Geo-engineering: Ignoring the consequences
By Tim Ball and Tom Harris
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report said we have only 12 years left to save the planet. It triggered the usual frantic and ridiculous reactions.
NBC News offered this gem: “A last-ditch global warming fix? A man-made ‘volcanic’ eruption” to cool the planet.” Its article proclaimed, “Scientists and some environmentalists believe nations might have to mimic volcanic gases as a last-ditch effort to protect Earth from extreme warming.”
Proposal like this are defined as geo-engineering – trying to artificially modify Earth’s climate to offset what are presented as unnatural events. The problem is, the events they are trying to offset are actually natural events. Any scientist or politician who doesn’t understand that will undoubtedly create worse problems than those they are trying to “fix.”
From 1940 to almost 1980, the average global temperature went down. Political concerns and the alleged scientific consensus focused on global cooling. Alarmists said it could be the end of agriculture and civilization. Journalist Lowell Ponte wrote in his 1976 book, The Cooling:
“It is cold fact: the global cooling presents humankind with the most important social, political and adaptive challenge we have had to deal with for ten thousand years. Your stake in the decisions we make concerning it is of ultimate importance; the survival of ourselves, our children, our species.”
Change the word "cooling" to warming and it applies to the alarmist threats today.
The problem then was – and still is now – that people are educated in the false philosophy of uniformitarianism: the misguided belief that conditions always were and always will be as they are now, and any natural changes will occur over long periods of time.
Consequently, most people did not understand that the cooling was part of the natural cycle of climate variability, or that changes are often huge and sudden. Just 18,000 years ago we were at the peak of an Ice Age. Then, most of the ice melted and sea levels rose 150 meters (490 feet), because it was warmer for almost all of the last 10,000 years than it is today.
This misunderstanding, combined with the new paradigm of environmentalism (it is illogical and wrong to soil your own nest) created the belief that perfectly ordinary changes must be manmade, and thus had to be corrected by us as well.
During the cooling “danger,” geo-engineering proposals included:
All these actions would impact global climate in unpredictable ways. Now we know they would have exacerbated the predominantly natural warming trend that followed.
The recent “volcano” proposal involves adding particulates (microscopic particles) to the high atmosphere to block sunlight, to lessen the supposed manmade global warming. The NBC News article references the cooling effect of the Pinatubo volcanic eruption of June 15, 1991, which ejected more particulates into the stratosphere than any eruption since Krakatoa in 1883. The resulting sulfuric acid haze caused average planetary temperatures to fall by about 0.9 degrees C (1.6 F) between 1991-93.
What NBC News neglected to mention was that this occurred during a warming period. Had the eruption happened during a cooling phase, the results could have been catastrophic. That’s what happened with the volcano Tambora in 1815. It was followed by the “year with no summer” that caused multiple extreme weather events and crop failures because it occurred during a cooling trend.
In the early 1800s, the world was already colder than today, and was in the process of cooling still further as a result of low, and decreasing, solar activity. This was during the period of the low sunspot activity of the Dalton Minimum (1790-1830). The billions of tons volcanic dust injected by the Tambora eruption, the largest in force of ejection for over 10,000 years, reduced sunlight dramatically.
The eruption occurred in April 1815, but its full impact on temperature wasn’t felt until 1816 because the volcano erupted vertically at the Equator and the dust it ejected into the Stratosphere took several months to impact both Hemispheres.
Harvest failures were widespread, especially in the densely populated areas of the eastern US and western Europe. In 1816 it snowed as far south as the Carolinas in July, and the year was dubbed “Eighteen hundred and froze to death.” The US government pleaded with farmers not to eat their seed stock as they would have nothing for the following year. That’s hard to do when your children are starving.
A gravestone inscription reads: “1771-1847, Reuben Whitten son of a revolutionary soldier a pioneer of this town (Ashland NH), cold season of 1816 raised 40 bushels of wheat on this land which kept his family and neighbours from starvation.”
In Germany, they even produced a medal for 1816-1817 with the inscription, “Great is the distress, Oh Lord, have pity.”In England the price of corn ( “wheat” in the USA) soared, and probably for the first time in history a government introduced legislation (The Corn Laws)to control price increases.
Since the best climate experts say that we can expect a gradual cooling over the next few decades as the Sun weakens, the last thing we should be doing now is artificially cooling the planet still further. Consider that as recently as 1680, in the depths of the Little Ice Age, there was a meter of ice on the Thames River in London, something unimaginable today.
In approximately 90 years, the height up the side of the glens in Scotland to which you could farm lowered by 200 meters. That doesn’t sound like much, but such a vertical change took half of Scotland out of food production. That’s the real reason for the Highland Clearances, the forced evacuation of Scotland’s Highlands and western islands.
As always, government response was inadequate or inappropriate. It is setting up to be the same this time, because the government not only ignored science but attacked those who tried to practice proper science.
“Taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,” as advocated by the IPCC in its October 8 news conference, is also foolish. Historic records show that, at about 410 parts per million (ppm), the level of CO2 supposedly in the atmosphere now, we are near the lowest in the last 280 million years. As plants evolved over that time, the average level was 1200 ppm. That is why commercial greenhouses boost CO2 to that level to increase plant growth and yields by a factor of four.
The IPCC has been wrong in every prediction it’s made since 1990. It would be a grave error to use its latest forecasts as the excuse to engage in geo-engineering experiments with the only planet we have.
Tim Ball is an environmental consultant and former climatology professor at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba. Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.