Obama's Science Adviser Kicks Up a Fuss Over Geoengineering

By Eliza Strickland | April 10, 2009 2:47 pm

John HoldrenPresident Obama’s science adviser John Holdren has given his first round of interviews, and he immediately caused a ruckus by airing his thoughts on geoengineering–the large-scale climate hacks that could potentially slow or reverse global warming. Tinkering with Earth’s climate to chill runaway global warming — a radical idea once dismissed out of hand — is being discussed by the White House as a potential emergency option, the president’s new science adviser said…. “It’s got to be looked at,” he said. “We don’t have the luxury … of ruling any approach off the table” [AP].

However, the day after that Associated Press article appeared, Holdren came back to say that the article had misrepresented his statements. Dr. Holdren said that the Associated Press article implied incorrectly that this strategy for climate management was under serious consideration at the White House…. “Asked whether I had mentioned geo-engineering in any White House discussions, though, I said that I had. This is NOT the same thing as saying the White House is giving serious consideration to geo-engineering – which it isn’t — and I am disappointed that the headline and the text of the article suggest otherwise” [The New York Times blog], he wrote in an email to journalists and colleagues.

In Holdren’s interview with AP, he specifically mentioned the idea of pumping sulfur particles into the atmosphere to mimic the effects of a volcanic eruption, a scheme that has alarmed many environmentalists. By pumping light-reflecting aerosol particles into the sky, enough sunlight could be reflected to mask the effects of global warming — but only partly and temporarily, with potentially disastrous results. Stratospheric aerosols could deplete the ozone layer. They wouldn’t do anything about carbon dioxide, which would continue to build up. If humanity stopped pumping them, all that offset heat would kick in with a vengeance, turning atmospheric aerosol pumps into Doomsday Device-in-waiting. And oceans would still turn acidic [Wired].

In his later effort to backtrack, Holdren clarified that he just wants such proposals to be fully understood. “I said that the approaches that have been surfaced so far seem problematic in terms of both efficacy and side effects, but we have to look at the possibilities and understand them because if we get desperate enough it will be considered” [The New York Times blog], he wrote in the email. Holdren also emphasized that even if he personally thinks it prudent to start evaluating geoengineering options, he still believes that our most pressing concern should be curbing greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic proportions.

Related Content:
80beats: Iron-Dumping Experiment Is a Bust: It Feeds Crustaceans, Doesn’t Trap Carbon
80beats: Climate-Saving Sunshade Would Screw up Climate-Saving Solar Facilities
80beats: Meet the Black Phantom, the Huge Microwave Oven That Fights Climate Change
80beats: Ancient Agriculture Trick, Not Hi-Tech Engineering, Is Best Climate Defense
DISCOVER: 5 Most Radical Ways to Squelch a Climate Crisis (photo gallery)

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    If you want to find the bottleneck, the first place to look is at the top of the bottle.
    Leave sulfur in jet fuel. The stratosphere gets reflective sulfuric acid mist, Jet A and JP fuel costs decrease about 3%. An advocate makes virtue of failure. The worse the cure the better the treatment – and the more that is required.

    The Ozone Hole was roaring along during the International Geophysical Year, 1957-8. As with Global Warming, its only anthropogenic coupling is to revenue enhancement.

  • George

    * The logical explanation of the warming process on Earth and on the other planets in our solar system proves to be the one provided by I. Velikovsky, in his book from 1950: “Two celestial bodies have been attracted one to each other. The inner masses of the Earth were pushed to the periphery. The Earth, with its rotation movement disturbed, started to warm“…
    * NASA and Planet X… Californian Congressman for Planet X Forsight… As Planet X approaches our galaxy, its gravitational pull will interact with these NEOs in potentially disastrous ways for our planet… The Sky is Falling: the deadly threat posed by Near Earth Objects and what we can do about it
    By Rep. Dana Rohrabacher :

  • Jeff

    Read “The Cooling World” Article, NEWSWEEK, April 28, 1975, and the proposal to spread soot in the Arctic ice to absorb (nor reflect) sunlight to help warm the planet. Fortunately, this was never done.

