Geoengineering: "The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come"?

In Washington, D.C., this morning, the New America Foundation (in partnership with Arizona State University and Slate) is holding a “Future Tense Event” called “Geoengineering: The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come?” Past blog posts on the topic can be found here.

Discussants at the event include Congressman Bart Gordon (D.-Tenn.), David Keith, Brad Allenby, Jeff Goodell, Thomas Schelling and Stewart Brand. A preview:

Is it time for humanity to go on offense against global warming? Can we? Should we? Curtailing economic activity, altering lifestyles and well-intentioned talk in Copenhagen has not accomplished much. That’s why serious people are now considering Plan B, to intentionally tinker with the planet’s climate to correct for industrialization-induced warming. The hubris of “hacking the planet” is astounding, as are the implications for everything from military strategy to agriculture.

The subject is unsettling, almost taboo in certain environmental advocacy circles.? And yet nations and entrepreneurs are proceeding with geoengineering research and experiments. Join us in assessing the state of these efforts and in considering the politics and ethics of playing God with the climate.

Meanwhile, Slate has published a special issue on the topic, addressing the history of geoengineering, the politics and policy implications.
(HT: Daniel Lippman)


I really hope this falls through in every way... we can't go very long without a recall on cars, phones, or even eggs. What makes anyone think we can alter the climate and not wish we could issue a 'recall' at some point? Obviously we'd be unable to do so in a satisfactory way and the impact would be incredibly devastating.

Ian Kemmish

In the long run, we're all dead.

The quicker we go extinct, the less collateral damage we cause the rest of the universe. I'm happy to embrace climate change as long as I'm one of the last to go.


This ought to be good.

Mark Rich

Yes, the subject is unsettling, but it is not one particle more unsettling than the fact that we are already geoengineering the planet through our carbon emissions. We have been fully engaged in unplanned, even unconscious geoengineering for many decades. So now we're not sure whether we should do it, now that we're suddenly conscious of doing it? So now we will close the barn door of policy after the horses of carbon emissions have stampeded out? (Okay, the metaphor's clumsy, but you get the point.)

The debate now has to be over how to geoengineer, not whether.

Ben Jardine

Almost correct Kemmish - but we don't all have to go extinct in order to live in a balanced environment. Simply remove religion from the equation and downsize humanity; selectively of course!
Part of the problem is that the type of people who pretend to be environmentalists won't even contemplate the above. They'd rather send aid to Africa/India than condoms.


Yeah, of course we should trade unconscious tinkering for intentional tinkering. At least there won't be any political issues that could result in a half effort which derails any effective plan from the start.

I think we should avoid a Malthusian approach. The sky isn't falling yet. Instead of investing millions into projects which never come to fruition, why don't we start with fixing actual measurable problems. Like water and food supplies to the entire world.

In a world where 10s of 1000s of children starve to death every day without global warming being the cause, I'd say we need to fix that first. When that problem is solved, then you can interest me in a political argument about which giant megacorp we should pay billions to tinker with our environment without any regulation.


We've been geo-engineering since the first proto-human set fire to a savannah to drive game to hunters. At least now we have the tools to model the effects and the capability to see the results of our actions. Whether or not we choose consciously to "geo-engineer" the planet, we are doing so. It makes sense to me to create policy and methods to do so as wisely as we imperfect humans can.


The alternative is to re-engineer our cities that are threatened by sea level rise. Even if the potential damage from losing a few hundred feet of coastline is in the hundreds of billions (or trillions) would adaptation strategies be more or less expensive than "geoengineering" in the long-run? Anyways, moving highways and buildings en masse seems more within the repertoire of human possibility than controlling the weather. On the other hand, while we're building our weather-control device, we can simultaneously perfect our technique at turning lead to gold to fund R&D on our new time machine!

Harry Braun

This isn't rocket science.

Ovshinsky isn't a household name in America, but, it should be.

Stanford R. Ovshinsky is an American scientist and inventor who has close to 400 United States patents to his credit. Additionally, many of his inventions have such wide-ranging applications that the world we know and love would be a very different place without them.

Just to name a few:

rewritable CDs and DVDs.

the nickel-metal hydride battery.

flexible thin-film solar energy laminates/panels.

hydrogen fuel cells.

flat screen LCDs.

Basically, if you drive a hybrid vehicle, have solar panels on your roof, or use re-chargeable batteries, you're benefiting from the work of Stanford Ovshinsky.

George W. Bush actually took a tour of Ovshinsky's solar company United Solar Ovonic (Uni-Solar), in February of 2006. Apparently, when Ovshinsky offered to show Bush a few more of his (make the world a better place) scientific inventions, Bush responded with something along the lines of, "Stan, I studied History in college, not Science. Showing me wouldn't change a thing," to which Ovshinsky responded,

"Well, let's change history then."

Ovshinsky is currently working on something really big.

Read: The Edison of Our Age



The truth is that the U.S. has been grappling with the philosophical question of geoengineering for quite some time. As James R. Fleming explores in his upcoming book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, we have discussed and discussed the possibilities in the past and have always come to the same grim conclusion: "Geoengineering is in fact untested and dangerous. We don't understand it, we can't test it on smaller than planetary scales, and we don't have the political capital, wisdom, or will to govern it." Learn more about geoengineering's past on October 6, 2010 at the Woodrow Wilson Center, where Prof. Fleming will launch his book.


It says volumes about the human race that we'd rather take a horrendous gamble with our planet and potentially kill off millions of marine animals, than walk to the store or make good climate policy. Shame on us.

