A geoengineering flashforward

NASA's James Hansen has few peers when it comes to the title of leading climatologist-turned-policy-wonk, but Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia (yes, that university) is giving him a run for his money. Hulme's latest entry is a cautionary tale involving the challenges involved in geoengineering.

In Yale e360, Hulme argues that the technical obstacles to making the Earth's climate do what we want aside, the politics of trying to change the radiative heat balance of the atmosphere are problematic in the extreme.

Who, he asks,

is entitled to initiate the large-scale deployment of a climate intervention technology -- and under what circumstances?

Just as Hansen did in his book Storms of My Grandchildren, Hulme indulges in a little science fiction to illustrate what might lie ahead if we start injecting sulphate aerosols in the air in hopes of reflecting more of the sun's rays before they reach the surface:

It is January 2028 and the United Kingdom -- one of the permanent members of the UN Security Council -- puts forward a formal resolution to start the systematic injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. The UK's argument is that with Arctic sea ice extent the previous summer having shrunk to just 25 percent of its late-20th century value, with monitors in Canadian permafrost identifying increased rates of methane release, and with the explosion at a nuclear reactor in China two years earlier leading to a moratorium on all new nuclear power plant construction, such direct climate remediation measures are called for.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides a report for the Security Council on the regional climatic risks of such intervention. Based on the best Earth system models, the IPCC offers probabilistic predictions of the 10-year mean changes in regional rainfall around the world that would result from sustained aerosol injection.


Over the following months, protesters attempt to sabotage some of the planes being used to inject aerosols, and direct-action groups affiliated with HOME (Hands Off Mother Earth) send up their own aircraft in symbolic efforts to scrub the aerosols from the stratosphere. After one year the deployment is temporarily halted and climate data are evaluated.

Global temperature has indeed fallen from the previous 10-year mean of 15.23º C (the 1961-1990 average was 14º C) to just 14.57º C, the coolest year on the planet since 2014. But regional climate anomalies have been large and variable. Of most concern was a failure of the Asian monsoon, at the cost of $50 billion to the Indian economy, and the most intense cyclone season in the South China Sea for 20 years.

That's not the end of the story. (Something about a pair of renegade Canadian billionaires?) It is just the start.

Hulme is not the only one pointing out that crafting an international consensus on geoengineering will probably make the quest for a global climate change treaty look like child's play. Writing recently in New Scientist, Jim Giles suggests that

... global negotiations could become impossible to manage, and [others] cited UN-led climate talks as an example of how all-inclusive efforts can fail to solve problems requiring decisive action.

One can make a compelling argument that if we fail to reduce fossil-fuel emissions significantly in the next three decades or so, we won't have a choice but to start tinkering with planetary albedo or finding some way to suck greenhouse gases from the air. But strategies focused on the former will not stop ocean acidification, which would lead to a collapse of the marine food web and massive starvation. The latter would be prohibitively expensive, both in economic and, more importantly, energy costs.

To me, it seems foolish to rely on our technical and diplomatic ingenuity to save civilization from the perils of an overheated planet. Better to keep kicking the can of emissions reductions.


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Imagine what it would do for world peace/terrorist recruitment if failed crops, floods, droughts or any type of unwelcome weather could be blamed on a particular country or group of countries.

By Turboblocke (not verified) on 09 Jun 2010 #permalink

It's almost hard to believe that the cost of engineering space based solar power platforms for energ to be beamed back to the surface of earth via microwave or laser is not going to be cheaper and far less problematic than any realistic attempt to geo-engineere and controll climate, and address the possible drawbacks (Who pays for increased heatng bills and are we ready to cover the loss of a growing season in the northern grain belts of Eurasia and North America should our attempts overshoot just a bit?). In light of the recent success by commercial space development companies such as SpaceX and the launch of the Falcon 9, expect the cost to launch payloads to go down by an order of magnitude, and the interest in harvesting the energy and materials in our solar neighborhood to expand commensurately. Now that NASA is acting as it was originally intended and the capacity for innovation and capitalization from industry is being welcomed as partners in space development to a far greater degree than previously, we might just see the issue of carbon based energy become moot regardless of emissions and their climate impacts.

What Hulme left out was the 2100 scenario if we don't geo-engineer. When we finally decide to do it, it won't be the sort of choice we're looking at today. It come when we are at a point that we are so desperate to try anything that even the failure of the asian monsoon will pale in comparison to what is already underway.

Of course, Hansen doesn't talk about that because he wants us to get off fossil fuels before we get to that point. Few would like to imagine that sort of a future.

But the last time I checked, the only thing that had ever succeeded in getting us off fossil fuels was their running out â and there's more than enough in the ground to get us past 6 deg C by 2100.

I've watched an interview with someone who said that the geoengineering question was not so much of a big deal. A hose suspended by a balloon on the north pole or somewhere else. Now It's just my guess, but I think a similar device could be used to help filling the ozone layer hole. Is that really simple, or this is extremely naïve? To me seems that a hose suspended by a huge balloon wouldn't be so much of a problem, when compared with regulations, which we don't even know if would really work in the end. The person being interviewed actually spoke about that as a safety measure, just in case there were not enough agreement on the cuts, or if they were disrespected despite of the agreement (not unlink many Kyoto signatories did), or perhaps even some miscalculation. Not a plain alternative.

I don't know if that or something already conceived would actually work. But to me it really seems sometimes, even though I've never looked in depth, that there is an a priori condemnation of such ideas, as if more "natural" means were inherently preferable (if we can really say that emission cuts is anymore "natural"), no matter if an engineered solution (or fail-safe) would be less costly and not evidently more damaging to the environment than things we already do. Somewhat as if there was a new-age-esque philosophy behind it, "we can't play God with climate", "the balance has to be natural, not controlled by human hands", "is up to Gaia to decide".

I don't think that there is some sort of new-age conspiracy against that, but would be relieving to see these things being discussed on their technical grounds, how effective they could be. The problem of implementing policies could be either harder or not than the one in making everyone comply with carbon cuts, that's an issue that actually worth discussing, but one could just assume that's the other way around, that the trouble of getting everyone to agree and act accordingly would be much less likely than having some device that can counteract the emissions, even if that's somewhat more "unilateral", so to speak. I'd actually be more hopeful if there was a UN/IPCC anti-GW hose somewhere than just hope that every country would agree with the cuts, and that the agreement would be held to the end, that these cuts would be independently effectively implemented by various independent policies, without considerable human cost. Again, haven't been the case with Kyoto protocol already, as far as I know, where not only important players didn't sign, but important signatories didn't fulfill the compromise. Can we take this chance with AGW?

By Buckaroo Banzai (not verified) on 15 Jun 2010 #permalink

I agree with you that we should not dismiss geoengineering out of hand; I have no prejudice against any strategy solely because it is executed by human action. My concern lies in the radically unprecedented nature of such an approach. We know something about the effects of CO2 on the atmosphere; the earth has had several such situations in the past. But injecting huge amounts of aerosols into the atmosphere? That's unprecedented. Yes, we have experience with volcanic eruptions, and they certainly do bring temperatures down quickly -- but we don't have the technology to replicate the atmospheric effects of big volcanic eruptions. We can use sulphates, but in the quantities necessary to do the job, we're talking about something truly unknown. This could lead to a very large "Oopsie". You think the BP oil spill is bad? What happens when we goof on something whose effects extend far beyond the Gulf of Mexico?

Yes, the political issues will be paralyzing. My guess is that some nations will simply act unilaterally. Which could lead to all sorts of geopolitical fun: UK emits sulphates, Country X (which likes warming) starts burning millions of tons of coal just for the CO2 -- this could be great fun...

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink