So much for geoengineering, Part 1: Avoiding the Frankenplanet

[I think that as a climate-saving strategy geoengineering is largely somewhere between a dead end and a hoax — why would you choose chemotherapy that might make you sicker if your doctors told you diet and exercise would definitely work (see “Geoengineering remains a bad idea”)? In retrospect, that analogy isn’t perfect. The “diet and exercise” the country and the world needs is more like what the winner of the reality show “The Biggest Loser” undergoes. And the chemotherapy is actually more like an experimental trial for a combination of chemotherapy and radiation therapy, where you have no idea at all if the treatment will work, as opposed to kill you outright, and you might be on the placebo. I have been planning to do a longer series on geoengineering, and Bill Becker’s post seemed like a good place to start.]


I do not plan to make a career out of beating up on geo-engineers, but they were back in the news recently in articles published by the on-line magazine Yale Environment 360 and by The Economist.

For those of us who believe that engineering the Earth’s life-support systems is a wild and dangerous fantasy, there was good news and bad news.

The “good news” was reported by The Economist: Two new studies conclude that geo-engineering is not as promising an answer to climate change as some in that budding discipline hope.

If you are not yet familiar with geo-engineering, I will attempt to define it in non-technical terms before offering a few observations on the new research:

  • Geo-engineering is the practice of messing around with global life-support systems we don’t understand. If we did understand them, we might not be in the pickle we’re in today. Or at least it would be a greener pickle.
  • Geo-engineering is a relatively new field based on the outdated and repeatedly discredited assumption that we humans are smart enough and wise enough to rule over the rest of the biosphere. Rather than applied engineering, we might call it “applied conceit”.
  • Contrariwise and at the same time, geo-engineering is a symptom of our growing skepticism that we are able to stop climate change with rational solutions such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, carbon pricing and behavioral changes. In other words, interest in geo-engineering is rooted in the idea that although we’re too stupid to do the simple things that would slow climate change, we’re smart enough to do the improbable things.
  • Geo-engineering is one outgrowth of our apparent learning disability about the law of unintended consequences. That law would be unleashed full-force once we started manipulating the oceans and atmosphere to create what one environmentalist calls “the Frankenplanet”. Geo-engineering is like a grownup version of whack-a-mole, where hammering down one problem causes others to pop up, to our great surprise.

The type of geo-engineering I’m dissing here includes a variety of ambitious proposals such as dumping iron into the oceans to create huge blooms of algae to absorb carbon dioxide; spraying seawater into the sky to encourage cloud formation; and injecting sulphate particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight into space.

My favorite is the space umbrella — a giant parasol deployed above the Earth to shade us from the sun’s rays. According to The Economist, geo-engineers like this option because it’s the most “scalable”. In other words, if the atmosphere gets hotter, we can increase the size of the umbrella. Researchers calculate that an umbrella half the size of Brazil could offset half the warming expected over the next 100 years, assuming no cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the latest research — by Britain’s National Oceanography Centre and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research — concludes that proponents of these schemes may be too optimistic. The algae blooms could use up all the oxygen in large portions of the ocean, killing most other life forms. Sulphate particles become less effective as more are injected into the atmosphere. Creating clouds would be “geographically patchy”. And the space umbrella? As The Economist puts it, “A polite critic of such a plan might describe it as ‘ambitious’.”

Trying to conquer these downsides is great fun in the lab, but in real life we’re talking about the planet’s hospitality to living things, some of them sentient.

But what bothers me most about geo-engineering is this: It provides an excuse to avoid a profoundly important teachable moment. Climate change is painful proof positive that we are connected with and dependent upon the rest of the natural world. It tells us that our time as outlaws is over; we have reached the limits of the planet’s capacity to tolerate abuse. Global climate change calls for an evolutionary shift in consciousness first, and technology second. And the technology we need is eco-engineering, not geo-engineering.

If we deny this moment and fail to “institutionalize” the revelation of connectedness in our science, engineering, policies and behaviors, we will have demonstrated for all time that 1) we are the ultimate invasive species, and 2) we are not the most intelligent species, and 3) when it comes to our own survival, we have no more willpower than lemmings.

In fact, this is more than a teachable moment. It’s a moral moment because the lives we are affecting are virtually all species, all people including those least able to cope with climate change, and many generations of human beings to come.

As I said, the research reported by The Economist is the good news. The bad news came in an interview with Canadian climate scientist David Keith, published by Yale Environment 360 . Although Keith finds geo-engineering “unsettling”, he believes scientists must continue preparing geo-engineering solutions as an “emergency response strategy for cooling an overheated planet.”

