Semi-exclusive: Science Adviser Holdren stands by his long-standing critique of geoengineering

Seth Borenstein of the AP caused a volcanic eruption yesterday with his interview of science adviser John Holdren, “Obama looking at cooling air to fight warming.”  Too bad the story isn’t quite accurate, as Holdren confirmed in an e-mail to me today and a separate email to others (that the NYT‘s Revkin published here).

Geoengineering is “the intentional large scale manipulation of the global environment” to counteract the effects of global warming or “emergency interventions to cool the atmosphere should less drastic measures fail.”  It is a last resort at best (see “Geo-engineering remains a bad idea”” and “Geo-Engineering is NOT the Answer“).

Rather than  focusing on what Holdren doesn’t believe, let’s focus on what he does.  I asked him a simple question.  Does he stand by what he published 3 years ago, which I often quote:

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.

He wrote back, “I said exactly that to Seth Borenstein.” In his earlier email, Holdren wrote bluntly:

I said that the approaches that have been surfaced so far seem problematic in terms of both efficacy and side effects, but we have to look at the possibilities and understand them because if we get desperate enough it will be considered. I also made clear that this was my personal view, not Administration policy. Asked whether I had mentioned geo-engineering in any White House discussions, though, I said that I had. This is NOT the same thing as saying the White House is giving serious consideration to geo-engineering – which it isn’t “” and I am disappointed that the headline and the text of the article suggest otherwise.

Another thing I know Holdren understands — though it gets left out of many articles on the subject — is that geo-engineering approaches considered so far do not replace mitigation as the primary strategy for avoiding catastrophic impacts.  Indeed, the scientists I have seen discuss this in the literature tend to see geo-engineering as perhaps a relatively modest, temporary strategy after you have tried as hard as possible to keep concentrations at or below 450 ppm.  It might buy you a little time to get back to 350 (or lower) if that proves necessary.

But if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path for the next few decades, we make it extremely unlikely that geo-engineering can plausibly make enough of a contribution to matter.

One final point:  Conservatives like geoengineering as a talking point because they think it obviates the need for serious mitigation, which it doesn’t.  The AP notes, “The conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute has its own geoengineering project, saying it could be ‘feasible and cost-effective.’ ”  But this is just a talking point.  In reality, actual deployment of serious geo-engineering requires two things that conservatives completely reject today — climate scientists and climate models.

If you don’t believe climate models, then you would never contemplate geo-engineering in a million years.  Only models can tell you what geo-engineering might do —  there is no way to run a global experiment at scale and there are no paleoclimate analogs of the kind of geo-engineering that is being contemplated.  But this is the Catch-22.  Long before you had enough faith in climate scientists and climate models to justify geo-engineering, you would have a near certain understanding of the catastrophic global warming impacts we face on our current emissions path and a near certain understanding of how mitigation is the wisest and safest response.

I will blog more on this later.

26 Responses to Semi-exclusive: Science Adviser Holdren stands by his long-standing critique of geoengineering

  1. Jim Eager says:

    Conservatives like geoengineering because they think it means that nothing will then need to be done to reduce burning fossil carbon fuels or alter energy usage or consumption. However, they fail to acknowledge that it will do absolutely nothing to address ocean acidification, or even exacerbate it if sulfate aerosols are used. Plus, reducing solar insolation could have serious negative impacts on agriculture and biomass take up of CO2, not to mention winter temperatures.

    Great point about their embrace of geoengineering in the face of their total discounting of atmospheric modeling, Joe.

  2. Bob Wallace says:

    Huffington Post engaged in the same sort of crappy journalism yesterday when they used the same misleading headline.

    Clearly, in the few lines of text they presented, Holdren was saying that nothing is off the table, we need to study every approach to keeping us from turning to Melba toast, but geoengineering is only a last resort, not the solution we should be seeking, nor the solution the Obama administration is pursuing.

