07 Jun 2010

Climate Intervention Schemes Could Be Undone by Geopolitics

As global warming intensifies, demands for human manipulation of the climate system are likely to grow. But carrying out geoengineering plans could prove daunting, as conflicts erupt over the unintended regional consequences of climate intervention and over who is entitled to deploy climate-altering technologies.
By mike hulme

Last month, J. Craig Venter announced that his team had successfully developed the first self-replicating cell to be controlled entirely by synthetic DNA. Not artificial life exactly, but certainly something different: a synthetic cell in which humans had intervened deliberately with the express purpose of changing the genetic structure and characteristics of a natural organism.

Humans are lining up comparable purposeful interventions in the functioning of another physical system — not the microscopic system of a bacterium, but the macroscopic planetary system that fashions and delivers all our climates. The range of such potential climate intervention technologies — from altering how much of the sun’s energy strikes the Earth, to removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — continues to expand against a backdrop of anxiety that humanity may inadvertently be pushing global climate toward a dangerous state.

These two new ventures — manipulating the biological functions of cells and manipulating the physical functioning of the climate system — may be seen as simply the latest steps in the enduring human project of seeking
Such interventions would bring about, if not exactly artificial climates, then certainly synthetic ones.
control over the physical world. Hominid mastery of fire in the Paleolithic brought about radical changes in the possibilities for human life, and the manufacture of antibiotic drugs in the 20th century opened up a wide range of new medical treatments that have reduced suffering and extended human life. Designing self-replicating cells and re-tuning global climate may therefore appear as inevitable developments in our ingenuity and our ability to manipulate the world around us.

But compared to the questions raised by Venter’s biotechnologies, two categorically different sets of questions arise about climate manipulation: How do we judge the risks of unintended consequences? And who is entitled to initiate the large-scale deployment of a climate intervention technology — and under what circumstances?

Proponents are suggesting two broad categories of technologies to roll back global warming. The first, solar radiation management (SRM), calls for altering the solar radiation budget of the planet, using such technologies as mirrors in space, aerosols in the stratosphere, and cloud whitening over the oceans. And then there are technologies, grouped under the category of carbon dioxide removal (CDR), that propose to accelerate the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by fertilizing the oceans with iron, extracting CO2 from the atmosphere, or sequestering CO2 by heating biomass in oxygen-free kilns and burying the charcoal underground.

Such interventions would bring about, if not exactly artificial climates, then certainly synthetic ones. The calls for significant investments in these technologies have grown in boldness and urgency over the last few years. Whether from government agencies or private investors such as Richard Branson or the company, Climos, resources are being directed into pursuing something akin to Venter’s vision of synthetically controlled cells, but the “cell” in question here is the planetary climate.

Both genres of climate intervention technologies raise serious ethical questions about the propriety of such manipulations, about their accordance with the collective will of people on Earth, and about the unforeseen side effects of such interventions. But the proposition of
Concerns arise from the brute fact that there is only one climate system with which to experiment.
creating synthetic climates through solar radiation management (less so with carbon dioxide removal) introduces a range of additional concerns not shared with microscopic cellular manipulation. These concerns arise from the brute fact that there is only one climate system with which to experiment, and it is the one we live with. If it is planetary-scale manipulation of climate that is desired — and it is — then experimentation has to be conducted on a planetary scale to prove the effectiveness — or not — of the technology.

The first concern is the risk of unintended consequences. Given that it is not possible to conduct large-scale planetary experiments in solar radiation management before going “live” with the technology, risk assessments have to fall back on using virtual climates generated by computer models. The Earth system models currently used to explore the possible future effects of rising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are the same ones that have to be used to explore the simulated consequences of a variety of solar radiation interventions.

Using aerosols to offset the additional planetary heating caused by greenhouse gases is a relatively straightforward theoretical calculation; it is a case of simple planetary budgeting. Much harder is to know what this “re-balancing” of the global heat budget will do to atmospheric and ocean dynamics around the world. These are the dynamics that make weather happen at particular times and in particular places and which — through various combinations of rain, wind, temperature, and humidity — shape ecological processes and human social practices. The dangers and opportunities associated with climate occur through these local weather phenomena, not through an abstract index of global temperature.

