[Opinion] The “Volcano Solution” to Global Warming

Sean Kernan

My biggest frustration with conservative friends and family isn’t that they are conservative. I can accept and understand many of their positions, and even agree with a few of them.But I struggle to understand how many of them don’t buy in fully on global warming.

Climate change shouldn’t be a right or left subject, but a shared concern. The topic is settled science via NASA, the United Nations, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Royal Society (a science driven organization out of Britain), and thousands of university researchers. A study at Cornell University even found that 99.9% of scientists agree that climate change is real and that it is being caused by humans.

The science is clear, yet I still encounter this halfway-ism with some, but not all of my otherwise rational and likable conservative friends. One relative recently said, “Well, I think we just need a good volcano to go off.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument. The thought isn’t entirely illogical but has a few flaws.

Exploring the volcano theory of global cooling

The volcano solution is often informed by the prominent theory of dinosaur extinction through global cooling, after dust and debris were kicked up by an asteroid at Chicxulub. The after effects are strikingly similar to a mega volcanic eruption.

Similar events have happened throughout history. A recent study, led by Dr. Kunio Kaiho at Tohuku University, suggests that the fourth mass extinction was caused by a low-temperature (by the standards of magma) volcanic eruption that pushed substantial sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. This sulfur dioxide converted to sulfuric acid aerosols, which reflected light and cooled the planet.The fact that these cooling events also accompanied mass extinctions, should be your first concern.

What’s interesting is that volcanos also emit enormous quantities of carbon dioxide. But the particulate matter that gets released, including the aforementioned aerosols, often offset the carbon — and then some.But again, there’s this first issue of catastrophe that we must contend with.

In the late 80s and early 90s, I lived in Subic Bay, Philippines, only 30 kilometers from Mount Pinatubo. We’d driven past it several times, and heard rumors of it potentially erupting just prior to leaving. Sure enough, we left just prior to its eruption, which was the largest in the past 100 years and left absolute devastation in its wake, killing 5000 people, many of them buried by the ash. We knew several families who lost loved ones. The imagery coming out of the region was horrifying, and people have forgotten.

In the year after, theglobal temperatures droppedby .5 degrees Celsius.Yet the temperature only stayed lower for two years.

The historical price of volcanic cooling

In 1784, Benjamin Franklin made the first connection between volcanoes and global climate change. He was in Paris in 1783, and noticed the abnormally frigid air, and fog that hung over Europe in perpetuity, as it did in the United States. This global anomaly is suspected to have been caused by Iceland’s Laki fissure (a type of eruption where volcanos spew lava from long cracks in the ground). Unfortunately, this eruption also resulted in acid rain, killing 9,000 people and 50% of Iceland’s livestock. Keep in mind, the global population was only around 800,000,000 at the time and much less dense. This type of eruption could be far more costly today.

In1816, Mount Tambora erupted and killed roughly 90,000 people. More than 100 KM²of material was injected into the atmosphere. There’d been four volcanic eruptions in the prior four years. It resulted in a global temperature drop of .53 degrees Celsius. And while this might feel like a small number, it caused significant volatility throughout the globe (the same happens with global warming).In Europe, It was referred to as the year without summer and was seen as an enormous agricultural disaster,resulting in faminesin Europe, India, and China.

The moral problem with hoping for volcanos

The key issue that undermines most of these arguments is that cooling effects caused bythe volcanos aretypically temporary. All of that suffering and disruption would be for naught.

When humans add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, we increase the Earth’s equilibrium temperature. Any temporary changes to that temperature will be reversed over time. Every volcanic eruption is different. And it isn’t safe to assume each one will cool the earth. Where it takes place and what type of soil is involved can all affect the impact. There is also a very real possibility that a volcanic eruption will increase temperatures too.

The only outside possibility is that there’s an unusual eruption that emits a bizarrely huge quantity of aerosol, or one that is of an apocalyptic scale.In that sense, the volcano could well solve global warming quite well: by removing humans. But obviously that isn’t convenient.

Which is why I suspect things like the volcano solution come up periodically. It removes accountability and makes it feel like there’s this unseen, outside force that could bail us out at any moment.There’s also this NIMBY-ish feel (Not In My Backyard), where people are cool with a volcano solving a problem so long as it isn’t in their backyard.

Dealing with global warming can feel like a nuisance and a disruption to our lifestyle. The subject is surely prone to extreme activism which can, understandably, turn off conservative voters. But just remember that enormous bodies of research proving it is happening. These studies have our best interest in mind. This isn’t about ivory tower elites telling us what to do.

Nobody is coming to save us.Aliens aren’t arriving with a magic machine to suck all the carbon out of the air.A perfect volcanic eruption isn’t going to reverse the impact of our lifted pickup trucks, private jets, and factory farmed foods. This isn’t like a medical condition where we can just count on doctors to fix us back up.

If I could make one political wish, it would be that global warming wasn’t such a radically divisive issue.Because it affects all of us.

Having lived near an enormous grumbling volcano, I’d prefer if we just stopped burning so many fossil fuels rather than hoping for another kablooey. We can dance around that problem all we want, but it will still be there.

What are your thoughts? ⬇️

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