Geo-Engineering is NOT the Answer

volcano.jpgGeo-engineering is “the intentional large scale manipulation of the global environment” to counteract the effects of global warming, which itself was unintentional geo-engineering — although today you’d have to say global warming is intentional, since everybody now knows what we’re doing to the planet.

But I digress. We’re screwing up the planet with unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions, and the question is, do we want to try to fix that problem by gambling on some other large-scale effort to manipulate the climate — or should we just try to restrict emissions? It’s as if the doctor says you have a disease that can definitely be cured by diet and exercise but you opt for expensive chemotherapy even though the doctor can’t guarantee the results but is pretty certain the side effects would be as bad as the disease.

A new study drives that home for the most discussed geo-engineering idea:

Pumping sulphur particles into the atmosphere to mimic the cooling effect of a large volcanic eruption has been proposed as a last-ditch solution to combating climate change — but doing so would cause problems of its own, including potentially catastrophic drought, say researchers.

And if we pursued the sulphur strategy but then found out, say, a decade later, the drought prediction was correct, we’d be stuck, since if we discontinued injecting the sulphur shield, global temperatures would rebound rapidly, potentially triggering catastrophic effects. (And, of course, this shield does nothing to stop catastrophic ocean acidification.)

Here is the abstract to the study, “Effects of Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption on the hydrological cycle as an analog of geoengineering”:

The problem of global warming arises from the buildup of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide from burning of fossil fuels and other human activities that change the composition of the atmosphere and alter outgoing longwave radiation (OLR). One geoengineering solution being proposed is to reduce the incoming sunshine by emulating a volcanic eruption. In between the incoming solar radiation and the OLR is the entire weather and climate system and the hydrological cycle. The precipitation and streamflow records from 1950 to 2004 are examined for the effects of volcanic eruptions from El Chich³n in March 1982 and Pinatubo in June 1991, taking into account changes from El Ni±o-Southern Oscillation. Following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in June 1991 there was a substantial decrease in precipitation over land and a record decrease in runoff and river discharge into the ocean from October 1991–September 1992. The results suggest that major adverse effects, including drought, could arise from geoengineering solutions.

This study underscores the conclusion of John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.

19 Responses to Geo-Engineering is NOT the Answer

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    There’s nothing in our energy and environmental future that scares me spitless the way the prospects of geo-engineering does. The very concept reeks of hubris and the kind of quick-fix mentality that gets us into trouble so often.

    Frankly, I’m convinced this is where we’re headed. I have very little faith that enough of the world will reduce CO2 emissions by enough to fend off the truly horrible consequences of global warming. We likely won’t be at that point for a few decades, but unless there’s a massive shift in how the human race approaches such issues, I think it’s inevitable we’ll have to roll the dice and try something like this.

  2. CL says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments of the post or with Lou Grinzo above. We have recent form for getting suckered into these sorts of ideas that seem good, but end really badly.

    I think we have to keep on this issue to prevent the idea that this is even a feasible solution from taking hold. The chances of success without some blowback occurring are slim-to-none. Discussion is fine, but ‘We the People’ shouldn’t allow this to progress beyond that stage.


  3. Cliff says:

    Unless we change the way leaders rise up the ladder and take power in the world, the decisions – like geo-engineering, invading Iraq, investing in coal-powered generation – will remain in the hands of bozos. So, as we continue to pursue business as usual, we may get to the desperate point where leaders decide, “We just need to shade the sunlight somehow,” and an idiotic option is followed. I hate to think that way, but that seems to be the way humanity in crisis works these days.

  4. Joe, is restricting emissions the whole answer? To follow up on your metaphor, it’s like trying to cure obesity by self-restraint only, never mind lifestyle changes.

    A number of surveys seem to show that global warming is not high on the list of what people consider important problems. The cause of this lack of importance is the powerlessness people feel. If they feel powerless, they will not consider the problem as important, urgent, or actionable.

