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.

Jane C. S. Long, associate director-at-large of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, is convinced that the only sensible way to combat climate change is to work toward “a zero-emission energy system as fast as possible.” But as chairwoman of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s 18-member task force on geoengineering, the hydrologist and energy expert realized two fundamental things: that the world has still not come to its senses on global warming, and that science would be remiss if it didn’t consider the possibility that CO2 emissions will continue to soar for decades.

This scenario lies at the heart of a report issued last week by the task force, composed of noted experts in climate science, social science, and foreign policy. It called for a comprehensive study of geoengineering options — including removing CO2 from the atmosphere and reflecting solar energy back into space — in case the Earth’s climate crosses certain tipping points, such as a mass release of methane from the Arctic that would drastically warm the planet.

Jane Long
Jane Long

The report drew sharp criticism from some climate activists, who accused the task force of trying to put a positive marketing spin on doomsday technologies by labeling them efforts at “climate remediation.” But Long and her colleagues say it is best to be well informed about geoengineering options should they one day be needed. “Everyone I know who works on this is scared to death of this stuff,” Long said in an interview with Yale Environment 360 senior editor Fen Montaigne. “People aren’t doing this because they think, ‘Oh whoopee! We can change the Earth!’ They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress [on CO2 emissions] and it just seems to be getting worse and they want options on the table.”

Yale Environment 360: What factors led the task force to the conclusion that it was time for the U.S. government to take a serious look at whether geoengineering, or climate remediation, was possible or advisable?

Jane Long: Number one, of course, is the fact that we’re still producing greenhouse gases, and they are getting to be at a dangerous level and they’re going higher and nobody really knows what’s going to happen. The risks seem to be very large and there’s a strong sense that even if we were by some magic wand able to stop emitting tomorrow, we still have a problem with a lot of unknowns. So in the long run the chance that we would hit something that was very, very difficult for both humans and ecosystems to be able to handle successfully was significant. And we felt it was prudent to start doing research. There are other factors, such as other countries beginning to look at this. Certainly the UK has and it behooves the United States to be a member of this group that’s looking at it, rather than on the sidelines and just having to accept what other people do. There was definitely not a sense that we should get ready to deploy these things right now. We have to consider it, but we’re not planning to do it. So the idea is just really to become informed.

e360: Were you driven by a sense that these geoengineering schemes have not been subject to rigorous, coordinated studies?

It’s my guess that pretty much everything that’s been prominently discussed to date will be thrown away.”

Long: Absolutely. What we thought was that we knew very, very little about whether these technologies could be effective, whether they were advisable, and whether they were even doable, and we were only at the very beginning of understanding that and that it would take a coordinated program by government research to get there. You weren’t going to get there on the margins. You are going to have to do a coordinated, focused program.

e360: One thing you make very clear is that by far the preference of the people on the panel is to lower, or mitigate, greenhouse gas emissions. But given what’s happening now — we had records emissions in 2010, China and India are booming, the U.S. is not making a lot of progress — are you optimistic that the world is going to get its act together in the next 10 or 20 years to really start lowering CO2 emissions?

Long: I think we will start, but we won’t necessarily do it in time. I’m afraid it’s going to become absolutely obvious that we have to do it. And we will start doing it for a variety of reasons. But will it change in time? I have to admit to a certain amount of pessimism. I don’t think we will avoid some of the really difficult impacts of this.

e360: That leads to a much quoted part of your report, which was that geoengineering schemes may have to be tried if the climate system reaches a tipping point, an emergency situation. What kind of tipping points did some of the scientists have in mind that might speed up the necessity to consider climate remediation?

Long: Certainly methane issues in the Arctic and positive feedbacks in the Arctic. Also positive feedbacks that would change rainfall patterns dramatically and threaten food supplies. There are some perfect storms out there where the food supply and water supply available to humans is dramatically changed and at the same time population growth accelerates. So I think what we felt was it wasn’t really possible to predict these things, but the possibility of them could not be denied.

e360: Among those was the potential impact of ocean acidification on fisheries and marine life?

Long: Sure. And of course some of the technologies that are being thought about simply don’t help that. I think that the situation now in the field of geoengineering — it’s my guess and only a guess — is that pretty much everything that’s been prominently discussed to date will be thrown away. And that what will happen as we begin to study this is we’ll begin to find new and better ideas and it will take decades to sort through what might really be something you want to try if we absolutely had to. It’s very likely that the things we’re considering right now will not be the ones that we end up considering in 10 years.

e360: There was an interesting comment in the report concerning tipping points, that science to date has in fact underestimated some of the physical impacts taking place, such as the rate of melting Arctic Ocean ice.

