An unspoken option if climate talks fail: Geoengineering

December 5, 2015 bySeth Borenstein
An unspoken option if climate talks fail: Geoengineering
In this Dec. 1, 2015 file photo, a man visits the Climate Generations Areas, part of the COP21, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Le Bourget, north of Paris. As a group, the most religious Americans are less likely than others in the U.S. to trust the science of global warming. Yet a significant number of the faithful not only believe the threat is real but also feel obliged to help save the earth's climate, an AP analysis shows. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)

It's the option climate negotiators here are loath to talk about.

What if they fail to curb global warming and the environment gets so dangerous that someone decides to do something drastic and play mad scientist? Should nations purposely pollute the planet to try to counteract man-made warming and cool the world? Scientists are pretty sure they can do it, but should they?

The issue is called geoengineering—purposely tinkering with the planet as opposed to the unintentional warming that's happening now. The most talked about and advanced method involves putting heat-reflecting particles high in the air, but there also have been proposals to seed clouds other ways, put mirrors in space and seed the oceans with iron.

Scientists noticed a temporary but pronounced cooling after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. What's in mind would be, essentially, an artificial and constant man-made volcano with material released by aircraft or cannons.

No one is talking about doing it—yet. But some scientists want to study it to find about side effects and other issues. And earlier this year, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences said small-scale and controlled experiments could be helpful to inform future decisions.

Even geoengineering's most ardent research supporters aren't proposing it instead of cutting back heat-trapping emissions from burning fossil fuels. But they say someday it may be needed. However, it doesn't solve all climate change problems, just the temperature part.

Stanford University climate scientist Ken Caldeira isn't advocating seeding clouds with sulfur particles any time soon, but he does fear a failure in climate talks and believes that at some point in the future, drastic options will look more palatable. He thinks scientists need to prepare now.

"I think of it as kind of symptomatic relief," Caldeira said in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N.-led Paris talks. "I'm thinking like morphine for the cancer patient."

But others inside the negotiations shudder at even talking about the issue.

"The emissions and the climate change that we're causing with that is already a massive experiment on our world that we don't really know the outcome of," said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Janos Pasztor. "So I don't think we should start another set of experiments and go into geoengineering. I think we should get our act together and reduce our emissions."

Joe Ware, a spokesman for the faith group Christian Aid, was even more blunt.

"It's probably playing God a bit too much for the faith community," Ware said Friday. He said the world needs more wind farms and solar power instead.

Harvard scientist David Keith has been working on plans to test what he calls in the atmosphere at a very small scale. Year one would involve balloons putting small amounts of sulfate in the air and tracking changes and side effects. Although he has received interest from private individuals, he has been unable to get the federal government to pay attention, he said.

"You can't uninvent this technology," Keith said. "The next generation of our kids will make decisions about this as we deal with climate risk, whatever we do. If we decide not to have a research program, we give them the gift of ignorance."

One problem, Keith and others said, is that there are no rules, nationally or internationally, that tell people what they can or cannot do. Pasztor said there are no plans for any international bans of the idea.

Marcia McNutt, the former U.S. Geological Survey chief who was tapped to be the next head of the National Academy of Sciences, led an academy panel that looked at the issue and recommended very cautious and small-scale research.

She said that someday a nation in crisis, such as in a long-term devastating drought, might feel the need to do something. But, she asked, what if it hurts other nations?

Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said there's "just a plethora of dangerous and unsolved problems that makes (geoengineering) very, very unattractive."

Putting sulfates in the world is a "tremendously bad idea," and is a huge gamble for the world, Sachs said.

Dana Fisher, director of the University of Maryland's Program for Society and the Environment, said "geoengineering seems very American to me." That's because it's an option that doesn't seem to involve sacrifice or change and takes advantage of technology.

"Technology makes us happy and sets us free," Fisher said. "But there are unintended consequences."

Explore further: Fed report: Time to examine purposely cooling planet idea

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13 comments

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Jeffhans1
3 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2015
I still say California should build at least one Solar Updraft Tower off the coast to see how it affects the average rainfall in the downwind footprint.
https://en.wikipe...ft_tower
Shootist
3.4 / 5 (5) Dec 06, 2015
"Of course [the weather] concerns me, but of course, we don't know much about the causes of those things. We don't even know for sure whether it is more variable than it used to be. I mean the worst disasters were the Ice Ages, and nobody really understands for sure the causes of Ice Ages, so I'm not saying the climate disasters aren't real, I'm merely saying we don't know how to prevent them." - Freeman Dyson

If Freeman Dyson says we cannot prevent the (emergency world ending cooling/warming/whatever is popular today), we probably cannot.

