Solar Radiation Management describes a suite of proposed technologies that aim to reflect sunlight back into space before it warms the earth’s climate. These proposed technique would achieve this in one of a number of ways: by spraying sulphur dioxide or hydrogen sulphide into the stratosphere (the upper reaches of the atmosphere), by launching a 300 km2 barrier into heliosynchronous orbit, by making the albedo (reflectivity) of clouds, or by launching billions of reflective balloons into the stratosphere.
Geoengineering — that wild and grandiose idea that suggests we could offset and even reverse the alarming effects of global warming — has been viewed as an insane notion for decades. Surely we’d have to be truly desperate before we’d even consider deliberately fiddling with the planet on such a massive scale.
But now, some experts think we’ve reached the point where we have no choice but to look into geoengineering.
Earlier this year, the National Research Council released two reports that called for more research on the idea. The first report examined ways we could remove some of the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. At first glance, this might be plausible. But the second report looked at far more controversial methods, such as releasing reflective particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight and therefore cool the Earth.
The second report warned that at this time, these methods were risky and poorly understood. But I’d like to take this a step further: Both reports contain ideas that will never be practical and are actually more dangerous than the problem at hand. We will never understand the risks well enough to justify any of the outlandish schemes that these reports describe.
Most scientists agree that geoengineering should never be a substitute for solving the problem upfront. Sadly, we’ve been so slow to burn fewer fossil fuels and cut our greenhouse gas emissions that many scientists now think geoengineering might help us clean up the mess we’ve already made.
As human beings, we have the tendency to think that technology will save us. But if there’s one lesson we should have learned by now, it’s that we can’t keep playing God with the planet. We simply don’t understand the climate system well enough to predict how any geoengineering method would play out in the future.
Although the first report, on carbon dioxide removal, doesn’t seem completely ludicrous at first glance, it takes just one example to reveal its folly. In 2012, a rogue American millionaire dumped 220,000 pounds of iron sulfate into the Pacific Ocean to create a massive, carbon-sucking plankton bloom, nearly 4,000 square miles big. This illegal maneuver may have removed some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but scientists worry these blooms can kill marine life and cause toxic tides.
The second report examined a much easier and cheaper approach than removing atmospheric carbon: Spraying reflective particles, called aerosols, into the atmosphere, to intercept incoming solar radiation. This would essentially be the man-made equivalent to volcanic eruptions. WhenMount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, spraying white ash more than 12 miles high, it temporarily lowered the Earth’s temperature by nearly 0.3 degrees for three years. But this method, too, has scary side effects.
Every cloud droplet forms around an aerosol particle. But man-made aerosols differ in size, composition and number from natural aerosols. So they could form radically different clouds.
Scientists aren’t sure how well these man-made clouds would reflect sunlight back into space (therefore reducing the Earth’s temperature). They might be tenuous enough to let more light through. They would also likely affect the raindrops forming within the clouds, creating huge precipitation changes that could bring droughts to some areas and floods to others.
But what’s really scary about geoengineering is that once we start, we can’t really stop. As soon as we quit sucking up carbon dioxide or spraying aerosols into the atmosphere, the Earth will heat up rapidly. And a rapid heat increase is much more dangerous than one spanning a century or more. The world’s ecosystem, not to mention the humans within it, will have little time to react.
So the million-dollar question is: Is geoengineering, despite its obvious drawbacks, still worth investigating — just in case? No. The longer we look into it, no matter how innocently, the more likely we are to do it. We’ll gain some understanding of the climate system and think we know it all. But we will never know every foreseeable side effect.
It’s time to put our resources into harvesting green energy today. Researching geoengineering will only take attention away from the problem at hand. It risks that we’ll continue to burn fossil fuels under the assumption that we’ll fix the issue later. And that’s a chance we simply cannot take.
One thing is certain: The fact that some serious scientists are now calling for more research on geoengineering means we’ve reached a terrifying place. Isn’t it time to finally get serious about cutting carbon emissions instead of holding out for techno-fixes that could backfire disastrously?
The geoengineering juggernaut has shifted into higher gear with the release of a long-awaited report from the National Research Council recommending federal funding for research into “plan B” technologies to intervene in the climate system to counter the effects of warming.
Reports commissioned by the council are often the trigger for large-scale research programs into new areas of science. Although providing a comprehensive review of the science behind various schemes, the new report is at its weakest when it grapples with the politics of geoengineering. Adopting the line that more research is always a good thing, council scientists do not concede experiments that do not change the physical environment can sharply change the social and political environment.
And so the report treats as only of theoretical concern the possibility that a major research program on climate modification would reduce political incentives to reduce carbon emissions. Anyone who has watched world leaders seize on carbon capture and storage as a means of having our cake and eating it can see what is likely. The world lost 10 years chasing the chimera of “clean coal.”
Questions of control are at the center of the geoengineering debate, especially with respect to the proposal that receives most attention—shielding Earth with an atmospheric layer of sulfate particles to reflect some of the sun’s heat. Renamed “albedo modification” in the council report, it raises many questions. Among them: Can we control the climate system? Can we control ourselves?
After all, in full knowledge of the consequences we have failed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions—not so much because we do not buy green electricity or switch to public transport but because we cannot stop ourselves voting for politicians whom we know will do little or nothing.
Technofixes—technical solutions to social problems—are appealing when we are unwilling to change ourselves and our social institutions. So here is the essential problem that the council scientists do not confront: Does anyone really believe that while warming is suppressed with a sulfate aerosol shield a revolution will occur in our attitudes and political systems?
No. Yet every scientist, including the council authors, is convinced that if albedo modification is implemented and not followed by a program of global emission reductions, then we are almost certainly finished. Sulfate spraying without a change in the political system would make the situation worse.
There is a long history of technological interventions entrenching the behaviors that created the problem. In Navigating Environmental Attitudes Thomas Heberlein tells the story of the New Deal dams of the 1920s and 1930s built to limit severe damage from floods and droughts. Yet flood losses after the dams were built increased. People looked at the now “safe” flood plains and built more houses on them. They were sitting ducks when the rivers once again flooded. The course of a river is easier to shift than people’s attitudes.
The council argues that the U.S. should have a better research base on albedo modification to inform its response should some other actor decide unilaterally to begin spraying sulfates into the stratosphere. Perhaps, although that would be a situation of international diplomacy, and quite possibly military maneuvering, rather than one of “my model run is better than yours.”
The risk of the National Research Council report is that its warnings about the environmental risks and uncertainties will be overlooked by political players looking for an answer but unwilling to embrace the need it stressed—to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Already, politicians loathe to implement serious measures to cut emissions are privately attracted to the geoengineering technofix, including albedo modification, as a substitute.
For the moment the political taboo on speaking of it publicly is holding. (Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen broke the scientific taboo with a famous essay in 2006.) But by normalizing geoengineering as one response among a “portfolio” of actions, the council report, backed by the prestige of the National Academy of Sciences, may loosen the prohibition’s grip.
A fleet of planes daily delivering sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere would be a grim monument to the ultimate failure of unbridled techno-industrialism and our unwillingness to change the way we live.
The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) announced its long-awaited reports on climate geoengineering in mid-February. The reports intelligently state at the outset that geoengineering is no substitute for reducing emissions. But the call for experimentation and research – and for federal government funding for it – is pervasive, loud and clear. And worrisome. A similar call for research was published as a commentary in Nature, conveniently timed just a few days ahead of the release of the NAS reports.
One approach to climate geoengineering would have us inject large amounts of sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect a proportion of sunlight – a form of “solar radiation management” (SRM). That could provide some temporary overall global cooling, though not evenly distributed. Models as well as the real world experience of volcanic eruptions show that this would have severe side effects, from disrupting rainfall over large areas of the planet to degrading the ozone layer.
Those who support research into SRM believe that its negative impacts must be seen relative to the disastrous changes, including to global rainfall patterns, which are already unfolding. However, as NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt has pointed out, rainfall is much more sensitive to changes in the amount of incoming sunlight (which would be reduced through SRM) than it is to greenhouse gases. Therefore, an earth with high greenhouse gases plus SRM won’t be anything like the earth any of us have experienced.
Experimenting with SRM is a bit like experimenting with heroin. You know even before you try it that it’s not going to be good for you. Also like experimenting with heroin, it does nothing to address the underlying problems that lead to addiction. Pumping sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere would do nothing to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations. To the contrary, it could be used as an excuse to continue to do so. Nor would it slow or stop ocean acidification, the other disaster caused by carbon dioxide emissions besides climate change. Because SRM fails to address the cause of warming, and instead just temporarily masks some of the symptoms, it becomes an addiction and would have to be maintained and even increased over time. Getting off the SRM drug would be especially problematic. Suddenly halting injection of sulphate particles would result in very abrupt and dramatic heating.
Those who call for research into SRM cite the urgent need to understand more in order to have it as a “tool in the box” in case things get so bad that we need to take dire action. Others support researching it because they fear if “we” (the United States and the United Kingdom) do not take the lead and get up to speed, some unfriendly nation or entity might do so and then use it as a weapon. The weaponization of geoengineering is a particularly troubling concern and in fact, the CIA contributed to funding the NAS reports. One scientist reports being contacted and questioned by CIA officials.
A blanket call for more research on climate geoengineering is especially foolhardy. In 2010, an article by four climate scientists published in Science pointed out that open-air experiments to test the effect that SRM with sulphate aerosols would have on rainfall patterns would need to be so large as to be capable of disrupting global rainfall – and thus food production on a large scale.
Small-scale, open-air SRM experiments could help to develop and test the feasibility of large-scale deployment of such technologies, but they could not tell us more about what the global effects of such deployment would be than modeling studies coupled with observations of climate effects of volcanoes already can tell us. What this existing research shows does not bode well for SRM.
What about other climate geoengineering approaches? Under the heading of “carbon dioxide removal” (CDR) are approaches that use plant or plankton biomass growth to absorb carbon out of the atmosphere, as well as methods that use machinery to filter carbon dioxide out of the ambient air (direct air capture).
Direct air capture of carbon dioxide might seem an attractive prospect, but it is technically challenging and – most importantly – highly energy intensive and extremely costly. Building new power stations to scrub a small fraction of the carbon dioxide emitted by other power stations clearly makes no sense, nor is there any sense in diverting any of the small fraction of lower carbon energy such as wind power to power giant carbon dioxide-sucking fans rather than replace existing fossil fuel use for energy. No proposed direct air capture technique has so far proven feasible at scale.
Plant biomass approaches range from very large-scale afforestation (tree plantations), to stimulating plankton growth with ocean iron fertilization, very large-scale use of biochar, (although the National Academy scientists do not regard biochar as a proven form of carbon dioxide removal) or low-till agriculture (included by the NAS, even though that is mostly a practice for industrial GMO soya and corn producers, and even though several studies have put claims about low-till and no-till sequestering of carbon into serious doubt). They also include most prominently, capturing carbon from industrial bioenergy processes, also known as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS).
Ocean fertilization (except for small-scale experiments that have undergone a risk assessment) would contravene an international convention (London Convention and Protocol) as well as a specific moratorium by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Its potential to harm marine biodiversity is well established, while several studies have contradicted claims that it could sequester substantial amounts of carbon.
The biomass-based CDR approaches have won favor as more “benign,” and because they involve using plants, they elicit less of the visceral repulsion that most feel toward sulphate particle injection. Proponents claim that these plant-based CDR techniques can provide various auxiliary benefits. For example, the assumption is that BECCS can provide us with alternative renewable energy while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Biochar advocates meanwhile claim it will improve soils, increase agriculture productivity, reduce use of fertilizer, retain moisture, clean toxins from the environment and more, all while simultaneously removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – despite the fact that studies do not show that biochar can be relied upon to actually deliver such benefits.
Sound magical? Only if one accepts underlying false assumptions. The first is that there are copious amounts of “sustainable,” available biomass, (and by implication of the land, soils, fertilizers and freshwater required to grow such quantities of biomass) readily available to be burned for bioenergy, or pyrolyzed to produce biochar or refined into biofuels. Those mythological supplies of biomass simply don’t exist. Even with the comparatively small scale of bioenergy production we currently have in place, the impacts on land, food and climate have been hugely problematic and are already well documented. Numerous studies have demonstrated the climate benefits of agroecological farming, protection and restoration of soils, or halting deforestation and allowing natural forests to grow. Establishing huge new demands for wood and crops for CDR achieves just the opposite.
The second false assumption is that large-scale bioenergy is largely “carbon neutral,” based on the absurdly simplistic claim that carbon released from burning a tree for electricity (or refining it into fuel) will be offset when a new tree grows in its place. This “carbon neutral” myth has been debunked in scientific literature repeatedly and yet still remains, a testament to the potency of marketing myths and industry PR messaging.
Those who advocate biomass-based CDR climate geoengineering continue to accept it on face value and assume that when CCS is then applied to a “carbon neutral bioenergy” process, it is rendered “carbon negative” (removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or “net zero emissions”). Since this is simply not true, we already know full well that the impacts of global scale deployment of BECCS would not only fail to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, but would also increase manifold the problems we are already witnessing as a result of bioenergy mandates and subsidies (land grabs, soil and water depletion, biodiversity loss, competition with food production, air pollution and more).
So should we experiment with CDR? Unlike the case for SRM, small-scale “experimentation” is already underway in many locations, though not referred to as “geoengineering.” For example, tree plantations (afforestation) already exist and are expanding. Many different kinds of bioenergy processes are already in practice from ethanol production (which currently consumes nearly 40 percent of the US corn crop) to co-firing of wood with coal for electricity. Capturing carbon from ethanol fermentation and fossil fuel smokestacks has been tested and found to be energy intensive, expensive and risky. Furthermore, to offset the costs, carbon dioxide is often marketed for “enhanced oil recovery” (pumped into depleted oil wells to force remaining oil out). None of these, at the scale currently in place would be considered “climate geoengineering.” But our experiences with them have already flagged up serious limitations and problems. For most biomass-based approaches, the limited availability of biomass, and the land, soils, nutrients and water for growing it, is the key limitation.
Directing science funding toward climate geoengineering raises additional concerns: First of all, public funding for scientific research is limited and spending more of it on geoengineering research will inevitably result in other areas of research being starved of funding. Secondly, once significant funding for geoengineering research becomes available, a bias toward research “results” that reinforce the need for more, similar funding can easily develop. For example, hundreds of studies per year are currently being published about obscure aspects of biochar research, with titles such as “Adsorption of anionic dye on magnesium hydroxide-coated pyrolytic bio-char and reuse by microwave irradiation.” Yet field studies that could reveal to what extent biochar actually does increase soil carbon and what its effects on different crops and soils really are remain few and far between. The National Academy rejected biochar altogether as unworthy of consideration for CDR. Meanwhile, agroecology – one of the most promising ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making agriculture more resilient to the now unavoidable level of climate change – remains starved of funding. A letter signed by more than 200 scientists in 2014 warned: “Public research into agroecology is drastically inadequate . . . And past analyses have found that funding for agroecology is a very small part of the federal research budget.”