The unknowns are too great. This has Law of Unintended Consequences written all over it. And if carbon sequestration is not enough? Maybe we should learn to take our lumps as a species. Other animals certainly have. Haven't we done enough?

I hear talk of ocean desalinization and geoengineering - with no regard as to how it will affect other species. These animals co-evolved with their ecosystems for millions of years. They helped to create the conditions that made this planet liveable for all of us.

Except humans. We contribute nothing positive to the planet. Let's show some respect towards those who have.

Fritz Mills

Once nuclear war starts in the middle east, all the geo-engineering we need will get done. And given the way the world is trending, that eventuality strikes me as a question of when, not if.

Another bonus: we won't have to worry about feeding 9 billion people in 2050.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

This reminds me of the Grimm tale in the city overrun with Rats. They bring in Cats to elimnate the vermin. Then they are overrun with multitudes of Cats. They bring in dogs. Then the Dogs overstay, Then Wolves. Then Tigers. Then Elephants. And finally, to drive out the Elephants, they reintroduce Rats. And everything ends happily ever after .....or goes through the endless cycle of life.

The moral of the story, is Perfection is the enemy of Better.

And that nature has a balance that tends to work out the kinks. Our own interventions are far less intricate and more likely to be ham handed. Biologic systems have FEEDBACK LOOPS that would make Microsoft Windows look like kindergarten.

Doing Nothing is a pretty good option too.

holly loudly

Future Tents Event?



The idea of playing God with the planet or practicing geoengineering is a big step and risk. It is something to be very careful with when deciding to take action on given that not everyone is in favor of it. We have to consider all the people who will be affected for altering the earth's climate given that it is our planet, and we all live in it so we all should have a say in it as well.

In addition, I'm aware that global warming is an issue affecting use every moment but, there are other more urgent issues going on in the world right now as well. I live in a poor country in the Caribbean and every day I see poor children begging in the streets, and homeless mothers with their newborns. These people need our help now, and they should be a priority higher than global warming. It would be irresponsible to try and fix global warming before trying to fix world poverty and hunger. Our ultimate constraint is time and we should start spending it in helping those who are truly in need and then worry about other issues.



I'm glad that somebody has brought this topic to attention and that this "Future Tense Event" will get people together to discuss it. It is certainly an issue that will increase in importance in the following years and one that we must thread around very carefully, for in it lies the future of our planet.

Trying to stop and revert climate change by reducing carbon footprints and devising greener ways to do "business as usual" has been ineffective so far. The fact is that so many people have grown used to fossil fuels that it would be impossible to discontinue their use anytime soon. The CO2 levels in the atmosphere, therefore, must be reduced in some other way if the planet's weather is to remain stable.

Looking over some of the options available, it would seem that some of them are not actually bad ideas. Planting more trees, painting buildings white, and capturing CO2 emissions from fuels seem easy enough to be implemented and carry little safety risks. I would start by applying these measures and then move on to the more risky and expensive ones if they were necessary.

I expect that as the climate situation gets more critical, things like biofuels, which are expensive in current times, will see their marginal benefit increase and become more and more accepted as necessary measures. Hopefully we won't need to alter the marine ecosystem or deploy thousands of mirrors in outer space to keep our climate stable, but if that's what it takes then I see no other choice. Letting the climate run wild will in the long run cause more economic and human cost than deploying some of these drastic measures.


Eric M. Jones

Don't worry, our experts have assure us that it is perfectly safe. Nothing bad could possibly happen. We have examined every possibly risk......


It would be very interesting to see how this would work out. This means that millions of dollars will be invested in something that people are not even sure will work. It might bring many undesirable results, so in my opinion, before spending large amounts of money on something, one has to have an idea of the results this can bring. Also, this geoengineering idea would only be able to work for so long. So, at one point or the other, things will go back to normal and that money would be wasted. Global warming and environmental issues in general are very popular topics nowadays and there has been a lot of discussion about them, but talking about it does not help as much as doing something about it. If we all start to actually care and help maybe we would not be even thinking about spending money in this, when there are so many more important problems going on around the world today.

Maria Betances CMS

Global Warming has been a problem that has been growing every year more and more. If we don't act fast it will end up killing us. It would be very intresting to be able to finally have a plan that would actually work. However although this might rally have a positive outcome it probabbly involves many other variables that would actually affect the economy if it is not used fully, and that will take a long time to recover. If this really works what;s the plan to keep it going? How is the money spent on it going tobe recovered. Also altering the earths climate? Is that really the solution? The first big step that must be taken is to find a way to educate all human beeings and teach them how to actually live on the planet, a way that will end the harm we are all causing, and eliminate all those things that we humans use that aren't good for the planet. There's a lot of brain storming to do before acting or makeing a decission.

-Maria BetancesCMS



Currently, we are all being negatively affected by global warming, and trying to reduce its impact on the world will require time as well as money.

In order to invest so many resources into a certain project, one must be at least highly positive that the plan will actually work out. It has been proven to be possibly risky, yet action has to be taken.

At this moment, the action taken can be considered as mild and greatly voluntary, meaning that not many companies or individuals are willing to have a greater opportunity cost in order to protect the future generations. Order should be imposed by the government, and countries should gather in order to reach some consensus.

Geoengineering is a very drastic decision since we will be believing that we can actually control nature, yet action has to be taken in order for improving results to be seen.

We all have to cooperate in order to continue to live in a healthy environment but not all are willing to alter their lifestyles, so measures that are more extreme now seem to be needed to be taken for the world's sake.