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Climate Breakthroughs?

There are two items of interest in the otherwise dreary and repetitive world of climate change in the last few days—one about causation, and the other about potential remedy (if necessary).  Let’s take the “remedy” item first, which can be summarized with the image of giving the oceans a really really big Alka Seltzer tablet.

Some background: I’ve always been ambivalent about the idea of “geoengineering,” or what is sometimes called “solar radiation management” (SRM), i.e., the idea that global temperatures could be lowered by the deliberate injection of particles high in the atmosphere, and/or by artificial cloud generation in the oceans.  Both ideas have a strong theoretical and empirical basis, and a few limited experiments have been done.  Most of the climateers are against the idea because it would “let us off the hook” of suppressing hydrocarbon energy, which is the ultimate goal of most environmentalists.  I’ve been skeptical for different reasons.

First, who would control the world’s “thermostat”?  After all, Russia and Canada stand to be big winners from a warmer world; why would they want to turn the temperature down?  You think the UN is a circus now?  The political conflicts over this would be immense.

But the second reason is more significant in my mind.  While SRM would very likely work, the same limitations on our understanding of how the global climate works right now will limit our understanding of the precise effects of SRM measures. For example, if we start injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere, and there is a prolonged temperature change in Asia, or a drought, etc, was it the SRM that did it, or natural weather variation?  Or some of both?  Just as we can’t predict the climate very well now, we wouldn’t be able to predict the precise effects of SRM any better.  The kind of arguments we have right now on climate modeling would carry over into SRM policy, but in this case the fights would become very real.  If you think climate might be a source of military conflict now, just think what might happen if a nation (China?) unilaterally decided to modify the climate.

There is a third problem.  SRM only fixes the temperature problem (again, if there is a problem).  It does not fix the associated problem that rising CO2 levels are changing ocean chemistry.  Now, I think this problem is, like most other environmental problems, overstated, but it is not phony, and to the extent human emissions are changing ocean chemistry we ought to pay some attention to it.

Well, now it appears that scientists may have come up with a way we might remediate ocean damage, too.  ScienceDaily reports:

Lawrence Livermore scientists have discovered and demonstrated a new technique to remove and store atmospheric carbon dioxide while generating carbon-negative hydrogen and producing alkalinity, which can be used to offset ocean acidification.

The team demonstrated, at a laboratory scale, a system that uses the acidity normally produced in saline water electrolysis to accelerate silicate mineral dissolution while producing hydrogen fuel and other gases. The resulting electrolyte solution was shown to be significantly elevated in hydroxide concentration that in turn proved strongly absorptive and retentive of atmospheric CO2.

Further, the researchers suggest that the carbonate and bicarbonate produced in the process could be used to mitigate ongoing ocean acidification, similar to how an Alka Seltzer neutralizes excess acid in the stomach.

The important caveat here is that telltale phrase, “at a laboratory scale.”  Lots of things can be demonstrated in a laboratory, with brute force on a small scale, that can’t be scaled up economically.  (Right now the recycling industry is playing around with recycling plastic back into oil, which at current oil prices may make sense if they can scale it up.  Big challenge, though, to scale it up from the lab.  But if they do, watch for enviros to start coming out against recycling plastic.)  Still, this deserves watching if in fact ocean acidification does indeed become a significant problem down the road.  If something like this turns out to come about, it would be a win-win for everyone—except energy-hating environmentalists.

The second story concerns a new theory of the causation of the modest warming we saw a couple of decades ago.  Canadian physicist Qing-Bin Lu published a paper in the International Journal of Modern Physics B last week that concludes that chloroflouro-carbons (CFCs) rather than CO2 are more responsible for warming.  I held my fire on this study, waiting for it to be reviewed by the usual people; sure enough, the Center for American Progress says it merely recycles previously debunked ideas, but their analysis isn’t quite on point, as Qing-Bin Lu’s paper has a new wrinkle on this subject.

But in any case, we started phasing out CFCs back under the reign of Ronaldus Magnus, which means, as Rupert Darwall points out today in the European Wall Street Journal, Reagan didn’t just end the Cold War, he ended global warming too!  Is there anything the Gipper can’t do?  From Darwall’s “Global Warming and the Gipper”:

Might it be that it was Ronald Reagan and not Barack Obama who began to slow the rise of the seas? That is one conclusion that could be drawn from a new paper by Canadian physicist Qing-Bin Lu of Ontario’s University of Waterloo. Instead of carbon dioxide emissions, Mr. Lu argues that ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other halocarbons caused global warming. Thanks to the Reagan administration and the 1987 Montreal Protocol, CFCs have been phased out by developed countries. After a lag, Mr. Lu argues that global temperatures peaked around 2002 and predicts they are set to gradually fall over the next five to seven decades.

Upholders of the consensus argue that increased carbon dioxide is the only way to explain rising global temperatures. Now there is a competing explanation, with a chronology that better fits the evidence.

There was always a problem with the CO2-as-cause explanation—how to explain the decline in temperatures from the mid-1940s and relatively flat temperatures until 1975 when carbon dioxide levels were rising all the time. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did this by arguing that sulfate aerosols resulting from coal-fired power station emissions had a cooling effect that temporarily stopped the rise in temperatures. . .

Mr. Lu’s analysis is sure to come under sustained fire, as it implies the current approach to global warming is scientifically mistaken. Unless halogenated gases not covered by the Montreal Protocol are regulated, the slow temperature decline would reverse. And if he is right that CFCs, not carbon dioxide, have driven global temperatures over the last 40 years, then the Montreal Protocol will achieve far more than anyone envisaged. Chalk up another win for the Gipper.

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