When Will Geoengineering 'Tip'?

By Chris Mooney | March 18, 2009 2:56 pm

My latest Science Progress column contemplates this question, in the wake of a spot of news that doesn’t seem to have caused any uproar (yet)–namely, that DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is apparently holding an event to discuss the prospect of geoengineering the climate.

As I write in the column:

This is newsworthy for at least two reasons: The U.S. government has, thus far, kept the subject of geoengineering at a relative arm’s-length; and one reason for that shyness is the extremely checkered past history of U.S. military ventures in weather modification, including the notorious attempt to use “weather warfare” to our advantage in Vietnam.

I’m not personally scandalized to learn of DARPA holding a conference or having a discussion. One thing about geoengineering, after all, is that not only may we want to do it, but we might also have reason to be concerned about someone else doing it–so the more dialogue, the better.

Indeed, I suspect that at some point soon this topic, currently off the radar of most Americans, is going to come up in a very big way, whether through politico-media scandal or, very preferably, otherwise.

Why? Put simply, because at least in some versions, geoengineering is likely to be cheap, and likely to work. These two attributes are already proving intellectually irresistible to many climate scientists, who at minimum call for geoengineering to be “studied,” and who are already doing so themselves in climate models. At some point, as we continue to struggle to get a handle on the global warming problem, they may also prove practically irresistible to politicians and governments.

I then call for a much broader public discussion of the pros and cons of geoengineering now, at the highest levels of policymaking and the media. We need to decide, as a society, what we think about direct and intentional climate modification before somebody goes ahead and actually tries it. You can read the full column here.

Comments (10)

  1. When you say “likely to be cheap,” do you mean in comparison to the damage caused by unchecked global warming? Or do you mean in absolute terms? Because I’ve seen geoengineering discussed at several scientific panels, including the AGU, and none of the scientists who spoke on the topic, including a leading expert named Alan Robock, said anything of the sort.

    http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/robock/robock_geopapers.html

  2. Erasmussimo

    There’s a deep irony here: THIS is what we should be talking about with respect to AGW, yet the denialists insist on fighting the wrong fight, which only wastes our energies now and distracts us from constructive debate on the issue.

  3. Jon Winsor

    Chris–Looks like George Will still thinks your problem is that you love you some big government, and his Heartland Institute is better than the unanimous opinion of all your dozens of worldwide scientific organizations… Any word from Fred Hiatt? Is his answer still that he has a printing press and you don’t?

  4. There’s nothing wrong in studying geoengineering from a scientific viewpoint. But it should just not be seen as the next big solution so that we can all now stop worrying about fossil fuels and puff and expel. Didn’t Paul Crutzen pen a well-known article in favor of the salvation stratagem a couple of years ago?

  5. Chris,

    I’ll read the SP column and comment there as well, but I have to say, from an oceanographer’s perspective, two things: first, we’ve been slowly but surely geoengineering since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It’s how we got into this mess. Second, when you look at proposed solutions for carbon capture using the oceans (or any other geoengineering technique for that matter), you need ot make sure you are looking at ecological impacts, not just physical processes.

    There are, for instance, many physical oceanographers who will tell you that the oceans are nowhere near their CO2 capacity, and so we should do large scale fertilization using iron or other nutrients. But as any lake or pond owner knows, if you pump in too many nutrients, you get algea, which leads to hypoxia, which leads to fish kills . . . and so on. Same thing, though not on a basin wide scale, is bound to happen if we try to use the oceans to scrub our atmosphere of the carbon products of our gluttony. Trading one ecological tragedy for another jsut to avoid doing other things is not, IMHO, good policy. Nor is it good science.

  6. GB

    One topic I hope is on the agenda at this meeting is how to monitor and adjust whatever system could be put in place. If we seed the stratosphere with sulfate aerosol particles to reflect sunlight and cool the globe, what happens if we get a massive volcanic eruption? How do we “turn off” or “turn down” what we’ve put up there? Do we have a back out plan? Can we apply “patches” if something doesn’t go exactly as planned? It needs to be understood by the public and by policy-makers that any geoengineering solution is not a fix-it-and-forget-it solution.

  7. Dunc

    The main problem I have with “geo-engineering” is that, while I believe we have a good enough understanding of climatology to know that we’re affecting the climate and the results are unlikely to be good, I don’t believe that we know enough to predict specific outcomes with anything like the precision needed for “engineering” particular results.

    I prefer the term “geo-kerplunk” – “engineering” implies that you know exactly what you’re doing.

  8. First, let me say that I love your blog site.

    Regarding geo-engineering, we have very little understanding of all of the physical relationships betwen the various climatic factors. Altering one will yield unanticipated results somewhere else. Unless we can figure a small scale way of doing experiments that have legitimate, measurable results, we need to be very, very cautious.

    The old saying “Don’t fool with mother nature.” may apply here. I’m not dissing the engineering or scientific community, we just don’t know enough yet to even pretend that this is a good idea.

    Funny how humans always think they know way more than they do. Better for us to study the natural world and get a working understanding of all natural processes, and then mimic those processes for intended results. Biomimicry has endless possiblities.

  9. Jon Winsor

    This is interesting. From the George Will piece:

    I’ve never seen anything quite like this in my now 40 years in Washington. I’ve never seen anything like the enlistment of the mainstream media in a political crusade — and this is a political crusade, because it’s about how we should be governed and how we should live; those are the great questions of politics. It is clearly for some people a surrogate religion. It’s a spiritual quest. It offers redemption. But what it also always offers, whether it is global cooling or global warming, is a rationale for the government to radically increase its supervision of our life and our choices. Whether the globe is cooling, whether it’s warming, the government’s going to be the winner and the governing class will be the winner.

    This sounds like it’s straight out of the culture warrior’s handbook. The “surrogate religion… spiritual quest… redemption” bit is Daniel Bell and the “government to radically increase” stuff is both Bell and Irving Kristol. I guess never let your empiricism get in the way of your dated, 35-year-old post-Marxist analysis…

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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