    Thirty years later, with the claim of manmade global warming in vogue, the crackpots are once again coming out of the wood work. Somebody must bring them under control.

  • paul

    Aha, the science advisor is as nuanced as Obama. It would seem geoenginnering is being discussed as a last ditch, the-sky-is-REALLY-falling kind of tool.

    A very prudent approach really. If the sh*t hits the fan, someone needs to think about raincoats!

  • Michael

    We shouldnt mess up our climate any further. Our first priority is reducing CO2 emmissions. WHy do we still urn coal for electricity? urning Hydrogen works etter and is cleaner with water as a yproduct. Improving pulic transportation, greater fuel efficient cars. California state alone I read in 2008 consumed more gasoline than any soveign nation esides the USA. Are we that ackwards? Excuse my typos, a certian utton on my keyoard doesnt work

  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    This is not journalism.

  • paul

    And where you suppose we will get the hydrogen gas? You do realize that it doesn’t exist in pure form on Earth. Every iota of hydrogen that would be used for your hydrogen cars has to be electrolcyzed from water using electricity. Hydrogen is a medium for energy STORAGE, it is not an energy SOURCE.

    I’m sure you’ll say from solar or wind power. Realize this though, no matter how much you want to cry foul on coal for spoiling the environment, it will still be much, much, much cheaper to generate electricity with than any renewable power source for a long time. Solar or wind power will never compete with coal for main grid power, the only green solution for coal is nuclear energy, entirely due to the sheer scale of energy needs in the modern world.

  • http://www.myspace.com/dobermanmacleod Brad Arnold

    Our short-lived sun dimming pollution is already cooling the Earth 1 to 2 degrees C, so we are already accidentally geoengineering, leading to what Dr James Lovelock calls “a fool’s climate.”

    There is a cheap and simple way to immediately cool down the Earth: just add a little (more) sun dimming aerosol to the upper atmosphere. An engineered sun dimming aerosol could be ten times more effective as sulfur, not damage the ozone. If you want to reverse this form of geoengineering, just halt and it will wash out of the air in a couple of years.

    The Greens’ resistance to geo-engineering sits very uncomfortably with its message that the planet is screwed and we’re all going to die. It suggests that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations. It suggests that they don’t actually believe their own press releases, and that they know the situation is not as dire as they would like the rest of us to think it is. And that Environmentalists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces – “we’ll save the planet our way or not at all.” It suggests that Environmentalists regard science and engineering as the cause of problems, and not the solution. –Climate Resistance, 24 March 2008

  • http://www.myspace.com/dobermanmacleod Brad Arnold

    The world’s emissions of the main planet-warming gas carbon dioxide will rise over 50 percent to more than 42 billion tonnes per year from 2005 to 2030 as China leads a rise in burning coal, the U.S. government forecast on Wednesday. China’s coal demand will rise 3.2 percent annually from 2005 to 2030, the Energy Information Administration said in its International Energy Outlook 2008. –Reuters, 26 June 2008

    Any carbon diet strategy would be dependent upon clean coal:

    “The vast majority of new power stations in China and India will be coal-fired; not “may be coal-fired”; will be. So developing carbon capture and storage technology is not optional, it is literally of the essence.” –“Breaking the Climate Deadlock,” Tony Blair, June 26, 2008

    But, Vaclav Smil, an energy expert at the University of Manitoba, has estimated that capturing and burying just 10 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted over a year from coal-fire plants at current rates would require moving volumes of compressed carbon d ioxide greater than the total annual flow of oil worldwide — a massive undertaking requiring decades and trillions of dollars. “Beware of the scale,” he stressed.”

    “I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot.” –Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 2008

  • Nathan

    I think a better title for this article would be: “AP Kicks Up Fuss Over Obama’s Science Advisor”. He is absolutely right. In that kind of position, you need to discuss everything. NOT act, just make sure everyone knows those ideas are out there, what kind of last ditch contingencies do we have kind of thing. Very prudent.

    What is imprudent is AP making a mountain out of a molehill.

  • http://www.betalabservices.com ASTM D6866

    I agree with Nathan. This isn’t news worthy. The newsroom was probably too slow that day.

