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“Whatever way you look at it, we live on a dying planet. But dying does not actually mean dead. Despite all the damage that people have done to planet Earth in the last 100 or so years, the Earth can repair itself if we do the right things.” – John Kennedy
The Global Dimming Dilemma
The topic of global dimming (a.k.a. aerosol masking effect) rarely comes up in the news or media. However, recently it has started to get some press as well as controversial attention. Global dimming has become a convenient truth for those who want to continue and further their message that tackling climate change is too difficult or just plain impossible. It turns out that global dimming is the perfect red herring for climate change deniers and doomers (video) alike, simply because it is a scientific theory that is often misunderstood and difficult to understand. [Note: doomers, sometimes called gloom-and-doomers, is a trending term, especially when it comes to climate science matters nowadays because of the sheer mass of negative data. It is used here in a descriptive and not a pejorative sense, to refer to those who see no way out of our current predicament – which is becoming a common ailment with good reason at times].
In fact, some deniers have gone so far as to say that this problem is so impossible to solve that it will be the end of all life on earth. And of course, they claim that this problem makes it necessary to keep polluting and burning fossil fuels. They are quite literally saying that we will have to keep emitting these dangerous particles into the air that are already killing us in order to keep temperatures down; temperatures they claim are not rising in the first place ironically. Where are all the panglossians you might ask? Apparently, this topic simply does not lend itself to that.
In this fake news and science report tilted “Shocker: Global warming may simply be an artifact of clean air laws,” presented by Watts Up With That, this kind of claim is presented. According to Wikipedia and others, Watts Up With That? (or WUWT) is a fairly well-known blog promoting climate change denial. Global dimming has become the subject of climate change denial campaigns everywhere. It is being used by unscrupulous entities such as this as yet another reason to condone defeatism and inaction on climate issues in these circles.
“The Trump administration put out an environmental impact report a couple weeks ago and the content is, well, unexpected. While this particular White House is full of climate change deniers, the report boldly declares that global warming will be immensely devastating – so much so that it’s futile to try to do anything about it.” – CARE2
The Particle Puzzle
Global dimming, known in scientific terms as the aerosol masking effect (video), is a theory under investigation. Eminent climate scientist James Hansen, former Director of NASA Goddard, is among the first to have introduced this theory. In an epic program on this topic that aired on PBS titled Dimming the Sun, James Hansen estimated in 2006 that the so called “global dimming” produced by these aerosol particles is cooling the planet by more than a degree Celsius.
Hansen also raised the initial concern that if we cut back on pollution, global warming could be compounded by this effect especially if we don’t handle this situation very carefully. Additionally, there is a BBC Documentary that covers this topic that many have already seen and is now outdated but worth mentioning. This debunk does not dispute these findings. This debunk merely contends that 1) the situation is not what it seems due to many uncertainties of science now being made prematurely into inevitabilities (with some literally foretelling human extinction within the next 18-24 months) and; 2) that because of all the hoopla of denial, politics, opinion and doom the mitigations available to us are being consistently overlooked.
Those at NASA Langley, furthering Hansen’s work, have also reported on this topic. However, no one at NASA has ever suggested that this is a reason to keep burning fossil fuels. In this video, Bruce Doddrige a NASA scientist, introduces the study of our particulate atmosphere and at the end begins a discussion on how to reduce both global warming and global dimming smartly, using methods such as biochar.
According to the Wikipedia “an aerosol is a suspension of fine solid particles or liquid droplets, in air or another gas. Aerosols can be natural or anthropogenic. Examples of natural aerosols are fog, dust, forest exudates and geyser steam. Examples of anthropogenic aerosols are haze, particulate air pollutants and smoke.” It is known that anthropogenic aerosols, like those from factories, tailpipes, and fires negatively impact the environment and cause everything from warming, to cooling (what we are talking about here) to the acceleration of glacial melt around the globe by impacting albedo.
This is where it gets interesting. It turns out that some emissions, like black carbon from fossil fuels, can contribute to both warming and cooling (video) in different ways. Tricky stuff! Black carbon (BC) is a primary aerosol emitted directly at the source from incomplete combustion processes such as fossil fuel and biomass burning and therefore much atmospheric BC is of anthropogenic origin.
How Much Dimming Is There?
