Geoengineering: an earthly gamble to combat global warming

By Melinda Welsh

As a last-ditch effort to reverse climate change, scientists risk destroying the planet in order to save it.

Like a Bad Robot mega production from J.J. Abrams, the story of geoengineering—wherein scientists propose using large-scale technologies to manipulate the Earth’s temperature as a way to avert global warming—seems straight out of science fiction’s playbook.

One scenario has a fleet of high-altitude planes spraying sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, so as to block the sun and cool the planet. Others proposals involve:

  • Launching trillions of tiny mirrors into space to form a “sunshade” for Earth.
  • Manufacturing automated sea vessels that roam the ocean, sucking up water to spray, through miles-long hoses, into the lower atmosphere to “brighten” clouds and dim the sun.
  • Dispersing hundreds of tons of iron sulfate particles in an “ocean fertilization” attempt to grow phytoplankton, so as to capture carbon and sequester it in deepest reaches of the sea.

Are these preposterous-sounding schemes really being put forward by legitimate scientists as possible “last chance” fixes for a world that hasn’t yet solved its warming problem?

The answer is yes.

Though most Americans haven’t heard much about it, climate scientists and others are increasingly abuzz about the once-taboo subject of geoengineering. Billionaires such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson and N. Murray Edwards (the Canadian tar-sands billionaire) are funding controversial research into various methods. Boeing, oil companies (ExxonMobil Corp., Shell Oil Co., BP) and other corporations are forming working groups. The National Academy of Sciences has launched a study, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is due out soon, with a collection of existing literature on the topic.

And though the U.S. government has so far spent little ($1.9 million in 2009-2010 on extreme geoengineering methods), other counties—such as China, Europe, India, Russia and Canada—have already invested many millions to research these last-resort climate mends.

So, why is this topic moving from the margins to the mainstream?

Because the planet keeps getting warmer.

“There isn’t a whole lot of progress being made in terms of mitigating greenhouse-gas emissions,” said UC Davis law professor Albert Lin, a national leader in the call for global governance of geoengineering practices.

“There’s no doubt more radical alternatives are getting increased attention,” he said. “Some see [geoeingeering] as the magic bullet to solve our problems without doing it the more difficult way.”

The collective failure of the world’s governments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is widely acknowledged; extreme weather events that were once modeled by scientists as early “potential” warming scenarios have become reality, beaming into our living rooms on CNN with regularity. And just a few weeks back, the Earth’s CO2 level reached an average daily level of 400 parts per million, a milestone that has not been registered in 3 million years, before humans existed. Scientists agree that the number portends badly for humankind, especially for coastal populations and countries like India, China and Africa, where human-caused global warming is predicted—possibly by the last half of this decade—to cause the sea to rise up to 6 feet, severe heat waves, drought, flood and famine.

This harsh reality opens the argument for those who believe humankind may need a stay of execution.

But Lin, who worked for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the U.S. Department of Justice before the move to his Davis job, is not alone in wondering whether a “quick” climate fix might create a cure more perilous than the disease.

As he notes, none of the extreme measures being thrashed about provide a permanent solution for what’s ailing the planet. Even proponents of research in this field say their imagined fixes would only buy time, leaving humans with the problem of figuring out how to drastically curb greenhouse-gas emissions.

Plus, it doesn’t take an atmospheric scientist to recognize that a global tech fix could go wrong very badly.

The world’s climate is complicated, with natural systems indelibly interwoven. An attempt to dim the sun above Canada could result in droughts in Asia or Africa. An effort to fertilize the ocean in one place could worsen ocean acidification, create marine-animal die-offs and cause toxic tides in another. The endeavor by a famine-plagued tropical nation to seed the clouds could damage the ozone layer and interrupt the Indian monsoon, causing massive drought in that country. Let’s not forget: India is a nuclear-armed nation.

Cue nightmare geopolitical scenarios.

“There’s a gut reaction to the hubris—you might call it ’playing God’—of all this,” said professor Lin. “The deployment of geoengineering on a global scale is ethically troubling, to say the least.”

Conquer the skies?

A dozen or so graying baby boomers hold up handmade protest signs—“Our Sky Is Not Yours to Hack” and “Geoengineers Declare War on Nature”—outside the David Brower Center in Berkeley as geeky science majors and earth-toned environmentalists stream in for a recent debate on geoengineering.

“Geoengineering is the corporate scientific takeover of our skies!” one protestor insisted.

