Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Geoengineering fun

Eli Dourado writes of four intriguing geoengineering schemes: (HT Marginal Revolution's incomparable links.)

1. Bring back the Wooly Mammoth

The short version: Siberia used to be grassland, maintained by wooly mammoths. Grassland is colder than forests. Our ancestors killed off the wooly mammoths, and the trees took over. The permafrost is melting, which will be a huge climate amplifier. What to do?

Nikita Zimov ... is director of Pleistocene Park, a 144 km² grassy Siberian reserve founded by his father, gonzo scientist Sergey Zimov. The Zimovs have spent the past two decades ripping up trees and reintroducing grazing herds, including bison, moose, wild horses, yaks, and reindeer.
The plan is working. Nikita Zimov says the permafrost, which is at around –3º outside the park, is 17º colder (!) inside the park. 
Better yet bring back the wooly mammoth! Or rather play with elephant and wooly mammoth DNA until we get a half way new animal that can go restore the Siberian grasslands, and let it evolve a bit.
Mammoths provided the Pleistocene with the valuable services of grazing, trampling snow and moving it around to get to the grass below, and uprooting trees. Nothing will make a mammoth happier, it is thought, than ripping a tree out of the icy ground, just as modern elephants enjoy doing the same in the warmer ground of Africa. Based on everything we know, mammoths were a critical part of the Siberian Steppe ecosystem, and their extinction at human hands is what caused the forests to take hold.
I love the image of genetically engineered half wooly mammoths playfully ripping trees out of Siberia, eating grasses, and trampling ground to save the permafrost.

2. Project Vesta.
 mine large volumes of a (usually) green mineral called olivine, crush it up, and spread the resulting green sand on beaches all over the world, especially in the tropics where the water is warmest. 
It soaks up carbon dioxide and ends up on the sea floor, and eventually subjected into the mantle. That's where carbon dioxide ends up now, just much faster. And green beaches are kinda cool.
...One ton of olivine applied in Vesta’s process removes around 1.25 tons of CO₂ from the atmosphere. Olivine is superabundant, making up about half of Earth’s upper mantle...[ calculation follows ] that works out to around $9.04 per ton of CO₂ removed from the atmosphere and ocean.
$10 per ton is a great price. Many other hot ideas are $100 per ton or more.
what if we wanted to offset cumulative anthropogenic emissions since 1751? As of 2017, that was close to 1.6 trillion tons of CO₂. 1.6T × $9.04 = $14.46T through 2017. Adding $360B for each of 2018 and 2019, we arrive at a one-time cost of $15.18T for offsetting all human emissions since the dawn of the industrial revolution, which if done over 10 years, would cost 1.7% of global GDP.
3. Prometheus fuels

Short version: a chemical process that allows you to create ethanol and then other fuels from any electricity source, including nuclear, solar, etc. Fuels can be stored and transported, so the intermittent nature of much "clean" fuel doesn't matter.

4. The billion oyster project

Bring huge oysters back to New York Harbor. Ok, not much climate action but pretty cool


Cool, but like other sensible adaptation and geoengineering projects, you can tell this is going nowhere in today's environmental politics, right? Genetically engineer a new frankenspecies of mammoth and set it loose to breed? Spread green rocks on all the worlds beaches? How unsightly! You've got to be kidding right? Well, no, if the climate really is a planetary emergency.

Two little sentences from Eli are worth quoting here:
Some environmentalists don’t like geoengineering because it seems too easy: 
Indeed. Suppose we found a technical solution that did not require an uprooting of all society, "climate justice," a federal takeover of this that and the other. (Nuclear power, GMO foods, green beaches, and wooly mammoths.) How would the Green New Dealers react? Thanks, problem solved, we'll go back to other things? I doubt it.

Most deeply
 it ignores the sins of humanity, for which we must atone. 
That is indeed much of the mood on the climate left -- and the reason all sorts of technocratic solutions are going nowhere politically.