Most scientists are now proposing that the only known means by which humans can avoid climate catastrophe is the significant reduction of industrial activity and greenhouse gasses (GHGs) e.g. carbon dioxide (CO2). In what appears to be a Faustian bargain, this is proposed to simultaneously reduce scattering aerosols e.g. sulfur dioxide (SO2) that impact cloud nucleation and formation. Quite simply, less cloud cover means less cooling.
It is understood that reducing emissions will alter solar irradiance and decrease the aerosol masking effect which is providing some cooling. How much is still in question. This cooling could be offsetting global warming by as much as 1°C according to some researchers. You will soon notice that there are at times different estimates given in different studies. On average, 1°C is currently the most widely cited by scientists.
According to this Geophysical Research Letters study, “we show how cleaning up aerosols, predominantly sulfate, may add an additional half a degree (0.5°C) of global warming, with impacts that strengthen those from greenhouse gas warming.” The average scientific estimates are that between 0.5-1.1°C degree of warming will be induced when pollution is significantly reduced. However, this is an ongoing matter of scientific investigation. There are some unknowns as well. In fact, Jasper Kirkby at CERN says ‘it is simply too soon to be so polarized over these matters because they are still being studied.’
Scientists are collecting and analyzing the data. Because scientists are working hard to share these models and their data online now, anyone can learn this stuff and examine the facts for themselves. There is a lot of good science happening. Check your sources and stay objective. Also check out all these great resources for further education on this topic at CERN’s CLOUD Project.
This topic is challenging to say the least. Still it is necessary for us to study these topics if we are to be members of an informed society. We also have to understand that science never stops questioning and we must be able to deal with these uncertainties without jumping to conclusions. According to Jasper Kirkby, Particle Physicist at CERN, ‘the area of aerosols is very poorly understood, yet this does not mean we don’t understand the big picture phenomena involved.’
We know that global warming and global dimming are indeed happening, and faster than expected. Also, we have many proposals for solutions. Sadly, this doesn’t mean we are using what we know and this is a constant reminder that we are living in a time when genuine science and scientists are routinely marginalized and undermined by prevalent thinking errors, confusion, fake news, and denial campaigns.
Climatologist Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in a Twitter thread commenting on the new aerosol research says, “you cannot assume that net zero CO2 emissions must also imply zero anthropogenic aerosol emissions. As a result, he added, it’s important to note that anthropogenic aerosols will not suddenly disappear and make global warming much worse.”
NASA has created a map showing global aerosol distribution for further modelling. This will allow scientists and the public to visualize the movement and impacts of these dangerous particles. The research and data are still coming in. Scientists must continually investigate the extent and knock-on effects of these large scale phenomena. But we have a good handle on the big picture stuff being discussed in this debunk. Make no mistake these problems are solvable.
“The CLOUD project at CERN is essentially just getting started. Its preliminary findings will help aerosol modelers, and hopefully it will continue to provide useful results…But there’s no such thing as too debunked when it comes to myths about climate change, and there’s little chance this will be the last time [that this] will be trotted out to claim that we don’t need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” – Skeptical Science
Deniers exaggerate the unknowns related to the effects of aerosols and claim that if we were to stop polluting suddenly, which is unlikely in any case, global average temperatures would shoot up and fast. Doomsday writers and speakers have made the claim that this is an unsolvable paradox and further, that if we were to stop polluting today by just 35% we would experience an immediate and deadly 1.2-5°C temperature rise in as little as a few weeks time, citing this study by Levy et al.
They claim in no uncertain terms that this fictional temperature rise will terminate all life on the planet and drive us extinct overnight. They weave fact and fiction together so seamlessly that some have now begun to identify this as a new genre of “extinction fantasy.” Although in an era of rabid fake news, this distinction is not clearly made and many begin to take these scenarios very seriously.
Upon closer inspection, this study by Levy et al actually says that these effects are still relatively uncertain and would likely take until at least the end the 21st century, completely invalidating all these premature warnings about a proposed sudden spike in temperatures. Additionally, this study is careful to state there are enormous unknowns “regarding the role of aerosols in climate [and] the actual magnitude of the aerosol effect.”
According to climate scientist Professor James Renwick, from Victoria University, some doomers have claimed that “cutting aerosol pollution to zero (as would happen when and if industrial society falls over) will unmask another 2.5°C of warming. This is a factor of ten too large, as the actual amount would be around 0.25°C by current best estimates (see figure 10.5).” This shows a clear exaggeration of the data.
Still, doomsday scenario writers overstate the unknowns to make the claim that a reduction in global dimming portends an immediate loss of habitat for human animals with human extinction immediately to follow. Based on these biased interpretations they warn copiously that we have to keep polluting or we will go extinct, proffering the exact opposite of the truth.
Deniers and doomers exploit speculative areas of the research for their own ends. They deliberately oversimplify and exaggerate this issue to make it fit their arguments so that they can conclude that if we keep emitting industrial pollution we are creating the conditions for extinction, and, at the same time, if we stop emitting we are creating the conditions for extinction. They refer to this as a paradox, but this is only a paradox of black and white thinking. By definition, it is not a paradox (video). But it does represent a very real dilemma, especially if we don’t do anything about it.
Additionally, this fictional massive rise of 1.2-5°C in temperature suggested by doomists as the result of reduced aerosol pollution is a “completely absurd number“(video) says Paul Beckwith, Climate System Scientist, who reiterates that it is more likely to be about 0.5°C. This exaggerated reporting continues to be responsible for repeated fake news warnings from deniers and doomers who want us to believe that doing anything about it is futile and doing nothing is best. This is a false flag and very bad advice, and it should be treated as such.
“Even if there is no hope, we have to do something. Not having hope is not an excuse for not doing anything. But the thing we need more than hope is action, because once there is action there is hope.” – Greta Thunberg (video)
It is true that our continued reluctance to reduce carbon emissions fast enough makes the two goals of eliminating air pollution and limiting global warming seem mutually exclusive. This means the real dilemma is, in effect, caused by our inertia and failure to act.
According to the EPA global dimming has already been reversed in North America and Europe. Sulfate aerosols declined with the Clean Air Act (1970) in the United States and similar policies in Europe. The EPA reports that from 1970 to 2005, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 53% in the US.
In this article from Forbes titled How Can We Stop Global Dimming?, this is summed up as follows: “since the 1980s, pollution controls have substantially reduced air pollution which was one of the major contributors to dimming. Airplane contrails are still around providing some dimming. Places like Poland and Texas are still burning coal by the freight train load and doing their bit to keep the skies dim. But mostly the developed world has either ditched coal or substantially restricted the crap that it puts into the air.”
This means we have already undergone some the worst effects mentioned by deniers. Now we are actually on a brightening (video) trend. According to Wikipedia “this switch from a global dimming trend to a brightening trend happened just as global aerosol levels started to decline (roughly 1990). Analysis of recent data reveals that the surface of the planet has brightened by about 4% in the past decade. The brightening trend is corroborated by other data, including satellite analyses.”
We Must Reduce Both Global Warming & Global Dimming
Even though the current trend is toward brightening, we still have to contend with aerosol pollution and the some 2-3% of dimming we are still experiencing. The rate of dimming varies around the world, but is estimated at around 2–3% on average per decade. So let’s actually talk about the many proposed mitigations for the global dimming phenomena.
The first thing we need to do is get our emissions down. Some are strongly suggesting that we halt fossil fuel expansion and subsidies by the 2020’s, like the Club of Rome. We need this kind of aggressive approach to make change happen in the time required. Next, because, as many have duly noted we just aren’t doing that, we likely have to consider some necessary evils. No one wants to further disrupt the earth’s already badly disturbed systems. However, because we have already unbalanced the system, we must now consider options like geoengineering. Geoengineering is often a feared concept. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it is recommended that we start to drawdown on emissions right away while applying the natural geoengineering techniques discussed below and beyond. It is certain that we must clean up our act and now.
“Global dimming has devastating effects on the earth’s environment and living beings. The pollutants causing global dimming also lead to acid rain, smog and respiratory diseases in humans….it is going to be important that emission of both greenhouse gases and particulate matter should be reduced simultaneously [while adding exudates from foliage, etc.]. This will balance out both the phenomena [as we begin to gradually drawdown].” – Conserve Energy Future
Natural Geoengineering Means We Don’t Have to Fear Clean Air
Trees are known to produce natural aerosol particles that make up what is known to be the largest river on earth in the sky (video) by seeding clouds, creating cloud cover and ultimately producing rain. Tall prairie grass is also now being discussed as just as effective as trees. Vegetation and rewilding are well-known solution that are often ignored.
