Friday, 22 July 2011

The environment as a contested category - and why the world isn't hotter (yet)


The environment is a contested category: there is a contested set of facts on the status of the environmental crisis; contest on the responses of natural systems to human activity; contest on the set of approaches put forward to manage the environment and debate on how the environmental crisis is represented and portrayed through all mediums and at all scales.

This article focuses on unpacking a discourse that covers all of the above and one which has come to dominate the minds of academics, environmentalists, politicians and people across the world. The discourse is that the world is in environmental crisis and that global warming is to blame.  This short article aims to briefly touch upon the thorny issue of global warming, present a different perspective (based upon the ideas but forward in Chapter 5 of Superfreakonomics) and offer some insight into how geoengineering could be the way forward in managing the thorny issue.

N.B From the onset this article offers a very brief and somewhat limited insight into one part of the numerous contested debates that are part of the global warming/environmental crisis discourse. Not all opinions are (or can be) covered for that matter.  However,  at this stage it is important to note  that some academics argue that the current ‘exaggerated warming’ phase is simply an extension of a natural cycle and just nature’s way of coping with an ever increasing population –the climate has naturally changed between warm periods (inter-glacials) and cold periods (glacials) roughly every 100,000 years. Nevertheless, the argument I am presenting in this article is that humans will affect the future environment and climate but that so far the most severe effects have been masked by various natural and human induced positive externalities, such as sulphur dioxide, which I will refer to later on.

A brief overview of the environmental movement

In the 1970’s it was not global warming that dominated  the harrowing headlines but global cooling that posed the greatest threat to the people of the world!  Like natural climate change, although on a much much shorter timescale, the media and academics since the dawn of the environmental movement in the 1970s (precipitated by Carson's Silent Spring)  have flipped back and forth between telling us that we are all going to die through global cooling (ice ages) or burn to death/be obliterated by one of the numerous hydro-meteorological hazards that are on the increase due to global warming (oh yes - or drown through sea-level rise due to the thermal expansion of the oceans - NOT ice caps melting!).  

The current flavour of the last two decades, since the Earth summit at Rio, has been human induced climate change and the unprecedented rise in global temperatures a.k.a global warming (the classic J-curve or hockey stick graph for CO2 emissions).  Renowned environmental scientists like James Lovelock claim that "We are now so abusing the earth...that it may rise and move back to the hot state it was in fifty-five million years ago, and if it does most of us, and our descendants will die." Films such as an Inconvenient truth, present a one-sided argument to this generation that we are in a time of impending doom. However, to what extent is this really true?

Why the world isn't hotter

"We keep being warned about global warming - yet global surface temperatures have levelled over the past decade. Now researchers think they know why, says the BBC News online. It's not that CO2 emissions aren't a problem - it is simply that sulphate particles from China's coal fired power stations have masked their warming effect by reflecting sunlight and heat away from the earth states Robert Kraufman of the University of Boston."    He goes onto argue that this means humans have had relatively little effect on global surface temperatures over the past ten years and natural fluctuations have predominated. Extract from ‘The Week, 16th July 2011’.

Although I disagree with Kaufman’s point that humans have had little effect, the above, is a primary example of how a human-induced positive externality (sulphate particles) can sometimes mask the effect of an increase in greenhouse gases that could lead to global warming. This echoes the work of authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner who wrote SuperFreakonomics (a popular book for any budding Economic geographer or Economist). In Chapter 5, entitled 'What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?' the authors analyse the thorny and contested problem of global warming. They correctly point out that the science the climate scientists are trying to grapple with and understand is too complex (there are too many variables to model) and that experiments cannot be run on the scale needed to truly predict future patterns and temperatures- hence this is the reason why the IPCC have been so general in their range of possible temperature rises: from 0.5 to 2 degrees. The inherent imprecision in climate science means we don't know with any certainty whether there will be a temperature rise or not.  So considering the latter uncertainty I would think again when the tabloids and broadsheets (although less so) harp on about temperature rises, conjuring up the very worst possibilities - the religious fervour and true believers/heretics need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

More interestingly, Levitt and Lubner also put forward the idea, from an Economic standpoint, of positive externalities using the example of the Mount Pinatubo eruption on June 15th 1991. In this eruption over 20million tons of sulphur dioxide went into the stratosphere and acted like a layer of sunscreen , reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the earth - needless to say, for the next two years the earth cooled by an average of 0.5 degrees. Therefore, the sulphur dioxide acted as a positive externality masking the effects of an increase in greenhouse gases from previous generations.

The future of management: Geoengineering and mitigation.

There are two choices when it comes to managing climate change and global warming:
i)                    Adaptation (do nothing)
ii)                   Mitigation (prevention)

Now, if a Pinatubo eruption could occur every couple of years to offset much of the anthropogenic warming expected over the next century we could arguably carry on the business as usual approach and not waste millions (if not billions) into inefficient forms of renewable energy. The key point though is what if. In other words as Lubner and Levitt state, “if human activity is warming up the planet, could human ingenuity cool it down?” (Levitt & Lubner, 2009; 190). The ideas proposed are based on the idea of geoengineering or put simply the deliberate manipulation of the climate by humans. Ideas discussed include: the garden hose to the sky (page 193) using Alberta’s tar sands waste product sulphur;  eighteen mile high smokestacks (page 200); or clouds acting as soggy mirrors and having a cooling effect as advocated by the climate scientist John Latham For further information please click on the link below:

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