is that time’s running out a bit more quickly than we expected. Meanwhile, the let’s-do-nothing crowd has carried the day so far, and the suspicion that this is just another ploy to avoid doing anything for another few years is hard to ignore.

I’ve brought this up before. I think the GW campaign is pure bullshit because it’s solution involves one thing and one thing only, the reduction of carbon emissions. No attempt is made at actually trying to lower the temperature of the planet. It’s like trying to smother a fire with stacks of $100 bills instead of spending $1 on a bucket of water.

Historically, attempting to redress human intervention in ecosystems by further intervention has had… limited success. Kudzu was introduced to help erosion control. Cane Toads were introduced to Australia and Mongeese to Hawaii to try to control other species that had been introduced. In both cases they targeted native species instead of the pest they were intended to control.

Attempting similar intervention, but on a global scale, on a poorly understood system, seems fraught with peril. I’m not up on current research, but if anyone claims to have a computer model good enough to predict the effects of ocean seeding or deliberate injections of sulfates, I’d need to see some very strong evidence.

And I’d like to see a computer model that predicts the weather.

I’ve not heard of either of the fixes you’d recommend. The one I saw proposed was to shoot some sort of umbrella-like device into space that could shield a small percentage of the sun from the Earth.

It sounds rather cost prohibitive, but couldn’t tell you how it rates versus other suggestions. Being something that could be expanded or shrunk as needed would certainly be good.

To the more larger question of why none of these ideas seem to have been considered all that much, my guess would be because pretty much no idea has been discussed, including cutting back on CO2 emissions, all that seriously. Everything always gets dragged into debate over whether there is global warming or not.

They have.

Volcanoes do provide cooling within a fairly well-understood manner, and the suggestion has been bandied about.

Of course, triggering an eruption is outside of anyone’s purview, and further, they reflect sunlight via particulates that gradually filter out. It would be a bandaid solution, since it doesn’t actually fix the problem, it would just briefly hide it (think Futurama and Robot Appreciation Week).

Sulphate aerosols erode the ozone layer, as well as breaking down into toxic compounds. So we could cool the planet- and all be sick and have cancer.

They are, neither one, viable solutions; rather, they might be “what the hell” last-resort measures.

More, there’s no way to “test” either. You either do it, or you don’t.