The coal-burning Clinch River Power Plant, one of the largest air polluters in Virginia. Photo: Matt Wasson/Flickr
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Hacking the climate instead of reducing emissions is “irrational and irresponsible”, report finds

A major new study of geoengineering techniques finds them an unrealistic distraction from more immediate action to tackle climate change.

Not only do two of the most popular ideas put forward for mitigating climate change – so-called “geoengineering” – need substantially more research before they can be considered safe, but doing so instead of reducing carbon dioxide emissions today would be “irrational and irresponsible” on the part of the public and policymakers.

That’s the summary of a major investigation by the US National Research Council, published this week in the hopes of informing “the technological, ethical, legal, economic and political discussions that surround the topic of climate intervention”. The two proposals studied – removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or blocking heat from the sun – are seen as unrealistic and overambitious, relative to our current technological abilities.

Human intervention is the major contributing factor in the changing chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere. Its fragility and complexity has meant that a small global rise in temperature in the last century (roughly 0.85 degrees) has already had severe ramifications, like depleted polar sea ice, accelerated sea level rise and more intense, more prolonged heat waves. Over the last few years, as greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and international governments struggle to achieve serious agreement on fixing the problem, some scientists and entrepreneurs have gravitated towards geoengineering as the solution.

To give a sense of how serious climate change is, and how long-lasting the damage will be, it would take a thousand years to get back to the pre-Industrial Revolution “normal” equilibrium if all our carbon dioxide emissions (besides, well, breathing) were to stop today. To avoid the worst effects of global warming, present day gas emissions would have to be reduced by at least 90 per cent, but the political, economical and social issues blocking action may well continue for years to come. The UN Climate Summit at Paris in December 2015 will have 196 countries attempt to agree on a new agreement for a meaningful legal action on climate change, but the chances of a major new deal are slim.

This sense that time is running out has given geoengineering, previously a fringe discipline, a new kind of respectability. Yet, as the NRC reports conclude, that’s not good enough - climate intervention technology is still in its infancy; there are plenty of issues left to be resolved, such as its effectiveness, economic cost and the potential for unintended consequences.

The 400-page report, authored by the 16 members of the NRC’s multidisciplinary Committee on Geoengineering Climate, is split into two volumes: one assesses carbon dioxide removal (CDR), the other solar radiation management (or “albedo modification”).

When it comes to CDR, the report finds that the technology to suck up and trap CO2 from the atmosphere is extremely primitive, and for reasons “largely related to slow implementation, limited capacity, policy considerations, and high costs of presently available technologies” it’s a non-starter for now. This includes methods like iron fertilisation, for example, where iron filings are dumped into oceans, causing massive plankton blooms. When that plankton dies, they take the carbon dioxide with them to the sea floor, where it (hopefully) remains indefinitely. Yet it could cause a knock-on effect by changing the ecology of the oceans, upsetting food chains, suffocating fish and leading to marine species extinctions.

The committee concluded that effective, industrial-scale CDR tech is still many years away, but regardless, “it is increasingly likely that we will need to deploy some form of CDR to avoid the worst impacts of climate change".

Albedo modification, the other alternative, deals with controlling how much of the Sun’s light and energy is reflected from the Earth back into space by spraying aerosols from planes – either to induce thicker cloud cover, or to make existing clouds whiter and, therefore, more reflective.

The report found that AR “shows some evidence of being effective at temporarily cooling the planet, but at a currently unknown environmental price”. The profound side effects of trying to control the amount of light and heat that reaches the Earth’s surface should not be underestimated – the unforeseen side effects on everything from agricultural yields to extreme weather are currently unknown. “Understanding of the ethical, political, and environmental consequences of an albedo modification action is relatively less advanced than the technical capacity to execute it,” the authors write.

The positives and negatives of two main types of geoengineering proposals. Image: NRC

The Committee concluded that "climate change is a global challenge, and addressing it will require a portfolio of responses with varying degrees of risk and efficacy". They go on:

There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, together with adaptation of human and natural systems to make them more resilient to changing climate. However, if society ultimately decides to intervene in Earth’s climate, the Committee most strongly recommends any such actions be informed by a far more substantive body of scientific research — encompassing climate science and economic, political, ethical, and other dimensions  than is available at present."

Tosin Thompson writes about science and was the New Statesman's 2015 Wellcome Trust Scholar. 

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.