the wrong type of dust – airborne particles and climate change

In the past week there have been 2 pieces of news, both about the effects of particulates (ie dust) on the atmosphere and climate, and both challenge the commonly held belief that CO2 in the atmosphere is the prime cause of climate change.

To put it briefly, different particles act differently depending on size and composition. Soot is dark and tends to absorb sunlight and re-emit it as heat while other particles like sulphur compounds tend to reflect heat. Industrialization has caused massive increases in particulates caused by construction, combustion, and urbanization. The scientists are saying is that it is this that has caused climate change and not the increase in CO2 emissions. According to these theories, the efforts to reduce sulphur emissions to combat acid rain have reduced the reflectivity of the atmosphere causing an increase in heating as there’s less to counteract soot.

This is interesting because it addresses the fact that the arctic is heating faster than the antarctic. The northern hemisphere is much more industrialized and the majority of particulate emissions happen here, the scientists are saying that black soot is coating the ice which makes it absorb heat more, and with reductions in sulphur more sunlight is reaching the ice for it to absorb, causing the alarming arctic melting.

The suggestion here is that in order to stabilize temperature we need to reduce soot emissions and possibly think about increasing sulphur emissions. The trouble with the second part of that is that sulphur forms acid rain which causes deforestation. hmmmmmm.

Are they right about particulates as opposed to CO2? There’s insufficient data to be sure, but I doubt that’s the whole story. The issue I have with both camps is that there ARE camps in the first place. The earth’s climate is extremely complex and in all likelihood both sides are right to a certain extent, yet both say one is completely right and the other completely wrong. This attitude is common in science but this is like 2 people fighting in a burning house. The point to take from this is that there’s a lot about the climate we don’t know, and before we invest massively in a solution we really need to more fully understand the problem.

It’s time to launch more climate study satellites and to mandate that all new commercial aircraft carry scientific instruments to study the air. There also needs to be a fully-funded international initiative to investigate geo-engineering to find and test better alternatives to dumping millions of tons of pollution into the air, although in the near future we may see the phrase “give a hoot – pollute”.

Thinking Critically About Climate Change

That global temperatures are rising over time isn’t really in dispute, neither are the serious consequences that rising oceans and weather changes could bring. Just about everything else about climate change is in dispute, however, including the causes and solutions. While carbon emissions are the cause of the month there are a myriad of other possible causes and climatologists are a very long way from being able to prove any of them. There are several assumptions and logical fallacies that are common in most people’s thoughts on climate change which need to be addressed if there is to be meaningful action.

The Problem With Climate Modelling
Regular science is conducted by forming a hypothesis that fits data and then manipulating variables to test that hypothesis in a controlled experiment. There’s simply no way to conduct a controlled experiment on the whole planet earth and no way to scale it down, so what climate scientists do these days is create computer models that explain known data. Essentially it is reverse science and it is still very new. As computing power increases scientists can create more sophisticated models, yet all models require large amounts of reliable data which is simply not available. The failed launch of NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory highlights this problem and is a serious blow to climate research as it was supposed to provide badly needed information to help plug big gaps in climate theories. Reliable and regular temperature measurements just started 100 years ago, anything older than that is largely based off scientific study of ice cores, tree rings, and other inferential data which isn’t that reliable or complete. The rates of which glaciers are receding have only been regularly measured in the past 20-30 years. The data with which to form a complete history of climate simply isn’t available and never will be until someone invents a time machine, and this further limits climate research.

In order to create an accurate computer model that explains past and and predicts future climate change then we must have a complete understanding of all factors that affect the climate, a deep understanding of their interaction, and a massive amount of consistently reliable historic climate data, none of which we have at this point. The science is in its infancy: the computer models used are basic and our understanding of the climate is very incomplete which is why some scientists are trumpeting that we are all doomed and others say they don’t think there’s anything to worry about. It will take decades before climate science becomes reliable and sophisticated enough to trust, so basing global strategy on this alone is foolish in the extreme. The climate scientists are not even in the same church, let alone singing from the same hymn sheet. This is not a dig at climate scientists as what they are doing is very important and they are progressing fast, but they have decades to go before we can really trust their results.

Correlative Fallacy
Current greenhouse-theory concerns are based on is a correlation between increases in CO2 and other gasses and the increase in temperature. Al Gore stands up and shows the world a chart which shows increases in global temperature paralleled by increases in CO2 emissions, and it looks compelling and obvious. There is danger here because it draws us into the trap of believing causality due to correlation. A correlation simply means that there may be a relation between 2 factors, not that there is. Temperature increases can be correlated with increases in sunlight, or increases in fuel prices can be correlated to an increase in the number of women dying their hair. The first correlation we know is true because it has been scientifically proven, the second is just a coincidence. Correlation does not imply a causal link between two factors, and assuming one without any proof is a mistake.

Correlations can be explained in so many ways. Let us take the relationship between the rise in global temperature and industrialization as an example. One possibility is that it is the increase in global temperature that allowed industrialization to happen as a longer growing season allowed fewer people to grow more food freeing up other people to invent technology and manufacture goods, another possibility is that the output from industrialization is causing the climate change or adding to it, or maybe it is simply a complete coincidence and one has no effect on the other. There’s simply no hard evidence to show a causal link.

If you look at correlations between the output of industrialization and increases in temperature it’s a substantial list: in addition to CO2 there have been large increases in Methane, Nitrous Oxide, CFCs, waste heat, particulate matter pollution, deforestation, and massive urbanization. All of these can be correlated to the earth’s heating trend the same way as CO2, so shouldn’t each have the same weight? Why the focus on CO2 exclusively?

Assumption of single global warming cause
Humans like things neat and tidy; we like simple cause and effect, for instance “if we reduce greenhouse gasses we will reverse climate change”. It’s a linear statement. Using Greenhouse Gas emissions as an example we can see that not only have we tried to reduce the possible theories to one we are trying to simplify it even more by focussing on carbon dioxide emissions to the exclusion of Methane, Nitrous Oxide, water vapor, and the other greenhouse gasses. There are many possible causes of climate change both man-made and natural:
– greenhouse gas emissions
– carbon dioxide
– Methane
– Nitrous Oxide
– Water Vapor
– CFCs
– Ozone
– Waste heat from electricity generation and heating systems
– Changes in Solar radiation
– Small changes in the earth’s orbit
– Albedo changes due to deforestation and widespread construction causing the earth’s surface to absorb more heat
– Natural climate cycles

The true cause of global warming could be any of these, or far more likely a combination of them and/or other factors we don’t understand or even know about as yet. Focusing on one part of one possible cause as we are doing with CO2 means we lose our big-picture view and limit our options in dealing with the problem. With greenhouse gasses it is far easier and faster for us to curb methane, CFC, Nitrous Oxide, and Ozone emissions than to curb our CO2 emissions, and these could be done far faster and cheaper without restructuring the whole global energy economy, yet these aren’t even mentioned in the press for the most part. This tunnel-vision is not only counter-productive but also downright dangerous as it could cause us to spend vast resources to solve what may be a non-existent problem, or only one part of a real problem.

Assumption of Human Causes
One repeating belief is that climate change is being caused by direct human intervention, and while there is a strong correlation between the increase of industrialization and the increase in temperature this does not in any way mean that it’s true. Man-made climate change is a compelling and emotional subject, and is in a way comforting in that if humans caused it humans can fix it. There is an abundance of evidence that shows that the earth goes through normal cycles of heating and cooling, and that heating eventually causes an ice age. Although scientists believe these changes to be gradual it is not impossible that these cycles can surge for reasons that we don’t understand. If this is true then it is counter-productive to focus on man-made atmospheric changes, and it would be wise to look at broader solutions.

Denial of Technological Solutions
Many hardcore environmentalists seem to have the firm belief that only by stopping whatever we are doing can we stop climate change. Our civilization has grown to the levels it has through extensive technology, and technology requires energy. It is impossible for us to drastically reduce the by-products of technology as we are entirely reliant on it to support the earth’s massive population. Even if we crash-stopped industrial production, drastically reduced consumption across the board to the very smallest amounts needed to sustain life we would still be producing more pollutants than we did 50 years ago just to feed and provide the basics to billions of people. Like it or not the solution is more technology, not less.

Time Pressure Fallacy
There is a very strong cultural feeling that time is running out, that we are on a course for destruction and unless we take immediate action all will end in disaster. This belief is based on the results from computer models which by climate scientists own admission are incomplete, unreliable, and don’t account for other factors. While it is possible that there is the potential for disastrous climate change the exact opposite is also possible as there’s no evidence to support either conclusion. Yes, glaciers are receding and yes global temperatures are rising, but both of those have been happening for awhile now so why is this moment that critical?

