The Royal Society and fantastic and dangerous ideas of reducing climate change

There are many ways to slow down the rate of climate change by reducing emissions. We can have solar panels on every home, cover the shores of the seas with very large wind turbines, save energy use, prevent unnecessary energy use and even ration fossil fuel energy. These are the simple ways, simple but they come at a cost.

There are other ways which might reduce the rate of climate change which do not involve energy. Some of these ways are proven but little used. For example many buildings in Greece and Cyprus are painted white, including the roofs, which reflects back energy into the atmosphere, instead of absorbing it. Very few buildings in Southern California, which has a very similar climate to that of Greece, are either painted white or have white roofs. These buildings absorb energy as heat, making the use of more air conditioning than necessary. They warm the planet.

Some of the ways that might help global warming without affecting fossil fuel energy use are now being investigated by that august body, the Royal Society. These include proposals to put gigantic mirrors into space to reflect back energy. This will be an expensive project, far more expensive than painting roofs white, but it is the kind of project that gets everyone excited because it promises something although in reality it will deliver much less than it promises.

Another topic that will be investigated by the Royal Society, to my non scientific mind, falls into the category of the hare brained. The idea is to seed the seas with iron filings. This will apparently stimulate plankton blooms. If it does the plankton will absorb some carbon dioxide, possibly enabling the seas to absorb more carbon dioxide than they do at present. The theory goes that the increased volume of plankton provides more food and more food means more fish.

In my experience nature rarely works in such a simple way. There will be unforeseen consequences on the toxicity of the oceans. Of course a great amount of dust blows into the seas each day, but “seeding” the oceans with iron filings is not in the same category of event that nature creates, but is very much in the category of event that man creates, and generally these have been harmful to our environment.

The Royal society will also look into whether releasing tiny particles into the upper atmosphere will cool the planet, by diffusing the radiation that the earth receives. That is what the vapour trails from aviation do. We cannot measure its exact effect. Is someone going to be so good at the mathematics to be able to predict exactly what the effect of seeding the skies will be?

The Royal Society is the national academy of science not just for the United Kingdom but for the whole Commonwealth. They take the view that however fantastical a proposal it should be investigated, if it can help climate change. I think that the Royal Society is misguided.

The science of climate change is very complex and poorly understood. To my simple mind, investigating a solution without understanding the problem is a bit like trying drive a car with yours eyes firmly closed. It cannot be done. We do not understand all the variables. We do not understand the precise thermodynamics of climate change. The will be able to have as much confidence in the Royal Society’s findings as we would have in a blind bus driver.

The Royal Society prays in aid that if all else fails, we might have to turn to one or more of these fantastical potential solutions and therefore it is right to evaluate them now. I disagree. The examination of these ideas will tie up a lot of eminent scientists, diverting them from more valuable work. The starting point is improving our understanding of the problem – working out more precisely how climate change is working and doing the simple measures first. The Royal Society could do far more good by examining potential solutions which will not have a potentially malignant effect.

Painting roofs white across the world in suitable locations is a lot less sexy than launching giant mirrors into space but it might well be a lot less effective and will be a lot cheaper.

5 Responses

  1. Robert, I found today an interesting video on the BBC about Wind Turbines in the USA it shows inside a factory producing Wind Turbine Blades as well as turbines in action.

    Moment of Change: Energy innovation
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/world_news_america/7859761.stm

    I think also about painting roofs white accross the world you mentioned above, saving energy I agree and in addition to that there is specialised paint which would be white and has compounds to reduce heat absorbed quite the opposit of what Genersys is trying to achieve with specialised selective coatings to grab as much energy as possible!
    Also my idea is to have these solar chimneys retro fitted to buildings in countrie with excessive heat working to pull cool air through buildings using the simple convection principle instead of aircon, this could be improved with application of the venturi principle.

  2. Robert, I am reading a new book ‘The Eco Friendly Home – Living The Natural Life’ Dan Philips (2008) ISBN 978 1904760 62 7
    http://www.carrollandbrown.co.uk/eco.html

    On page 45, The white buildings idea: you wil love this there is a Photo of a white building and the Title is “Made in Greece” the page is about keeping cool in hot and dry climates. Robert you are trying to keep warm in a cold and wet climate the UK!

    Page 42, shows 6 solar thermal panels fixed to a roof.

    Page 31 Ventilation systems, shows what loo like a solar chimney it has a big capped exhaust tube that looks similar to a gas central heating boilers .
    The picture credit is EnergySaving Trust

  3. I found an excelent British written Blog about Renewable Energy and the life in The Philippines: http://tropicalpenpals.wordpress.com/

  4. Robert, I have to share http://www.ted.com with you and readers of your blog because it has video talks about many of the issues that you write about, I was happy ot find this site:

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/bill_gross_on_new_energy.html

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