Investing in climate geoengineering research creates momentum. Careers are built around it, grants are sought, and institutes and initiatives sprout up as is already clearly underway. These all will seek to perpetuate and advocate the need for more research and investment. That momentum becomes increasingly difficult to stop, even if the ideas have been deemed too risky, too expensive, ineffective or otherwise pointless to further pursue.
Another concern relates to the regulation of activities associated with geoengineering. In the aforementioned Nature article, the authors write: “We argue that governance and experimentation must co-evolve. We call on the US government and others to begin programs to fund small-scale, low-risk outdoor climate-engineering research and develop a framework for governing it.”
The US government? US government “regulation” of GMOs, just as an example, is considered by many to be woefully inadequate and driven more by the interests of Monsanto and their ilk than any interest in protecting public health or the environment. Many people around the globe would likely feel uncomfortable with a US government funded, or governed program on geoengineering. This is especially important given that the negative effects of different types of geoengineering would likely be felt most dramatically in the global South: Sulphate aerosol injections from real-life volcanoes have been linked to major droughts and famines in large parts of Africa, while tropical countries, where trees and crops grow fastest, would be the likely biggest targets for any biomass-based CDR schemes.
The consequences of climate geoengineering are global, so global governance should be considered essential. Yet, realistically, the global community can hardly come to any agreement on climate. How will nations agree on a framework for the governance of geoengineering? Is it possible? Or is climate geoengineering essentially impossible to govern?
Finally, any advancement of climate geoengineering plays directly into the hands of political forces including the oil industry and climate deniers who are pleased to have a “Plan B.” As Pat Mooney from ETC Group points out: “The fossil fuel industry is desperate to protect between $20 and $28 trillion in booked assets that can only be extracted if the corporations are allowed to overshoot GHG-emissions. The theoretical assumption that carbon capture and storage will eventually let them recapture [carbon dioxide] from the atmosphere and bury it in the earth or ocean provides the fossil fuel industry with the best way to avoid popping the ‘carbon bubble’ other than outright climate denial. . . . If the US or other powerful governments accept geoengineering as a plausible ‘Plan B,’ Plan A will evaporate faster than Congressional bipartisanship.”
Pumping funds into geoengineering research seems especially unwise given the political context, and since we already can see clearly enough that these approaches are extremely dangerous, likely won’t work, will have unanticipated negative impacts, are very likely to worsen rather than improve the climate – and with different outcomes for different people in different places – are virtually ungovernable, divert resources from better uses, are a political nightmare, and can potentially be weaponized.
These issues are not all unique to climate geoengineering. Many are common to other kinds of technology developments that pose enormous and potentially global risks. The time is long overdue to recognize that our capacity for developing technologies in many cases poses serious risks to ourselves and the rest of life. When it comes to climate geoengineering, we should not be forced to accept that because we “can,” even though we know we “shouldn’t,” “if we don’t, someone else will” and therefore we “must.” That line of reasoning is no way for an intelligent species to conduct itself.
This sounds like a philosophical question, but it might become a more concrete one. A report released last week by the National Research Council called for research into reversing climate changethrough a process called albedo modification: reflecting sunlight away from earth by, for instance, spraying aerosols into the atmosphere. Such a process could, some say, change the appearance of the sky — and that in turn could affect everything from our physical health to the way we see ourselves.
If albedo modification were actually implemented, Alan Robock, a professor of environmental sciences at Rutgers, told Joel Achenbach at The Washington Post: “You’d get whiter skies. People wouldn’t have blue skies anymore.” And, he added, “astronomers wouldn’t be happy, because you’d have a cloud up there permanently. It’d be hard to see the Milky Way anymore.”
Losing the night sky would have big consequences, said Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent work looks at the health effects of the emotion of awe. In a study published in January in the journal Emotion, he and his team found that people who experienced a great deal of awe had lower levels of a marker of inflammation that has been linked to physical and mental ailments. One major source of awe is the natural world. “When you go outside, and you walk in a beautiful setting, and you just feel not only uplifted but you just feel stronger,” said Dr. Keltner, “there’s clearly a neurophysiological basis for that.”
And, he added, looking up at a starry sky provides “almost a prototypical awe experience,” an opportunity to feel “that you are small and modest and part of something vast.”
Research on the benefits of awe, he said, suggests that without a starry sky, “kids are going to be less imaginative, we’re going to be less modest and less kind to each other,” and “it may cost us in terms of health.”
If we lose the night sky, he said, “we lose something precious and sacred.”
He believes whitening the daytime sky might result in “that same loss of the sense of what’s vast,” a sense his team’s research suggests is “one of the most important things that people build into their lives.”
Paul K. Piff, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, says that when he studied awe among the Himba in Namibia, “the night sky was one of the very clear elicitors” of the emotion. The sky “has this really important role, obviously, in all sorts of different historical ways for the development of humankind and human consciousness, but it also has this shared feature of, no matter where you are and where you come from, it seems to brings about this really, really amazing and transformative experience.”
“We’re finding in our lab that the experience of awe gets you to feel connected to something larger than yourself, see the humanity in other people,” he explained. “In many ways it’s kind of an antidote to narcissism.” And the sky is one of the few sources of that experience that’s available to almost everybody: “Not everyone has access to the ocean or giant trees, or the Grand Canyon, but we certainly all live beneath the night sky.”
“Everyone’s looked up at the sky and wondered what our place is relative to the universe,” he said, “and so blotting out the stars would deprive people of this extremely compelling, awe-inspiring, transformative and cherished experience that we all share.”
“We used to be a lot more connected to the sky,” said the artist Ken Murphy. “It used to be either you’d look at the campfire, look at the sky, or go to bed, and now our lives have radically changed, and I think there’s definitely a loss in that.”
For his project “A History of the Sky,” he set up a camera to take a photograph of the San Francisco sky every 10 seconds for a year. He then made a time-lapse movie of each day and arranged them into a grid, creating a sort of video diary of the view above the city:
“While I was shooting, I was very tuned into what was going on with the sky,” he said. “It’s very compelling to witness what’s going on over our heads.”
On long backpacking trips, his focus often turns to the sky: “It becomes this unfolding drama every night, and you really can see how in history we’ve spun these elaborate myths around things going on in the sky. It must have been such a huge part of people’s consciousness before we had all these other distractions.”
“It’s a horribly disturbing thought to me that that would be permanently obscured in some way,” he said.
For Jennifer Wu, a photographer and a co-author of the book “Photography: Night Sky,” the starry sky is “one of those things that I hope that people will always enjoy.”
“When we go out and we see the stars there’s that connection,” she said. “We have creativity, we get renewed. There’s kind of a refreshing feeling about going out and being outdoors at night and seeing the stars.”
If something came between us and the stars, she said, “we won’t be able to photograph them as much.” This is already a problem for city-dwellers, she noted — because of light pollution, many in dense areas can’t see or photograph the stars.
“I love seeing the Milky Way,” she added. “Going out and seeing this incredible, beautiful band of light overhead, it’s just magnificent, and it would be disappointing to not see it anymore,” to lose the feeling that “we’re just one of these little dots among these many.”
Dimming the appearance of the stars would also make it harder for astronomers to study them. Telescope technology has just reached a point, said Steven Flanders, the public affairs coordinator for Caltech’s Palomar Observatory, “where the corrective systems on these telescopes are able now increasingly to compensate for the blurring of the earth’s atmosphere. At least at visual wavelengths, we don’t need to go out into space as we did with the Hubble Space Telescope, because we can do as well or better with corrective technology.” And, he said, “that whole process is for naught if we lose access to the night sky.”
One area that might suffer, he said, is the effort to identify planets in other solar systems. And that effort plays a big role in keeping the public interested in astronomy: When “we talk about planets,” he explained, “we talk about the search for life.”
As for how the loss of a swath of astronomical research would affect humanity, he said, “at a practical level, I don’t think we would lose anything.” But “at another level,” he said, “we would lose some of the curiosity that in some manner helps keep this society vibrant and moving.”
“The search for life is terribly exciting,” he added, “and you can argue that a society, any society, needs that kind of stimulus in various forms.”
It’s not completely clear, some researchers say, just how much aerosols would change the look of the sky. “You are essentially putting stuff between you and the light,” said Waleed Abdalati, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and one of the authors of the report. “So when you’re talking about dim light like stars,” he explained, “it’s certainly conceivable and even likely that they would appear dimmer.” Aerosols might whiten the sky during the day as well. How visible these effects are, he said, would depend on how much material was injected into the atmosphere — and we don’t yet know how much we’d want to inject, because we don’t yet know what the other side effects of such injection might be.
Ben Kravitz, a postdoctoral researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory who has studied the possibility of albedo modification through aerosols, said in an email that according to current models, the whitening effect of aerosol injection “would be similar to the whiter sky that is often seen in large cities or areas with industrial pollution.” As for starlight, he said, “I don’t know of any study showing that the aerosols would obscure the stars; that sounds like an interesting research problem.”
Alan Robock, the environmental sciences professor, mentioned one possible upside in an interview: “You’d get these beautiful red and yellow sunsets,” as “the yellow and red colors reflect off the bottom of this cloud.”
He recommends more research into albedo modification: “If people ever are tempted to do this, I want them to have a lot of information about what the potential benefits and risks would be so they can make an informed decision.”
Part of understanding those risks and benefits may be evaluating the emotional impacts of making big changes to the way the sky looks. Of these impacts, Dr. Abdalati said, “my own view is they’re huge.”
“I think in time their magnitude will diminish as it becomes the new normal,” he said. But “for the generation that makes the decision to undertake something like that, to deploy something like that, I think the implications would be profound.”
Still, he believes “it’s incumbent upon us to understand the options before us, even if they’re options that may never be deployed.” That means making an effort to keep climate change from worsening in the first place, exploring ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere once its there — and understanding the implications of putting aerosols in the atmosphere, even if we never do it. “Deploying something like albedo modification is a last-ditch effort,” he explained. “I think it’s one that should be avoided at all costs, but should be understood.”
And, he said, “we’ve gotten ourselves into a climate mess. The fact that we’re even talking about these kinds of things is indicative of that.”
For Dr. Keltner, the sky is a source of awe. For Ms. Wu, it’s a fount of creativity. And if it one day turns white, it may become something else: a reminder that humanity ran out of options.
Some years ago, in the question-and-answer session after a lecture at the American Geophysical Union, I described certain geoengineering proposals as “barking mad.” The remark went rather viral in the geoengineering community. The climate-hacking proposals I was referring to were schemes that attempt to cancel out some of the effects of human-caused global warming by squirting various substances into the atmosphere that would reflect more sunlight back to space. Schemes that were lovingly called “solar radiation management” by geoengineering boosters. Earlier I had referred to the perilous state such schemes would put our Earth into as being analogous to the fate of poor Damocles, cowering under a sword precariously suspended by a single thread.
This week, the National Research Council (NRC) is releasing a report on climate engineering that deals with exactly those proposals I found most terrifying. The report even recommends the creation of a research program addressing these proposals. I am a co-author of this report. Does this mean I’ve had a change of heart?
The nearly two years’ worth of reading and animated discussions that went into this study have convinced me more than ever that the idea of “fixing” the climate by hacking the Earth’s reflection of sunlight is wildly, utterly, howlingly barking mad. In fact, though the report is couched in language more nuanced than what I myself would prefer, there is really nothing in it that is inconsistent with my earlier appraisals.
Even the terminology used in the report signals a palpable change in the framing of the discussion. The actions discussed for the most part are referred to as “climate intervention,” rather than “climate engineering” (or the common but confusing term geoengineering). Engineering is something you do to a system you understand very well, where you can try out new techniques thoroughly at a small scale before staking peoples’ lives on them. Hacking the climate is different—we have only one planet to live on, and can’t afford any big mistakes. Many of the climate “engineering” proposals are akin to turning the world’s whole population into passengers on a largely untested new fleet of hypersonic airplanes.
Most previous literature has referred to schemes to increase the proportion of sunlight reflected back to space as solar radiation management, as if it were something routine and businesslike, along the lines of “inventory management” or “personnel management.” It is far from clear, however, that solar radiation can be managed in any meaningful sense of the word. The NRC report instead uses the more neutral term “albedo modification.” Albedo is the scientific term for the proportion of sunlight reflected back to space. If the Earth had 100 percent albedo, it would reflect all sunlight back to space and be a frozen ice ball some tens of degrees above absolute zero, heated only by the trickle of heat leaking out from its interior. Earth’s current albedo is about 30 percent, with much of the reflection caused by clouds and snow cover. I myself prefer the term “albedo hacking,” but “albedo modification” does pretty well. My colleague and report co-author James Fleming has called such schemes “untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief.” (A companion report also discusses less problematic, if currently expensive, schemes for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Many of those would be well worth doing if they ever became economical.)
The report describes albedo modification frankly as involving large and partly unknown risks. It states outright that albedo modification “should not be deployed” and emphasizes that the main focus in climate protection should continue to be reduction of CO2 emissions. If we continue to let CO2 build up in the atmosphere and attempt to offset the effects by increasingly extreme albedo modification, the report states, that situation is one of “profoundly increasing risk.” This is a far cry from the cartoonish portrayal of albedo modification as the cheap and obvious method of choice in Superfreakonomics or by Newt Gingrich.
Two albedo modification schemes are singled out for detailed scrutiny. The first of these, called stratospheric aerosol modification, works high up in the atmosphere—in the layer known as the stratosphere—and involves injecting substances such as sulfur dioxide that lead to the creation of tiny particles that scatter sunlight back to space. It’s modeled on what happens in the wake of large volcanic eruptions. The second, called marine cloud brightening, works close to the Earth’s surface and involves injection of particles (usually created from salt spray) that either directly reflect sunlight or modify low-level clouds in a way that makes them more reflective. Both techniques have the glaring problem that the albedo-modifying effects disappear within a few weeks to a few years, whereas the climate effects of the CO2 we emit will persist for millennia, even if we ultimately kick the fossil fuel habit. That means that if the CO2 we have emitted at some time heats the Earth to the point where something intolerably bad starts to happen, active albedo modification would need to be continually maintained basically forever. When has humanity ever managed to sustain a concerted complex technological enterprise for centuries, let alone millennia? An awful lot can happen in a thousand years, much of which we have no way to anticipate. The report recognizes that such a millennial commitment would be unprecedented in human history.
