Are Conservatives Misusing Geoengineering?

By Chris Mooney | April 21, 2010 10:04 pm

This is the second in a series of guest posts by science writer Eli Kintisch, author of Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope–or Worst Nightmare–for Averting Climate Catastrophe, and climate change reporter for Science magazine. We’ve invited Kintisch to contribute regular guest posts at the Intersection on the topic; my take on his excellent book, just out from John Wiley, is here.

In this latest post, Kintisch has contributed a small excerpt from Chapter 10 of his book, on the subject of how conservatives are exploiting geoengineering. Some lines have been edited for clarity in this shortened form, and the full chapter quotes this essay by Alex Steffen.

Why do some of the same people who believe human activities are not warming the globe—or that climate change isn’t a crisis—feel that geoengineering is required to fix the problem?…

Like a climate policy Swiss Army knife, geoengineering has proven useful to support a number of talking points on the subject. First, the promise of geoengineering as a technical fix to the problem has allowed conservatives to present a solution to global warming instead of being seen as simply blocking liberals’ proposed carbon regulations. Furthermore, strategies that involve blocking the sun turn a pollution problem–there’s too much carbon dioxide in the air—into a temperature problem—it’s too hot. By championing a technique that directly alters the temperature of the planet instead of the composition of the atmosphere, conservative advocates of geoengineering have a “solution” that fits the argument they been making all along. And conservatives cite liberal distrust of planet-hacking as evidence that they don’t really want to solve the problem—or even that they have more ulterior motives.

The spring of 2008 would see geoengineering emerge as a new focus for the right wing of the climate policy crowd. In June of that year, the American Enterprise Institute, Washington’s premier right-wing think tank, embraced the push for geoengineering research with the first of six planned workshops on the topic. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and leading nuclear hawk Fred Ikle of the Center for Strategic and International Studies were part of an invitation-only discussion of geoengineering hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

Though more contrarian than politically partisan, the 2009 book Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance provided new fuel to the yes-to-geoengineering-no-to-emissions-cuts position. Authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt acknowledged a risk that “the greenhouse gases we’ve already emitted do produce an ecological disaster.” But launching a global crash program to lower carbon emissions is a “costly, complicated” solution, they wrote. Transforming the energy system to reduce carbon emissions? Shouldn’t be “dismissed,” they wrote. But they quoted approvingly from scientists who called wind power “cute” and solar power “probably not” a good solution—and they basically ignored the potential of nuclear power. Geoengineering? A “fiendishly simple plan.” And Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal opinion page applauded the bestseller. He called it “delightful.”

But it can be difficult to remain scientifically credible while questioning the link between man-made carbon dioxide and global warming. Dubner and Levitt faced intense criticism from a variety of researchers in large part because Superfreakonomics raised doubts about a variety of aspects of settled climate science, most notably the atmospheric role of carbon dioxide. That gas, they assert, does not “necessarily” warm the earth. “So hopelessly wrong,” was how climate modeler William Connolley described the book before listing 10 errors or obfuscations. Having responded directly to few scientific critiques, Dubner and Levitt characterized their attackers as “ideological” opponents or, tellingly, “carbon crazies.”

Others have offered geoengineering as an alternative option to emissions cuts after arguing that the latter won’t solve the problem. In 2009 Alan Carlin, an economist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggested that the Pinatubo Option was preferable to cutting emissions because it was cheaper and because, unlike reducing greenhouse gases, “it would actually work.” Carlin told me in 2008 that geoengineering could not only protect us from warming but also, depending on what techniques were used, would allow humanity to prevent “the next ice age” in case it comes.

“Geoengineering would provide more time for the world’s economy to grow while investors and entrepreneurs develop and deploy new carbon-neutral energy sources to replace fossil fuels,” wrote Ronald Bailey of the magazine Reason. Teller, for his part, wrote in his 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed piece that geoengineering “is not a new concept and certainly not a complex one.” The AEI’s Sam Thernstrom states that cooling the planet using the Pinatubo Option offers “three powerful virtues in a climate policy that mitigation, at the moment, cannot claim.” They were, he said, “fast,” “affordable,” and “effective.”

The problem with the argument that geoengineering can be used to forestall emissions cuts is that every ton of carbon dioxide that gets emitted into the air while we’re delaying could increase the future calamity. Even Tom Wigley of the National Center of Atmospheric Research, a staunch supporter of geoengineering research, believes it could only be used simultaneously with emissions cuts, as soon as possible. The longer we wait to geoengineer, the more severe the geoengineering we might need in the future – hence the greater chance of side effects. Scientists who have studied radical geoengineering approaches hardly consider them “simple” or, as Thernstrom calls the Pinatubo Option, “effective.”

It’s one thing to say that geoengineering techniques appear as though they would cool the planet and so they should be studied. It’s another to say they’re good enough to be considered an alternative to getting to the root of the problem, too much carbon dioxide. The extent to which they’re “affordable” is also up for debate… “How can you vote on which solutions are most cost-effective if you don’t even know if they work?” wondered environmental scientist Alvia Gaskill, a prominent member of the Geoclique.

Conservatives have used the reservations that scientists and climate activists have with the radical idea of geoengineering as proof of nefarious aims. The argument goes that if you are uncomfortable with planet-hacking but support tackling the climate crisis with emissions cuts you are seeking political control, money, or vast political change. The Toronto Globe and Mail’s Reynolds wrote approvingly that the Pinatubo Option “would require no changes in lifestyles, no sacrifice in standards of living . . . perhaps this helps explain why it is neither discussed nor researched by environmentalists or governments. The belief that liberal environmentalists could never support geoengineering research led David Schnare to declare that advocates for planet-hacking research “have no friends” in the Obama administration.

But liberals are calling for geoengineering research, including environmental pioneer Stewart Brand, ecologist Tom Lovejoy and climate advocate Rafe Pomerance. And in the Obama administration, Secretary of Energy Steve Chu, has said that painting exterior surfaces such as roofs white to reflect sunlight could be a positive step to combat global warming – a technique unrelated to greenhouse gas controls. His science deputy Steve Koonin and White House Science adviser John Holdren organized meetings on geoengineering before they joined the administration.

There’s real basis for the concern that the concept of planet-hacking could be misused for political ends. Former National Coal Board scientist Richard Courtney is among Britain’s biggest opponents of emissions cuts, and he says “I do think the possibility of geoengineering should be supported. My reason for this is a political ploy…the politicians need a viable reason if they are to back off from this commitment to [carbon] constraints without losing face.”

In April 2009, Michael Totty, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, asked climate scientist Ken Caldeira over a series of e-mails to write a “strong advocacy piece” about geoengineering for a special pullout section of the newspaper on the environment. Caldeira was wary, so Totty suggested that Caldeira write that “all the attention on mitigating the cause of global warming is causing us to ignore a crucial strategy” and that “we’re going to have to take this whole different approach.” Totty called it “Geoengineering Now.”

“I have problems with the implication that we need to take a ‘different’ approach, rather than ‘an additional approach,’” Caldeira wrote back to the editor. He declined the assignment.

You can order Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope–or Worst Nightmare–for Averting Climate Catastrophe from Amazon.com. Also, don’t miss Kintisch’s appearance with me on Point of Inquiry–listen here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: geoengineering, Global Warming

Comments (9)

  1. Here is what Climate Code Red says:

    –Human emissions have so far produced a global average temperature increase of 0.8 degree C.

    –There is another 0.6 degree C. to come due to “thermal inertia”, or lags in the system, taking the total long-term global warming induced by human emissions so far to 1.4 degree C.

    –If human total emissions continue as they are to 2030 (and don’t increase 60% as projected) this would likely add more than 0.4 degrees C. to the system in the next two decades, taking the long-term effect by 2030 to at least 1.7 degrees C. (A 0.3 degree C. increase is predicted for the period 2004-2014 alone by Smith, Cusack et al, 2007).

    –Then add the 0.3 degree C. albedo flip effect from the now imminent loss of the Arctic sea ice, and the rise in the system by 2030 is at least 2 degree. C, assuming very optimistically that emissions don’t increase at all above their present annual rate! When we consider the potential permafrost releases and the effect of carbon sinks losing capacity, we are on the road to a hellish future, not for what we will do, but WHAT WE HAVE ALREADY DONE.

    “The Greens’ resistance to geo-engineering sits very uncomfortably with its message that the planet is screwed and we’re all going to die. It suggests that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations. It suggests that they don’t actually believe their own press releases, and that they know the situation is not as dire as they would like the rest of us to think it is. And that Environmentalists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces – “we’ll save the planet our way or not at all.” It suggests that Environmentalists regard science and engineering as the cause of problems, and not the solution.” –Climate Resistance, 24 March 2008

  2. ChH

    “Why do some of the same people who believe human activities are not warming the globe—or that climate change isn’t a crisis—feel that geoengineering is required to fix the problem?”

    answers to a rhetorical question:

    First, people making that argument would all believe that geoengineering would be a better solution than drastic carbon emission reductions.

    Some may be playing devil’s advocate (“I dispute your supposed consensus, but even IF they’re right, drastic emission cuts is a bad plan”)

    Others may agree that the planet is warming, and that a warming planet is bad, but dispute that human emissions are a significant cause. In that case, cutting human emissions would make no sense, whereas the Pinatubo Option has been observed to reduce global temperatures.

  3. Glenn Rohde

    I am a student in the ivy league and just last week I overheard some professors debating this issue in a library (this is what prompted my Google search). I was shocked by what they said since I had never considered the topic before. They were obviously scientists because they were explaining themselves to one another in jargon and and kept referencing data. Their debate surrounded the degree of politicization in research and how you are unable to get funding unless you support certain conclusions. If you don’t, you are considered ‘fringe’ and have less opportunity for career progression.

    They discussed the topic from a very pragmatic angle and didn’t sound like conspiracy theorists at all. They unquestionably held the belief that whatever the realities of climate change that man’s impact is negligable at worst and that this all is just a normal, cyclical fluctuation in temperature. Because of hearing this I am now able to see the political angles.

    Widener library, by the way. ;)

  4. Gaythia

    Wiener Library, Harvard:

    How about utilizing the actual library facility to access the scientific data?
    http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/widener/finding_materials/finding_materials.cfm

    When in doubt as to how to proceed, ask a reference librarian:
    http://hcl.harvard.edu/research/ask/

  5. “They unquestionably held the belief that whatever the realities of climate change that man’s impact is negligable at worst and that this all is just a normal, cyclical fluctuation in temperature.”

    Wow. The Holocene 2,000 years ago allowed mankind to grow crops and support cities. Why has the Holocene (a very unusual climate period historically) lasted so long? The vast quantity of GHG mankind is now dumping into the air will probably cause abrupt climate change resulting in the Earth going into a “hot state.”

    “The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.” –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

    “Processes that would normally regulate climate are being driven to amplify warming. Such feedbacks, as well as the inertia of the Earth system — and that of our response — make it doubtful that any of the well-intentioned technical or social schemes for carbon dieting will (work). What is needed is a fundamental cure.” –Dr James Lovelock

  6. Nullius in Verba

    “Wow. The Holocene 2,000 years ago allowed mankind to grow crops and support cities. Why has the Holocene (a very unusual climate period historically) lasted so long?”

    I really don’t mean to pick on one person, but how do the AGW faithful maintain the pretence of holding the scientific high ground with this sort of thing passing without challenge amongst them?

    The Holocene is the current interglacial period, lasting from about 12,000 years ago to the present day. It isn’t unusual; they occur roughly every 40,000 or 100,000 years. The last one, known as the Eemian, was roughly the same length and many degrees warmer than the present. (Check that.) The two before were shorter but about the same temperature as today, the one before that was longer than the Holocene has been so far.

    The early part of the Holocene about 8000 years ago was a warm period known as the Holocene climate optimum, and very likely warmer than today (check again), although not as warm as the Eemian. (This HCO may be what you was referring to, with the flowering of cities and agriculture.)

    Climate changes on shorter cycles occur too. During the glacial periods, there are brief warm intervals (interstadials) called Dansgaard-Oeschger events, occurring with a cycle of roughly 1500 years. (Do check.) The equivalent between glacials are called Bond events, again occurring roughly every 1500 years give or take 500 years or so. These include the Minoan Warm Period (coinciding with the rise of the Minoan civilisation), the Roman Warm Period (ditto), the Medieval Warm Period, and now we have the Modern Warm Period.

    Climate changes on yet shorter cycles as well. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation and the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation are large scale cycles in pressure systems over the oceans. (There are many others – they’re the same sort of thing as El Nino/La Nina, the most famous of them, but slower.) They operate on roughly 50-60 year cycles, so will swing from warm phase to cold, or back, after 25-30 years. (Don’t take my word for it.) The PDO was in the warm phase during the early part of the 20th century, when temperature rose. Switched to its cold phase during the 50s to 70s, when we had that little global cooling scare, and switched back to the warm phase for the late 70s to the end of the century, and (possibly coincidentally) the temperature rose again. Interestingly, it seems to be in the process of switching again to the cold phase at the moment, although it will probably be another 5-10 years before we can say for sure.

    Normal, cyclic fluctuation in temperature is a perfectly respectable area of climate science. Why would anyone express amazement at it?
    Could it be because it is not in the climate activists’ interests to tell anybody about it?

    We believe in climate change – it changes all the time, and always has.

    Do you?

  7. David Schnare

    Eli:

    I stand by my statement that geoengineering has no friends in the Obama administration. As has been shown, whitening roofs has negligible value in the context of alarmists views of the energy flows that would lead to unacceptable warming. Beyond that, no one in the administration leadership has made a positive move even to encourage research on solar radiation management, the primary form of geoengineering at issue today. Further, the environmental power group (Browner et al) are adamantly opposed to anything that gets in the way of carbon reductions.

    As for why I, a conservative and a skeptic, would like to see geoengineering research move ahead — because I’m a skeptic and a scientist and am adult enough to admit I don’t know what is going to happen, so having a sensible insurance plan available is not merely good sense, it is responsible human adaptation.

  8. Asa Hopkins

    Just a quick note that “white roofs” and other “cool roof” technologies don’t fall squarely into the realm of geoengineering: the main point is to lower the heat loads on buildings and the heat island effects in cities (and therefore the energy needed for cooling), not to change the earth’s albedo.

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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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