Welcome to my first Humanist blog post. I’ll be trying to update this blog roughly every 2 weeks. I’ll be covering all kinds of topics relating to Humanism, science, politics, religion and history.
At the last West Yorkshire Humanists meeting we had a talk on Methane and Climate Change. This inspired me to look at what strategies and technologies could be deployed to help Humanity adapt to climate change in the future.
The effects of climate change on our global civilization could be devastating; sea level rises, desertification, destruction of agricultural land, ocean acidification and increased frequency of extreme weather events to name but a few. There are ways however that we can adapt to these changes in our world and I hope to outline a few here. I could literally write a book on the subject so I’m going to focus on solutions to the problems of agriculture, sea level rise and finishing with a look at the ambitious world of geoengineering.
One of the biggest challenges of climate change that will face all the world’s societies, both developed and developing, will be the damage to the world’s agricultural infrastructure. Regions that have been the world’s bread baskets for millennia could be rendered unusable through drought, desertification and wild fires. There are a number of avenues we could pursue in trying to adapt to this to avoid mass famine.
For example recent research has looked at developing new methods of farming, such as so called vertical farming which grows food on vertically stacked layers thus allowing for double the food production in half the land area. This could particularly be useful for densely populated regions where land is a premium and also affords other benefits such as reducing the environmental impact of agriculture and providing protection for crops against extreme weather.
Another emerging agricultural technology is hydroponics which involves the growing of crops artificially in indoors gardens without the need for soil. Instead of soil crops are grown by placing their roots in nutrient rich water solutions, or in nutrient bathed inert mediums like gravel, brick pieces or even wool. What’s interesting about hydroponics is that it is already a developed technology, there are already hydroponic gardens and farms in the world it just needs the investment by farmers and governments to implement it on a wider scale.
Sea level rise is perhaps one of the most dramatic effects of climate change. It is estimated that the sea may rise as much as 2 meters by 2100 in the worst case scenario. Even if we don’t get the worst case scenario, the sea level will continue to rise even after 2100 as our world warms. I’ll admit I was shocked by how few solutions there are to managing this problem. The obvious one is simply to move people away from the coasts however given that the majority of the world’s largest cities are coastal, moving and resettling such vast numbers of people is problematic at best. A solution for some areas, at least in the medium term, would be the building of extensive new sea walls, levees and water management systems similar to the Delta Works in the Netherlands, one of the largest sea defence systems ever built, but potentially on an even larger scale.
Unfortunately, especially in very low laying regions, even sea walls can be outstripped and no system is full proof. A more radical and ambitious solution for dealing with rising sea levels and land loss is the concept of constructing large self-contained cities that float at sea. Whilst perhaps a little outlandish at first sight, much of the technology needed to build a floating city or city-ship does exist, it is merely a case of scaling it up. There have been a number of serious proposals or designs for such a city-ship. One that I found is called the Lilypad or Floating Ecopolis. Designed in 2008 by Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut for the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), it is a proposed self-sufficient amphibious city that houses up to 50,000 people and could be deployed in coastal regions to rehouse the potentially millions of people displaced by sea level rise or other climate change effects. What makes Lilypad interesting is that it is not just a city that floats but also provides areas for agriculture, purifies its own water supply and generates its own electricity thus once built it is largely self-sufficient. Lilypad isn’t alone out there, there are a number of similar proposals and projects and whilst quite ambitious in scale out of all the solutions to sea level rise I’ve found it is the only one that provides a long term solution to the problem thus far.
This brings us nicely to the ambitious world of geoengineering. Geoengineering refers to any large scale engineering project aimed at altering our climate or weather patterns to avert dangerous climate change. These project proposals are wide ranging and come in a variety of forms. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) identifies two areas where most geoengineering schemes fall. These are carbon dioxide removal and solar management.
Carbon dioxide removal schemes as you’d expect involve methods for reducing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in our atmosphere to compensate for the carbon we have pumped in through industrial action. They include options such as the creation of biochar from biomass (e.g. wood, leaves, agricultural waste, faeces etc.) that would otherwise release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Biochar is a stable charcoal like substance that can then be buried in the ground or used as a very rich and efficient fertilizer for crops.
Another option is so called Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. This uses a variety of techniques to capture carbon dioxide as it is emitted at fossil fuel power stations or other CO2 sources. Once it has been absorbed it can either be sequestered away in geological formations underground (e.g. unmined coal seams, oil fields or salt formations) or sealed away by chemically reacting the CO2 with metal oxides to create stable carbonates like calcite or magnesite which are then easily stored away.
Somewhat more ambitious are solar management geo-engineering projects. These involve the alteration of the amount of sunlight that is absorbed by our planet. They typically involve either using some kind of space based device to reflect some of the sun’s light away from the Earth or use ground, oceanic or atmospheric based techniques to increase the Earth’s albedo so it naturally reflects more light away. The benefits of these approaches are that they provide near instant changes to the Earth’s climate whereas CCS and other Carbon removal schemes could take decades to see any change. Furthermore they can be easily reversed if at a future time we wish to stop the project. The downside to solar management schemes is that they are often quite costly, particularly space-based solutions and we don’t necessarily know exactly how our climate would respond to the change in solar output. Furthermore solar management schemes do nothing to change the amounts of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and thus do not solve the other problems of greenhouses gases such as ocean acidification.
I’ve only brushed the surface on adaptations and technological solutions to the problems raised by climate change. Certainly the message however that my research has given me is that the Human race is brilliantly innovative and adaptable and there are already minds hard at work developing the technologies and strategies for our survival in the future. Whilst the challenge we face is large, Humanity’s ingenuity has always been our greatest strength as a species and we will no doubt continue to adapt and develop in ways we may not even be able to imagine now. What is vital is that we continue to fund research into projects like those I’ve outlined for it is only by knowing more that we will find a way towards a sustainable brighter future.
–Michael J Bramham