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. 

Photo: Getty
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Jeremy Corbyn urged to intervene in Momentum's feud

Pressure is growing on the Labour leader to attend to the troubled organisation's splits. 

Jeremy Corbyn is being urged to intervene to help settle the breach in Momentum, as the troubled organisation’s internal divisions again spilt into the open after a fractious meeting of the organisation’s national committee left Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, contemplating exercising his “nuclear option” and shutting down the group completely.

Proposals to give decision-making power to the whole of Momentum’s membership were narrowly defeated, with the organisation resting on a delegate system. The public argument advanced by Lansman’s allies, who backed the one member, one vote system, was that the e-ballot would give greater control to members as opposed to bogging the organisation down in hidebound procedures.

But privately, insiders admitted the plan was a gambit to see off Lansman’s internal critics, including the Alliance of Workers’ Liberty, a Troskyite grouping, who are small but well-organised, giving them an advantage over the rest of the membership.

In a blog, Laura Murray, the newly-elected women’s representative, said publicly what allies of Lansman have been saying privately for some time: that the plan of the AWL and its allies is to take over Momentum with a view to setting it up as a rival party to Labour.

Lansman’s critics, however, say that he is treating Momentum as his personal fiefdom and is stifling the internal democracy of Momentum. The division, which first flared into life following the row over Jackie Walker’s remarks at Labour party conference, has taken on an additional dimension due to the growing frustration of some at what they see as the leadership’s right turn on immigration, free movement and taxation. Clive Lewis’ remark that free movement “has not worked” and John McDonnell’s support for the 40p rate cut are particular causes for alarm.

However, Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity remains largely undimmed, and the Labour leader is coming under pressure to intervene in the row. Lansman has also met with Andrew Murray, who as well as being the father of Laura Murray is Unite general secretary’s Len McCluskey’s chief of staff and a key link into the Labour leader and McCluskey himself.   One trade union official said “I think it’s time for Jeremy and John to intervene to straighten out the situation, so we can get on with the job of holding the government to account”.

Should Corbyn refrain from wading in, Lansman still retains the ability to shut down Momentum, taking its valuable maillist with him, and starting again from scratch. However, the so-called “nuclear option” would mean crippling the left in its internal battles with the Corbynsceptics ahead of crucial clashes about conference delegates and parliamentary selections. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.