Is geoengineering inevitable?

Geoengineering, says scientist David Keith, “is like chemotherapy. It’s something nobody should like.”

But if you can’t avoid cancer, chemotherapy may be your best option. And, if it becomes evident that the earth can’t avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, it is not merely possible that governments will turn to geoengineering.

Some people believe that it is all but certain.

Geoengineering, as you probably know, is the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planet to counter global warming. It can take a number of forms, as the graphic below shows, some perhaps still to be discovered. Long a taboo subject, geoengineering is being talked about openly these days by scientists, environmentalists and policy thinkers.


The National Academy of Sciences held a workshop on geoengineering in June. Influential books including SuperFreakonomics and Whole Earth Discipline, by longtime environmentalist Stewart Brand, argue that it’s time to take geoengineering seriously. A congressional subcommittee held its second hearing on geoengineering just last week.

Among those testifying was Keith, who directs the energy and environmental systems group at the University of Calgary and, interestingly, also leads a team of engineers who are developing a technology to capture CO2 from ambient air. I heard him speak a week ago during a six-hour workshop on geoengineering organized by the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit known for its pragmatism. EDF invited me to attend, on the condition that I seek permission from the scientists before quoting them.

Geoengineering is not a new idea — it was mentioned in a 1965 report on the environment delivered to President Lyndon Johnson. But until recently, environmentalists have avoided talking about it because they worry that a focus on geoengineering will divert attention and resources from their attempts to get governments and business to curb carbon emissions–attempts which, it must be said, have had limited success so far.

Nor is geoengineering entirely unproven. Experts say solar radiation management (SRM), the form of geoengineering that has drawn the most attention lately, can be achieved by adding light-scattering aerosols to the upper atmosphere or increasing the reflectivity of clouds below.

What makes scientists think it will work? When the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines erupted in 1991, spewing fine particles of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, enough sunlight was reflected back into space that the earth was cooled by about 0.5 degrees C, at least for a time.

The trouble is, solar radiation management surely will have  other consequences as well. Some are known—less precipitation and less evaporation, which is bound to affect agriculture—and others are not.

“The concerns, really, are the unknown unknowns,” says Keith.

The EDF workshop was itself a sign that geoengineering is moving closer to the mainstream. It was organized for EDF’s  trustees and senior staff during a board meeting at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, Ca.; the organization hasn’t decided yet whether to support further research into geoengineering but, to its credit, it is open-minded about the idea. Listening to the presentations, I found myself appalled at times and thrilled at others. This is a fascinating subject, one that raises many more questions than there are answers.

One useful way to think about geoengineering in general and SRM  in particular is to compare them to mitigation, the current approach to climate change. Mitigation means reducing carbon emissions, most importantly by replacing the burning of fossil fuels (coal and oil) with low-carbon energy sources such as wind, solar, nuclear power, so-called cleaner coal and biofuels–on a vast scale. Mitigation requires enormous expenditures of capital and takes a very long time to work because CO2 emitted today persists in the atmosphere for decades. Even if we could arrange for an international agreement to curb emissions, which we cannot, it will take decades to reverse the rising concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere.

David Keith
David Keith

By contrast, solar radiation management is arguably “fast, cheap and imperfect,” said Keith–particularly if it is done crudely and without proper governance, oversight and testing. As little as $5 to $10 billion a year could pay for a short-term program, scientists estimate. By email, Keith put it this way: “The raw cost of implementation is less than 10% and probably less than 1% of the cost of cutting emissions when you average costs over 100 years.” Most of the technology required is within reach.

“It’s pretty clear that you could do it if you wanted to, and you could do it now,” Keith said. “If we put a lot of reflective aerosols in the upper atmosphere, it gets colder and it gets colder quickly.”

What the best way to block the sun’s rays? That’s to be determined. Keith explained that high-flying planes could scatter sulfate particles in the stratosphere, although little is known about how the aerosols would be formed into particles and therefore how long they would stay in the air.  Stephen Salter, an emeritus professor of engineering design at the University of Edinburgh, said a fleet of about 500 self-driven sailing ships could be designed to spray salt water into the air that would increase the reflexivity of clouds, thereby blocking sunlight.

