Blogging the Eli Kintisch Point of Inquiry Show, I: A Quibble Concerning the Definition of Geoengineering

By Chris Mooney | April 11, 2010 4:11 pm

If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to download or stream my fourth (and so far, I think, best) Point of Inquiry program–with Eli Kintisch on the subject of geoengineering. All this week on the blog, I’m going to be discussing issues raised on the show–so having heard it will be kind of an essential baseline.

This post is to raise the first issue, which has to do with Eli’s response to my question around minute 6, where I ask about the geoengineering techniques that scientists consider to have the most promise.¬† In response, Eli provided a fairly encyclopedic answer that essentially broke geoengineering schemes into two categories: 1) carbon capture/removal techniques to get the stuff out of the air, by sucking it into machines, into the ocean, into trees and plants, etc; and 2) sunlight blocking techniques, which essentially reduce the total solar radiation being absorbed by the planet.

My problem is that the carbon removal techniques (with perhaps the exception of iron fertilization) are relatively uncontroversial. Whereas the sunblocking techniques–and especially what Kintisch calls the “Pinatubo option“–are wildly so. So is it really wise to group them both together under the rubric of “geoengineering”? Don’t we have a pretty big category issue here?

It would be interesting to hear Eli’s–and anyone else’s–response.


Comments (6)

  1. Nullius in Verba

    Depends what you mean by “wise”. Clearly, being controversial or not doesn’t have relevance to the categorisation as ‘geoengineering’. I presume you mean whether it is wise from a public perception point of view – by labelling them all the same, people could oppose the ‘uncontroversial’ options because of their perceptions of the controversial ones.

    Although if you’re going to manipulate scientific language to try get favourable public support, you’ll probably face a few other PR problems, too.

    By the way, your categorisation isn’t very clear cut along the lines you suggest. My favourite “get the carbon out of the air” proposal is to burn down all the forests. The charcoal gets incorporated into the soil as a long-term carbon sink – as opposed to being consumed by fungi/etc. and returned to the atmosphere over a few years. It reduces wildfires, encourages new growth (which absorbs carbon faster than older trees), fertilises the soil, gets rid of persistent pests, and has many other ecologically beneficial effects.

    But the thought of going to a Greenpeace demo waving a “Burn down the forests” banner… I think it would be controversial.

  2. Marion Delgado

    Actually, it’s all controversial to me – skip the geoengineering and prevent the problem.

    90% of the reason people say we can’t is that our real problem right now is runaway capitalism, which produces the runaway warming as a side effect.

  3. Obviously thery are different types of geoengineering- some techniquesreduces insolation, some others change atmospheric chemistry and heat-trapping ability. But they are still both engineering. As the iron fertilization controvercy shows, both types can be controvercial. The degree of controvercy generally relates to the risk of unforseen side effects and questionable efficacy.

  4. eli

    yep, pretty much when people talk about fraught issues related to “geoengineering” they mean the sunblocking methods. And since those techniques involve very different issues, i have written how i thought that the Asilomar meeting’s differentiation between “climate engineering” and “carbon remediation”. The catchall G word is useful because both flavors do raise larger questions about human’s role…

    But the carbon ones are hardly without controversy. Iron fertilization? hugely controversial. Creating biomass/charcoal plantations? Massive scale reforestation? Big problem. (think about how a relatively small incentive for corn ethanol has played havoc with food prices…) Even research into carbon sucking machine has been given next to no govt money

  5. See Tobis:

    “There are two main types of global strategy that don’t address emissions directly: radiative and geochemical. The word “Geoengineering” is often applied to both but should probably only be applied to the radiative class of strategy.”

  6. ChH

    Marion Delgado, runaway capitalism is absolutely the problem. We should return to serfdom.


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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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