Continue to gather data. Don't give government powers it will always abuse.
leetennant
3 / 5 (6) Dec 06, 2015
Geoengineering is a *terrible* idea. We can't even eliminate the cane beetle without causing an ecological disaster and the problem we're trying to solve is entirely of our own making, despite having 50 years to prevent it.

I can't even imagine just how bad things will get if people start fucking around with the system even more than they already have. The mind boggles.
SuperThunder
2.3 / 5 (6) Dec 06, 2015
It's not talked about because it's not an option. First, the USA will straight weaponize it and kill millions and I will eat a BUS if this isn't true. Second, we're the species that can change the climate but can't control it, which is what will kill us, so there is no reason to believe that changing it further will equate to control and a state of not killing us. Combine one and two and you get three, the first time two nations change the weather against each other, all bets are off and this may as well be Venus.

This is the kind of desperate idea that happens right before everyone just admits it's too late.
djusko
3 / 5 (4) Dec 07, 2015
"One problem, Keith and others said, is that there are no rules, nationally or internationally, that tell people what they can or cannot do."

Henry Ford knew burning gas would be a problem, it is. He used clean burning alcohol.
Now it's even worse, we invented nuclear and have no way to get rid of the radioactive waste. The people that tell us what to do own the big companies that build our problems.
djusko
3 / 5 (4) Dec 07, 2015
The biggest company should be our smallest, blame our gov't for creating our problems, I didn't vote for Obama either time and don't know anyone that did, This secret election was sold to us. Was it by the same people that did the rigging? Why doesn't the gov't listen to us? We had a Citizens Referendum voting on GMO's in 2004, more people showed up to vote then for any other voting in history. We won and Maui's government wouldn't implement it.
Obama wasn't born in Hawaii and he's still president, how can that be? Our man in charge of Hawaiian births said so publicly and got fired for it. Lingle was our Governor back then, she vetted Obama. The whole mess stinks.
leetennant
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 07, 2015
Rubbish. Governments abrogating their regulatory responsibilities and allowing corporations free reign is what got us into this mess in the first place. We need larger, stronger government to enforce regulatory policy worldwide.
djusko
3 / 5 (4) Dec 08, 2015
The gov't hasn't done very well at the size it is. 18.5 Trillion in debt by the latest count. Now they are adding more and will spend more to this "must pass" omnibus bill. Shut it down, no one can afford $18.5 T.
leetennant
2 / 5 (4) Dec 08, 2015
Yeah, and 3/4 of that is corporate subsidisation and unnecessary military funding - to support large corporations. You're just proving my point.
djusko
3 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2015
I don't know, it seems like my point is that we need a smaller gov't to cut spending and give power to the States and the people while yours is we need a larger, stronger gov't to enforce regulatory policy worldwide, a One World Order.
leetennant
2 / 5 (4) Dec 09, 2015
I don't know, it seems like my point is that we need a smaller gov't to cut spending and give power to the States


US-centric reference

and the people while yours is we need a larger, stronger gov't to enforce regulatory policy worldwide, a One World Order.


Global reference. Precisely how does stopping corporations from pumping shit into the atmosphere, ground and water constitute a One World Order? And what the fuck does US specific politics have to do with the world?

You're confused, dude. I blame your education system
geokstr
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2015
Yeah, and 3/4 of that is corporate subsidisation and unnecessary military funding - to support large corporations. You're just proving my point.


You of course have cites for these preposterous assertions, I presume?

I'm sure you'd prefer a more totalitarian government, like those that have worked so well in the last 100 years. But at least we'll have the death penalty for badthink and thoughtcrime, even though the war with EastAsia never seems to end, right?
leetennant
1 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2015
I oppose the death penalty, mate. Most people who believe in human rights do. And it's the side of climate denial that keeps telling you you need to invade the Middle East because of the terrorists. Like I said, I blame your education system. ON account of the US uses its taxes to pay large companies rather than fund education and health.

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