17 Dec 2009: Opinion

Resisting the Dangerous Allure
of Global Warming Technofixes

As the world weighs how to deal with warming, the idea of human manipulation of climate systems is gaining attention. Yet beyond the environmental and technical questions looms a more practical issue: How could governments really commit to supervising geoengineering schemes for centuries?

by dianne dumanoski

In the summer of 2006, geoengineering — the radical proposal to offset one human intervention into planetary systems with another — came roaring out of the scientific closet. Deliberate climate modification, as climate scientist Wally Broecker once noted, had long been “one of the few subjects considered taboo in the realm of scientific inquiry.”

Two things spurred this dramatic reversal: growing alarm because climate change was hitting harder and faster than expected and the abysmal failure of political efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Indeed, since world leaders signed the Rio Convention on Climate Change in 1992, global emissions climbed from 6.1 billion metric tons of carbon a year to 8.5 billion tons in 2007. Dismayed by the inaction, Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate, published a controversial paper in August, 2006 that opened the door to the hitherto unthinkable. Since timely and sufficient reductions appeared to be, in his words, “a pious wish,” he urged serious investigation of technological proposals to offset rising temperatures.

For some, geoengineering seemed to hold out another hope: that technology might provide an escape not only from growing heat, but also from the thorny realm of hard choices and difficult international politics. Those politics were on vivid display in Copenhagen this week, as nations have agreed on the gravity of the threat but little else.

Since the release of Crutzen’s influential paper, many have voiced concerns about possible hazards posed by geoengineering schemes. For example, the artificial volcano projects, which would inject sulfate particles into the stratosphere to deflect incoming sunlight, might reduce the symptom of excess heat, but experience from past volcanic eruptions and climate
The moral and political hazards of geoengineering are as formidable as the physical dangers.
models indicates that this approach would likely alter rainfall patterns and intensify drought in many regions. And because such sunshade schemes only treat a symptom rather than tackle the cause, this technofix would do nothing to prevent another dire consequence of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere — increasing acidity in ocean waters. This acidity jeopardizes coral reefs, shelled marine life, and a tiny plankton Emiliania huxleyi, which plays a key role in the transfer of carbon from the atmosphere to long-term storage in deep ocean sediments.

But the biggest hitch in sunshade remedies involves politics and questions of governance, for they would require an unflagging commitment of centuries: five hundred years or so, or, if we do not make major emissions cuts, even as long as a millennium. If anything were to interrupt this geoengineering effort, which would have to keep replenishing the sulfates every few years, the world would quickly confront a doomsday scenario: Temperatures would suddenly soar upward at a rate 20 times faster than they are rising today, causing unimaginable havoc in human and natural systems and with it, the real danger of human extinction. This institutional challenge is without question a far greater obstacle than any technological difficulties. It is hard to imagine that anyone with even a passing knowledge of human history would think this long-term commitment could be a prudent gamble.

The moral and political hazards of geoengineering are altogether as formidable as the physical dangers. However inviting the prospects shimmering on the technological horizon, geoengineering “solutions” and the promise of a technofix down the road lead us easily into temptation. Indeed, these speculative technologies are already figuring in the political debate and hover in the background of diplomatic discussions, since it will be impossible to limit future warming to 2 degrees C, as G-8 leaders pledged in July, without something like a new technology to suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It is easy to forget that these are proposals, not proven technologies. There is no assurance that any will actually work as imagined.

Even more troubling, these tantalizing prospects can encourage neglect of what can be done now. Former President George W. Bush often used future technology as an excuse for inaction, touting research on hydrogen fuel-cell “freedom cars” while rejecting proposals to improve the efficiency of today’s vehicles. One energy economist quipped, the freedom car “is really about Bush’s freedom to do nothing about cars today.”

Similarly, longtime climate skeptic Bjorn Lomborg claims that the best, most cost-effective approach isn’t any of the policy proposals on the table in the U.S. Congress or at the Copenhagen conference — for instance, carbon taxes or a regime of cap-and-trade — but rather one of the sunshade technologies that would boost the cooling capacity of clouds by spraying saltwater into the air to stimulate the formation of more cloud droplets.