The take-home message is that it is not possible to use albedo modification to counteract peak CO2-induced warming without maintaining the climate intervention without interruption for millennia. At least, that’s the case unless we learn how to actively suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. The problem of millennial commitment makes it exceedingly imprudent to count on albedo modification to get and keep us out of a climate emergency. Absent effective CO2-removal techniques, albedo modification cannot be seen as a temporary measure that can give us time to get our act together to eliminate CO2 emissions. And if at any point albedo modification actions are ceased abruptly, the world would be faced with the rapid release of a century or more of pent-up warming. This is why I refer to such a world as “Damocles world.” A lot could happen in a thousand years that might force abrupt termination of albedo modification, but to just mention one possibility: Think of what an attractive target most of the proposed deployment systems (e.g. tethered balloons or fleets of lumbering stratospheric aircraft) would be for terrorists, or for nations who believe rightly or wrongly that they are being harmed by albedo modification.
Temporary deployment scenarios, which are used to delay warming rather than limit its ultimate magnitude, are also considered in the report, which takes no stance on what form of deployment is most likely if the world is ever driven to that stage. I myself think the temporary deployment scenarios are highly implausible, and are mainly shopped by albedo-modification boosters as a less threatening way to get the camel’s nose in the tent. I think that if people realized how little albedo modification can do for climate without taking on a millennial commitment, and that even such modest goals come within reach only when CO2 emissions reductions are so successful you hardly need albedo modification at all, a lot of the enthusiasm for the technology—already feeble outside the small circle of boosters—would evaporate.
Albedo hacking in the face of high CO2 would put the Earth in a state that has no real analogue in all of human history. In fact, the state you create by such an action is somewhat like the state the Earth was in some 250 million years ago during the Permian period, when the sun was dimmer but atmospheric CO2 was higher. A more disturbing comparison involves what would happen if albedo hacking ends abruptly: That would risk warming of a magnitude unseen since the Paleocene-Eocene rapid warming event some 55 million years ago, but at a rate that is probably unprecedented in all of Earth history. The hacking would also transform a substantial amount of direct sunlight into diffuse sunlight, altering the environment for all green plants on land.
More generally, the climate of the Earth is determined by a struggle of two different parts of our planetary energy budget. One part is heat energy loss to space; CO2 affects that. The other part is the amount of sunlight absorbed; albedo modification affects that, but the consequences of turning this dial are not at all equivalent to dialing back CO2 to pre-industrial values. This dial can probably be used to reduce global mean temperature (though with uncertain precision), but there is much more to climate than that. The global cooling that could possibly be achieved comes at the cost of changes in rainfall patterns, winds, and regional temperature. With the current state of climate models, we have only very limited confidence in our ability to predict the outcomes, and even more limited ability to model the actual albedo change resulting from the complex chain of events due to an actual climate-intervention action. What’s more, our current ability to even monitor what we actually did to the sky leaves a lot to be desired. And albedo modification does little or nothing to ameliorate the acidification of the oceans caused by CO2 emissions. All that is acknowledged frankly in the report.
In other words, albedo modification addresses (albeit imperfectly) the symptoms but not the root causes of CO2-induced global warming. As a possible response to such criticisms, Oxford’s Steve Rayner has mused that “Band-Aids are useful when you are healing.” However, Band-Aids are not all that useful if you really needed penicillin instead, and the wound festers until you die. Albedo modification is not like a bandage that promotes healing, but more like taking painkillers when you really need surgery for cancer.
It could be argued with some justification that if we do not severely restrict CO2 emissions, future generations will not have the choice to pursue a climate that is roughly similar to conditions before the Industrial Revolution. The relevant comparison, according to this argument, isn’t between the albedo-modified state and the pre-industrial state, but rather between a hot, high-CO2 state and a generally cooler (on average) albedo-modified state. That’s the “lesser of two evils” argument, and the associated justification for research is called “arming the future.” It is not hard to imagine a future world where albedo modification becomes a matter of survival (at least until something happens to force an abrupt termination). Unrestrained CO2 emissions could render large parts of the Earth uninhabitable for large mammals (including us) outdoors, and it is not hard to imagine a panicked rush to embrace albedo modification in such a situation. The problem with the arming the future argument, as pointed out by philosopher Stephen Gardiner, is that the lesser of two evils is still an evil, and the greatest moral culpability of all falls on those who, as in the case of the tragic Sophie’s choice, put somebody in the position where they have no alternative but to make an evil choice. That is precisely what we would be doing to future generations if we continue to shirk our responsibility for restraining CO2 emissions.
The moral culpability issue is compounded by the fact that even a limited deployment of albedo modification, by removing some of the more palpable symptoms of climate disruption, would almost certainly remove some of the incentives for doing the hard things needed to decarbonize the economy. To the extent that research brings such deployments closer to reality, even that research can incur risks that move us farther along the spectrum of moral culpability.
Now, about those research recommendations: If albedo modification is such a terrible idea, why do research on it at all? Indeed in his book, Mike Hulme considers the technology ungovernable and argues that if a technology is basically ungovernable at the level of deployment, we shouldn’t be doing research that could bring it into being. The new NRC report’s specific research recommendations are actually quite cautious, focusing primarily on things that contribute to a better understanding of climate in general, in addition to being necessary prerequisites for a better-informed judgment of the risks of albedo modification. That includes research priorities such as a better understanding of clouds, better understanding of tropical precipitation changes, and better monitoring of the Earth’s energy budget (including those things needed to understand the response of climate to volcanic eruptions).
Going beyond fairly uncontroversial research of this type engages value judgments well outside of what a group of 16 scientists such as ours is equipped to decide, and goes well beyond the boundaries of scientific judgment itself. The report recommends, of necessity rather diffusely, the initiation of a “serious deliberative process” which would ultimately determine the nature of the research program and how it would be governed. I intend to be quite vocal in this process, if it ever gets underway. Some others on the committee no doubt have different ideas about what the outcome of the process should be. For example, a recent Nature opinion piece unconnected with the NRC report itself but co-authored by Granger Morgan (another of the NRC panel members) argues that research should initially proceed without any governance, at the discretion of the scientists involved. I guess Granger and I will have to duke that out as part of the “serious deliberative process” recommended by the NRC.
The real consequences of NRC recommendations for research would only be settled as part of the serious deliberative process the report recommends, and that is where the hard work and hard decisions will take place. It’s not at all clear how this is going to happen. In the United States, can we actually have a reality-based, serious deliberative process about anything anymore? Can a serious deliberative process about climate change materially involve a Congress that cannot even muster a Senate majority to agree that humans can and are changing the climate? With the present state of leadership (and not just in the United States), developing albedo-modification technology would be like giving a loaded gun to a child. (OK, in the U.S. some people actually do that; it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.)
So yes, albedo hacking is still barking mad, but people are often driven to do barking mad things out of desperation, and we are heading to the breaking point now with our continued fossil fuel binge. But if it comes to albedo hacking, the result won’t be pretty. It won’t be some benign “Plan B,” but more like the constant fear of thermonuclear holocaust I grew up with during the Cold War. It will be the end of blue skies and crystal-clear starry nights, and the beginning of nightly blood-red sunsets. These are not the most serious consequences of albedo hacking, but they will serve as nightly visible proof of our moral failure. And there will be no exit, not for thousands of years (unless we figure out a way to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere). If the serious deliberative process counseled by the NRC report makes people stop and think about just how terrifying that world would be, perhaps the thought of a world with less reliance on fossil fuels would start to seem a lot less scary.
The US National Academy of Sciences has released two reports on geoengineering that recommend investments in solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Geoengineering has become known as the US government’s “Plan B” response to climate change. Geoengineering proponents have recently pushed for government funding of geoengineering research in Nature and the Washington Post.
At first glance, this seems prudent: of course we should have more information about all of the options. Most geoengineering backers insist that these are only extreme measures of last resort. SRM (now rebranded as “albedo management” by the NAS report) which proposes blowing sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to block sunlight and lower global temperatures or CCS, which proposes to stuff billions of tonnes of CO2 into defunct mines and oil wells, are Plan B: only to be considered if governments can’t agree on emission targets in Paris later this year. Is geoengineering deplorable or deployable? We won’t know, backers argue, unless we do the research.
Saying we need more information sounds reasonable, but geoengineering research that involves experimentation and builds actual hardware is a clear and present danger to the climate for two reasons. If the US or other powerful governments accept geoengineering as a plausible “Plan B,” Plan A will evaporate faster than Congressional bipartisanship. The fossil fuel industry is desperate to protect between $20 and $28 trillion in booked assets that can only be extracted if the corporations are allowed to overshoot GHG-emissions. The theoretical assumption that carbon capture and storage will eventually let them recapture CO2 from the atmosphere and bury it in the earth or ocean provides the fossil fuel industry with the best way to avoid popping the “carbon bubble” other than outright climate denial. Spraying sulfates in the stratosphere can – theoretically – lower temperatures until carbon capture and storage techniques are viable. In other words, geoengineering research is becoming the only tool the fossil fuel industry has left to undermine the political and corporate will to lower actual emissions now.
Geoengineering could justify continued emissions, but it may also do direct damage to the climate. The two NAS reports are quiet about budgets and don’t define the scale of field studies. Most scientists concur that geoengineering is extremely risky, but also say that only very large field trials will yield useful data. Experimentation, in other words, equals hardware development and effective deployment. We already have examples: between 1993 and 2009, 11 governments conducted a dozen geoengineering experiments in international waters to see if spreading iron particles on the surface of the ocean could lead to the sequestering of carbon dioxide on the ocean floor. The first experiments dumped iron into 50-60 km² of ocean. When that didn’t work, they increased the surface area six-fold until the final 2009 dump was 300 km². It still failed. The geoengineers wanted bigger experiments, but three different UN conferences intervened and have effectively banned ocean fertilization. Sagely, the NAS report now concludes that ocean fertilization “is an immature technology whose high costs and technical and environmental risks currently outweigh the benefits.”
NAS also talks about the need for governance but only in the context of the United States. Stratospheric aerosol spraying can be undertaken by one country or a “Coalition of the Willing,” even though the impact will be global. For this reason, the United Nations must be in charge.
What about Plan A?
There is much that scientists don’t know about planetary systems. The acknowledged gaps in Plan A research have widened from a crevice to a chasm to a canyon. It would be extraordinarily foolhardy for policymakers to advance Plan B before Plan A’s research issues are addressed.
It is difficult, for example, to establish Plan A emission targets (or, for that matter, Plan B’s levels of stratospheric aerosol spraying) when governments don’t disclose their current emissions. China underreported its annual GHG emissions by about 20%, while the USA’s recent emission reductions aren’t quite what they’re fracked up to be. America cut back its emissions to 1992 levels because fracking lowered the demand for coal – but the coal was still burned overseas. The UK’s 14% reductions (between 1990 and 2008) in greenhouse gas emissions were erased by its 20% increase in emissions from outsourced manufacturing. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russian emissions dropped 10 – 14% but only because farmland was temporarily abandoned.
How can we pursue “climate interventions” and call them scientific if governments don’t get the data right?
Governments have also had difficulties keeping track of their biomass, with implications for Plan B’s carbon capture and storage strategies. According to a UNEP report, up to 30% of all timber exports are mafia-controlled and 90% of tropical deforestation is due to illegal trade – making biomass calculations problematic. Meanwhile, India overestimated its forest cover by about 10%.
Australia, Canada, Japan and New Zealand have all flip-flopped on their emission commitments while the UK has cut back its renewable energy support. The EU’s carbon credit scheme is a laughingstock. This makes Plan A’s emission goals – or the levels of Plan B’s stratospheric aerosol interventions – subject to unexpected and dangerous changes.
Plan A and Plan B both need cutting-edge monitoring of planetary systems. However, by 2020, the number of civilian US climate monitoring satellites could drop from 23 to 6 and the number of monitoring instruments from 90 to 20. Monitoring is weakest over the Indian subcontinent and apparently deteriorating throughout the tropics. In 2014, for example, scientists discovered that an important swath of the Brazilian Amazon has been completely missed by satellites. The Economist called this “willful blindness.”
Recently, science has uncovered a vast deep-ocean “river”, a bacterial prairie the size of Greece beneath the Humboldt current, and reconsidered the impact of sulphates on cloud formation in polar regions that could significantly alter Plan B proposals for carbon sequestration or solar radiation management.
Money is indeed needed for climate change research. Governments should pony up and scientists should get to work. But the NAS needs to flatly condemn the deployment or hardware testing of dangerous technologies that have consequences for the whole planet.”
NAS support for geoengineering research creates a political space that could lead multinational oil companies and their governments off the hook. Precisely at the moment when climate denial is losing steam, it’s crucial to prevent it from being replaced with unicorn-like fantasies of magical technologies that allow the status quo to continue.
Pat Mooney is the Executive Director of ETC Group.
Geoengineering research has so far been confined to modelling and laboratory studies. Serious research outside of these limits has been a taboo because of the serious risks this may pose for ecosystems and society. However, two recent publications are breaking the ice and bringing the discussion of field experiments into the limelight of the scientific community.
Climate science is giving a clear signal that action has to be taken to halt global warming. Rising greenhouse gas emissions are driving us towards a climate with negative consequences for society in most parts of the world, for instance through an increase in weather extremes. The fact that we still do not have any binding agreements on reducing greenhouse gases is pushing part of the scientific community towards researching technological fixes for the climate problem – geoengineering.
Geoengineering aims at treating the “symptoms” of climate change – most notably the temperature increase – by altering the Earth’s radiation balance. The proposed methods vary greatly in terms of their technological characteristics and possible consequences. In this blog post, we focus on the best-known solar geoengineering method: the “artificial volcano” or stratospheric aerosols method. Scientists propose injecting small, reflective sulphate particles (aerosols) into the stratosphere at 15–20 km altitude. The small particles reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface and thus cool the lower atmosphere. This effect has been observed after large volcanic eruptions (thus the name “artificial volcano”), most recently after the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption, when the global average temperature decreased by almost 0.5°C in the year following the eruption. Unlike volcanoes, geoengineers would continuously inject the aerosols until greenhouse gas levels dropped below a level determined to be safe. So far, all solar geoengineering studies have been confined to computer models .
A group of atmospheric scientists have recently proposed nine field experiments to test solar geoengineering methods . They divided ideas into those that aim at understanding the effectiveness and risks of geoengineering and those aimed at developing technologies needed for the deployment of geoengineering. Furthermore, the scientists made a clear distinction between experiments seeking to understand small-scale atmospheric processes like chemical reactions on the surface of artificially injected particles and those targeting large-scale climate responses, e.g. a decrease in global average temperature. The impact of large-scale experiments cannot be simply extrapolated from small-scale ones. However, large-scale experiments would only be performed in cases where numerous prior small-scale tests proved successful with only negligible environmental risks – which might be too late to avoid some of the negative consequences of global warming.