  • Marco

    This is very news worthy. To state otherwise, as the two above have stated is a folly. Holdren’s main belief is in eugenics, and depopulation, this was outlined in the book he co-authored, Ecoscience. Anything this man states, concerning the future of humanity, must never be ignored; he must always be exposed as a scientist who relies solely on eugenics . This is extremely relevant, as Nazi Germany relied solely on eugenics to commit the atrocities of the holocaust (Scientists in Nazi Germany used bogus science as a means to justify the actions of the holocaust). Therefore, John Holdren can easily be exposed as a extremely blind and immoral man.


    Quotes of John Holdren, Obama’s Chief Science Advisor, in the book, Ecoscience,

    Page 837: Compulsory abortions would be legal

    Indeed, it has been concluded that compulsory population-control laws, even including laws requiring compulsory abortion, could be sustained under the existing Constitution if the population crisis became sufficiently severe to endanger the society. – John Holdren

    Page 786: Single mothers should have their babies taken away by the government; or they could be forced to have abortions

    One way to carry out this disapproval might be to insist that all illegitimate babies be put up for adoption—especially those born to minors, who generally are not capable of caring properly for a child alone. If a single mother really wished to keep her baby, she might be obliged to go through adoption proceedings and demonstrate her ability to support and care for it. Adoption proceedings probably should remain more difficult for single people than for married couples, in recognition of the relative difficulty of raising children alone. It would even be possible to require pregnant single women to marry or have abortions, perhaps as an alternative to placement for adoption, depending on the society. – John Holdren

    Page 787-8: Mass sterilization of humans though drugs in the water supply is OK as long as it doesn’t harm livestock

    Adding a sterilant to drinking water or staple foods is a suggestion that seems to horrify people more than most proposals for involuntary fertility control. Indeed, this would pose some very difficult political, legal, and social questions, to say nothing of the technical problems. No such sterilant exists today, nor does one appear to be under development. To be acceptable, such a substance would have to meet some rather stiff requirements: it must be uniformly effective, despite widely varying doses received by individuals, and despite varying degrees of fertility and sensitivity among individuals; it must be free of dangerous or unpleasant side effects; and it must have no effect on members of the opposite sex, children, old people, pets, or livestock. – John Holdren

    Page 786-7: The government could control women’s reproduction by either sterilizing them or implanting mandatory long-term birth control

    Involuntary fertility control

    A program of sterilizing women after their second or third child, despite the relatively greater difficulty of the operation than vasectomy, might be easier to implement than trying to sterilize men.

    The development of a long-term sterilizing capsule that could be implanted under the skin and removed when pregnancy is desired opens additional possibilities for coercive fertility control. The capsule could be implanted at puberty and might be removable, with official permission, for a limited number of births. – John Holdren

    Page 942-3: A “Planetary Regime” should control the global economy and dictate by force the number of children allowed to be born

    Toward a Planetary Regime

    Perhaps those agencies, combined with UNEP and the United Nations population agencies, might eventually be developed into a Planetary Regime—sort of an international superagency for population, resources, and environment. Such a comprehensive Planetary Regime could control the development, administration, conservation, and distribution of all natural resources, renewable or nonrenewable, at least insofar as international implications exist. Thus the Regime could have the power to control pollution not only in the atmosphere and oceans, but also in such freshwater bodies as rivers and lakes that cross international boundaries or that discharge into the oceans. The Regime might also be a logical central agency for regulating all international trade, perhaps including assistance from DCs to LDCs, and including all food on the international market.

    The Planetary Regime might be given responsibility for determining the optimum population for the world and for each region and for arbitrating various countries’ shares within their regional limits. Control of population size might remain the responsibility of each government, but the Regime would have some power to enforce the agreed limits. – John Holdren

    Page 838: Nothing is wrong or illegal about the government dictating family size

    In today’s world, however, the number of children in a family is a matter of profound public concern. The law regulates other highly personal matters. For example, no one may lawfully have more than one spouse at a time. Why should the law not be able to prevent a person from having more than two children? – John Holdren

    This man is dangerous.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar