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The Geoengineering Treadmill and Unintended Consequences

By Climate Guest Contributor  

"The Geoengineering Treadmill and Unintended Consequences"


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NY Times:  At the influential blog Climate Progress, Joe Romm, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, has made a similar point, likening geo-engineering to a dangerous course of chemotherapy and radiation to treat a condition curable through diet and exercise — or, in this case, emissions reduction.

JR:  For those here because of the NY Times piece on geo-engineering, here is an “Introduction to Climate Progress.”  You can find my previous writings on geo-engineering here.  See in particular Martin Bunzl on “the definitive killer objection to geoengineering as even a temporary fix.”

by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell

A few days ago, the UK-based Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering project, or “SPICE,” a project aimed at cooling the earth’s climate, was delayed due to environmental concerns.

SPICE is designed to mimic the effects of volcanic eruptions through the large-scale spraying of climate-cooling sulphate particles into the stratosphere. The first step in deploying the project is to spray water particles from a balloon. But that will have to wait.

The project is part of a much larger debate around the merits and demerits of using geo-engineering solutions to combat climate change. Those in favor are of two minds.

Some argue that these technological fixes can buy us time while the world plods toward an international political solution. Others, more fatalistically, believe geo-engineering solutions are inevitable and research should begin sooner rather than later.

Those against geo-engineering have a number of objections. First, they contend that such projects, even in their planning stages, are a distraction from the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Second, there are fears that such unilateral actions exist in a grey area of ethics and international law, which should be better clarified before moving forward, if at all. (Indeed, this is the basis for a United Nations moratorium on geo-engineering). And finally, there are serious and legitimate questions regarding the potential unintended consequences of such ‘solutions’ on climate systems, such as a concern that sulfate clouds might significantly alter weather patterns and cause droughts.

This final concern brings us to Thomas Midgley. Midgley accidentally became the father of geo-engineering, putting into motion changes that continue to influence our climate and our approach to problem-solving.

In 1921, Midgley helped stop engines from “knocking” by adding lead to gasoline. This was good for the engines, though highly toxic to humans and the environment.  Advocates called for regulation, but catalytic converters ultimately came to the rescue. The converters couldn’t handle the lead, and so the lead was dropped. But the story doesn’t end there.

In 1928, after recovering from lead poisoning, Midgley went on to help solve the refrigeration problem presented by the highly flammable and/or toxic refrigerants of the day – ammonia, sulfur dioxide, methyl chloride and butane. He worked his way through the periodic table to discover that CFCs (chloroflourocarbons) were neither flammable nor toxic; hence, the advent of Freon. Midgley did not live long enough to see Mario Molina and Sherwood Rowland win a Nobel Prize for discovering that CFCs were responsible for the hole in the ozone layer. Fortunately, replacements for CFCs were in the pipeline and helped with the transition from CFCs to HCFCs (hydrochloroflourocarbons,) and finally, to the ozone-friendly HFCs (hydroflourocarbons).

Midgley’s story ends there, but his legacy continues. HFCs, like its predecessors, were a solution with a new problem embedded within.  It turns out that HFCs are what is called an extreme, short-lived climate forcer, or a “super greenhouse gas.” Today, more climate-friendly alternatives to HFCs are being developed, but HFC use continues to grow dramatically, and the political will to eliminate them has not yet fully materialized.

Thomas Midgley started a geo-engineering treadmill: a brilliant technological solution created unintended consequences; policies and regulations were developed to address the problem; and those policies were aided by a new technological fix that, over time, led to a set of its own unintended consequences.

So what does this mean for the geo-engineering solutions being offered to mitigate and adapt to climate change? Tread carefully. We simply don’t know what kind of problems these “solutions” will bring.

– Francesco Femia is Program Director at the Connect U.S. Fund, where he manages programs ranging from international climate and energy policy to genocide prevention. He is also Founder and Director of the Center for Climate and Security.

– Caitlin Werrell is Founder and Director of the Center for Climate and Security, where she focuses on climate change and international security, resiliency of governance systems, and the integration of the water, climate and development sectors. She is also Co-Founder of the MAP Institute for Water and Climate.