Of the proposed experiments, a small field test called the stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment (SCoPEx) is at the most advanced planning stage . A Harvard research group designed the experiment to better quantify a side-effect of stratospheric sulphur injections: ozone depletion. A decrease in stratospheric ozone levels can increase the risk of skin cancer, which could be even more disruptive for society than the greenhouse gas-driven warming of the planet. A sudden decrease in ozone concentrations during SCoPEx would probably kill the idea of stratospheric sulphur geoengineering. As illustrated in the figure, the experiment is comprised of a balloon with a module carrying an aerosol generator, observational instruments, and an engine. The module both injects and monitors the aerosol plume. The experiment is expected to emit less sulphur and water than an intercontinental flight between Europe and the US. The researchers estimate the total costs of the field experiment to be around USD 10 million.
Why is field testing so controversial?
SCoPEx and other currently proposed small-scale experiments most likely do not pose significant risks for environment and society. Unlike full geoengineering deployment with large-scale, decades-long injections, these experiments would not modify the planet’s energy balance. However, there remain other issues related to the proposed outdoor geoengineering research:
The first field experiments could add momentum towards a rapid deployment and commercialisation of geoengineering research. Can we imagine a large multinational company taking over geoengineering research and the possible economic interests this would create?
Increased geoengineering research could discourage mitigation efforts. Why would we mitigate carbon emissions if we have a Plan B which can partially counteract global warming?
Who/which body would be authorised to monitor outdoor tests? Who can define the limit between a small-scale experiment and full deployment? And finally, who would control the global thermostat if full deployment took place?
Why bother with geoengineering at all?
Curiosity-driven geoengineering research provides the information society and policymakers need to choose the best strategy in dealing with climate change . Geoengineering modelling studies contribute to a better understanding of the stratosphere and more accurate representation of aerosol processes and their interactions with climate, e.g. the impact of volcanoes on global temperature, precipitation, crop yields, etc. This results in more robust modelling projections of the future climate.
We think geoengineering tests should be constrained to either computer models or laboratories until we develop a good understanding of all associated natural processes and risks. Small-scale process-based experiments could prove to be useful – however, we suggest taking a step back and focusing on open questions regarding natural atmospheric processes like stratospheric aerosol microphysics.
This blog was co-written by PhD student Blaž Gasparini and Prof. Ulrike Lohmann, and was originally posted to ETH Zürich
 Keith et al., 2014: Field experiments on solar geoengineering: report of a workshop exploring a representative research portfolio, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., doi: 10.1098/rsta.2014.0175
 Dykema et al., 2014: Stratospheric controlled perturbation experiment: a small-scale experiment to improve understanding of the risks of solar geoengineering, Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc., doi:10.1098/rsta.2014.0059
 see also Robock, A. 2012: Is geoengineering research ethical? (Pdf)
Some people might argue that the greatest moral challenge of our time is serious enough to justify deliberately tampering with our climate to stave off the damaging effects of global warming.
Geoengineering, or “climate hacking”, to use its more emotive nickname, is a direct intervention in the natural environments of our planet, including our atmosphere, seas and oceans.
It has been suggested that geoengineering might buy us time to prevent warming above 2C, and that we should look at it seriously in case everything goes pear-shaped with our climate.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that we already have an affordable solution with a relatively well-understood outcome: reducing our carbon emissions.
The second is that geoengineering itself is fraught with danger and that, worryingly, the most dangerous version, called solar radiation management, is also the most popular with those exploring this field.
Down in flames
In essence, solar radiation management is about mimicking volcanoes. Climate scientists have known for years that major volcanic eruptions can eject so much ash into the high atmosphere that they effectively dim the sun.
Science has also taught us that depositing the ash, or something similar, into the high atmosphere is not very difficult. Some studies show that by using balloons, it could cost as little as a few billion dollars per year.
It certainly sounds like a much cheaper and easier approach than trying to negotiate a worldwide treaty to cut carbon emissions from nations across the globe.
Unlike global emissions cuts, geoengineering has the potential to be financed and implemented by a single wealthy individual, and can arguably be accomplished with a lot less effort.
If it is so easy, why aren’t we already pumping ash into the sky to dim the Sun? Perhaps predictably, it’s because this climate solution is likely to create new problems of its own.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has completely rejected solar radiation management – not because it is too hard, but because there is no guarantee that the consequences will be benign.
There are three major problems that make this form of geoengineering so dangerous that, hopefully, it will never be used.
First, it does not address the root cause of climate change. It only addresses one of the symptoms: global warming, while failing to deal with related issues such as ocean acidification. This is because our carbon dioxide emissions will continue to build up in the atmosphere and dissolve in the oceans, making seawater more acidic and making it harder for species like corals and oysters to form their skeletons.
The second problem is also related to the continued build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide. If, at some point in the future, we stop pumping ash into the skies, the ash will rapidly wash out from the atmosphere in a few years. Yet with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels even higher than before, Earth will experience rapid “catch-up” warming. According to the IPCC, this could be as much as 2C per decade – roughly 10 times the current rate. This would be very troubling, given that many species, including in places such as Sydney, are already struggling to adapt to the current pace of change.
Third, pumping dust into our skies will almost certainly change the weather. In particular, it is likely to alter the amount of rainfall from country to country. Some will become drier, others wetter, with a range of grave impacts on many types of agriculture. It is not yet clear how individual countries will be affected, but we know that unpredictable water and food supplies can provoke regional conflict and even war.
Safeguarding the future
The precautionary principle has been embedded into national environmental laws and some international agreements (such asArticle 3 (3) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change). While this principle impels countries to act to stave off climate harm, it would also arguably require geoengineering proposals to be scrutinised with care.
It is difficult to design cautious policies, or even draw up regulations, on issues like geoengineering, where the outcome can at best only be partly predictable. Policies and regulations should be designed to have an intended and purposeful effect, which geo-engineering at the moment cannot deliver.
Some researchers have gone as far as to brand geoengineering immoral, while the concept has also been described as an Earth experiment, in addition to the experiment already being done with greenhouse emissions.
The only thing we know for certain is that we need a lot more certainty before deciding to hack our climate.
Fighting global warming by reflecting sunlight back into space risks “terrifying” consequences including droughts and conflicts, according to three major new analyses of the promise and perils of geoengineering. But research into deliberately interfering with the climate system must continue in search of technology to use as a last resort in combating climate change, scientists have concluded.
Billions of people would suffer worse floods and droughts if technology was used to block warming sunlight, the research found. Technology that sucks carbon dioxide from the air was less risky, the analysis concluded, but will take many more decades to develop and take effect.
The carbon emissions that cause climate change are continuing to rise and, without sharp cuts, the world is set for “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts”. This has led some to propose geoengineering but others have warned that unforeseen impacts of global-scale action to try to counteract warming could make the situation worse.
Matthew Watson, at the University of Bristol, who led one of the studies in the £5m research programme, said: “We are sleepwalking to a disaster with climate change. Cutting emissions is undoubtedly the thing we should be focusing on but it seems to be failing. Although geoengineering is terrifying to many people, and I include myself in this, [its feasibility and safety] are questions that have to be answered.”
But he said global security would be threatened unless an international treaty was agreed to oversee any sun-blocking projects. “For example, if India had put sulphate particles into the stratosphere, even as a test, two years before the recent floods in Pakistan, no one would ever persuade Pakistan that that had not caused the floods.”
The researchers examined two types of geoengineering, solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). Prof Piers Forster, at the University of Leeds, led a project using in-computer models to assess six types of SRM. All reduced temperatures but all also worsened floods or droughts for 25%-65% of the global population, compared to the expected impact of climate change:
mimicking a volcano by spraying sulphate particles high into the atmosphere to block sunlight adversely affected 2.8bn people
spraying salt water above the oceans to whiten low clouds and reflect sunlight adversely affected 3bn people
thinning high cirrus clouds to allow more heat to escape Earth adversely affected 2.4bn people
generating microbubbles on the ocean surface to whiten it and reflect more sunlight adversely affected 2bn people
covering all deserts in shiny material adversely affected 4.1bn people
growing shinier crops adversely affected 1.4bn people
The adverse effect on rainfall results from changed differences in temperature between the oceans and land, which disrupts atmospheric circulation, particularly the monsoons over the very populous nations in SE Asia. Nonetheless, Forster said: “Because the [climate change] situation is so urgent, we do have to investigate the possibilities of geoengineering.”
Rayner said SRM could probably be done within two decades, but was difficult to govern and the side effects would be damaging. He noted that SRM does not remove carbon from the air, so only masks climate change. “People decry doing SRM as a band aid, but band aids are useful when you are healing,” he said.
In contrast, CDR tackles the root of the climate change problem by taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, would be much easier to govern and would have relatively few side effects. But Rayner said it will take multiple decades to develop CDR technologies and decades more for the CO2 reductions to produce a cooling effect. “You are going to have to build an industry to reverse engineer 200 years of fossil fuel industry, and on the same huge scale,” he said.
The recent landmark report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), signed off by 194 governments, placed strong emphasis on a potential technology called bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) as a way to pull CO2 from the atmosphere. It would involve burning plants and trees, which grow by taking CO2 from the air, in power plants and then capturing the CO2 exhaust and burying it underground.
“But if you are going to do BECCS, you are going to have to grow an awful lot of trees and the impact on land use may have very significant effects on food security,” said Rayner. He added that the potential costs of both SRM or CDR were very high and, if the costs of damaging side effects were included, looked much more expensive than cutting carbon emissions at source.
Both Watson and Rayner said the international goal of keeping warming below the “dangerous” level of 2C would only be possible with some form of geoengineering and that research into such technology should continue.
“If we found any [geoengineering] technology was safe, affordable and effective that could be part of a toolkit we could use to combat climate change,” said Rayner.
“If we ever deploy SRM in anger it will be the clearest indication yet that we have failed as planetary guardians,” said Watson. “It [would be] a watershed, fundamentally changing the way 7bn people interact with the world.”
What’s missing from David Keith’s climate change charm offensive
by Jim Thomas
This article was originally published by the Media Co-op.
Last Sunday, CBC listeners across Canada enjoyed their morning coffee and took care of a few chores around the house while the calm, mellifluous vocal cadences of Michael Enright and his guest David Keith washed over them. Keith, Enright said while introducing his guest, is a prominent and well-respected scientist, and the author of “The Case for Climate Engineering.”
Although both David Suzuki and Al Gore had branded Keith’s proposals “insane, utterly mad and delusional in the extreme” Enright took pains to reassure listeners that his guest — a Harvard professor — was perfectly sane. Enright was kinder to Keith than Stephen Colbert had been a few months previous, and so unfortunately avoided a number of tough questions.
Climate Geoengineering is the process of attempting to counteract climate change by large-scale methods other than reducing carbon emissions. These include spraying tonnes of sulphuric acid into the atmosphere (Keith’s preferred option), mounting giant space mirrors to reflect sunlight and slow its warming effects, dumping tonnes of iron filings into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth, and sucking carbon out of the atmosphere with giant fans.
These measures have been opposed both because of their unpredictable effects and the fact that they give an excuse to rich countries to continue to increase carbon emissions on the basis of trumped-up techno-promises. In the same breath, Keith acknowledges and dismisses these criticisms.
Environmentalists who oppose geoengineering, Keith told Enright, are “more committed to their answer to the problem than really thinking in what I feel is a morally clear way about what our duties are to this generation and reducing the risks that they feel.”
Keith made the case for geoengineering, but he also made the case that those who oppose geoengineering are doing so because they have priorities other than slowing down the effects climate change. He aligned geoengineering with concerns about “how we want to leave the planet for our great-grandkids.” He took the time to talk about kayaking trips, and how he was motivated by a love of the natural world.
Keith didn’t take the time to mention a few other details. For those who are skeptical about Keith’s case for geoengineering, here are five things that Keith didn’t mention, and Enright kindly didn’t bring up.
1. David Keith runs a geoengineering company funded by tar sands money
In addition to being an author and a professor, David Keith heads up Carbon Engineering, a Calgary-based startup that is developing air-capture technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The company is funded by Bill Gates, who is also a geoengineering proponent, and by N. Murray Edwards, an Alberta billionaire who made his fortune in oil and gas. Edwards is said to be the largest individual investor in the tar sands, and is on the board of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, a major tar sands extraction company. Carbon Engineering hopes to sell the carbon dioxide it extracts to oil companies to help in Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR)- a technique for squeezing more fossil fuels out of the ground which will in turn be burnt to produce more atmospheric carbon.
2. The geoengineering that Keith proposes could be disastrous for the Global South
A study of the likely effects of one of the methods Keith is promoting, spraying sulphuric acid into the atmosphere with the aim of reflecting sunlight could cause “calamitous drought” in the Sahel region of Africa. Home to 100 million people, the Sahel is Africa’s poorest region. Previous droughts have been devastating. A 20-year dry period ending in 1990 claimed 250,000 lives. Other models predict possible monsoon failure in South Asia or impacts on Mexico and Brazil, depending where you spray the sulphur.
3. Keith’s geoengineering proposals are deeply aligned with the financial interests of the fossil fuel industry
If oil, natural gas and coal companies can’t extract the fossil fuels that they say they’re going to extract, they stand to lose trillions of dollars in stock value, $2 trillion in annual subsidies, and about $55 trillion in infrastructure. David Keith’s enthusiasm for geoengineering plays to the commercial interests of these companies whose share value depends on their ability to convince investors that they can continue to take the coal out of the hole and the oil out of the soil. This may be why fossil-sponsored neoconservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heartland Institute have been so gung-ho for geoengineering research and development along exactly the lines that David Keith proposes. For example there is very little difference between what Keith proposes and what the American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering project calls for.
4. Climate scientists just issued a new round of criticisms of geoengineering
In the most recent report of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released before Keith’s interview aired, climate scientists loosed a new salvo of problems with various geoengineering schemes. “Geoengineering,” according to the report, “poses widespread risks to society and ecosystems.” In some models, Solar Radiation Management (SRM) — what Keith is pitching — “leads to ozone depletion and reduces precipitation.” And if SRM measures are started and then stopped for whatever reason, it creates a risk of ”rapid climate change.”
5. There’s already a widely-backed moratorium on geoengineering
While David Keith discussed possible ways of governing geoengineering internationally he failed to mention that at least one UN convention was already dealing with the topic. The broadest decision yet on geoengineering, a 193-country consensus reached at the UN Convention on Biodiversity specifies that unless certain criteria are met, “no climate-related geo-engineering activities that may affect biodiversity take place.” The moratorium is to remain in effect until geoengineering’s impacts on biodiversity and livelihood are analyzed, scientific evaluation is possible, and “science based, global, transparent and effective control and regulatory mechanisms” exist.
In the interview, Keith said outright that he wants to bypass such a system. He considers the input of Africa and South America, and much of Europe and Asia as unnecessary in order to move forward with a geoengineering scheme. It would be enough, he told Enright, to gain the agreement of a small but powerful “countries with democratic institutions,” citing China as an example, along with the US and the European Union. David Keith has been recognized for his achievements in applied physics, but when it comes to political science, it may be time for him to hit the books.
Jim Thomas is a Research Programme Manager and Writer at ETC Group.