Inside the theater, atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University made the “pro” arguments, while Australian author Clive Hamilton (who has been making the rounds with his new book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering) articulated the “cons.”

Caldeira, one of the world’s leading advocates for research in the controversial field, was seated onstage, looking like the diminutive actor Joel Gray, with short, wild hair and feet that seemed to barely touch the ground. Throughout the evening, the noted scientist was met with hisses and negative shout-outs from a mostly skeptical audience. (More than a few of the protesters outside were downright paranoid, suspicious of new climate fixes due to their certainty that the government has already been pouring chemicals—“chemtrails”—into the skies for decades.)

Caldeira was particularly hazed for being given research funds from Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. The scientist accepted the charge from Gates to allocate $4.6 million in geoengineering research funds; Caldeira and his four post-doctorate assistants receive about one-third of that for their lab work on solar radiation management techniques.

“I am alarmed after decades of working to reduce emissions, that we haven’t done near enough to avoid catastrophic climate change,” Calderia asserted to the feisty crowd. “We can decide to stick our head in the sand, or we can go about research that needs to be done.”

As Caldeira and others report, the array of proposed methods to engineer the Earth’s temperature system is ever growing (see “Top 10 climate technofixes” on page 21). But the approaches can generally be put into two camps: One attempts to remove carbon dioxide from the air to be stored in the ocean or underground, and the other attempts to cool the Earth by deflecting sunlight away from the planet and back into space.

UC Davis law professor Albert Lin is an early leader in the call for global governance of geoengineering.

PHOTO BY STEVEN CHEA

The strategies that fall in the latter category—cooling the Earth by redirecting sunlight—are called solar radiation management. Methods of SRM—either by creating fluffy “reflective” clouds or by pumping sulfur particles into the stratosphere—are seen as quickly achievable and relatively inexpensive compared to techniques that attempt to sequester carbon.

In a previous interview with SN&R, Caldeira freely admitted that “planetary manipulation” of the atmosphere wouldn’t erase the root problem of global warming.

“Emissions reductions is still what we need to do,” he said.

But we may need to use geoengineering, he added, in a “last-ditch effort to reduce suffering” if, at some time down the road, humankind faces a runaway disaster due to climate change.

“If necessary, SRM could be done by a small number of people fairly cheaply … Mount Pinatubo cooled the Earth rapidly, and society can do the same thing.”

A word about Pinatubo: In 1991, a massive eruption occurred on this peak in the Philippines, sending 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. The event was followed by a striking period of global cooling, as ash swirled about on high, deflecting sunlight and cooling the planet. An 1815 volcanic eruption on Mount Tambora, in what is now Indonesia, was likewise followed by a massive cooling trend in Europe.

Caldeira and other scientists believe it’s possible to develop large-scale recreations of this volcanic effect by launching sulfates into the atmosphere. Model simulations of this SRM method have proven effective, said Caldeira, at temporarily cooling the planet.

“It works,” he shrugged.

But at what cost?

Many believe the injection of such particles into the stratosphere could increase the depletion of the ozone layer and possibly affect monsoon patterns, which would lead to droughts in Asia and Africa. Also, SRM would interfere with solar cells, with one study claiming solar-energy output after SRM could decrease by as much as 20 percent.

Finally, there is an endgame concern with SRM that’s come to be known as “the termination effect.”

If SRM techniques were deployed and then terminated for whatever reason, the computer-modeling forecasts get scary fast. Unless carbon emissions had decreased by the time SRM was terminated, scientists agree that Earth would experience a massive “carbon pulse”—temperature increase—that could lead to far more severe consequences than a gradual rise to the same temperature.

“The concern here is that once you start deploying some of these methods, you basically have to keep those in place over extremely long periods of time,” said UCD’s Lin. “You have to ask whether society has demonstrated the ability to maintain anything good over hundreds of years without failures.”

Many climate-change activists—former Vice President Al Gore among them—believe that pursuit of a grand-scale “technofix” to global warming would serve as a huge distraction to humankind at the exact moment when all eyes need to be on the prize of developing a long-term, global-energy strategy that is not carbon based.

“We are already involved in a massive unplanned planetary experiment,” Gore famously told The New Yorker. “We should not begin yet another planetary experiment in the hope that it will somehow magically cancel out the effects of the one we already have.”

Still, Caldeira argues that society would be wise to begin the research now, so as to be ready if a future moment of crisis arises.

“It’s a question of risk reduction in real social systems in an armed world,” he said. “We need funding, we need a concerted effort, a serious research program.”