SuperFreakonomics, meanwhile. put a spotlight on Intellectual Ventures Lab, a Seattle-based company led by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myrhvold that is researching geoengineering. Here’s a four-minute video about an Intellectual Ventures’ invention called the StratoShield, essentially a giant hose held up by helium ballo0ns that would inject  a fine mist of aerosolized sulfur dioxide 18 miles above the earth.

You can be sure that if research money is made available to study geoengineering, new ideas for tinkering with the earth on a global scale will arise. Two years ago, I wrote a column about a startup called Climos that is exploring techniques for removing carbon dioxide from the air by sprinkling iron dust on oceans. (For what it’s worth, the scientists at EDF’s event told me that will never work.)

In any event, the very fact the crude geoengineering can be done inexpensively and easily is one reason why it’s worrisome. “It is cheap enough so that small countries could act alone,” Keith said. In theory, a wealthy island nation that felt threatened by rising sea levels could try geoengineering. Countries have done dumb things before.

Surprisingly little research has been done on geoengineering. A article by David Victor et al called The Geoengineering Option, published last spring in Foreign Affairs, said:

Nearly the entire community of geoengineering scientists could fit comfortably in a single university seminar room, and the entire scientific literature on the subject could be read during the course of a transatlantic flight.

Nor is it clear how geoengineering can be tested, and how useful any tests would be. Writing in the Jan. 29 issue of Science, Alan Robock et al tackles this subject and says that “stratospheric geoengineering cannot be tested in the atmosphere without full-scale deployment.” (Here’s a link to their story and here’s one to Keith’s work.)

David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and an author of the Foreign Affairs article, told the EDF gathering:  “The odds of deploying a bad geoengineering system are greater today than the odds of responsible nations coming together and deploying something that is well-designed.”

This is why it’s not just the science of geoengineering that demands further study; policy and governance issues are equally important, if not more so. Imagine, for example, a scenario in which injecting aerosols into the atmosphere would cool the earth and slow down a rise in sea levels that threatened one country, while reducing the amount of rainfall in a neighboring country that was struggling to feed its people.

As Alan Robock, an environmental scientist at Rutgers, put it:

What temperature do we want the planet to be? Whose hand is going to be on the thermostat? What if Russia and Canada decide it’s fine to get a little warmer, but India wants it cooler?

Stewart Brand
Stewart Brand

There’s lots more to say about all this, obviously. I’m going to devote a future blogpost to the ideas of Scott Barrett, an economist who has an interesting analysis of the economic incentives that drive both climate change mitigation and geoengineering. If you want to know why Stewart Brand supports geoengineering research, you can sign up for a free webinar on February 18 at The Energy Collective where I’ll be talking with Stewart. I’m also going to try to organize a conversation about geoengineering at Brainstorm Green, FORTUNE’s conference on business and the environment, that will be held April 12-14 in Laguna Beach, CA.

A final thought on why the chemotherapy analogy is imperfect. With cancer, you can reduce but not eliminate your risk of getting the disease. By contrast, we know what to do to curb global warming.

So the question is, can we summon the collective will to stop burning fossil fuels? If you ask me, the alternatives–including geoengineering–are pretty darn scary.


  1. says

    Here’s my Big Idea: It’s time we stopped using Fear-based Motivation in our attempts to end the threat of global warming.
    What? But we’re going to die if we don’t stop it!
    Yeah.. but how many people do you know who keep on smoking cigarettes, even though they know it’s bad for them? It’s a behavioral addiction problem. And we’re just not going to get the people who control the world into the kind of “group therapy” it would take to break them of this addiction.
    We need to shift from trying to “stop bad behavior” to trying to “start good, new behavior”… because that puts the power of creating change back in the hands of the consumers.
    Oh… get people to buy more green products?
    No… get people to transform the larger culture in which our current industrial model exists.
    How we treat Mother Nature is a sub-set of how our culture functions across the board.
    The Social Systems Sciences (aka Systems Thinking aka Design Thinking) teach that the solution to a problem is to address the design of the larger system in which the problem exists.
    How humanity relates to Mother Nature is a subset of a scarcity-based, zero-sum world view.
    How do you shift a culture’s world view? By inspiring them to make the shift by teaching them the positive future they can have if they go through the trouble of doing so (“trouble” including “unlearning” things that are no longer true).
    This is Aspirational (not Fear)-based Motivation. And it’s part of what I’m writing about in the book I’m working on. (BTW, William McDonough comes from this “don’t stop bad stuff; start good new stuff” place.)
    I’d be happy to talk to you or any of your other readers about this…

  2. says

    Thanks, Steve. I don’t disagree.

