Geoengineering is "On the Table" in Obama Administration

By Chris Mooney | April 8, 2009 2:53 pm

I’m stunned, but according to this report by Seth Borenstein–who’s highly trustworthy–Obama’s science adviser John Holdren has said that the prospect of geoengineering the climate has “got to be looked at. We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.”

A while back, I mused about when the geoengineering issue would “tip” and begin to draw more mainstream attention. This is certainly the biggest opportunity yet for that to happen. I’m not aware of any more high level figure in U.S. government ever raising this issue before in such a serious way, or indeed, in any way at all.

Comments (20)

  1. I just hope we keep Planktos out of operation. If the US moves on geoengineering, it must be done honestly and responsibly.

  2. Blogger

    Sheril, you’ve got brains AND beauty to boot. It’s a combination many would love to have. It takes nothing away from you the person when someone comments (tastefully) on it.

    While it I agree that it displays a lack of taste for the same person to constantly bring your beauty up, as if it were your only redeeming feature, I would think you’d be flattered by the attention and gracefully accept the onetime compliments that come your way.

    I really like the blog. Keep up the good work.

    (and yes, this is the only time I’m going to mention it)

  3. When you chose to be a pragmatist, then it is hard to argue against experimentation with something that “just might work.” That really leaves the door open to a lot of hare (sic) brained ideas all in the hope for finding a miracle.

    If this is the path, then for sure we need serious scientists making decisions and not political ideologues. I trust a Holdren or a Lubchenko before I would trust an Inhofe or a Rohrabacher.

    But, the real answer will come when we accept that fact that there is no single big answer, that we will solve this with a lot of smaller, distributed, effective interactions… just like the complex ecological system that we live in. Big corporations want to have mega-projects and control it all.

    Add to that the fact that a distributed energy system has no single point of failure and you get the “energy security” that the right wing equates with more drilling.

  4. Erasmussimo

    Geoengineering is scary business, but we might well find ourselves in a nasty moral quandary: our injection of CO2 into the atmosphere is a form of geoengineering that we *know* is injurious; so if we come up with another form of geoengineering that we *believe* to be beneficial, do we evaluate its desirability solely in terms of the uncertainties inherent in the geoengineering technology, or in comparison to the uncertainties of AGW?

  5. Hi Chris.. Agree this is significant and worrying… Wecouldn’t find your email so sending you this news release here. hope thats ok.

    GEO-ENGINEERING: YES, YOU CAN – BUT YOU SHOULDN’T !

    REPORTED MUSING BY OBAMA ADVISOR ON SHOOTING SULPHATES INTO ATMOSPHERE , SHOCKING

    OTTAWA, April 8, 2009 — Reports from an Associated Press interview with US Chief Science Advisor John Holdren claiming that the White House could now taking a serious look at geo-engineering the climate, including the radical proposal to shoot nanoparticles of sulphate into the earth’s atmosphere, is an alarming trial balloon that should be immediately shot down says ETC Group, an international civil society organisation leading the fight to stop geo-engineering. geo-engineering refers to large-scale technological attempts to deliberately modify the planets climate and other systems.

    Holdren is quoted as saying that such an experimental measure needs to be “looked at” adding “We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.” As reported, these comments signal a clear change in tone from earlier writings in which Holdren warned of “serious side effects” of geo-engineering .

    “The White House needs to immediately clarify whether or not it is exploring geoengineering options for climate change.” says Pat Mooney, Executive Director of ETC Group, an Ottawa-based NGO that has monitored geo-engineering technologies for several years. “What is alarming about geo-engineering is that it might be unilaterally deployed by a single state or small group of states against the wishes and interests of the rest of the planet. That John Holdren is reported as countenancing shooting sulphate nanoparticles into the atmosphere is particularly worrying.”