    The climate movement in the U.S. typically reinforces the powerlessness people feel, especially by ignoring workable and inexpensive solutions such as soil carbon and better land management, and continuing to focus on self-restraint. The coal lobby and their allies propose Star Wars technology, the climate activists spray it with bullets, and people continue to feel powerless.

    And this is the way the fossil fuel lobby would like us to feel. I’m not saying we don’t need to reduce emissions — we do — but if this is all people hear, if energy policy is all there is, they will continue to feel powerless. It’s a loser strategy.

  5. Joe says:


    “Restricting emissions,” is my shorthand for all mitigation solutions — I realize I should probably be clearer. Of course, technology is a key part of the mitigation answer.

    That said, yes, other than stopping deforestation, energy policy is the central strategy. I seriously doubt geo-engineering is any significant part of the answer. And I think it is immoral to imply that adaptation is the answer either — yes, people can adapt, heck, the citizens of New Orleans “adapted” to hurricane Katrina, but I imagine every single one of them wishes we had focused on preventing the flooding.

    If you have other strategies, I’d love to hear them.

  6. John McCormick says:


    Can we agree that by dropping the “geo” prefix, we then identify the global warming solution? Individual lifestyle changes and decarbonization of one’s footprint (could be an 11th commandment) have value but are collectively wholely inadequate to meet an 80% CO2 reduction goal.

    I do not view global warming as an environmental problem. It is the environment that is impacted-destroyed. Rather, AGW is an engineering and economic challenge. And, the sooner enviromental purists step aside and allow realistic mitigation measures to take shape, the sooner will Asian countries follow.

    CO2 capture and sequestration is an urban myth and a first order geo-engineering scheme.

    You say you would love to hear about other strategies. Let me test this one on you.

    CO2 is not a reject. It is a resource when reacted with hydrogen to create carbon monoxide and water — the reverse water gas shift. This is some heavy lifting and will require access to plentiful hydrogen; the production of which can not emit CO2. Forget the wind and solar option for hydrogen production; capacity factor too low and surface area needs are too high. Don’t feel compelled to write off my idea at this juncture.

    The modular helium reactor tied into a sulfur-iodine thermochemical water-splitting process will produce the hydrogen for reaction with the power plant CO2 to create a CO, H2O feedstock for a Fischer-Tropsch synfuels process. The power plant CO2 will be essentially a pure stream since the by-product oxygen was fed into the coal boiler to replace air and its 80% nitrogen content (oxycombustion is a here and now technology in search of affordable non-CO2 emitting oxygen).

    Demand for hydrogen is increasing rapidly to meet refinery needs to crack heavier crude. Steam methane reformation is the standard hydrogen producer but it emits 7.4 tons of CO2 per ton of hydrogen. Global demand for hydrogen is now about 50 million tons – half of which is derived from the SMR process.

    Your readers might have a seizure by the mere mention of a future nuclear power industry being tapped to convert CO2 to no-sulfur diesel. So be it. If they fight a strategy such as this, they will be protecting their eco-principles while ignoring the inevitable. CO2 capture andseqestration with their near-25 % energy penalty is not smart. And, it buries the CO2 resource.

    Oh, and did I mention this CO2-as-a-feedstock stategy makes sense only when China, India, Russia and Australia sign up?

  7. Joe says:

    Nuclear-powered hydrogen production is most certainly not the answer, and I am somewhat surprised you like it but dis carbon capture and storage (CCS). Yes there is an energy penalty for CCS, but it is nothing compared to the energy penalty of 1) capturing CO2 (the most energy-intensive part of CCS) and 2) splitting water and 3) the Fischer-Tropsch process.

    Why not just use the hydrogen directly for generating power? Or better yet, if you’re going to build all those nuclear plants, why not just use their electricity directly instead of coal (though we’ll need 1000 nukes by 2057 just to supply 1 of the 10 or so wedges we need to avert climate catastrophe). I think you’ll find that it makes no sense to use nuclear power for any other purpose until every last coal plant is either shut down or fitted with CCS.

