Termination Shock: Not a Review

Termination Shock
Neal Stephenson
William Morrow, 2021

I’m not going to give any opinions on this latest offering from Neal Stephenson. I’m actually reluctant to say anything at all about Termination Shock, as a book. But I am going to put up one spoiler. If you are looking for an exploration of the ideas and consequences behind the title, then do not bother with this very long thriller. In fact, if you’re looking for a thriller, you might skip the middle 400 or so pages. The beginning and ending are sort of fun. The hundreds of pages of detailed descriptions of technology that mostly doesn’t exist? Not so much.

I want to talk instead about termination shock, the concept. I’m not sure there is a good definition in those hundreds of pages of boring details, so here is a simplified version. If we begin to engineer our atmosphere in certain ways — especially ways that increase particulates and thereby decrease sunlight — without lowering carbon emissions, we will create artificially lower temperatures. (More precisely, we will artificially reduce additional heating; whether temperatures decrease is not certain.) If we don’t scrub carbon from our atmosphere while we are sending up these sunshade particulates, we will have all the carbon we’ve already put up there, plus whatever is added during the geoengineering project.

So when we stop throwing particulates into the thinnest airs, we will be in the same position as we are now with respect to the atmosphere’s ability to trap heat — probably things will be worse because we’ve added more heat-trapping carbon. Furthermore, it is likely, because the oceans are responsible for holding all this excess heat and because water releases heat sluggishly, that if we engineer the skies for a brief period — not enough time for the oceans to cool to pre-Industrial levels — then a rebound effect would be rapid. This is what is known as termination shock. The planet will suffer a rapid re-heating upon termination of the project, and many of the planet’s life systems will go into shock. There is also a higher expectancy of passing tipping points when change is rapid. So it may be more than merely re-heating; we may cause runaway heating.

To add another complication, carbon dioxide takes a very long time to wash out of the atmosphere — on the order of a thousand years — and the oceans are going to take a long time to cool, even if circulation between the poles and the equator, and the depths and shallows, all continue to function as they have been since humans have been paying attention (not a given). So if we start this project, we will have to continue to engineer the atmosphere for many centuries to avoid a rapid rebound effect and termination shock.

Tossing particulates into the atmosphere is a cheap and highly temporary techno-“fix” that may make this whole mess worse than it already is. Moreover, it seems socially… unlikely. Before we begin this project, we have to make sure that we have the resources and political will to keep it going for centuries, many generations of human lives, longer than most geopolitical entities have ever existed and longer than we can reasonably expect any of today’s to endure. We can’t even agree to cooperate and spend diminishing resources on the collective good now. Why should we presume that we’ll be able to do that in the deep future?

And then there is the question of resources. Sulfur isn’t in infinite supply. Tossing millions of tons into the stratosphere each year is going to deplete our stocks fairly quick — relative to carbon and water time frames anyway.

This is all undebatable geology and physics. And somewhat solid sociology (or just common sense projections of our current tendencies). There is no scientist who will gainsay any of this — not even the ones on the payrolls of organizations that would like to engage in these activities. There is no question of what will happen if we are as incompetent at atmospheric engineering as we’ve been at many other large-scale and complex projects. If we accomplish anything, there will be termination shock.

Now, what is the likelihood of us ever getting this done? To answer that we need to look at more than the shocking end. We need to understand the feasibility of the whole project. So, what of the other effects? What else happens when you use this particular method of engineering the planet to accommodate human carbon emissions?

To begin with, there is the possibility of drought with cooling — which is the central concern of the book. I would like to point out that we already have drought. Drought is not less rain falling from the skies over a certain period — which, if we cooled the atmosphere, would be the case. Drought is not enough precipitation falling where and when and how continental life forms can use it. Furthermore, we mostly measure drought in human terms, not in absolutes. So drought is humans not getting rainfall where and when it is needed and in amounts that are easily captured before running off to be lost in the salty sea. As you might have noticed, increased heating is causing more drought even though rainfall is much greater. So, though cooling will do odd things to rainfall patterns, I’m not sure this is either a benefit or a detriment. It’s certainly a weak plot point…

The book also alludes to ocean acidification from adding sulfur compounds. Again, we already have this problem. Heating causes ocean acidification. However, the problem to note is not just what sulfur compounds are going to do to seawater. If you are tossing enough sulfur into the atmosphere to alter seawater chemistry, then you are coating the continents in acid. Remember acid rain? That comes from sulfur being tossed into the atmosphere — in much lower concentrations than using it to make sun shades. Trees die in acid rain. When trees die we lose oxygen, we lose our best tool for scrubbing carbon from the air, and we lose a good deal of cooling (actual existing shade). We would likely see increased carbon emissions from decaying trees. We also lose the ability to trap and retain water, so drought is exacerbated. And most importantly all the life-forms dependent on trees — from humans to microbes — will suffer. Many will die. Thereby increasing decomposition and carbon emissions. (As well as making an unholy stink.)

And that is just the mess made by killing trees with acid rain. There are few life forms that can thrive under acid skies. Not only trees are going to die; all plants will suffer direct effects — which, let me just point out, is the basis of nearly all food on this planet. All land animals will also suffer direct effects — including us. Pathogens, however, will likely thrive because of all the decay and generalized immunodeficiency in other life forms. Putting sulfur in the skies will cause a great deal of death and destruction. Directly.

This too is not debatable science.

Then there are harmful effects just from shading the sun. Sunlight is our planet’s only energy input. Moreover, sunlight is the only energy source that can be turned into stored energy which can then be used by the vast bulk of life forms on this planet. Reduce sunlight and plants can’t photosynthesize as efficiently, meaning we all have less food — and shelter. This is a disaster. But what irritates me is the relatively minor assumption that we’ll be able to shade the sun and yet run our economy on solar electricity. No. If you reduce the sunlight, you also reduce the already low efficiency of solar panels. There is no future that contains both widespread dependency on photovoltaic cells and atmospheric shading.

Again… not debatable points. Anywhere in science.

There is, however, a good deal of uncertainty about the nominal benefits of tossing sulfur into the skies.

This is actually a broader point. It’s not just that we are uncertain about the effects of shading; we are uncertain about all future atmospheric states. We can make models to predict the local weather a few days out. Sometimes accurately. We can predict that climate trends existing today will likely continue — as long as nothing outside our knowledge comes along that therefore can’t be inserted into our models. (Junk data in, junk results out.) We can introduce a limited number of variables into our models of existing trends to see what effects might occur. As long as we know of all the possible interactions between the hypothetical variables we want to study and the existing variables that make up the current conditions and trends. But already with that we are starting to lose certainty in the forecast both because we don’t know all the variables and we don’t know how they will interact.

Furthermore, our models are reductive. We isolate what we are interested in and remove a great deal of that which we know of (never mind all that we don’t know of) from the model, dismissing it as irrelevant to the outcome — when we don’t know that those disregarded variables are, in fact, irrelevant. On the contrary, we have a great deal of evidence pointing in the opposite direction — that nothing is irrelevant. Because it’s all connected. Often in ways that are impossible to model. To repeat an oft cited example, we can’t even predict that water is going to be wet with any of our scientific models. There is much made of our ability to predict things, or rather of the technology that we use to predict things, but our actual track record of modeling complex, interdependent and emergent systems is pretty poor. Because we don’t know and we can’t know everything and that is exactly what it takes to be able to predict anything in these systems over a long period of time.

So what happens if we pump sulfur into the skies? No idea. We don’t know and we can’t know what all will happen. We can’t know until we do it — which is not the time to judge the benefits of beginning. We don’t even know if it will shade the planet enough to reduce sunlight in a beneficial way. Tropical volcanics have created shade (and spectacular sunsets), but with particulates that were much more varied than just sulfur and with emission energies that managed to loft even large particles to the stratosphere. In fact, most of what comes out of explosive volcanism is water — vapor and steam — with ashy frozen magma stuff (tuff, actually) suspended in it. Water in magma is the reason there are highly energetic eruptions, by the way. One might ask why we don’t ever seem to be thinking about just pumping water into the atmosphere, maybe even water with fine clay bits to help nucleate the ice necessary for clouds. But then… I would like to point out that never has this Earth benefitted from the shading caused by volcanic eruptions… in fact, that’s normally an unmitigated disaster…

There are some indications that shading the poles might have global benefits as long as we aggressively remove carbon from the atmosphere at the same time. But shading the poles with geostationary mirrors is generally preferred to tossing sulfur into the polar vortex. Then again, as long as we aggressively remove carbon from the atmosphere, we are going to be slowing the trend toward heating anyway. We’d be doing about as much good just cutting out the carbon as adding shade structures. And we have to cut the carbon in either case, so why bother with the expensive shade?

The bigger problem with tech-solution fantasies is that it is highly unlikely we can knock off carbon emissions to a real zero so that we can begin to draw down carbon and yet still have any sort of economy left that is able to finance tech-solution fantasies. Or manufacture them. Or generate the “political will” to entertain any notion of them at all. I would point out that the book indirectly proves this: there is no part of this endeavor that is not contributing carbon emissions in large volumes, nor is there any part that is not financed by oil capitalism — which will not be a thing when there are no emissions… Nor, with greatly reduced energy inputs, will much of the rest of capitalism exist either. And that’s not even beginning to address the problems with resource depletion or the increasing costs of mitigating increasing disasters or a great number of other economic fragilities (“debt crisis”, anyone?). There is decreased capacity for doing everything — from mining to paying people to do things besides feeding themselves to wielding force — merely when oil-derived energy and wealth are gutted. 

So, termination shock is not likely to be a thing because the narrative of Termination Shock is highly improbable. Maybe that was the point of the book? To use a preposterous story to illuminate all the flaws in relying on tech solutions?

The emperor’s got no clothes

Well, maybe…

Somehow, given over 400 pages of epically tedious details, I just don’t think so.

ADDENDUM: So it would seem that Royal Dutch Shell no longer exists… causing much of the narrative of Termination Shock to implode. Ah well…

©Elizabeth Anker 2022