If you reach these tipping points, it’s conceivable that mitigation won’t even make any difference anymore.”

Long: Absolutely. I mean [Harvard atmospheric chemist] Jim Anderson was on our committee and he was the most articulate about this issue. We’re not even tracking what’s actually happening the way we ought to be tracking it. We have the potential for the release of huge amounts of methane gas, but we have no methane observation system in the Arctic. And he points out that if a small percentage of the methane locked up in the Arctic were released every year, it would overwhelm, by a factor of ten, all emissions due to energy. If you reach one of these tipping points, it’s conceivable that mitigation won’t even make any difference anymore. And that is the nightmare scenario.

e360: And therefore you have to have in your quiver some geoengineering weapons, assuming you understand what they might do?

Long: Right. I mean the best way to solve a problem is not to have it. The best way to solve this problem is to mitigate as fast as we can manage. We should be talking about how we can get to a zero emission energy system as fast as possible. That’s what the climate science tells you the context should be. The discussion about saying, “Well we’re going to reduce by 10 percent or 20 percent”— it doesn’t really jibe with what the problem is. The problem is how fast can we go to zero and then probably below zero. Believe me, I know how hard it’s going to be. Even if we had the will tomorrow to do it, it would not be easy. So the next arrow in the quiver is we know some areas are going to flood, we know we are going to have more forest fires, we know we’re going to have more droughts. And how are you going to better manage these phenomena? And the last and the scariest is we’re going to intentionally manage the planet so that climate change doesn’t destroy us.

e360: Can you in a general way talk about the overall risks, costs, and limitations of trying to engineer the climate?

The last and scariest option is that we’re going to intentionally manage the planet so that it doesn’t destroy us.”

Long: It’s a huge spectrum of issues that vary very much by the technique and approach that you’re talking about. As [Harvard physicist] David Keith pointed out, these solar radiation management techniques are so amazing because it’s conceivable that you can do them for literally billions of dollars a year — peanuts in the scale of things, and you could significantly change the temperature of the Earth that way. So you have the possibility of being able to do it. You have some information about some natural phenomena like the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which spewed a lot of sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere and cooled the Earth by a couple of degrees for a couple of years. But there are three pieces here — whether it’s effective, whether it’s advisable, and whether you can actually do it.

We can think of a lot of ways to deliver particles to the stratosphere at concentrations that would be sufficient to reflect enough radiation to make a difference. We think it would be effective because we have some information from natural phenomena, but it might be very, very inadvisable. And the scariest thing about this particular type of technology is that it might be very effective and is potentially very doable, but someone might decide to do it out of desperation when other parts of the world were not really in favor of doing it because they have real concerns about unintended consequences. So it has implications for international relations that are very important, and that is why it is very important that we begin to work with other countries so that we jointly discover the pitfalls and possible benefits of these technologies so that they are not used willy-nilly by a desperate nation.

Second, other kinds of technologies, such as carbon removal technologies, have a very wonderful characteristic in that they remove the source of the problem, but they’re very slow and can be very expensive and when you deploy them at scale they could have some pretty serious environmental implications that would need to be evaluated very carefully. And it could cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars a ton to remove carbon from the atmosphere. And then when you have removed it, you still have to do something with it. If you store it underground or dispose of it in the deep ocean, this is where your impacts are going to come from.

e360: Do you think it would be exceedingly difficult to get some sort of unified global action to reduce incoming solar radiation or pull C02 out of the atmosphere?

With the possibility of people becoming very desperate, it’s better to know more.”

Long: To do that in a way that was consistent with international consensus seems to me to be nearly impossible. I think it’s very unlikely that we would in an intentional way move to global methods because the governance issues will become extremely difficult to overcome. And it’ll also very difficult to know that it’s really the right thing to do. A lot depends on how desperate people begin to feel. And that I just don’t know. But I do know one thing — it’s better not to be ignorant. With the possibility of people becoming very desperate, it’s better to know more. I do think what is very likely to happen is regional intervention, where a country could decide it just can’t take any more of these floods, these droughts, these fires. These countries might try to do something to perturb the local climate if they can figure out a way.

e360: You’re recommending a focused and systematic program of research on climate remediation. What does that mean in the United States? Which agencies or laboratories might be involved?

Long: That really caused us a lot of struggle because there is no one place to go, no place in government where environmental sciences, social sciences, and the humanities all meet. So we were pragmatic in the sense of, “Here’s the government you’ve got, what’s the best way to use it to its best advantage?” The most important thing we recommended is an advisory commission that would deal with the problem of both governance and risk-based decisions of whether or not you should go ahead with research, dealing with issues like public engagement, transparency, interaction with the similar bodies doing this work in other nations. Somebody has to have an overview. There is a tremendous tension between the need to get some information about these technologies so we can quickly determine if there are any ideas that have merit, and the need to have public engagement and transparent risk management of research so that we can make good decisions about using them.

If you just battle ahead without taking some time to do public engagement, you’re going to end up doing what the Brits are doing right now, which is funding some geoengineering research [to spray aerosols into the atmosphere], sending the scientists out in the field to deal with the public, and then having to postpone the whole project because they just mismanaged it. So we feel that’s a very good example about how not to run it, that it should be done in a much more deliberative way. It shouldn’t just be science. It should be social science and law and humanities and members of the public that are debating about how we move forward, and then in the future if there is anything that we think would be a good idea to do, you are in a position to use the products of your research. A secret project in the back room is just the absolute wrong idea.

One of the first things the advisory commission could do would be to say, “Here is a bunch of all-indoor research and the government can proceed and you can get going.” At the same time, this commission would begin its own learning process on how to govern stuff that was outside of that zone.

e360: Why do you think it is so important that the U.S. take a leading global role in this research effort?

“I think the U.S. should take the leadership in building norms of behavior around this research.”

Long: Well I guess as a citizen of the U.S. I would rather have us be engaged than having to accept other countries’ interpretations of what is the right thing to do. I’m pretty unhappy with what the Brits have done right now in terms of how they’re managing this experiment. I think we should take the leadership in building norms of behavior around geoengineering research.

e360: And you would envision in this research phase reaching out to other nations in Europe, to China and India, etc., to involve some of their government agencies or scientists?

Long: Yes. And reach out to them through science, not through diplomacy. Leading with cooperation in the sciences is the best way to develop the norms of behavior that we’re looking for.

e360: Did you at times feel like you were a scientist who was in a scene from some futuristic Mad Max movie where you’re having to even think about this kind of stuff?

Long: No. But there’s also this complete sense of frustration that we have to be thinking about this, that somehow as a species we aren’t able to recognize this horrible foible and deal with it in a rational way. But people’s needs — their financial needs, their short-term needs — seem to prevent them from factoring in their long-term interests. And that’s downright depressing. But I don’t feel that sense of science fiction because everyone I know who works on this is scared to death of this stuff. People aren’t doing this because they think, “Oh whoopee! We can change the Earth!” They’re doing it because they just don’t see any progress [on CO2 emissions] and it just seems to be getting worse and worse and they want options on the table.

One thing we didn’t talk about is a concern I have that the only people who are engaging in this issue are people belonging to groups who think there is a geoengineering conspiracy, that the government is already doing climate modification and that’s why we get all these jet contrails everywhere. I just think it’s very important to expand the discussion beyond this group, which is not extremely legitimate as representatives of concerned society. I’m very concerned that we take this beyond the conspiracy folks.

e360: I have to ask you, did you find any evidence that anyone out there — a government or individual — was already engaging in any kind of secret geoengineering research?

Long: There wasn’t anything that we know about that’s going on like that. The conspiracy theorists have a right to their opinion, but I don’t know of any evidence that would support what they think is going on.

e360: What is the reaction to the criticism that you’re using the term “climate remediation” instead of geoengioneering as spin or a marketing move to make some terrible technology seem palatable?

Long: That was kind of a surprise. I don’t think there was any motivation to make it palatable or spin it. The issue is that we thought the term geongineering doesn’t seem to refer to climate — it’s used in oilfields, in hydrology — so we wanted to have a term that would really talk about climate rather than focus on a word like geoengineering that is used for so many other things that it’s not precise. Members also felt that the term “engineering” was misleading because we would never be able to design a new climate with a perfectly predictable outcome. It’s in the report that not everyone on the panel agreed [on the term], and I really don’t think it should be the thing that gets everybody worked up about the report. A lot of people thought that “geoengineering” was an unfortunate choice of words, and that maybe we should try to do something about the name at this point in time.