    “The potential side effects of polluting the upper atmosphere with sulphates could be devastating – ranging from ozone depletion and increased drought to threats to health,” explains Jim Thomas of ETC Group. “Worst of all, once governments startsshooting up these particles into the atmosphere, we may find ourselves addicted -unable to stop without allowing a massive jump in temperature. Of all the wacky geo-engineering schemes out there, this is one of the most dangerous, the most unjust and the most far-reaching. It would be irresponsible to contemplate real-world testing of this technology.”

    Holdren’s statement will be received with glee by geo-engineers who have been campaigning for more research dollars and a higher public profile. This week a group of geo-engineers are reportedly sending a letter to the Obama administration asking that Geo-engineering be placed on the agenda for the preparatory meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate being convened April 27-28th in Washington DC . The looming failure of the Kyoto Protocol and uncertain outcome of the Copenhagen climate negotiations in December have politicians grasping at the air for anything that could appear to be a winning strategy in the fight against climate change.

    “ The White House must confirm that Barack Obama’s meeting with representatives of the 16 largest economies to discuss climate change later this month is not an attempt to convene a “coalition of the willing” to reengineer the planet ” asserts Diana Bronson of ETC Group. “If the United States does indeed head down the geo-engineering path they could find themselves in breach of international law under the UN ENMOD (Environmental Modification) treaty. If John Holdren wants to play a constructive role, he should work with the United Nations so that appropriate oversight structures can be set up to prevent unilateral deployment of geo-engineering. Meanwhile geo-engineering schemes, including real world field trials, should be vigourously opposed.”

    Earlier this week, ETC Group sent a submission to the UK-based Royal Society on the question of governance and geo-engineering. This submission is available here from ETC Group’s website.

    ETC Group is also sponsoring a Pie-in-the-sky contest to highlight wacky geo-engineering schemes. Dozens of entries have been received and the winner will be announced on Earth Day (April 22).

  6. Given the Congressional prospects of meaningful climate legislation, and the possible fallout from further economic meltdown and resulting collapse of international negotiations, I think it would be irresponsible to declare geo-engineering “off the table” as a last resort at this point.

    Taking geo-engineering and carbon capture seriously at least moves the policy discussion beyond the “deniers vs. reality” stage.

  7. Erasmussimo

    I want to jump all over the ETC Group position, because they are apparently opposed to the consideration (not the adoption, the consideration) of a particular geoengineering technology. We are fortunate that such narrow-mindedness was not permitted to intrude into earlier investigations of climate change; surely there were those who opposed the investigation of climate change on the grounds that they considered it so obviously wrong as to be undeserving of consideration. I agree that any form of geoengineering is necessarily worrisome but I would not dream of shutting down consideration of any such technology until it has been properly investigated. The use of sulfate aerosols is particularly frightening at first glance, but I would like to take more than a first glance at this technology.

    The opponents of AGW are correct to worry that any ameliorative policies we embrace will cost money, but this does not justify termination of all consideration of such policies, because increases in CO2 concentrations will surely cost us as well. In like fashion, the use of geoengineering technologies will surely have costs, but not addressing AGW will also have costs. Our tasks is to contemplate all the possibilities and determine the best mix of responses.

  8. MadScientist

    It will be interesting to see where that goes – let me get my crystal ball: Mostly studies which discover that various ideas will not be economically feasible.

    Let’s take my favorite: sulfate aerosols. First we need many tons of the stuff every single day. The largest sources at the moment would be smelters processing lead and copper ores. Of course we can always take elemental sulfur from any number of sources and convert this into SO2. Now we need to get the stuff high up into the atmosphere. What’s the atmospheric residence time? It can’t be very long (perhaps weeks to months) because volcanoes put out an awful lot, some inject into the lower stratosphere, many inject at least into the upper troposphere, and yet the typical amount in the atmosphere is so low that we can point instruments on the ground towards the sun and see no evidence of SO2. (Far more sensitive instruments flying on aircraft can detect a small amount though.) The SO2 we put up must eventually settle as well – it will probably be converted to sulfuric acid aerosols and either settle to earth as microscopic solid particles or else be ‘rained out’.

