Climate revisionism

I am a subscriber to the Economist; not because I like it – though the writing is excellent – but because its free-market ideology is a constant reminder of the challenge the ideology presents for those looking to foster progressive change. So, when I opened this week’s copy, I was hoping to see one dominant factor, climate change. Note it was hope, not expectation.

The Economist is struggling with climate change. The writers/editors know that it is a challenge to business-as-usual. The IPCC report published earlier this week (9 August 2021), has given the the magazine’s editors a way out: sulphates. Every cloud has a silver lining, and sulphates – or more generically, aerosols – are showing themselves to be a way to justify not changing the system that delivers ever-greater climate change.

The IPCC report shows that in burning fossil fuels, sulphates are released into the atmosphere – the lower atmosphere to be precise. These particles actually reflect heat away from the planet and have contributed something in the order of 0.4 degrees Celsius of cooling. Actually scrubbing fossil fuels when they are burned, takes out the sulphates and, hence, makes warming worse (though the benefits to air quality and hence mortality from air polution are significant but peripheral in the argument). Even more interesting is the discernible decrease in sulphates that occurred after 2015 and is detailed here by James Hansen – a colossus in climate science (left). In other words, without sulphates the planet would have already reached 1.5 degrees Celsius warming since pre-industrial times. Readers may well be able to see where this is going?

The sulphates “solution” is at the heart of solar geo-engineering thinking (see Elizabeth Kolbert’s account). If human beings scatter the upper-atmosphere with sulphate particles, the heat would be reflected and the planet cooled. It seems that geo-engineering is back on the agenda for free-market thinkers, even though it is unthinkable for many reasons: political, unintended consequences (some of which are known), etc. Solar geo-engineering is not a solution for the IPCC, however.

In addition, the Economist has gone for another easy option, methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas, something-like 10 times the potency of carbon dioxide. However, it stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter time. The logic, then, is for methane to be targeted rather than carbon dioxide. Moreover, methane can be monetized (it has a market price), therefore it is easier to attract private investment than simple carbon capture. Here is a question, methane can be captured from human industrial processes, but one of the growing sources of methane is that released from melting ice and permafrost. How is that captured? I think the answer is not to release it in the first place. Zero carbon has to be the target. End.

Pic: By NASA – nasa.gov, (archived), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71506555

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