    [You are basically proposing taking the waste products of combustion, CO2 and H20, using a considerable amount of energy to turn them into useful energy carriers, just so you can burn them back into CO2 and H20 — and I think it is safe to say that will never be a cost-effective climate solution.]

    If CCS turns out to be impractical, we are going to have a devil of a time stopping catastrophic warming, and we’ll certainly need every last nuclear power plant for primary electricity production. Also, small point, as I have defined it in my post, pre-combustion CCS is not geo-engineering.

  8. John McCormick says:


    There is another way to calculate the energy penalty for CO2 capture (about .2 kwhr/lb CO2). It is the parasitic demand of 15 to 25% of generating capacity to strip the CO2 from the stack gas which means we will build new plants at 115-125% of demand projection just to make up the generation down-rating. That is 15-25% more coal feed and 15-25% more CO2. Then compression and pumping to the “possible” permanent disposal site is more energy demand.

    You asked
    [Why not just use the hydrogen directly for generating power?]

    Global hydrogen demand for fertilizer, refinery and petrochem needs is expanding about 5%/year. Tell me how the new hydrogen will be produced then we can discuss that option..

    You said
    [Or better yet, if you’re going to build all those nuclear plants, why not just use their electricity directly instead of coal].

    I am not limiting my thinking to kwhrs. Peak oil will cause global demand to rush to shale and coal liquefaction (South Africa and China are already there. We do NOT want to go there.

    Since the CO2 will continue to stream from US 350 GW of coal plants and China’s nearly 650 GW of coal plants for a long time into the future, we must be more creative than cautious and try a difficult but achievable chemical reaction to use the CO2 as a resource. How can one argue against considering that approach even if it is accomplished most efficiently with modular helium reactors,— pebble bed reactor if you like.

    You said:
    [ I think you’ll find that it makes no sense to use nuclear power for any other purpose until every last coal plant is either shut down or fitted with CCS.]

    Give me a time frame for the latter and we can discuss your response.

    You said:
    [You are basically proposing taking the waste products of combustion, CO2 and H20, using a considerable amount of energy to turn them into useful energy carriers, just so you can burn them back into CO2 and H20 — and I think it is safe to say that will never be a cost-effective climate solution.]

    Again, think peak oil by 2030 and global demand for petroleum fuels and global CO2 emission levels by then.

    I see nuclear thermochem water splitting as zero-CO2; oxycombustion as zero CO2 for carbon capture; shift of CO2 to CO and processed to F-T fuels as zero-CO2. Burning the fuel will emit CO2 but we avoided the coal-burning CO2 emissions in the process. That ain’t so bad, is it Joe?

    We all have to think bigger thoughts and get out of our comfort zones of CCS, renewables, efficiency and bicycles because they will not save the day. Maybe they will give us a few hours.

    You said: [If CCS turns out to be impractical, we are going to have a devil of a time stopping catastrophic warming,]

    I am betting it is already impractical.

    [and we’ll certainly need every last nuclear power plant for primary electricity production.]

    If there is a means to capture the CO2 in a clean, non-nitrogen-gas stream and process it to fuels, then coal will have a larger role to play than it is destined to play.

    Finally, you said
    [ Also, small point, as I have defined it in my post, pre-combustion CCS is not geo-engineering.]

    Depends how you imagine post-combustion CCS re-engineering our planet’s geology.

  9. Joe says:

    I think you are getting a bit too nit-picky for me.

    If you don’t believe in CCS, many of your replies don’t seem to make sense to me.

    In any case, it is inconceivable to me that, in a carbon-constrained world, it would make sense to use nuclear power for anything other than electricity through at least the year 2050.

    I believe the vehicle fuel of the future will be electricity (plus, probably, cellulosic ethanol). Hydrogen is a dead end. If I’m right, then I suspect the vast majority of nuclear power (or renewables, or coal with CCS, for that matter) will be used for electricity through 2100, though admittedly it gets very difficult to protect technology that far out.

