Time on Geo-engineering: What are they thinking? Part 1

[JR: Geo-engineering is to mitigation as chemotherapy is to diet & exercise. You can find some more specific reasons geo-engineering is unlikely to make sense at these posts: “Geo-engineering remains a bad idea” and “Geo-Engineering is NOT the Answer.” Note I will be blogging again on this shortly. Absent strong mitigation efforts, geo-engineering will not stop catastrophic outcomes, like the end of most ocean life.]

TIME magazine has declared geo-engineering one of “10 Ideas That Are Changing the World.”

Messing with nature caused global warming,” TIME wrote. “Messing with it more might fix it.

What are they thinking?

For the record: I have a lot of respect for engineers. They have taken us into space and landed us on the moon with incomprehensible precision. Every time we cross a bridge or speed down the freeway at 75 miles per hour, we trust our lives to engineers. Thanks to engineers, we keep our beer cold and our showers hot, and wake up every morning with confidence that our coffee has been brewed. There’s virtually nothing in our material life that has not been touched by engineering.

I should also define the type of geo-engineering I’m about to address. It includes attempts to mitigate global warming by deploying mirrors in space, using high-altitude balloons to inject dust and soot into the atmosphere, using aircraft to spray aluminum particles into the troposphere, burning sulfur to increase cloud cover and dumping iron oxide into the ocean to stimulate plankton growth.

Should we depend on measures such as these to reverse climate change? For ethical and practical reasons, the answer is no.

Ethically, we have an obligation to address the causes of climate change, not just its effects. In a letter to James Madison in 1789, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The earth belongs to each of these generations during its course, fully and in its own right. The second generation receives it clear of the debts and encumbrances of the first, the third of the second, and so on. For if the first could charge it with a debt, then the earth would belong to the dead and not to the living generation…no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence.”

Jefferson was talking about financial debt, but the same ethic applies to ecological debt. Intergenerational ethics argue against us leaving massive, intractable problems for future generations, forcing them to deal in perpetuity with nuclear wastes, carbon sequestration sites and geo-engineering systems — all subject to human error and to failures that would be deadly.
The willingness to consider a geo-engineering solution to climate change is a function of several dysfunctional factors.

First, geo-engineering is a concept born of desperation. As the realization grows that climate change is not only a fact, but also potentially disastrous to life as we know it, and that transforming agriculture and forestry and how the world uses energy is a monumental undertaking, and that we don’t have much time, geo-engineering gains traction, just as some environmentalists now accept nuclear power as a necessary evil. But sound solutions rarely are born from desperation.

Second, if we accept the conclusion of scientists such as Jim Hansen that we have the tools and still have time to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, then geo-engineering is a cynical response, based on the assumption that we do not have sufficient character, discipline, political will or morality to solve the climate problem. There’s much in our history to support cynicism — but there’s also ample evidence that we are capable of conquering huge challenges.

Third, geo-engineering is the coward’s way out of confronting climate change. It offers a convenient escape for leaders who don’t have the guts to defy the fossil-energy lobbies or to tax carbon or to ask their constituents to make tough choices. It wouldn’t be the first time that engineering was used to allow people to act in stupid ways and to escape the consequences. Think of dams and levees designed to control rivers so that people can live in natural floodplains — sometimes with disastrous results. Engineering often is used to force natural systems to conform to human behavior. But sometimes when people and nature come into conflict, the smartest solution is to require people to share the burden of change. That is the case with global warming.

Fourth, geo-engineering is born of the dangerous conceit that human engineering is superior to nature’s engineering. In reality, the first Wonder of the World is the world itself, a system that has taken billions of years to evolve through endless trial and error — or that, depending on your cosmology, was created by God himself — and that performs immeasurable and largely unappreciated services to support life as we know it.

Lacking regard for natural systems, we have upset them, as climate change is demonstrating in a very big way. Human engineering should be a blend of technology and humility. We are pretty good at technology, but we lack humility.

