01 Apr 2010: Analysis

A Hard Look at the Perils and
Potential of Geoengineering

The Asilomar conference on geoengineering had been touted as a potentially historic event. What emerged, however, were some unexpected lessons about the possibilities and pitfalls of manipulating the Earth’s climate to offset global warming.

by jeff goodell

In the beginning, I had my doubts. The Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, held last week at the Asilomar conference grounds near Monterey, Calif., was touted as an “unprecedented” gathering of 175 scientists, environmental groups, philosophers, and public policy wonks to discuss the governance of geoengineering — that is, large-scale, intentional manipulation of the Earth’s climate to offset rising temperatures. The meeting was obviously set up to channel the spirit of the first Asilomar conference in 1975, during which biologists drew up voluntary guidelines to help reassure the public that genetically modified organisms would not be released into the world. Asilomar 1.0 is remembered as a landmark event in the evolution of scientific ethics and a turning point in the public acceptance of biotechnology.

Asilomar 2.0 seemed to pale in comparison. For one thing, geoengineering may be a scary idea, but the dangers were nowhere near as immediate as the unintentional release of genetically modified organisms. As David Keith, head of the Energy and Environmental Systems Group at the University of Calgary and one of the pioneers of geoengineering research, put it, “There is no threat of genetically altered clouds replicating virally in the atmosphere.” For another, no one seemed exactly sure what the goal of Asilomar 2.0 was, other than to convince the rest of the world that geoengineers are not mad scientists bent on destroying whatever is left of the Earth’s “natural” climate system. A few days before the conference began, questions were raised about whether the conference was in fact a quiet way for the organizer of the conference, The Climate Response Fund, to raise money to fund geoengineering experiments (a last-minute statement from the CRF’s board put an end to that controversy).

The first few days of the conference were chaotic and disorganized, occupied with the familiar discussions about how the term “geoengineering” lumps together two very different ideas about how to cool the planet — technologies that reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the
For a while, it seemed like Asilomar 2.0 was going to devolve into five days of infighting.
planet, as well as technologies that reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. From a governance point of view, nobody is worried about technologies that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. It’s the technologies that reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the planet — such as brightening clouds and injecting sulfur particles in the stratosphere — that freak people out, mostly because they can be deployed quickly and cheaply, and they have an immediate effect.

None of this was news to anyone who had spent any time thinking about geoengineering. And for a while, it seemed like Asilomar 2.0 was going to devolve into five days of infighting over the wisdom of attempting to rebrand geoengineering as “climate restoration.” But then a strange thing happened. Amidst the chaos, new ideas – and some lessons — emerged.

Lesson one: Geoengineering is a tabula rasa in the public mind. Like most of the attendees, I was well aware of the fact that geoengineering is an unfamiliar idea to many people. But I had not seen any actual data on this. Nor had I really grasped the implications of it.

One of the most enlightening presentations of the week was from Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, who presented the results of a long-running study on the public perception of global warming. In his most recent survey, he had thrown in a few questions about geoengineering. When asked, “How much, if anything, have you heard about geoengineering as a possible response to climate change,” 74 percent of respondents said “nothing.” The 26 percent that had heard about geoengineering turned out to be wildly misinformed — more than half thought it referred to geothermal energy. Only 3 percent of the people who had heard about geoengineering were correctly informed about it. “The public basically knows nothing about this,” Leiserowitz told the attendees. “That is both a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”

Lesson two: Nobody has any clear idea how to resolve the inequalities inherent in geoengineering. One of the most quoted remarks at the conference came from Pablo Suarez, the associate director of programs with the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre, who asked during one plenary session, “Who eats the risk?” In Suarez’s view, geoengineering is all about shifting the risk of global warming from rich nations — i.e., those who can afford the technologies to manipulate the climate — to poor nations. Suarez admitted that one way to resolve this might be for rich nations to pay poor nations for the damage caused by, say, shifting precipitation patterns. But that conjured up visions of Bangladeshi farmers suing Chinese geoengineers for ruining their rice crop — a legalistic can of worms that nobody was willing to openly explore.

There was much discussion about the role the UN Security Council might play in governing the eventual deployment of geoengineering technologies,
In one view, geoengineering is about shifting the risk of global warming from rich to poor nations.
as well whether a new protocol should be developed to govern geoengineering under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. A few people even brought up a new idea: How about a World Geoengineering Council? The concept conjured up visions of black helicopters and Dr. Evil, and was quickly dropped — even though, in private, some policy experts admitted that was the direction we might be headed.

In public, everyone agreed that climate is something that happens to everyone and, therefore, everyone should have a say in any decisions that are made to deliberately change it. But the simple truth is nobody has any very good ideas about how you accomplish that, especially among people in the developing world, where the impact, presumably, would be greatest. Leiserowitz put it best: “What does informed consent mean in a world where more than two billion people are unaware that climate change is a problem?”

Lesson three: The biggest question on the horizon is, “Should field experiments be banned?” Virtually everyone at the conference agreed that further research into geoengineering is a good idea. “We need to figure out what works and what doesn’t,” David Keith argued. Not surprisingly, conflict arose when the discussion moved on to whether or not it was time to run some field experiments in the real world. Everyone agreed that small-scale “process” experiments, such as testing devices to spray aerosols in the stratosphere, should be allowed, since there is no expectation that such experiments would have any impact on the climate. But what about modest field experiments, such as attempting to spray particles over one region of the Arctic, or brighten clouds over one part of the ocean? Alan Robock, an atmospheric scientist at Rutgers University who has long pointed out the risks of geoengineering field experiments, predictably argued against it: “You can’t wall off the Arctic from the rest of the world.”

But how do you define the difference between “sub-scale” experiments, likely to have little if any impact, with “large” experiments, which could indeed have an impact? This is a perennial problem among prospective
Conflict arose when the discussion focused on whether it was time to run field experiments.
geoengineers. Keith argued for the importance of field experiments as a way of testing our knowledge — as well as the accuracy of climate models. “We only found out about the hole in the ozone because we went out and did some experiments,” he argued. “If we would have relied entirely on models, we might never have found it.” In the view of others, it was also a question of urgency: “We don’t want to do modeling for the next 20 years while the Arctic melts,” one scientist told me.

The question of field testing also played into the larger governance issue. David Victor, a law professor at the University of California, San Diego, argued that you can’t set up a workable governance structure until you know which technologies might be deployed and what the risks are. “And to find that out, you might have to do some experiments,” he said.

Lesson four: It’s all about the money. Is anyone going to get rich geoengineering the planet? Nobody likes to ask that question explicitly, but it’s unavoidable. After all, if geoengineering ever gets taken seriously, it’s going to be the mother of all engineering projects. Who should be in charge — and what role should private investment play? Should entrepreneurs be able to profit off technology designed to cool the planet?

It was generally agreed that for CO2-sucking technologies, private investment was not a problem. Sunlight-reduction technologies, however, are another issue. if some company (or entrepreneur) is able to develop a new way of injecting particles into the stratosphere that becomes indispensible to the survival of the human race, well, that gives that
Should entrepreneurs be able to profit off technology designed to cool the planet?
company or person a lot of leverage. “I’m not interested in selling my soul to some company who is going to control how much sunlight hits the planet,” said Phil Rasch, a climate modeler at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state. (As one audience member quipped, “Gives new meaning to company town.”) Granger Morgan, the head of the department of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, argued that the creation of a profit motive would inevitably lead to a geoengineering lobby: “Lobbying is the last thing we need on this.”

Does that mean government funding, in the U.S. initially through the National Science Foundation or an agency like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is the answer? Many attendees pointed out

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that government funding has its own troubles, not least of which is that the bureaucracy and regulatory hurdles will slow down research and deployment. As for the U.S. Department of Defense — forget about it. To this group, such involvement prompts nightmares of a new military-industrial-geoengineering complex. One novel solution: demand that all technology used for sunlight reduction technologies remain in the public domain. “The issue is not private investment,” argued Keith. “It’s is open intellectual property.” Open-source climate engineering, anyone?

Lesson five: Trust is everything. The media loves to play up the angle of hubristic geoengineers hell-bent on messing with a system they don’t understand, but there was very little bold or reckless talk at Asilomar. The entire mood of the meeting was somber and hyper-alert to the dangers that lay ahead. “The whole game,” David Victor pointed out, “is about establishing credibility.” In other words, if the public comes to see geoengineering as, as one attendee put it, “a crazy idea cooked up by rich Anglo Saxons to dominate the climate,” then they will all be rightfully tarred and feathered.

In the end, I didn’t leave Asilomar feeling like I’d attended a historic event. But I did feel like I may have witnessed the birth of something new — call it the conscience of a geoengineer.

POSTED ON 01 Apr 2010 IN Climate Climate Energy Policy & Politics Policy & Politics North America North America 

COMMENTS


David Keith is wrong about the ozone hole. We discovered it by taking observations - not by doing purposeful experiments on the planet. In fact, our inadvertent experiment of filling the atmosphere with Freon produced the ozone hole. It is true that this was not predicted by models, but what this teaches us is that there are some experiments we should never do in the atmosphere, NOT that we should do experiments on our planet.

We need to do much more climate modeling of stratospheric geoengineering with models validated by their simulations of the effects of past volcanic eruptions, to examine the benefits, risks, and costs. But to test the climate effects in the real world, we essentially have to implement full-scale geoengineering. This decision will therefore have to be made without testing.

Posted by Alan Robock on 01 Apr 2010


“I’m not interested in selling my soul to some company who is going to control how much sunlight hits the planet,” said Phil Rasch, a climate modeler at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state.

So...do you trust some government to control how much sunlight hits the planet?

