Saturday, 10 November 2012

Apologies for the hiatus....

It's been quite a hectic few months and I've stopped blogging due to a combination of a family holiday (OK, not all hectic), a mountain of marking in September and teaching starting in October. I'm also feeling a little weary from the efforts of managing SPICE, and being involved in several other large projects focused on geoengineering (EuTRACE) , volcanic ash clouds (VANAHEIM, CREDIBLE) and increasing resilience for those vulnerable during volcanic crises (STREVA). They are all interesting in different ways and very time consuming.

I'd like to write a little on two recent events that have happened that are of interest to me. One is obviously related to climate engineering, one less so but a salutary lesson nonetheless. The lesson comes from the recent verdict from the L'Aquila trial of seven eminent seismologists who were challenged to assess the likelihood of an earthquake happening in the near future near L'Aquila in Italy.  They 'failed' to predict the earthquake and have been jailed for manslaughter. This is a lengthy overview. I am most interested in the points raised here by Prof. David Speigelhalter (whom I know from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) that both of us were on during the volcanic ash crisis of 2010).  The question, of course, is this: if scientists are accountable for not predicting natural disasters (wholly unfairly in my opinion) that what becomes of those who sanction climate engineering. If we undertake large-scale engineering, particularly those that have trans-boundary effects (including SRM and iron fertilization), who will carry the can? More importantly, how will we disentangle 'our' signature from that of 'nature' (a quite ridiculous construct at ca. 400 ppm carbon dioxide) - how can we ever know what would have happened?

Secondly, the recent iron fertilization 'experiment' also leaves a pretty bad taste in my mouth. I agree wholeheartedly that it undermines legitimate research and I believe, as I think my actions have demonstrated, that profit, or even the perception of profiteering, have no place in research in climate engineering. I happily accept that the commercial sector is not the innermost parts of the seven circles of hell it is often compared to, but, in terms of trust I believe that those who refuse to even consider personal gain as a motive for improved understanding are those best placed to act for the greater good.

I'd also like to report briefly on two events that I have enjoyed significantly more than reading about the above. The first was a public meeting at the University of East Anglia to assist with the work of a PhD student garnering opinion about climate engineering - I undertook this with Jon Talyor, head of climate at WWF. On paper this might look like a adversarial set up, but far from it. It was a fascinating experience that restored some of my faith in human nature. The second was a stakeholder meeting for SPICE, with Hugh, Kirsty and Chris (from CUED) with representatives of civil societies. It was under Chatam House rules (a report is imminent from the facilitator) but suffice to say it was a challenging, difficult, fascinating, illuminating and exceptionally worthwhile effort. I'd like to praise all concerned for the spirit in which the meeting was held and for the frankness of the discussions. I hope we will continue with this process.

My current bugbear, which I was allowed to air during the meeting is the point scoring that more extreme NGO's seem to feel the need to entertain. Despite what anyone tells you, the SPICE testbed was postponed solely by the stategate panel (a group of five thinkers with backgrounds in social science, atmospheric science, engineering and environmentalism) before NGO objection and called off by SPICE. Anyone who claims to have got it 'cancelled' or 'shut down' is either deluded, or, more likely, knowingly claiming to have influence where they had none. Privately, I bet they'd be willing to admit this; publically, they feel the need to 'fight their corner'. This posturing does a huge disservice to both the stagegate panel and to me and Hugh who agonised about these decisions.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Trouble ahead

Horribly inaccurate/leading Guardian article -

SPICE was not cancelled  - the testbed was called off.
Thousands of tonnes (in the intro) turns out to be 10's-100's kg in the body of the article

Still captures some interesting issues (I will post on after consideration).


Monday, 16 July 2012

Another 'wired' article I quite like...

Not a bad effort all in all by Joel Winston. Slightly making news out of an article that really only adds further confirmation to the 'not a free lunch' argument about climate engineering. Misses the point a bit (and he's not the first) that the key comparison is between engineering and unmitigated climate change. Yes, rainfall will change under CE for sure, but how does that compare to BAU??? especially in areas of higher vulnerability...