Fifth, even if it were able to stabilize climate change — which is doubtful — geo-engineering would leave us with an array of other problems that result from our dependence on fossil fuels. We still would be addicted to imported oil, still would be subsidizing terrorism with our gas dollars, still would suffer the cost and supply traumas that are inevitable with finite resources, still would send our children off to die in resource wars, still would pollute the air and cause respiratory problems for our children, and still would wipe out species, many of them beneficial to us, as we invade their habitat.

Because finite resources are finite, we will have to abandon them for more sustainable resources some day. Geopolitics, energy markets and the climate are telling us that time is now. The more we delay the transition, the more we will suffer.

Sixth, geo-engineering would unleash the law of unintended consequences. The destruction of the wetlands that should have helped protect New Orleans from hurricanes is just one of many examples that prove we don’t understand ecosystems well enough to anticipate the consequences of changing them. Harvard geochemist Dan Schrag puts it this way:

I think it’s fair to say that some of the people who have been advocates for climate engineering … have made claims that we can control it perfectly–that we can actually produce a climate that’s exactly what we want it to be. I think that flies in the face of all our understanding of the climate system…. [Geo-engineering] is not something that will ever compensate either perfectly or even imperfectly for greenhouse gas emissions.

What the world needs now is not geo-engineering but eco-engineering — the study of natural systems, the ability to learn from and work in concert with them, and the practice of protecting ecological services.

One example of eco-engineering is the effort in parts of California to rely less on flood-control structures and instead restore the natural systems that allow rivers to regulate themselves with meander, wetlands and watersheds rich with vegetation to absorb rainfall.

The impact of technology on ecosystems is illustrated by the equation credited to Paul Ehrlich: I = PAT, where I is impact, P is population, A is affluence and T is technology. Today, technology often multiplies the adverse environmental impacts of people and affluence. The proliferation of inefficient automobiles is one example.

Now, as architect Bill McDonough has noted, the equation that must guide engineering and science is I = PA/T, where technology reduces the impact of population and affluence.

If it’s new challenges our engineering professions want, there are plenty on the workbench. We need plug-in hybrid vehicles, better batteries and ways to store intermittent solar and wind power. We need to perfect cellulosic ethanol and dramatically improve vehicle efficiency. We need zero-carbon buildings. We need to bring down the price of solar electricity and develop wind turbines that work at lower wind speeds. We need to produce cost-effective energy from waves, river currents and algae. We need countless breakthrough technologies that dramatically improve the resource efficiency of our economies. We need economical ways to recycle consumer products and to conserve water. We need technologies that will help us cope with the adverse climate changes that are underway and that are inevitable in the decades ahead. And we need them quickly.

Geo-engineering is indeed an idea that would change the world — but not in ways we will like. Fantasies that we can or should exert god-like control over the Earth’s major environmental systems divert us from the real job at hand: building ecological economies and restoring the planet’s ability to regulate the carbon balance and to provide the countless other critical services that sustain species. Including ours.

— Bill Becker

24 Responses to Time on Geo-engineering: What are they thinking? Part 1

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Well, producing biocoal and sequestering it in carbon landfills solves the problem by, in effect, ‘putting it back’. A sketch of a plan is in a comment on the Hansen 350 ppm thread, down a few…

  2. Ronald says:

    I read what you wrote about biocoal. A question I have is why wouldn’t a company just keep burning the biomass until it was gone and then not dig up coal?

    I realize that the plants that make biocoal would be located near the places to bury the biocoal and that burning the biocoal to completion would mean either transporting the biocoal or the electricity.

    It just seems that if somebody goes to go to all the trouble of collecting the biomass, the company that does that would want to benefit from the electricity. I assume they would benefit from a cap and trade system otherwise.

    Weren’t your costs for growing and collecting quite low?

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    Add to the fifth or sixth reason the continuing acidification of the oceans.

    This geo-engineering, or re-engineering, reminds of some folks in college who took uppers to stay awake longer and then took downers when it was time to quit. That didn’t work so well, either; but at least they weren’t experimenting with our entire planet.

  4. Mike says:

    I would adopt David Keith’s attitude towards geo-engineering…not as a substitute for mitigation but as a form of parachute…if global warming is as bad as we say it is, it wouldn’t hurt to think about geo-engineering.

    You are assuming that people will not mitigate first and consider geo-engineering as a parachute in case of shortfall in mitigation goals.

  5. Paul K says:

    I am 100% against any geo engineering. If the alarmists are correct and in 2040 we are faced with truly dire consequences, some will need to be considered, but until then it should be only an academic pursuit.

  6. Pangolin says:

    Let’s just move the whole damn planet out a bit from the sun shall we? We’ll need to do it in 2.5-3 billion years anyway when the sun expands into it’s projected red giant phase so we might as well get started.

    All we have to do is send a fleet of robotic spacecraft out to the asteroid belt and slingshot a few million of them past Earth in the right orbits. Each time a rock manages a proper slingshot maneuver a bit of momentum is transferred from the rock to the planet. The maths have all been done already all we need to do is build the control units for the asteroids.

    Or, if we get into a real hurry……

    We can just take a few medium sized asteroids and slam them into the south pole over the course of about 30 years. (sorry about the penguins) The resulting dust clouds shading and fertilizing the southern pacific ocean would be more than enough to cool the planet down.

    That would be way more politically doable than parking every car, truck and SUV in the world and spending 100 years coppicing woodlots and burying biochar. At least until somebody realized what might happen if one of those rocks strayed off course.

    (the above was not intended to be read by the sarcasm impaired)

  7. Bill Becker says:

    Pangolin — Great ideas. There’s a government grant there somewhere.

  8. Danny loom says:


    All this talk about mitigation, good. But when will we start talking about adaptation strategies, if all else fails. Is it too early Joe to be talking about polar cities for future survivors (breeding pairs in the Arctic in Lovelock’s fine words) in the distant future or is this the time? You can see early days images here:

  9. Earl Killian says:

    As an engineer, I appreciate Bill’s kind words, but I feel compelled to point out that most engineering projects go through a debugging phase (e.g. rockets blew up on the pad before we made it to the moon). It is a little trickier when you don’t have a spare world to practice on first.

  10. Peter Foley says:

    There is only ONE path for the environmentally righteous! We don’t want any stinking technology. We want Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” with a stone ax.
    Bill, While Thom. Jefferson was a Great Man, his economics were one of his weakest facets, He died in poverty after spending a fortune and mismanaging his cash cow plantation. And for designing the lack of a central bank into US government that wasn’t completely set right until the creation of the federal reserve system after the country suffered several economic cycles that made the ‘Great’ depression look mild every-time the crops failed. What other failed economics idea will you spout next? Marxism? I do agree with the idea the present age shouldn’t mortgage the economic future of the world to deal with a grossly exaggerated threat.
    Engineering is Okay when it allows Bill freedom, But Engineering a future with all peoples of the world can grow their economies out of the dark ages isn’t. What answer to the alleged problem will result in the greatest freedom for the greatest number? It definitely isn’t ANY with anti-technology as one of the tenants of the solution set.
    Trust me Bill when I build a Building it is superior to a natural cave in all measurable features . How is that natural Internet working for you since the Sierra Club banned smoke signals? Do you wear a coat when out-of doors, or do you go nude in the perfectly evolved “natural” weather?
    I don’t hold up any tech from NASA as completely accurate after paying for two blown up shuttles and a lesson in why enterprises of any type should use only one system of measurements(Kilometres or Miles). I suggest you let Moses (J. Hansen) take a needed sabbatical and branch out for some new revelations for the Green Canon. Is he some type of late blooming polymath?
    If I(we) are ‘addicted’ to oil shouldn’t we be allowed to reach bottom? Thinking based on the least rigorous division of the soft sciences isn’t going to solve any problems except feeding/employing a group of college grads that couldn’t pass a precalculus class.
    New Orleans wasn’t a surprise, cities below sea-level will flood, guaranteed sooner or later–Even pop songs have this idea in the public domain–“when the the levy breaks….”.
    Finite resources, what are we running out of that we can’t make out of some thing else? We’re only one or two generations from importing extraterrestrial materials and maybe only one away from nanotech making raw materials nearly “free”. Why start some type of suicidal, dead-end, anti-tech culture now?
    Quoting Paul Ehrlich, need I say any more.
    We need plug-in cars, but don’t build any power plants=crazy.
    Zero-carbon buildings? No wood or paper, Again the myth that money(costs) have no environmental impact leads to faulty results. If an action isn’t cost effective it isn’t environmental effective either.–Its like driving home to get a ten cent paper sack to reuse– its crazy.
    Bill, whats terrorism got to do with Geo-Engineering?– Put the bomb down or I’ll turn your desert into farmland.
    Wave- energy= slower Earth orbit=Geo-engineering. TANSTAFL Bill.
    Algae for CO2 capture good, Algae for CO2 sequestration bad. WTF? Only Geo-engineering that has the Green stamp of approval is okay.
    Water, It is literally a mile deep over 71% of the surface of the Earth, and it falls out of the sky nearly every where else. Talk about a phony problem.
    If you’re truly into recycling we need cheap power to enable this questionable behavior.
    Technology to cope=okay, Tech to prevent not okay=crazy.
    If it is a fantasy why are you against it? Is Disney getting banned next?
    I’m definitely NOT relying on the planet to provide me any thing, but I also not going to allow a group of misguided fools steer the ship of state into an era of devolution or bar my access to needed materials or energy.

  11. Peter Foley says:

    Edit Wave energy= longer Earth Day=Geo Engineering

  12. Paul K says:

    Peter Foley,
    This is not an environmentalist blog. Joe Romm is definitely not an environmentalist. This blog is not anti technology. It celebrates it. This blog is not anti capitalist. Joe believes in the marketplace and claims his proposals will be economically beneficial.

  13. roy says:

    Joe, I generally agree with your comments. However I think there is an overbearing psychological attitude coming through as well. A sort of political correctness. Please consider this: is there any damage/uncertainty vs. GW consequence equation that would cause you to support some (perhaps not yet invented) intervention? Try this rhetorical: would you be in favor of using limited medicine to treat deathly ill people if such usage might delay the correction of systemic problems like no sewage system? Finally, I wonder, is there any credible research showing that mitigation would definitely delay cutting GHG?

  14. Joe says:

    Roy — this post was written by Bill Becker. I do not share his perspective 100% (which is why I put in a few opening lines of my own.

    I tend to think geo-engineering is (fatally) flawed on scientific (and practical) grounds. If I thought it would avoid catastrophic outcomes, rather than do nothing or make them more likely, I’d support it.

    I don’t follow your question, tho. Cutting GHGs is mitigation.

    Please restate it.

  15. Pangolin says:

    I wonder if Terra Preta or biochar agricultural techniques count as geo-engineering or not? The existiing Terra Preta in the Amazon definately has an impact on the growth of the forest there but spread worldwide the amount of carbon that could ultimately be sequestered is massive.

    If the results of early tests on adding bio-char to poor soils persist subsistance farmers will catch on and use the technique as soon as they understand it. The people in the Amazon cutting wood with stone axes and creating Terra Preta had to have profited from it or the practice would not have thrived.

    So how much carbon do the farmers get to bury as char before it becomes geo-engineering?

  16. David B. Benson says:

    Pangolin — Just so every reader understands, biochar and agrichar are both names for the same material, pyrolysized biomass. When woody biomass is used, the result is traditionally called charcoal. Terra Preta is an Amazonian soil, so far unduplicatable, which contains a high proportion of charcoal.

    The currrenlty first paper up here:

    by Dominic Woolf, surveys the current situation regarding biochar.

    With regard to the question, “how much carbon do the farmers get to bury as char before it becomes geo-engineering?”, my answer is as much as they find it profitable to do so. If it becomes necessary to pay them to do it, then it is geo-engineering like any other farming subsidy.

    If necessary to pay, then I prefer sequestering biocoal on a massive scale. The reason is that we know the biocoal, being coal, will stay in the ground for millions of years. There is no evidence that this is true for biochar, not even charcoal. (There is evidence that charcoal will persist that long in marine environments.) In any case, I posted a sketch of a plan regarding biocoal sequestration as a comment on the Hansen-350 thread.

  17. Pangolin says:

    D. Benson- Thanks for plugging in the link. I have to disagree with you on several points.

    “Terra Preta” appears to have no magical ingredients, no new elements specific to Amazon soils (which are ex-african dust anyway) it’s merely ground charcoal, manure, fish waste and several thousand years of colonization by microflora. If it wasn’t reproducible there wouldn’t be so damn much of it. The fact that similar soils were found in Europe and Japan testify that the concept is not unique just dormant.

    As to the longevity, two PhD geologists I know have independently assured me that charcoal in soil is effectively there permanently. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be any charcoal found in along with the proto-humans which is usually the case. Biochar once incorporated into soil is effectively a permanent sequestration.

    You seem to prefer the creation and deep burial of “bio-coal” (which appears to be the same thing as bio-char) over agricultural use of charcoal. I’m not sure what the advantage would be since all evidence is that bio-char in an active root zone promotes the growth and sequestration of at least as much carbon as the contained in the original char. Why go to the bother of burning biomass just to bury a valuable soil amendment?

    Finally the advantage of bio-char agriculture is that the required materials are a hoe, a machete and some land that will grow virtually anything else. Any 12 year old can understand the process and put it into place. Considering the surplus human population and the shortage of prime agricultural soils anything that sequesters carbon, improves soils and engages human labor all at the same time should be employed. No machines needed.

  18. Paul K says:

    People seem to forget that the IPCC identifies two causes of anthropomorphic global warming. CO2 and land use. Although he was ridiculed here at climateprogess, a famous old scientist last year recommended something very close to a bio-char solution.

  19. David B. Benson says:

    Pangolin — Did you bother to read the review by Dominic Woolf before posting? Doesn’t look like it.

    Terra Preta still is, I assert, unduplicatable, despite decades of work by at least one soil scientist. The modern pyrolysis technology was devised in part in an attempt to duplicate it. According to the review article, current thinking is that it takes 100 to 150 years for the fungi to do their thing. I agree that there are ‘similar’ soils in Japan, but only similar. The only ‘similar’ soils in Europe I know about are in the Ukraine, with deeply buried carbon horizons. Do you know of others?

    A soil scientist at Cornell has measured the longevity, over a rather short period of time, of course. Your geologists firends are simply wrong, with regard to shallowly buried biochar used as a soil conditioner. Over the first few years about 1/2 re-enters the active carbon cycle. Otherwise, read the report regarding the preservation and non-preservation of charcoal in the ground. Basically, nobody is confident that the majority of it persists for more than a few thousand years.

    Biocoal is formed via hydrothermal carbonization of the entire biomass. I posted links in my lengthy comment on the Hansen-350 thread a few back. Biocoal is exactly the same stuff, all ingredients, as high quality, metal-free, low-sulfur coal. Biochar, being formed by pyrolysis, is somewhat different. We know that biocoal will persist in the ground, buried at the same depths as coal in coal seams, because biocoal IS coal!

    This deep sequestration is necessary because there is too much carbon in the active carbon cycle. Read the Hansen-350 thread. I’m not proposing a soil amendment, because the amount that needs to be sequestered is probably far more than farmers will want to put into their soils. Too much nitrogen harms most crops, and I assume the same will prove true of biochar.

    I agree with your last paragraph completely. The use of charcoal just needs to be popularized. It is helpful to have a moble, modern pyrolysis unit, since biomass other than woody materials can be used and the machine produces valuable heating oils, but an old-fashioned charcoal burner will certainly get one started.

  20. David B. Benson says:

    Paul K — I am all in favor of as much use of biochar as makes good economic sense to the farmer, with advice from his trusted agronomists. I see no reason not to begin using relatively light applications on all crop lands, world-wide, except the acid soils needed by berry farmers and the like. Heavier applications ought to await some testing as to whether the soil miroorganisms will consume the VOCs in the biochar in sufficient quantities. If not, repeated heavy applications will result in brownfields, hardly the desired result.

  21. Andrew Weiszmann says:

    The whole ecological problem is mostly caused by the population explosion.Population pressure has outpaced our ability to cope with the
    environmental impact. Population has to be slowed down in order for environmental technology to catch up.

    China, Japan and Europe have already slowed down their population growth, now its up to the rest of the world to catch up. Clean energy is
    the first way to a solution.