If Lomborg and his allies in conservative think tanks tout such technofixes as a better “solution” to the climate change, others such as Crutzen and Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, see it as an insurance policy in the event of full-blown emergency. They advocate research to distinguish the merely risky geoengineering schemes from the manifestly mad. It is hard to object to a backup plan, especially as the world has not yet halted emissions, much less embarked on the deep reductions that are required.

Insurance, however, often has a perverse effect: The promise that something will be there to bail you out if the worst happens encourages imprudent behavior. The number of mountain rescues has increased
The promise that something will bail you out if the worst happens encourages imprudent behavior.
because hikers carry cell phones. The National Flood Insurance Program for people living in coastal communities aimed to discourage development in high-risk areas by providing subsidized insurance if the local government agreed to guide development away from flood-prone areas, but the program instead has increased development in these danger zones. Similarly, geoengineering schemes foster the notion that technology can rescue us from climate hell, if it comes to that, and thereby discourages early, prudent action to head off the worst danger.

The political hazards of deliberate planetary manipulation are as formidable as the moral pitfalls. The technologies that scientists and engineers regard as “insurance” to safeguard the human future may precipitate new kinds of international conflict and the possibility of an arms race in geoengineering technology.

If geoengineering becomes the chosen response, the obvious question is, Who is going to make decisions that are truly global in scope, and how? Who, if anyone, will be approving, overseeing, and policing any use of geoengineering? If the time comes when the Earth needs a sunshade, there must be a guarantee, once started, that it will continue for centuries. If the monsoon fails following some geoengineering effort, there must be some authority to mediate the dispute about what caused it or compensate those who claim damages. As Stanford climate scientist Stephen Schneider has suggested, such claims are inevitable, so it would be unwise to do this without some plan for “no-fault climate disaster insurance” to provide compensation.

And how is it going to be possible to distinguish plain old bad weather from climatological warfare? In a geoengineered world, a catastrophic hurricane or devastating drought can generate suspicion, paranoia, and conflict.

The problems of the planetary era clearly require some manner of global governance, but our first attempts at this have failed miserably. Gus Speth,
What happens if a single country opts for planetary manipulation instead of reducing emissions?
the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and an early leader on global problems, describes the current state of affairs bluntly: “The climate convention is not protecting climate, the biodiversity convention is not protecting biodiversity, the desertification convention is not preventing desertification, and even the older and stronger Convention of the Law of the Sea is not protecting fisheries.”

The planetary system binds us more tightly in a common destiny than the economic system. No one will be secure in a world with runaway warming. Yet governments that willingly concede some of their sovereignty to promote economic expansion will not do the same to protect planetary systems.

In the absence of some means to arrive at a collective decision and provide oversight, all sorts of conflicts and tensions are almost inevitable. What happens if a single country decides to opt for planetary manipulation instead of reducing its emissions? What if other countries object that the project is too risky? If it becomes possible to scrub carbon dioxide from the air and reduce carbon dioxide levels, the question of who gets to choose what kind of climate we want and whether nations should pay to remove their share of past emissions could spark serious disputes.

More from Yale e360

Geoengineering the Planet:
The Possibilities and Pitfalls

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, climate scientist Ken Caldeira says the world needs to better understand which geoengineering schemes might work and which are fantasy — or worse.

Pulling CO2 from the Air:
Promising Idea, Big Price Tag

Of the various geoengineering schemes being proposed, one approach — extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using “artificial trees” — may have the most potential. But both questions and big hurdles remain.
Until a shift in their rhetoric on climate change six months ago, Russian leaders, for example, were inclined to an upbeat assessment of the benefits of climate change and quick to claim land along with any oil, gas, and minerals lying beneath the no-longer-icebound Arctic. Even if their new-found concern about future warming proves genuine, the Russians might balk at a plan to reduce carbon dioxide levels to 280 to 300 parts per million — a target that would return CO2 levels to what is indisputably the safe range for the climate system. Climate scientist Ken Caldeira judged that it isn’t far-fetched to imagine “some kind of arms race of geoengineering where one country is trying to cool the planet and another is trying to warm the planet.”

The greatest temptation is the naïve hope for a quick fix that will spare us from the difficult challenges of cutting greenhouse gas emissions or finding a way to live together on a shared planet. Even if one of these geoengineering schemes does pan out, be assured that it isn’t going to prove either simple or a “solution.”

POSTED ON 17 Dec 2009 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Pollution & Health Antarctica and the Arctic North America 


Excellent article. One major problem ... Geoengineering is already active in weather control programs that have been in place and operating for over 20 years in the USA and Canada, and I have seen photos from England as well. Their effects can be seen now in climate and Earth changes. The USAF brags about "owning the weather" in 2025. How would they do that?

I am a retired biologist and trained weather observer and I have been documenting the aerial spraying program over the USA and Canada. I presented at the UN Conference on Global Warming in 2007 the spraying program, its apparent effects on the climate and dying trees, and biological solutions for cleanup.

The spraying program termed "Chemtrails" (a USAF term) has been mostly ignored since the military calls it a"conspiracy theory." It is not a theory ... it is directly observable by anyone who knows what they are looking at.

Government denial is not surprising since the program happens to be in violation of international treaties.

There are millions of pictures of the high altitude spraying program at 30,000-35,000 feet to create cirrus clouds and haze, almost daily. They are using metal salts and metal coated fiberglass fragments (chaff). This is part of the HAARP (giant heater) and ELF (to move the jet stream) "own the Weather" programs and listed in military weapons programs.

This topic is not even being discussed or figured into climate models. The hoax is visible almost every day. Its absurd. Elephant effect would be more appropriate than butterfly. Most people are ignorant of currently operating military programs that are changing our world at an alarming rate.

Ignorance of these programs and propaganda are responsible for the inaccurate forecasts of climate change and seemingly contradictory evidence. Where is public oversight? If you are afraid of implementation of such a program, you are too late.

Posted by Allan R Buckmann on 18 Dec 2009

Thank you for your insights.

The glaring omission from all the recent discussion and testimony about (SRM) Solar Radiation Management is that direct Sunlight is essential for life processes on planet Earth. There is no way to intelligently predict the impacts of dimming of the Sun further than it has already been.

But predictions aside, why is this critical aspect not even part of the discussion?

Bonnie Hoag
The Bonnefire Coalition, founder
www.CaliforniaSkywatch.com and www.AgricultureDefenseCoalition.org

Posted by Bonnie Hoag on 20 Dec 2009

It might be worthwhile to see some cogent consideration of the signal to noise ratio problem inherent in this discussion. Short-term geoengineering solutions already exist and have proven very effective vis-a-vis controlling climate change. The relatively inexpensive and effective expedient of simply erasing troublesome climate anomalies with mathemannics and algoreithms should, when reverse engineered, prove as effective to "hide the incline".

However, a longer term and more effective solution must be applied to deal with the larger natural noise of the 20 or so meters of natural sea level rise above present that occurred during the last interglacial, the Eemian (or MIS-5e), and the 130 meters below present sea level that accompanied the Last Glacial Maximum just ~20k years ago. Then there was the 21.3 meter highstand during MIS-11.....

Combating climate change with real geoengineering (not just mathemannics) must deal effectively with this noise, and soon for that matter, or the entire discussion (signal) will also be lost in this natural noise.

Why soon?

The Holocene interglacial, or MIS-1, is now 11,500 years old, or half a precessional cycle. Five of the 6 interglacials dating back to the Mid Pleistocene Transition have each lasted just half of a precessional cycle. And the sea level highstands of MIS-11 and MIS-5e are well known to have occurred just prior to the ends of these warmings.

Posted by William McClenney on 26 Dec 2009

Geoengineering is an emergency solution of climate change problem. But what would the side-effects of these actions? It would be better to encourage a much-needed reduction of CO2 emissions.

Posted by phil on 26 Dec 2009

I wouldn't be so sure about that Phil. Predictions fall in the realm of potential future facts, or facts which have yet to happen. What about the facts we know have happened, and what they might portend for our future. The results might surprise you.

We live today in MIS-1, the Holocene interglacial, or the 11,500 years since we melted our way out of the Wisconsin ice age. This is the 6th interglacial since the MPT, with 5 of them lasting only half a precessional cycle, or roughly 10-12kyrs. We are also at an eccentricity minimum, when our orbit around the sun reaches its closest approximation of a circle. We hit this every 4th eccentricity cycle or 400kyrs, the last one being MIS-11 which lasted some 30kyrs, the only one to do this. If you spend some time researching MIS-11 you will find many workers tend to suspect we "skipped a precessional beat", and lasted 1.5 precessional cycles.

This could have distinct implications, as at an eccentricity minimum, the other orbital effects, precession and obliquity are minimized as well given that our distance from the sun changes the least.

To appreciate why we need to take a stroll between MIS-1 and MIS-5, the last interglacial back. There were 24 Dansgaard-Oeschger oscillations between these interglacials, all occurred during the Wisconsin ice age. The difference between an ice age and its associated interglacial is about 20C and about 400 feet of sea level change. The water to make miles thick ice sheets that have extended as far south as Kansas has to come from somewhere.

D-O events are astonishing, and can take us from 1/3 to 1/2 of the difference (8-10C on average, but can be up to 16C) in from just a few years to no more than a few decades. These are quite abrupt warmings that happen, on average, every 1500 years. what causes them is perhaps the greatest mystery in climate science.

Sole, Turiel and Llebot writing in Physics Letters A (366 [2007] 184–189) identified three classes of D-O oscillations in the GISP2 Greenland ice cores; A (brief), B (medium) and C (long), reflecting the speed at which the warming relaxes back to the cold glacial state:

“In this work ice-core CO2 time evolution in the period going from 20 to 60 kyr BP has been qualitatively compared to our temperature cycles, according to the class they belong to. It can be observed in Fig. 6 that class A cycles are completely unrelated to changes in CO2 concentration. We have observed some correlation between B and C cycles and CO2 concentration, but of the opposite sign to the one expected: maxima in atmospheric CO2 concentration tend to correspond to the middle part or the end the cooling period. The role of CO2 in the oscillation phenomena seems to be more related to extend the duration of the cooling phase than to trigger warming. This could explain why cycles not coincident in time with maxima of CO2 (A cycles) rapidly decay back to the cold state. ”

For the thirteen D-O events from 60k to 20k years, including Termination I, the end of the Wisconsin ice age, CO2 played no role in triggering these abrupt global warmings, of which there were 4 A-types, 7 B-types and 2 C-types. The 2 C-types separated by 40k years. It isn't that CO2 causes the warmings, it seems they ameliorate the relaxation back to the glacial state.

It may seem counterintuitive, but since we are at an eccentricity minimum now, and this interglacial, the one in which all of human civilization has occurred (only cave paintings are found prior to about 10kyrs ago), is now at half a precessional cycle old, and since CO2 seems to ameliorate the relaxation back to the cold glacial state, could it possibly be that in order to skip the next precessional beat what we actually need to do is the opposite of reducing CO2 emissions?

Worth having a think about.

Posted by William McClenney on 28 Dec 2009

Excellent article... The fact that it deals with global warming does seem to have elicited a number of pavlovian responses; responses which manage to ignore the substance of the argument and trot out the usual AGW denial comments. If they read it more carefully they would realise that it is far more supportive of their position than they realise.

The author makes two important points. The first is that the solution to the problem of global warming is seen as the whole of humanity working together to save the planet. She argues that this will simply not happen. (It also puts the kybosh on any suggestion that the article is proposing a socialist takeover of the world - again there is plenty of evidence that she regards any venture of that sort as doomed to failure.)

The second point she makes is the legitimate concern that we will take the technofix road - we have developed almost a cargo cult mentality to science assuming that it will solve all of our problems.

The more I think about the question of climate change the more I realise that for ordinary folk like me it is not about climate change at all - it is about the fact that I am disenfranchised from controlling my own future. Just think about how dependent we are on oil and electricity for our survival. 50%+ of humanity live in cities -totally dependent on huge infrastructure for their energy, water and food supplies. In response I have gradually implemented changes so that I am no longer dependent on this huge infrastructure - the technologies exist to live a 21st lifestyle yet be independent of the power grid and grow most of your own food. That those actions also reduce my carbon emissions to almost zero is just a byproduct; even without any suggestion of climate change it would be a good thing to do - I value my freedom.

