It's been quite a hectic few months and I've stopped blogging due to a combination of a family holiday (OK, not all hectic), a mountain of marking in September and teaching starting in October. I'm also feeling a little weary from the efforts of managing SPICE, and being involved in several other large projects focused on geoengineering (EuTRACE) , volcanic ash clouds (VANAHEIM, CREDIBLE) and increasing resilience for those vulnerable during volcanic crises (STREVA). They are all interesting in different ways and very time consuming.
I'd like to write a little on two recent events that have happened that are of interest to me. One is obviously related to climate engineering, one less so but a salutary lesson nonetheless. The lesson comes from the recent verdict from the L'Aquila trial of seven eminent seismologists who were challenged to assess the likelihood of an earthquake happening in the near future near L'Aquila in Italy. They 'failed' to predict the earthquake and have been jailed for manslaughter. This is a lengthy overview. I am most interested in the points raised here by Prof. David Speigelhalter (whom I know from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that both of us were on during the volcanic ash crisis of 2010). The question, of course, is this: if scientists are accountable for not predicting natural disasters (wholly unfairly in my opinion) that what becomes of those who sanction climate engineering. If we undertake large-scale engineering, particularly those that have trans-boundary effects (including SRM and iron fertilization), who will carry the can? More importantly, how will we disentangle 'our' signature from that of 'nature' (a quite ridiculous construct at ca. 400 ppm carbon dioxide) - how can we ever know what would have happened?
Secondly, the recent iron fertilization 'experiment' also leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I agree wholeheartedly that it undermines legitimate research and I believe, as I think my actions have demonstrated, that profit, or even the perception of profiteering, have no place in research in climate engineering. I happily accept that the commercial sector is not the innermost parts of the seven circles of hell it is often compared to, but, in terms of trust I believe that those who refuse to even consider personal gain as a motive for improved understanding are those best placed to act for the greater good.
I'd also like to report briefly on two events that I have enjoyed significantly more than reading about the above. The first was a public meeting at the University of East Anglia to assist with the work of a PhD student garnering opinion about climate engineering - I undertook this with Jon Talyor, head of climate at WWF. On paper this might look like a adversarial set up, but far from it. It was a fascinating experience that restored some of my faith in human nature. The second was a stakeholder meeting for SPICE, with Hugh, Kirsty and Chris (from CUED) with representatives of civil societies. It was under Chatam House rules (a report is imminent from the facilitator) but suffice to say it was a challenging, difficult, fascinating, illuminating and exceptionally worthwhile effort. I'd like to praise all concerned for the spirit in which the meeting was held and for the frankness of the discussions. I hope we will continue with this process.
My current bugbear, which I was allowed to air during the meeting is the point scoring that more extreme NGO's seem to feel the need to entertain. Despite what anyone tells you, the SPICE testbed was postponed solely by the stategate panel (a group of five thinkers with backgrounds in social science, atmospheric science, engineering and environmentalism) before NGO objection and called off by SPICE. Anyone who claims to have got it 'cancelled' or 'shut down' is either deluded, or, more likely, knowingly claiming to have influence where they had none. Privately, I bet they'd be willing to admit this; publically, they feel the need to 'fight their corner'. This posturing does a huge disservice to both the stagegate panel and to me and Hugh who agonised about these decisions.
'The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, or SPICE, is a British academic consortium that seeks to mimic the actions of volcanoes like Pinatubo by pumping particles of sulfur dioxide, or similar reflective chemicals, into the stratosphere through a twelve-mile-long pipe held aloft by a balloon at one end and tethered, at the other, to a boat anchored at sea.
The consortium consists of three groups. At Bristol University, researchers led by Matt Watson, a professor of geophysics, are trying to determine which particles would have the maximum desired impact with the smallest likelihood of unwanted side effects. Sulfur dioxide produces sulfuric acid, which destroys the ozone layer of the atmosphere; there are similar compounds that might work while proving less environmentally toxic—including synthetic particles that could be created specifically for this purpose. At Cambridge, Hugh Hunt and his team are trying to determine the best way to get those particles into the stratosphere. A third group, at Oxford, has been focussing on the effect such an intervention would likely have on the earth’s climate.
Hunt and I spoke in Cambridge, at Trinity College, where he is a professor of engineering and the Keeper of the Trinity College clock, a renowned timepiece that gains or loses less than a second a month. In his office, dozens of boomerangs dangle from the wall. When I asked about them, he grabbed one and hurled it at my head. “I teach three-dimensional dynamics,’’ he said, flicking his hand in the air to grab it as it returned. Hunt has devoted his intellectual life to the study of mechanical vibration. His Web page is filled with instructive videos about gyroscopes, rings wobbling down rods, and boomerangs.
“I like to demonstrate the way things spin,’’ he said, as he put the boomerang down and picked up an inflated pink balloon attached to a string. “The principle is pretty simple.” Holding the string, Hunt began to bobble the balloon as if it were being tossed by foul weather. “Everything is fine if it is sitting still,’’ he continued, holding the balloon steady. Then he began to wave his arm erratically. “One of the problems is that nothing is going to be still up there. It is going to be moving around. And the question we’ve got is . . . this pipe”—the industrial hose that will convey the particles into the sky—“is going to be under huge stressors.’’ He snapped the string connected to the balloon. “How do you know it’s not going to break? We are really pushing things to the limit in terms of their strength, so it is essential that we get the dynamics of motion right.’’
Most scientists, even those with no interest in personal publicity, are vigorous advocates for their own work. Not this group. “I don’t know how many times I have said this, but the last thing I would ever want is for the project I have been working on to be implemented,’’ Hunt said. “If we have to use these tools, it means something on this planet has gone seriously wrong.’’
“When people say we shouldn’t even explore this issue, it scares me,’’ Hunt said. He pointed out that carbon emissions are heavy, and finding a place to deposit them will not be easy. “Roughly speaking, the carbon dioxide we generate weighs three or four times as much as the fuel it comes from.” That means that a short round-trip journey—say, eight hundred miles—by car, using two tanks of gas, produces three hundred kilograms of carbon dioxide. “This is ten heavy suitcases from one short trip,’’ Hunt said. “And you have to store it where it can’t evaporate.
“So I have three questions, Where are you going to put it? Who are you going to ask to dispose of this for you? And how much are you reasonably willing to pay them to do it?” he continued. “There is nobody on this planet who can answer any of those questions. There is no established place or technique, and nobody has any idea what it would cost. And we need the answers now.”
Hunt stood up, walked slowly to the window, and gazed at the manicured Trinity College green. “I know this is all unpleasant,’’ he said. “Nobody wants it, but nobody wants to put high doses of poisonous chemicals into their body, either. That is what chemotherapy is, though, and for people suffering from cancer those poisons are often their only hope. Every day, tens of thousands of people take them willingly—because they are very sick or dying. This is how I prefer to look at the possibility of engineering the climate. It isn’t a cure for anything. But it could very well turn out to be the least bad option we are going to have.’’