Saturday, February 25, 2012

Environmental Audit Committee Hearing in the UK

Earlier this week, the UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee held a hearing on "Protecting the Arctic" (available for viewing here). The session focused on threats to the Arctic posed by climate change and potential responses. Key topics included tipping points, sea-ice retreat, methane releases, and geoengineering. The proceedings were very much in line with recent discussions about a supposed methane emergency in the Arctic (see Arctic Methane, Emergencies, and Alarmism, 12/29/11), and cast a decidedly negative light on calls by the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) for near-term deployment of geoengineering technologies to avert impending climate catastrophe.

After initial remarks on tipping points (by Tim Lenton, University of Exeter) and sea-ice retreat (by Peter Wadhams, University of Cambridge), John Nissen, founder and Chair of AMEG, argued that recently detected methane plumes in the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) may signal the onset of runaway climate change, and hence regional stratospheric aerosol and cloud brightening schemes must be implemented as soon as possible. Lenton, arguably the world's leading authority on climate tipping points, was quick to dismiss the nightmare scenario laid out by Nissen, stating that "I don't think the alarmist story adds up in what I've seen" (15:20:33). Lenton was hugely skeptical of proposed geoengineering deployment in the Arctic. Caroline Lucas MP, leader of the Green Party, questioned Nissen about the possible risks of geoengineering proposed by AMEG, and expressed serious reservations about Arctic deployment. Wadhams, an expert on sea ice and also a member of AMEG, was caught uncomfortably between the two positions, deeply concerned about positive feedbacks and nonlinearities, but seeming to lack enthusiasm for immediate deployment. (Wadhams did not fully articulate his views on geoengineering, and one wonders how forcefully he backs the aggressive demands put forward by AMEG.)

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 skeptical scientists and policymakers that the end is nigh, further marginalizing geoengineering in the process.


  1. Your perception of the hearing is very interesting. As someone sitting in the room, I distinctly remember Professor Wadhams stating that he has "reluctantly" come to the conclusion that geoengineering is the only chance we have of saving the summer sea ice. Professor Wadhams is undoubtedly the leading world expert when it comes to the Arctic ice.

    I have long been a fan of Professor Lenton but have to say he did straightforwardly contradict himself in the hearing. On the one hand he said there was no need for geoengineering and on the other advised that funds be allocated to research geoengineering more closely. Then, when asked if there was a possible conflict of fund allocation he said no. In this instance he aligned himself fully with Wadhams and Nissen.

    In trying to understand the argument between Wadhams / AMEG and Lenton's position, it does seem that a lot has to do with the speed of the sea ice retreat in the Arctic during the summer when the sun shines. Lenton refers to data from satellites that only takes into account the surface area retreat, where as Wadhams has been under the ice in submarines and is measuring the sea ice loss in terms of mass. Thus, Wadhams states, the sea ice is being melted from top and bottom at alarming rate which could see it gone within 3 years.

    From a layman's standpoint, even if the odds of this runaway methane risk are low - say a few percent - shouldn't this be taken extremely seriously? Should we not at least be researching and developing our options rather than sniffing the air and proclaiming that "though danger is coming.. it be yet a long way off!"

    I am afraid to say that I find your summary paragraph off balance and misleading.

    1. My take on this is somewhat different. Nissen is not calling for 'research' he's calling for deployment before research. Most people (according to at least 3 surveys) believe careful research is a good idea and deployment probably not. I suspect Tim Lenton falls firmly in that category and I don't think he's 'against deployment', if it can be justified and proven safe, simply against rapid deployment. Personally, I think that anyone who has already formed strong opinions about SRM is asking for trouble - we simply don't know enough. The only sensible position in the absence of an evidence base is agnosticism, surely?