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Climate Hustle

Does providing information on geoengineering reduce climate polarization?

Posted on 4 March 2015 by Andy Skuce

Dan Kahan of Yale University and four colleagues have just published an article in Annals of the AAPS titled: Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication that investigates the effect on study participants' attitudes to climate change after reading an article about geoengineering. In their abstract, they write:

We found that cultural polarization over the validity of climate change science is offset by making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions.

I will argue here that this experiment achieved no such result because the premise was wrong. Specifically, the information on geoengineering that was presented to the study participants (in the form of a fictional newspaper article) bears no relation to mainstream scientific opinion on geoengineering nor, even, to the opinions of advocates of geoengineering. Geoengineering is portrayed in the fictional newspaper article as a strategy with no uncertainty about how well it might work and, it is claimed, will "spare consumers and businesses from the heavy economic costs associated with the regulations necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm or lower". This is hardly depicting geoengineering as a "potential solution" or "a supplement" to the restriction of emissions, as is claimed in the abstract of the paper.

In fact, what Kahan et al. have demonstrated is that presenting misinformation dressed up as fact can affect people's opinions about climate change. That may be interesting as a social science experiment conducted on consenting adults, but it is not much use as a guide to effective public science communication, constrained as it is to tell the truth.

The Kahan et al 2015 paper is paywalled, but there is a 2012 version of it (updated in 2015), with the same title, similar figures, but different text, that is available online here. The study looked at two representative samples of individuals from the USA and England of 1500 each. The two samples were further split into three groups that were each asked to read one of three fictional newspaper articles. One article, used as a control, had nothing to do with climate change. The second was an article advocated tighter limits on atmospheric concentrations of CO2 (although this article contained what surely must be a typo, calling for CO2 concentrations of 175 ppm, which would send us back to depths of the last ice age). The third piece called for geoengineering on the grounds that "limiting emissions is a wasteful and futile strategy". Articles two and three both quoted a (fictional) Dr Williams of Harvard University, the spokesman of the (fictional) "American Association of Geophysical Scientists". Both of these articles contained a couple of pictures designed to appeal to or to repel people at either end of the political spectrum.

All participants were then asked to read a piece from the (fictional) journal Nature Science. The fake article was cobbled together from various real scientific publications and was policy-neutral. The participants were then asked to evaluate this article for its validity and their own assessment of climate change risk.

You can read the articles for yourself on pages 30-33 here. I have copied the geoengineering piece below:



This account of the costs and benefits of geoengineering echoes the simplistic and widely debunked account of geoengineering in the book SuperFreakonomics. It bears little resemblance to what mainstream scientists—even the geoengineering enthusiasts among them—say. Note, in particular, the claim that geoengineering would spare consumers the costs and regulations of emissions reduction. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in a recent report estimates that the cost of direct air capture of CO2 of the kind shown in the left-hand picture would cost $400-1000 per tonne of CO2, which is much higher than generally accepted emissions mitigation costs. The albedo modification technology shown in the right-hand picture (incorrectly referred to as a "flying" rather than floating vessel in the text of the paper) would require international regulation for it to be done responsibly, if indeed it could ever be done safely at all.

What do actual climate scientists say about geoengineering?

It's probably worthwhile first to distinguish between the two main types of geoengineering, which have very different cost, effectiveness and risk profiles.

Solar radiation management or albedo modification is cheap and poses regional and global risks. Harvard University scientist David Keith estimates that an effective program could be achieved by spending of the order of $1 billion per year, employing a fleet of twenty or so modified business jets to spray sulphuric acid into the stratosphere. To put that sum into perspective, if the Koch brothers invested $50 billion of their fortune in Treasury Bills, they could fund global solar radiation management in perpetuity out of the interest alone. Some of the shortcomings and perils of this kind of intervention are detailed in Alan Robock's article 20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea. Most importantly, albedo modification does nothing to avert ocean acidification.