  10. John McCormick says:

    Joe, do you have any analysis backing your statement that:

    [In any case, it is inconceivable to me that, in a carbon-constrained world, it would make sense to use nuclear power for anything other than electricity through at least the year 2050.]

    I don’t know that we have much to talk about.

  11. Joe says:

    I will try to dig up an INEEL analysis on this.

    But my “The Hype About Hydrogen” book makes the basic case: Your cost of avoided carbon is at least an order of magnitude LOWER for directly displacing coal power with any zero-carbon electricity than using that electricity to make a transport fuel like hydrogen (but the analysis would be similar for F-T diesel). So until you have displaced all coal emissions — something that surely won’t happen BEFORE 2050 (especially for someone who doesn’t believe in the CCS option) — you’d use any available nuclear plant for electricity.

  12. RhapsodyInGlue says:

    Concluding that Geo-Engineering is NOT the answer seems a bit flawed if it’s from only considering one of many such solutions proposed.

    I think it’s quite obvious to most people that Geo-Engineering cannot be a complete solution. If CO2 were allowed to climb as fast as it likely would with no attempts at emissions reduction, it would reach levels that would not only devastate the world’s oceans through acidification, but it would also lock the world in an unsustainable spiraling loop of ever increasing GH forcing requiring ever more expensive counteracting agents.

    That said, many are seriously considering the possibility that while vast entrenched economic systems are adjusted to decarbonize the world, geo-engineering may be a necessity to avoid crossing some of the tipping point thresholds that might bring catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

    Sulphate aerosols would seem to have more problems than some of the other proposed ideas. Using aerosolized ocean water to increase the albedo of ocean clouds would seem to have many advantages over the sulphate idea. It wouldn’t contribute to acid rain and the effects would disappear within days of discontinuing the spraying. Seeding the oceans with iron is another idea that probably warrants much more research. It might be a significant contributor to reducing atmospheric CO2 levels and at the same time increase the bioproductivity of the seas.

    It would have been great if societies had started addressing climate change 15 or 20 years ago. Geo-engineering would then have likely been totally unnecessary. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. The world simply cannot afford to ignore any ideas that might help avoid the worst case climate scenarios… even if that means compromising some on environmentalist ideals.

  13. WA Girl 1998293 says:

    well at the moment i am studying global warming at school and the above article has helped me greatly, Joe is it? u no ur stuff.
    bye xoxoxxoxooxoxxoox

  14. Mitchell says:

    Why are we focusing on CO2 as the problem, since this is a company of smart people( I too am only a student) my question is about the fact that Temperature increase preceeds a rise in CO2 and in the more accurate readings of the last few decades there isn’t even a strong correlation. I just don’t get why everyone is trying to fix CO2 when it is a temperature problem. Co2 is just the symptom.
    Furthermore couldn’t all this just be caused by the increase in solar flaring we have had, which by the way is starting to go into a decrease – thanks to the 18-22 mo projection readings we have. Isn’t all this just an earth cycle? What if we are about to “cool- off” and by doing geo-engineering we “cool-off” too much, it could be worse than the little ice-age. With all that said there is no doubt that our world is suffering the effects of man’s industrialization, but wouldn’t cleaner energy, forestation and protecting the water supply be more helpful. It just seems as if geo-engineering is just causing more pollution. We have to be careful not to do another Tire-reef off the coast of florida.

  15. Robert Allen says:

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  16. Rick says:

    “The INDRA systems will give mankind control of the weather”

    now you’re thinking big – any chance of controlling time and space while you’re at it?

  17. kiwichick says:

    what about reflecting the sun, particularly in polar regions, by covering the oceans with plastic floats made from recycled plastic?

  18. I could say construction of such projects requires knowledge of engineering and management principles and business procedures, economics, and human behavior.