Geoengineering: a Viable Climate Response?

3 Mar
One geoengineering strategy: releasing reflective particulates  Image by Hugh Hunt

One geoengineering strategy: releasing reflective particulates
Image by Hugh Hunt

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

Geoengineering has grabbed headlines recently after a panel of scientists at the National Academy of Sciences called for more research into manmade responses to climate change. Environmental groups have opposed geoengineering as a solution for fear of unknown environmental impacts. However, if the world cannot reduce carbon emissions fast enough to curb rising global temperatures, then geoengineering purports to offer a quick solution. However, little is known about the effectiveness or long term impacts of proposed interventions, prompting the call for additional research. Questions of who would control the technology and who it would benefit also need to be addressed. While geoengineering does not replace current carbon reduction efforts, it could provide an important backstop if those efforts fall short of their objectives.

Carbon emissions are themselves a form of unintentional geoengineering. During the Industrial Revolution, harmful emissions occurred long before the greenhouse effect became a global concern. Increased understanding of the phenomenon has led some countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but other countries are still increasing their emissions as they industrialize. China has used its ample coal reserves to satisfy its growing demand for electricity. Meanwhile, air quality in India’s capital, New Delhi, is the worst in the world due, in part, to the country’s lax emissions standards for coal power plants. Some emissions projections conclude that growing demand for fossil fuels will outpace carbon emissions reductions in the coming decades.

This stark possibility has elevated discussions about alternatives for combatting climate change. Prospective geoengineering projects approach the issue from one of two angles: carbon dioxide removal or limiting solar radiation. Carbon removal involves sucking carbon out of the air through biological processes like photosynthesis or manmade processes like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is already in practice to scrub emissions at coal power plants, but these systems are expensive to install and maintain. Expanded efforts to plant trees and reduce deforestation represent a benign form of carbon capture. Reducing solar radiation is less expensive than carbon removal, but the results will be equally complex. Releasing reflective particles high in the atmosphere would reflect incoming heat away from the earth, counteracting the insulating effect of greenhouse gasses. Given the number of variables, any geoengineering solution is bound to be as complicated as the issue of climate change itself.

While climate scientists and environmentalists debate geoengineering’s merits, psychologists are discovering how it shapes the climate change discussion. Though views on human contributions to rising temperatures tend to fall along partisan lines, views on geoengineering meet closer to the middle. Specifically, climate change skeptics view climate intervention more favorably while climate change advocates view such intervention less favorably. Because individuals on both sides of the climate debate associate their views with their political identity, introducing a third option forces thinking outside of the ideological divide. Even if geoengineering fails to gain popular support, bringing opposed viewpoints closer together could enable a breakthrough in some of the current political gridlock.

In addition to recommending geoengineering research, the National Academy of Sciences report emphasizes that “there is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change”. Investigating alternatives to emissions reductions is not an admission of defeat in the fight against rising temperatures, but an expansion of scientific knowledge. For any research and development problem, pursuing many ideas in tandem enhances the probability of success. Combatting climate change will likely require a portfolio of solutions in which emissions reductions and geoengineering play a part.



Sustainable Development is Everyone’s Business

24 Feb
A photovoltaic sunshade that recharges electric vehicles  Image by Tatmouss

A photovoltaic sunshade that recharges electric vehicles
Image by Tatmouss

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

New sustainable development initiatives show that economic development without damaging the environment is possible. Rather than hindering growth, protecting the local environment often goes hand-in-hand with economic development. Such is the case for the coastal village of Wakatobi, Indonesia, whose fishermen rely on healthy coral reefs for their livelihood. In the Philippines, the electricity’s high cost has sparked a boom in the construction of energy-efficient buildings. A report from the Risky Business Project demonstrates that even a developed country like the United States stands to benefit economically from climate change mitigation. These examples show how countries at all development levels can improve economic outcomes in ways that lessen their detrimental environmental impact.

