The Intersection

My latest Science Progress column just went online–I look at the issue of geoengineering, and reluctantly conclude that given our current predicament, the case for at least studying possible options makes a lot of sense. Research isn’t the same as implementation, but it could give us a fallback. It could give us choices. To wit:

Sure, research might make ultimate meddling more likely. But then, isn’t the climate situation forcing our hand anyway? What if a rogue government, or a crazy billionaire, decides to unilaterally execute one of these geoengineering proposals regardless of what the rest of the world thinks? In that case we will need to know as much as possible about the consequences, if only to know how best to convince would-be geoengineers to hold back, or barring that, to prepare for what they unleash.

I sincerely hope the day never comes when we have massive protests in the streets aimed at preventing a geoengineering project that has finally gotten the go-ahead from our government or from many governments. But having heard the scientists talk, I now fear, just as they do, that that day may come. It’s a possible future. And whenever we’re talking about grappling with the future, more knowledge is definitely going to be better than less; and more options are better than fewer.

So as much as I hate to say this, I don’t see how you reach any other conclusion than that of the scientists in Cambridge: geoengineering research should go forward, with proper restrictions and safeguards, perhaps outlined by ethicists or by the National Academy of Sciences. And it should receive government funding.

It’s a sad, sad day.

The full piece is here.


  1. #1 AK
    November 29, 2007

    The strongest case against geoengineering inevitably involves unintended consequences. Given the complexity of the atmosphere-ocean system, we can never know the full implications of a particular perturbation to it. Yes, we know that the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines temporarily cooled the Earth; but do we really think we can perfectly mimic that eruption? And what if something goes awry? The example of chlorofluorocarbons, the wonder work of chemistry that turned out to have a totally unforeseen consequence–depletion of stratospheric ozone–should make us exceedingly cautious to meddle with the Earth’s system in any way whatsoever.

    I find this attitude completely incomprehensible. Our civilization undertook to supply itself (and become dependent on) 10-20 terrawatts without considering the “unintended consequences“. Given the political realities, it’s going to have to switch to getting that 10-20 terrawatts from some carbon-neutral source just to stop making the CO2 problem worse. Even with more forethought about the “unintended consequences” there are likely to be plenty of them. CFC’s were introduced without considering the “unintended consequences“.

    By contrast, any GeoEngineering project will start out with careful evaluation of all the consequences we can find, before getting the go-ahead. Lacking any large-scale purpose besides “fixing” the environment, it will have a much better chance of doing so than, say, trying to extract 10-20 terrawatts of power from OTEC or even CSP.

  2. #2 Luna_the_cat
    November 29, 2007

    See, the thing that worries me about this…I remember that kudzu was introduced to the US in order to control the erosion of riverbanks and waterways. Well, THAT worked…..

    Yes, I know that we’ve learned an awful lot about how the world works since then, and many scientists are firmly grounded on the precautionary principle, to put the brakes on some potential problems, at least. But there is that pesky old Law of Unintended Consequences, and I really don’t think it’s gone away.

    What are we getting ourselves into?

  3. #3 Christopher
    November 29, 2007

    If you haven’t already, be sure to check out David Keith’s talk at a recent TED conference on geoengineering.
    He struggles with many of the same concerns that you raise in your piece. Many geoengineering techniques are already at our disposal, and he poses some very troubling scenarios that may come to pass as the science matures in coming years. Ultimately I think he would agree with you though, that research is needed -and he’s certainly not lost on the need for US/EU-led research as its absolutely clear that such research will continue with or without us in other S&T players around the world.

    Here’s the link:

  4. #4 Norman Doering
    November 29, 2007

    AK makes a good point.

    We’ve already done some unintentional geoengineering by getting 10-20 terrawatts to power our civilization. If we take 10 terrawatts from wind energy, we’ll be altering weather patterns. Anything we do now to halt global warming will either wind up being geoengineering by default or will be a drop in the ocean.

  5. #5 Marco Ferrari
    November 29, 2007

    What about this:

    And it’s not the first one against your attitude… well, I mean, not yours, but…
    Why not trying to produce much, much less CO2, instead of devising methods to increase ocean absorption, or carbon sequestration, or any other geoengineering tricks?

  6. #6 JLowe
    November 29, 2007


    You make some well-reasoned points. However, bear in mind the argument made recently by James Lovelock that we’re close to or beyond the point of no return with respect to altering global regulatory and feedback mechanisms, making us the stewards of the planet in a very real sense. In addition to transforming the landscape by generating 10-20 terawatts of power, we’ve also been conducting a multi-generational geoengineering study known as agriculture. It’s difficult to see how geoengineering to correct adverse climate change is conceptually different from these other human activities with regional and global ecological impacts.

  7. #7 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    November 29, 2007

    Hi JLowe,

    James Lovelock is an interesting character and as I wrote a couple weeks ago – just the kind of fellow I’d keep in good company were we of the same generation. I like those intelligent out-of-the-box types with big ideas.

    But the the thing about Lovelock

  8. #8 Norman Doering
    December 2, 2007

    Marco Ferrari wrote:

    Why not trying to produce much, much less CO2, instead of devising methods to increase ocean absorption, or carbon sequestration, or any other geoengineering tricks?

    I don’t think you understand what the term “geoengineering” means. It doesn’t mean “carbon sequestration.” That’s just one think a massive project might do. Planetary engineering, or “geoengineering,” is the application of technology for the purpose of influencing the global properties of a planet.

    We’re already doing “geoengineering” unintentionally.

  9. #9 AK
    December 2, 2007

    Marco Ferrari wrote:

    Why not trying to produce much, much less CO2, instead of devising methods to increase ocean absorption, or carbon sequestration, or any other geoengineering tricks?

    Because we already have much more CO2 in the atmosphere than any time in the last 650 Kyears (according to current evidence). And we’ll be putting a lot more into the atmosphere before we get fully switched to some carbon-neutral power source. And most of the possible technologies will require a huge front-end investment of energy (from burning fossil fuels) to create the infrastructure.

    Further, it’s not certain that the high CO2 is due to our dumping it into the atmosphere. Over-fishing, clearance of forest, grasslands, and especially wetlands and peatlands may have been responsible (or partly so) by degrading nature’s ability to handle the load we’ve been putting on it. Recovering that ability would certainly count as GeoEngineering.

    All this in addition to what Norman Doering said.

  10. #10 Marco Ferrari
    December 2, 2007

    To Norman: I know what geoengineering means. I read the wiki article long time ago, and I’m still not convinced. As far as real geoengineering, you beat me on it: we’re still doing it, and it’s not working very well, I gather. My opinion is that trying to fix something broken (and which we don’t know the inner working of, by the way) with the same Weltanschauung as the people who broke, it is inherently wrong. And my modest proposal was something of a minor provocation…

    To AK: you’re right, of course. And my problem with geoengineering stems from that. It’s a one way street: once you’re in it, you can’t go back and let the Earth do the job it has done for billion of years. You need to keep mending and fixing.
    Decreasing the production of CO2 means a lot of things, and let forests and peatland “survive” goes in that direction. It is not “the application of technology for the purpose of influencing the global properties of a planet”, as Norman said. Otherwise geoengineering is almost everything you do; even nothing.
    If a remember, one of the last chapter of Collapse, by Jared Diamond, had the same approach to geoengeenering.


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