Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Saving the Arctic Ice (#2)

By Nathan Currier

Greenpeace, Greenwashing and Geoengineering

Nathan Currier, senior climate advisor for Public Policy Virginia

I've been discussing the Greenpeace "Save the Arctic" campaign in light of the reality there, where we will likely reach near-zero summer arctic sea ice in just the next few years. Before exploring, in the next post, direct climate interventions that could really help save the arctic, we now must look at all our other options -- just as, in a medical crisis, one eliminates other options before opting for surgery.

Of course, one option is to blithely say, "Look, the ice can come back later," and therefore do nothing to impede the arrival of an ice-free arctic ocean. At the recent Greenpeace New York meeting, this seemed to be the tacitly assumed option. Now, I am quite aware of modeling studies demonstrating sea ice loss itself to be readily reversible. Andrew Revkin of the New York Times asked James Hansen at the meeting about the Eemian interglacial (~130,000-115,000 yrs ago), its ice loss and recovery -- seemingly keen to highlight this comforting reversibility. But this reversibility depends on environmental conditions. One minor detail that wasn't mentioned was that CO2 was then around pre-industrial levels (280ppm), hardly soaring up around 400ppm as now, a level possibly not seen on Earth for 15 million years, so one should hardly expect the planet to give an Eemian-style response now, either in the long-term or next year (for a variety of reasons aside from CO2 levels, in fact).

What about green energy, solar panels and the like, the kinds of things proposed at the Greenpeace meeting? Anyone contemplating emissions strategy ought to keep the UNEP graph (Shindell et al, 2011) in my first post up on their walls: Even pretty large CO2 source reductions won't bring relief from warming until about 2040 (and could bring near-term warming). By that time, the increased insolation to the arctic ocean might have gone so far as to give an ice-free arctic for a considerably larger chunk of the year, with really drastic effects. Is that a plan for "saving" the arctic?

The only way through emissions to have an impact on what is going on there right now is through non-CO2 reductions like black carbon and methane. And aside from that, there's nothing left except direct intervention -- which could cover a wide variety of options, some of them being what I'll call "localized geoengineering," and will discuss next time.

Now, Hansen has been the primary advocate of the concept of using non-CO2 reductions to help bridge the time gap of getting reduced warming from CO2 reductions, so my one question for Hansen at the meeting was whether he thought that could still be used alone to confront the arctic crisis. Hansen's answer was frank and accurate. As Hansen said, and I hope Greenpeace, Bill McKibben and all the others present heard, "If you need a rescue package, to some degree it inherently is geoengineering."

He didn't say that non-CO2 reductions wouldn't still be helpful (they are 100 percent necessary right away, just as massive CO2 reductions to near-zero by mid-century are necessary), but he certainly didn't say that they could halt the loss of the sea ice now alone, either -- indeed, I believe that the numbers show that they can't. It has now become clear that emissions reductions alone can no longer save the arctic ice. This is a big deal, and it needs to sink in.

Greenpeace's campaign aims to make the arctic a sanctuary, by which they primarily mean keeping out the fossil industry. Hansen himself has many papers stating that easily recoverable fossil sources inevitably will get used. The arctic's resources are obviously getting more easily recoverable by the season. Keeping the fossil industry away without cooling it is probably impossible -- and, at a certain level, might even be destructive. What if Greenpeace succeeded, but the arctic were left to melt? Picture some natural disaster, akin to the Macando well disaster, but happening all on its own. No, I don't mean an oil spill -- I mean a bunch of methane bubbling up from the seabed and reaching the atmosphere in large ongoing belches. This kind of thing is likely to start at some point if we let the sea ice disappear, as Hansen himself discussed at the meeting -- and it won't stop like an oil spill, but rather will likely become an ongoing process. Then we will actually need the fossil industry's expertise to go in there and help trap as much as possible. Believe me, I am not saying this to invite the fossil industry in. I am saying this because we must somehow keep the arctic cool. Lastly, ships and refineries both emit black carbon, which has an extremely strong but complex to quantify effect on local warming, and ice and snow-covered places are the most vulnerable to its effects because it settles on them and changes their reflectivity. So, even without fossil extraction, just if arctic ship traffic picks up dramatically, this could greatly accelerate ice (and snow) losses, helping ensure that this theoretical reversibility remains just that, something we'll never see. I'm sure Greenpeace means well, but currently their campaign most resembles those full-page greenwashing fantasies from Shell and PB, "Creating Your Clean Energy Future," and so on. At present, it's a sham.

