Take a step back from the daily to-and-fro about climate change, and it’s hard to find any reason to cheer.
Copenhagen was pretty much a flop. The Republicans somehow captured a 41-vote majority in the U.S. Senate. Climate scientists are under attack. We continue to emit CO2 into the air at what should be an alarming pace, and many experts say we can no longer avoid significant warming during this century. If you are aware of evidence indicating that we are going to get a global treaty to effectively limit greenhouse gas emissions anytime soon, I’d like to see it.
Which is why we need to think seriously about geoengineering.
Jeff Goodell, the author of a terrific new book on geoengineering called How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix the Earth’s Climate, puts it this way:
Barring some kind of social miracle or political miracle, we’re not going to be able to reduce emissions enough to hit the targets that climate scientists tell us that we need to avert the risk of dangerous climate change… This is really a hard thing, reinventing our energy infrastructure. So where does that lead us? One of places it leads us to is geoengineering.
If you haven’t paid attention to geoengineering, it’s time to start. The term refers techniques to deliberately manipulate the earth’s climate to counter the effects of man-made global warming. Technologies could include but are surely not limited to solar radiation management (shooting particles into the stratosphere to block sunlight), cloud seeding (spraying droplets of seawater into the air to thicken clouds) and ocean fertilization (stimulating the growth of phytoplankton to suck CO2 from the air). Crazy, scary, fascinating stuff, as I’ve written here and here.
I spoke to Jeff on the eve of the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, a four-day meeting of about 200 scientists, policy experts, environmentalists, lawyers, ethicists and government officials that begins tomorrow (Monday, 4.22) in Asilomar, CA. The setting is significant: In 1975, molecular biologists and other experts held a conference at Asilomar to identify, evaluate and guard against the risks of recombinant DNA technology which was widely perceived to be a success. This meeting, too, will focus on risk, according to Dr. Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund, a key organizer. “The conference is focused on identifying areas of risk, and on suggestions and recommendations for how you assess and manage those risks,” Leinen told me. Others who help organize the event and will speak include Steve Hamburg of Environmental Defense Fund, Tom Lovejoy of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and The Environment and Stephen Seidel of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change–more signs that geoengineering is going mainstream.
[Quick aside: Jeff Goodell, David Keith and David Victor, who are among the world’s leading experts on geoengineering, have agreed to speak at FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference on business and the environment next month in Laguna Beach, CA]
The potential benefits of geoengineering are plain to see. If it goes well, it would save the human race from a catastrophic end or at least buy us time — decades or more — to transition to a clean energy economy. Of course, that’s a big “if” so I asked Jeff to talk a little about what worries him about the bold schemes to hack the climate that we will surely be hearing more about. The risks are several, he told me:
Geoengineering could be done poorly. Because it’s relatively cheap and easy to do–much easier, say, that building a nuclear weapon–lots of countries are going to be tempted to research geoengineering. “My biggest concern is that someone, somewhere in the world, if not in the U.S., someone like China or a country in the developing world would start doing this and doing it badly,” he said. “You see China engaged in weather modification already. It’s not a large leap to imagine China or a collection of developing nations getting together to do something like this.” Because the unintended consequences of geoengineering are hard to anticipate, it’s easy to imagine a drought-stricken China, say, engaging in efforts to cool the atmosphere and bring more rain that could do damage to a neighbor like India.
Geoengineering will be difficult to govern. Policy experts are already talking about treaties and international protocols to govern climate intervention, but there’s no clarity today about who’s in charge of the stratosphere or, more fundamentally, whose finger is on the geoengineering buttom. As Jeff writes in his book:
If we begin to engineer the climate, whose hand will be on the thermostat? And how do you stop a lone actor–armed with good intentions of bad–from screwing up the climate for all of us?…
The politics of geoengineering are just as complicated as the technology. The simple truth is, we have crossed over an important dividing line that separates us from all the billions of people who came before us. We may not be morally more sophisticated or smarter or better or artists or bolder scientists of more loving parents, but we do have one thing that no civilization before us has ever had: we have the power to intentionally change the climate of the planet we live on.
Jeff said: “It’s pretty obvious that if a nation felt like it was really in their interests—say, a large famine in their nation—no treaty is going to stop anyone.” That said, having a significant impact on the climate would take a sustained and public effort, so any regenade country could be subject to international sanctions.
Geoengineering might remove the urgency, such as it is, about curbing global warming pollutants. This is why for many years environmentalists didn’t even want to talk about geoengineering. As Jeff writes:
According to this view, if people believe there is a quick technological fix out there for global warming, they will ask why we should bother going through all the pain and struggle of reinventing the world’s energy systems. After all, who wants to pay higher electric bill, move to a smaller house or give up their third TV is we can just throw some dust in the air and cool off the planet?
All of these topics will be on the agenda at the Asilomar conference. Perhaps not surprisingly, since geoengineering is so controversial, the conference and its organizers have come under fire ever since it was announced wand with renewed intensity last week. Leinen has been faulted because of her ties to Climos, an ocean fertilization startup run by her son Dan Whalley. The state of Victoria, Australia, a coal-producing state, is a major sponsor, of the event, which would seem to underscore the argument that more talk about geoengineering will benefit the fossil fuel industry. (For much more on this flap, read Joe Romm’s blogpost.) But Leinen and Michael MacCracken of The Climate Institute, another key organizer, have invited a wide range of experts to the conference and opened it to the press under Chatham House rules. While some of the optics may not be ideal, they deserve credit for moving the conversation about geoengineering forward.
As Jeff Goodell told me, one of the best things about the geoengineering discussion is that it reminds us that it is our actions will shape the future of the climate and our species. AFter all, we’re messing with the climate all every time we drive a car or turn on a laptop, albeit in a haphazard and mindless way. We’re making judgments about what kind of planet we want when we say that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 should stabilize at 450 ppm or 350 ppm, or that we can live with a climate that is 1 or 2 degrees warmer. All
“One of the best things about the geoengineering discussion,” Goodell says, “is that it makes explicit the fact that we are in control of the climate of the planet now–whether we like it or not.”