Nathan Myhrvold on Geoengineering (and Penguin Poo)

In a Fareed Zakaria interview on, Nathan Myhrvold discusses the geoengineering solutions we wrote about in SuperFreakonomics.

(And, Nathan being Nathan, there is a brief discussion of penguin poo.)

Hat tip: Daniel Lippman


What I find interesting, and scary, is that CO2 content in the atmosphere is currently less than 0.04% of the entire atmospheric content. Supposedly at the start of the industrial revolution it was 0.018%. This means by changing the atmospheric content by 0.02% man has created a catastrophy.

As an engineer, I find it difficult to control any system with a precision of 0.02%, much less a highly nonlinear and poorly understood system like the planet. So how can we expect any best intention - best effort work to not create an unintended catastrophy when the system is so obviously delicate and collapses by a 0.02% change.


Very interesting person, with very good ideas!

His was very convincing in describing the need for a back-up plan to mitigate climate change. He also has the credentials to come up with such ambitious plan. I'm not sure why the so-called greens are so critical of him. (Unlike many who've criticized your book, I've actually read the chapter on global warming :-).

One thing I wish Fareed had asked Nathan: what possible damage could come from his idea? I mean, he's not talking talking about throwing air or water, but some chemical into the atmosphere. And he should at least spend 10% of his talking time explaining why it's harmless. And if it's not harmless, why should governments buy into his idea?

Secondly, he's a venture capitalist. Typically, even the best VCs have 10% hit rate, and so this should only be considered as a "back-up" idea, not "the" idea to combat global warming.

But coming back to the so-called "greens": They need to be called out. An idea such as Nathan's can't be ruled out just because people want mankind to suffer for it's sins. It's a lot of BS. Almost as bad as denying the science.



Thank you for posting this, I missed it on CNN. What is most surprising to me is that Fox news isn't the group pushing this solution 1million times a day. I guess they would have to admit there is a problem, but c'mon simple solution and brought forth from non government entity. They should be eating this up.

Phil M

Would this cause more acid rain and acidification of the oceans?



I regularly operate within the precision you describe. When making cookies, the amount of salt and baking soda added are fractions of a percent of the total amount of batter. And yet I'm able to make batch after batch of yummy cookies.

In case you don't believe the analogy applied, in college, a roommate of mine mixed up tablespoons for teaspoons when adding the salt in a cookie recipe, and the result was a catastrophe (at least as far as cookies go). His mistake was a factor of 3 (the difference between a teaspoon and a tablespoon), similar to the factor of 2 difference in CO2 you cite.


Matt -

I agree with your analogy of adding baking soda to batter, but I suspect the margin of error that you would have to work with in adding the sulfur dioxide to the upper atmosphere might be a little greater. The cookies are a batch process, so you only get one chance to add the correct amount. With the geoengineering, you would be able to increase or decrease the flow rate as you go along. Hopefully, it would be possible to test air samples to provide feedback and adjust the addition rate. I agree that it doesn't seem like an insurmountable challenge to maintain the correct range.


It was interesting that he noted the extreme implausibility of become carbon neutral within the next 50 years, especially without costing millions of lives of people living in the developing world. Despite this, I find it intriguing that the world governments, most particularly members of NAFTA and the EU, are pushing for agreements to combat global emissions through economic control rather than the technological innovations Myhrvold suggests.
It seems to me that the many governments and world organizations are using climate change as a political tool to implement further global control. "We all have to come together as one world," says the BBC and CNN. "The time for one nation to seek supremacy over another is over," says Barack Obama. In my mind, climate change is a great (fake) excuse to "come together as a planet", much better than the (still on going) terrorism fiasco, the hypothetical Alien invasions from the 20th century, or the threat of Communism (or Capitalism) in the cold war days.

What would you rather have...a tightly controlled world economy with millions of people dying and the standard of living decreasing worldwide, or geo-engineering conducted by international scientists and independent governments working together? I'd choose the latter.




Better do the math again. I have sampled 5 cookie recipes online and have found most to be 10-12 cups and 3-4 teaspoons of "stuff." Converting this would yield you between 480 and 580 teaspoons of total volume. Assuming salt or soda are 1 teaspoon individually you would get between 2.08 and 1.72% variation... or roughly 100x greater the level of precision you claim to work within.

I think Brian makes a fantastic point your analogy is a fantastic example.



I tape the GPS and did not get to watch it until yesterday. Most interesting gentleman. For once I heard a scientific approach rather than eco-bigot ranting. Now if those that matter listened...

James Remis

Geoengineering is a really bad idea for so many reasons

1) We don't know what the unintended consequences would be when we start pumping gigatonnes of SO2 into the atmosphere. It's not a good idea to experiment with our atmosphere since we only have one of those.

2) It doesn't address the acidification of the oceans which is also caused by increased CO2. I've heard that dubner and levitt have advocated adding massive amounts of base into the ocean to address this.. however at realclimate they did some calculations and showed you'd need 20 gigatonnes of limestone per year to do this.

Dr. Manak

#1 I am not so sure you are a very good engineer, many systems are routinely controlled at much lower levels than you describe - as a concrete example doping of semiconductors can change the electrical properties of silicon by a factor of 10000 for a 0.001% of an impurity. There is no general rule that a 0.01% change in a system will or will not have an significant impact so it is best to stick to specifics... Furthermore the scale of the system and the dyanmic range of your input dictate to what level individual parameters can be controlled - as the atmosphere is a very large system it is not obvious to me that the CO2 concentration cannot be controlled at the fraction of percent level or better.


I think Matt's cookie example is a wonderful analogy. Ryan has a great response (though my math is a little different):
Tblsp_to_tsp =3;
C_to_tsp = 48;
butter = 1*C_to_tsp;
white_sugar = 0.75*C_to_tsp;
brown_sugar = 0.75*C_to_tsp;
eggs = 0.25*C_to_tsp + Tblsp_to_tsp *2.5;
vanilla = 1.5;
flour = 2.25*C_to_tsp;
baking_soda = 1;
salt = 0.5;
choc_chips = 1.5*C_to_tsp;
nuts = 1*C_to_tsp;
Cookie = butter+white_sugar+brown_sugar+eggs+vanilla+flour+baking_soda+salt+choc_chips+nuts

Cookie = 370.5000 teaspoons

100*baking_soda/Cookie = 0.2699 % by volume
100*salt/Cookie = 0.1350 %volume

I think subjective taste will be different. I also think the cooking process (moisture evaporation, chemical reaction) will cause differences. Regardless, if you didn't like the entire batch of cookies, you could throw them all out. You can't do that with the planet. You will be stuck with the unintended catastrophe.



Dr. Manak also makes a good point, and has sniffed out that I am not an electrical engineer working on the doping of semiconductors. It's not my field.

But I will guess the first attempt at semiconductor doping wasn't done with the skill we are demanding today. And it was/is done in a beneficially controlled environment, with precision equipment, and research/discovery to ascertain cause and effect.

With geoengineering it will be a different game. The attempt is the discovery.

And I wasn't just worried about the difficulty of removing CO2 or adding the proper amount of something else. What if we were to take out too much CO2? In a short period of time? We spent 100+ years putting it in. The system reacted. Then we take it out quickly? Shock? Greater oxygen consumption at night by plants? Consequences?

What happens to your semiconductor when your added impurity is accidentally doubled? Do other properties of your silicon change when you dope it to be a semicondctor? Because temperature control might be nice, but I want other properties of my planet to stay the same.

And c'mon, what we're talking about is on the order of Civil Engineering, not electronics component manufacturing. And we aren't trying to scrub a system clean of an element (such as lead in water below 15 parts per billion) but instead add an unknown amount of something and/or remove not too much of something else to acheive a balance. On the scale of Civil Engineering, that has to be difficult with such precision demands.

This will be the first attempt at geoengineering. In the mass production of electronic components, quality control will throw out those semiconductors not showing the proper results. We can't do that here.



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