The State of Geoengineering Research

As noted earlier, Congress tomorrow is holding its first-ever hearings on geoengineering as a potential means to fight global warming. Here’s a very good primer, via ClimateWire in the Times, on where geoengineering currently stands in light of the climatic uncertainties looking forward and the political, economic, and environmental challenges and risks. If you prefer your climate news with a hysterical tone, this isn’t the piece for you; otherwise, it’s very informative. If you’re looking to get caught up on how the SuperFreakonomics discussion of geoengineering is playing out, you can check in here and here. (HT: Daniel Lippman.)

Ben D

Geoengineering is treating the symptom, not the disease. Should we treat the symptom? Yes. But don't forget about the disease.


but if its cheap and easy to treat the symptoms, then do you really need to create incredibly disruptive and costly regulations to treat the disease?

I do not know whether or not geoengineering will work, but its definitely an idea worth exploring.


As you point out in SuperFreakonomics, we've been geo-engineering for as long as we've been able to cut a tree. I'd also point out that the great example of technological salvation you mention, the automobile saving New York from being buried in horse manure (sounds political but it isn't), was accidental synchronicity. The actual efforts undertaken at the time to control horse manure failed. Currently I'm a reduce-carbon proponent because none of the geo-engineering fixes have been shown to work. Show results and this skeptic will change his opinion.


My favorite geoengineering scheme (iron salts in the Indian ocean) would treat the disease, but it's important not to use the **possibility** of geoengineering in the future as an excuse to avoid action now.

Wondering in CO

This is my third effort to address Superfreakonomics' (SF) treatment of geoengineering. Maybe this one will make it through the filter.

One problem with SFs analysis is that it only addresses the costs of procuring and deploying a geoengineering solution. It does not address the costs that result from the continued emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases (GHGs). Nor does it address the unintended, but likely, consequences of the geoengineering 'solution.' In the case of the enhancement of stratospheric aerosol, the unintended consequences are likely to involve perturbation to precipitation patterns in ways that add additional stress to the global agricultural system. When the period of geoengineering ends, climate will warm quite rapidly to near the temperature it would have attained in the absence of geoengineering. The continued emission of GHGs during the period of geoengineering implies that the warming will be abrupt and to record global mean temperatures. Dr. Robock addresses these issues in his papers and testimony. Yet, SF decided that they did not merit mention in their Chapter 5. This is Cheeseball advocacy - not informative journalism (with a dash of snark).

And the application of snark in Chapter 5 of SF leaves little doubt where the the SFers are headed. They have their expert explain the water vapor feedback in climate as if it were unknown to the climate community. The reader is supposed to gasp "Oh, dear this must be yet another thing that those climate alarmists have ignored - can't they get anything right? Why should I trust THEM?" In fact, water vapor feedback is in Climate Science101 for Non-Scientists, a course that I teach and that would have benefited SFs authors.

As SFers congratulate themselves on the success of their book, I shudder at the tsunami of misinformation that they have triggered. Millions (?) of readers learning the wrong thing (with a dose of snark). SF has advised us to jump off the building on the premise that the fall can be fun and harmless. After all, people pay to jump out of airplanes. It is the stop at the bottom that kills you and this is true of geoengineering as well. When you put in the pertubation involved in the end-game of geoengineering, it gets real expensive. Odd that the economists overlook this and fail to provide a parachute.

Chuck Wilson
Golden, Colorado


Mekhong Kurt

The comments here are informative and useful.

It's true we've been geoengineering, in the strictest sense, since humans first began to physically manipulate their environment. However, with a much smaller early population, increasingly separated from one another, the larger effects were, I would imagine, negligible.

The caution about the Law of Unintended Consequences isn't about, say, one slash-and-burn farmer. It may be about half a million such farmers, at least regionally.

And now we have the ability to geoengineer on regional, continental, even global scales. What happens if we inject stuff into the atmosphere and/or oceans? At this point, does our knowledge reach the level of our being able to know *all* possible consequences? Though I'm neither a scientist nor engineer (other than of the armchair variety), I would say we're not at that level of knowledge, not yet. There may be variables that we don't even know about, and if they interact, the possible unintended consequences multiply in number.

To put this in another context, I happen to be a strong proponent of our eventually colonizing Mars and at least putting a base on the Moon. But this same consideration -- unintended consequences -- draws me up when I think about attempting to terraform Mars on a planetary scale. Presumably, a single base or even a handful on the Moon would be far less problematic in this regard. And if we can can screw up Mars, we can screw up Earth.

Though I strongly believe that climate change is real and that we are a major factor in it, I also realize that we don't fully understand the *exact* magnitude of our role nor, likely, all the elements in it.

So, my hope is scientists and engineers will move full steam ahead, pushing the envelope as hard as they can -- but exercising caution when thinking about instituting any geoengineering project, at least a large one.

One last thing before anyone brings it up. Of late, when I've made comments such as this, I've had a surprising number of people fire back, "Well, what are we going to do if a huge meteor or comet heads our way???" Well, that's easy: not a darned thing other than kiss our sweet, up, posteriors goodbye. If a meteor 50 miles wide hits us, we're plain out of luck.


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