“It’s not something I necessarily want to see,” Keith said. “But I think unless humans have some war that sets back human civilization, we will grow into doing a kind of planetary management. I think we’ll end up being in the gardening business with this planet.” Keith went on to say:

I don’t think that civilization is at stake with global warming. But I think that loss of the natural world we care about is at stake…As much as I sometimes wish we could find a civilization-wrecking outcome from global warming, because that would force people to cut emissions very quickly, I don’t believe there is one. I think humans are amazingly adaptable and have amazing powers of isolating themselves from the environment by their technology, and those powers are not going to go away. And even human wants are very adaptable. So while I’m not claiming there won’t be bad impacts from global warming — of course there will be, I spent my whole lifetime writing on that topic — I don’t see it as a civilizational threat.

We can argue about the definition of “civilization” and whether climate change is a civilizational threat, but what’s most disturbing is that a respected climate scientist believes that human well-being and the health of the biosphere are not necessarily connected — that if we bring about the “loss of the natural world”, we humans will get along just fine. Technology will come to our rescue.

I’m not sure we have the technology to become a bubble-species. If we did, I assume Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert would still be somebody’s home rather than a tourist attraction/research facility. But even if we had the ability to live without the natural world, would it qualify as living? Would we keep our souls if we were permanently unplugged from the rest of creation, or what was left of it?

If the federal government had a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Ecological Literacy, Interspecies Liaison and Intergenerational Morality, and if I were that person, and if the geo-engineering industry came to me for billions of dollars to fund its “emergency response strategy to cooling an overheated planet”, I would respond as follows:

To qualify for these funds, you must first demonstrate that you have learned to understand “the accumulated evolutionary wisdom” (the Economist’s phrase) in natural systems. Until you can produce a fiber as strong as a spider’s silk, for example, you have not shown that you are better engineers than nature.

Come back when you can show us how to protect our coastlines as well as natural systems once did and to prevent flooding as well as riverine ecosystems did before we destroyed them.

Come back when you have learned to build a levee that doesn’t fail and when we’ve shown a sufficient attention span to keep our bridges from falling down. The geo-engineering projects you envision will require diligence forever, a level of commitment we have not yet demonstrated.

Come see me when you have created buildings that produce more energy than they use, cities that do not sprawl, and power plants that don’t pollute. Show us the engineering solution to lifting the world’s people out of poverty without bankrupting our natural capital.

Come back when you have stopped trying to be god-like and you have learned to be child-like, filled with wonder and curiosity at the natural world and anxious to learn what billions of years of evolution can teach us. Come back when you have the humility to acknowledge that your true laboratory is not in a building, but in the biosphere itself.

We don’t have to be Luddites to draw the line at geo-engineering. There has never been a more urgent need, or more fertile ground, for intelligent invention. But for both moral and pragmatic reasons, invention must help us fulfill our potential as residents of the natural world, rather than striving to “live” apart from it.

— Bill B.

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24 Responses to So much for geoengineering, Part 1: Avoiding the Frankenplanet

  1. David B. Benson says:


    1 a: a relatively high level of cultural and technological development ; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attaine


    But a question, Bill B.

    Why is not enhanced mineral weathering considered to be a form of geo-engineering? Or for that matter, simply planting billions of trees?

  2. John Mashey says:

    A) Some geoengineering schemes (like iron into the oceans) attempt to reduce CO2.

    B) Some (like space parosols or artificial sulfates) try to increase albedo, and reduce temperatures’, which doesn’t solve the long-term problems, but albeo-increase at least might help trim temperature rise & its feedbacks.

    BUT, I’d claim that the fancy schemes in B) for albedo-increase are dominated by much simpler win-win terrestrial schemes, some of which are being put in place as described here a month ago.

    I’ve done more back-of-the-envelope calculations at RC.

    C) Put another way:

    a) In some areas, we *want* every bit of sunlight we can get, for plants and solar power. We don’t want space parasols blocking their light. We *want* solar panels over parking lots, like people are doing already.
    Applied Materials does this, for example; of course, they build machinery to build panels.
    Their solar business is run by Charlie Gay [who I suspect Joe might know] – well worth hearing if anyone gets a chance.

    That’s a real win: power, cars stay cooler, pavement stays cooler, less UHI around a building, less air-conditioning load.

    b) In other areas, if we’re not going to use the sunlight, we want to reflect as much as possible before it gets converted to heat.

    C) It seems totally crazed for people to be pushing complex/expensive global albedo-increase geoengineering without comparing it to useful terrestrial options.