    It will be interesting to see what ideas people come up with, but there are many reasons to concentrate more on reducing CO2 production rather than extreme measures such as ‘geoengineering’. Anyone read Ben Elton’s “This Other Eden” lately?

  9. @Erasmussimo: Jump away. Consideration of geo-engineering by the White House is nothing new. When Lyndon B Johnson was first alerted to Global Warming in 1965, that alert came with a geo-engineering proposal attached (to spread particles on the ocean.. not in the sky).

    What is different now is that the political terrain has changed and there is a concerted campaign from some quarters to mainstream geo-engineering as a legitimate climate change response in place of emissions cuts. Conservative thinktanks such as the American Enterprise Institute and Cato (I notice both are now quoted on the original AP article) are attempting to steam roller elite opinion to sanction a move beyond climate modelling to real world experiments of geo-engineering technologies, especially with sulphate nanoparticles. Their argument to their conservative base is that it is cheaper and easier than changing american industry and lifestyles but to their usual opponents it will be cloaked in a defense of scientific freedom (“you can’t put restrictions on experiments”)

    In any case saying in this context that the White House is considering geo-engineering reads as code for “considering moving to real world trials”. That is the line in the sand right now and for what its worth ETC group is absolutely opposed to it being crossed – all the more so in the absence of international governance.

    It may be that Holdren was misquoted or misrepresented, in which case the White House should with some urgency correct this impression that they have used his first public interview to signal a change of policy and are not about to start backing actual experiments with sulphate nanoparticles in the stratosphere. As this stands the impression is created that the Obama administration are adopting the aggressive unilateralism of their predecessors and moving it into climate policy – not so much shock and awe as shock and thaw.

  10. Eric the Leaf

    It is incorrect to suggest that we already have been engaged in geoengineering. Engineering implies intent and purpose. Nobody attempted to inject CO2 into the atmosphere for the purpose of warming the planet. However, if this is geoengineering, all the more reason to be wary.

    I’m sure that there will be a debate about geoengineering. Fine. It is a flawed and deeply disturbing idea. If it becomes a reality, we can then proclaim unequivocally that we set out to intentionally destroy the biosphere, rather than doing so inadvertently. This twisted imposition of “science-based solutions” into human affairs legitimizes the religious imperative to achieve “dominion over the earth.” How ironic. If we cannot change our behavior, perhaps we are not worth saving.

    “Men go and come, but earth abides.”

  11. Erasmussimo

    Jim, you wrote:

    “saying in this context that the White House is considering geo-engineering reads as code for “considering moving to real world trials”. ”

    So, whose code is this? Yours? The Cato Institute’s? The members of some dark conspiracy? Let’s ditch this nonsense. Investigation is not the same thing as experimentation. There’s an ironic parallel between your position and that of the deniers: you’re so intent on preventing the outcome you abhor that you’re willing to twist the facts that might lead up to it.

    Theoretical considerations lead us to believe that such schemes are ill-considered. But there’s a good deal more we could do in the way of investigation without committing to doing anything harmful. What is wrong with pursuing such investigations? I think it worthwhile for us to spend billions investigating AGW. We know that, if unchecked, AGW will cost us trillions. We know that reducing CO2 emissions to pre-industrial levels will probably cost trillions over the course of decades. So don’t you think it would be prudent to invest a billion bucks, say, to investigate geoengineering options?

  12. Orson

    The IPPC judges solar radiation effects to be minor in climate change. Now Holdren – against the IPCC – believes that humans can control this minor element in radiative imbalancing?

  13. MadScientist

    @Orson: The sun’s output does not vary much at all on average and the ellipticity of the earth’s orbit does not make such a big change to our distance from the sun (end hence solar energy at the top of the atmosphere), and that may be why you read that the IPCC judges solar radiation effects to be minor. The idea of geoengineering with sulfur dioxide (or other chemicals which can form aerosols high up in the atmosphere) is that the climate can be cooled by increasing the earth’s albedo (reflection of light back to space). Since whatever we put into the atmosphere doesn’t stay there indefinitely, the volumes of chemicals needed to change the earth’s albedo will be on the order of absurdly large, and of course what goes up must also come down.