Posted by Estetik on 13 Jan 2010

I think it's still worth looking for a quick fix. Partially because it gives an incentive to fund the research. And who knows, they might just find one.

Posted by Andrew on 14 Jan 2010

If there are no consensus coming out of other issues, yes, certainly quick fixes should be looked into. Do you know where did the word "geoengineering" came from to describe climate intervention? There is some disagreement with engineers working with soils like civil engineers, engineering geologists, etc.

The term "geoengineering" used by engineers relates to geologic materials in a broad way.
For e.g. geotechnical engineers are normally involved in the engineering aspects of soils such as to determine its strength e.g. for structures which could be built on them like a building or in them like a tunnel. Tests are done on them to determine the parameters. On the other hand geologists work with the physical and chemical aspects of these materials.

Posted by Parminder Singh on 21 Jan 2010

Great article. Much to think about. This reminds me of so many travesties perpetrated by the US Army Corps of Engineers over the years. In my own home state, the drainage canals of Florida are destroying the Everglades, an eco-system that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. There is no other place like it. And the Corp of Engineers has a plan to fix the problem they created. That worries me even more.

Posted by M.-J. Taylor on 22 Jan 2010

Climate scientist Ken Caldeira judged that it isn’t far-fetched to imagine “some kind of arms race of geoengineering where one country is trying to cool the planet and another is trying to warm the planet.”

Sounds like an apocalyptic scenario. I don't think it's possible, really.
Posted by Jose on 18 Feb 2010

I am wondering, how it is possible for scientists to speak about protecting Planet from sun... We are living because of sun... The main danger for Earth - not sun, but people, their experiments above Nature. Nobody can predict consequences of "geoengineering"... Our main aim today - to understand our responsibility and, at least, stop doing harm...

Posted by Elena on 18 Feb 2010

I think it's still worth looking for a quick fix. Partially because it gives an incentive to fund the research. And who knows, they might just find one.

Posted by burun-estetik on 29 Aug 2010

Get started now. Make existing canals wider and deeper. Open river channels wider where possible. Build more canals anywhere possible. Move sea water inland to form new Salt Lakes. Do not mess with the atmosphere, let mother nature alone. Build new shore construction above the ground level with piers for the first floor. Adapt. Adapt. Adapt. Putting relectors in outer space and more clouds in the sky is stupid. Nothing wrong with white roofs, white concrete, or white roads---in my opinion. Build some monster dredges that run on sun light and build some more islands. Get busy.
Posted by tom spath on 02 Sep 2010

The concept of geo-engineering (and/or "lesser" ways to mitigate "Global Warming") troubles me on two (related) levels.

FIRST, even assuming that our planet is truly about to experience a period of serious global warming, I am at best ambivalent about the science and engineering communities actually establishing and carrying out an effective plan to mitigate a global issue. We do not appear to be at all close to understanding a truly provable root cause, and global weather models cannot explain the previous global history of ice ages and intermittent warming periods.

SECOND, I am even more concerned that the global warming "scientific consensus" that some are attempting to establish is, in fact, in polar opposition to what other scientists are saying concerning past periods of global cooling ("ice ages") and the intervening periods of global warming.

At the very least, it would be comforting to hear that the ENTIRE science community agrees on what is happening, and why it is happening. And it would be comforting to know that their common explanation is based upon models which accurately account for the past (MEASURABLE!!) periods of glaciation and warming.

Posted by Michael Smith on 13 Nov 2010

Comments have been closed on this feature.
dianne dumanoskiABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dianne Dumanoski is an author and journalist who has reported on a wide range of environmental and energy issues for four decades. As an environmental reporter for The Boston Globe, she covered the effects of ozone depletion, global warming, and the accelerating loss of species. Her latest book is The End of the Long Summer: Why We Must Remake Our Civilization to Survive on A Volatile Earth.



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