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27 Responses to The Geoengineering Treadmill and Unintended Consequences

  1. kermit says:

    ‘Tread carefully. We simply don’t know what kind of problems these “solutions” will bring.’

    Especially because we have alternatives which are quite safe and affordable – wind and solar (and geothermal, hyrdoelectric, etc.). Even with nuclear we know the dangers. Aaddressing the cause of all of our climate changes (mostly problems)is the only way to safely and effectively deal with the consequences.

  2. Alteredstory says:

    I’ve said it many times in the past. The next step, when denial becomes politically costly for the Right Wing will be reactionary policy. They will demand geo-engineering because “we HAVE to do SOMETHING”, and will ignore anybody telling them it’s a bad idea.

    And they will keep pushing for more use of fossil fuels, and nuclear.

    • W Scott Lincoln says:

      Kinda like during the oil spill last year when Gov. Jindal “had to do something” so he spent ridiculous amounts of money building this sand bar island things even when the Army Corps tried to tell him not to and scientists told him it wouldn’t work. We all know how that turned out…

  3. Sasparilla says:

    The article in the NY Times (Group Urges Research Into Aggressive Efforts to Fight Climate Change) today is interesting and worth reading – lots of conflicting feelings reading that.

    The group, “a bipartisan panel of scientists, former government officials and national security experts”, is advocating research into geo-engineering strategies at a rate of a few million dollars a year.

    “In interviews, some of the panel members said they hoped that the mere discussion of such drastic steps would jolt the public and policy makers into meaningful action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which they called the highest priority.”

  4. Esko Pettay says:

    Talking about unintended consequences;
    We should not forget the unintentional geo-engineering projects currently in operation. For example the international shipping produces increasing sulphur emissions spread across the oceans. According to several studies aerosol emissions from shipping cool the planet by 0.58 – 0.31 w/m2 or even more (see below for a few papers). The goal is to minimize all harmful emissions but it is frightening that we are starting with the ones that are actually cooling the planet. I’m referring to the decision to reduce sulphur content in ship fuels in near future. That is the right thing to do in coastal waters to protect human health. But it might unintentionally accelerate warming if we suddenly remove this particle parasol. And the current IMO agreement is to heavily reduce sulphur emissions by 2020. There is no agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from shipping yet.

    Fuglestvedt, Jan et al: Climate forcing from the
    transport sectors – Proceedings of the National Academy
    of Sciences, approved October 5, 2007, http://www.pnas.org.

    Lauer, Axel et al: Assessment of Near-Future Policy Instruments for
    Oceangoing Shipping: Impact on Atmospheric Aerosol
    Burdens and the Earth’s Radiation Budget, Environmental
    Science and Technology, 43, 5592 – 5598, 2009.

    Fuglestvedt, Jan, et al: Shipping Emissions: From Cooling
    to Warming the Climate – And Reducing Impacts on
    Health, Environmental Science and Technology, 43:
    9057 – 9062, 2009.

  5. Tim says:

    The reason the cockamamie schemes like “geo-engineering” are popular with the right is that it isn’t difficult for these guys to see a way to maximize profits. They get to continue selling fossil fuels longer as the delay game continues, and they see the geo-engineering “solution” itself as something we’ll need more and more of as time goes on.

    Renewable energy scares the hell out of them. Sure, substantial initial investment is needed, but as time goes on and innovation drives down costs renewables will inevitable become increasing cost-competitive. Solar and wind energy looks to an energy industry fat-cat way too much like having to earn a living the way Apple or Intel earn their living: by innovating and improving and replacing your own products with better products all the time. The fossil fuel barons would much rather sit on top of a pile of an increasingly scarce natural resource for which their customers demand exceeds supply. Photovoltaics are worst of all – a future with customers who don’t need you anymore is their worst nightmare (unless you have substantially improved the hardware, in which case maybe they’ll upgrade).