    While we’re on the topic of geoengineering, I’ll throw in my own scheme: detonate a few hundred nukes in the stratosphere every few days. We’ll get a lot of cooling then and it’ll also address the population problem.

  14. bad Jim

    There are some scalable geoengineering proposals, like solar-powered arctic fog generators, which may do some good and can’t do any lasting harm. Some proposals for carbon sequestration, like Gregory Benfords idea of floating agricultural waste down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico to be sunk, might be worthy of consideration.

    It doesn’t look as though we’re ready, willing or able to throttle back our emissions in the near term, so what’s an engineer to do? Depending on the timeline it could be redesigns to reduce energy use, political efforts to the same ends, ameliorating kludges, or sabotaging energy supplies.

    Sure, the situation will stabilize once enough low-lying countries have been inundated and a few billion humans have died, but most solutions short of that would be preferable.

  15. Erasmussimo

    Orson, you completely, totally misunderstand the sun’s role in climate CHANGE. The sun has been a CONSTANT source of heat. The CHANGES in solar output are too small to have produced the observed CHANGE in global temperatures. Anything that reduces the amount of sunlight reaching the ground will reduce the overall temperature of the earth.

  16. Is geoengineering really predictive? All options to mitigate AWG should naturally be considered but has anyone really built a good model? If so, I would appreciate a good reference for educated laymen. Thanks.

  17. It seems to me that people insist on the fact that any attempts to reverse the damage we’ve done to the planet over the last couple of centuries must be done in a handful of years. I think we need to face the facts that it’ll take decades, if not longer, for us to reverse the problems we’ve caused ourselves. Over the last century we’ve managed to spew carbon stored for milli0ns of years in the earth, into our atmosphere. We know that this carbon was once itself life, so it is entirely possible to recapture it (as life) and then store it away again. This can be done rather inexpensively (if you have enough land) but it’s going to take some time.

  18. MadScientist

    @TomJoe:

    You’re right about timelines of course; there is no overnight fix. I’ve pointed out in another post that I really don’t care for political grandstanding of the sort “we’ll make bigger cuts to CO2 emissions” when in fact neither side does anything of substance. Engineers and scientists have already put a lot of effort into investigating some schemes (and supported largely by the ‘big bad oil’ people who are always accused of propaganda against warming) but the political reality is that any operations must abide by local laws. In the USA that means perhaps one type of permit from the federal government, another type of permit from the state government, a different permit yet again from the EPA and so on. An entire decade can easily go by before much of the political and legal issues are sorted out, so this “mine’s bigger” is really nothing more than a schoolyard game played in front of TV cameras.

    People seem to have forgotten the war on CFCs – has anyone bothered to look at an ozone map around Antarctica in the spring lately? Emissions of CFCs have been cut drastically in a very short time (thanks mostly to industry) but the projected ‘recovery’ is on the order of many decades (60 years or more to reach a certain level of CFCs in the atmosphere). The CO2 story will similarly take a very long time to play out – except that unlike CFCs, the industries do not have any drastic emissions-cutting technology that they can give us tomorrow. Technologies exist to make cuts here and there, but what do you do about mobile emitters like cars and trucks which are a huge fraction of the overall emissions? Even at fixed points like power plants it is not reasonable to expect 100% CO2 capture, and in some parts of the world CO2 geological storage is simply not an option because there are no favorable storage sites.

  19. pilotsour

    i’m sorry people but “chemtrails” are real.
    it’s ten years now

  20. This is seriously the BEST Geo-engineering idea I have come across to date – http://www.ProjectBlueLagoon.com – and I have been studying in the field for years.

    Regards,

    Hursh Saha

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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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