Carbon dioxide removal is expensive and poses mainly local risks. It comprises three main technologies:

  1. carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) where CO2 is captured at source from the exhausts of fossil-fuel power plants;
  2. direct air capture and sequestration (DACS), in which CO2 is removed from ambient air by a variety of so-far untested technologies and;
  3. bio-energy CCS (BECCS) involving CO2 capture at bio-energy power plants. CCS and BECCS are relied upon heavily in the socio-economic model underlying the IPCC's only projection (RCP2.6) that avoids exceeding 2 degrees Celsius of warming. See for example van Vuuren et al. (2011).


Here is a handy summary table from the NAS report:



There is no consensus among scientists about what to do about geoengineering. Near one end of the scale we have David Keith, a Harvard scientist and a leading advocate for the serious consideration of geoengineering, who has written in the preface to his recent book (which I recommend): A Case for Climate Engineering:

I myself have concluded that it makes sense to move with deliberate haste towards deployment of geoengineering. You may well reach a different conclusion. My goal is simply to convince you that it’s a hard choice.

However, this comment was introduced with the kind of caveats missing from the fictitious newspaper article and the quotes from "Dr Alan Williams" of Harvard University. Keith:

Solar geoengineering is a set of emerging technologies to manipulate the climate. These technologies could partially counteract climate change caused by the gradual accumulation of carbon dioxide. Deliberately adding one pollutant to temporarily counter another is a brutally ugly technical fix, yet that is the essence of the suggestion that sulfur be injected into the stratosphere to limit the damage caused by the carbon we’ve pumped into the air.

Solar geoengineering is an extraordinarily powerful tool. But it is also dangerous. It entails novel environmental risks. And, like climate change itself, its effects are unequal, so even if it makes many farmers better off, others will be worse off. It is so cheap that almost any nation could afford to alter the earth’s climate, a fact that may accelerate the shifting balance of global power, raising security concerns that could, in the worst case, lead to war. If misused, geoengineering could drive extraordinarily rapid climate change, imperiling global food supply. In the long run, stable control of geoengineering may require new forms of global governance and may prove as disruptive to the political order of the 21st century as nuclear weapons were for the 20th.

Other climate scientists are less keen on geoengineering than David Keith. In a recent Slate piece: Climate Hacking Is Barking Mad, University of Chicago climate scientist Ray Pierrehumbert writes:

In other words, albedo modification addresses (albeit imperfectly) the symptoms but not the root causes of CO2-induced global warming. As a possible response to such criticisms, Oxford’s Steve Rayner has mused that “Band-Aids are useful when you are healing.” However, Band-Aids are not all that useful if you really needed penicillin instead, and the wound festers until you die. Albedo modification is not like a bandage that promotes healing, but more like taking painkillers when you really need surgery for cancer.
...
Now, about those research recommendations: If albedo modification is such a terrible idea, why do research on it at all? Indeed in his book, Mike Hulme considers the technology ungovernable and argues that if a technology is basically ungovernable at the level of deployment, we shouldn’t be doing research that could bring it into being.

Ethicist Clive Hamilton has written a book about geoengineering Earthmasters The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, which I recommend as a counterpoint to Keith's book. Hamilton takes a critical look at the motives of those advocating geoengineering and describes how climate modification was originally researched in weapons laboratories in the USA. 

Regardless or whether or not we chose to emphasize information on geoengineering in climate communications, the issue is not likely to go away, at least until the world has embarked on meaningful emission mitigation measures. It's as if we are in the second act of a Chekhov play, in which the gun that appeared in the first act is destined to go off in the third. David Keith is probably right in his observation that geoengineering will be as disruptive for global governance in this century as nuclear weapons have been since 1945.

Polarization

The headline result, to recap, from the Kahan et al. study is that:

We found that cultural polarization over the validity of climate change science is offset by making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions.

I hope that I have demonstrated that the subjects were actually fed misinformation that instead portrayed geoengineering as a low cost, risk-free substitute for the restriction of emissions.