  6. Michael Tucker says:

    Midgley’s experience is exactly what has always happened…always. We identify a problem, we solve the problem and we create a new, unintended, problem. Even when we try to eliminate future issues…they always come up. Kind of like or remarkable and apparently unstoppable disaster with corn ethanol.

    All we can ask is that we try to do our best…and we all know s#@t happens, so we can expect an enormous amount of s#@t to happen if we set about pumping enormous amounts of sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere. What if China does not like the weather they get after the west begins such a program? What if China experiences a prolonged drought after the program commences and wants compensation for losses? What if escalation of such a program in the west prompted a military escalation by China or Pakistan or India or Iran?

    This is an idea we can sit on. Push the obvious solutions with the fewest chances for unintended problems. If you want to engineer the atmosphere how about a scheme to remove CO2? And don’t worry. No self respecting Republican would ever be in favor of a big government solution for any environmental problem. The only time Republicans say “we have to do something” is when it involves Iran or N Korea or Cuba or illegal immigrants or imagined voter fraud or imagined threats from Russia or imagined threats to private gun ownership…it is never about the environment.

  7. Martin Palmer says:

    Reluctantly, we may be forced to do aerosol based geoengineering, just to keep the Arctic methane hydrates from destabilizing. It’s not desirable, and it would likely be a temporary fix, at best, but that’s the situation we are in.

    In the long run, the only strategy related to geoengineering that might bring the system back into stability is biomass energy with carbon capture and storage or mineral carbonation.

    We’re poisoning our climate with CO2, and any strategy that leaves that CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will likely be doomed to failure, in the long run, I think.

  8. David Lewis says:

    People should examine the views of the scientists who are doing the geoengineering research, such as Keith, or Caldeira. What is driving these types is their alarm over the fact that in the face of the scientific case that has been made, and all the millions of homes that are now powered with clean energy, the fact is that the rate of CO2 accumulation continues to accelerate.

    The concern is, what if it suddenly dawns on everyone that the planetary system has been pushed too far as some “surprise” feedback is observed to be kicking in? What if, for instance, the percentage of methane in the atmosphere suddenly doubles and redoubles, observations confirm that its coming from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, and the best estimate is that there is enough on the way no reduction in the human emissions of GHG could possibly compensate?

    If it ever dawns on civilization that the planetary system is undergoing runaway climate change, what then? This is what scientists who think about geoengineering are concerned about.

    I follow the Geoengineering Group which is on Google Groups. It was being moderated by McCracken when I signed up. Caldeira contributes. You can get a good idea of why the scientists actually doing the research are doing it by tuning into their day to day exchanges.

  9. Mark says:

    A tale of geoengineering:

    1. Montana fishermen years ago wanted bigger fish, so they introduced a kind of salmon into Flathead lake;

    2. The salmon started running up Flathead River to Glacier National Park to spawn;

    3. The salmon spawning caused a regional reorganization in Eagle migration, with the birds congregating at the west end of the park to take advantage of the food source in the park;

    4. The salmon, which were eating tiny plankton, weren’t big enough to make the anglers happy, so we introduced an intermediate sized food source (a freshwater shrimp) like we had done in other (but shallower) lakes… idea was the shrimp would eat the plankton so the fish could spend the same energy to get a bigger meal.

    5. The shrimp gobbled up the plankton sure enough, but at a time of day when the salmon din’t feed. Then, being a deep water lake, the shrimp sank below the salmon feeding zone, so when the fish dinnertime rolled around, there was neither shrimp nor plankton on the table any more;

    6. So the (introduced) salmon run crashed, and it took several years for the eagles to sort things out again


    Another version of geoengineering logic… does it bug anyone else to see adhesive-backed plastic tags stuck to ORGANIC produce? Shouldn’t the other stuff get the tags (and shouldnt they say “May be coated with pesticide and herbicide residue”)? Then there’s the chemicals we can buy to act as solvents to (hopefully) wash off any pesticide and herbicide residue.

    Just because technology exists doesn’t mean it has to be used.

  10. Geo-engineering was long-ago set to a nursery rhyme, The Old Woman who Swallowed a Fly:

  11. adelady says:

    We will eventually have to get around to some proper ‘geo’-engineering. When everyone, finally, realises that we’ve let things get so out of hand that emissions reductions alone won’t deal with the accumulated mess we’ve created.

    We’ll have to match the disturbance to the geological carbon cycle of speeding up release of geological carbon by speeding up geological processes of absorbing carbon. Biological processes alone might have done the job if we’d started when we first identified the issues, but it will only be one among many strategies from now on.

    Put simply, instead of blowing up mountains or big holes to get at carbon fossil rocks, we will have to blow up other mountains and holes in the ground to break up rocks which absorb carbon. Quarrying and crushing gravels and dusts may not be as glamorous or sophisticated as building fancy gizmos, but that’s what we’ll have to do.

    It’s just one of the consequences of blowing the perfectly good chance we had to avoid all this thirty years ago.

    • Lewis Cleverdon says:


      If Obama knew the meaning of ‘integrity’ he’d hand his Nobel to president Carter as a mark of respect for his efforts. He must know damn well he did nothing to warrant the award, and was only given it to make it impossible to avoid attending the Copenhagen summit.



  12. Ernest says:

    Geo-engineering is moral hazard, esp. if touted as a simple “techno fix”. However, in agreement with John Holdren, given the way things have gone, we may have no other choice than to at least consider it, try to understand all our options and the consequences as thoroughly as we can (including known unknowns, and possibly unknown unknowns).

    In a way, civilization’s use of fossil fuels is already a kind of “geo-engineering”. We are already altering the environment in fundamental ways. As a species with such massive effects on the planet, we cannot help but to “geo-engineer”. We can do it badly or try to be good stewards of the planet.

    There may come a time when we need to try to find a way to suck carbon out of the atmosphere, to try to pull back from the brink. Perhaps a “softer” definition of “geo-engineering” (?) A project to “re-green the planet”, reforestation, understanding carbon sequestration in wetlands, a more detailed understanding of planetary carbon cycling so that we can encourage an ecology that favors carbon sequestration (?)

  13. Merrelyn Emery says:

    The results of the geo-engineering we began over 200 years ago, which we still haven’t called off, should be more than enough to warn us off another, ME

  14. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Merelyn -
    we differ on this issue, amicably I trust, but I guess we perhaps share a dislike of the title ‘geoengineering’. I’m not remotely interested in trying to engineer the planet – apart from our society’s damaging disrespect, it works just fine as far as I’m concerned.

    Yet as the science shows increasingly plainly, that damage has now gone beyond the point where ending our pollution will allow the planet to reverse its warming trend and restabilize the climate; the apt description is that a state of accelerating systemic decay will set in if that is the limit of our response. Even with the rapid end of GHG outputs,
    - without our remediation of the atmosphere – its cleansing via a rapid global program of carbon recovery -
    - and without interim damage control – by limiting global temperature via albedo restoration to prevent the feedbacks running amok –
    we face a probably terminal decline of the biosphere as the feedbacks, driven by the massive warming now ‘in the pipeline’, grow to dwarf our present pollution output and destroy the subtle checks and balances on which ever more diverse evolution has thrived.

    So what have remediation and damage control to do with ‘geo-engineering’ ? Not a lot. Maybe a more descriptive term is needed ?

    Perhaps we may also agree that those who see the need for these interventions of course should from the outset, like the doctor providing surgery to a casualty of violence, bear in mind the medical profession’s hypocratic oath:
    “First, do no harm”.



    • Merrelyn Emery says:

      Thanks Lewis, yes I think it is mainly semantic. As many of the comments show, G-E can cover a range of activities such as re-afforestation, biochar and Adelady’s suggestion, all of which seem eminently sensible.

      What I object to are those projects which operate at the biospheric system level by changing one variable at a time, e.g. the sulphates, which have at this time, unknown effects at the system level and are, therefore, based on nothing but sheer hubris.

      Should someone come up with something that sucks GHGs out of the atmosphere or oceans or find a way of cooling with systemic effects that can be predicted to a very high degree of probability, I will have no problem with it. But at this point, everything proposed so far on this scale that I have read about does not meet these criteria.

