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A Radical Climate Solution Goes Mainstream



The scientific consensus on geoengineering has come a long way in the past few years. As recently as 2006, it was unthinkable to many climate scientists that leaders in their field would seriously consider the idea of shooting reflective particles into the atmosphere or dumping massive quantities of iron into the oceans.

“When I first started looking into this in 2006, it was like talking to an insurance salesman about his porn habit,” said Jeff Goodell, whose book on geoengineering, “How to Cool the Planet,” was published on Thursday. “Nobody wanted to talk about it openly.”

[Environment1] These days, however, a growing number of scientists are devoting their careers to researching geoengineering, defined by the British Royal Society as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, in order to moderate global warming.” But while most scientists may agree on the need to study this worst-case approach to addressing the climate crisis, a political consensus on the issue remains a long way off, as liberals and environmentalists have been reluctant to consider this radical solution that some conservatives have been quick to embrace.

Geoengineering takes two principal forms. One involves increasing the planet’s reflectivity in some way, so that less sunlight warms the earth and temperatures drop. This approach can be as simple as Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s proposal to paint roofs white (although that would barely make a dent in global warming) or as complex as replicating the effects of a volcano by shooting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere. It can be done rather inexpensively — some experts say a sulfur dioxide injection would cost under 3 cents per ton of carbon negated, compared to the $10- to $30-per-ton pricetag that comprehensive climate legislation would likely impose — but it’s only a patch: Carbon levels would continue to rise, and if geoengineering efforts stopped, temperatures would shoot up.

The other form involves sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, potentially by adding iron to the oceans to encourage carbon-absorbing algae blooms or by pulling carbon out of the air and sending it deep underground. This approach would actually reduce our carbon levels and could avoid some of the ethical issues of reflectivity engineering, but it’s likely to be much more expensive and slower to take effect, and it presents its own host of practical concerns.

In either case, nearly all climate scientists agree, geoengineering should not be regarded as a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but rather a backup plan in case other efforts fail to prevent a climate crisis. Many hope that geoengineering theories remain just theories: There are far too many unknowns, and after all it was our manipulation of the planet that led to global warming in the first place. But with temperatures continuing to rise and the prospects for cutting carbon emissions uncertain — particularly after the failure of last December’s international climate conference in Copenhagen — some argue that it would be foolish not to explore our options.

“One of the greatest misapprehensions about the climate crisis is the notion that we can fix all this simply by cutting emissions quickly,” writes Goodell. “We can’t. Even if we cut CO2 pollution to zero tomorrow, the amount of CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere will ensure that the climate will remain warm for centuries.”

“To be responsible, you really have to plan for the worst,” said Eli Kintisch, whose own book on geoengineering, “Hack the Planet,” is scheduled for publication on April 19.

Heading the push to explore geoengineering is what Kintisch calls the “Geoclique,” led by climate scientists Ken Caldeira of Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science and David Keith of the University of Calgary. Partly thanks to their efforts, geoengineering has rapidly moved into the scientific mainstream.

“The change is stunning,” said Keith in an interview. “I keep walking into meetings where I expect everyone to be opposed, and they’re not.”

But a scientific consensus has yet to translate into a political one. As many liberal environmentalists have sought to avoid debate on the issue — “for fear that talking about it would reduce the pressure for cutting emissions,” according to Keith — some Republicans have signed onto the notion of geoengineering, creating an unlikely union between climate scientists and conservatives who often put little stock in what climate scientists have to say.

“It’s definitely an alliance of strange bedfellows,” Caldeira told TWI.

For conservatives who oppose efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, geoengineering provides an opportunity to shift the debate over global warming from its causes to its effects — from carbon levels to rising temperatures. This serves multiple purposes: It allows some of them to maintain their argument that global warming is caused by changing solar patterns rather than human activity, and it creates an opportunity to control climate change without placing limits on polluting industries.

“Conservatives can use it to bolster arguments they’ve made all along,” said Kintisch, “but I don’t think in the end, we’re going to be able to study this if it’s a conservative or liberal issue. If that happens, it just won’t go anywhere.”

Still, there are signs that the political mainstream is beginning to embrace the idea of “planethacking,” as Kintisch sometimes refers to it. Energy Secretary Chu, who as a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a member of President Obama’s cabinet has served as a link between the scientific and political communities, told Goodell that “geoengineering is certainly worth further research.” In November 2009, the House Committee on Science and Technology held the first-ever hearing on geoengineering, although committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) insisted, “My decision to hold this hearing should not in any way be misconstrued as an endorsement of any geoengineering activity.” And last month, the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy created a task force that includes leading scientists like Keith and Caldeira to make recommendations on geoengineering to Congress and the administration this summer.

But one thing that’s still lacking is funding from Congress for geoengineering research, which Keith calls “crucial.” Caldeira has also advocated a federally funded “Climate Emergency Response Program” to explore our options if we need to cool the planet in a pinch.

Of course, if and when we reach the point of climate crisis, political disagreements are likely to subside. “If there end up being widespread crop failures and famines and that kind of thing, people are going to be willing to do something dramatic,” said Caldeira.

Still, even most advocates of geoengineering research would prefer not to see their ideas put into action. “I hope that we never launch particles into the stratosphere, dump iron into the oceans, or brighten clouds,” Goodell writes in his book. “I hope that the whole notion of geoengineering looks in retrospect exactly how it looks at first glance: like a bad sci-fi novel writ large.”

But while Keith and Kintisch both think there’s a chance we can avert a major climate crisis without resorting to geoengineering, Goodell disagrees.

“I think that it’s inevitable,” said Goodell, “and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. What I think is really important is the idea of us, meaning Western civilization, having a discussion about the kind of world we want to live in. Geoengineering forces that discussion.”

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