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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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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