Queue Up The Stratospheric Aerosols

By Chris Mooney | December 20, 2009 12:18 pm


On Monday, I noted in Mother Jones that a failure in Copenhagen would strengthen the would-be geoengineers, some of whom–like the Russians–are already starting to fire sulfates into the air in field trial experiments.

Well, there has been a failure–or at least, a very weak agreement–in Copenhagen. Expect to hear more and more talk about geoengineering as this ongoing climate policy mess–now two decades old–continues and continues and continues.

I am not in favor of geoengineering, but I am in favor of geoengineering research–and pragmatic solutions. And if the policy process can’t deliver a global cutback in emissions sufficient to avert “dangerous anthropogenic” climate change, then I think geoengineering has to be in our toolkit as a last option.



Comments (18)

  1. WhatMeWorry

    Ahhh spoken like a true geoengineering quasi-denialist.

  2. At least he’s open-minded enough to favor geoengineering research.

  3. Guy

    Well, depending on how you view it there are already is some geoengineering going on. Our Co2 emissions collectively geoengineer the plant to become warmer. There are people using more reflective coatings on buildings/pavement to reflect the UV back into space instead of adding to the heat island effect. Green rooftops is another example.

    I think we need a variety of tools in our kit to solve the problem. I would hope that we can do more to curb emissions but we should research alternatives. Obviously, aerosols should be a last resort because they create another problem.

  4. Sean McCorkle


    Its ALREADY hard enough to see the night sky as it is in most of the continental U.S. and Europe.
    I know Physics PhDs from Belgium and Holland that honestly do not believe one can see the
    Milky Way with the naked eye. Many people in the urban and suburban US are equally ignorant.
    I can count on one hand the number of nights in the last year that I’ve been able to see all the stars in the Little Dipper. I have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see a decent sky anymore. And they want to put EVEN MORE CRAP into the air?

    Please do not let this happen!

  5. Tomas L

    Now that is some scary stuff. Sorry, I have never seen us “proactively” fix any natural system – every effort I am aware of has only lead to even worse problems than the ones they were trying to fix. I would say that is a very hard sell on the public, and every side is going to be against it.

    I agree with Sean as well (Luckily I have always live somewhere that allowed for the viewing within a very short drive if not simply walking out the back door…). We already have enough crud up there, do we really think adding more is going to help?

  6. Who should pay for them?

  7. Anonymous Coward

    A more interesting post would have discussed:

    A) the outrage by liberal economists and liberal pundits against SuperFreakonomics for advocating geoengineering
    B) the lack of outrage by liberal economists and liberal pundits against Rajendra K. Pachauri, and Chris Mooney for advocating geoengineering

  8. Busiturtle

    Two advantages of geo-engineering

    (1) It can be applied on an as-needed basis
    (2) It is much more likely to be successful.

    The beauty of SO2 is we know that Mother Nature uses this technique and we know it works. The only reason not to like it is it does not require a global government to redistribute wealth from rich nations to those who unable to Google “capitalism” and understand the power of education, investment and free markets.

  9. Chris Mooney

    7–There is a vast difference, for I would never suggest that geoengineering is a viable alternative to cutting down our emissions, and neither I am sure would Pachauri. At most, responsible scientists consider it a back up plan or “emergency brake.”

    People who use geoengineering to say we don’t need a global reductions in emissions, like Bjorn Lomborg or the Freakonomics guys, are completely misusing the topic.

  10. Anonymous Coward Says:

    A more interesting post would have discussed:

    A) the outrage by liberal economists and liberal pundits against SuperFreakonomics for advocating geoengineering

    It’s not so much outrage as perplexed headshaking at how two such smart people could have gotten so much stuff so very wrong.

    One of their claims, for example, is that solar energy won’t help because solar panels are black and absorb sunlight, thereby actually warming the climate rather than helping cool it. RC has a great (and rather funny) post by Ray Pierrehumbert that shows how utterly trivial it is to prove this is completely wrong, using only some third-grade arithmetic and a few bits of very basic and easily obtained information. It’s worthwhile reading.

  11. At the risk of nit-picking, shouldn’t the blue cloud in your cartoon be “Chemicals to destroy ozone”?

    Ozone is a greenhouse gas, and the destruction of Antarctic ozone is one reason that part of the world is warming more slowly than the rest of it.

    If you want to reduce warming, getting rid of the ozone blanket is a good place to start. Of course, like with all geoengineering projects, there will be collateral damage.