  3. Mark Shapiro says:

    Man-made global warming is an uncontrolled, unscientific experiment on our one and only planetary life support system. Geo-engineering adds another uncontrolled, unscientific experiment right on top. Talk about uncertainty!

    But skeptics have a special problem with any discussion of geo-engineering. After saying that climate scientists don’t know nearly enough (if anything at all) about climate, suddenly these same climate scientists not only understand it, but can actively steer it to perfection without side effects. How nice!

    It gets better. Suddenly, our happy geo-engineers assume, we 6 billion or so will be able to organize ourselves politically and economically to accomplish this task. Does the phrase “pork barrel”, or “intergenerational theft” come to mind?

    . . . Shorter version: geo-engineering is, at best, a utopian fantasy.

  4. Taylor says:

    I think we can fix this problem with a Dyson sphere.

    Why isn’t anyone talking about Dyson spheres?

  5. john says:

    Very good article, as usual, Bill. In my opinion, the main knock on geo-engineering — especially the umbrella and aerosol stuff — is that even if it works for global warming, it will not address the acidification of the oceans. This is fully as cataclysmic in terms of consequences as warming of the atmosphere is. We may already be near the point at which calciferous microorganisms and invertebrates cannot survive, and we are near the point where coral reefs are terminal. Most of the world’s oxygen comes from ocean fauna — a bad system to mess with.

    In the Permian die-off — an instance of extreme warming in the geologic record — more than 90% of all marine species became extinct. Bad stuff.

    Basically, we’ve unwittingly run one experiment with our life support systems and it failed. So our solution is to run another? Absurd.

    For all that, I do agree with Kieth — it’s something we might want to have in our hip pocket to remove carbon. Mineral weathering, soil permaculture and terrestrial bio-sequestration would seem the least likely to have massive unintended consequences.

  6. llewelly says:

    Bill, (or Joe), what is your opinion on large scale biochar production?

    What about proposals to pulverise millions of tons of dunnite or other rocks good at absorbing CO2?

    With respect to Biosphere 2, I think it’s high time for a Biosphere 3 attempt. It is not possible for would-be eco engineers to learn any of the lessons you set before them with many attempts to build independent small-scale ecosystems. (Beyond that, much of what went wrong at Biosphere 2 is reasonably well-understood; concrete releases CO2 for some time after becoming dry enough to use, the soil wasn’t layered properly, and so on. That’s not nearly enough to guarantee success with a Biosphere 3, but it is enough to make substantial forward progress likely.) Most importantly – humans have such a huge effect on ecosystems that we are in a de facto ‘control’-like role whether we have the requisite knowledge or not. The lessons of greenhouse gasses, ozone-destroying gasses, smog, and other pollutant troubles show that our actions affect our environment on a scale every bit as dramatic as most proposed geo-engineering schemes. I think humanity is stuck with the role of global geo-engineer (barring massive decreases in population). Our only choices are to do it ignorantly, or less ignorantly.

    Present assessments of the potential dangers of proposed stereotypical geo-engineering schemes show that ignorance is the primary source of danger from them. The geo-engineering scheme of emitting less greenhouse gasses – and hopefully no GHG at all eventually – is advocated by people like you primarily because it is the best understood. (Climate scientists know more or less what the climate was like with less CO2, and biologists know what the environment was like with less CO2.) PR people may balk at calling emissions reductions a geo-engineering scheme, but it is a carefully calculated action which will result in a climate substantially different from what we would have if we continued down the BAU path. In fact – given that simulations of emissions-reduced scenarios are far more common than simulations of, for example, ocean-fertilized scenarios, or dust-in-the-upper-atmosphere scenarios, emissions-reduction differs from other geo-engineering schemes only in that is much more carefully calculated, simpler ( in that it likely affects fewer ecosystem variables ), and better understood.

  7. paulm says:

    Chu is looking in the wrong direction….

    Solar technology, he said, will have to get five times better than it is today, and scientists will need to find new types of plants that require little energy to grow and that can be converted to clean and cheap alternatives to fossil fuels.

    We need to move to a more sustainable way of life which would mean lower consumption of energy and a manageable world population.

  8. Russ says:

    I won’t bother analyzing the psychosis of technophiles who actually believe in such insanity, and have such hatred for the precautionary principle.

    That sort are never anything more than a type of useful idiot for disaster capitalism, which brings me to the real danger here.

    With things like agrofuel mandates, the offset industry, and the advocacy for alleged cap-and-trade which in practice would fail to impose the cap but which would use the “trade” to try to inflate a carbon bubble, we’re starting to see the outlines of a campaign to enlist climate change policy for profit.