Interestingly, I suspect Steve Raynor, Hauke Schmidt and I all feel pretty similarly...

Full article:

Deploying giant space mirrors and spraying particles from stadium-sized balloons may sound like an engineer's wild fantasy, but climate models suggest that the potential of geoengineering to offset rising atmospheric carbon dioxide may be significantly overstated.

Through a variety of computer simulations used for reporting to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the team investigated a scenario where an increase in the world's atmospheric carbon dioxide levels was balanced by a "dimming" of the sun.

Across all four models tested, the researchers showed that geoengineering could lead to adverse effects on the Earth's climate, including a reduction in global rainfall. They therefore concluded that geoengineering could not be a substitute for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

However, in a field with divided opinion on geoengineering's potential role in addressing climate change, some doubt the significance of this conclusion. "From a policy standpoint, this doesn't provide very helpful guidance to decision-makers," said Steve Rayner of the Oxford Geoengineering Programme. "No serious player in this field suggests that [geoengineering] could ever be a substitute for mitigation and adaptation."

The leader of the research, Hauke Schmidt of the Max Planck Institute, Germany, believes their experiment still contributes important details on how the Earth's systems might respond to geoengineering. "The first thing we realised was that we had to 'dim' the sun 25 percent more than expected, in order for the Earth's systems to show a response, which translates to needing more geoengineering than previously thought," says Schmidt.

A reduction in global rainfall is not necessarily an equal one. "It becomes interesting when you look into the regional responses," continues Schmidt. "If you have just a carbon dioxide increase, most models predict a global rainfall increase, but a strong decrease in the Mediterranean and subtropics. But if you try to balance this with geoengineering, these zones shift to Northern Europe, Northern Asia and North America."

There's also the question of how effective these simulations are in recreating real-world deployment of geoengineering. One particular concern is the study's assumption of a quadrupling of carbon dioxide levels. "If it ever gets to that stage, then we have probably passed the point where geoengineering can be useful anyway," says Rayner.

The researchers recognise this level is at the upper end. "But one of the simulations we're running for the next IPCC has more than a quadrupling of CO2," explains Schmidt. "That's called the 'business as usual' scenario, and it's not completely outside what's conceivable."

The team have also run simulations with smaller (and perhaps more realistic) CO2 increases and will publish results in the upcoming months. But they say the extreme CO2 increase in this first scenario helps to identify signals and understand how the system responds. "From the point of view of a climate researcher it is the most interesting scenario," continues Schmidt. "While those who are interested in geoengineering applications may find it unrealistic."

One scientist particularly interested in geoengineering applications is Matthew Watson, leader of the volcano-inspired Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project. The government-funded project was investigating the potential effects of spraying solar-reflective sulphates into the stratosphere from a 20 kilometre-high, stadium-sized balloon. However, a scaled-down field test of a smaller balloon spraying water droplets was cancelled due to governance and patent issues.

Now Watson is concerned by the report's conclusions, which he says could be used to suggest that geoengineering research is a waste of time. "Only through combined modelling and field research can we generate the evidence-base for a salient answer on whether climate engineering is a good or bad idea," says Watson. "It's vitally important that scientists are given the space within which to ask and try to answer difficult questions."

To understand different components of the Earth's systems, Schmidt agrees that a few experiments are necessary. "I'm not generally against small-scale field experiments if they help us understand processes in nature," says Schmidt. "But they should obviously be benign, and we should be very careful." However, small-scale field tests are also limited, Schmidt believes, with climate simulations possibly being the only way to fully grasp the long-term and large-scale climate effects of geoengineering.

Both options may have their individual limitations, according to Watson. "That small-scale experiments are, by their nature, incomplete is often used as an argument against climate engineering, but that can also be said of models, which are, by definition, imperfect." In addition to large-scale simulations, Watson accepts the need for small, benign and well-governed field experiments in the interim.

Despite the controversy on the best course of action to take, there is agreement between all parties on the need to determine the effects of geoengineering with confidence. But this confidence may perhaps only be found by both peering through simulations to see long-term global effects, and engaging in detailed examination of field tests to assess the practical potential of specific interventions.

