Stealing your thunder: why geoengineering is one of science’s most contested terrains

Giant mirrors in space, boats that create artificial clouds and special air balloons being readied for the next time a major volcano erupts — geoengineering is an area of science with so many fantastical possibilities that even the Royal Society’s experts draw the parallel with science fiction. It is, they say, like “terraforming” — fictional endeavours such as making Mars habitable by adding atmospheric greenhouse gasses.

It is also one of science’s most contested terrains. Broadly defined as the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the environment and also known as “climate intervention”, geoengineering is a field that potentially promises a dramatic Plan B for Earth’s impending climate catastrophe, but some say it could lead to war and famine for millions.

Sceptics say geoengineering is an echo chamber of exaggerated claims and pie-in-the-sky technology. And such is the controversy and doomsday nature of the field that one scientist was quoted saying recently: “People who work on this don’t want to work on this.”


Those in this field are indeed a ragtag bunch. There are the engineers trying to design new gizmos, such as boats that suck up sea water and spurt it out to make clouds, or the “huge mirrors in space that will eject from rockets.” Then there are the physics boffins who work on the atmosphere, the climate modellers running predictions on powerful computers to try to predict how certain interventions would affect the planet, and lawyers thinking about how such action could possibly be governed and regulated.

This week a major report by America’s National Research Council has reignited the discussion, examining the two main streams of geoengineering.

One involves removing CO2 from the air, thereby lowering the intensity of the greenhouse effect — known as carbon dioxide removal or CDR, and includes methods known as “carbon capture”. The other group of ideas considered by the report is the more controversial one of reducing the amount of solar energy absorbed by the Earth (known as “solar radiation management” or SRM).

But both approaches come with significant risks, and critics say the SRM method is a very high-tech attempt to paper over the cracks of our environmental emergency.

“One thing about all geoengineering scenarios is that they will always affect your neighbours, your enemies and your friends,” says Dr Jack Stilgoe, who teaches and researches science policy at UCL. “So the security implications are pretty substantial.”

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One plan discussed by scientists is the so-called “green finger scenario” — “that a Bond villain type would be able to start geoengineering the planet with a few billion dollars and would start engineering the climate”, as Stilgoe describes it.

“Our research suggests it is quite unlikely that an individual would do this alone because governments would close it down,” says Professor Steve Rayner, of Keble College, Oxford, and director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society. “And I don’t think a country would go it alone because the potential for disputes between countries would be great.”

A few years ago, Professor Alan Robock, a scientist from Rutgers University in New Jersey whose website carries pictures of himself meeting Fidel Castro in Cuba, received a call about geoengineering from two men who claimed to be working for the CIA. “We are working for the CIA and we’d like to know if some other country was controlling our climate, would we be able to detect it?” they asked him. Robock says he was scared but told them that if a country felt like creating a stratospheric cloud big enough to alter the climate, it would be perfectly visible. “I think they were also thinking in the back of their minds: ‘If we wanted to control somebody else’s climate could they detect it?’” he told a conference recently.

“I fully understand why the American security folk would want to know whether there is potential for someone to weaponise climate geoengineering,” Rayner told the Standard. “In our research we came to the conclusion that the only real applications in a military context would be terrain denial —- which is making it rain somewhere so tanks get bogged down — or the demoralisation of civilian populations. But the technologies are so far away from being developed — and especially with the precision you would need — it’s my view that that is a highly unlikely scenario.”

This week’s report recommended further research and some low-risk experiments but the first line of the report’s summary hinted at one of geoengineering’s major controversies: “Climate intervention is no substitute for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and adaptation efforts aimed at reducing the negative consequences of climate change,” it read.

The controversy exists because geoengineering holds out the possibility of tackling the Earth’s warming in a way that isn’t about sharply reducing our CO2 emissions.

Joanna Haigh, co-director of Imperial College’s Grantham Institute for Climate Change and an expert in how solar radiation is absorbed into the atmosphere, says the problems with radiation management are many.

“There are different ways of reflecting sunlight — from the rather extraordinary idea of reflecting it with mirrors in the sky, to the more prosaic painting buildings white, or spraying sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, which has the same effect as a volcano, making little cloud droplets which reflect the sun. That is the one in vogue at the moment.”

“I think it is batty,” says Haigh, who sat on the Royal Society’s Working Group on Geoengineering in 2009. “One problem is that it isn’t addressing the root cause of the problem. It allows carbon dioxide to keep building in the atmosphere, so the global average temperature might be the same but who knows what the weather patterns are going to be.

“And the other problem is ocean acidification — because as atmospheric CO2 increases it gets taken up by the ocean, causing the water to become more acid and damaging to the ecosystems — and you are not doing anything about that. I don’t object to research but if it’s at the expense of other research, or if it makes people complacent that things are going to be OK with CO2, then they should think again.”

The CDR approach is considered geoengineering’s more sustainable and serious long-term solution but it would require enormous investment from the energy industry that is presently not forthcoming. And it would have a huge task in removing even a small percentage of our CO2 output.

Generally, the climate modellers are said to be seeing “substantial disruption in global weather” in their models. “Some of the models say it would alter monsoon patterns — potentially disastrous for millions of farmers,” says Stilgoe.

Next month Stilgoe is publishing a book (Experiment Earth, Routledge) about the first attempt to conduct outdoor experiments in geoengineering, which were going to take place in the UK a few years ago but were shelved. He says “a lot of conventional environmental scientists wouldn’t touch this [area] with a barge pole” but thinks research will now expand nevertheless. “Everything we know about geoengineering suggests it would be a bad idea. It’s just a question of whether the alternative is even worse. If you think climate change is going to make the world a very bad place to live in, then geoengineering might be the better of the two evils.”

@joshi

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