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Termination shock

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The summer of 2024 may turn out to be unusually long and hot:

To the extent that nations have agreed on anything about climate change, it’s that we need to limit that temperature rise; with the 2016 Paris climate accords, nations adopted a resolution that committed them to “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C above pre-industrial levels.”

The method to accomplish this was supposed to be the reduction of emissions of carbon dioxide and methane by replacing fossil fuels with clean energy. That is happening—indeed, the pace of that transition is quickening perceptibly in the United States, with the adoption of the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act and its ambitious spending on renewable power. But it’s not happening fast enough: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that we need to cut worldwide emissions in half by 2030, and we’re not on track to come particularly close to that target—in this country or globally. Even before 2030, we may, at least temporarily, pass the 1.5-degree mark. In late September, the longtime NASA scientist James Hansen, who has served as the Paul Revere of global warming, pointed out on his Web site that 2022, like most years in recent decades, will be one of the hottest on record, which is remarkable in this case, because the Pacific is in the grips of a strong La Niña cooling cycle. And the odds are strong, Hansen wrote, that there will be a hot El Niño cycle sometime next year, which means that “2024 is likely to be off the chart as the warmest year on record . . . Even a little futz of an El Nino — like the tropical warming in 2018-19, which barely qualified as an El Nino — should be sufficient for record global temperature. A classical, strong El Nino in 2023-24 could push global temperature to about +1.5°C.”

A strong El Nino essentially gives the world a sneak preview of what a typical summer will look like in ten to fifteen years. This is what happened in the wake of the summer of 1998: for more than a decade afterwards the climate denialists claimed that global temperatures were cooling, as the strong El Nino that year kept 1998 as the warmest year on record.

The political implications in the United States of a global +1.5 degree C. 2024 should be interesting. So who or what is riding to the rescue?

It’s likely, in other words, that conditions may force a reckoning with the idea of solar geoengineering—of blocking from the Earth some of the sunlight that has always nurtured it. Andy Parker is a British climate researcher who has worked on geoengineering for more than a decade—first at the Royal Society and then at Harvard’s Kennedy School—and now runs the Degrees Initiative. He told me, “For the whole time I’ve worked on this, it’s been like nuclear fusion—always a few decades away no matter when you ask. But there are going to be events in the next decade or so that will sharpen people’s minds. When temperatures approach and then cross 1.5 centigrade, that will be a non-arbitrary moment.” He added, “That’s the first globally agreed climate target we’re on course to break. Unless we find a way to remove carbon in quantities not imaginable presently, this would be the only way to stop or reverse rapidly rising temperature.”

What’s particularly notable about this bright idea is that pretty much all the scientists who are working on it are basically against doing it, for reasons that include:

(1) Unanticipated secondary effects.

(2) Highly variable primary effects, with solar geoengineering being temporarily good for some countries and temporarily bad for others. What if Chinese solar geoengineering causes massive flooding in India, for example? Or an Indian initiative has a disastrous effect on fellow nuclear weapons-wielding Pakistan?

(3) “Termination shock,” which is what scientists call what happens when somebody with an air force or ICBMs ends the experiment unilaterally, causing conditions to very suddenly accelerate to the point they would have been without the geoengineering, which is even worse than a more gradual warming.

So why would anybody even consider advocating doing something this wildly unpredictable and risky? Well . . .

Another party with a clear interest, however, possesses enormous influence, and that’s the fossil-fuel industry. Its history with regard to climate change—which began, as great investigative reporting has now made clear, by organizing large-scale efforts to lie about the dangers of global warming, even as its own scientists were making those dangers clear inside the industry—provides abundant evidence that it will act to protect its business model for as many years as it can, without regard for much of anything else. A technology promoted by its advocates as a way to “buy time” for the planet could be seen by Big Oil as a way to buy time for itself.

It couldn’t be more obvious what’s going to happen here now could it? With thirty trillion dollars worth of coal and oil in the ground that needs to stay there if the world is going to hit the 1.5 degree target, and with the price of renewable energy plunging in a way that is making that target more economically feasible even in the short term, the oil and gas industry has a trump card up its sleeve. That card is the tastes great/less filling pitch that if we’re willing to tweak Ye Olde Atmosphere just a touch, we can keep burning gigatons of carbon for a few more decades, without continuing to raise global temperatures:

The industry, in order to keep its business model intact, has turned first to “carbon sequestration” schemes—the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, for instance, is larded with money to put expensive machinery on fossil-fuel-fired power plants, to catch the CO2 as it leaves the smokestack and then pipe it underground. These measures are incredibly costly, especially since solar and wind energy are already cheaper than fossil fuel. (There’s overlap between the proponents of these technologies and those investigating geoengineering—as Naomi Klein pointed out in her 2014 book, “This Changes Everything,” in 2009, David Keith, of Harvard, co-founded a company, called Carbon Engineering, to build machines to suck CO2 from the air, which received funding from, among others, one of the biggest players in Canada’s tar-sands oil industry.) And geoengineering is likely to be the next step in this progression: “In a few years,” Biermann said, “people like the Koch family will jump on solar dimming. They’ll say, ‘Listen, we don’t have to reduce emissions so brutally and so quickly, because we have a Plan B for the next thirty or forty years.’ It’s the same as climate denial, in that it helps people have doubts.”

Look for this proposal in a New York Times op-ed by a Reasonable Republican ™ near you. Or rather look for this to be argued for constantly everywhere in Even the Liberal media, because that’s how the game is played.

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