Eli makes a brave ethical argument for his GMO wooly mammoths:
..our climate impact started much earlier, during the Paleolithic era, when we hunted megafauna to extinction and therefore altered critical ecosystems. .. But in fact, using genetic engineering to revive megafauna that we wiped out to restore ecoystems that benefit the climate also atones, if that is the right way of looking it at. Hunting these magnificent creatures to extinction was our original climate sin.
Good luck with that. Maybe we should instead charge the mammoth head on: just get past the atoning for sins business and get on with solving the carbon problem in the most effective way.


  1. "Most deeply

    it ignores the sins of humanity, for which we must atone.

    That is indeed much of the mood on the climate left -- and the reason all sorts of technocratic solutions are going nowhere politically. "

    I totally agree that we should adress the risk of ecocide on a solution-based level, without the usual neopagan, Gaiastic "humanity raped Mother Nature" subtext that is present in some environmentalist movements (to be fair, the most ones are scientific and fair and lack these religious overtones).

    But geoengineering does not the trick. Ideas like the aerosol injection thingy have a lot of negative side-effects and implementing them on a worldwide scale would likely involve far more government intervention than CO2 and methane taxes.

    It's Econ 101: taxing a "bad" like the emission of climate change gases is superior to subsidizing a "good" like geonengineering as the latter implies a larger size of government and thus more tax distortions. And if you want to subsidize goods, do the stuff that works: reforestation, easing transition towards a green economy and so on.

    Polluting further while hoping for geoengineering solutions that do not really exist yet in an implementable form puts us on an ever more safe road towards ecocide than we already are.

  2. When mankind can manage a simpler system than the climate perhaps we should pursue active climate policies. Let's start by showing we can manage the economy to avoid wild swings.

    Until then, active measures to slow or reverse warming are quite likely to trigger the next ice age instead.

  3. My Geo-hack:
    Pump water down into depleted oil wells to raise the ground level to counter rising sea levels. This might work in places like Louisiana.

  4. A few points about olivine dissolution:

    1- Yes, it's a technology worth investigating.

    2- Dissolving minerals in water takes time. Of the order of 100 years. Some care likely needs to be taken to match CO2 emissions and dissolution over these decades.

    3- Dissolution of large amounts of Fe- and Ni- containing minerals in the ocean is a recipe for heavy metal poisoning. This needs to be investigated.

    4- Likewise, playing with the ocean's alkalinity is--to say the least--quite the gamble. This needs to be investigated.

  5. "Cool, but like other sensible adaptation and geoengineering projects, you can tell this is going nowhere in today's environmental politics, right?"

    Right, because people like me (climate moderates) have no interest in this sort of thing. The "green religion" crowd has become so loud it can be easy to forget they are not the only faction that matters.

    Many climate moderates simultaneously believe that: (1) the world growing warmer, in and of itself, is not a problem; but (2) we ought to nevertheless dump far less poison into the atmosphere (just visit a manufacturing city in China or India... you do not need a thermometer to understand the harm that's being done). So for less extreme green policy it's possible for moderates to jump on-board, because the POLICY (pollute less) is desirable even if the specific MOTIVE (to make the world colder) advanced by the loudest advocates seems overblown.

    That mechanism breaks-down once you start to talk about geoengineering. A vast expansion of mining (which is not such a great thing, environmentally) solely to make the world colder doesn't work for climate moderates. Wiping out a pristine forest habitat that's evolved over 10,000+ years to make the world colder doesn't work for climate moderates. Indeed virtually any policy focused on making the world colder will fail, unless the mechanism is reducing pollution, because the "reducing pollution" part is what climate moderates care about.

    So it is true the "green religion" crowds' objection to geoengineering is hypocritical. But they are not the only people who matter in this debate.

  6. Umm....if mammoths were found flash frozen intact humans didn't hunt them to extinction clearly. You gotta drop the guilt trip on yourself they are lying to you. Arctic circle is currently 95% still covered in ice even if they show you Greenland is melting during melt season. It was not record hot July. Record low coming


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