The Pathfinders Column from the September 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Fires are nothing new in the Russian boreal or northern forest. In fact 20 to 35 thousand wildfires annually affect between 0.5 and 2.5 million hectares of Russian forest (LINK). However the fires this August have been severe enough to reduce entire villages to ash and melt car engines, due to the worst heatwave for decades, with temperatures reaching 42ºC. Deaths from the fires were reported at 30 but there were also 2000 deaths from drowning due to people trying to cool off in rivers LINK.
Although careless humans are thought to be directly responsible for most Russian forest fires, it may be that careless humanity is indirectly responsible for the rest. The cause of the Russian heatwave is also the reason why August was a washout in the UK but catastrophically so in Pakistan, while the Japanese baked: there is something funny going on with the polar jet stream.
Jet streams are fast-moving wind layers a few hundred miles across but only a couple of miles thick, circumnavigating the globe in meandering loops at the tropopause, the region at around 6 – 9 miles high which separates the dense troposphere from the stratosphere. Airliners save time and fuel by riding these streams and reducing drag in the thin atmosphere, but the streams are unpredictable, splitting, combining and even going back on themselves, and causing potentially fatal clear air turbulence. When a loop meanders south, cold wet air rushes down into the loop from the north, which is when the UK gets drenched. Where it loops upwards, hot dry air reaches northerly climes, giving Muscovites an excuse to get out the sun-lounger. All this is well understood and the explanations, to do with orbital velocity ratios and temperature, are straightforward. What is not understood at all, and which results in the UK being flooded in summer and frozen last winter while Siberia is incinerated, is why these meandering loops suddenly, and for weeks on end, come to a dead stop. Something is obstructing it, and nobody knows what.
It would be a truism to say that climatology is not a well-understood science. This is what makes the climate change debate so lively. But what is particularly alarming at the moment, in view of this level of uncertainty, is the amount of serious talk around about geoengineering.
On the face of it, there is a case for this. Capitalist ruling elites are never going to cooperate to reduce carbon emissions, that much is becoming painfully obvious. Even if they stopped all emissions today, the effects of what is already up there will be felt for centuries. The first ‘tipping point’ in a cascade of tipping points may have already been reached. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Maybe it’s time to call in the engineers.
There are two approaches to this, as outlined in the 2009 report of the Royal Society, Geoengineering the Climate: science, governance and uncertainty (LINK). The first involves carbon dioxide removal (CDR). This covers everything from carbon sequestration to ocean fertilisation with iron filings to encourage plankton blooms. Though CDR is seen as the preferable alternative, the techniques are expensive, not proven, largely untested (or where tested don’t work – plankton just don’t take carbon to the grave with them as was believed), and above all slow. There may not be enough time for these techniques to make any difference.
The second approach is solar radiation management (SRM). This is a fancy phrase for fast-acting tricks to stop the sun’s rays getting through, but which do nothing about the long-term carbon problem. Techniques range from the cheap and frankly silly – painting house rooftops white – to the hi-tech Heath Robinson – erecting mirrors in space.. One feasible suggestion receiving a lot of attention is the idea of chucking between one and five million tons of sulphur annually into the stratosphere in order to create atmospheric haze or ‘global dimming’, an effect known from volcanic case studies and from 20th century post-war industrial pollution. The irony of polluting the planet in order to avoid the consequences of polluting the planet can hardly need elaboration. And here we meet the jet stream again, for at the tropopause convection currents are horizontal, not vertical, thus it is supposed that all this sulphur, once up there, will stay permanently on top of what amounts to a set of impermeable tinted window tiles. But here’s the rub: climatology is an uncertain business. As the Royal Society report admits: ‘Indeed there is a range of so far unexplored feedback processes, which could become important with a permanently engineered sulphate layer’.
Since volcanic sulphur emissions are associated with ozone depletion, and since ozone is thought to be instrumental in the lateral convection processes in the stratosphere, it does not seem beyond the bounds of possibility that a depletion in one could result in a collapse in the other. If all this sulphur ended up crashing through into the troposphere and the cloud layer, it would give us a global dose of sulphuric acid rain the like of which we have never seen. Then we would be fried whatever the weather.
Whether for CDR or SRM, most advocates of geoengineering emphasise that this is not an ‘instead of’ emissions reduction’ option, it’s an ‘as well as’, but opponents have pointed out that prominent advocates of this approach belong to those same conservative think-tanks which have all along been climate change deniers. The fear is that geoengineering is being touted as a cheap fix in order to avoid doing anything worthwhile (ie expensive) to solve the problem of carbon emissions. The deepest fear, of course, is not that geoengineering wouldn’t work, but that it would, and that it would do something catastrophic. It’s like setting about neurosurgery with a trowel and a lump hammer, while wearing a blindfold.
It is entirely of a piece with capitalism’s modus operandi that it sleepwalks into a problem and then guessworks its way out of it, while arguing bitterly about whose fault it is and who’s going to pick up the bill. But there is one other interesting fact about the jet stream which, if the world gets a lucky break and the bickering capitalists get booted off the planning committees, socialists may well be able to turn to good account: “According to one estimate, of the potential wind energy in the jet stream, only 1 percent would be needed to meet the world’s current energy needs. The required technology would reportedly take 10–20 years to develop” (Wikipedia). Now that would be one hell of a windmill.