Watson says time is short: "Unfortunately, we don't have hundreds of years before climate change really takes hold. So researching climate engineering now is much better than undertaking that effort only when it becomes clear it is necessary."

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The importance of continuing climate engineering research

One of the leitmotifs of the recent discussions around the SPICE project technology test cancellation was the support for the remainder (90%) of the project to continue. Objectors’ responses to allowing researchers to explore climate engineering are entirely predictable. First, we were accused of being ‘in it for the research money’, an obnoxious slur borrowed from climate sceptics when describing climate scientists. Now, we are ‘sweet and naive’: well meaning, bumbling boffins, trying to help but providing ammunition to the Machiavellian aims of politicians too lazy to do anything but retain the status quo. Next, I predict, we’ll be encouraged to turn on each other and our research will be used to try to ‘divide and conquer’. Differences of opinion are our modus operandi.

It’s already beginning to happen. Stock responses to papers suggesting climate engineering might work/have positive impacts (no matter how buried in caveats) include demonising the researchers involved. On the other hand, research, including several recently published papers, is already being used to suggest that climate engineering (and ergo researching climate engineering) is a waste of time. Just think about that paradox for a moment – ‘research into climate engineering shows research into climate engineering is worthless’.

What these papers demonstrate is that it is surely better to know than not. After all three large eruptions of the latter half of the 20th century rainfall patterns were impacted by increased aerosol. Does this mean that this form of climate engineering should be discarded? No, it doesn’t. Make no mistake, no form of climate engineering is a free ride and we cannot get back to where we were. There will be winners and losers if we deploy stratospheric aerosols or not, unless we change, as a species, very quickly.  The questions have to be ‘what are the impacts of both scenarios and which is preferable?’ I am often asked, ‘is climate engineering a good idea’. My response is ‘I’ve no idea, but it would be a good idea to know if it’s a bad idea’. Only through research can we generate the evidence base for a salient answer. It is vitally important that scientists are given the space within which to ask and try to answer difficult questions.

Monday, 18 June 2012

I saw this Hugh, and thought of you

I was crying with laughter when I came across this... from

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Testbed news

SPICE personal statement.

It is with some regret that today the SPICE team has announced we’ve decided to call off the outdoor ‘1km testbed’ experiment that was scheduled for later this year. The reasons for this are complex and I will try to explain the decision here. It should be noted that these views are my own and do not necessarily imply consensus within SPICE. Where a range of opinions exist I will try to make that clear. Importantly however, the decision to call of the experiment was made by all the project partners in agreement.

Firstly, there are issues of governance. Despite receiving considerable attention no international agreements exist. Whilst it is hard to imagine a more environmentally benign experiment, which sought to only pump 150 litres (2 bath loads) of pure water into the atmosphere to a height of one kilometre over a deserted field, in terms of SRMGI nomenclature, it represented a transition from stage 2 to stage 3 research. Most experts agree that governance architecture is needed and, to me personally, a technology demonstrator, even a benign 1/20 scale model, feels somewhat premature, though many in SPICE would disagree. Counter to my personal feelings is the argument that technologies that could inject SO2 into the stratosphere, particularly aircraft, already exist and that process could, but obviously should not, begin tomorrow. It is therefore wrong to consider the tested experiment as an enabling technology and that various delivery mechanisms should be tested given there is minimal, well managed proximal (e.g. health and safety) risk and no impacts on climate or biodiversity. 

Secondly, there are issues of intellectual property. SPICE, as a team, is committed to researching climate engineering carefully with the profound belief that all such research should be done, as per the Oxford Principles, for the greater good. We have all agreed, through a partner-wide collaboration agreement to (a) put all results into the public domain in a timely manner and (b) not to exploit (i.e. profit from or patent) results from the SPICE project. However, a patent application exists that was filed prior to the SPICE project being proposed, describing the delivery technology, presenting a potentially significant conflict of interest. The details of this application were only reported to the project team a year into the project and caused many members, including me, significant discomfort. Information regarding the patent application was immediately reported to the research councils, who have initiated an external investigation. Efforts are underway to make the patent application’s intentions unambiguous: to protect intellectual property and not for commercial purposes.

Thirdly, it will take time to explore these issues through deliberation and stakeholder engagement. This means that any postponement of the 1km tested would be a de facto cancellation as the experiment’s value, to elucidate balloon and tether dynamics to inform computer models, diminishes over the project lifetime. The SPICE team sincerely hopes that this decision will facilitate rational, unrushed discussion on issues that include both governance and intellectual property but span broader issues surrounding SRM.

Monday, 7 May 2012

New Yorker article: the climate fixers

Long New Yorker article on CE mentions SPICE:

Overall, an interesting and thought provoking article that paints SPICE in a light that I believe represents us and our intentions fairly. Here's the bit (p2 of 7) that cites Hugh.

'The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, or SPICE, is a British academic consortium that seeks to mimic the actions of volcanoes like Pinatubo by pumping particles of sulfur dioxide, or similar reflective chemicals, into the stratosphere through a twelve-mile-long pipe held aloft by a balloon at one end and tethered, at the other, to a boat anchored at sea.

The consortium consists of three groups. At Bristol University, researchers led by Matt Watson, a professor of geophysics, are trying to determine which particles would have the maximum desired impact with the smallest likelihood of unwanted side effects. Sulfur dioxide produces sulfuric acid, which destroys the ozone layer of the atmosphere; there are similar compounds that might work while proving less environmentally toxic—including synthetic particles that could be created specifically for this purpose. At Cambridge, Hugh Hunt and his team are trying to determine the best way to get those particles into the stratosphere. A third group, at Oxford, has been focussing on the effect such an intervention would likely have on the earth’s climate.

Hunt and I spoke in Cambridge, at Trinity College, where he is a professor of engineering and the Keeper of the Trinity College clock, a renowned timepiece that gains or loses less than a second a month. In his office, dozens of boomerangs dangle from the wall. When I asked about them, he grabbed one and hurled it at my head. “I teach three-dimensional dynamics,’’ he said, flicking his hand in the air to grab it as it returned. Hunt has devoted his intellectual life to the study of mechanical vibration. His Web page is filled with instructive videos about gyroscopes, rings wobbling down rods, and boomerangs.

“I like to demonstrate the way things spin,’’ he said, as he put the boomerang down and picked up an inflated pink balloon attached to a string. “The principle is pretty simple.” Holding the string, Hunt began to bobble the balloon as if it were being tossed by foul weather. “Everything is fine if it is sitting still,’’ he continued, holding the balloon steady. Then he began to wave his arm erratically. “One of the problems is that nothing is going to be still up there. It is going to be moving around. And the question we’ve got is . . . this pipe”—the industrial hose that will convey the particles into the sky—“is going to be under huge stressors.’’ He snapped the string connected to the balloon. “How do you know it’s not going to break? We are really pushing things to the limit in terms of their strength, so it is essential that we get the dynamics of motion right.’’

Most scientists, even those with no interest in personal publicity, are vigorous advocates for their own work. Not this group. “I don’t know how many times I have said this, but the last thing I would ever want is for the project I have been working on to be implemented,’’ Hunt said. “If we have to use these tools, it means something on this planet has gone seriously wrong.’’

Last fall, the SPICE team decided to conduct a brief and uncontroversial pilot study. At least they thought it would be uncontroversial. To demonstrate how they would disperse the sulfur dioxide, they had planned to float a balloon over Norfolk, at an altitude of a kilometre, and send a hundred and fifty litres of water into the air through a hose. After the date and time of the test was announced, in the middle of September, more than fifty organizations signed a petition objecting to the experiment, in part because they fear that even to consider engineering the climate would provide politicians with an excuse for avoiding tough decisions on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Opponents of the water test pointed out the many uncertainties in the research (which is precisely why the team wanted to do the experiment). The British government decided to put it off for at least six months.

