Every silver lining has a cloud

Little is certain in the field of global climate prediction. But one thing is for sure: if all those worst-case scenarios made so much of by environmentalists come true, we really are screwed.

So you might expect those same environmentalists to be rather excited by a project that claims to be able to stabilise global temperatures at the push of a button, and keep them stable while the world makes the transition to energy sources of the future. Except that they’re not. In fact, if their reaction to the project is anything to go by, either they don’t believe their own press releases, or trying out new things in order to save the planet is not one of their top priorities.

There has been no shortage of suggestions over recent decades for large-scale ‘engineering fixes’ for global warming, some more outlandish than others. They have ranged from seeding the oceans with iron filings to draw down atmospheric CO2, to the launching of billions of aluminised balloons to reflect the sun’s rays away from the Earth, to the installation of giant mirrors in space that intercept those rays before they reach us. Atmospheric physicist John Latham’s idea is perhaps more down-to-Earth than most, although whether it can provide a ‘solution’ to climate change remains very much up for debate. In the 1980s, Latham, professor emeritus at Manchester University, and now at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, realised that the Earth already had the hardware in place for reflecting sunlight back into space.

While some types of cloud have an insulating effect on the planet, others, such as the low-altitude stratocumulus variety that covers much of the world’s oceans, reflect incoming sunlight. Latham’s idea, which he first published in the science journalNaturein 1990, is to make the silver linings of those stratocumulus clouds a little bit more silvery, by injecting salt crystals into the atmosphere to seed the formation of the water droplets that comprise them. In this way, he claims, ‘one can produce a degree of cooling in a controlled way, to try and balance the warming produced by the burning of fossil fuels’. He calculates that to achieve the desired effect on cloud reflectivity would require treating them with ‘a cupful’ of salt per km2 per hour.

‘It’s a very interesting idea, and one that is based on sound cloud physics’, says Alan Gadian, climate scientist at the University of Leeds. He is impressed that, because the technique would be augmenting a natural process (breaking waves are constantly throwing vast quantities of salt up into the atmosphere), it carries relatively little risk. And should things go awry, he says, ‘you could just stop producing these salt crystals and the system would return to its normal state’. John Shepherd, director of the University of Southampton’s Earth System Modelling Initiative, agrees. ‘In principle, the idea is sound’, he says. ‘The big question is whether they can get enough sea salt nuclei into the atmosphere.’

And that’s down to Stephen Salter, professor of engineering at the University of Edinburgh, who is best known for his invention of ‘Salter’s duck,’ a device for harnessing energy from waves. For the current project, he has designed a fleet of specialised ocean-going yachts. ‘They’ll look like steam ships with big funnels’, he says. But these are no ordinary funnels. They will be spinning rapidly on their vertical axis, a feature that serves two important functions.

The first is propulsion. When wind hits a spinning cylinder, it generates a sideways thrust. As well as allowing the boats to be positioned optimally, this force would propel them fast enough to drive a water turbine that powers the conversion of seawater into a very fine mist. As the mist rises, the water evaporates from the droplets to leave the airborne salt crystals. To do their job, the crystals must be within a narrow size range, which means producing droplets that are consistently about one millionth of a metre in diameter. This will involve vibrating the surface of a seawater reservoir to create a network of fine ripples. ‘If you make these ripples big enough, drops are thrown off’, says Salter. The size of those drops is determined by the frequency of the vibrations.

And there lies another technical challenge. To produce the ripples, the surface of the seawater reservoir must be smooth – not easy to achieve on a pitching, rolling boat. This is where the spinning funnels really come into their own. They will be filled with seawater, which gets thrown against the walls by centrifugal force, producing a smooth, vertical surface on which the ripples can be generated. Fans inside the funnels will then blow the resulting mist up into the sky like smoke rising from a chimney.

The yachts will carry no crew, but will be controlled via satellite. Salter estimates that a fleet of up to 40,000 of these hi-tech Mary Celestes would be required to offset the temperature rise predicted to result from a doubling in atmospheric CO2. Even if CO2 concentrations were to increase according to worst-case scenarios, this, he estimates, would provide several decades’ respite – which might provide time to develop non-carbon energy sources; research the intricate workings of climate systems; and plan long-term strategies to cope with a changing climate.

It would also be relatively cheap. ‘I can’t see these things being more than a million quid a go’, says Salter. That still adds up to £40billion. However, the investment would be spread over the time it takes for CO2 to double. ‘You’d only need to spend perhaps three per cent of that every year to stabilise things’, says Salter. ‘That would be an incredible bargain.’ Indeed, it is a tiny fraction of the expense of the Kyoto Protocol, for example, which is expected to shave off just a few tenths of a degree of temperature rise over the next hundred years.

Stabilisation of global temperatures? Little risk? At a fraction of the cost of Kyoto? It sounds like it at least worth trying, and it sounds like an environmentalist’s wet dream. So why are green organisations so unimpressed with the idea? ‘It’s one of those crazy engineering solutions to climate change that we ignore really’, says Friends of the Earth (FoE) climate campaigner Bryony Worthington. ‘It’s not something we think we should be spending money and time on.’ Worthington denies she’s being dismissive. ‘It’s not a question of being dismissive; it’s a question of whether this is worth any time and effort even thinking about.’

Over at Greenpeace, Mark Strutt, who was until recently senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK (he’s now Greenpeace International’s agriculture spokesperson), takes a similar stance. ‘Greenpeace wouldn’t be interested in this sort of thing. We’re looking for reductions in the use of fossil fuels rather than these technologies that in all likelihood would come to nothing.’

Of course, the project might indeed come to nothing. There are good reasons to think that we cannot control the climate – a chaotic system influenced by a host of inputs – by tweaking a single variable. And yet tweaking a single variable – CO2 emissions – is precisely what environmentalists are themselves urging us to do. However, the environmentalist case against engineering fixes for global warming does not rest on the underlying science. It has more to do with a view of science as thecauseof the world’s problems, and not something that might provide a solution. ‘We don’t take these ideas very seriously because the idea that we’ll somehow come up with a man-made fix is fanciful’, says Worthington. This sentiment is echoed by Charlie Kronick, Greenpeace UK’s climate change coordinator. ‘The idea of interfering with another natural system to compensate for the nearly catastrophic interference we’ve already done is not an enticing prospect’, he says.

Despite these seemingly Luddite sentiments, Worthington claims to have science on her side. ‘The models are showing that reducing the concentrations of greenhouse gases is the only sensible response to climate change.’ Really? Latham has been collaborating with the UK Meteorological Office to test the theory behind his project using their powerful computer model of global climate. This suggested that treating clouds covering just three per cent of the Earth’s surface would cool the planet sufficiently to compensate for a doubling of CO2. Alan Gadian is sufficiently impressed that he is now embarking on a project to replicate that study.

It is at this point that Worthington is forced to express her discomfort with the very models on which the environmental case depends. ‘But he can’t be certain’, she says, ‘they’re only models.’ Yes, and green activists’ predictions of climate change disaster are also based on models.

There may be other reasons for FoE and Greenpeace’s discomfort with such projects. After all, a successful engineering fix would deprive the green movement of its most valuable political currency – urgency. If the world were to have a few decades of stable temperatures, the urgency of green politics would have to give way to a genuine, rational political debate. Their discomfort also points to a lack of faith in man-made solutions; we are seen as giving rise to climate chaos and thus must apparently take a hands-off approach from nature.

Engineering the climate might yet prove impossible, for scientific or practical reasons. Latham’s team is now planning a small-scale pilot experiment further to explore the project’s viability. ‘We don’t know yet what fraction of the drops we make will actually get up to where the clouds are’, says Salter. But there is surely something noble about the aspiration to control the climate. We don’t need climate models to tell us that Mother Nature has plenty to throw at us, whether or not the planet warms as predicted. And in that respect, projects such as Latham’s could be seen as valuable developments, regardless of whether the elements have even more nasty surprises in store for us.

