Monday, 1 October 2007

Stirring up a solution to climate change

Recent media coverage (see here also) of a proposal to remove carbon dioxide from the Earth's atmosphere facinated this blogger (sad life that I live...). Not just because I began to wonder just how much carbon you would generate making pipes that are
100 to 200 metres long, 10 metres in diameter

(btw we'd need over 100 million of them to have a significant impact on carbon levels...). Nor simply because it comes in the form of a letter to the Editor of Nature penned by Gaia theorist James Lovelock, but also from the perspective of how the media jumps on such stories from time to time. For now, let's leave somewhat aside the question of whether or not such pumps/stirrers/giant tubes would actually work - there seems to be some doubt, even amongst those who subscribe to Lovelock's Gaia world-view - as I'm hardly a qualified climate chemist who could pass judgment either way. What interests me more is the extraordinary media excitement at the mere possibility that technology may provide relief from the impact of rising carbon emissions.

Taking a step back, we can see that the ocean pipes are an idea, a concept. True, an American firm is developing similar pipes which could, eventually, be used as stirrers to bring colder water from the ocean floor to the surface to enhance the ocean's ability to act as a 'carbon sink.' But Lovelock, and his co-correspondent to Nature,
Professor Rapley... head [of] the Science Museum... said the two men
developed the ocean pipes concept during country walks in James Lovelock's
beloved Devon.

Nice. I'm not belittling blue-sky thinking when it comes to arguably the greatest challenge ever to face our planet, not at all. Indeed, ocean stirrers may well work. But how is it that an untested, highly speculative idea, when expressed by climatologists as a letter to the Editor of a scientific journal (without references or any primary data, as opposed to a Letter, which is generally a shortened version of an Article in such a journal and therefore is peer-reviewed), makes it as front page news?

Perhaps it's because quick-fix technological solutions to climate change are so attractive. In a surprisingly in-depth (relatively speaking anyway) article on Lovelock's proposals, Fox News (stay with me folks, this piece goes as far as to acknowledge that temperatures may be affected by man's activities, and that this may be a bad thing... ;-)) takes a look at other seemingly technological "solutions" recently reported, including:

— Constructing a "sun shade" by creating an artificial ring of small particles
or spacecraft that would block some of the sun's rays from hitting the Earth,
thereby reducing heating
— Shooting sulfur into the air to reflect incoming
solar radiation back to space (volcanoes do this naturally when they erupt)
— Making airplane flights longer by requiring planes to fly at lower altitudes,
which could reduce the formation of heat-trapping contrails
— Injecting carbon dioxide into wet, porous rocks deep underground to store it there for thousands of years, a process known as carbon sequestration
— Or dumping iron into the ocean, also to stimulate the growth of algae, in the hopes the blooms will act as a major carbon sink.

Again, I don't wish to disparage any of the above, far from it - perhaps a combination of these approaches could indeed slow the progress of climate change. However, media outlets are generally quick to seize upon easy solutions involving space mirrors or ocean stirrers or the like. Is this because newspapers are reluctant to delve into the possibility that the best way to avoid climate change, really, comes down to a reduction in consumption of resources, particularly fossil fuels, particularly by the West and Indo-China? Discuss.

One thing's for sure, there are parallells here between the media's salivating phwoaar response to such technological fixes for climate change (endorsed by that champion of environmental thinking, President George W. Bush, no less), and the medicalisation of common conditions and ailments, through which we as a society increasingly seek biochemical cures and fixes. The search for a "pill that cures obesity," a "supplement that makes you clever" or indeed a "diluted herb extract that prevents depression" surely originates in our avoidance of the root causes of these complex issues, in preference to quick-fix E-Z-Cure biochemical solutions. This isn't an original theory, it's been well discussed elsewhere. But what of our propensity to avoid tough choices in terms of climate change, prefering instead as we do to look towards market-based buck-passing exercises and technology to save us? Is this also a symptom of finger-in-ears-la-la-la syndrome, where a childlike urge to wishfully imagine an easy solution to an inherently complex situation takes over? To me, certainly.

As I said above, discuss...

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