“When people say we shouldn’t even explore this issue, it scares me,’’ Hunt said. He pointed out that carbon emissions are heavy, and finding a place to deposit them will not be easy. “Roughly speaking, the carbon dioxide we generate weighs three or four times as much as the fuel it comes from.” That means that a short round-trip journey—say, eight hundred miles—by car, using two tanks of gas, produces three hundred kilograms of carbon dioxide. “This is ten heavy suitcases from one short trip,’’ Hunt said. “And you have to store it where it can’t evaporate.

“So I have three questions, Where are you going to put it? Who are you going to ask to dispose of this for you? And how much are you reasonably willing to pay them to do it?” he continued. “There is nobody on this planet who can answer any of those questions. There is no established place or technique, and nobody has any idea what it would cost. And we need the answers now.”

Hunt stood up, walked slowly to the window, and gazed at the manicured Trinity College green. “I know this is all unpleasant,’’ he said. “Nobody wants it, but nobody wants to put high doses of poisonous chemicals into their body, either. That is what chemotherapy is, though, and for people suffering from cancer those poisons are often their only hope. Every day, tens of thousands of people take them willingly—because they are very sick or dying. This is how I prefer to look at the possibility of engineering the climate. It isn’t a cure for anything. But it could very well turn out to be the least bad option we are going to have.’’
Shame about the volcanology at the beginning...(!). I guess he meant ashfall....

Monday, 23 April 2012


I read with great interest James Cameron's comments on the Titanic story and its use as an analogy to climate change:

He's right of course, the class of ticket you held dictated your likelihood of survival, a key point often missed in climate debates until recently. I regularly get asked if I am worried for my grandchildren - I often answer simply 'no'. This is, of course, not really true - we are stewards for the planet our grandchildren will inherit and we are making a horrible mess of that job. However, my grandchildren will probably be in a much better situation than those who are less able/cannot afford to adapt.

Some key questions/observations emerge - and these have been pondered a great deal already:

Have we (or are we definitely going to) hit the iceberg?
I'm not the person to answer this, but my colleagues responses could be collectively summed up as 'Not yet, but we will'. Their meaning is that if we cut carbon dioxide emissions to zero tomorrow we'd stay below two degrees of warming, but that's not going to happen is it?

Your value, and definition, of nature drives how far you are willing to go to sustain and protect it. Earth Day passed virtually unnoticed in the news yesterday. The simple truth is that people don't care that much. Why shouldn't today be an Earth Day too?

How will our relationship with nature (or what we take for nature) change if we invoked SRM?
Does it matter if our skies are less blue? Personally, I think, were that the only side effect, it might be a price worth paying BUT I've started to realise that our perception of nature must ultimately change if make tangible, intentional, global scale changes to climate. Nothing will be natural, nothing will be wild - I'm not sure I can live with that?

Does that make 'geoengineers' lifeboat designers?
A far too soft an analogy - pushing what is already discomfort in positivity far beyond my limits. For starters it was better to be in a lifeboat than not - we can't say that's true for CE.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Some thinking...

I feel like Climate Engineering (CE) - a much clearer term than geoengineering by the way - stands on something of a cusp. There is little doubt that CE is more visible and that it is not the taboo it once was. Most of what I hear feels sensible, humble and restrained, especially from those wrestling with the really big questions. The issue of intellectual property is now being further explored, especially by David Keith and others in the US and there has been a very interesting discusssions on fora various. We have been working on an ethical statement for SPICE about our intentions - it currently stands as follows...

  • The SPICE project is a feasibility study and does not endorse deployment of any climate engineering technologies
  • The SPICE team is committed to openness and transparency
  • All results developed from the SPICE project (including foreground IP) will be placed in the public domain
  • No profit will be made during the SPICE project, through climate engineering, by the SPICE team
I know it needs some thinking about and there are some challenging issues but, after having spoken to the SPICE team I think it's important we make our intentions clear, again. 

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Confusion abounds

There are some very mixed messages coming out of the current environmental audit comission meeting on the Arctic. Even given the fact that most media organisations/writers have strong feelings/predicatable biases these appear difficult to resolve.

