Geoengineering: The Most Important Technology Nobody's Heard Of

By Chris Mooney | August 5, 2010 5:15 pm

geoengineeringIn a breakout session here at Techonomy, David Keith of the University of Calgary and Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund led a discussion of the prospect of geoengineering the climate—in other words, engaging in some type of deliberate intervention to alter the planet and thereby counteract global warming.

The reason scientists and policymakers are increasingly thinking about geoengineering is clear: Major climate change now looks increasingly unstoppable. As Leinen put it, even if the proposals on the table at Copenhagen had been adopted, we’d still end the century with an atmospheric carbon dioxide of 700 parts per million–more than enough to cause climate upheaval, raise seas dramatically, and so forth.

So it seems clear that if we can’t cut emissions, at some point we’ll be forced to consider a more radical alternative, at least if we want to preserve a planet anything like the one our species evolved on.

And as it happens, geoengineering does indeed appear to be on offer. According to Keith, the most popular and prominent idea for doing it—injecting sulfur particles into the stratosphere that would reflect sunlight away from the Earth, thereby causing a global cooling—could be begun almost immediately. “You could do this with current technology now,” Keith said, and he estimates that moreover, you could do so for about $ 1 billion a year. “Venice could pay to do it based solely on real estate prices,” said Keith. Read on….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: geoengineering

Comments (9)

  1. I like that the image above is the most realistic solution if we can’t manage to cut our greenhouse gas emissions. It definitely seems like we should try and keep it a “Plan B”

  2. Rafael Moya (Mexico)

    El actuar sobre los efectos del cambio climatico que está ocurriendo en todo el mundo conlleva a su vez la necesidad de conocer de antemano las consecuencias que ello implicaría. Ademas, seria tambien necesario disponer de las armas que permitieran retrotraer cualquier experimento a su fase anterior, a fin de impedir una nueva catastrofe no considerada. Entiendo que actualmente no se dispone de los instrumentos ni las mediciones que permitan medir los efectos que cualquier intervencion humana produciria en el acontecer climatico. Quién puede especificar con exactitud las cantidades que pudieran producir un cambio favorable en el clima, sin producir a su vez un cambio desfavorable en otro sector del planeta?.

  3. Mike

    Is it too much to ask that we first develop replicable and verifiable climate prediction capability before we start trying to “fix” hypothetical future scenarios? Or are we finally throwing away the “pretend environmentalism is a science” story?

  4. “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

    “I’m going to tell you something I probably shouldn’t: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot.” –Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 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

    “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

  5. Hi Chris, I penned a post on geoengineering for the Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting this year.

  6. Tom Ames

    Two questions for the geoengineers:

    1. How does burning sulfur help reduce the other effect of CO2 emissions, namely ocean acidifiction?
    2. If we find a way to defer the warming effects without decreasing CO2 emissions, what happens when we stop the geoengineering project?

  7. Nullius in Verba


    1. It increases it slightly. Nobody is planning to put anywhere near as much sulphur into the air as carbon dioxide. The only reason it is being considered is that sulphates are vastly more effective for their mass than carbon dioxide.

    Rain (and hence freshwater river output) is already naturally acidic, containing far more acid than has been proposed here, and yet the sea is still alkaline. Have you considered how this comes about?

    Have you considered how it compares to the entirely natural emission of dimethyl sulphide by phytoplankton?

    2. The temperature rises.

    Assuming you find a way to defer the warming by reducing CO2 emissions, what happens when we stop the emission reduction project?

  8. David Evans

    “we can’t cut emissions” is it likely that “we” will be able to agree on these much more radical actions, which seem certain to disadvantage some nations relative to others?

  9. David Evans

    Nuts. I left out an “If” at the beginning of my post. Humans are fallible.


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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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