Reforestation (afforestation) is always a good idea. It is also a form of natural, non-toxic and safe geoengineering we don’t have to fear. Not all geoengineering involves techno-fantasy and high stakes risks with toxic components. In this case, we have the technology and it’s called a tree! Tragically, we are cutting them down for profit and industry faster than they can grow. In short, we must end limitless growth economy before it ends us.
“Nature produces abundant particles without any pollution…the trees can do it with zero pollution.” Jasper Kirkby, CERN
Recent studies reveal that the findings from the several experiments show that trees release molecules that contribute to cloud seeding. According to these studies, it was thought that the pollutant Sulfuric acid is required for a particular cloud formation. Sulphur dioxide (SO2) dissolves in the water vapour in clouds to form form dilute sulphurous acid (H2SO3). But these studies are showing that aerosols can form and grow to the size needed to seed a cloud from the molecules naturally emitted by trees, without requiring Sulfuric acid.
Bjorn Stevens, atmospheric scientist, said that “the findings of the experiments have another important implication regarding the public’s perception of global warming and clean air. Some scientists believe that measures such as ridding the atmosphere of Sulfur dioxide by limiting coal plant processes could remove some of the beneficial cooling effect of clouds, and therefore boost global warming. However, upon knowing that trees can do the cloud seeding job themselves, this will be less of a concern today. ”
Explore Further >>
There are even more natural geoengineering topics under debate and being discussed on the SW Geoengineering Page.
Did You Know The Plankton Make The Clouds?
Did you know that Plankton have a large role in cloud production? Environmental Scientist and Climate Writer, Guy Lane says “the Plankton Meditation is a guided meditation that helps you come to terms with fundamental ecological truths that are often overlooked.”
Finally, It’s Not Too Late
Despite this strong, certain and constant claim that it’s too late to act by the Trump administration and other deniers, it is extremely important to be aware that there are many valiant, credentialed climate scientists working on solving this problem and they are saying that it’s not too late. It is certain that anyone saying that it is necessary to keep polluting to avoid this disaster is promoting a fallacy fraught with thinking errors resulting in confirmation bias.
“The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness. – Michael Mann
The additional claim that this dilemma will be the end of humanity is paving the way for further adoption by powerful fossil fuel interests (video) and deniers to argue that they might as well “drill baby drill” because it’s too late to do anything about it. Drawing this premature conclusion toward an unquestionable certain extinction clearly leads to inaction, inertia, and defeatism. It also does an extreme disservice to those working to mitigate this crisis. It also halts action from individuals as they assume nothing can be done and fail to act.
David Suzuki (video) recently said, to paraphrase, ‘it doesn’t look like we have a chance of staying under 2˚C. But those saying it’s already too late need to go away, and right now.’ Scientists do recognize that the situation is dire and an emergency. But they do not advise quitting and going home. According, to eminent climate scientist, Michael Mann “‘we can still prevent many of the worst impacts of climate change from playing out”. There’s a lot each individual can do. Get started today.
It Is Now or Never
The situation is serious, but according to many scientists it is also solvable. Rewilding, reforestation, and other natural solutions remain the ideal. If we can get out of the way of nature, stop polluting and employ some natural geoengineering strategies to aid this process we might find way out of this very real predicament that has us on course for the sixth mass extinction, now scientific consensus.
“It’s frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We’re currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural “background” rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we’re now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day . It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century .” – The Extinction Crisis
Anyone making predictions of absolute certainty in these matters should possess a crystal ball. Otherwise, we can easily fall prey to self-fulfilling prophecies of denialism and certain doom while failing to notice all the possibilities still in front of us. We are facing a crisis. But let’s be clear, we have mitigations that could turn things around that we just aren’t using. We cannot afford to get confused by denialism, defeatism or doom now. We may only have a short window to act. Failure is not an option. Plant a tree today.
Ralph Nader recently sat down with entrepreneur, author, and activist, Paul Hawken, who makes the case that global warming is reversible (video) in his book “Drawdown”.
To paraphrase, Hawken said in this interview that “spreading hopelessness doesn’t help, doesn’t motivate, and doesn’t make change.”
Nader replied, with his usual eloquence, that “there is no alternative to optimism.”
Note: This page, as with many wiki pages, is a work in progress and is far from complete. It aims to introduce the reader to the dilemma of global dimming aka the aerosol masking effect and some of the geoengineering options for mitigation now under discussion by scientists. Get curious, if you have questions let us know and don’t be afraid to do your own research too.