I’m not saying there’s nothing to worry about or that we should do nothing, I simply questions the wisdom of investing massive amounts of time, effort, and money to try and fix a problem that may not exist in the first place, or if it does we don’t understand properly. Before we go off half-cocked we must realize that any solution to human emissions is going to be extremely expensive in time and resources and we must make sure we have a reasonable expectation of success. It is vital that we consider all alternatives, including doing nothing.

Consider what we do know:
– Global temperature has been rising over a long period of time
– there is a correlation between recent human industrial development and an increase in the rate of rise in temperature

This isn’t much to base spending vast amounts of time, effort, and money on transforming our entire energy economy and transportation system on, especially considering that we haven’t yet developed the technology to do it., and that’s just to curb CO2 emissions.

Let’s look at more of the possible causes of climate change and their individual solutions to understand the scale of the problem:

Greenhouse Gas emissions:
– CO2: solution: completely transform energy economy, re-engineer every mode of transportation, vastly reduce energy consumption. Concrete production is a large CO2 polluter so no new construction can be allowed. Invent and implement an efficient way to sequester several trillion tons of carbon in a way that it won’t pollute our ground water or cause other detrimental effects.
– Methane: reduce all meat production, change the human diet to reduce human methane production (no more refried beans for you!)
– Nitrous Oxide: completely stop all jet transport until they can be re-engineered to eliminate NO emissions. Eliminate NO production in electricity generation
– Water Vapor: not much we can do about that to be honest
– CFCs: stop the remaining sources
– Ozone: We need ozone to avoid dying of skin cancer.

Waste Heat from Energy production, Transportation, Industry, and Heating/Cooking
For the most part we produce all the above by digging stuff up and burning it. Some of the energy is used for the work we want to do but most of it is radiated away as waste heat. There’s no way to completely stop this, even if we were able to switch to entirely efficient means of energy production there’s still home heating, cooking, and industry that will produce waste heat.

Particulates released by industry and transportation: burning things releases particulate matter into the atmosphere. These could be affecting the climate in an number of ways. On one hand they could be darkening the earth’s surface, for instance causing icebergs it to absorb more sunlight and melt, on the other hand they may be reflecting more sunlight back into space and reducing the earth’s temperature so reducing particulate emissions may actually accelerate climate change. Is one type of pollution helpful and another not?

Assumption is the Mother of All Screwups
We are making 2 assumptions here: One that global climate change is being accelerated as a result of pollutants from industrialization, and two that we can reduce the amount of these pollutants to levels where they were decades ago. The first has already been covered, the second is just as important and complex. There are two subcomponents to the second assumption: that we can reduce our pollutant output to a level that is pre-industrialization and that we can clean the biosphere over 150 years of industrial output in a few decades.

Simply reducing the output of industrial pollutants (this includes the whole list, including CO2, methane from cattle production, waste heat, etc, etc) is an enormous task: CO2 alone is a massive job requiring huge changes in power generation, transportation, and production of food and goods. Not only is the call for energy rising because of the increase in technological devices available, but the number of people on the planet who need food, clothing, and want the same technology is growing at a huge rate. We are had-pressed to provide enough energy for the earth’s burgeoning population, much less making it all non-polluting. Renewable sources are good but the technology is not where we need it if we are to make it all green, and it will also cost enormous amounts of money to do and take a very long time to do it. And that’s just electricity production, if you talk about transportation you have the same exact challenges to solve. If we want to reduce methane we will all have to vastly cut our meat production. Cutting waste heat production will require technology we don’t have as it will mean we will have to stop cooking our food and heating our homes entirely.

There is also the problem of international cooperation: technological solutions will require massive investment by all countries, and the ones least likely to participate are the developing nations as they will have trouble affording it.

So is reducing our industrial pollution to pre-industrialization levels an attainable goal? No: with current technology it would be a challenge to reduce to 1990 levels, much less 70s even if we could get the whole world to try. Renewables will help but at the end of the day we will still be talking coal. Fission is one way, however there is a finite amount of material in the ground and once we use it up that is truly it. Fusion is what we really need, however investment in the technology is completely insufficient and the technology isn’t really moving forward that quickly. Fusion solves so many problems it’s amazing we don’t have a Manhattan-project or Apollo-style effort going. It’s completely non-polluting, there’s an essentially infinite supply of fuel, and there are no by-products that could be used for weapons.

