Thursday, December 20, 2007

Social engineering before geoengineering

The scientists at RealClimate have some very interesting reports from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting. I haven't had time to read through all of them, but one in particular caught my attention (#7 posted by Ray Pierrehumbert ). Pierrehumbert attended a session on geoengineering as a response to global warming.

The specific geoengineering activity the session focused upon was injecting chemicals into the stratosphere that would form sulfate aerosols to block some of the sun's radiation and effect cooling. This is "analogous to the natural effects of volcanoes" as discussed in an earlier RealClimate post "Geo-engineering in vogue...". Several of the papers from the AGU session discussed by Pierrehumbert evaluate the potential effects of such geoengineering, raising a number of scientific concerns, among them:
  • that geoengineered cooling would not be distributed around the earth in the same way that the CO2 warming is distributed (thus while average earth termperatures might be reduced, it the cooling effects would be greatest in the tropics and smallest in the Artic and would not save Artic sea ice, the polar bear, or even the Greenland ice sheet).

  • that a geoengineered atmosphere would be a drier atmosphere, and there would be less rainfall.

Other entries on RealClimate discuss geoengineering, and raise substantial scientific concerns about the effectiveness of geo-engineering as as a primary response to anthropogenic climate change (CO2 climate forcings). Ray Pierrehumbert's conclusion about geo-engineering:

"I continue to think that geoengineering is a big and unfortunate distraction,
but since the cat is out of the bag, it is good that some people are doing the
work to head off rosy and over-optimistic projections of sulfate geoengineering
as a magic bullet that could substitute for the hard but necessary work of
mitigation of CO2 emissions." (Dispatch #7)

I am not able to judge the scientific arguments surrounding geoengineering, which is why I rely on the expertise of acknowledged climate scientists like those who contribute to RealClimate. However, as a sociologist, I am competent to make judgments about the cultural, social, political and economic ramifications of geoengineering. My professional sociological opinion is that discussions of geoengineering [regardless of their grounding in research] distract us from focusing on necessary social changes.

As serious as the climate change issue is (and it is very serious), it is only one of a myriad environmental and economic justice issues that need to be addressed through social, economic and political changes.

I could (if I had endless time, and no need to write 10 more lectures for an on-line course before January 7) discuss dozens of examples of areas that while connected to global warming have many other reasons why change is needed. I will just give a couple of examples, and refer you to several terrific books -- Meadows, Randers, Meadows The Limits to Growth: The 30 Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004 and Lester Brown Plan B 2.0 Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble, W. W. Norton, 2006.

Example # 1 -- electricity generated by burning coal. As a resident of eastern Kentucky coalfields, I can tell you unequivocally that even if some one were to scientifically demonstrate beyond a doubt tomorrow (ain't going to happen) that CO2 has absolutely nothing to do with global warming, we should still move as quickly as possible to drastically cut our use of coal to generate electricity. Coal mining is an exceptionally destructive extractive activity. It destroys not only "the environment," it destroys people, their lives, health, homes, and families as well.

I have nothing but the greatest respect for coal miners. I live next door to them, I teach their children, and when they become disabled and go to college to find a new way of earning a living I teach former coal miners also. In the twenty-first century, human beings should not have to put themselves in path of life and health endangering work, simply because there is no other alternative for a decent wage in their communities. Underground coal mining is by far the most dangerous occupation in America. As for surface mining, nothing is so destructive to the face of the earth, dislocating all kinds of plant and animal species -- including the human species -- from their homes.

Each time that I have to drive over the pass from Kentucky to Virginia and back again, I look out (in either direction) at what was once uninterrupted forested hills, into what is quickly becoming a nightmare Mars-scape. This is not happening "out there" some where in some isolated wilderness (not that I want it to happen there either). It is happening within feet of people's homes, churches, stores, and businesses. It's causing some water sources to dry up, and others to become raging floods at the slightest rain.

Then there are all the environmental and health consequence of the burning of coal, totally aside from the issue of CO2. There is the acid rain (from the sulfate aerosols) that turns lakes sterile, destroys forests, and eats away at human buildings and vehicles. There's the mercury that enters the atmosphere with every ton of coal burned, to land in water and soil, creating a hazardous legacy for our children and children's children.

The fact that on top of all these other reasons for reducing coal use, there is global warming and all the best science says that humanly produced CO2 (with coal burning be #1 culprit) is responsible for a significant portion of the climate forcing, makes it all the more imperative to reduce reliance on coal for electricity. We need to dramatically reduce our use of energy -- more efficiency, smaller homes, less gadgets. This is technically easy -- far easier than ramping up the use of wind, solar, geo-thermal or wave power to generate electricity -- but socially and economically very hard.

Sure changing light bulbs to energy efficient compact fluorescent bulbs will help, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. All the life style habits that we have developed over the last fifty years need to be reversed. We need lives that are simpler and less energy intensive. We need to remove ourselves from the thrall of advertising and consumption. This is not a simple matter of will power. Entire communities, regions, industries depend upon our consumption of electrical energy and the products that use electrical energy. Nonetheless, individuals and families would benefit hugely, in reduced costs and reduced stress (financial and psychological), from making these changes.

Example #2 -- oil in the form of gasoline for powering private vehicular transportation. Again, utterly aside from the roll that burning gasoline plays in producing CO2 and global warming, there are substantial reasons to dramatically rethink and redesign our transportation system.

Let's begin with the finite nature of the supply of oil. Whether the "peak" of oil production has already occurred, is occurring, will occur in the next 10 years, the next 30 years, or even the next 40 years (the most optimistic prediction I've seen comes from the USGS, and it calls for about 30 years), the fact of the matter is that in less than two generations oil production will decline, but unless there are drastic changes in the U.S., China, and many other nations the demand for oil will continue to climb higher and higher.

When supply decreases and demand increases, prices go through the roof (even without considering the geo-political issues like war). I've already discussed the outrageous costs of using private automotive transportation today. These costs will only increase, becoming more and more onerous especially in rural areas like where I currently live, where there are no public transportation alternatives. We have to create those alternatives. It is the only decent thing to do for those who care about people, about the conditions under which they live and work, and the quality of life that they have.

Then there are the geo-political issues about WHERE oil is. I don't care how much posturing our politicians (of whatever party) make about national security, terrorism, democracy, or weapons of mass destruction. We are embroiled in Iraq because it has oil, and some people (who should be struck dumb for this) are talking about attacking Iran -- because it has oil. We've made alliance with Saudi Arabia (one of the most politically repressive nations) because it has oil. Oil may not be the only cause of war and violence, but it is sure one of the big ones. Support the troops, give less money to supporters of terrorism -- use less oil!

Then there are the environmental issues of oil apart from the whole global warming issue -- the ozone and smog produced by millions of gasoline engines charging over urban freeways; the spills from pipelines, tankers, drilling platforms and refineries that pollute water, and kill wildlife.

While there are technical challenges to overcome in transportation, the even bigger obstacles are cultural attitudes, social habits, and economic and political institutions that are all built around the private auto. We have enshrined the auto in this country. The old "Mr. Goodwrench" commercial said "It's not just your car, it's your freedom," and we've bought this nonsense hook-line and sinker.

The level of transformation required involves the location of places of work and shopping, the organization of streets and homes, patterns of residence, education, entertainment, and many, many more. These changes will not only deal with environmental issues, they will deal with human issues. Making public transportation supported by taxes and fares available to all, creating safe ways for walking and biking, and redesigning communities around foot and bike traffic will not only benefit "the environment," they will benefit the health and well-being of people. Road rage will be replaced by cardiovascular fitness.

In sum, discussions of geoengineering to reduce global temperature, even if these plans are not fraught with technical and environmental problems, distract us from focusing on changing the way we live, so that we can all have decent lives, in a healthier, more efficient society.


E. R. Dunhill said...

Who do you like in Iowa? Or, which is the least evil?

E. R. Dunhill said...

I brought up some weeks ago the idea of a collaborative blog. If you're still interested in such an effort, I've put together a workspace to begin throwing around ideas.
What's your preferred email address, so that I can issue the invitation into the workspace blog? If you prefer not to post it here, I can come up with an alternative.


Sue said...

erd -- I am supporting Edwards.

Sue said...

erd -- If you click on my profile, the contact link takes you to my personal webpage, and at the bottom where it says "all photographs by.." is a mailto link you can use.