  3. Russ says:

    In reality, actual deployment of serious geo-engineering requires two things that conservatives completely reject today — climate scientists and climate models.

    I imagine actual deployment, if conservatives ever did support it, would be supported as a corporatist boondoggle (like biofuels or weapons programs like the F-22 or the stealth destroyer) rather than as a sincere effort vs. climate change. In that case, real climate science would hardly be necessary.

    The right wing plan on climate change is clear: obstruct any actual mitigation policy, but seize every disaster capitalist opportunity climate change brings along. They see this as a growth industry.

  4. Jade in San Francisco says:

    So Obama’s top science advisor is a crack pot advocate of geo-engineering? The fact that this issue was raised a in recent white house meeting as “something we have to look at” is the apotheosis of ridiculous. Either you’re serious about mitigating climate change, or you are not.

    Having buyers remorse Joe?

  5. John Hollenberg says:

    > So Obama’s top science advisor is a crack pot advocate of geo-engineering?

    Perhaps you neglected to read the actual post above? Or just having memory problems?

  6. Aaron says:

    I think the first is right John. Reading is somewhat time intensive, and why read when you can get all you need from a heading?

  7. Roger says:

    Thanks for posting this clarification.

  8. Sasparilla says:

    Nice article Joe, its good to know things weren’t as the original piece was hinting at.

    One point, where Joe said “It might buy you a little time to get back to 350 (or lower) if that proves necessary.”

    I think, based on what we’re seeing in the political realm, that statement should be rephrased to “it might buy you a little time to get back to 450ppm (or lower)..” as it looks like we’re going to blow right through the 2 degrees Celsius and 450ppm no cross lines the scientists thought would be realistic (politically) and somewhat safe targets and we’ll probably need some way to cheat and prevent the big feedbacks from taking the warming process over while we struggle to eliminate emissions and pull CO2 from the air.

    I’d much rather that we never do any of the geo-engineering stuff, but I’d be willing to bet, in the end, we’ll need it. Based on what I see here in the US, I don’t think our country level and world political processes are up to the task of 450ppm / 2C – doesn’t appear they are even close to it.

  9. Pete says:

    The problem with red herrings like geoengineering even being on the table is that they are all some people need to hear to feel comfortable doing nothing. The appeal of the status quo is very seductive, and “magic bullet” solutions like geoengineering (the whole magic bullet concept was debunked in a recent post here) allow people to sleep at night believing the solution is “out there” somewhere.
    They are yet more insideous because it is impossible to prove, today, that something wont be discovered tomorrow, to make the problem go away. Worse still, these global air conditioners that might come along some day will likely run on electricity, leading many to justify MORE oil drilling and coal mining to power the technology that they believe will someday provide the solution.
    It is truly frightening that any responsible government official is even legitimizing this.

  10. Rick C says:


    It was reported on Democracy Now! today that the Obama administration is going to give, yes, give away most of the carbon credits to industry. As you said in a blog earlier if you give the credits away then it doesnt work.

    [JR: He didn’t say “most” and “some” was inevitable in early years.]

    You know I’m beginning to get that buyers remorse, with respect to the Obama administration, that a previous blogger mentioned to back up one of their erroneous positions. Trouble is in this instance its true. They’re selling out.

  11. David B. Benson says:

    Somewhat related, today’s TNYT had a decent article about the problems and attitudes of the people from the (largely) coal-powered state of Missouri…

  12. Steve H says:


    That was an amusing article, as a Missouri resident. Unfortunately it kinda missed the whole point of setting a price on carbon; or it was doing so stealthily. Maybe, perhaps, you don’t need seven TV’s. For a perspective, my electric bill for 2000 sq ft home with three tv’s, is between $90 and $150. And this is a nearly 40 year old home with conductive windows (aluminum).

  13. Pangolin says:

    There’s nothing wrong with our climate that a few medium sized asteroids tossed at Tierra Del Fuego wouldn’t fix. Of course it would be expensive and the unintended consequences would be large but most of that expense would be channeled to the defense industry and most of the deaths would be in the southern hemisphere.

