Geoengineering: Are Small Scale Tests Possible?

By Chris Mooney | February 1, 2010 8:30 am

Last Friday, my friend and colleague Eli Kintisch of Science magazine had a piece in Slate about the latest in geoengineering research, a field that continues to burgeon. Now, scientists are talking about the possibility of conducting real geoengineering trials, on both the small and the medium scale–right up to the verge of climatic detectability. But as Kintisch reports, while some scientists think there could be a “safe” geoengineering trial, others argue there’s really no such thing. Perturb the planet enough that you see a climatic effect, goes the thinking, and there are going to be a cascade of other consequences.

The implication of this dispute, writes Kintisch, is disturbing:

…[the] back-and-forth over which experiments might be best and what sort of political treaties would be necessary raises a distressing possibility: It’s not just that geoengineering tests will be difficult. It’s that the problems they invite would be so diverse—and their results so inconclusive—that we’re likely to skip the testing altogether. If countries are going to hack the stratosphere, they may just do it full-bore in the face of disaster.

Or, perhaps some rogue countries will do large scale geoengineering tests and defy the rest of the world. As the Russian scientist Yuri A. Izrael has rather ominously written, “Already in the near future, the technological possibilities of a full scale use of [aerosol-based geoengineering] will be studied.”

Hack the PlanetSpeaking of study, I have a recommendation. Anyone interested in the geoengineering debate ought to click over to Amazon right now and pre-order Kintisch’s forthcoming book, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope–or Worst Nightmare–for Averting Climate Catastrophe. I’ve read an early version and give my full and enthusiastic endorsement. If our society is going to properly weigh the costs and benefits of geoengineering, we need a citizenry literate in and knowledgeable about the issue, and right now, there is no better way to achieve such literacy than to dig into this text….as someone who has followed the geoengineering debate for years now, I can guarantee it.


Comments (3)

  1. Katharine

    The citizenry is desperate. I won’t be surprised if they start doing full-scale geoengineering without testing.

    With regard to literacy, I doubt the citizenry’s going to try much. Look at how much they know about everything else.

    I talked to my mother, who for her own bizarre reasons hangs around people such as the ones you’re trying to reach, and she says they’re practically stuck in the 1960s. You’re going to need to do more than write books to make the world smart about science. You’re going to need to educate them better. Populate school boards with actual educators, for one – I hate it when school boards are populated by politicians or parents who are idiots.

    There is a problem when most humans in the United States can’t explain cell theory or the central dogma of molecular biology!

  2. Chris,
    I’ve tackled this before, and the bottom line is that we’re in this mess because of a century of unintended and thus undirected geo-engineering. This approac hpersist because humans have a HUGE capacity to deny their own role in the Ecology of the world. Novelist Daniel Quinn, calls it “Taker” mythology. That’s going to be a much tougher nut to crack the Katherine’s perceptive account of the lack of education.


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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 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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