It’s just the next stage in the mainstreaming of geoengineering: Now the House Committee on Science, chaired by Bart Gordon, has released a report supporting further research on the topic–not to the detriment of capping emissions, but because capping emissions might not be enough. Here’s the punchline:
Climate engineering, also known as geoengineering, can be described as the deliberate large scale modification of the earth’s climate systems for the purposes of counteracting and mitigating climate change. As this subject becomes the focus of more serious consideration and scrutiny within the scientific and policy communities, it is important to acknowledge that climate engineering carries with it not only possible benefits, but also an enormous range of uncertainties, ethical and political concerns, and the potential for harmful environmental and economic side effects. I believe that reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be the first priority of any domestic or international climate initiative. Nothing should distract us from this priority, and climate engineering must not divert any of the resources dedicated to greenhouse gas reductions and clean energy development. However, we are facing an unfortunate reality. The global climate is already changing and the onset of climate change impacts may outpace the world’s political, technical, and economic capacities to prevent and adapt to them. Therefore, policymakers should begin consideration of climate engineering research now to better understand which technologies or methods, if any, represent viable stopgap strategies for managing our changing climate and which pose unacceptable risks.
You can access the full report here.
Honestly, one shouldn’t find the conclusion surprising. Anyone who really understands the scope of the climate problem, and the cost considerations that go along with mitigation, ends up being forced toward a view like this one. That’s just how reality works these days.
Another scientist is taking a different approach to geoengineering. Instead of looking to the sky for solutions, he’s looking to the ocean. Victor Smetacek, a German oceanographer, is trying to cool the planet by growing carbon-absorbing gardens in parts of the ocean with little life.
In 2009, Smetacek and a team of Indian and German scientists added 6 tons of iron into a section of the Southern Ocean, which rings Antarctica, to see if they could get a massive bloom of algae to flourish. Read More
On the left wing, there’s this strange notion that geoengineering is a new corporate obsession. Scientists interested in the topic are accused of being part of a “geoengineering lobby” that wants to mess with the planet for fun and profit.
Alas, there’s no evidence to support this idea. In fact, as recent Point of Inquiry guest Eli Kintisch reports over at CNN Money (clarification: the article is actually from Fortune, and CNN picked it up), government regulations so far have quashed those few attempts to profit off of geoengineering that have made it to the trial stage.
Kintisch’s piece is called “Climate Hacking and Geoengineering: A Good Way to Go Broke.” You can read it here.
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. Read More
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….