Developing countries with concerns about climate change’s effects can take proactive steps to avoid dependence on fossil fuels. In centuries past, increased fossil fuel consumption drove the industrialization of many countries before rising global temperatures became a prevalent issue. Industrialized nations built up a massive infrastructure of mines, pipelines, and power plants to support their carbon-based economies. Developing countries that lack this infrastructure should seize the opportunity to leapfrog old technology in favor of more sustainable options. Countries that choose to develop by burning fossil fuels could find themselves falling behind once again as the rest of the world transitions towards alternative energy sources.

Sustainable development places value in the environment as a whole rather than each exploitable resource. In Indonesia, a project that revived coral reefs also increased native fish populations, leading to higher incomes for local fisherman. One former fisherman makes more money with a new ecotourism business that offers diving trips to the reefs, while other villagers sell crafts and other goods to the tourists. None of this extra income would be possible without a conscious effort to protect the reefs.

In addition to raising incomes, sustainable development can save money for consumers. The high price of electricity in the Philippines has pushed homebuyers to look for homes that use less energy for heating and cooling. To support this effort, the Department of Public Works and Highways is preparing to release its National Green Building Code that reduces the energy consumption of new buildings. The proposed guidelines will either not add any additional construction cost or they will pay for themselves in energy savings within five years. Homeowners can then spend the money they save on other quality-of-life improvements.

Industrialized countries like the United States can also protect their development gains from climate change effects. The Risky Business Project, led by prominent business leaders like Michael Bloomberg and Thomas Steyer, details the economic impacts of higher temperatures in the near future. Declining crop yields, damage to coastal properties, and higher energy costs combine to place a high dollar value on inaction. Stronger storms and rising sea levels will imperil coastal cities and infrastructure, and higher average temperatures will increase the cost of air conditioning and expenses associated with deleterious public health problems. These findings echo the conclusions of the Stern Review, commissioned by the British government in 2006, which estimated the costs of rising temperatures at anywhere from 5-20% of global GDP annually without immediate action. Not just a purely environmental concern, climate change will have huge financial costs for developed countries.

Developing and industrialized countries alike must recognize that climate change impacts will be felt everywhere. Armed with better knowledge on the effects of carbon emissions, developing countries have the opportunity to forge a new path towards economic growth using clean energy alternatives. At the same time, developed countries can prevent expensive damage to the infrastructure they have already built. Identifying common interests is critical because the response to global climate change will require contributions from everyone. More individuals would realize their interest in protecting their local and global environment if they knew the economic costs of inaction and development based on fossil fuels.

Climate Challenges and Opportunities in the State of the Union

28 Jan

President Obama delivers the 2015 State of the Union Address. Photo Credit: Alex Wong, Getty Images

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

“No challenge poses a greater threat”

In his seventh State of the Union address, President Obama framed his discussion of climate change in terms of challenges and opportunities. In particular, he emphasized the long-term threats presented by climate change and the steps that the United States had already taken to mitigate these threats. This is a source of tension between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, making it more difficult to enact new policies nationwide. The major point of conflict is the impact of human activity. The president referenced findings by scientists at NASA, NOAA, and major universities that link rising global temperatures to human activity. Days after the speech, the Senate voted for the first time to recognize that climate change is real, a sign that lawmakers from both parties have found some common ground on the issue. In spite of political disagreements, developments since the State of Union show opportunities for advancing climate policy.

“America is number one in wind power”

President Obama also touted recent achievements in energy security, including renewable energy development such as wind and solar power: “Every three weeks, we produce as much solar power as we did in all of 2008”. Energy production is another crucial element within the climate change issue. In order to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, renewable energy production will have to expand in scale to the point where renewables can compete on cost and convenience with dirtier fuel sources. To follow up on his carbon reduction commitments, President Obama asked Congress on January 25, 2015 to designate millions of acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as off-limits to oil and natural gas exploration.

“In Beijing, we made a historic announcement”

The president acknowledged climate change’s important role in international diplomacy. The US-China climate agreement, signed in November 2014, set a goal for the United States to double its rate for reducing carbon emissions, and commits China to limiting their greenhouse gas emissions for the first time. This is an important step for the world’s two largest economies and the two largest greenhouse gas emitters. Together, the US and China account for nearly one-third of the world’s carbon emissions, so any concrete steps they take to reduce emissions would have a significant global impact. Just as important, the United States and China can use this agreement as leverage to engage with other countries about climate change issues. For example, during his trip to India last week, President Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed themselves to future cooperative action.