The unquestioned reliance upon ice loss reversibility at the Greenpeace meeting might have been correct from a purely physical viewpoint alone, but was highly pernicious all the same, because it masks that we are about to quietly walk through the most monumental climate threshold we have yet crossed, and will then almost certainly discover, for a whole array of reasons -- all those minor physical mechanisms I elaborated last time, or the issues regarding the fossil industry I have just mentioned -- that it's difficult to turn around. Folks, what I am trying to say is: You can't let this happen, and yet you definitely can no longer prevent this happening just through emissions alone. That means that some form of direct climate intervention will be necessary there.

The clincher is this: When Hansen mentioned at the meeting that we could reverse ice loss, he also added, "And the truth is, we have to do that."

That is, he said, in order to avoid other major tipping points that clearly aren't reversible (ice sheets, methane hydrates). So the only remaining question is precisely when it must be reversed. London-based group AMEG, of which I am a member, takes the position: right away. Think of what this all means: It's completely impossible to achieve that reversal through emissions for many decades, even in the most optimistic scenario for large-scale emissions reductions -- and it would be far too dangerous to leave this unattended for that amount of time. So you will end up needing geoengineering in any case, just to achieve the reversal. Now, if you will quickly need to undo something that's about to happen, and potentially you might have great trouble undoing it at all later -- and the means will need to be the same in each instance -- then, isn't it far, far better to prevent that thing from happening, rather than trying to reverse it later?

Bill McKibben spoke with mild resignation about losing the sea ice, as though it were a pity, adding that we might "learn from it." But he's been profoundly ill-advised on the science, I'm afraid. If we don't fight this, we'll be "learning" like players of Russian roulette learn. And each decade left untreated might be like adding a bullet to the round.

Instead, we urgently need for Bill to understand this situation, and to start a "" (a 1250ppb target for methane) right away to complement his (Hansen's CO2 ppm target), and get his people back in the streets. Greenpeace must meet again with those scientists -- many more of them -- but with "time translators" present, so that Director Naidoo understands why Jim Hansen calls geoengineering a rescue package.

Trying to save the arctic is currently the most vital thing in the world, the front lines of the climate war, so let's all applaud Greenpeace for taking up the cause. Now they just have to bite the bullet, and recognize it's a fantasy unless two things happen right away, together at once:

1. A number of complementary direct arctic interventions (I'll discuss these soon).

2. Complete restructuring of the programs designed to reduce non-CO2 emissions (a long list of acronym-laden things like the M2M, GMF, GMI, CCAC), so that they really work -- and make this a public rallying cry, a global "1250" movement to help save ourselves.

[First posted at the Huffington Post; posted with author's permission]


  1. Actually triage is necessary stat to keep Earth live. We who live today are the only prescription.
    We need to assemble by rank of ability with brave effort like never before to defuse war an shock, while at same time giving confidence to others of the fact a plan of action for countering runaway is in place. Literally so hope itself doesn't die.
    But this in my opinion is doable and how if we who live today make it so and don't discount our voice. we all have the power to speak up now.. If we do so in concert nothing stands in our way.. If we fail to take action or have second thoughts I believe it's all over but the singing.. We have to think on large order and work together for peace. We have to do duty to protect..

  2. CH4 kept at bay needs the popular support of the world to become reality. Active intervention by humans is the only thing that can reverse Earth's fate at this late date. I'm pretty sure it would be appreciated if we can pull it off.. The spin on the plus side is the zoom up of economies and the keeping of hope alive while the down side is not good.

    1. As you say, Dale, decisive and effective action can avert runaway warming, while this also comes with many further benefits, such as the many local jobs and investment opportunities associated with the shift to clean energy, the benefits for our health, for biodiversity and quality of life in general.