Testing Geoengineering Before It's Needed

The SuperFreakonomics chapter on geoengineering solutions to global warming has generated plenty of heat, but scientific and political interest in the concept is on the rise. An article in Slate by Eli Kintisch discusses the current debate among scientists over how to test geoengineering: “So one group of scientists argues that by gradually increasing the size of our experiments, we can get as much data as possible with minimal risk. Another says that only a dangerous, full-scale deployment can shed light on the crucial issue of how effective a particular dose will be.” Kintisch wonders if all the debate, and the accompanying political complications, will rule out testing altogether, instead resulting in an emergency “full deployment, with little more than computer-based risk estimates to guide us.” Or, alternately, some freelance geoengineering by a single government. (HT: Daniel Lippman)[%comments]


Interesting how testing, or at the least, deployment of the solution that we may need because there is too much skepticism regarding the results of complex computer models, is dependent on complex computer models.

Something to bring up to combat the over-eagerness to embrace geoengineering as a silver bullet, saving us from difficult economic choices.


Even though I am scared of geoengineering's unintended consequences, I also feel it important to point out that we already are geoengineering the planet, though in a thoughtless and unplanned way.

Known man made influences on the environment (putting asside greenhouse gasses) will continue to grow as the population continues to grow and demand a more consumer driven lifestyle.

Urban heat effects, paved highways and suburban sprawl/expansion changing drainage and animal migration patterns are all geoengineering.


I hope Nathan Myhrvold has his hard hat on - at the rate we're going no scientist will be able to touch climate science without first being dragged through the streets by rabid lynch mobs; having decades personal correspondence dissected by legions of retirees; and every 't' they haven't crossed splashed across the Daily Mail frontpage as evidence of global conspiracy to commit genocide.
I'm investing in a bomb-shelter with a large pentagram on the door.


The problem with all these big ideas is that hubris is never adequately factored in. The effect was known by the Greek tragedy playwrites millennia ago, yet we still ignore it. Again, what's the definition of stupidity?


Did Myrhvold ever reply to objections from climate scientists (e.g. Gavin Schmidt) that he underestimates the amount of SO2 required by a factor of 200 or so? I don't know if cost scales linearly with the amount of SO2 pumped but if so it may not look so radically cheap.

Eric M. Jones

The main eruptions of Pinatubo occurred in only about 24 hours. During this time it ejected gas, aerosols, and lavas at a rate of about one million tonnes per second.

Gives one pause....

Robert L.

All the green house gas reduction plans are also proposed for "full deployment, with little more than computer-based risk estimates to guide us." The Kyoto/Copenhagen approach involves remaking the entire global economy before any change/improvement could be seen.

I find it interesting that, whenever we are talking about mean green left solutions to global warming, the climate is supposedly so completely understood and modeled that the global warming science is "done," exact atmospheric carbon targets can be set (350) and we need to bet the global economy on computer models but suddenly when an alternative solution is proposed there is great uncertainty and computer models can't be trusted and the law of unintended consequences suddenly rears its ugly head.

The best test for telling whether someone is serious about climate change as a problem to be solved or whether they are simply using the idea of climate change as a means to enforce their political ideas about society is whether non "green-approved" solutions, like nuclear power and geo-engineering, are seriously considered or simply attacked and dismissed out of hand.



"The main eruptions of Pinatubo occurred in only about 24 hours. During this time it ejected gas, aerosols, and lavas at a rate of about one million tonnes per second."

That's about 86 trillion tons. However, as you mentions that it includes the lavas it's not really a very useful number in thinking about what may have been discharged into the upper atmosphere.

Derek Ryder

I have read the controversies surrounding the geoengineering concept with mild interest, but no one seems to have raised what I would have thought to be the worst unintended consequence: sulphur dioxide plus light plus water equals sulphuric acid, which falls to the ground as acid rain. In the mid 1970's that was the global climate crisis of the decade, and lakes in Canada were being sterilized by acid rain. Whole areas of northern Ontario were poisoned by nickel smelter SO2 emmisions.

My limited reading of the aftermath of Pinatubo included comments regarding a global increace in rainwater acidity, though I don't know by how much nor how bad it was.

I do know that sulphur dioxide is considered an air pollutant, and if a bunch of it gets trapped down low, the health risks increase rather dramatically. That, and the air turns yellow. So reducing SO2 emmisions has been a focus for the last 30+ years.

Tough to argue out one side of your mouth to decrease the release of sulphur dioxide to stop air pollution when you're attempting to increase its release to combat global warming.


s scarrow

IS the reviewer right? (From a potential customer)

This is the sequel to the fabulously silly Freakonomics in which our dynamic duo sought to introduce a kind of blue skies approach to economics to a low brow readership. Of course, there are casualties in such an approach and the book ended up feeling like a collection of first drafts for an obscure column in one of the Wall Street Journal's Saturday supplements. Super F is more of the same, and even less convincing than its forerunner. It's mostly to do with the fact that there is no sense of any genuine and workable organising principle around which the book is written (other than cashing in once again on their dubious fame. Think Starship Troopers and Starship Troopers 2 and you'll know what I mean).