Any effort to try and scrub the biosphere of over 100 years of pollutants is a very tough job and at current technology levels we can’t even scratch the surface of the problem. Fortunately methane and NO tend to break down naturally, so long-term CO2 sequestration is the biggie here, which has not been sufficiently studied. We don’t know how much it will cost, whether CO2 that we pump back into old oil fields will actually stay there and not cause worse problems, or how we can even do it in the first place.

I am not opposed to action at this stage, I simply disagree with making an assumption on the cause and ignoring other possibilities. Climate change could very well be caused by human factors, it could be natural, or a combination of the two. Without understanding the problem implementing the right solution is impossible and any efforts could be counter-productive. We should act not by instigating a crash program to overhaul our energy infrastructure but by studying the problem and investing in research and development of technologies that can enable us to fix the problems that may exist. The climate observer satellite failed, let’s build another one fast and and make it one of many advanced climate-studying orbiters. Let’s build a very large computing base to aid climate research and give the scientists the means to improve it, and let’s pour money into researching the technology that can really make a difference: fusion power, carbon sequestration, energy storage for micro-generation, methane and NO reduction. These are all long-term goals, and they also assume that industrial pollutants are the cause, so at the same time let’s research and develop geo-engineering techniques. These will reduce global temperatures no matter what the cause of climate change and are the only available short-term solution to climate change.

I’m not a climate change denier, and I certainly don’t believe that if we leave it alone everything will be fine. What I am saying is that action without good information, good technology, and a good plan is bound to be a very costly failure and would simply be repeating the mistakes of the past where we have acted without understanding the consequences. Correlation is not proof and it’s time that governments and the people that they serve realize that. I am concerned about catastrophic climate change and I certainly don’t want to see massive upheaval and loss of life but the answer to it is not to invest trillions of dollars to reduce one single greenhouse gas now with uncertain results when we we could spend billions on geo-engineering now to stabilize the climate and go for a permanent solution later that definitely will work.

Let’s Research, then plan, then act, and not the other way around!

a geo-engineering primer

I’ve been looking into geo-engineering for the past few years and I’m surprised that it hasn’t gotten more consideration until now. For those that don’t know what I’m talking about, geo-engineering is manipulating the climate on a global scale using artificial means. It’s been put forward as a solution to global warming and until recently had been viewed as quackery by most, but is now being mooted by some very well respected scientists.

Geo-engineering ideas that combat global warming come in 2 major flavors: Carbon dioxide reduction and sunlight reflection.

Carbon dioxide reduction
combats the greenhouse gas buildup by scrubbing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing (sequestering is the fancy word) it. Less CO2, less heat trapped in the atmosphere, the cooler the earth gets. Some ideas of how to accomplish this:
– convert CO2 into a liquid form and pump it into deep ocean zones.
– pump CO2 gas into old oil fields or in large underground resevoirs
– seed the ocean with iron to feed huge plankton blooms. Most of the plankton will die and sink to the bottom where they will form the next layer of sedimentary rock. Some will be eaten and help feed fish stocks.

I have a problem with each of these. The first two are hugely energy intensive, meaning expensive, and the volume of CO2 to be dealt with is staggering, plus the technology isn’t there yet. Also, there is no long-term solution to what to do with it once it’s stored in liquid or gas form. What would happen if an earthquake suddenly released a massive quantity of CO2 into the atmosphere or into groundwater sources? Some of it is bound to escape, how much will that be and what effect will it have? Also, the natural cycle is for plants to process CO2 and release O2 while using the carbon to produce biomass and sugars, what would happen if we took CO2 out of circulation without adding the O2 back into the atmosphere?

The iron seeding is more acceptible to me because we already understand the dynamics of plankton, although I think there’s a serious danger of severe pollution problems associated with this, and how where would we get the iron?

Another major consideration is that carbon dioxide is only one of the greenhouse gases. Methane is a strong greenhouse gas and there’s a lot of it due to ever-increasing demand for livestock. There’s no known way to deal with it.

Any successful effort to artificially reduce greenhouse gasses will require a higher level of technology than we have right now and that is due to cost. We can do it now but the cost is prohibitive. It’s got to be cheap to do or it will price us right out of doing it.

Sunlight reflection cools the earth by preventing sunlight from being converted to heat. When a photon (a particle of sunlight) hits a surface it either gets reflected as a photon, or absorbed and converted into heat. Heat is then emitted into the atmosphere where some it escapes into space and the rest is trapped by the atmosphere. Sunlight reflection methods seek to increase the earth’s albedo, which is the percentage of sunlight reflected back into space instead of being absorbed as heat. Ideas come in space-based, upper atmosphere based, and surface-based flavors:

– orbit a constellation of satellites that will deflect sunlight before it gets to the earth in the first place
– detonate some large space rock in a closer orbit to the sun to block sunlight

When you consider how much one shuttle mission or a heavy-lift Airane costs the idea of a space-based solution sounds a bit rediculous, especially since we don’t have the technology to build and control large space-based reflectors. We will someday and we should definitely do some research but at this point it’s not realistic.

Upper Atmosphere:
– Manufacture a fleet of automomous reflector vehicles that will soar into the upper atmosphere and reflect light back into space
– Add particulates to jet fuel to encourage the exhaust plumes of transport aircraft to become clouds. There’s good evidence that jet exhaust is already helping global warming and this could be improved upon.
– Shoot cannon shells full of sulphur compounds into the air to create artificial clouds.

The problem of upper-atmosphere solutions is that it takes energy to get whatever it is up there in the first place and to then keep them there. Add to that the hazards of having thousands, maybe millions of autonomous robot air vehicles flying around and you get the feeling you don’t want that in your backyard. I also don’t like the idea of spraying pollution into the low atmosphere either. The jet fuel idea has promise though as we already have large fleets of aircraft flying, the costs would be minimal, and it would be easy to control.

– build a fleet of nuclear-powered ships that will go to the middle of equatorial oceans and create huge steam plumes, essentially artificial clouds, that will reflect sunlight into the atmosphere.
– Manufacture large numbers of artificial icebergs with reflective surfaces and float them in equitorial waters. Sea ice already is responsible for a sizable chunk of the earth’s reflected light.

Surface-based solutions to me are the way to go as a) you don’t have to spend energy (and therefore money) to fight gravity b) the costs are comparitively low, c) they are based on existing technology and are EASY to do, d) there are few hazards created by doing them, and e) they are easy to control.

It’s understandable why people have been shying away from geo-engineering; deliberately messing with the climate is a frightening thought. Consider however that we are already messing with the climate on a massive scale with greenhouse emissions and de-forestation, so building some space or ocean based sunlight reflectors to offset those changes isn’t crazy at all, in fact it is the only short to mid-term solution that is likely to have any effect.

Let’s look at it with cold logic:
– With the absolute best intentions any efforts to decrease greenhouse gas emissions will take decades and are going to require a massive shift in the way we source energy. Although it’s difficult to tell how long it will take there will be a point where climate change will accelerate faster than our ability to manage and then billions could die. Geo-engineering can slow or reverse climate change and give us a chance to get the technology together to reduce greenhouse emissions and manage our atmosphere.
– Climate change will cause global economic instability which could easily overpower the imperative (or the ability) to change energy sources. If people are dying or starving they won’t give a rat’s ass about arresting climate change. If we can stabilize the earth’s temperature we can prevent the widespread chaos that would scupper efforts to transform the world energy economy.
– It may not be possible politically or economically to cause enough reduction in greenhouse gasses to prevent global warming in the time we have. There’s been significant loss of rainforest due to overfarming and overpopulation which may mean that it’s an unattainable goal no matter how well we work together. Geo-engineering may be the only way to prevent widespread damage due to climate change given the objective realities of the situation.
– It’s not agreed that greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of global warming. It’s entirely possible that changes in the sun or other unknowns could be causing climate change in which case we could spend trillions on reducing greenhouse gas only to see the climate still getting hotter. Increasing the earth’s albedo is a sure-fire way to reduce the earth’s temperature.

In a medical emergency the first action should be to stabilize the patient, to keep them alive until a long-term soution can be found to their problem. Mother nature is no different: she needs first-aid right now, not major surgery.