MNN: What is geoengineering?

Jeff Goodell: It’s the idea of manipulating the Earth’s climate as a way to reduce the risks from global warming. If that sounds dangerous and scary and downright crazy, it is. But I argue in my book that we’re likely to end up doing it anyway — in part because the effort to reduce emissions has been such a failure, in part because we love quick fixes, and in part because the survival of civilization may eventually depend on it. The real question is, how soon will we begin, and will we do it well or do it badly?

What inspired you to write this book?

Two things, really. After I completed my previous book, "Big Coal", which was about the costs and consequences of burning coal for energy, it became clear to me that we are not going to reduce our emissions anywhere near fast enough to avoid the risks of a climate catastrophe. What will we do if someday we have the climatic equivalent of the subprime mortgage meltdown?

Shortly after I began thinking about this, I met a few highly respected scientists who were quietly exploring ideas for how we might cool the planet in an emergency. I was intrigued. I grew up in Silicon Valley, after all — I’m a big believer in exploring new technology to help solve human problems. In addition, the idea of deliberately taking charge of the Earth’s climate brings up a lot of interesting questions about our relationship with nature. But I think I was most interested in the human side of the story. I wanted to know: Were the scientists who were exploring these ideas crazy or not?

So, are these geoengineering scientists mad?

Well, some of them clearly are nuts. But not all of them. In fact, the narrative of the book is really about getting to know these scientists as human beings. I mean, we are talking about messing around with the climate system of the entire planet here! You’ve got to have a big ego and a healthy dose of hubris even to consider it. Besides trying to understand the technological, political, economic and moral complexities of all this, I also wanted to know, on a basic human level, whether we could trust these people. And as it turned out, I met some pretty fascinating characters.

Who are some of the leading scientists in the field?

One of them, David Keith, is a Canadian physicist who has started a company to design and build machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. David is an ardent environmentalist — among other things, he spends a lot of time hiking and skiing in the high Arctic. One of the reasons he’s involved in geoengineering is that he believes it may be the only way to save the Arctic from a complete meltdown.

Another character I was intrigued by is Stephen Salter, a cranky but brilliant Scottish engineer who seems to have stepped out of a Jules Verne novel. Salter has designed boats that would spray billions of tiny droplets of seawater into the clouds to brighten them, so they will reflect more sunlight away from the Earth.

Finally, there’s Lowell Wood, a protégé of Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. On one level, Wood is the embodiment of Big Science gone awry. But he’s also a very smart and entertaining guy who challenged many of my easy assumptions about geoengineering.

 

What are the most plausible ideas being developed right now?

There are two basic methods to cool the planet. The quickest but most dangerous method is simply to reflect away some of the sunlight. To offset the warming that comes from a doubling of greenhouse gas pollution, all you have to do is reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the Earth by 1 or 2 percent — which, it turns out, is not that difficult. One way is to mimic a volcano and throw a small amount of dust into the stratosphere; the particles act as tiny mirrors, scattering sunlight. Another approach is to use the technique Stephen Salter is working on: brightening clouds over the oceans so that they reflect more light.

The second method — one that would take much longer but would be much safer in the long run — is to develop new technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. One way to do that is to dump iron slurry into the ocean, which would stimulate plankton blooms, which in turn would absorb carbon. Another course would be to build machines that pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This would not be cheap, but it could be done. Imagine: someday we may build what amounts to an iron lung for the planet.

Is geoengineering a quick fix for global warming?

Absolutely not. In fact, that was one of the fears I had about writing this book — that these ideas will be picked up by skeptics and deniers and sold as a quick fix for global warming. Ultimately, the only way to reduce the risks of climate change and create a sustainable planet is to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But geoengineering may well turn out to be an important tool in reducing the danger of climate catastrophe — or perhaps for buying us more time to reduce emissions. Or, on the other hand, it might turn out to be a tool used by political leaders who want to look as if they’re “doing something” about global warming when in fact their real goal is to continue burning fossil fuels.

What are some of the other dangers of geoengineering?

Obviously, once you start messing with the levers of the climate system, there are lots of potentially serious side effects, including damage to the ozone layer and increasing acidification of the oceans (reducing the Earth’s temperature does nothing to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which is the main cause of ocean acidification). Changing rainfall patterns is also a major concern. For example, hundreds of millions of people are dependent on Asian monsoons for water to grow crops. Reducing the amount of sunlight that hits the Earth could alter the path of those monsoons, which would severely impact the food supply in Asia. A similar thing could happen here in the United States: even a small change in the amount of rainfall that hits Midwestern farms could have an enormous impact on our food supply and our economy. It’s important to point out, though, that rainfall patterns around the world are already shifting because of global warming, so it’s not at all clear that trying to manipulate the climate would necessarily be worse than what we’re already doing. As one person I quote in my book says, “We’re already messing around with the planet. We may as well get good at it.”

But the risks associated with geoengineering are not just environmental, they’re political too. If we start talking openly about ways to cool the planet, will that reduce our political will to cut greenhouse gas emissions? And what if a rogue nation — or a group of rogue billionaires, for that matter — decides to take matters into its own hands and attempt to “fix” the climate on its own? And what if that nation or that group does it badly, disrupting the climate of the entire planet? This may sound far-fetched, but really it’s not. In a sense, the politics of geoengineering is a little like the politics of nuclear weapons. The central challenge is, how do you restrain lone actors from pulling the trigger?

 

The whole idea sounds crazy — the very definition of human hubris.

Of course it’s crazy. In a perfect world, we would never consider doing anything like this. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world that has already been altered, reshaped and polluted by human activities. There are real questions about how sustainable our current way of life is, especially when you factor in the enormous risks we face trying to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. It’s easy to take the moral high ground and say we should never think about geoengineering, but it may be true that if we learn how to intelligently intervene in the climate system, we could save lives and reduce suffering. Maybe the techniques I explore in the book won’t work. Maybe they will turn out to be nothing more than a dangerous sci-fi fantasy writ large. Scientists don’t yet know enough to say for sure. But given how much is at stake, all these ideas should at least be explored.

At the end of the book, you compare geoengineering to gardening. How did you make that leap?

I was inspired by my wife, who is an avid gardener. Her goal is to grow all the food for our family (we have three kids, so it’s no small task, especially in upstate New York). She doesn’t use pesticides or commercial fertilizers — she’s as likely to use Miracle-Gro as to die her hair purple. Instead, she’s determined to work with nature to figure out the best way to grow things in our corner of the world. She is constantly experimenting: trying a new variety of basil, rotating the potatoes to a different bed, cutting back the asparagus.

On one level, her garden is entirely a product of human artifice. Left alone, Mother Nature would cover this plot of land with pine trees. But when you walk around in her garden you don’t feel that nature has been banished. Quite the contrary. You feel that she has been able to collaborate with nature to create something remarkable: a little plot of land that not only feeds us but is also extraordinarily beautiful.

Obviously there’s a big difference between managing a garden and managing the Earth’s climate. But it does point to a different way of thinking about our relationship with the world we live in and why getting into the business of actively managing the climate might not be a bad idea after all, especially given the dire circumstances we find ourselves in. The greatest risk we face today is not too much intervention in nature but too little. Apathy is the real danger. The fact is, we live in an artificial world, and our job right now — and perhaps our last great hope for long-term survival — is to create the best, most sustainable, most beautiful artificial world we can imagine. And while this might sound like a version of the 1960s idea of “Spaceship Earth,” it really isn’t. It’s about building a new relationship with the planet that is based on human ingenuity and hopefulness.

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