Posted by R. James on 05 Apr 2010


We are already geoengineering the planet, to our peril. We are digging up hydrocarbon material resources, defining them perversely as "energy resources" in the three states of matter, and setting them on fire. This is science and (ecological) economics as fraud. Since this is reverting the climate to prehistoric states when ice caps did not exist, can you think of anything more foolish?

Our civilization seems not to have dicovered the difference between an underground rock and true energy resources. There is no "energy in coal (or petroleum fluids)," the energy bond IS the material, composed from photosynthesis, which gave us the life-sustaining climate we live in.

If we don't immediately head toward zero emissions (then negative) by redefining "energy" no adaptation strategy will adequately succeed.

Posted by James Newberry on 05 Apr 2010


The geoengineers, mostly climate people, have their heads in the clouds avoiding the basic problems involved with global warming with their espousing some cool thinking. The basic problems are the need to remove some of the overloads of GHGs, mainly CO2, and heat energy.

We can do such removing by getting down to earth or really to waste. Specifically, we are burying ourselves in massive ever-growing messes of organic wastes and sewage that are dumped to biodegrade allowing unneeded reemitting of GHGs. AND perhaps more important, they are causing more and more water pollution problems as witnessed by EPA's recent announcement of putting limits on several drugs showing up in drinking water.

True pyrolysis of the organic messes will convert about 50 percent of the biocarbon to inert charcoal that may be used as a soil amendment. Due to phosphate rock supplies dwindling rapidly, this charcoal may become our future source of phosphorus for plant fertilizing. The other 50 percent of the biocarbon gets expelled as a gaseous mix from the closed pyrolysis chamber may be passed through a turbocharger to generate electricity. The mix then can be collected to be refined to get a renewable fuel or chemical raw materials to make drugs.

Pyrolysis will destroy the germs, toxics and drugs in the messes so that they no longer can escape to pollute water systems. Having those hazards removed will considerably decrease costs in maintaining dumps, over which many sanitation districts are encountering many problems for getting new ones approved.

I urge anyone thinking about just cooling the planet to get their heads out of the geoengineering clouds and put their feet into getting the organic waste messes under control to stop their unneeded GHGs' reemitting and their unneeded water polluting. Because few are thinking about what the organic waste messes are doing to the planet, those messes may soon become much more of a crisis for us especially for our children and grandchildren than the climate and energy crises. But those waste messes can become a resource to get control of those two crises.

Posted by Dr. James Singmaster on 06 Apr 2010


Geoengineering seems to be about shifting the cost to the environment, i.e., we'll systematically change the environment to suit ourselves: the environment pays, and we gain by not having to change ourselves.

Quite aside from the increasingly complex management requirement implicit in geoengineering, and, therefore, the increasingly high risk of management failure, these proposals to impose the cost on the "other" raises a striking moral question. We might be able to do it, and even succeed, but what are we saying about our concept of justice?

May I suggest that geoengineers instead consider choice of human population size as a way to engineer greater climatic stability? I.e., approach the problem at the upstream source rather than at the downstream flood.

Posted by OldStone50 on 07 Apr 2010


This conference was a step in the right direction. Perhaps why it wasn't as significant as the first one in the 70's is that unlike then, this time nobody really understood the nature of the beast and so it served to help define and consider what the issues are today and how to go about tackling them.

Goodell hit the nail on the head ... this was a birthing event.

I for one would like to see more study regarding the relationship of global dimming and climate change ... have we been been attributing too much of the dimming to particulates when it may be one of earth's self-regulating mechanisms? I find it shocking that the question largely remains unaddressed. If it is a natural regulating process then man-assisted-dimming as a technology stands a far better chance of garnering public support.

Posted by davea0511 on 08 Apr 2010


One conference that was thought by many at the time to be a 'birthing' event, in that it was said afterward that a new consciousness was born there, was the Toronto Changing Atmosphere conference of 1988. You had to attend the final plenary to understand what I mean.

So the people who have realized that geoengineering will be practiced one day have been in one room and discovered how many others share their view, and discovered what it feels like to openly discuss their views in a room where what they see is taken to be real. Is that what is going on?

We are already geoengineering on a dramatic scale as we decide, by not deciding to stop, to continue to expand our capacity to alter the greenhouse gas composition of the atmosphere.

Posted by David Lewis on 12 Apr 2010


I see this topic as identical to as if we are doctors and relatives discussing options a beloved relative with a terminal disease faces on her deathbed, except we have to put up with people running in telling us we are completely deluded to have any concerns at all who are also shouting at our dying relative that they should leave the hospital because the doctors are stupid, and we can't shut them up. And we are all aware that bulldozers are at work dismantling the hospital because enough morons have banded together who believe hospitals are not necessary. It's hard, under conditions like this, to focus on what might be realistic.

Posted by David Lewis on 12 Apr 2010


Comments have been closed on this feature.
jeff goodellABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Goodell is an author and contributing editor at Rolling Stone. His book on geoengineering, How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate, will be released this month. His work has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine, and Wired. In previous articles for Yale Environment 360, he has written about electric cars and carbon sequestration.
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