    Not hardly even a technical challenge.

    Or we could divert all our farm and yard wastes to pyrolisis centers where the carbon is turned to biochar and bury that stuff under our otherwise useless lawns. Or we could somehow figure out how to get water from the bottom of the Pacific to the top in mid-ocean gyres so that we get some plankton fertilization. Or paint Australia white.(sorry mates but that looks the cheapest)

    I’m not seeing much political support for converting our current services of the global economy from carbon consuming to carbon neutral or carbon negative. We’re still playing war games in Iraq fer chissakes.

    My point is that we’re engaged in geo-engineering now but just in a destructive fashion. Steering that ship away from the rocks is a change in course but not necessarily in a change in velocity.

  14. Rick C says:

    [JR: He didn’t say “most” and “some” was inevitable in early years.]


    What the report from Democracy Now! reported was that John Holdren said that the Obama administration might auction only some of the carbon permits and give the rest away. Holdren’s statement would seem to back up the assertion that the Obama administration is backing off of a campaign pledge to auction off all of the permits.

    [JR: Like I say, he didn’t say “most” and “some” was inevitable in early years.]

  15. Harrier says:

    What intrigues me about that AP article is that it mentions the Obama people are interested in using machines to ‘scrub’ CO2 from the atmosphere. I’ve seen articles about several machines on the drawing boards to do exactly that, and one of them has even been through two stages of development as a working prototype.

    If there were to be government backing for such an effort, I can actually see it getting somewhere and helping us hypercharge the carbon cycle.

  16. john says:

    Glad you checked this out. I was shocked when I read the headline — although Holdren’s exact quote was much less troubling. Still’ great work on getting this position clarrified.

  17. You are being naive. Clearly the administration was floating a test balloon to see what the response would be. To even be mentioning geo-engineering when serious emission reductions are yet to commence in the U.S. is disingenuous and shows the administration’s climate policy will be techno-based and only if not impacting economic growth. More on biocentric climate policy sufficient to solve the problem at hand at:

    [JR: Not! If you think Holdren works that way, you don’t know him. The reporter got the story wrong. what else is there to say?]

  18. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Sooner or later we are going to panic and do something rather stupid. Lets do study various geoengineering proposals so at least we can avoid the very worst. Perhaps we can keep the intervention at a level that won’t be completely catastrophic.

    Unintended consequences are to be expected, as are the unexpected, lets hope there are no unimagined consequences.

  19. Leland Palmer says:

    The one form of geoengineering that makes any sense whatsoever to me is biomass/sequestration. This “putting the genie back in the bottle” approach is really what we need to do, IMO.

    Putting the genie back in the bottle and allowing nature to heal itself is the way to go, IMO, along with renewable energies and stabilization wedges.

    I don’t think we are smart enough to manage the earth’s climate by most of the other geoengineering approaches.

    We need to put the situation back to what it was a centuries ago, and allow the earth system to manage its own climate, as it has been able to do with near 100% success for over a billion years.

  20. Rick C says:

    The only geo-engineering project I would like to see, other than highly light reflective white or light materials on roofs, roads and parking lots, is Terra Prieta or carbon sequestration by turning fast growing grasses into highly stable charcoal and burying the material underground to act as a spongue to store and concetrate nutrients for crops.

  21. Rick C says:

    [JR: Like I say, he didn’t say “most” and “some” was inevitable in early years.]


    OK, I’ll watch, but that doesn’t mean I will be complacent with respect to Cap and trade. Since that’s the way it’s going I would like it to go full tilt toward all permits to be auctioned off.

  22. Leland Palmer says:

    Limited tinkering with albedo might be OK, as Rick C. says above. Certainly roofs and parking lots should be white instead of black. Solar collectors should have white gravel spread over the ground around them, or be installed on white roofs, to balance the albedo change from the dark solar collectors. Biochar or Terra Prieta is another probably benign geoengineering technology, I agree.

