If You’re Still Not Sick of Geoengineering: A Q&A With Jeff Goodell

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The SuperFreakonomics chapter on global warming generated plenty of controversy and debate about the pros and cons of geoengineering the earth. If all that attention piqued your curiosity, look no further: How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate by Jeff Goodell offers a book-length look at the current state of geoengineering, and its drawbacks and limitations.

Goodell, a journalist, has agreed to answer some of our questions about the book below.

Q.

Although geoengineering has only recently “gone mainstream,” it’s actually not a new concept. Can you tell us a little about the history of geoengineering?

A.

Human beings have been dreaming about changing the weather for as long as they’ve been staring at clouds. During the 19th century, rainmakers roamed the American West, promising to bring rain by various dubious means, from setting off explosions in the sky to brewing up special chemical concoctions that were supposed to stimulate the development of clouds. None of it worked. The rainmakers were all hucksters and con artists.

The term “geoengineering” was really born during the Cold War, when the rise of computers, as well as all-powerful devices like nuclear bombs, gave scientists the idea that we could remake the earth to suit us. Edward Teller, the godfather of the hydrogen bomb, wanted to use nuclear bombs to literally move mountains and dig harbors. These ideas look absurd in hindsight, evidence of extreme technological hubris.

Today, the term geoengineering is often defined as “intentional, large-scale manipulation of the climate to reduce the risk of global warming.” In other words, it’s a tool that might be used to solve a real problem – that we are cooking the planet by dumping billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Most serious scientists who think about geoengineering today are well aware of the troubling history of techno-fixes that look promising and then turn out to be disastrous. They are also very clear that the real solution to the problem of global warming is to cut greenhouse gas pollution. But because that does not seem to be happening at a rate anywhere near what is necessary to reduce the risk of climate catastrophe, some people are starting to look for other solutions – or at least ways to buy more time.

Q.

Geoengineering continues to provoke intense debate among both scientists and environmentalists for scientific, political and psychological reasons. What are the primary objections to geoengineering?

A.

That we are messing with a system (the earth’s climate) that we don’t really understand. That geoengineering is an extension of the same technocratic thinking that got us into trouble in the first place. That geoengineering will be sold as a quick fix, reducing whatever paltry momentum is building to cap greenhouse gas emissions. That geoengineering technologies that cool the earth by blocking out small amounts of sunlight, such as injecting particles into the stratosphere, do nothing to solve other urgent environmental problems, such as ocean acidification. That geoengineering will become a tool of dominance that rich societies will use to exert their will over the poor. That, when it comes down to it, geoengineering is nothing more than a bad sci-fi novel writ large.

Q.

James Lovelock, one of the scientists featured in your book, told you that, when it comes to geoengineering, “Ignorance is not our friend.” What are the arguments in favor of testing geoengineering? How large do the tests have to be in order to be informative?

A.

The biggest problem with the debate about geoengineering right now is that it is essentially all talk and computer model-driven speculation. The fact is, we’ve never really tried to cool the planet, so we don’t know if any of the technologies that are frequently discussed will really work, and if so, what the real-world consequences will be.

For example, we know that volcanoes can inject millions of tons of particles into the stratosphere, and that these particles act as tiny mirrors, reflecting away sunlight and cooling the planet. Mt. Pinatubo, which erupted in the Philippines in 1991, lowered the temperature of the earth by about one degree for more than a year. Can we build artificial volcanoes that do the same thing? If so, what will the impact be on rainfall in, say, the Amazon? Computer models can tell us some things, but in order to really find out if it works, and what the risks really are, we need to go out and try spraying some particles into the atmosphere and see what happens.

This is not to suggest, however, that we need earth-scale experiments anytime in the near future. Right now, there is a tremendous amount that can be learned simply from better, more sophisticated computer modeling, as well as engineering work to figure out the best way to actually inject the particles into the stratosphere.

Then there is another level of small, sub-scale experiments that would involve simply spraying a small amount of particles into the stratosphere and observing how they behave. Experiments like this would have zero risk of causing any real damage to the climate system, and yet they would tell us a tremendous amount about the real-world practicality of these ideas.

At some point, if all this smaller-scale work is done and the risks still seem modest, it might be time for bigger experiments. It is certainly true that the only way you’re going to know for sure if it works – and to create a change that is large enough to detect — is to try it on a larger scale. And while this sounds like a scary scenario to many, remember that many of the technologies that geoengineers are exploring, including injecting particles and brightening clouds, are reversible – particles fall out of the sky after about a year, clouds would vanish as soon as you turned off the cloud brightening machines. And you could start by injecting a very small amount of particles, then ramping it up slowly as we better understand the consequences.

So you can imagine all this being done in a thoughtful, rational way that in which the risks are minimal. You can also imagine it being done in a heedless, irrational way that is indeed frightening.

Q.

Geoengineering presents unique governance challenges. Ideally, what might a geoengineering governance structure look like in the future? What role should the more vulnerable developing countries play in geoengineering decisions?

A.

Excellent question. The truth is, no one knows what a geoengineering governance structure should look like – in part because we really don’t understand how geoengineering will work, or what technologies might be deployed. A governance structure for injecting particles into the stratosphere might look very different than a governance structure for dumping iron into the oceans to stimulate plankton blooms. This is one of the key arguments for a modest geoengineering research program: the better we understand the risks and the true capabilities of some of these geoengineering technologies, the better we’ll be able to design effective governance regimes.

