New Point of Inquiry: Eli Kintisch–Is Planet-Hacking Inevitable?

By Chris Mooney | April 9, 2010 12:22 pm

The show just went up–you can stream the audio here and download to iTunes here. I have to say, I think this is the best episode of Point of Inquiry that I’ve hosted yet. But judge for yourself; here’s the write up:

For two decades now, we’ve failed to seriously address climate change. So the planet just keeps warming—and it could get very bad. Picture major droughts, calving of gigantic ice sheets, increasingly dramatic sea level rise, and much more.

Against this backdrop, the idea of a technological fix to solve the problem—like seeding the stratosphere with reflective sulfur particles, so as to reduce sunlight—starts to sound pretty attractive. Interest in so-called “geoengineering” is growing, and so is media attention to the idea. There are even conspiracy theorists who think a secret government plan to geoengineer the planet is already afoot.

Leading scientists, meanwhile, have begun to seriously study our geoengineering options—not necessarily because they want to, but because they fear there may be no other choice.kintisch_eli_mug

This week’s Point of Inquiry guest, Eli Kintisch, has followed these scientists’ endeavors—and their ethical quandaries—like perhaps no other journalist. He has broken stories about Bill Gates’ funding of geoengineering research, DARPA’s exploration of the idea, and recently attended the historic scientific meeting in Asilomar, California, where researchers gathered to discuss how to establish guidelines for geoengineering research.

And now, the full story is related in Kintisch’s new book Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe.

Eli Kintisch is a staff writer for Science magazine, and has also written for Slate, Discover, Technology Review, and The New Republic. He has worked as a Washington correspondent for the Forward and a science reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 2005 he won the Space Journalism prize for a series of articles on private spaceflight. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Once again: The show is here; you can stream the audio here; and download to iTunes here. To contribute to the dialogue about the show over at the Point of Inquiry forums, click here.


Comments (6)

  1. Skwish

    One thing Climatology has clearly shown is the Climate changes. It has changed in the past and it will change in the future. Whether this is due to man or comet or volcano, it will change. Our attitude seems to be that this is undesirable and we should slow or stop it. In the meantime, the forces behind climate change are many orders of magnitude beyond our resources. It seems to me (and this is just an opinion) we should probably stop wasting resources trying to prevent the inevitable, and start applying them to securing our agriculture and living spaces. That way, we may secure our future beyond any climate change, and even take ourselves to other places.

  2. ChH

    We should seed the troposphere with a hydroxylic acid aerosol to increase the Earth’s albedo.

  3. ThomasL

    Interesting interview, I think you did a better job of asking real questions and Kintisch did a respectable job of explaining the various ideas and differentiating between them. It was also nice to hear his hope that these various possibilities not become a partisan issue and his understanding that it is too important to become overrun by demagogues (actually I think if such happens it will never go anywhere as the public will protest in mass…). He did seem to sidestep the issues of unintended consequences though, only pointing out that on a global scale no one knew what such may be. I did appreciate his taking the idea that there are ethical questions (in the interview it was presented as the idea of “playing God”) and such should be taken seriously and thought through.

    While I think, as I do in most things, experimenting and learning more about these options are a necessary thing (gaining a better understanding of our atmosphere and how substances affect it is obviously helpful to things outside just geo-engineering, such as our health), I do think there needs to be some intergovernmental work on ground rules between countries before we end up in a situation where the public is freaking out (and I think they would have a right to be annoyed about someone introducing substances of unknown consequence into the atmosphere above them – especially if they are unaware of it…).

    Again, this was a pretty good interview, much better than the previous ones.

  4. Sean McCorkle

    Good interview on a timely topic. I think this will help drive the discussion.

    I haven’t yet read Kintisch’s book, but one issue I have from the interview is the lumping CO2 sequestration with the more radical ideas such as albedo-altering aerosols etc. (although I suppose sequestration could include radical things such as engineering plants and seeding oceanic algae).

    CO2 sequestration is more attractive for at least two reasons. One is a moral imperative to clean up our garbage, and undo what we have done. A second is just good science/engineering: stick with changing one parameter or variable at a time, until you really understand what you’re doing. There’s been enough difficulty already in understanding the effects of increases of just this one parameter, CO2 concentration. Bringing that value down makes a lot more sense than trying to change others (albedo) to compensate, which would certainly introduce more unknowns and questions in the process.

    Furthermore, Earth’s limestone deposits offer testimony of at least one sequestration process that has successfully trapped CO2 for many tens or hundreds of millions of years or more. (There’s enough former atmospheric CO2 in formations like the White Cliffs of Dover to create an atmosphere more like Venus than Earth). Reproducing that process would require enormous amounts of calcium and maybe wouldn’t be feasible, but it seems like we could develop some other effective method thats not environmentally harmful.

    And quite frankly, there’s already enough garbage and aircraft-induced cirrus up in the sky already, which coupled with obscene levels light pollution these days, makes it nearly impossible for most people to get a good look at the night sky anymore.

  5. Jean

    Interesting guest and good interview, but I think it could have been just a bit better. You asked him whether critics of geoengineering object to “playing God,” and he said some do. He then said he had some sympathy for that sentiment. You didn’t ask why. There was an interesting possibility glimpsed for just a moment. Maybe a religious perspective has something to offer? Yes? No? It would have been interesting to hear that discussed. Also–it was never quite clear what Kintisch’s attitude was toward geoengineering. Should we redouble efforts at CO2 reduction so we don’t have to do this research, or go full steam ahead? You mentioned Bjorn Lomborg’s view, but that was dropped quickly. I think what’s missing is you imagining what a listener might be thinking.

  6. Guy

    I am glad that this is getting more attention. We need to look at all the options available for dealing with climate change.


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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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