BioCycle March/April 2015
Years ago, one of my friends drove a huge, ancient American car from the 1970s. One of its more alarming but somehow endearing features was a giant amount of what we used to call “wag” on the steering wheel. To keep the car moving straight, the driver had to quickly rotate the steering wheel from one side to the other, catching the actual steering mechanism at each end while transiting in the middle what amounted to empty space. By this action the drift of the vehicle was corrected, returning it to a straight line.
The remarkable thing about this situation was my friend did not notice this. By slowly evolving the most ridiculous patchwork solution to a problem, he failed to realize how extreme his overcompensation was, and how each motion took him farther from the proper function of the vehicle. I am reminded of this story every time we have another public discussion about the quack science of “geoengineering,” a term which covers a variety of active interventions to slow changes in the earth’s climate.
The challenge of growing the biogas industry is directly related to the challenge of moving the country and the world to a carbon constrained economy, where the deleterious effects of greenhouse gases are assigned the economic cost they deserve. As that happens, the compelling emission reduction advantages of biogas can be assigned their full value. Discussions of absurd geoengineering ideas are not productive in this context.
Howlingly Barking Mad
Two National Academy of Sciences-sponsored studies released in February address this issue, and conclude that aside from planting trees and a few other simple steps (which don’t really strike me as belonging in this category), the possible technologies are dangerous, of dubious value, or both. One author of the report is widely quoted as going further, stating “the idea of ‘fixing’ the climate by hacking the Earth’s reflection of sunlight is wildly, utterly, howlingly barking mad.”
The category of interventions he refers to is known as albedo modification techniques, and includes possible steps to reflect sunlight away from the planet, thus reducing warming. The most alarming of these ideas is to deliberately fill the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to reduce the amount of sunlight entering the atmosphere.
Sadly, this is a commonly discussed solution in this category, inspired by historical events where large volcanic eruptions lowered global temperatures. The only two events I can think of which are analogous to a large volcanic eruption are nuclear winter and the meteor collision that we refer to as the “Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.” These are not encouraging examples.
Additional ideas include: Dumping massive amounts of iron solution into the ocean to encourage plankton to bloom; Pumping melt-water out from underneath large ice caps (to keep them from sliding into the ocean) or just refreezing the water with liquid nitrogen; Spraying a fine mist of seawater into the air to “whiten” clouds; Placing large mirrors in orbit to reflect sun away from the earth; Stirring the ocean with a million plastic tubes to increase its carbon dioxide absorption; Covering all deserts in shiny material; and, “Growing shinier crops,” whatever that means.
Unfortunately, we tend to look at technology fixes to solve our problems rather than even consider changing the root causes, in this case emissions of greenhouse gasses from business as usual. In reality, the only truly effective and safe way to fight climate change is to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses. It could be argued, in fact, that focusing on technological fixes is what got us to an unsustainable carbon based economy in the first place.
In the case of geoengineering, however, we have the benefit of experience to warn us off. Previous experiments with environmental intervention even on smaller scales have not gone well. Cases in point are the numerous examples of introducing nonnative species to solve ecological problems which went horribly awry. An equally troubling problem is that these technologies could be implemented by some nations unilaterally. If there is no regard for the consequences for other parts of the world, individual efforts could make things worse. Some of the solutions are almost certain to increase desertification, storms, and other challenges the developing world is ill suited to combat.
None of this is meant to imply that technology, innovation, and a modern complex society are mutually exclusive from sustainability. They are not. Small changes in our economy, pushed by minimally intrusive policies such as a price on carbon, can get us there. We do not need cartoonish ideas to redesign the planet.
Ted Niblock develops biogas projects for NewAg Development. His column for BioCycle, BioEnergy Outlook, first appeared in 2013.