When it comes to governance, there are two key issues. The first is how to restrain a rogue nation – or individual, for that matter – from deciding to start geoengineering the planet on its own. There are obvious parallels here with nuclear weapons governance – a lone actor can, in theory, deploy a technological device that has a profound impact on the entire planet. When it comes to geoengineering, however, good intentions are probably more dangerous then bad ones: a rich nation or individual that is trying to “fix” the earth’s climate is just as likely to screw things up as someone with less noble goals.

The second issue is deciding whose hand is on the thermostat. We all live on the same planet – if we’re going to start deliberately messing around with the climate, are we going to try to optimize it for people of Kansas or Kenya? Obviously, geoengineering is a technological fix which, if it is ever deployed, is likely to be done by rich, technologically sophisticated nations like the U.S., China, or India. Will farmers in Bangladesh get a voice in deciding how this will play out? Is the answer a World Geoengineering Council, administered by the U.N.? An entirely new agency of some sort? No one has a clue.

One final point: there is an assumption here – perhaps a reasonable one – that if geoengineering technologies are ever deployed, they will be used for the benefit of the rich, simply because they will be carried out by the rich. But that is not necessarily true. If we figured out a way to brighten clouds and shift precipitation patterns in way that might bring more rain to parched areas of Africa, it’s not hard to imagine these technologies could be used explicitly to benefit developing nations. To put it another way, there is nothing built into the idea of geoengineering that demands it be used as a tool of dominance. It could also be used as a tool to alleviate human suffering. It is up to us.

Q.

At the end of the book, you express your hope that geoengineering never becomes necessary: “I hope that we will grasp the scale of the catastrophe that awaits us, muster up the courage and political will to cut emissions quickly and deeply…” If that doesn’t happen, which certainly seems possible at this point, are you in favor of geoengineering?

A.

Nobody in his right mind is in favor of geoengineering. Nevertheless, we may come to a point where the risks of not trying it are outweighed by the risks of trying it. This is not the climate equivalent of building condos in a virgin redwood forest. We are already messing with the earth’s climate system in profound ways, and we are doing it mindlessly, heedless, stupidly, with a great risk to our future. Can we get better at it? I don’t know. But in my view, the greatest danger we face right now is not technological hubris. It’s human apathy.

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  1. Elkayef says:

    HA!

    Eartth scale experiments on the very climate that sustains us.

    GREAT idea.

    Next.

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  2. jonathan says:

    We do geoengineering all the time. Just one example: we straightened out rivers and decades later we’ve been spending large sums to try to reverse that because the environment degraded so much. On a small scale, we build jetties and other breakwaters that encourage rather than slow beach erosion.

    So we do experiment. All the time. And the record shows that negative consequences become apparent after substantial time. There is thus no way to experiment with climate scale geoengineering because a) we wouldn’t know for a very long time and then it might not be reversible and b) we couldn’t know that a really small experiment would actually scale. That scale problem has been a big problem because we used experience with smaller streams and rivers to manipulate large ones and that caused a whole new set of problems.

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  3. trace says:

    Yes, geoengineering is as old as the first bridge..How about cloud seeding..it is not new..And it’s disasters have been well documented.. The incomparable Geology Professor Giegengack, at the U. of Penn, LOVED to recount the tales of the Army Corps of Engineers’ disasters – unaccounted for siltation at huge dams, the Salton Sea, the mud plume engulfing indonesia, the vortex created by drilling through a salt layer, that was lovely – how about GM crops – great experiment, we are now all part of..

    Vonnegut saw it all, in Cats Cradle..It will come down to one last practicioner of Bokonon sitting on top of a mountain, as the world succumbs to ICE-9.

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  4. Kathy says:

    My statistics professor used to say, everyone loves to make numerical models, but hates to validate the models. To collect validation data is difficult, expensive, and introduces all sorts of messy problems into your beautiful model. But without validation, the model is useless.

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  5. Jose says:

    Leave the incomplete, unverified, self-promoting models to the economists. Small scale trial and error experiments are meaningless in gauging the correctness of any approach that endeavors global climate change. Until all the mechanisms that impact our climate are understood please stay away from the clouds or the stratosphere or whatever. This reminds me of the early days of ecology when scientists tried to implement population control of some prolific reproducer by introducing non-native predators which eventually had to be controlled by introducing another non-native predator which ….

    However, if this post is just an attempt to soothe a bruised ego, and not actually meant for public policy please continue.

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  6. David L says:

    Amazed at how closed-minded people are, esp. on a Freakonomics blog, no less. I don’t know the first thing about geoengineering. But I’m not going to reject out of hand the plausibility that a cracksquad of the most brilliant minds in environmental science could devise a series of low-risk experiments to glean more knowledge. And if you’re against gleaning more knowledge, then honestly, you have no place in any conversation about anything.

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  7. Kilpatrick says:

    Yes, nice work commenters. Do you ever get tired of saying ‘no, that won’t work’. Immediately before the Wright brothers no one had ever flown; before penicillin there was only the ‘natural’ way to cure infections. It’s so easy to proclaim failure, and so hard to invent success…. so why not just stop trying?

    Your armchair commentary never involves benchwork. Your perspectives are tired, and through them achievement will always be just a little too far out of reach.

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  8. Rudiger in Jersey says:

    Idea to cure Global Warming:
    Everyone open your windows. Run Air Conditioners on Maximum Cool until planet temperature sufficiently cool. When Penguins seen Central Park, ease down.

    For Global Cooling: Same process but use your Heaters instead.

    But the problem is getting EVERYONE to move their thermostats together. Like herding cats.

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