The University of Arizona

SWCCN Book Club: Geoengineering-Could it Save the Day?

February 16, 2012
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It’s time to get the discussion going on our first SW Climate Book Club selection: Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope – or Worst Nightmare – for Averting Climate Catastrophe by Eli Kintisch (Wiley, 2010).

I found the book and topic to be quite interesting, and rather than try for a comprehensive treatment, I’d like start with what I – as a climate scientist who is seriously concerned about what climate change is doing to our planet – felt as I read the book.  

I really liked how the book wove together the science and ethics of geoengineering. I’m always looking for approaches that could help deal with climate change, although I’m convinced the most cost-effective approach is to reduce the emissions of heat-trapping pollution (e.g., greenhouse gases and aerosols, especially carbon dioxide produced by the burning of fossil fuels) to the atmosphere. Indeed I believe there is a good chance that the United States (and especially the Southwest) could score big economically if we shifted from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Not only would this approach help solve our climate problem and clean up the air pollution that is having significant health impacts across our region, but it would also help our region become a market leader for climate solutions worldwide. Heaven knows our region needs a more diverse economic engine. Plus, countries and states that hang on too long to coal and oil-based energy will probably become the big losers as the global economy transforms to an inevitable low carbon future.   

But, as we all know, the politics of climate change are bogged down pretty badly in the US. As a result, we are going to have to figure out how to live with our changing climate. This “climate adaptation” will be costly, require a great deal of extra climate-related science, and in the end, it alone won’t be enough. Sooner or later climate change will become too costly and unacceptable for America to tolerate any longer - and then the race will be on to put a stop to climate change. 

Enter geoengineering. Although it would be nice to say we could someday flip the switch and cut carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions to zero, we can’t. It will take decades to do the job, hopefully not too many. And climate change could get out of control pretty fast in the mean time. For example, truly devastating drought here in the West, or a big acceleration in ice sheet collapse and sea level rise, or maybe an unbearable string of monster hurricanes slamming into our populated coastal states. It is easy for me to imagine big climate change pressure to do something fast. And this is why climate scientists are increasingly saying – okay, we need to really figure out the pros and cons of geoengineering. We need to get ready, even if it all seems like a desperate last resort option. 

One type of geoengineering is a no-brainer and not at all desperate: figuring out how to cheaply remove carbon dioxide from the air. Tucson had a company working on this just a few years ago, but unfortunately they ran out of capital. Some think it’s a long-shot, but others think it’s doable at an acceptable cost. Surely enhancing our research into this capability makes sense. 

The other big geoengineering options are scarier, but in some cases probably cheaper. The one I see rising to the top of the list is what Eli Kintisch calls “Operation Pinatubo” in his book – using airplanes to continuously dump tons of chemicals into the stratosphere to emulate a never-ending string of large volcanic eruptions to cool the Earth for just a few billion dollars a year. Sounds tempting. But, alas, it also sounds very scary to me. Why? For a number of reasons, but most of all because (1) it won’t do anything for the acidifying ocean, (2) it will likely have lots of unforeseen negative impacts on the global climate, including not enough rain where we need it, and (3) it could get us addicted to a path even worse than fossil fuels - one that could generate much faster and more devastating climate change should we fail some year to feed the stratosphere its annual diet of chemicals. And that’s just the start of my worries. 

As the book makes clear, the idea of enhancing the ocean pump of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere via iron fertilization of surface waters isn’t going anywhere fast. Not only does the science support look equivocal, there is just not a lot of support given potential unknown consequences the process could have on the ocean.

Design for an unmanned ship, proposed by Stephen Salter to generate clouds over the ocean and reflect more sunlight. Image from The GuardianEnhancing the brightness and amount of low ocean cloud cover seems to be an option that might have promise. This means more research is warranted on how it would work to implement, but also on what unintended consequences might crop up. When I was recently in Bangalore for a science visit, I learned that India is looking into this option pretty seriously. 

Where does the whole geoengineering debate leave me as a climate scientist? Conflicted—just like many of the scientists mentioned in Hack the Planet. Like them, I concede that the stakes might just be too high to ignore even the scarier forms of geoengineering, like the Operation Pinatubo option. As we grapple with climate change and work to provide choices for dealing with it, we need to look under every rock and consider every option. There might not be any easy choices, and so we need to thoroughly explore the pros and cons of geoengineering techniques before we implement them. But after reading this book, I would agree with many of my scientific colleagues that the safest, most controllable option is to just reduce greenhouse gas emissions and avoid having to resort to the riskier option of geoengineering.

What do you think?

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The book wraps up with some

The book wraps up with some really thought-provoking quotes... who said them?

"Geoengineering is like trying to cure pneumonia by immersing the patient in a bath of icy water; the fever would be cured but not the disease" p. 240

"Are we playing God?" p. 219

"If, say, a Huckabee administration suddenly woke up and stated geoengineering the planet, what could anybody else do about it?" p 220. and on the next page, "some thought poor nations would inevitably find themselves at the will of richer countries that have the technical means to alter climate."

"One of the disaster scenarios is that we get to a panic situation, and there are pressures to deploy something that might work [geoengineering], but in fact had we done five to ten years of straightforward research we would know [if] it's a really dumb idea" p. 214

"So, given all of these uncertainties my initial reaction was that we ought to just create a taboo against geoengineering just as we have created a taboo against chemical and biological weapons" p. ""But then, he said, he realized humanity might need it" 213

"The geoengineering option provides the needed viable reason to do nothing about Anthropogenic Global Warming"

"Geoengineering would provide more time for the world's economy to grow" p. 202

"we just don't know what their [geoengineering's] side effects would be or whether they would behave the way we think they do." p. 203.

Having returned the book to

Having returned the book to the library 11 days ago, I don't remember who said any of the quotes, but the quote on p203 summarizes what scares me about geoengineering. I think atmospheric dynamics is sufficiently complicated that models have a vanishing small chance of handling all potential major effects, and valid small scale tests are impossible (IMHO). I'm not a climate scientist, but extracting the CO2 from the atmosphere seems to me to be the safest option. Given the low concentration and worldwide distribution of CO2, I can't think of a practical way to do that. The safest way to sequester the CO2 would be as a solid, as plants do, but that makes the problem even more difficult. YMMV.

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