Geoengineering: The Bad Idea We Need to Stop Climate Change

The National Research Council has provided a shock of fresh air to the climate debate in the U.S.

The 2013 movie Snowpiercer took a fanciful look at what might happen if human attempts to engineer the climate were to go awry. A pair of reports from the National Research Council offers a sober, reality-based look.

The 2013 movie Snowpiercer took a fanciful look at what might happen if human attempts to engineer the climate were to go awry. A pair of reports from the National Research Council offers a sober, reality-based look.

Photographer: Weinstein Company/Everett Collection

Maybe the problem with climate change isn't that we've messed with the earth too much. Or maybe we haven't messed with it enough.

The National Research Council, which writes fat, independent reports on complicated topics for policymakers, has at last weighed in on the utility— and possible consequences—of re-engineering the planet to ease global warming's worst impacts. It's called geoengineering, and with a name like that, what could go wrong? Never mind the instantaneous global ice age conjured in Snowpiercer, in which cooling chemicals poured into the atmosphere go awry.

Geoengineering has provided a shock of fresh air to climate debates in recent years because it's complicated, and that means it has initially resisted being deformed into either political party's talking points. It's a question fraught with moral, political, and scientific uncertainties.

Which country should geoengineer? When and how much? Would these just be cosmetic changes while the climate problem worsens underneath? What of foreseeable unforeseen consequences?

Whatever the answers, the authors emphasize that "there is no substitute for dramatic reductions in the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases."

The scientists who led the NRC study broke the topic down into two parts. It was a clever way to distinguish geoengineering technologies that might address the core of the problem but are expensive and immature—pulling carbon out of the atmosphere and oceans, for instance—from those that might wreak more havoc than they're worth. Think Snowpiercer.

The expensive-and-immature approaches range from dramatic reforestation to capturing carbon dioxide from biomass power plants and channeling it underground forever and on to sucking CO2 out of the air directly with machines that have barely been invented.

The potentially havoc-wreaking actions in the companion report include actively reducing the amount of sunlight hitting earth by spraying the skies with the reflective chemicals that we spent the last 40 years trying to clean up because they can lead to acid rain.

The reports are sufficiently thorough to mention some of the really far-out ideas. How far out? About a million miles sun-ward. There, at a relatively stable gravitational point called Lagrange 1, or L1, scientists could send out a bazillion sunlight-blocking disks to block energy before it comes any closer.

Among the problems with that concept (we don't know how to do it; it would cost trillions; it's insane), is that it would mess up the view for the fancy, just refurbished satellite sitting on a launchpad at Cape Canaveral, waiting to be launched tonight, Feb. 10, to that very spot.

The twin NRC reports should help the policy community better understand the risks associated with various geoengineering approaches so that limited financial and scientific resources can be used most effectively.

Geoengineering is simultaneously an old and and a new idea. The conversation began at least half a century ago, at the dawn of climate politics in the United States.

Fifty years ago this week, the White House first weighed in on global warming. President Lyndon Johnson wrote in a special message to Congress that "air pollution is no longer confined to isolated places. This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through radioactive materials and a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels."

Several months later, Johnson's scientific advisers issued a report, Restoring the Quality of Our Environment (PDF), which was dug up last week by the news website Daily Climate. The team included Roger Revelle of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who had overseen the beginning of carbon dioxide monitoring and, three years later, would inspire a young Al Gore to pursue an interest in global warming.

"The climatic changes that may be produced by the increased CO2 content could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings," wrote Johnson's advisers. "The possibilities of deliberately bringing about countervailing climatic changes therefore need to be thoroughly explored."

Fifty years later, we're just getting to it.

The NRC reports should allow many people to hear about geoengineering for the first time. That's a good thing because it offers a new approach to talking about climate change, beyond the impoverished and mendacious conversation U.S. politicians have been having for 20 years. Geoengineering is new and promising enough to overcome some of the culture-based polarization that dominates public discussion of the issue.

A new study in a prominent political and social science journal concludes, based on behavioral studies, that "cultural polarization over the validity of climate change science is offset by making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions."

Given Tuesday's twin scientific reports on the risks and opportunities, as well as the recent work on climate change and culture, the best one-line summary of geoengineering still belongs to science journalist Eli Kintisch, who concluded in his 2010 book, Hack the Planet, that geoengineering is "a bad idea whose time has come."

 

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