But who is “we”? And how would scientific research on these methods—as they moved from computer modeling to large-scale experimentation on the Earth’s atmosphere—be overseen with safety watchguarded?

Unintended consequences

Two giant pearl-white eggheads, smooth and ridiculous, sit perched on a grassy knoll outside the entrance to the UC Davis School of Law’s King Hall. The famous Robert Arneson sculptures feature a nose, mouth, eyes … but no ears.

A recent visit to the face-lifted school and the upstairs office of professor Albert Lin, the aforementioned authority in the realm of geoengineering, made the missing ears uncomfortably relevant. When it comes to the subject of this topic, key players seem to be hearing impaired.

For example: Last August, a Northern California entrepreneur named Russ George, dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate off the stern of a rented fishing boat into the Pacific Ocean just off the west coast of Canada. Under the guise of bolstering the region’s salmon population, this man who describes himself as “the world’s leading champion of geoengineering,” was actually performing an experiment in ocean fertilization, i.e., creation of a phytoplankton bloom meant to move carbon into the deep recesses of the ocean.

The rogue experiment—which wasn’t discovered until months after the act using satellite imagery—was met with condemnation from all quarters.

George was labeled an “eco-criminal” and “ocean rapist.” Scientists on both sides of the geoengineering dispute wrote public rebukes of George’s experiment, calling his unilateral action reckless, premature and lacking in scientific assessment. Author Naomi Klein weighed in with a widely read essay in The New York Times about George’s experiment: “[S]erious scientists, backed by far deeper pockets, appear poised to actively tamper with the complex and unpredictable natural systems that sustain life on earth—with huge potential for unintended consequences,” she warned.

But the thing is, George didn’t break any laws.

He has still not been arrested or charged with any wrongdoing because, as of yet, there is virtually no regulation in the field of geoengineering.

Here is where UCD’s Lin enters the picture.

His office littered marvelously with papers and publications on every surface, Lin —in a navy Cal sweatshirt and spectacles—looked every bit your average, overworked law professor. But this man, a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall) by way of a public-policy master’s degree at Harvard University, is far from a run-of-the-mill academic, having found himself a notable player in the matter of how the world’s governments will agree—or not—to attempt a large-scale planetary tech fix for global warming.

Lin believes George’s ocean-fertilization attempt should be viewed as “the leading edge of mounting efforts in geoengineering that demand international attention. … There’s currently no treaty governing research or deployment,” he said.

Some official bodies—such as the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity—are on record as of 2010 urging a moratorium on geoengineering, he said, “But we need a system of oversight that is comprehensive, global and backed by sanctions.”

Ocean fertilization is a geoengineering technique in where tons of nanoparticles of iron sulfate are dumped in the ocean to create phytoplankton blooms that are said to move carbon into the deep ocean.

ILLUSTRATION BY JASON CROSBY

In an article he wrote last year for a “Law of the Future” series for the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law, he reasoned that since “geoengineering deployment could have potentially disastrous effects for millions,” the issue must be addressed as a global concern, not one where choices can be arrived at nation by nation.

“I think we need to involve a broader range of stakeholders and governments in this process,” said Lin. “There’s a perceived need for other than just the scientists to be involved … in exploring some sort of mechanisms that would give researches the green light or not.”

Today, a moderately sized country—or an individual corporation or billionaire with a knight-in-shining-armor complex—could decide to unilaterally engage in geoengineering, he said, without breaking any laws.

Lin suggests using “the existing architecture” to accomplish this. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, he believes, might be the appropriate body to address governance issues for geoengineering. He acknowledged, however, that the Framework process has not been a terribly successful one thus far. Indeed, reasonable approaches at emissions reductions—like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol—fell on deaf ears (eggheads notwithstanding), and even the United States failed to sign that treaty.

Nevertheless, Lin thinks we have no choice but to rely on the international political structure.

But Caldeira, who debated Lin directly on the topic at the San Francisco Commonwealth Club back in 2010, disagrees.

“I don’t see a need for a new bureaucracy at this time,” Caldeira told SN&R in response to Lin’s appeal for oversight. “Instead of creating solutions for imagined problems, we should focus on solving real ones.”

Whether real or imagined, Lin’s cause and the movement to regulate geoengineering research gained unexpected momentum just last month when two leading researchers in the field—Harvard’s David Keith (also funded by Gates) and UCLA’s Edward Parson—wrote an article for the journal Science arguing for the first time that governments need to step into the fray, “govern this thing” and begin coordination of, at least, small-scale “climate fix” research.

Science fiction (or not)

Earth Day 2013 at UC Davis—dubbed “America’s Coolest School” last year by the Sierra Club—was a fairly sedate affair with “sustainability tours,” T-shirt giveaways and a few tree plantings. Still, in one lab in the Earth and Physical Sciences Building, a dozen or so grad students gathered to talk about the Earth’s warming after a noon screening of the climate documentary Thin Ice.

UC Davis’ Howard Spero, the professor and paleo-oceanographer who served as a moderator at the event, has been pleasantly surprised to find himself near the front lines of the climate and geoengineering debate. His work concerns the chemical signals in tiny fossil seashells from a type of plankton living between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. His goal is to understand the order of events that occurred when Earth shifted out of the last ice age, so as to “help us model what might happen if the Earth continues to warm into the future,” he said.

One question Spero seeks to answer: How quickly do carbon-rich ocean waters cycle CO2 between the ocean and the atmosphere? The only way fertilization works is if CO2 gets to the deep ocean, he said, but “there is evidence that phytoplankton never makes it to the sea floor.”

“As particles drop and critters in the ocean eat them, they use up oxygen at the mid-depth range,” so CO2 from the surface ocean gets recycled, he said. “In the end, we’ve not gotten rid of the CO2 from the atmosphere.”

Like others, Spero believes the pursuit of geoengineering strategies are a distraction from the real problem.

“We have to slowly wean ourselves off of carbon,” he said. “It will take decades and decades to design necessary replacements. This has to be something that starts now.”

The local geologist is one of a crowded field of scientists whose work may hold answers to questions posed by geoengineering.

Just two months ago, British meteorologists reported in the journal Nature Climate Change that their computer modeling suggested that use of SRM could cause calamitous drought in the Sahel region of Western Africa. Another recent study published in Nature Geoscience found that increased CO2 by itself, without any accompanying warming, could still cause extreme changes in the Earth’s atmosphere and seriously alter rainfall patterns.

And earlier computer simulations of extensive cloud brightening conducted by the Met Office Hadley Centre in England resulted in a dramatic prediction. Scientists found that the technique would cause rainfall decreases in South America, and a subsequent “die-back” of the Amazon rain forest, one of the world’s largest natural carbon stores.

Indeed, while some environmentalists are dead-set against further study related to geoengineering, a few contend that research may be needed just to prove that the extreme methods won’t work.

“I think researching geoengineering, and almost anything else, is fine,” well-known author and climate activist Bill McKibben responded in an email to SN&R. “But so far the data seems to show large predictable side effects, large unpredictable side effects, and absolutely no effect on cases like ocean acidification. So I would be against deploying it.”

Meanwhile, politics has also entered the picture.

Though most elected Democrats seek to avoid the subject by any means necessary, conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich came on board the geoengineering bandwagon years ago. In the aforementioned Earthmasters, Hamilton reports that ultra-conservative think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute and the Hudson Institute, have come out in support of a quick terra fix, too. So, the very people and organizations that have spent decades repudiating climate science seem to be gathering in support of a solution to a problem they used to deny exists.

Why would they do this? At the Berkeley debate, Hamilton wondered aloud if members of the far-right faction in America might see geoengineering as a way to avoid the social-political transformation otherwise required and “preserve the existing political and economic system” as Earth’s population heads into uncertain times.

Meanwhile in California, a state known around the globe as iconic in its leadership on the climate issue, the subject of geoengineering has not yet attracted much in the way of legislation, attention or state research dollars.

“We don’t have an official position on geoengineering,” said Dave Clegern, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, the state’s lead agency when it comes to global-warming mitigation and emissions reductions. “It’s not something we are into at this point. But we are aware of it, and we are monitoring it.”

Since its inception, the human species has demonstrated a largely uninterrupted hubris toward the natural world. The view that some matters should remain beyond human influence has not prevailed, to say the least.

But when asked if he believes human beings will inevitably deploy geoengineering methods, professor Lin said no.

“I wouldn’t use the word ’inevitable,’” he said.

“I think there would have to be a dramatic reason to use them,” he continued. “If we can make enough progress in moving to renewable energy, we might just be able to muddle through … and that might be the best we can do.”

Still, questions remain.

Will humankind do what is necessary—despite the odds—to reduce emissions and transform its fossil-fuel-based energy system to prevent the worst outcomes of global warming? Or will the distraction of a large-scale technofix win the day?

In the end, either answer comes replete with challenges and dangers for which nature offers no apology.

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