If the goal of climate engineering is simply to reset the global temperature dial at its 19th or late-20th century register, that might be possible to do. But in the process of doing so, significant perturbations to regional climate conditions, and inter-annual variability around those conditions, are likely to be introduced. Even if changes in the frequency and intensity of storms and precipitation were to be a zero-sum game globally, the distributional effects of such changes will create winners and losers. Such phenomena as El Niño, the Asian monsoon, and the Arctic Oscillation will not remain unaffected. And given the far-from-adequate ability of Earth system models to simulate the regional-scale dynamics of the hydrological system, no one should be confident that the full risks of solar radiation management interventions will be revealed and quantified.

Which brings us to the second question that sets apart the project to fashion a synthetic climate from the project to create synthetic self-replicating cells: Under what future scenario could one imagine full-scale
Some argue solar radiation management should be available in the event of a climate emergency
deployment of solar radiation management taking place? Many commentators have drawn attention to the multi-layered issues of financing, ethics, governance, geopolitics, and public opinion that surround most of these solar radiation intervention technologies. These were very much to the fore at the recent Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies in California earlier this year.

And yet a number of senior and significant voices in the scientific academy and policy community continue to speak of the urgency with which solar radiation management research should be pursued. They offer these putative control technologies as another option in the portfolio of climate management strategies, with climate manipulation joining climate change mitigation and climate adaptation in a trinity of strategies available for policymakers. At the very least, it is argued, solar radiation management should be available as a backstop technology if the world finds itself in a climate emergency when a dangerous tipping point needs to be avoided.

But can we imagine a possible scenario under which the decision to proceed to full deployment of solar radiation management might be made? Let us assume the injection of aerosols into the stratosphere had been placed at the top of the list of climate intervention technologies. Let us also assume that the basic operational mechanics of getting aerosols into the optimal layers of the stratosphere for maximum solar shielding had been figured out. One possible scenario might look something like this:

It is January 2028 and the United Kingdom — one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council — puts forward a formal resolution to start the systematic injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. The UK’s argument is that with Arctic sea ice extent the previous summer having shrunk to just 25 percent of its late-20th century value, with monitors in Canadian permafrost identifying increased rates of methane release, and with the explosion at a nuclear reactor in China two years earlier leading to a moratorium on all new nuclear power plant construction, such direct climate remediation measures are called for.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides a report for the Security Council on the regional climatic risks of such intervention. Based on the best Earth system models, the IPCC offers probabilistic predictions of the 10-year mean changes in regional rainfall around the world that would result from sustained aerosol injection.

The 15 members of the Security Council argue over the evidence. In particular, they spend much time weighing the probabilities that the Asian monsoon might be weakened as a result. Security Council members also
If the politics of Kyoto proved intractable, wait and see the geopolitics of engineering synthetic climates.
argue about how long the initial aerosol injection should continue — for 1 year, 3 years, or 5 years. Against a background of vociferous, and at times violent, globally-coordinated public campaigns (both in favor and against such intervention), the Security Council votes 11-2 in favor, with 2 abstentions. The deployment will proceed for a one-year period, after which a full evaluation will be conducted.

Over the following months, protestors attempt to sabotage some of the planes being used to inject aerosols, and direct-action groups affiliated with HOME (Hands Off Mother Earth) send up their own aircraft in symbolic efforts to scrub the aerosols from the stratosphere. After one year the deployment is temporarily halted and climate data are evaluated.

Global temperature has indeed fallen from the previous 10-year mean of 15.23º C (the 1961-1990 average was 14º C) to just 14.57º C, the coolest year on the planet since 2014. But regional climate anomalies have been large and variable. Of most concern was a failure of the Asian monsoon, at the cost of $50 billion to the Indian economy, and the most intense cyclone season in the South China Sea for 20 years.

India — one of the rotating members of the Security Council — and China now trigger an emergency debate calling for a permanent ban on deployment of aerosol injection technologies. The IPCC argues that one year’s data prove nothing about the efficacy or impact of solar radiation management. But against a background of further global protests, led by the new popular civic movements in China and India, the Security Council now splits 5-5, with 5 abstentions. Turmoil ensues as two Canadian billionaires unilaterally continue aerosol injection.


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, writes journalist Jeff Goodell.

Resisting the Dangerous Allure
of Global Warming Technofixes

Beyond the environmental and technical questions about manipulating climate systems looms a more practical issue, Dianne Dumanoski writes. How could governments really commit to supervising geoengineering schemes for centuries?
Of course one could create a hundred other scenarios under which the story of solar radiation management may unfold. But I use this one to draw attention to the profound political obstacles and humanitarian risks that shadow attempts to engineer the climate through solar radiation management. The organization HOME already exists, seeking to mobilize people everywhere to tell climate engineers to proceed no further with climate manipulation.

The technical body supporting the work of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity has recently proposed a draft text along the following lines: “No climate-related geo-engineering activities [should] take place until there is an adequate scientific basis on which to justify such activities and appropriate consideration of the associated risks for the environment and biodiversity and associated social, economic and cultural impacts.” (Emphasis added.)

Words such as “adequate” and “appropriate” offer new grounds for contention in an already argumentative world. If the politics of climate mitigation policy under the guise of the Kyoto Protocol have proved intractable, just wait until we see the geopolitics surrounding the negotiation of the first protocol on engineering synthetic climates. In the name of saving the planet from inadvertent greenhouse-gas exacerbated climate change, climate engineers may simply be offering us one Promethean fire to offset the effects of another.


Mike Hulme is professor of climate change in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. He was the founding director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and is the author of Why We Disagree About Climate Change.

SHARE: Tweet | Digg | | Reddit | Mixx | Facebook | Stumble Upon


I have to say that I cannot agree with the basic premise of this article, that geoengineering is possible, feasible, and necessary.

The costs of these geoengineering projects is astronomical. Injecting aerosols over a small fraction of the globe would require a constant stream of jets criss-crossing the atmosphere 24/7. Then, the benefits must be weighed. Should we spend a half-trillion a year to cool the planet by a tenth of a degree (true orders of magnitude, your .7F is hopelessly optimistic)? We could cure malaria, diptheria, and a half-dozen other diseases for a month's cost of such a program. Is this really the best use of the combined efforts and resources of humanity?

The thing is that global warming needs to be put into perspective against other global issues. A degree or two rise in temperature over the next century will not be disasterous. Diverting insanely high amounts of funds away from humanitarian sources to fund global cooling projects as suggested in this article would be.

Posted by Ben on 08 Jun 2010

I find use of the terms "artificial climate" and "synthetic climate" curious. If the climate system were considered "synthetic" following geoengineering, does that mean the climate is "natural" right now, despite more than two centuries of industrial activity and anthropogenic GHG emissions? I think this distinction between natural and artificial is itself artificial. People have been "geoengineering" at least since the beginning of agriculture - current proposals simply seek to arrest the runaway geoengineering we call "global warming."

Posted by Joshua Horton on 08 Jun 2010

The reason this article (and its discussion around geoengineering to remedy AGW) was written is due to a business-as-usual fracturing of issues that should better be combined into a whole. Global Warming is merely one of a host of crises that stem from a single basic root. Understanding the root cause and attempting to deal with it systematically could lead to entirely different (and more productive) discussions than this. Geoengineering may or may not have a place in the overall solutions to the paradigm of unlimited growth, but we won't know if we just look at Global Warming out of context.

Posted by TRB on 09 Jun 2010

We are already geoengineering the atmosphere by injecting tons of reflective aerosols from the engines of jet airplanes. This was noticed during the air traffic halt after the WTC bombing. The effect is to reduce insolation by approximately 3 percent.

Posted by Greg Warner on 09 Jun 2010

A quibble: I don't think that Climos and putting iron in the ocean are taken very seriously anymore- too unpredictable, too hard to verify how much is actually sinking to the depths, and directly messing with ocean chemistry is too controversial. More serious: removing CO2 from the air and injecting it underground (IF feasible) a la Klaus Lackner would not threaten anybody and would not face political obstacles (except maybe ridicule). Also, geoengineering is different in that it can actually be done without consensus- unlike emissions reduction which simply won't work without consensus. So a bloc of countries could in theory go their own way- and would, if desperate. There are worse things than a UN condemnation.

Posted by Bill on 17 Jun 2010

Cloud seeding and aerosol injection (Chemtrail Consp) its been apparent for years and on an

Posted by Robert hardt on 26 Jul 2010

Our present climate is not only "synthetic", but some of the relevant scientists, i.e. Hansen for one, are already on record stating that by forcing the Earth into this already "synthetic" climate by elevating CO2 beyond 350 ppm civilization has already committed the planet to being ice free as well as to the experience of, viewed in a geologic time scale, instant wholesale global climate change.

Assuming present day climate is not "synthetic", i.e. assuming it is natural, is like calling someone you've just perhaps fatally shot who nevertheless still stands because enough seconds haven't passed for him to fall to the ground, "healthy".

The only "serious ethical question" is what do we do now? We don't have a choice that involves doing nothing, i.e. creating a "synthetic" climate, or not.

In ancient days, i.e. 1988 at the Changing Atmosphere conference in Toronto, what civilization is doing now by emitting GHG was described in a unanimously adopted statement signed by 400 representatives from 40 countries: "an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war".


Given the activities of the deniers as they move from simple denial of the science to attempts to prosecute scientists as criminals, at some point we must declare that the attack on Earth's climate stability is intentional. Not intentional as in Dr Evil destroys the world: intentional as a child kills a bug.

We are faced with doing more geoengineering, or planet management, from now on. We face choices that are difficult, bad, or catastrophic. These are the only ones available.

As Caldeira pointed out recently, because the ocean sink for CO2 will operate in reverse as civilization attempts to remove CO2 from the atmosphere "If we do someday decide that we need to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to avoid a climate crisis, we might find ourselves committed to carbon dioxide removal for a long, long time. A more prudent plan might involve preventing carbon dioxide emissions now rather than trying to clean up the atmosphere later."


SRM is already being inadvertently deployed on a massive scale as a byproduct of fossil fuel combustion as well - one major uncertainty in the climate change debate is over how much these aerosols are masking the warming effect of the CO2 and other GHG that have already been emitted. As nations clean up this pollution, something that is far more possible than slowing the rate of CO2 emission expansion, just because they are doing so to clear their air does not mean they aren't also doing geoengineering.

Look at what is happening as vast areas of Russia burn today. Imagine if an SRM experiment had started last year. Russia has nuclear weapons capable of vaporizing any state that started this hypothetical SRM experiment that hypothetically started last year. Then imagine a CDR deployment ramping up: as Russia burned, would their leaders demand that CDR stop?

Posted by David Lewis on 08 Aug 2010

India is surely the first powerful country (with high-tech, space and nuclear capabilities) likely to become "desperate" about global heating. Consider how bad the summer drought and heat wave already are in North India, then factor in disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers that feed the rivers. But desperation could take various forms. Unilateral climate remediation is only one. Another is war against one or more of the countries considered most to blame for the situation. Nuclear deterrence doesn't work against a country already in the grip of catastrophe.

Posted by Stephen Shenfield on 16 Oct 2011



Solar Geoengineering: Weighing Costs of Blocking the Sun’s Rays
With prominent scientists now calling for experiments to test whether pumping sulfates into the atmosphere could safely counteract global warming, critics worry that the world community may be moving a step closer to deploying this controversial technology.

Creating Clouds in the Lab To Better Understand Climate
Scientists are conducting a lab experiment to help solve a key riddle: the role of clouds in climate change. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, research leader Jasper Kirkby discusses the mysteries of clouds and why it’s important to know if clouds are contributing to global warming.

Rethinking Carbon Dioxide: From a Pollutant to an Asset
Three startup companies led by prominent scientists are working on new technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The scientific community is skeptical, but these entrepreneurs believe the process of CO2 removal can eventually be profitable and help cool an overheating planet.

Thinking the Unthinkable: Engineering Earth’s Climate
A U.S. panel has called for a concerted effort to study proposals to manipulate the climate to slow global warming — a heretical notion among some environmentalists. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Jane C. S. Long, the group’s chairwoman, explains why we need to know more about the possibilities and perils of geoengineering.

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.


Donate to Yale Environment 360