30 May 2013

Myles Allen and the Mail on Sunday

Good piece here by Joe Romm in response to the Mail on Sunday's latest tirade against climate change policy. It raises some interesting points.

Myles Allen who wrote this piece in the MoS is a respected climate scientist. He is now a professor at Oxford and not just any professor but head of the Climate Dynamics group at the university's Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department. That's about as respectable as a climate scientist can get. So why is he choosing to appear in the Mail on Sunday, which has been pursuing a relentless and highly effective campaign against the state of climate science?

In order to get Allen on board, the Mail had to make a concession, because no way was Allen going to say that climate change isn't happening at all, or that it won't be harmful. So here, for the first time in yonks, you have what amounts to a retraction by the Mail. They allow Allen to write:

Do I think we’re doomed to disastrous warming? Absolutely not. But do I think we are doomed if we persist in our current approach to climate policy?

I’m afraid the answer is yes. Subsidising wind turbines and cutting down on your own carbon footprint might mean we burn through the vast quantity of carbon contained in the planet’s fossil fuels a little slower. But it won’t make any difference if we burn it in the end.

Now quite what all those loyal Mail readers think of this statement, having been weaned on a diet of Rose, Delingpole and Booker, one can only guess at. But having momentarily spat out their cornflakes, normal service is quickly resumed because Allen then proceeds into a lengthy and mostly non-sensical diatribe about the wonders of carbon capture and storage (CCS), and the demerits of every other mitigation or low carbon generation policy you can think of.

What's bizarre is that Allen denounces the current crop of policies as ruinously expensive and hopelessly ineffective, whilst not presenting any evidence that CCS is any better. My two favourite sentences are:

Frankly, I’d rather pay an engineer in Poland to actually dispose of carbon dioxide than some Brussels eco-yuppie to trade it around.

Why Poland? Aren't we capable of burying our own CO2? Or is Poland being annexed (again) so that we can turn it into a waste dump?


If you’re using fossil carbon to drive a car or fly a plane, you just have to pay someone else to bury CO2 for you.

Like who? And where exactly are they going to bury the CO2 coming out of the exhaust of the plane I am flying in? Or is this just code for offsetting, the sort of scam run by your typical Brussells eco-yuppie?

Allen's CCS solution to the climate change problem is worthy of debate, but just because he's a noted climate scientist doesn't make his views on what we should or should not do about CO2 dumping any more important or relevant than any other reasonably informed individual. But if you are going to argue a case for CCS on a major public platform, you would do well to marshall some coherent facts and statistics, not to mention some indication of comparative costs. Now it may be that he has been heavily edited and that what he has to say makes more sense that it appears to in this article, but then again he didn't have to write this piece.

Allen may now struggle to hang onto the respect he has gleaned as a climate scientist. The article shows the dangers inherent when scientists leave their labs and cross over into areas of policy where evidence is sketchy at best. He's managed to get the Mail on Sunday to make an admission that climate change is real and potentially devastating, but in doing so he has made himself look like an idiot.

14 May 2013

Should we engineer the climate?

Just been to a fascinating talk given by @hughhunt, an Australian academic based in Cambridge, about geo-engineering. Or climate engineering as he prefers to call it, because everyone thinks that geo-engineering is just groundworks by a fancy name. We are not talking groundworks here, but climate control. Specifically the idea that we may be able to mitigate the effects of climate change by tinkering with the atmosphere.

Hugh Hunt's research project involves the feasibility of floating a series of giant, Wembley Stadium, sized balloons 20km up into the stratosphere, each connected to the Earth's surface by a huge hosepipe, through which we would squirt titanium oxide. Why titanium oxide? It's relatively inert and believed to be fairly harmless, it being a key ingredient in white paint and sunscreen.

In fact sunscreen is an apposite metaphor because it would be the equivalent of coating the entire planet with Factor 30. In theory, it would be possible to reduce global surface temperatures by as much as 2°C using this technique. A similar effect is observed when volcanos emit sulphur dioxide as high levels and the sun gets screened out for a while afterwards. We could do it with SO2, but TiO2 is probably preferable.

That's not to say there wouldn't be issues. Hunt identified a few. The release would have to take place around the Equator because the air in the stratosphere spreads out towards the poles from there. There is no telling it would be as effective at the poles as it might be at the Equator. There might be interaction with the oceans, or with the ozone layer. And there might well be many insuperable technical issues to resolve - like how to handle storms, and what happens if the 20km long hosepipe comes loose.

And there is of course the moral hazard of dealing with the symptoms of CO2 build-up, not the root cause. It's nicely dealt with on Wikipedia.

But the really interesting thing about all this is that the preliminary costings suggest that the total cost for a project like this would be in the low billions, much less than building a single nuke, in fact much less than almost any other carbon reducing projects you might care to think of. In fact a similar amount to how much Sheik Mansour is currently investing in Manchester City. Rather than breaking the back of the cash-strapped governments around the world, it's a project which could conceivably be paid for by a few wealthy individuals or even private equity - insurance companies anyone?