Geoengineering Goes Legit

Time to reconsider a once-fringe climate solution?

Credit: NASA via Getty Images

In 2006, when I wrote a profile of physicist Lowell Wood for Rolling Stone, the notion that we might "geoengineer" the Earth’s climate to reduce the risk of climate change – to build what amounts to a global thermostat – was an idea that only half-crazy Cold War-era geniuses like Wood would ever talk about openly, much less advocate.   

My, how times have changed!  Today, the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington D.C. – a most respectable think-tank – issued a report (PDF) by an 18-member blue-ribbon panel of scientists, Nobel Laureates, and former ambassadors arguing that geoengineering is not only an idea that needs to be taken seriously, but also one that the U.S. government needs to start funding research on today. Other respectable institutions and think tanks have issued reports on geoengineering in the last year or so – the British Royal Society among them – but today’s report, which the New York Times covered, legitimizes geoengineering as a respectable topic of policy discussion among Beltway policy wonks.  Depending on how you feel about geoengineering, that may or may not be a good thing.

Geoengineering – or "climate remediation" as the BPC report chose to call it – is usually defined as large-scale, deliberate manipulation of the Earth’s climate to reduce the risks of climate change.   There are two basic techniques: one is to build machines or develop technologies to remove carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; the other – far more risky – is to engineer ways to deflect a small amount of sunlight away from the planet, perhaps by shooting sulfur particles high into the stratosphere.

The Bipartisan Policy Center report came up with a short list of recommendations for how the U.S. might begin to pursue research on geoengineering, including recommending that the federal government "embark on a focused and systematic program of research on climate remediation," and that this program should be run out of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.  The report also recommended that the U.S. "promptly commence working with nations that have the requisite scientific, technological, and financial qualifications to establish common norms and expectations for climate remediation research."

These might sound like small steps, but they are important in the larger evolution of geoengineering as part of in the climate policy tool-kit.  (Not surprisingly, the report stopped short of advocating small-scale field tests of geoengineering technologies.)

The idea that human beings have taken a few steps closer toward asserting control over the Earth’s climate is likely to strike you as a really bad idea.  After all, you don’t have to think about the idea of geoengineering very long to realize that it could turn out to be the most dangerous, morally-fraught, and politically destabilizing technological development since the nuclear bomb.  Once we start deliberately messing with the climate systems, we could inadvertently shift rainfall patterns (climate models have shown that rainfall in the Amazon might be particularly vulnerable), causing collapse of ecosystems, drought, famine, and more.  Moving forward with geoengineering could also ignite a new era of weather warfare.  (Imagine Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deciding that it would be fun to turn Kansas into a desert.)

And of course geoengineering does nothing to address the fundamental driver of climate change, which is the carbon pollution that we are dumping into the sky and that is heating up the planet and acidifying the oceans. As Joe Romm has pointed out, geoengineering without an aggressive plan to cut carbon pollution is crazy.   Worse, it is the kind of idea that could be sold by Big Oil and Big Coal as a "quick fix" for our climate problems, a kind of diet pill for the planet.  Why bother cutting back on coal if we can fix it all by spraying a few handfuls of dust into the sky? (You can read more about these dangerous ideas in my book How to Cool the Planet.)

But before you dismiss geoengineering as a sci-fi novel writ large, consider two things: first, we’re not talking about building condos in a pristine redwood forest here.  By burning fossil fuels, we already dumping 30 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, which has a profound effect on the climate.  So, like it or not, we’re already messing with a system we don’t understand. "We are doing it accidentally, but the Earth doesn’t know that," Jane Long, the associate director of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, told the Times. "Going forward in ignorance is not an option." And we don’t necessarily need to run Frankenplanet-style experiments in order to see if some of these ideas work – we could learn a lot by, say, spraying a few tons of sulfur into the stratosphere and seeing what happens. We may in fact discover that it doesn’t work at all, or that the side-effects are too large or unpredictable.  The important point about moving ahead with field-testing is that experiments are modest, open, scientifically rigorous, and reversible.

Second, geoengineering is often dismissed as evidence of human hubris.  In fact, it is evidence of the power of human denial.  If we dealt with global warming in the rational and sensible way, which is to cut carbon pollution and wean ourselves off fossil fuels, nobody would be talking about spraying sulfur particles into the stratosphere.  But we failed at that.  So here we are, convening blue-ribbon panels about how to play God with the Earth’s climate.