    So I consider it all too plausible that, after years of denying, delaying, and obstructing all rational carbon policy, once the climate crisis really enters the public consciousness by way of permanent drought and ever more frequent extreme weather events, the same cadres who fought sound policy will then take the lead in advocating geo-engineering boondoggles.

    These will never work and won’t be meant to work by their political advocates. They probably won’t be meant to ever even be completed.

    But they will be meant to receive massive public funding, almost all of which would be funnelled directly into private profit.

    That’s what the real purpose of geo-engineering would be, if it ever was to be seriously attempted. And that possibility is the only reason I ever worry that it might be attempted.

  9. paulm says:

    Sir David King , UK government’s former chief scientific adviser….

    “I went into the White House in 2001 to persuade them that de-carbonising their economy was the way forward….roughly a tenth of [the estimated $3 trillion the US spent on the war], they would have managed it.”
    “Consumerism has been a wonderful model for growing up economies in the 20th century. Is that model fit for purpose in the 21st century, when resource shortage is our biggest challenge?”

  10. Ronald says:

    wow, what outrage.

    First, I think that Al Franken, who may have won the recount to become Senator from Minnesota, I’m sure wants you to get a different name than name Frankenplanet, if it’s called Frankenplanet because it’s the worst name you could think of to describe a horrible planet.

    I don’t try to let my philosophy go ahead of reality. We may think it is stupid to now be able to reduce people from putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but that maybe the world we are living in. Geoengineering may be the only hope. Quite possibly humans may not come up with good or possibly doable ideas or plans to keep the planet from warming, but they should be looked at, discussed, and possibly implemented on their merits, not on whether we have a philosophy that we should never do anything geoengineering because humans should not do geoengineering.

    Humans are making changes to our planet, some of these changes are bad and potentially very bad for humans and we haven’t been able to stop them. But if there is some geoengineering that might help with the warming problem, we should at least study the idea as a potential solution or half solution. Who knows, something might just come up.

  11. Dan Whaley says:

    While you were busy drafting your fairly pitched article here, the London Convention (from where I am writing this during coffee break) was in technical and legal joint sessions crafting a regulatory framework for early scientific trials of Ocean Iron Fertilization to move forward–essentially shorthand for increasing the rate of primary productivity at the surface of the ocean, a process which currently naturally sequesters 60 billion tons of CO2 to deep water every year, and which paleoceanographers know was responsible at much greater intensities for deep drawdowns of CO2 during past interglacials. It was iron that triggered these several thousand year cycles of more vigorous activity.

    To their credit, the LC has put enormous energy and very detailed reviews into this area, seeking advice from the International Oceanographic Convention, numerous oceanographers from most of the major insititutions, and inviting a dialogue with other UN sponsored bodies such as UNEP, CBD, IOC, UNFCCC etc. There are over a hundred people here at these sessions from 88 countries around the world, including some of the world’s preeminent oceanographers.

    Can you perhaps bother to lift the cover a bit and explore what’s underneath?

    And frankenplanet? It has a wonderful ring– there’s nothing like getting that emotional reaction, eh? But, in 2007, the UN planted a billion trees, in large part to begin addressing the threat of climate change. So the geonengineeriing has already begun– and of course we’ve been geoengineering the biosphere with repercussions on CO2 since agriculture began 10,000 years ago. But, pshaw, there could be no reasonable parallel with these much more acceptable actions. Unfortunately, you seem to argue that man is fatally flawed, that we cannot take cautious steps to intelligently evaluate hypotheses, and perhaps to take sensible steps to lower atmospheric CO2 in addition to emissions reductions. Ok, so occasionally our bridges fail, and perhaps some biofuels have unintended consequences that we will regret later too (isn’t that also ‘tinkering with the planet’?)… but shouldn’t we understand the nuances of this debate? Are all biofuels bad? Of course not. Understand the speciation of the domain you address.

    Most alarmingly, you seem to argue that simple emissions reductions alone will get us there. What, pray tell, is the “safe” level of atmospheric CO2, Joe? 450? What about the drought conditions, pine bark beetle infestations, skyrocketing forest fires and rising sea levels which are compounding the effects of more intense hurricanes. And these are from the relatively modest warming at 384 that we already have– a level that even if we were magically to stabilize at we would continue to see warming effects from for over 1000 years, according to the new report by NOAA released several weeks ago. Did I mention that we may be headed into ice-free summers in the North pole within 10 years?

    Of course geoengineering cannot be a distraction to lowering emissions– but who other than Newt Gingrich is suggestion it should be? At what point should we start evaluating our options? When it’s too late? Isn’t it actually more prudent to *reduce risk* by understanding these potential techniques *earlier* rather than later?