    In this post, I was reporting on a science workshop on geoengineering. Nothing aspirational or inspiring there (except in the sense that very thoughtful people are wrestling with a real and serious problem).

    I agree that it would be better to inspire people with a vision of a more sustainable world. That’s why I like to write about electric cars and solar panels as well as DC policy and energy efficiency. As my friend Joel Makower often says, we have to make green products “better”–either better for you, or more stylish, or lower cost, or easier to use.

    But it also helps, I think, to remind people that climate change is a serious problem that demands our attention.

  3. says

    I agree completely that we must remind people that climate change is a serious problem, especially in light of the climate change deniers who continue in their efforts to “prove” they are right (using all the marketing tricks at their disposal).

    One reason I speak about aspirational motivation and related macro-cultural dynamics is that – when you bring the “whole system of our culture” into the conversation – you can talk about how collaborative relations between all nations can lead to significant reductions in military spending. And that’s important because we’re going to have to get the initial money to change our industrial model from some place.

    But this means talking about issues of us being One Human Family…. a family that needs to learn how to settle its differences without killing each other. And climate change experts aren’t exactly organized around talking war vs. peace. But, in my humble opinion, they need to be. Or at a minimum they need to partner with people who can.

    Everything’s related. That’s what Russ Ackoff, W. Edwards Deming, and Peter Drucker tried to get the world to see.

    Thanks for reporting on this very interesting workshop… and this dialogue, even if it seems to be a bit off topic. I used to be a civil engineer, so I’m actually fascinated by what these people are talking about doing.

  4. Marie-Therese says

    You might like to know that, whilst geo-engineering is debated in magazines, blogs, etc., it is already being done on a vast scale. Generally it is pushed aside as the so-called “chemtrails vs. contrails-debate”.
    I live in Oxfordshire, England and on at least two days in 2011 we had planes flying up and down the sky on a sunny morning, creating a layer of artificial clouds. Sprayings have been observed elsewhere in England and in Europe. Many people testify to that all over the internet; satellite pictures are available, suggesting systematic spraying patterns rather than the effects of regular air travel and transport.
    The chemicals proposed to be sprayed and already being sprayed into the atmosphere have serious health-implications both for humans and wildlife. In California, for example, the level of aluminium on some mountain glaciers is up to 60,000 times higher than recommended. The origin of this can only be precipitation, which has been affected since sprayings began around 7 years ago. Aluminium, for example, is one major factor in the massive rise of Alzheimer’s disease. Forests are already dying on a large scale, exacerbating the problem of CO2 and thus climate change itself.The acidification of rainwater, soil and freshwater caused by sulphur compounds is a threat to all aspects of the biosphere, but – more importantly – agriculture and therefore human life as such. If geo-engineering was to go ahead as it is being proposed here and, as evidence suggests, is already happening, this would be a crime against humanity beyond all precedents.
    The only way to stop climate change and the rise of global temperatures is to reduce carbon- and other emissions. If this fails, we will have to live with the effects of it and try to mitigate the problems as much as possible. It is not the task of scientists to avert a supposed apocalypse; it is the task of politicians to coordinate the regulation of emissions and help those seriously affected.

  5. Kapt. Knucklehead says

    In the fabrique of space and time there is no insignificant grain of sand or action that results influence throughout this reality of the human universe.How can we believe we can manipulate nature when our understanding of its weave and fiber is so less than thorough and primitive that we are surprised and confounded by our own meager advancements as a civilization.Until we can build the loom our attempt to operate it is irresponsible unless we are the first or the only sentient life form to evolve.Its not the planet that’s at stake here but the survivability of the biological inhabitants.In my opinion any solution motivated for monetary or weaponized advantage is not worth the risk to our fragile balance with life on the Little Blue Marble.If you f–k with Mother Nature be sure she enjoys being pregnant!

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