Many people who are opposed to accepting climate change have deep-seated concerns that mitigation solutions will require taxation, loss of liberty and the handing over of control to a technocratic elite with whom they do not share a cultural or even national identity. In order for geoengineering to be safely deployed, even its proponents stipulate that we will need:

• Carbon pricing, in some form to pay for carbon dioxide removal. Ultimately, carbon removal and sequestration has to be funded by fossil-fuel consumers or taxpayers. It won't be cheap.
• Global governance agreements to decide whose fingers get to control the albedo modification thermostat, along with some kind of mechanism to compensate the losers from climate intervention, since its regional effects will be far from uniformly benign.
• A climate model that reliably predicts the regional changes that will result from deliberate climate modification. This model would have to be endorsed by a consensus of the planet's climate experts. Current models don't come close to this level of precision or reliability.

Kahan's subjects were not told any of this and my guess is that the "Hierarchical Individualist" group (who are inclined to doubt mainstream climate science) would have been less keen on it had they been made fully aware of what geoengineering involves in terms of taxation, world government, handing over of control to a global scientific elite and reliance on a hugely complex climate model.

Here's the effect that Kahan et al. observed on cultural polarization:



The US and English participants showed slightly less polarization after they had been exposed to geoengineering than the control group did. The anti-pollution message increased polarization. The error bars overlap considerably. But for me the most striking thing about this graph is how much worse the polarization is in the USA compared to England. It seems unlikely that this trans-Atlantic gap on cultural polarization over climate could be caused by the information the participants are hearing. The English are exposed to essentially the same communications that Americans are (e.g., the IPCC, the Murdoch press), yet they are far less polarized on this issue.

Britain's political leaders recently—and apparently happily—made a joint declaration on climate policy.



Not only is political polarization on climate mainly an American problem, but it's a relatively recent American problem. Famously, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi shared a sofa on a rainy day in Washington in 2008 and saw eye-to-eye on climate change. But things have changed since then, with increased polarization on climate and on many other policy issues. It is perhaps futile to look for a climate communication solution to a problem that was not caused by climate communications in the first place.

Goodbye blue sky

One consequence of undertaking solar radiation management is that it will change the colour of clear skies from blue to a more milky shade. And that change will endure for as long as we need to keep on cooling the planet, essentially forever. Of all the reasons to be wary of geoengineering, this is probably the least serious from a human welfare standpoint, but it's possibly the one that will strike many people the strongest. One of the problems of raising awareness about carbon dioxide pollution is that it is invisible. In contrast, the albedo modification "cure" for the pollution problem will be visible to everyone.

We should not assume that geoengineering has some kind of automatic appeal to people inclined to reject climate change. In fact, a poll done by the Brookings Institute found the opposite.



People who take the position that global warming is not occurring are overwhelmingly in agreement that adding materials to the atmosphere will cause more harm than good. My own (anecdotal) observations of climate change contrarian blogs are that, although their denizens are typically eager to consider a wide range of unconventional scientific ideas, there is generally little enthusiasm among them for geoengineering.

A comment by one of the Brookings Institute poll's authors, Barry Rabe, reported in Scientific American, was that peoples' minds are generally made up, one way or the other, on geoengineering.

But what is interesting about the new results, Rabe said, is that few respondents indicated they were neutral about geoengineering.

"One thing that surprised us a bit is the percentage of people who responded with an opinion," he said. "In every case, we gave them the option to say 'not sure.' I frankly expected more people to punt on this one."

There seems to be a popular and deep-rooted fear among people of all cultural persuasions with the idea of deliberately tinkering with the climate. For every techno-optimist who imagines a bright shiny future where the Earth's climate is successfully micromanaged, there is probably a techno-pessimist who imagines the future under deliberate climate modification to look something like the apocalyptic vision (of the London Blitz) in the video of the Pink Floyd song titled, oddly enough, Goodbye Blue Sky.

So, in conclusion, returning to the question posed in the title of this piece: Does providing information on geoengineering reduce climate polarization?

The answer is: we don't know, because the lab experiment that measures the reactions of people exposed to realistic information on geoengineering has not yet been done. But as the future unfolds in the real world we will likely find out anyway: the question of whether we should deliberately attempt to ameliorate the climate crisis with technological interventions is not going to go away. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the prospect of the limited benefits, uncertain outcomes and unpleasant side-effects of this drastic course of treatment for the climate disease might indeed motivate everyone to come together to focus on preventing the symptoms from becoming ever worse. 