  12. John Kwok

    This isn’t so new or novel a concept, and it’s been discussed by some climate scientists over the last few years. Now if I can finally finish revising an unpublished SF novel and then interest a literary agent, I may have found a suitable subject for a second novel.

  13. @8 – Busiturtle: Nice straw man you have there. If that truly were the case for and against geo-engineering, I’d be wondering why we weren’t doing it already.

    You seem to miss the irony in fixing the mess we made by releasing a lot of gases into the atmosphere by releasing even more gases into the atmosphere. At best, stratospheric SO2 promises to turn the earth into a smoggy dim less-warm hellhole with acidic oceans dependent on the continued good will and economic means of the SO2 delivery system owners to avoid the potential for catastrophic climate change on short notice due to an interruption in the system.

    That’s really not much better than the “business as usual” global warming scenarios, and we miss out on some of the “upsides” of increased atmospheric CO2 like increased crop yield in areas that remain or become temperate.

    There is also the understandable outrage across nations if “some nation” were to take it on themselves to do this unilaterally instead of in a multi-lateral fashion, preferably through the auspices of the UN. Which, you’ll note, puts us right back in the political mess where we are now. In fact, if some countries were to disagree strongly enough about the wisdom of geo-engineering, said unilaterally SO2-pumping nation would then have to defend their wisdom with military force.

    Thanks for trying, but I’ll continue to think of SO2 as a fallback option while hoping for either the technical means or political will to manifest to actually fix our problems.

  14. Gus Snarp

    @Busiturtle – at the risk of being repetitive, I’ll restate what William Furr said in a bit more simplistic manner, so that anyone ignorant enough to buy what you’re selling will be able to understand:

    You say “The only reason not to like it is it does not require a global government to redistribute wealth…..”

    Except that’s fundamentally not true. Developing nations, who will suffer most from global warming, do not have enough money for geoengineering, so wealthy nations will still have to pay for the well being of less wealthy ones. I.e. there will still be a redistribution of wealth.

    It’s also far from the only reason. Sulfur Dioxide is also a pollutant, that causes, among other things, acid rain. Acid rain is enough of a problem that even during the Reagan administration there was enough political consensus to greatly reduce our output of sulfur dioxide.

  15. Gus Snarp

    @ Lab Lemming – I’m not so sure about that. While ozone may trap infrared energy leaving the earth, it also blocks UV radiation entering the atmosphere. The UV would otherwise heat up the earth, then that heat would be released to the atmosphere as IR, which would be blocked by other greenhouse gases. I suspect that a reduction of ozone likely does more to increase temperature than to reduce it, given the massive buildup of other greenhouse gases.

    And I expect that the loss of the ozone layer in its entirety would result in a much more unfavorable environment than even global warming.

  16. Gus Snarp

    Actually, now that I think about it, that means that ozone is not a greenhouse gas. A greenhouse gas, but definition, lets in short wavelength light, such as UV, but blocks long wavelength light, such as IR (i.e. heat). The short wavelength light heats up the earth, which then gives off that heat in the form of IR, which is trapped by the greenhouse gas. So even if ozone blocks the IR, since it also blocks the UV it is technically incorrect to call it a greenhouse gas. Now it may allow other short wavelengths of light to pass through, but UV is one of the major energy inputs, since most of the shorter wavelengths are blocked by other factors. I suppose you could make a case for the visible spectrum as the energy input (and it is certainly not insignificant), but absent a complete knowledge of the ozone’s impact on the spectrum, I would guess that it is not a net greenhouse gas.

  17. Gus Snarp

    Well, that perfect source of all knowledge, Wikipedia, does not have enough information on ozone to form a conclusion, but it does say that it has about one quarter the radiative forcing of carbon dioxide. But here’s the catch: ozone acts as a greenhouse gas in the troposphere, but the ozone layer we want is in the stratosphere. So we want to reduce tropospheric ozone (by reducing pollution, mainly) while maintaining stratospheric ozone (by reducing pollution and whatever these “chemicals to save ozone” are.

    And therein lies the rub with geoengineering – if you think that modeling the climate is so complex that we can’t possibly have it right, you haven’t seen anything yet compared to the complexity involved in intentionally engineering the climate.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    Chris, @ 9 above, thank you, I do think that’s a reasonable beginning to a response. I also think it would make for an interesting blog post or mojo article for a more expanded response.

    Chris, @ 10 above, thank you too, I’ll look at that article later. (I do think there was equal parts outrage as their was head shaking.)


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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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