No doubt environmentalist groups would abhor the prospect of controlling the Earth’s climate on the basis that, in the words of Kronick, we’d be interfering in a ‘natural system’. Environmentalists’ aspirations are very different: through rain or shine, they seem determined to stick to the mantra that we should be reducing CO2 emissions and, in doing so, leave us even more vulnerable to the whim of Mother Nature. Worthington and Strutt both claim that the search for engineering fixes for global warming only serves as a distraction, making people and governments less inclined to reduce CO2 emissions. And yet Worthington herself doesn’t seem to have much faith that reducing emissions will be particularly effective: ‘If we can see global CO2 emissions peak and decline in the next 10 to 15 years, we’ve still got a slim chance of holding [temperature increases] down to two degrees’, she says.

A slim chance of avoiding climate catastrophe? Environmentalists, it seems, don’t need any help when it comes to disinclining the world to reduce carbon emissions.

Read on:

J Latham (1990), ‘Control of global warming’,Nature, vol 347, pp330-340; J Latham (2002), ‘Amelioration of global warming by controlled enhancement of the albedo and longevity of low-level maritime clouds’,Atmospheric Science Letters, vol 3, pp52-58.

Debunking the debunkers

There should be more to scepticism than angry rants about stupid religious people or New Age mysticism.

Responding to the apparent rise and rise of ‘bunk’ – creationism, homeopathy, fad diets and bad science – a new movement of sceptics is mobilising to defend the world against an ‘attack on science’ in public life. But does this army of professional and armchair scientists and philosophers challenge strange ideas about health, the universe and everything to paint a rational picture of the world, or does it sometimes share them?

Writing on his website about a recent article that complained about medical research being dominated by a ‘scientific research paradigm… acting as a fascist structure’, Godfather of scepticism and debunking, James Randi said: ‘If this is indeed serious, it’s an attack on rationality, on the scientific method, on reason, by people who should know better.’ Indeed they should know better, but is not knowing better really an ‘attack on rationality’ or simply irrational? Randi seems to have lost faith in rationalism’s power of explanation and be worried that people lack the ability to make up their own minds. So what is scepticism then?

‘Swoopy’, the presenter of Skeptic Magazine’s podcast, tells us that you are a sceptic ‘if you think that a lot of the things that you see on the TV and the media are just wrong, and if you think that you’re getting the wrong message from pretty much everything all around you and your voice isn’t being heard’. This kind of scepticism seems to owe more to Swoopy and Randi’s personal anxieties and infantile dysphoria than any real threat to the world. After all, it could just as well be the homeopathic practitioner who considers himself voiceless, freethinking, and a victim of the wrong messages in society. The problem seems to be less about the actual substance of certain ideas, and more that the way that minds have been made up is the result of campaigns executed by religious zealots, greedy people, private interest, and even the Republican Party. It’s as though the world’s ills could be explained by the cynical exploitation of the general public’s scientific illiteracy by a network of agendas.

Reducing the world’s problems to a ‘pathology’ of thoughts, schemes to ‘promote science’ through PR and education are seen as the way to ‘immunise’ the public against ideas that are not in their interest. That certainly seems to be how Californians Paul Geisert and Mynga Futrell see it. In 2004, they set up the brights movement with the intention of creating a positive label for a ‘worldview free of supernatural or mystical deities, forces, and entities’ and avoiding the stigma attached to atheism in the USA. ‘The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet’ says Daniel Dennet, professor of philosophy and an ‘enthusiastic bright’. ‘As an adult white married male with financial security, I am not in the habit of considering myself a member of any minority in need of protection… But now I’m beginning to feel some heat, and although it’s not uncomfortable yet, I’ve come to realize it’s time to sound the alarm.’ Rather than advancing a positive vision of how the world might be, brights seem to be about appealing for victim status because the world doesn’t recognise their identity, which like ‘gay’ ‘black’ and ‘disabled’ ought to entitle them to ‘a voice’. The brights tell us more about what they don’t believe than what they do believe.

The view of scepticism that emerges is that it feels impotent, is terrified of the world, and lacks trust in other people’s ability to determine their own interests or make their own decisions. The leading thinkers of the loose movement of sceptics end up coming across not as confident individuals who have radical visions about how to use their rationalist outlook to change the world, but rather as timid souls, keen to advance the idea that that world is a dangerous place, made all the more dangerous by ideas themselves.

Bad ideas are surely poison, but the sceptic movement is unable to offer us a great deal of insight as to why people actually swallow them. Instead of attempting to understand why ideas may take purchase in the public from historical, social, or material perspectives, many leading sceptics prefer to explain the take up of bad ideas as the transmission of ‘memes’. According to Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine and former parapsychologist, ‘the self is not the initiator of actions, it does not “have” consciousness, and it does not “do” the deliberating.’ Just as many of today’s social problems such as addiction, violence, and criminality are frequently blamed on genes, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennet and Susan Blackmore explain the failure of rationalism and success of religion in metaphysical terms of agents competing for resources in the environment of our collective mind. This idea that the self, its autonomy, and consciousness are illusions allows sceptics to reduce humans to mindless beings which lack an understanding of their own interests and therefore need to be controlled. Such determinism, though, is exactly what creates the ideas that scepticism should want to confront. The idea that ‘units of cultural information’ have their own drives which humans are subject to, is as irrational as the idea that destiny is governed by the configuration of stars, or balances of energy within our bodies, or the visitations of aliens.

The idea that we need to be told what we can believe is a theme throughout the sceptical movement. ‘[W]e are the watchmen who guard against bad ideas in order to discover good ideas, consumer advocates of critical thinking who, through the guidelines of science, establish a mark at which to aim’ writes Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, and director of the Skeptics Society.

Far from seeking rationalism, scepticism is increasingly a search for authority. There are no clear ideas about why it is wrong to believe in a god that does not exist, nor why it is wrong to believe that aliens have landed in Area 51, other than it is simply not true, and may therefore give somebody who doesn’t deserve it some kind of authority or influence. In seeking to explain the irrationality of the world, the sceptical movement does little to confront the fears, anxieties, paranoia and sense of powerlessness, which irrational movements seem to gain currency by. It indulges the same fantasies, and the same appeals to external truths to answer existential questions about life, and begs for authority to answer the world’s problems. Where fad diets appeal to our fears about our health, debunkers appeal to the idea that the body is vulnerable, and so the fad is dangerous. Where religious ideas seek existential comfort, scepticism too searches for certainties to explain why we are here. Where bad ideas are used to exert undue influence over our decisions, good ideas also seem to defer to authority.

Where science once sought to explain the natural world, it is now more a tool of introspection. The role of science has been diminished to providing narcissistic comfort from the terrifying nightmares it constructs about how we are bad for ourselves. The president of the Royal Society, Sir Martin Rees places his bets that by the year 2020, either bioterror or bioerror will have caused a single event resulting in the deaths of over a million people and that by the year 2100 the chances of human extinction will be 50/50. Rees can think of more reasons not to do science than reasons why we should. There is little between his alternative visions of the future – tragic apocalypses on the one hand, or mere survival on the other. He is charged with doing science’s PR, but his words look more like blackmail.

When scientific leaders are not brilliant individuals whose insight and learning can fashion a better future, but merely people who project their own insecurities downward, there is little to wonder about why people turn off from science, don’t do physics A-levels, and buy into hocus-pocus to make themselves feel better. It’s open season on making stuff up, and Lord Rees seems to be doing as much of that as Gillian McKeith.

Sceptics and rationalists ought to be taking a look at their own ideas to find out why they fail to find purchase in the public imagination. Putting science and rationalism back on the map is going to take more than PR, angry rants about stupid religious people, or teaching kids that ‘science is cool’. We don’t need a police force to protect us from bad ideas. We just need better ideas.