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Comments

Comments 1 to 17:

  1. Thanks. I had suspicions that there were problems with the Kahan study. Though there was a certain wry irony to the idea that some conservatives only accept gw science if spiced with schemes that at least one climate scientist called 'barking mad'!

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  2. Thanks Andy.

    It does seem utterly bizarre to use dummy geoengineering data that is so far removed from reality. One wonders why the study didn't adopt a "tell it like it is" approach to the test subjects?

    On the topic of political polarization regarding climate change information: I'm sure that you, like many of us, remember Newt Gingrich's aspirations toward the Republican Presidential nomination were badly dented at the mere suggestion of Katherine Heyhoe doing a chapter in a then forthcoming book. 

    In the UK, I'm afraid the cross party leadership show of unity (let's avoid the word "consensus") is far weaker than portrayed. Although Labour and the Lib-Dems seem pretty much to agree that this is a clear and present danger, the Tory party is rife with division on climate change.

    The joker in the pack is, of course, the UKIP party. Come the General Election on the 7th May, I will be (pleasantly) surprised if UKIP does not end up with more votes and more seats than the Lib-Dems, as UKIP's official stance on climate change is simply frightening.

    Their Energy Spokesman, Roger Helmer, has openly questioned the linkage between CO2 levels and human activity, and talks glibly of "climate alarmism".  In their Policies for People statement, the first bullet point in the section devoted to Energy reads...

    UKIP will repeal the Climate Change Act 2008 which costs the economy £18bn a year

    I wonder if it's too late to put my name down for the one-way mission to Mars?

     

    cheers      bill f

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  3. I think the study is relevent nonetheless. It's long been suspected that many "skeptics" aren't truly skeptical of the science, but rather they find the proferred solutions (taxes, regulations, international cooperation) to be politically unpalatable. They hate the cure, so they deny the disease.


    This study seems to bear that out. Offered a potential solution that doesn't offend their sensibilities, the subjects become much more willing to consider the problem. I think the authors were forced to invent a fictitious geoengineering solution in order to properly explore this question.

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  4. Why is England so polarised where in the Celtic Fringe (including the Republic of Ireland, where I live) climate denial hardly gets a look in? Even Scotland, with heavy dependence on North Sea oil revenues, is also a big developer of wind energy. 

    It correlates IMHO with Conservative politics - Margaret Thatcher, for example, was widely disliked outside of England, the Conservative party is basically an English party, and under her leadership Scottisn Nationalism got an enormous boost. I think Thatcher (and Reagan) did some necessary things, but they also gave big business unwarranted permission to interfere in the political process, something which seems to have also happened in Australia.

    Not that we problem-free here as regards climate change, but we have no Lord Lawsons, Tony Abbotts or James Inhofes. Or is we do, they work very quietly.

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  5. @Adam, #3

    I agree, but then the result becomes trivial because anyone could have predicted that outcome, right? So why do the study in the first place ...

    I have seen Kahan speak on the results of this experiment before, but I had not seen what the subjects were actually presented. To me, it is obviously meaningless to present false information which caters to what a person wants to hear, then essentially finding what would be expected, namely the avoidance of one pathway over another. We know that, we do not need a study for that. What we actually want to know if whether presenting realistic geoengineering options as one of the wedges of mitigation and adaptation has an effect on the perception of climate science. That is what Kahan appears to claim, but now I see how he overinterpreted his research ...

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  6. Adam C @3: I agree that the study did show that presenting subjects with a fictitious solutions scenario that did not offend their sensibilities produced a small effect in reducing polarization. My problem was not that the solution presented was fictitious, but that the framing of the solution bore no resemblance to reality.

    Had the results been presented as "here's what happens to acceptance/rejection of the science when subjects are presented with a bogus, pain-free silver-bullet solution", then I wouldn't have objected.

    Perhaps more emphasis on frank discussions about realistic solutions could provide a way of closing the gap between those who accept and those who reject climate science. I would like to know.

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  7. Many good points, sho. But at least while she was in office, Thatcher was lightyears ahead of Reagan on environmental issues: "Thatcher supported an active climate protection policy and was instrumental in the creation of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and in founding the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the British Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research in Exeter.Thatcher helped to put climate change, acid rain and general pollution in the British mainstream in the early 1980s"

    But the essential point is true--when the right in both countries (and in both parties in the US) handed over sovereign power to corporations, they insured that we would be living with much of the insanity we now face.

    The relative of mine who has the deepest science background--major medical researcher, dean of a major medical shool for many years...--flatly rejects the science of global warming, mostly based on the WSJ editorials he religiously. I'm not sure what exactly would alter his clearly ideologically based belief system. He certainly won't ever see little old me as enough of a scientific literate to question his dismissive statements.

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  8. wili @7, perhaps you should ask him why he is accepting his climate science from the same people who deny the link between second hand smoke and health, reject the link between the HIV virus and AIDS, and who reject vaccination for measels etc?

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  9. wili

    Maybe the key to getting him to think about it is to give him one or two key facts that support AGW and can only be rejected by rejecting opinions from conservative sources. Since he is a WSJ reader I assume he is Republican.

    Ask him why the US Defense Dept accepts AGW as the most serious future threat they will have to face and how they came to that conclusion - answer, they were involved in the core research into the properties of atmospheric gases, going all the way back to the 50's when they started designing heat seeking missiles.

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  10. Thanks for the kind and thoughtful suggestions, Tom and Glenn. There may be too much water under that bridge for further discussion with that particular relative. But I'll keep your hints in mind for future interactions with similarly recalcitrant loved ones.

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  11. @ wili #10

    Another item to keep in reserve for "future interactions with similarly recalcitrant loved ones" would be the Quadrennial Defense Review from the US Department of Defense. (There are 8 references to "climate change" therein - I counted.)

    Even more in your face is the US Navy's Arctic Roadmap, which was produced by the Navy's Task Force: Climate Change.

    Sounds like the Pentagon is part of that sneaky red/green commie/environmentalist plan to install a one-world government under the aegis of the United Nations.

    cheers     bill f

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  12. The profusion of issues all show something else we all know, climate change is a complex, emotional, technological, and political issue. We focus on the technological/scientific issue, but the other aspects are just as important. This article’s attempt to bridge the emotional and political divide is important, though perhaps not well executed. We need more of this discussion. It’s an emotional argument before it is a political one, thus we must hear the opposition’s fears and concerns. Of course the US is more polarized than the British; we are more reliant on fossil fuels for our absurd city sprawl, and we have all the fuels we will ever need to ruin the climate in AC comfort.

    I’ll not use the P word for which I was very kindly rebuffed, before, but let me insert the concept using a different term: Benign Atmospheric Engineering BAE. The atmosphere/ocean preesent the syptoms of the problem, air contains about 10 to the 22nd joules/watts of energy and growing. It is the interface between the ocean system, the land system, and space. It is the engine which creates wind by processing energy out into space.

    What if we could insert our energy needs into this process of 26% from 175,000 TW per second, insolation? It is adjustable; either up or down. Which is what the discussion is all about. And it will amply supply civilization's current <20 TW needs, and future 200 TW needs... for space colonization. By invoking this energy, process, as source, we will affect the climate and change the characteristics of the atmosphere and land on the planet, but in a largely beneficial way, thus BAE. And it is very easy, farming is a minor BAE, so is hydroelectric, but this are very small and indirect processes. When we consider Geoengineering, we will open our minds to large scale and direct BAE, which is to the good.

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  13. It's a well-known pitfall (or technique) in questionnaire design that details of question wording and context can influence responses. If you're trying just to measure something then carefully neutral wording is best, and even then you might see a difference between "global warming" and "climate change" versions of the same question. On the other hand if you're actively trying to influence the responses (or test ways to do this) then wording or introductions that clue respondents about the "right" answers often have an effect. That's done in everything from psychology and survey experiments to advertisement testing or political push-polling ("Would you still plan to vote for candidate X if you knew that he ....").

    Experiments in questionnaire design and framing can give clear evidence about the effects of such manipulations, but leave open the question of how that generalizes to real life. In testing an advertising or political campaign it might be straightforward, for communicating science in our hyper-polarized context, perhaps not so much. Neutrally-worded, minimally manipulative surveys provide a key reality check on what's happening to public opinion in real life.

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  14. @ PluviAL

    Hi there,

    First off, your choice of the initials BAE might not go down too well with BAE Systems plc.      ;)

    More seriously, I'm afraid your laid back attitude to the use of SI units is more than a little confusing. The phrase "air contains about 10 to the 22nd joules/watts of energy" being a prime example. The joule is the SI unit of energy, and the watt is the SI unit of power, and ne'r the twain shall meet.

    If you have a TV or DVD that has a power consumption of just one watt when left in standby mode, that would still add up to an energy consumption of nearly 31.6 megajoules if you left it plugged in for a year. Another way of thinking about this would be to call it a bit under 9 kilowatt-hrs.

    So when you talk about air containing about 1022 "joules/watts of energy", I really don't understand what you're trying to convey. (And I'm afraid it sounds like you are a bit wooly about this as well.) 

    However, let's assume you're trying to talk about the energy content of the atmosphere. Even then, that's a pretty meaningless concept, but let's try to go through the necessary steps. To start with, the mass of the atmosphere is about 5.3 x 1018 kg, and then we've got to think about the concept of Specific Heat. This is basically a constant* of proportionality linking the energy supplied to a "system", the mass of the "system" and the resulting temperature change of the "system". (*Of course, this is another one of those constants that isn't constant, as it is temperature dependent!)

    If you are talking about the energy in some "system", it really makes more sense to talk about the delta from some specified state. For example, the famous Levitus paper on Oceanic Heat Content rise talks about the change in heat content from a given start date.

    At the kind of temperatures humans experience (and stay alive) the Specific Heat of air is around 1010 joules/kilogram-Kelvin (J kg-1 K-1). That means it takes about 1010 joules to raise the temperature of 1 kg of air by 1 Kelvin.

    Scaling up (and ignoring variations in Specific Heat and not even considering Latent Heat) it therefore takes about 5.3 x 1021 joules to bring about a one degree K change in temperature. The total energy content of the atmosphere (ignoring Mass-Energy of course) would therefore be the energy required to raise its temperature from Absolute Zero to its present state. We're now talking somewhere in the vague region of 1024 joules, or a yotta-joule.

    Similarly, the opening sentence in your third paragraph seems to have gotten away from you somehow. Yep, the insolation at TOA is about 1.74 x 1017 watts. After allowing for albedo effects, this comes down to about 1.2 x 1017 watts actually entering the climate system. This does indeed dwarf our current primary power conversion of about 1.8 x 1013 watts.

    However, to categorize tapping into this resource in any seriously significant scale as being "very easy" is, in the short term at least, to engage in some seriously wishful thinking.

    I'm obviously not grasping what you're trying to say - and I suspect I'm not alone - so please try again to gather your thoughts and have another go.

     

    cheers     bill f

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  15. BTF

    "Sounds like the Pentagon is part of that sneaky red/green commie/environmentalist plan to install a one-world government under the aegis of the United Nations.".

    Yep. And it goes all the way back to at least the 1950's.

    Gilbert Plass's work leading to his publication of "The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climate Change" in 1956 was funded by the Office of Naval Research.

    And the data in the HiTran spectroscopic database on infrared absorption properties of gases in the atmosphere was first being measured during the 1950's in support of US developments of the first heat-seeking  air-to-air missiles.

    The commonly used program ModTran that can be used to calculate infrared transmission through the atmosphere is 1/2 owned by the Pentagon. The officer responsible for signing-off on it's specs, testing and acceptance was for many years the Commandant of the USAF Geophysics Laboratory at Hanscomb Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

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  16. Glenn,

    I hadn't realised that Gilbert Plass's work was funded by the ONR - just goes to show that, even at my advanced age, one can still learn something new every day. (Assuming one is prepared to do so, of course!)

    cheers    bill f

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  17. The danger of discussing geo-engineering is that the public will then think they have a get out of jail card.  We can continue to pollute - no need for developing renewable power supplies because the engineers will come up with a solution.  Even supposing that we could find a solution, what happens at the next economic chrisis when geo-enginering is the first item to be cut.  Doesn't bear thinking about.

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