The Intersection

i-fdf315f437867b05d6b4834cdb13f83b-geoengineering.jpgThe latest issue of Wired is now on newsstands, though not yet online. In it, I have a lengthy feature story about the scientific mainstreaming of geoengineering, which has occurred because of several trends:

1. Global warming seems to be moving even faster than scientists originally expected.

2. Political solutions seem to be evolving even more slowly than many pessimists would have expected.

3. One geoengineering idea–putting reflective particles in the stratosphere–is outdistancing all the other proposals and has become a clear, and apparently affordable, front-runner.

4. With possible climate catastrophes looming, a little extra stratospheric sulfur seems more and more of a tolerable outcome, environmental consequences notwithstanding. What would you prefer–a wrecked planet, or only a somewhat messed up one?

Accordingly, scientific minds are opening up to geoengineering as a real possibility–and especially as a last ditch “emergency response” measure to have on tap in case we reach the point where it’s clear that, say, we’ll lose Greenland if we don’t act fast.

In this context, I build my Wired story around Stanford ecologist Ken Caldeira, an intriguing character because he’s a big time environmental lefty–but, at the same time, has become increasingly interested in geoengineering, for the reasons mentioned above. Indeed, these trends have begun to collapse the distance between left and right on the issue, a clear indicator of mainstreaming.

I’ll include some passages from the story in later posts–and will try to blog any reactions that emerge….


  1. #1 geez
    June 23, 2008

    Or, the Americans and Chinese, who are the majority part of the problem, could learn to actually conserve and promote alternative energy strategies. Not to mention, agree they are screwing up the planet, instead of promoting some sort of retarded “Star Wars” approach in which we further disturb the planet with no idea of the consequences (reflective particles or shields, anyone?) so that they don’t have to do something difficult like learning self-discipline or self-denial as a cultural value.

    As long as a full-size SUV is still being sold in America, the Americans have NO RIGHT to dictate nonsense geoengineering approaches that seek to avoid actual change and responsibility in personal and corporate habits.

    Enough is enough.

  2. #2 Douglas Coker
    June 23, 2008

    The graphic shows a mix of proposed solutions all under the heading “geoengineering”. Is planting trees usually defined as geoengineering?

    Reflective particles in the stratosphere sounds scary to me. It could all go horribly wrong with goodness knows what unintended consequences – a bit like burning fossil fuels really. Seemed a good idea 100 years ago!

    Be very careful Chris. Get your bs detector up and running at full speed.

    And how about weaving the need to dramatically reduce carbon intensive hyper-mobility into your political strategy? Lifestyle changes aimed at pursuing the slow and the local are attractive.

    Some interesting discussion here


    Douglas Coker
    Green Party (England and Wales)

  3. #3 Eric the Leaf
    June 23, 2008

    I see this as a non-debate debate. That is, it will be debated, no doubt with great zest, but I suspect that by the time any consensus emerges–not that a consensus will emerge–it will be too late to have an impact anyway. The public focus is now on energy and the economy, as I have predicted, not on climate change. The disparity will only widen in the coming months and years.

  4. #4 Stan Sardilo
    June 24, 2008

    Thanks for the link, Chris. Very interesting collection.

    And what an exciting and dangerous (why are those two always together?) concept. Dangerous in that someone might tell Dubya we can cure global warming by “shootin stuff outta cannons”. Horrifying if someone tells him the “stuff” is potentially chemical waste.

    And exciting cos controlling the climate would be pretty cool. That’s not quite what’s suggested here, but it would be the ultimate goal of geoengineering. It would be if I was in charge anyway! At this stage, however, I’m certainly not convinced by the research. Determining the influence of any of these interventions would require simulations, lots of em, and probably a lot more atmospheric monitoring (data, I believe it’s called). And probably more fundamental research on how the various components that make up a climate interact with each other. And a really big and powerful collection of computers. In short, science.

    It’s a little scary (and unscientific) to be attempting these things without getting the best possible indication of all the possible effects. Of course, if there were a small lifeless planet nearby with an atmosphere… Yeah, I know, commuting’s a pain.

    If this does happen as a desperate quick fix, expect unexpected consequences, which may lead to further desperate measures. Do the science now so you don’t have to mop up an even bigger mess later.

  5. #5 CLM
    June 24, 2008

    I’d like to see more research on iron seeding the ocean. Geoengineering should only be done as a last resort not as a first response. It’s too bad our TV entertainment, especially sci-fi, cop dramas, and medical shows, solves the problem in one hour sans commercial breaks. It gives the public a distorted view of how problem solving works and how successful it is.

  6. #6 thingsbreak
    June 24, 2008

    Oddly enough, notorious anti-regulation think AEI is glorifying the geo-engineering angle as well. That alone would make me take a step back, even before I actually read up on the consequences re: ozone depletion and the inevitable ocean acidification that stratospheric sulfate schemes being favored over emissions reductions would entail.

    I’d like to think we can do a little better than adopting the fossil fuel industry cat’s paw stance on preventing warming.

  7. #7 llewelly
    June 24, 2008

    SO2 does not remain in the stratosphere forever. Pinatubo’s effect on the climate wore off in about 2 years. Offsetting a fixed CO2 concentration in the troposphere requires a continuous input of SO2 into the stratosphere. If CO2 stabilization is not achieved, ever-increasing annual amounts of SO2 will need to be injected into the stratosphere – most likely at ever-increasing costs. In such a scenario, ever-increasing amounts of SO2 would be drifting down into troposphere. Ever-increasing amounts of SO2 would also be drifting into the ozone layer. Eventually, dangerous levels (in one area or another) of SO2 would be reached. Offsetting CO2 with stratospheric SO2 requires stabilization of CO2 levels.

    When the above is combined with the very real dangers of ocean acidification, it is clear that stratospheric SO2, at best, can only be a partial solution. It can never be an alternative to carbon controls – it can only loosen them a bit. It cannot ‘[prevent] us from having to cut emissions’ (as you quoted the National Review ) . A great deal of risk, for only a few wedges.

  8. #8 Joanna
    June 24, 2008

    I’ve been thinking for a while that nanotech modification of the atmosphere was the only possible solution, though those would be quite dangerous too. Anyway, we are already having to deal with the consequences and will have quite a few more before anything is going to get fixed. At least the EU seems to have noticed that they need to not only repair strategies but also accommodation, and they are trying to prepare their population for that. Hopefully on some level the US has realised this too (& China & India et al) & are preparing, even if the politicians can’t afford to admit it publicly yet.

  9. #9 Chris C. Mooney
    June 25, 2008

    folks, the full article is now available here, a lot of this is addressed in there…

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