Making sense out of Durban

So what the heck happened in Durban? Is the world closer to dealing with the problem of global warming? Or not?

If, like me, you aren’t a devotee of the UN climate negotiations, reading the headlines isn’t much help.

From the glass-half-full crowd: Progress at end of Durban Cop17 climate talks (LA Times). Reason to smile about Durban climate conference (Eugene Robinson in the WPost). Climate deal salvaged after marathon talks (The Guardian).

From the pessimists: How the world failed to address climate change–again (Michael Levi at The The Durban climate deal failed to meet the needs of the developing world (The Guardian, again). COP out (South Africa’s Cape Times).

COP out strikes me as about right. To gain some insight in what happened, and why, I called David Victor, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, the author of an excellent new book called Global Warming Gridlock and one of the smartest people I know when it comes to understanding global climate politics. David has followed the UN process closely since its beginnings in the early 1990s, and he has become convinced that it is the wrong way to deal with the climate threat.

David Victor

Durban didn’t change his mind.

“In terms of substance, they have not really achieved much,” David says. “They’ve agreed to have negotiations about what they might agree to in the future.” [click to continue…]

How to cool the planet

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.

-1Which 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. [click to continue…]

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. [click to continue…]