USA Today’s excellent science reporter Dan Vergano wrote an extensive overview of geoengineering, but failed to clearly explain the risk of intentionally poisoning our atmosphere to mitigate the effects of global warming pollution. Geoengineering describes a wide array of concepts to alter how planetary systems deal with greenhouse gas pollution, but Vergano fails to clearly distinguish reasonable efforts to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations from radical experiments to transform the planet. He cites several interviewees who depict extreme geoengineering in colorless, amoral economic policy language:
“We’re moving into a different kind of world,” says environmental economist Scott Barrett of Columbia University. “Better we turn to asking if ‘geoengineering’ could work, than waiting until it becomes a necessity.”
“That’s where geoengineering comes in,” says international relations expert David Victor of the University of California-San Diego. “Research into geoengineering creates another option for the public.”
“Geoengineering is no longer a taboo topic at scientific meetings. They are looking at it as one more policy prescription,” says Science magazine reporter Eli Kintisch, author of Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope — Or Worst Nightmare — For Averting Climate Catastrophe. “But it is yet to become a household word.”
Although Vergano attempts to describe the risks of, say, pumping millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere (“consigning hundreds of millions of the poorest people on the planet in Africa and Asia to recurring drought”), he has failed to accurately interpret the scientific literature. The only risks he has depicted — ones that involve the potential deaths of millions if not billions of people — are the “known” ones, the ones easily modeled by imperfect simulations of experiments never conducted before by humanity. The risks of geoengineering, particularly the ones that emulate the effects of a nuclear winter to dim the amount of sun reaching the earth, are practically unbounded. Depicting the known risks, as Vergano did, as the only risks of geoengineering, is astoundingly optimistic.
The only reason that serious climate scientists (other than Dr. Strangelovian extremists) are discussing geoengineering is that they fear the possibility of humanity’s extinction — or merely the utter collapse of human civilization — from unchecked fossil fuel pollution is significant enough to consider doomsday survival scenarios. “We should avoid geoengineering if possible,” Dr. Ken Caldeira, one of the climate scientists who has explored geoengineering scenarios, “but we need it in our toolbox in case of catastrophe.”
At Thoughts From Kansas, Josh Rosenau comments:
Simply put, there are plausible scenarios in which global temperatures could begin rising so fast that they could be impossible to stop. This could be because frozen methane begins leaking into the atmosphere, thus promoting more warming, or because ice melts and stops reflecting light back into space (allowing dark rocks to absorb more heat). Given how slowly society is moving towards carbon emission reductions, the only way to avert these catastrophic feedbacks might be a carefully planned and targeted phase of geoengineering, in concert with aggressive emissions reductions.
But by injecting geoengineering into the public discourse before we’ve set ourselves on that emissions-reducing course, journalists and scientists risk introducing confusion about what geoengineering can possibly do. At most, it’s a stopgap to cover the inevitable lags between emissions reductions and a decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide. On its own, it won’t stop global warming. Without emissions reductions, we’d be, as Vergano puts it elegantly “addicted to sky-borne sulfates to keep the cooling on track.” And that, too, would have harmful effects on the global climate and on life on earth, some predictable, and others that we can’t yet imagine.