      I don’t want a yes/no debate but I also don’t want cowboys galloping all over the planet making a bad situation worse, ME

  15. prokaryotes says:

    “In interviews, panelists said again and again that the continuing focus of policy makers and experts should be on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But several acknowledged that significant action remained a political nonstarter. ”

    Why? The point is that the people who receive money now have the opportunity to receive money with clean energy projects. They just have to change the technology.

    • Lewis Cleverdon says:

      Prokaryotes – supposing the US were to do a U-turn and negotiate an equitable and effective binding global climate treaty to phase out fossil fuel dependence ASAP – having thus ceded the prospect of the intensifying climatic destabilization of China, what would you suggest it could do to reliably put an end to China’s inexorable rise to the role of dominant global superpower ?

      You and I might be content to see America inevitably lose its global dominance, but I suggest that there are many in US political and commercial power for whom that would feel like the utmost disastrous failure. History seems littered with the military results of the obdurate stupidity of the elites within declining great powers.

      Britain, for example, was getting increasingly tense about Germany’s ambitions posing a threat to the empire in the early 1900s. Its ruinous (and futile) response was to set a policy of annually building twice the tonnage of naval ships of the rest of the world’s naval production put together !

      I guess America needs a Gorbachev as president PDQ.



  16. prokaryotes says:

    Do not forget that Biochar is GE too. And only because some forms of GE are expensive (Artificial trees) doesn’t mean we won’t have to use em. And white painted roofs are very cheap and feasible to archive. Make it mandatory.

  17. prokaryotes says:

    “Innovation in air conditioning technologies continues, with much recent emphasis placed on energy efficiency, and on improving indoor air quality. Reducing climate change impact is an important area of innovation, because in addition to greenhouse gas emissions associated with energy use, CFCs, HCFCs and HFCs are, themselves, potent greenhouse gases when leaked to the atmosphere. For example, R-22 (also known as HCFC-22) has a global warming potential about 1,800 times higher than CO2.[9] As an alternative to conventional refrigerants, natural alternatives like CO2 (R-744) have been proposed.”

    “What’s new, Kozubal says, is a design that manages to merge evaporative cooling and desiccant drying into a cost-effective system. “It makes this type of air conditioning viable for commercial and residential processes for cooling,” he says.

    The industry is working on a variety of methods to improve the efficiency of air conditioning, Jacobi says, from the use of heat exchangers to improvements in the compression systems of traditional machines. “It’s an area of great importance to the nation, because about a third of our nation’s energy use is in buildings.”

    The U.S. uses about 100 quadrillion British Thermal Units each year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Up to 40 percent of that is used in buildings, with about 5 percent going to air conditioning. Kozubal says his system could cut that in half in less-humid areas and by up to 90 percent where humidity is high. “When you talk about a technology that can save 2 to 3 percent of the nation’s entire energy supply, that’s quite a lot,” he says.

    The desiccant used in the system is relatively harmless (calcium chloride is used in road salt), though its corrosiveness requires that metal be eliminated from the hardware. What’s particularly attractive is that it replaces the chlorofluorocarbons that are used as the refrigerant in traditional air conditioners. Those CFCs can easily leak, and every kilogram of them provides the same greenhouse gas effect as about 2,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

    Kozubal says it might take about five years to develop the system to a point where NREL can hand it off to industry for commercialization. The system is designed to replace existing systems without many changes, so it could be phased in as people upgrade their old air conditioners.”

  18. Joan Savage says:

    China has resorted to cloud seeding with rockets to alleviate droughts. In 2004 Henan province was watered by cloud seeding. In 2009 the cloud seeding interacted with a cold snap and an early snow fell in Beijing.

    In August 2011, Kenya turned to cloud seeding to reduce its drought conditions.

    Intentional geo-engineering is already here.

    • prokaryotes says:

      An Evil Atmosphere Is Forming Around Geoengineering

      Now a powerful group of scientists, venture capitalists and conservative think tanks is coalescing around the idea of reproducing this cooling effect by injecting sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to counter climate change. Despite the enormity of what is being proposed – nothing less than seizing control of the climate – the public has been almost entirely excluded from the planning.

      Up to now, governments have been reluctant to talk about geoengineering. The reason is simple: apart from its unknown side effects, it would weaken resolve to reduce emissions.

      Russia has already begun testing. Yuri Izrael, a scientist who is both a global-warming sceptic and a senior adviser to Prime Minister Putin, has tested the effects of aerosol spraying from a helicopter. He now plans a large-scale trial.

      Izrael is the latest in a long line of scientists who have advocated planetary engineering. Two of the earliest and most aggressive were Edward Teller and Lowell Wood. Teller, who died in 2003, is often described as the “father of the hydrogen bomb” and was the inspiration for Dr Strangelove, the eponymous mad scientist of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film. Wood was one of the Pentagon’s foremost weaponeers, which led his critics to dub him “Dr Evil”. He led Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated Star Wars project.

      Wood and Teller began promoting aerosol spraying in 1998. Reflecting the dominant opinion of the 1950s, they saw it as our duty to exert supremacy over nature. Both have long been associated with conservative think tanks that deny the existence of human-induced global warming.

      A number of right-wing think tanks actively denying climate change are also promoting geoengineering, an irony that seems to escape them. http://www.countercurrents.org/hamilton240710.htm

  19. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Kermit -

    addressing the causes of global warming is patently necessary – but if that means only addressing the direct additional causes – i.e. our ongoing fossil fuel emissions, deforestation, etc – then it is evidently not sufficient.

    Our past emissions now pose a timelagged additional warming at least equal to the warming observed so far, plus the cooling ‘sulphate parasol’ will close as we end our GHG outputs causing another doubling of warming (ref Hansen), plus deep ocean AGW-heat storage now appears to be returning to the surface and adding a new source of still more warming for at least the next 50 years.

    Given that we now have at least five major interactive feedback loops accelerating under the present warming, what would they do under a more than four-fold increase of warming from those ‘pipeline’ sources ?

    The recent NSIDC graph of just one feedback output, the melting of permafrost, projected emissions of carbon rising to around 0.8GTs/yr later this century. Sadly, it failed to include the warming impact of its emissions on the rate of melting, and it also failed to show those emissions as CO2 equivalent (CO2e) – Given that water saturation of the peat in melted Siberian permafrost is observed to be maximizing methane production (CH4) by excluding the oxygen needed to make CO2, and given that methane has a CO2 equivalence over 20 years of around 100, the potential CO2e output implied by the NSIDC graph is as follows:

    0.8GT carbon/yr x 1.33CH4 x 100 CO2 equiv = 106.66 gigatonnes CO2e /yr

    This is around three times our present annual global CO2e output, just from one feedback. Yet the NSIDC projection assumes only the present warming trend continued, and also excludes the warming from this and the other feedbacks’ greatly accelerating the rate of melting to cause much higher annual outputs.

    Plainly, beside ending current GHG emissions, we need a global temperature to put feedbacks such as permafrost-melt back to sleep before they take over. Since we are already at or near the level of feedback CO2e output whereby the natural carbon sinks will be swamped, and those sinks’ capacity is itself likely to decline, there is no prospect of the natural sinks succeeding in cleansing the atmosphere and providing the required cooling.

    The sufficient human response thus includes a global program of carbon recovery to cleanse the atmosphere and, in the decades during this process, an interim program of albedo restoration to limit temperature sufficiently to prevent the feedbacks taking off.

    While the need of these programs is patently very urgent, this cannot justify recourse to incompetent techniques, such as spreading gigatonnes of a known pollutant in the stratosphere. The primary requirement is thus of a fully mandated UN scientific oversight body to supervise the RD&D of the various technology options.

    In this manner we still have a good chance of responding effectively and safely to the ongoing causes of global warming, but the debate needs to shift from a futile circus of pro and anti geo-engineering to the discussion of the supervision body and of the selection criteria governing its operation.