    At what point are you going to be scared enough Joe to admit that research into these techniques ought to be not shouted down by those with the potential to focus serious thinking such as yourself, but that we ought to encourage scientists to ask these questions, seek funding and submit their results to peer review.

    Is it not enough that the G8+5 national academies have now called for research into geoengineering–including Ralph Cicerone, the president of our own Academy, that of 80 world climate scientists polled a majority now support investigating it (google: UK independent plan b) and that mainstream reporters such as David Shukman at the BBC are holding intelligent debates on the subject?

    Perhaps its time to actually dig a little deeper under the covers, as your remarkable colleague Jeff Goodell is doing– and to ask more sensitive questions and offer more thoughtful challenges.

    Dan Whaley
    CEO, Climos

  12. Esko says:

    It is understandable to criticise stupid and risky geo-engineering ideas. But there are other options too; Techniques that can be tested in small scale, things that do not cause permanent change, something that can be undone if it doesn’t work. Sulphur, iron fertilization, mirrors in the space do not fall into this category. But manipulating clouds might work and if it doesn’t you just stop doing it. Trapping CO2 is also possible with many geo-engineering techniques. And one must always understand that geo-engineering doesn’t change the fact that we must reduce our emissions. But there is more and more evidence telling us that we have crossed the tipping point and reducing emissions will not be enough anymore. I strongly support developing smart geo-engineering techniques just in case we might need them. If you have already fallen off the cliff you better have a parachute with you.

    Developing geo-engineering – yes
    Counting on geo-engineering – no

  13. Linda S says:

    Dan, first of all, Bill Becker wrote the piece, not Joe. Secondly, I find it truly frightening that those who would wish to tinker with the delicate balance of Gaia’s ecosystems don’t see a difference between planting trees and salting the oceans with iron. As for who, besides New Gingrich, might be advocating geo-engineering instead of lowering emissions, Bjorn Lomborg comes immediately to mind — the same Mr. Lomborg who was named “Global Leader for Tomorrow” by the World Economic Forum, one of the “50 Stars of Europe” according to BusinessWeek, one of Time Magazines “100 Most Influential People of 2004,” and even one of The Guardian’s “50 People Who Could Save the Planet.” But don’t worry, Lomborg has more than geo-engineering in his bag of tricks. He assures us that if we can make the rest of the world as rich as America, we can all afford air-conditioning and levees.

    At the end of the day, we are still left with the question, “How do we save ourselves from our own excesses?” I don’t have a good answer to that, but I know a bad answer when I hear it.

  14. Bill:

    “We need to move to a more sustainable way of life which would mean lower consumption of energy and a manageable world population.” (paulm),,

    With that as a given, it’s important to avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    Even with your caveat, most will see little difference between geo-engineering and what you call ‘eco-engineering’. And your negativism tends to dispose of both.

    Conservation, reduction of the use of fossil fuels, and new carbon-free energy sources all will steadily contribute to a drop in the INCREASE of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. But we need NET reduction of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere and oceans!

    That will additionally require large-scale “engineering” efforts – whether physical/chemical or biological/ecological. Clearly, the better we understand them, before implementation, the lower the risks. But because the risks of INACTION are so high, we can’t wait very long.

    My personal (knowledgeable) opinion is that large-scale bio-sequestration of CO2 in irrigated forests grown on largely-uninhabited Hadley-Cell deserts (e.g., the Sahara and Australian Outback), could sequester about 8 GtC/yr sustainably, – ‘forever’, and is the kind of geo/eco-engineering that can do the job with existing, mature technologies, and at low cost per tonne of CO2. Such should be at center stage in discussions of mitigation of global warming.

    Unfortunately, your arguments move the focus away!

  15. Bill Becker says:

    Thanks to all of you for engaging in this discussion. Some responses:

    Dan, as Linda S. notes, I wrote the post. If it contains a culpa, it’s a mea culpa.

    In regard to tree-planting and the like: In each piece I’ve written about geo-engineering, I’ve tried to distinguish between actions such as forestation and the more exotic and risky ideas such as solar shields. Some of the options now classified as geo-engineering are benign, sensible and very important, including planting trees. What I’m venting about is the manipulation of essential life support systems, which as I note, we don’t yet understand.

    Dan, thanks to you and to your colleagues for working hard on solutions to climate change. With all due respect, my opinion is that you’re working on the wrong solutions. I fear that geo-engineering in its most exotic forms is another exercise in which we’ll spend time, talent and fortunes looking for technical solutions for problems that at root are products of outdated public policies, carbon-era economics, entrenched special interests and the “dominion” philosophy of humankind’s relationship with the rest of the natural world. These are not technological problems and they won’t be solved with technological solutions.

    That’s not to say we can do without technology — we can’t. But our priority should be on those technologies that provide carbon-free energy, buildings, vehicles, factories, and communities, and that preserve and restore the natural systems that maintain a livable planet.

    – Bill Becker

  16. russ says:

    BZZZT!!! This report of iron in the ocean having less of an effect is a GIGO modeller study which did not do more than regurgitate a long used and fallacious logic to demean and dismiss the role of iron in repositioning carbon from surface to deep ocean sequestration. By jiggering the measure of carbon to be that in the form of plankton biomass the researchers eliminate the large portion of surface carbon that reaches the deep ocean and there under the conditions of pressure chemistry transforms into other forms. BZZZT the carbon that was once fixed on the surface is STILL safely sequestered in the deep ocean for centuries and millenia. This device is both dishonest and reveals the paper as a political spin paper not honest discourse on the topic. It sure has hit the mark as the eager media jump to feed this tidbit to the lions who feast upon controversy.

    Alas the point of iron replehishment is not singularly about CO2 and its role in global warming. In reality CO2 is killing the oceans at an increible rate. Just weeks ago the Amer. Acad. of Sciences published findings of the very best 8 year every half hour measurements of the rate of ocean acidification of the N. Pacific… and the rate was measured to be more than 20 times faster than the modellers have predicted. The Aust. Acad of Sci had reported a bit earlier that the Southern Ocean, already at CO2 saturation, would fall over the tipping point of CO2 disaster by 2030 instead of the previously modelled 2100.

    Ocean productivity losses have been shown to range from 10%-50% in the last 30 years representing a loss of 4-5 billion tonnes of CO2 being fixed as ocean phyto-plankton each year. This is fully half of the 6-8 billion tonne per year CO2 excess that is at the root of the greatest global disaster story – global warming. The reason why so many organizations including the dark greens, Rush Limbaugh, alternative energy engineers,and of course the climate change bankers are allied to oppose ocean eco-restoration is that for its cost of mere pennies per tonne, a few billions of dollars each year, the trillion dollar climate change disaster industries poster child, Mother Earth, might be substantially saved. They will, and do, do anything to kill off the cheap immediate workable eco-restoration of the oceans. Follow the money is still a workable investigative tool.

    Don’t let the cries of potential unknowns distract you…. if 4-5 billion tonnes more CO2 in the form of restored oean plankton blooms were going to be a problem wouldn’t the oceans have been less healthy in 1980 than today rather than the other way around!!!

  17. Harbinger says:

    If there really were a problem with the climate, this would not be the way to fix it. Of course climate change is being used now as a catch-all for global warming, a very specific policy dreamed up by those self same people at Tyndall:

    “The Social Simulation of the Public Perception of Weather Events and their Effect upon the Development of Belief in Anthropogenic Climate Change” September 2004.

    “Global warming (or climate change) is, without elaboration, a much debated and contested issue. Not only is it contested among scientists, but also among all those with vested interests.

    We suggest that, in the realm of the public, forces act to maintain or denounce a perceived reality which has already been constructed. That is, an issue introduced by science (or media for that matter) needs continual expression of confirmation if it is to be maintained as an issue.

    In this paper, we explore under what conditions belief in global warming or climate change, as identified and defined by experience, science and the media, can be maintained in the public’s perception.

    As the science itself is contested, needless to say, so are the potential policy changes. So how then do people make sense or construct a reality of something that they can never experience in its totality (climate) and a reality that has not yet manifest (i.e. climate change)?

    To endorse policy change people must ‘believe’ that global warming will become a reality some time in the future.

    Only the experience of positive temperature anomalies will be registered as indication of change if the issue is framed as global warming.

    Both positive and negative temperature anomalies will be registered in experience as indication of change if the issue is framed as climate change.

    We propose that in those countries where climate change has become the predominant popular term for the phenomenon, unseasonably cold temperatures, for example, are also interpreted to reflect climate change/global warming.

    Sound familiar? The Institute for Public Policy Research, UK Labour’s favourite think tank, had this advice for public agencies interfacing with the public.

    Treating climate change as beyond argument is our recommendation that, at least for popular communications, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won.

    This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective.

    The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken.

    The certainty of the Government’s new climate-change slogan – ‘Together this generation will tackle climate change’ (Defra 2006) – gives an example of this approach. It constructs, rather than claims, its own factuality.”

    Of course, calls for global engineering are not new, the following were serious suggestions in the 1970’s to combat…..Global Cooling!

    From the book “Omega – Murder of the Eco-system and the Suicide of Man , Paul K Anderson, 1971, Controlling the Planet’s Climate
    J. 0. Fletcher (Rand corporation)

    “recent decades have exhibited opposite trends: a weakening circumpolar circulation, southward shifts of ice boundaries and cyclone paths, and increased rainfall in the south central parts of the continents.”

    “These trends were underscored in 1968. It was a year in which Icelandic fishermen suffered losses due to the most extensive sea ice in the last half century, while phenomenal wheat yields from the plains of both Asia and North America due to increased rainfall pushed world wheat prices to a 16-year low.”

    “Since about 1840, a new warming trend has predominated and appears to have reached a climax in this century, followed by cooling since about 1940, irregularly at first but more sharply since about 1960.

    The periods of general warming were accompanied by increasing vigour of the westerly circulation in both hemispheres, bringing a more maritime climate to the continents, a northward displacement of cyclone paths, and a pronounced warming of the Arctic.

    The recent cooling trend exhibits a reverse pattern: weakened westerly circulation, more variable and southerly cyclone paths, and a colder Arctic.”

    Engineering the Climate
    “The largest scale enterprise that has been discussed is that of transforming the Arctic into an ice-free ocean. Three basic approaches have been proposed:

    influencing the surface reflectivity of the ice to cause more absorption of solar heat;large-scale modification of Arctic cloud conditions by seeding;
    increasing the inflow of warm Atlantic water into the Arctic Ocean

    The basic idea is to increase the inflow of warm Atlantic water by stopping or even reversing the present northward flow of colder Pacific water through the Bering Strait. The proposed dam would be 50 miles long and 150 feet high

    Two kinds of proposals have been discussed, a dam between Florida and Cuba, and weirs extending out from Newfoundland across the Grand Banks to deflect the Labrador current as well as the Gulf Stream

    The Pacific Ocean counterpart of the Gulf Stream is the warm Kuroshio Current, a small branch of which enters the Sea of Japan and exits to the Pacific between the Japanese islands.

    It has been proposed that the narrow mouth of Tatarsk Strait, where a flood tide alternates with an ebb tide, be regulated by a giant one-way ‘water valve’ to increase the inflow of the warm Kuroshio Current to the Sea of Okhotsk and reduce the winter ice there.”

    Fortunately, none of those schemes were followed. Surprisingly, even the mirror in space is not a new idea. Mr Burns in the Simpsons did that to cut off the sunlight and make the people of Springfield buy his nuclear energy.

    But I think that was just a cartoon…..

  18. Sasparilla says:

    After reading through the article and the responses, this is obviously a very touchy subject. Personally (as we close in on 400ppm), I don’t think (whether we have geo-engineering or not) that we have a chance of stopping at 450ppm or 2 degrees Celsius increase (over 2000 levels I think) that was previously pointed to as the limits of where we could go without falling into tipping points / runaway feedbacks that would remove what little control of this roller coaster that we’re pushing, from us. I don’t think our political systems (on a world scale) are up to the task within the time required.

    Here in the US, it will be a miracle if Obama can get his 80% by 2050 program moving consistently through 2 terms – its the best we can hope for at this point and it won’t be enough to keep us under the limits. What happens when the Repubs get back in power? (they will, always happens)

    Why not research and do minimal testing on these (and I’ll call them this), stupid ideas, so that if we get to 10-15 years from now and we won’t be staying under 450ppm and we need some more time to get our emissions down without triggering runaway feedbacks (and destroying things totally) – have them ready. Don’t go to the game the first time and bet your life you’ll hit a home run to right field over the wall on the right side by 3 feet.

    As was pointed out previously most of these will not do a thing for the carbonization of the oceans – their not a fix at all, but a last ditch emergency break to give us a little more time for temperature (for the most part). I want those kinds of things figured out some in the mean time and not when we’ve finally realized we’ve blown it 10-15 years from now and its an emergency (there’s too much at stake and bad trends to ignore them).

    Something else to consider, some of these items (sulfur in the atmosphere is one in particular – sort of tested a la Mt. Pinatubo) do not need alot of money to be done. At what point (15-30 years in the future) will some of the less developed countries decide “the heck with this”, I’m stopping things before my country is destroyed (Bangladesh comes to mind as one that could do this easily and will be feeling the effects alot)?

    In that case I’d like these things researched as well so we know just what they might actually do – instead of not knowing a bit till someone just tries it. Right now most of these proposals live in the Blogosphere – which is the most dangerous situation, in my opinion – as they seem somewhat real/viable/reassuring to people/society reading and not understanding the whole situation – there’s no pulling them back (that’s going to get worse). But we can start doing intelligent research and small testing (and disqualifying and refining them so if we need them or if they are pushed on the world we can handle it).

  19. John Mashey says:


    R&D is good, if you manage it well.

    I’m much happier with such proposals if I saw the kind of R&D processes that I once was used to, where we always said “Never schedule breakthroughs.”

    The real danger is that the number of people who are easily confused by descriptions of decades-off breakthroughs, and then fail to take the necessary actions meanwhile.

  20. Peter Wood says:

    I’m no fan of geoengineering, but if we don’t stabilize at 350 ppm CO2 or less, we risk an ice-free planet. And I prefer geoengineering to an ice free planet. To stabilize at 350 ppm would probably require emissions reductions of at least 5% globally (unless we can take more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere later).

    The question is, if you rule out geoengineering, is it possible to justify a stabilisation target that is greater than 350 ppm CO2?

  21. Peter Wood says:

    Oops, when I said:

    To stabilize at 350 ppm would probably require emissions reductions of at least 5% globally

    I should have said: To stabilize at 350 ppm would probably require emissions reductions of at least 5% per year globally. I am basing this figure on Meinshausen et al. (2006) Multi-gas Emissions Pathways to Meet Climate Targets, Climatic Change 75: 151–194.

  22. C Riley says:

    The name Geo-enginering is most unfortunate as it may be confused with geothermal which has the least invironmental impact of all known energy sources.

  23. Dan Whaley says:

    Bill– Many apologies for missing your byline at the bottom. It’s funny, at the American Response to Climate Change meeting in Tupper Lake last year I thought we had a productive dialogue on this subject. It seems like many of the points we discussed are lost here.

    Many thanks for a number of the other really sensible comments here–especially those that realize that no one wants to have to be looking at these options, but the fact is that we are faced with a staggering reality that we have considerably underestimated.

    Linda– the differences between tree planting and OIF are of course numerous. Ocean/Land, Phytoplankton/Trees, the nature of the carbon sequestration, etc. However, you haven’t articulated anything here. What are your scientific objections?

    Bill, you seem to be missing the urgency of climate change.

    Today, from the NY Times coverage of the AAAS meeting…

    “Just over a year ago, the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report warning of rising sea levels, expanding deserts, more intense storms and extinction of up to 30 per cent of plant and animal species.

    But recent studies suggested the report significantly underestimated the potential severity of global warming over the next 100 years, a senior member of the panel warned yesterday.

    “We are basically looking now at a future climate that is beyond anything that we’ve considered seriously in climate policy,” said Chris Field, a co-ordinating lead author of the report. ”

    So… when Bill? When do we at least do the research to understand if any of these other options are real? When it’s too late?

    Do you put your scientific perspective on this above Sir Martin Rees President of the Royal Society, who initiated the recently announced royal society study on Geoengineering, and who is a very outspoken advocate of this research?

    And… are you actually against doing the research? You seem unwilling to say this openly.

    The other problem with your argument is this either/or mentality that people like me that are working on exploring these solutions are somehow taking away valuable energy from other solutions. Can we only do one thing at a time? Of the $8.4B VC investment in cleantech last year, there was only $3.5M, or less than .05%, invested in geoengineering (Climos). This year there is one so far ($4.5M in C12 Energy). I would hardly call that a distraction. Give it a rest– it’s hard enough to explore these options without the support of our peers.


  24. Ben says:

    Interesting ideas, and I agree with the conclusion that geoengineering is a ludicrous idea. I also agree that this is very much like a diet, but please remember that in the long term (>3 years), ~99% of diets fail to measurably reduce weight, even if the diet is stuck to.

    As for the comment about ocean acidification, reading this gets me angry, so I will say this slowly. Can you please think for a minute? Corals evolved in an era of approximately that had 1000-3000 ppm of CO2. No greenhouse experiments have been able to demonstrate any negative effects of 1000+ ppm of CO2 over several generations of corals, mullosks and small organisms. Nor have they found any negative effects on larger fish and aquatic life. The only example I have found of actual measured effects is of coral bleaching, which has been shown to be poorly correlated to temperatures and highly correlated to water pollution and nitrogen runoff. Therefore, I see no reason to worry about ocean acidification. If you have data to the contrary, please provide.

    Our oceans are extremely well-buffered systems with a teeming diversity of life that exists despite very large local variations in pH and temperature. I cannot understand how climate change can possibly affect them as those regional (and seasonal) variations are as large or larger than those expected under climate change.

    There are enough problems in this subject to worry about as there is without concerning ourselves with problems that aren’t there.