    But, nothing I know of can have the decisive, synergistic impact of seizing the coal plants, and converting them to biocarbon/CCS carbon negative power plants. CCS by deep injection worries me (the Devil is in the details), either, but I think we have to do this, temporarily, to prevent a methane catastrophe.

    Carbon sequestration by conversion of calcium and magnesium containing rocks to carbonates is nature’s way of sequestering CO2 and we should do everything we can to speed up this process, so we can do this ourselves.

    A variation on Terra Preta would be to develop a concrete aggregate containing a high fraction of biochar, while still retaining desirable structural properties and fire resistance. This could perhaps be accomplished by mixing it with geopolymer or by mixing it with clay and then firing it using more biochar or pyrolysis gas, as is done in producing carbon electrodes and hard grades of pencil lead.

  23. Rick C says:

    Leland Palmer Says:

    April 10th, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    [CCS by deep injection worries me (the Devil is in the details), either, but I think we have to do this, temporarily, to prevent a methane catastrophe.]


    You’re right to be concerned about leaking CO2 from the salty aquifer depths. Although the scenario would not be identical a sudden release of CO2 to the surface from below could be deadly to any community near teh CO2 gas cloud An extreme example of the danger was demonstrated with the Lake Nyos disaster of August 21, 1986.

  24. Leland Palmer says:

    About deep injection of CO2 – the oil industy has been doing it for decades, for seconday recovery of oil, without any reported bad effects, at least that they have told us about. This might be a good thing to investigate – side effects of CO2 injection for secondary oil recovery.

    I guess I’ll have to break down and read the GAO report.

    The IPCC technical report seems relatively upbeat about deep injection:

    Underground accumulation of carbon dioxide (CO2) is a widespread geological phenomenon, with natural trapping of CO2 in underground reservoirs. Information and experience gained from the injection and/or storage of CO2 from a large number of existing enhanced oil recovery (EOR) and acid gas projects, as well as from the Sleipner, Weyburn and In Salah projects, indicate that it is feasible to store CO2 in geological formations as a CO2 mitigation option. Industrial analogues, including underground natural gas storage projects around the world and acid gas injection projects, provide additional indications that CO2 can be safely injected and stored at well-characterized and properly managed sites.

    By the way, I’m not sure that any agency, including the GAO, is above political influence in this era of massive oil corporation influence and profits. I think I trust the IPCC more.

    Some isotope data seems to show some CO2 sequestered for upwards of 50 million years, I seem to recall.

    I have to agree, though, conversion to a carbonate seems like the best option, except for cost.

    I’ve had some thoughts about talc, which is soft and easy to mine, as opposed to olivine, which is a hard rock. Unfortunately, the sheet silicates like talc are much less soluble than the chain silicates, I’ve read, and need to be heat treated to allow economic extraction of their calcium and magnesium.

    It would be good to avoid the deep injection option if possible, but what are the relative risks when comparing deep injection with a methane catastrophe?

  25. David B. Benson says:

    Rick C — That was a lake turning over. Not a problem with deep injection into oilfields or the proposed deep injection in saline formations or under the deep ocean floor.

  26. Rick C says:


    Lake Nyos was a lake turning over but that does not diminish, by any means the danger and the possibility of a massive release of CO2 from such sites.

    To quote an impeccable source, “The flow of CO2 into the ground from 800 GB of coal plants would equal the current flow of oil out of the ground. If we are going to store that huge amount of CO2 inside deep underground aquifers, exhaustive testing will have to be done. Each potential site will need intensive monitoring to guarantee it can store CO2 with no leaks. Very sensitive and low-cost in situ monitoring techniques must be developed to provide confidence that leakage rates are exceedingly low. The geologic stability of storage sites –think earthquakes–is especially important because a massive release of carbon dioxide could suffocate a huge number of people if it hit a populated area.”

    Hell and Highwater, Joseph Romm pgs 158 -159