“An agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got”

The President concluded his remarks on climate change by expressing hope for a global agreement later this year. The UN will hold its 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris this December, giving nations another opportunity to create a legally binding framework for reducing carbon emissions. While previous attempts to create such a framework have failed to garner support from some of the world’s biggest polluters, there is a chance that the US-China agreement has broken some of the deadlock. The State of the Union address acknowledged the challenges presented by climate change, but also outlined positive steps that the United States and other countries can take to combat its worst effects.

The Myanmar Advanced Leadership Institute on Climate Change

19 Dec MALICC participants with their hosts from Catoctin Mountain Park, where we learned about the role of National Park Services in combating climate change and Catoctin's efforts to preserve its biodiversity.

By Mary Howard, PISA Program Assistant

In his December 11, 2014 Remarks on Climate Change at COP-20, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted dynamic tensions with the ongoing fight against climate change: successes vs. drawbacks, science vs. politics, long-standing tradition vs. innovative adaptation. Each individual holds responsibility for carbon emissions, impacting national climate change policy, and proactive mitigation. While Kerry warns that the window for effective action is closing quickly, he is “confident we can rise above the debates that have dragged us down. We can find a way to summon the shared resolve that we need to tackle this shared threat. And if we do that, then we will reach an agreement and we will meet this challenge.”

Since 2007, PISA has facilitated capacity-building programs for climate change education and sustainable, green development for some of the most vulnerable countries in Southeast Asia. In total, five successful Leadership Institutes on Climate Change were organized, with a focus on mitigation and resilience. Without our strong and enduring partnerships throughout the region, PISA could not have organized such leadership training programs. MALICC built upon the success of the 2013 Myanmar Climate Change Leadership Institute (MLICC) and valuable partnership with Yangon-based NGO, Advancing Life and Regeneration Motherland (ALARM).

From October 31 to November 14, PISA was honored to welcome 14 leaders of Myanmar for the Myanmar Advanced Leadership Institute on Climate Change (MALICC). During the 2-week program, seven civil society leaders and seven government officials learned about climate change’s far-reaching impact from the many perspectives of Washington’s policymakers, non-governmental representatives, academics, scientists and activists. MALICC’s participants represented diverse organizations. The government participants came from seven distinct Bureaus while the civil society leaders represented six leading organizations with missions devoted to sustainable development, community participation, and knowledge dissemination.  Diversity among the MALICC participants was cross cutting along ethnic, regional, and expertise lines. However, all shared a common interest in global warming. Each participant was passionate, enthusiastic about making a positive impact, and eager to learn as much as they could during their two weeks in Washington.

The MALICC group at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, where they learned about new weather prediction technologies and opportunities for weather forecasting training.

The MALICC group at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, where they learned about new weather prediction technologies and opportunities for weather forecasting training.

While foreign actors have been increasingly active within Myanmar, MALICC enabled rising leaders in Myanmar to form networks abroad. Collaboration and exchange of ideas is one essential element to creating inclusive, sustainable climate change policy. The MALICC program offered Myanmar’s forefront civil society leaders a path-breaking opportunity to directly interact on one on, begin dialogue and establish working relationships with government officials from key Departments. MALICC initiated dialogue and negotiation which will continue beyond the MALICC program. In addition, the delegation openly offered first-hand accounts of Myanmar’s democratization process and development experience to participating experts. PISA’s program not only educated its delegates in substantive knowledge regarding climate change and its effects, but also facilitated training for essential skills for global action such as public speaking, making use of open source data, and multicultural awareness. Each individual was fully aware that the people of Myanmar must take responsibility and guide their country towards the future that they want.

MALICC participants with their hosts from Catoctin Mountain Park, where we learned about the role of National Park Services in combating climate change and Catoctin's efforts to preserve its biodiversity.

MALICC participants with their hosts from Catoctin Mountain Park, where we learned about the role of National Park Services in combating climate change and Catoctin’s efforts to preserve its biodiversity.

By the program’s closing session, crucial bonds were formed—future links for information sharing, collaboration, and increased understanding among a wide range of perspectives. Both PISA and each MALICC participant are grateful for our sponsors’ contributions and information sessions. We are also thankful for the many individuals who shared their expertise throughout the conference. Each day was packed with meetings, engaging discussion, cultural exchange, and innovative brainstorming. We only hope that this program will spur the next Leadership Institute on Climate Change, and strengthen the legacy of PISA’s and our valued partners’ work to help build capacity to deal with climate change.


Combatting Climate Change: Analyzing the United States’ and China’s Agreement

5 Dec

By Aisha Iqbal, PISA Staff Assistant

After declaring climate change “one of the greatest threats facing humanity,” US President Barack Obama announced a joint effort by the United States and the

People’s Republic of China to reduce carbon emissions within both countries. Given their roles as the largest and second-largest carbon polluters in the world, this announcement signified a new precedence for global environmental policy, one in which cooperation is viewed as a powerful tool. According to a New York Times article, a senior official from the Obama administration stated that while “The US and China have often been seen as antagonists,” within the climate debate , the ushering in of the joint program can result in “a new day in which [the two countries] can act much more as partners,” towards developing greener economies.

President Obama and President Xi Jinping, with their delegations, meet inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

President Obama and President Xi Jinping, with their delegations, meet inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Credit Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The success of the cooperative measure is contingent on work done within both countries over the next decade. In a press release, the White House indicated that the U.S. plans to reduce its carbon emissions “26%-28% below its 2005 level by 2025,” while China plans on “achieving its peak CO2 emissions by 2030,”with an increase of its non-fossil fuel shares to 20% of primary energy consumption. With the establishment of the US-China Climate Change Working Group, in charge of initiatives on “vehicles, smart grids, carbon capture, utilization and storage, energy efficiency, and greenhouse gas data management,” both countries aim to build up their respective renewable energy capacities in order to meet the targets. Further action will be undertaken through the creation of the US-China Clean Energy Research Center, responsible for creating carbon capture and storage technologies.

Though the announcement was hailed by many as a progressive step towards combatting global climate change, successful implementation of the long term goals remains uncertain. The major effort towards attaining the US goals will come after President Barack Obama leaves office, bringing into question whether future presidents will have similar zeal to act against climate change. A recent Politico article emphasized that no significant legislation on the issue is expected in the next two years, especially with a Republican Congress.

In the case of China, it is implementation of legislation that is seen as problematic. A revised environmental protection law, passed in January, calls upon provincial and local leaders to be held accountable for whether or not both economic and environmental targets are met. There is still a large discrepancy in carbon emissions among the different regions, based entirely on the relative economic growth experienced in each area. Many of the poorer regions, situated in the western half of the country, have not experienced the same level of development and thus, for many local government officials, “GDP growth still trumps environmental protection.” For the Chinese officials, it becomes imperative to find a balance between its high energy demand for economic development and a growing concern over the environmental conditions. For the two countries, experts point to greater investment in renewable energy as a means of fueling both economies. As large trading partners, greater cooperation in the energy sector can usher in a new era of green economic policymaking on a global scale

Climate Change and Food Security: Incentives for U.S.-Asia Cooperation

28 May

By Mary Howard, PISA Program Assistant

With the recent releases of the United States’ third National Climate Change Assessment (NCA) and the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) book, The Environments of the Poor in Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, attention to impending climate change is accelerating.  Reports on climate change serve a vital function to present information from various disciplines, such as science and economics, in an integrated matter to inform society about complex processes. While the NCA and ADB’s works are regionally focused, both reports highlight parallels which strengthen the argument for global cooperation to mitigate and adapt as necessary to climate change.

The Global Change Research Act of 1990  requires the U.S. Global Change Research Programto produce an NCA every four years. The purpose of the NCA is to “assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” The ADB’s publication inaugurates an upcoming three-volume series based on a 2010 conference that included diverse actors. While climate change often invokes negative and worrisome feelings, this report remains positive and argues that “reducing poverty, protecting the environment, and responding to climate change” can happen simultaneously as a “triple-win” situation.


A Burmese sunset over the rice paddy fields along the road to Mandalay just outside Myanmar’s capital city of Nay Pyi Daw on February 17, 2013. Photo credit: Sandi Moynihan.

Both the NCA and ADB’s work describe the anticipated harms due to climate change: extreme weather, flooding, spread of infectious diseases and pests, infrastructure failures, and ecosystem collapses, many of which will have an impact on agriculture. A United Nations report predicts that by 2050, world population will be a staggering 9.6 billion people with Asians comprising the  major portion. Feeding 9.6 billion people in a world facing food security problems is a challenge. However, the NCA and ADB report are optimistic: with the correct policy implementation and technological innovations, agricultural production could increase. Climate change has the potential to affect agricultural systems positively and negatively, depending on location and other environmental factors. The key is to develop practices that will take advantage of any opportunities that the changing climate presents.


Food stall in Yangon, Myanmar on February 16, 2013. Photo credit: Sandi Moynihan

The NCA describes “climate change induced stresses,” which echo those in the ADB volume. China provides a useful case study for American policymakers, since the country’s decline in rural poverty rate coincides with increasing food production rates. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, China’s grain production increased from 285 kg per capita during the early 1980s to over 300 kg per capita onwards, except in 2003. In the chapter, “Climate Change, Food Security, and Poverty in the People’s Republic of China,” author Qi Gubo describes how Chinese farmers’ responses to climate change have been effective. Simple measures such as moving the crop sites, planting different crop varieties, producing drought-resistant crops and increasing greenhouse crop ventures has raised overall output. In a different chapter, “Conservation Agriculture in Cambodia,” authors describe current land use trials in Cambodia that may have international applications. In Cambodia, experts are experimenting with sustainable upland agriculture programs to support technical training for farmers, increase access to resources, and increase land-use efficiency.

Considering the global nature of climate change and its impact on food security, the U.S. and countries in Asia should continue to strengthen information sharing and policy cooperation. Effective collaboration already exists within multilateral venues such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation organization, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. As these two reports issued this month reveal, climate change induced problems facing developing and developed countries are the same. However, each nation differs in its ability and resources to address climate change. While each country’s situation is unique, it is clear that there is much to learn from both hemispheres and all levels of development.

Calling Out Climate Change – Reactions Across Asia

28 Apr

By Spogmay Ahmed, PISA Staff Assistant 

Climate change has struck, and if we do not take immediate action, its pernicious impacts will continue to exacerbate. This is what the International Panel on Climate Change warns in its recently released Fifth Assessment Report. Though climate change is a global phenomenon, the report notes that much of the world, particularly developing countries, do not have adequate resources to counteract its risks. The report therefore advances adaptation as a necessary approach in responding to a changing environment. Climate change can easily aggravate ongoing social and economic processes; developed and developing countries need to cooperate to ensure steady growth. Among the countries left most vulnerable are those in Asia, which have not hesitated to address the risks in their local media.

An article in the China Daily recognizes the impact of global warming, as well as food and water scarcity on China’s growing economy. Though yields of winter wheat may benefit from rising temperatures and increasing precipitation, yields of rice may be threatened by these same changes. Additionally, as the Chinese population continues to grow, the country may face challenges in guaranteeing healthy food and clean water for all. The article notes that the IPCC report focuses on livelihoods and poverty, which could bring attention to rural populations most vulnerable to a changing climate. In terms of adaptation, the article explains that despite the government’s efforts towards promoting adaptation projects, local planners struggle to access effective resources for further implementation. Lastly, it emphasizes local development and community-based adaptation as a sensible approach to combating climate change. This requires the participation of vulnerable peoples, thereby targeting climate change within the framework of local developmental policies.

Likewise, an opinion editorial in the Indian press titled “The quiet IPCC warning” focuses on much of the same phenomena. It recognizes that changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, and disappearance of land could generate large-scale migration across South Asia. This would result in a conflict over diminishing resources, and could aggravate existing structural inequalities and poverty conditions. The article notes that the most vulnerable states are arguably the most dysfunctional. Therefore, creating adaptation policies will not be an easy undertaking.



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