Super F reads like a collection of scraps, but that is not the worst of it. Economists, and particularly economists working alongside hacks, should never be allowed to try to be funny. Ever. The attempts at humour fall flat enough, but it is the constant harping on a `humorous' theme (such as the don't walk drunk quip) that begins to grate almost at once. Worse still, is the bogus thinking that underlies their very first example of F'nomics `thinking'. The authors put the case for drink driving being safer than walking drunk on a per mile basis. The logical flaw in the argument, i.e. that the safety comparison only works if the drunk driver and drunk pedestrian travel the same route is apparent to even the most casual reader. At once F'nomics is shown up for what it is: assumptions based on statistics abstracted from pragmatics and real contexts and causality.

This glib superficiality and ignorance becomes even more apparent the further from home these two homeboys look. The expansion of satellite TV viewing in India is put down to a `steep fall in the price of equipment and distribution' with no reference to the illegal activities of the cable wallahs who have festooned the country with rooftop feed cables. And the idea that the rural women of India have been `empowered' by satellite TV simply flies in the face of reality. It's equally possibile that TV simply supplanted prior activities without changing power relations between the genders.

Or take the explanation a few pages later as to why old New York buildings rise from street level to the second story parlor. Dubner and Dumber would have us believe that this was a `design necessity, allowing a homeowner to rise above the sea of horse manure.' Leaving aside the fact that these properties were usually tenanted, they were designed that way to establish a social hierarchy between buildings and within buildings, rather than to keep people above a `sea of horse manure'.

Then on page 14, the authors transmute their specious earlier argument about walking drunk into `knowing'. Typical of the cheap slight of hand that pervades the book. Likewise the argument that follows about shark attacks. Apparently in 2001 there were just 68 shark attacks. Which kind of begs the question about how we get this figure. Might the claim have been better if the authors were honest enough to admit that this was actually 68 RECORDED attacks? In the next paragraph, the authors claim that elephants kill 200 people a year but we aren't as scared of them as we are of sharks. This is because `most of their victims live in places far from the world's media centers.' What? And shark victims don't? It is indicative of the authors' own lack of confidence in their material that they end the introductory section with the telling comment: `you may find a few things in the following pages to quarrel with. In fact, we'd be disappointed if you didn't.'

The book is pretty much downhill from there and the authors come across like a couple of nerdy freshmen who are keen on the subject, but undisciplined enough to question their initial assumptions and who cannot resist that childish male urge to make really poor puns, so that their arguments about pimps and their `pimpact' are undermined, and in the end have little impact (or more appositely, they have `dimpact', if you will).

At times this immaturity becomes quite insensitive. They define terrorism as `civic passion on steroids'. I'm sure that once relatives of terrorist victims get over the reductio ad absurdam, they'll be splitting their sides. The ensuing discussion on terrorism is almost wilfully stupid. At other times the authors are too impatient to even check their own maths. On page 87, for example, they claim that more soldiers died in peacetime that during the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When you factor in the smaller army size recently there is no increase, therefore no argument. To cap it all the authors conclude with the following:

"To further put things in perspective, think about this: since 1982, some 42,000 US military personnel have been killed - roughly the same number of Americans who die in traffic accidents in a single year."

And your point is? That last clause could be just about anything. Try this. `roughly the same number of fridge magnets that are sold in a single week.' Astounding, eh? Like the conclusion that an islamic terrorist is likely to come from a particular ethnic group. Just think, without F'nomics no-one would have ever guessed.

So far, so bad, but then we get to the bit where the authors' attitude really sticks in the throat. The subject is climate change. Those who espouse the view that there is global warming are smeared as quasi-religious fanatics. Why isn't it a credo to believe that the world's climate is not getting warmer I wonder? Or try this one. `Keith Chen... after a brief infatuation with Marxism, made an about-face and took up economics.' (p.213) Er, chaps, remind me what Karl Marx's trade was again... Oh that's right, he was a real economist, unlike you two jerks.


Rob Chansky

But back to the subject...

I have to wonder if any attempt at geoengineering would be foiled by the Russians. You know those Russians... vast untapped natural resources convenient to exploit only if an endless northern coastline is unlocked. An opportunist government that yearns for old glory and hasn't let ethics stand in its way in matters small and large. I see in Russia a hope to benefit from ice-cap shrinking... and a willingness to take matters into their own hands should a real 'solution' to global warming be found.

Surely you've seen how they have positioned themselves to take advantage of an ice-free north pole, in terms of off-shore oil. Their flag-planting (onto the ocean floor beneath the pole) was only symbolic, but look what it symbolises.

If we live to see that wonderful chain of balloons lifting sulfur into the upper atmosphere (too high up, I am told, to influence acid rain), will we also see unmarked cargo planes dumping soot onto the north pole ice?



This article is not directly related to your post, but as a person who cares about geoengineering I think you might find it very interesting: http://howisearth.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/geoengineering-climate-change/


Geoengineering or Climate Engineering is way below below the public's radar,we need to pay attention, and have more public debates.
It looks to me that the Copenhagen summit fail is set up to fail, so that this new technology could be used as Plan B.
There's no political will to reduce gas emissions.
This will lead to greater inaction on reducing emissions, or moral hazard.


The governance concerns for geoengineering are huge, and the anti-democracy potential is nothing to scoff at. It's no accident that geoengineering is referred to as a Manhattan Project. Think of the risks involved in nuclear proliferation now. Here's a more detailed discussion: