Today in the LA Times Op-Ed section, our recent Point of Inquiry guest has a pretty unexpected take on air pollution: Namely, he describes it as useful for blocking sunlight. (The paper edition closed too early to add info about the recent Icelandic volcano, but for those wondering, Kintisch informs me that the amount of gunk it has spewed out is far too little to have a major climatic effect.) Here’s an excerpt from the op-ed:
You’re likely to hear a chorus of dire warnings as we approach Earth Day, but there’s a serious shortage few pundits are talking about: air pollution. That’s right, the world is running short on air pollution, and if we continue to cut back on smoke pouring forth from industrial smokestacks, the increase in global warming could be profound.
Cleaner air, one of the signature achievements of the U.S. environmental movement, is certainly worth celebrating. Scientists estimate that the U.S. Clean Air Act has cut a major air pollutant called sulfate aerosols, for example, by 30% to 50% since the 1980s, helping greatly reduce cases of asthma and other respiratory problems.
But even as industrialized and developing nations alike steadily reduce aerosol pollution — caused primarily by burning coal — climate scientists are beginning to understand just how much these tiny particles have helped keep the planet cool. A silent benefit of sulfates, in fact, is that they’ve been helpfully blocking sunlight from striking the Earth for many decades, by brightening clouds and expanding their coverage. Emerging science suggests that their underappreciated impact has been incredible.
Incidentally, for those in the area, Kintisch will be speaking on Thursday in New Haven about this topic and his book Hack the Planet. And once again, you can catch my interview with him on Point of Inquiry here.
As discussed on the latest episode of Point of Inquiry (stream, download), Eli Kintisch’s Hack the Planet isn’t the only book just out on this subject. There is also How to Cool the Planet by Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal and a writer for Rolling Stone.
I have no doubt we are going to have a big public debate about geoengineering at some point in the future. At that time, one or both of these books could be considered essential reading.
However, thus far, neither seems to be having its big publishing breakout moment. Indeed, neither has any reviews yet on Amazon.
I myself can’t speak to the books’ comparative quality: I was only sent, and have only read, Kintisch’s, and it’s excellent. For all I know, Goodell’s is equally worthy. If you’re interested, I recommend that you buy both of them.
But you are not the general public. And as we’ve learned, 97 percent of Americans have no clue what geoengineering even is. They all ought to be reading these books, but the subject has not been put on their radar yet. So that is a challenge for both authors.
Another thing that I discussed with Kintisch on the latest episode of Point of Inquiry (stream, download),was the idiocy of certain rightwing embraces of geoengineering, by folks who don’t even seem to believe in climate change. In particular, we discussed the SuperFreakonomics authors, who essentially embarrassed themselves on this subject, and misrepresented a leading climate and geoengineering scientist (Ken Caldeira)–but sold lots and lots of books.
In my view, it would be really tragic if Kintisch’s and Goodell’s books fail to receive a wide readership, so that instead, the reading public gets its ideas about geoengineering from the Superfreaks.
Once again: 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.
I’m always trying to become a better interviewer, so with this next post, I want to zoom in on an area where I failed to press my interview subject as I probably should have. And that is the relationship between religious beliefs and opposition to geoengineering.
At around minute 9:15, I asked Eli about religious opposition to geoengineering–basically, about the folks who say that we shouldn’t “play God.” He gave a very detailed answer, essentially signaling that, hey, yeah, this is a lot like genetically modified foods–some people think the impulse to interfere with “nature,” to remake it in the way that only “God” is supposed to do, is wrong.
I have no doubt this impulse is out there. But I don’t find it to be at all a rational argument, or a sound basis for public policy. When it comes to the genetics of plants, or the global environment, humans have already been “playing God” throughout the ages–bringing about vast and significant changes. If the only question is whether this interference is intentional or not, then I don’t find it to be a theologically relevant distinction.
So I should have pressed Kintisch on whether this is really a legitimate argument to make–that we shouldn’t “play God.” I mean, yeah, it’s out there; and yeah, it’s rhetorically powerful. But that doesn’t mean we should accept it. I actually find the careful, consequentialist reasoning of the scientists who tilt towards at least studying geoengineering to be much more intellectually rigorous and convincing.
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.
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.
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.
There’s an intriguing geoengineering discussion going on here: PRI has brought in the economist Scott Barrett of Columbia, who thinks the economics of geoengineering are just going to be irresistable to most countries, especially when compared with the economics of carbon emissions cuts.
Meanwhile, we’re finishing up the next Point of Inquiry, and I promise my intro isn’t as soapbox long this time. (Hey, I’m learning.) Eli Kintisch was a great guest, so tune in tomorrow….
It’s kinda geoengineering week here at the Intersection, as I continue to prepare for Friday’s Point of Inquiry episode with Eli Kintisch to discuss his new book, Hack the Planet. So I’ve been doing my reading, and I came across this article by Kintisch’s rival Jeff Goodell, who also has a geoengineering book coming out, entitled How to Cool the Planet. (So far Goodell’s seems to be selling a bit better, but I like Kintisch’s title!)
I’m certainly not surprised, but I had not yet seen the relevant data showing that when it comes to this subject, the public is basically a blank slate. Goodell provides said data in his piece:
Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change, who presented the results of a long-running study on the public perception of global warming. In his most recent survey, he had thrown in a few questions about geoengineering. When asked, “How much, if anything, have you heard about geoengineering as a possible response to climate change,” 74 percent of respondents said “nothing.” The 26 percent that had heard about geoengineering turned out to be wildly misinformed — more than half thought it referred to geothermal energy. Only 3 percent of the people who had heard about geoengineering were correctly informed about it. “The public basically knows nothing about this,” Leiserowitz told the attendees. “That is both a great challenge, and a great opportunity.”
I’m not sure what this means for Kintisch’s and Goodell’s book sales. But I am sure of one thing: People may be malleable and uninformed on this subject now, but the more they hear–and especially if some major controversy erupts–the more they will firm up their minds.
This suggests to me that scientists ought to get out in front of this opinion-forming process now, rather than later. And so far, it does not appear that their recent Asilomar meeting on geoengineering has had that desired effect. How much media coverage did it get? Was it just a blip?
The activists are already out there, engaging in street theater, trying to make geoengineering into the the next GMO-type backlash issue. Right now, it is entirely up in the air whether they will succeed, but I must say that I’m worried they might. Geoengineering is not something to ban in a knee-jerk way, but something to study and hold in reserve in case we need it and there is no other choice. If the activists prevail, we might lose such a planetary insurance policy.