Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Fixing the climate puzzle?

The trouble with prevailing emission reduction approaches is that even if these are put to use the global temperature will continue to rise, nullifying impact of such interventions at the global scale.

That the Earth is getting warmer slowly but surely and that there isn’t much the global climate negotiations have been able to achieve thus far, geo-engineering the planet to put a plug on rising temperature is beginning to gain serious currency. Despite its social, moral, technical and political pitfalls, discussions on creating stratospheric veil(s) to reduce influx of solar radiations has been projected as one of the most potent  options for slowing down the process of global warming.  

The Planet Remade
by Oliver Morton
Granta, London. Extent 428, Price £ 20
This concept is borne out of the harsh realization that there is not enough being done to cut down the global carbon emissions yet. Having risen from the pre-industrial levels of 280 parts per million to a high of 400 parts per million today and with projections that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will double before the turn of the present century, options before the mankind are limited by the extent of its current technological prowess. Further, neither is our obsession with coal-fired power plants waning anytime soon nor are carbon-neutral technological options on offer as yet. Solar, wind and nuclear are possible decarbonizing substitutes but their scaling up poses a formidable challenge. Should the world decide to replace coal-based plants with nuclear power, it would need to build one large nuclear power plant per week for next two decades. And, if we were to think about solar instead, it would mean installing solar panels at the present rate for next fifteen decades. 

On top of it, the trouble with prevailing emission reduction approaches is that even if these are put to use the global temperature will continue to rise, nullifying any potential impact of such interventions at the global scale. It is here that Plan B of mimicking large volcanic eruptions, which inject huge quantities of sunlight-reflecting aerosols into the atmosphere, has been brought into consideration. Reference is made to the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo eruptions of June 1991 in the context of geo-engineering, which caused the average global surface air temperature to cool by about 0.5% between 1991 and 1992. What nature can do, mankind can do better! ‘Using the slowed warming as a breathing space in which to deploy more and better zero-emission technologies would be a good strategy,’ argues accomplished science writer Oliver Morton. Since the planet has been remade, is being remade, and will be remade in future, what stops science to take nature into its own realm?

It is a vexed question that cannot be clearly answered till the working of the earthsystem is understood in its entirety. That the natural system is anything but linear is at the root of getting a sense of geo-engineering predicament in affecting desired effect. Even the veil produced by Pinatubo has not been well understood, in terms of the total volume of volcanic dust it spewed into the atmosphere, the composition and size of different particles, and the interaction between them in space. Yet, Morton, after whom Asteroid 10716 has been named, examines the issue from diverse cultural and scientific perspectives in suggesting that geo-engineering be given more anticipatory consideration such that its impacts and implications are better understood.  

The Planet Remade is an authoritative take on the issue, backed by evidence on manipulating various natural cycles (viz., nitrogen, carbon and sulphur) as a precursor to taking a calculated risk with geo-engineering. To affect such a change at the planetary scale would warrant a governance mechanism that takes into account the geographical specificity of the unintended effects. Those who fear that geo-engineering will do more harm than good feel it on the ground that the atmosphere matters differently to people located in vulnerable areas like the shores and the deserts. Further, that the most powerful countries have the vested interest in manipulating the atmosphere in their favor. 

Morton is a stylish writer who organizes the text on a technical subject with such finesse that it makes for engaging reading. He presents multiple dimensions of the issue for an informed public debate. That geo-engineering solutions are likely to persist in the global policy arena; there is no choice but to take them seriously at all levels. Far from taking a position on whether or not geo-engineering is the solution, the author instead questions if ‘climate change’ itself is a problem in the first place. It is a complex relationship between the industrialized civilization and the earthsystem that is shaping up the formation of imagined catastrophes. The challenge and task is to use technology to convert the doomsday prediction to unabashed utopias.  It calls for a world order wherein people take care of the sky instead of taking control of the sky. 

Can Science Fix Climate Change?
 by Mike Hulme
Polity, UK. Extent 158, Price $12.95
Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits.

Mike Hulme, a professor of Climate and Culture at London’s King’s College, holds no two opinions that the proposals to use stratospheric aerosols to cool the planet is inherently flawed and deeply undesirable, if not dangerous. Engineering the world’s climate by using global temperature as the control variable cannot secure the intended benefits for humans and the things that matter to them. Hulme’s argument is that the environmental, political, and psychological costs of designing global climate through aerosol injections overwhelmingly outweigh any assumed benefits.

Research studies show that it may not be possible to stabilize the climate in all regions simultaneously as regional diversity in the response to different levels of aerosol injection could make geo-engineering a difficult proposition. Hulme evaluates an array of geo-engineering technologies including orbital mirrors, ocean fertilization, carbon capture, and urban whitewashing in his assessment, and concludes that none of it is technically feasible to be up scaled at the planetary level. Add to it is the fact that the computer simulation models are far from accurate to determine possible risks of geo-engineering at a scale. There are limits to human knowledge afterall; our species is a product of evolution, not its author or controller.    

This slim volume argues that human-induced climate change is not the sort of problem that lends itself to technological end-of-pipe solutions. Instead, climate change is a ‘wicked problem’ and would need to be approached differently. Hulme suggests ‘climate pragmatism’ for reframing the problem of climate change: first, by decoupling the energy question from it and second, by recognizing that there are many different ways that alter the functioning of the atmosphere. Viewing the singular problem of climate change through the lens of climate pragmatism can lead the world to a three-pronged strategy: first, enhance social resilience to meteorological extremes; second, reduce emissions of atmospheric pollutants other than carbon dioxide as well, and third, meet the growing demand for energy in the world cheaply, reliably and sustainably. By suggesting climate pragmatism as an approach, the author seeks to advance human welfare and human development for fixing the climate change. 

Review of The Planet Remade was first published in Current Science, and Can Science Fix Climate Change review first appeared on AnthemEnviroExpertReviews.

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