1. Sea ice retreat timescales (Met Office, via Guardian: 2040-2060, BBC, via AMEG: 2013)

2. Salter's own position on rapid deployment in the arctic (BBC: alarmingly positive (reportedly), Google groups (from the horse's mouth) : wholly negative).

Prof. Salter, who I greatly admire by the way, also caused a stir with this (from the same BBC article)...

'The idea of putting dust particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, mimicking the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions, would in fact be disastrous for the Arctic, said Prof Salter, with models showing it would increase temperatures at the pole by perhaps 10C.'

His source is here... 

There are some major issues with the statement above, as highlighted by Ken Caldiera here....

This is why we need a decent, open discussion.

Sunday, 26 February 2012


Interesting post from Josh Horton yesterday (25/02) here:

I agree with most of his interpretation but find the last paragraph somewhat negative. Josh writes:

'On balance, geoengineering did not fare well in the hearing. This is not surprising given that its implementation in the Arctic is clearly premature at present. The absence of support from the scientific establishment for rapid implementation ought to signal to advocates of Arctic deployment that the case for action now is not persuasive, and calls for geoengineering in the near future are unwise. Unfortunately, AMEG and its sympathizers may draw the opposite conclusion, and redouble their efforts to convince sceptical scientists and policymakers that the end is nigh, further marginalizing geoengineering in the process.'

I agree, after reviewing the video (thanks Josh) that geoengineering did not fare that well. I also highly doubt AMEG are going to change their minds. However, what I find comforting is that researchers into geoengineering have been very quick to argue strongly that rapid deployment in the artic is hugely premature and exceptionally unwise. Those researching both cloud whitening and stratospheric aerosols (both presented as potential solutions by AMEG) have been exceptionally clear on this.  Surely this points to strong self-governance and undermines the argument that those seriously researching geoengineering are desperate to deploy?

The researchers within SPICE are universally opposed to rapid (timescale months) deployment, specifically using SPICE technology, as proposed by AMEG. Deployment cannot be undertaken due to:

(1) our total lack of understanding of the risks
(2) serious ethical and governance issues as yet wholly unresolved
(3) a lack of consensus (in fact the AMEG are in the minority) about methane production from the arctic, as described by Tim Lenton
(4) practical technological developmental times (absolute minimum 3-5 years - specific to SPICE - this development time is for the technology only and does not consider the impacts of deployment in the arctic).

We simply cannot deploy any such technologies without fully considering all the facets of all the consequences of geoengineering (especially true for SRM) and even then it may not be apposite, legal or ethically acceptable to do so.

It is worth noting (lest I fall into a trap I've already highlighted) - - that the situation in the artic (in terms of sea ice loss) is real and serious. The most alarming thing to me is the lack of understanding of this issue from within the environmental audit commission itself.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Back from Central America

There's nothing like a trip to the global South (or third, or even fourth, world according to here - to give one a sense of perspective. The volcanic highlands of Guatemala provide a visual stunning backdrop to some of the most grotesque manifestations of abject poverty I've ever witnessed. This is my eighth year in a row leading the 'natural hazards in central America' fieldtrip (and my fifteenth (or so) visit to the region) and I am still shocked.

Of course, most of my thinking whilst in the field is about hazards, risk and resilience as well as physical volcanology (my day job). That said, the ethics of climate engineering seems to infuse my consciousness these days. Some questions arose:

What do they [the impoverished indigenos of Guatemala] want? - they can see things changing and they don't have any tolerance for additional stress from climate, but do they really want climate engineering?

Whilst I am possibly more qualified to think about climate engineering, does that give me/anyone the right to decide for them? - No, it doesn't. Simple as that.

Will they have say in what happens? - I seriously doubt it, they are largely invisible in their own country let alone the world stage.

All of this does nothing to change my mind that we are better of knowing about geoengineering (i.e. researching it) than not. How can a position of ignorance ever be better? As for deployment [SRM]? - every day I become less convinced it's a good idea (and I started off from a pretty sceptical viewpoint).

Monday, 16 January 2012


Climate denier trashes AGW then endorses geoengineering in hypocrisy shocker...