If the COVID-19 disaster has demonstrated one thing, it’s the terrible human toll of not following the science. Had the advice of U.S. public health experts been followed and mask-wearing and social distancing been required early in the pandemic, tens of thousands of lives would likely have been saved.
But one of the not-often-discussed consequences of following the science is that you never know where it will take you.
Consider the House Democrats’ just-released climate plan.
It’s a smart, ambitious, transformative roadmap to managing the climate crisis and using it to build a better world. David Roberts at Vox has a good rundown of the plan and the politics behind it. Leah Stokes, a professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of Short Circuiting Policy, has a great thread on the plan’s policy nuances.
But buried on page 535 of the plan is what amounts to a call for a federal geoengineering research program:
“Atmospheric Climate Intervention,” a.k.a. geoengineering, is the Frankenstein of climate crisis solutions, the inhuman beast that no one can quite kill. In case you haven’t heard the term before, geoengineering refers to large-scale attempts to manipulate the planet to reduce the risks of climate change (you can read more about it in my book How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate).
There are lots of different ideas about how to do this, some more absurd than others, from manufacturing clouds to building carbon-sucking machines. But the geoengineering fix that is most often discussed today, especially as extreme heat waves cook the planet (it was an astounding 100.4 F in the Arctic two weeks ago), is solar engineering. Solar engineering begins with the idea that if we can reflect away just one percent of the sunlight that is hitting the Earth, it could have a significant impact on cooling the Earth’s temperatures. One way to do that would be to use a fleet of high altitude aircraft to spray small particles, likely made from sulfuric acid or calcium carbonate, high in the stratosphere, where they would act as tiny parasols, reflecting away sunlight.
It may sound outlandish, but scientists know it would work, if only because Mother Nature runs a similar experiment herself every time a big volcano erupts and sprays millions of tons of particles into the atmosphere. The eruption of the Philippines’ Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 lowered the temperature of the Earth’s surface by 1 F for more than a year before the particles rained out of the sky.
In effect, a solar geoengineering program is like building an artificial volcano – one that scientists can adjust, spraying more or less particles as necessary to modulate the planet’s temperature. It would create what amounts to a thermostat for the Earth’s atmosphere. And it would be (comparatively) cheap: the annual cost for a full-blown solar engineering program, which would include 100 or so custom-designed aircraft, is estimated to be about $5 billion a year. That’s about the same as the annual budget for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But it’s not hard to see why Al Gore has called geoengineering “insane, utterly mad, and delusional in the extreme.” Possible unintended consequences range from the disruption of Asian monsoons to increased deaths from more particulate pollution. There are also political risks: Would the promise of geoengineering reduce the will to make carbon cuts? Whose hand would be on the global thermostat? (For an excellent rundown of the promise and perils of solar engineering, I highly recommend this talk by Harvard professor and geoengineering pioneer David Keith.)
But just because the idea of geoengineering the planet is batshit crazy doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
The idea is almost as old as our awareness of climate change itself. In 1965, when scientists warned President Lyndon B. Johnson about the dangers of climate change, they mentioned geoengineering as a possible solution. The idea faded over the years, and for good reason – it was nuts to consider geoengineering before any serious attempt was made to cut carbon pollution. The idea got a boost again in 2006, when Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen raised it in a much-discussed paper, suggesting that injecting particles into the stratosphere might be a practical way to offset global warming.
Since then, the idea has been incubating in conferences and labs and gradually working its way out into mainstream climate discussions. It remains, justifiably, a highly polarizing subject. Many fear the promise of a technological “fix” will be seized on by right-wing climate deniers and fossil fuel companies to undercut political momentum to cut carbon pollution. And some of the most vocal opponents of geoengineering compare the development of such technology to the development of nuclear weapons: If we research and build the technology, it will inevitably be used, no matter what the risks or consequences may be, so let’s just stop development now.
Geoengineering is also an idea that is radically out of sync with the times. There is nothing Green New Deal-like about geoengineering. In fact, if anything, it is anti-Green New Deal, encouraging a kind of collective passivity in the face of climate change. Don’t worry, Big Daddy will take care of things with his fleet of fancy airplanes. I’ve attended a number of geoengineering conferences over the years — the people who are discussing the development and governance of this technology are not exactly a Black Lives Matter crowd.
In light of all of these very justified concerns, the inclusion of a federally funded geoengineering research program in this new climate plan is…. interesting. What is going on here?
Perhaps not much. Several scientists I talked to credit Rep. McNerney, who has long been an advocate for geoengineering research, for slipping it into the climate plan. Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at NYU who has also argued for more research to better understand the risks of geoengineering, calls the House Democrats’ new climate plan “a bit of a grab bag,” but says it’s a good sign that geoengineering made it in there. With high-end emissions projections as dire as they are, it’s not hard to conceive of a world where the risks of a runaway climate crisis change how we think about the risks of geoengineering; to conceive that maybe a technology like this is something to keep in our back pocket, as a last resort. Of course, it’s a scary and uncomfortable thought to create such a backstop, because it acknowledges the possibility that the other ideas in this House report on addressing the climate crisis may be insufficient or unachievable.
The inclusion of geoengineering in this climate plan may suggest that the idea has taken one more small step toward legitimacy, toward being included in the policy toolbox lawmakers have for dealing with the climate crisis. It is also a reminder of just how many things have to go right on climate policy for many years to come if we are to avoid the most drastic outcomes – and solutions.
One way to see this is as a sign of desperation – or, at the very least, a distraction from the urgent task of reducing carbon pollution. As Jane Flegal, a program officer at the Flora and William Hewlett Foundation, puts it: “As we think about how to deal with climate change, the line between ambition and delusion is not at all sharp.”
But simply dismissing geoengineering out of hand is also morally fraught. Just one example: Extreme heat will kill tens of thousands of people in the coming years, many of them in the poorest nations of the world. If solar engineering can reduce that heat and save lives, do scientists and policy-makers have a moral obligation to at least explore it? Thinking of geoengineering as the solution to the climate crisis is clearly bonkers. It’s less clearly bonkers to see it as part of a diverse climate action response, perhaps useful to take the edge off extreme warming while carbon emissions decline in the coming decades.
Personally, I’m glad to see federal funding for geoengineering in the climate plan. Not because I’m an advocate for solar engineering, but because I have faith in scientists to figure out if this is a dangerous idea that should be shelved or if it’s a tool that they could actually refine enough to deploy in a modest, humble, and controlled way that might help reduce risks. This may sound naïve. But either you trust scientists to figure stuff like this out, or you retreat into Trumpland ignorance and voodoo.
What I don’t want to see is geoengineering research become a billionaire’s playground. Right now, as a report from Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program shows, most of the global funding for this research is coming from private sources, while government funding has declined in recent years (not that it was ever much to begin with).
If geoengineering research is going to happen at all, it should be rigorous, transparent, and not proprietary. It may indeed be a very bad idea. But it will certainly be a bad idea if the equivalent of, say, a Mark Zuckerberg gets control of it.
Luckily, the bulk of the policies proposed in this House climate plan rely on collective action, not particles in the stratosphere, to get us through the climate crisis. But I think you have to be insanely hopeful to think that, in the next decade or so, as climate impacts accelerate, some nation, or group of nations, won’t take direct action to try to cool things off. When that day comes, the more we know about the risks, the better off we will be.