For Geoengineers, a Scientific Existential Crisis

Technofixes for the climate crisis are no one’s first choice. What is it like to study something you wish would disappear?

In mid-December, more than 28,000 people met in Washington, D.C. to discuss everything earth science-related at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting. But amid the dry data and scientific acronyms at a session on solar geoengineering, the science had a patina of existentialist dread that you might not see in a similar forum. There were questions of public disclosure, talk of slippery slopes, and an inescapable nervousness, as if maybe this subject was only barely sitting on the respectable side of science.

“SRM is only being considered because the world is broken.”

It isn’t hard to understand why. Geoengineering refers to a controversial set of proposals centered around one basic idea: to use technology to help cool down a rapidly warming planet. The most prominent scheme is solar radiation management (SRM), whereby sunlight is reflected back into space to reduce global warming. Such a feat may be attempted through a variety of techniques including stratospheric aerosol injection, which acts much like a volcano does naturally by dumping tons of tiny sulfur particles 60,000 feet in the sky.

This is not, generally speaking, a popular idea. “SRM is only being considered because the world is broken,” says Simon Nicholson, director of American University’s Global Environmental Politics Program, who works on the politics and governance of geoengineering. The approach is a measure of last resort, a stopgap that might stave off some of the worst effects of warming in the face of plodding progress toward reducing carbon emissions. SRM also has plenty of potential downsides — such as regional changes to weather patterns and related effects on crop yields — and it would do nothing to address climate-adjacent issues like ocean acidification.


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Though it remains divisive, solar geoengineering has started to gain traction both in climate science and with the broader public, thanks to the increasing direness of climate change. Still, most geoengineering researchers agree that reducing carbon dioxide emissions is by far the highest priority. If humanity somehow managed to switch off the CO2 spigot tomorrow, though, geoengineers’ field could disappear. The point of geoengineering today is to slow down climate change, and if we could do that through less controversial means, there might not be a need to study the concept at all.

So the geoengineers find themselves in the somewhat odd position of working in a field that they wish did not exist. What is that like?


Across the field, the reactions to this existential crisis are mixed. “SRM is peculiar, in the sense that most of those who study it do so with some amount of reluctance or ambivalence,” Nicholson says. Researchers studying geoengineering generally acknowledge the subject matter is “unpalatable,” he adds, which leads to an uncommon degree of self-reflection and caution.

“The world is full of things we wish didn’t exist but ignore at our peril. “

This cautious approach is partially informed by sharp criticism from those who think that even studying SRM gives tacit permission to ignore the imperative of emissions reductions; there are plenty of angry responses from the public, as well as from climate scientists and those in other fields. But many geoengineering experts think this criticism is short-sighted. “Wishing it weren’t so won’t make it go away,” says Joshua Horton, a research director of geoengineering at Harvard University. “The world is full of things we wish didn’t exist but ignore at our peril. Climate change is one of those things, and so is solar geoengineering — ignoring the former will lead to catastrophe, but ignoring the latter is also likely to lead to unnecessary pain and suffering.”

While some scientists may still wish geoengineering was a fringe idea, there is no doubt that it is heading toward the mainstream. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which assesses and synthesizes the scientific research on climate change, as well as potential impacts and mitigation strategies, has increasingly included discussion of geoengineering in its publications. The IPCC’s most recent special climate report featured big chunks of a chapter on the topic, though it explicitly refrained from using the term geoengineering itself and separated SRM from carbon dioxide removal, which is much less controversial. One of the conveners of the AGU session, David Keith, a professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard and among field’s most prominent academics, missed the D.C. meeting because he was in Poland, where he participated in a panel session on geoengineering at the United Nations climate meeting.

Some geoengineers have noticed the shift in perspective in their daily work. “The first time I ever mentioned that I was going to work on geoengineering, it was basically the end of my talk and I got yelled off the stage,” says Douglas MacMartin, an engineer and climate scientist at Cornell University. Today, he adds, no one he interacts with — other scientists or the general public — says the research is a bad idea.

Still others think of their work in terms of risk management. “If you know there’s some chance of catastrophic risk, then you need to know if you have options or not,” says Holly Buck, a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA who works on the socio-political side of geoengineering. Buck thinks the anger over the need for the field is “a completely appropriate response,” but geoengineering researchers are not the right target. “People should be livid that elites and governments are presiding over a slow-motion apocalypse,” she says, “and have let global warming get to a point where some careful geoengineering research is warranted.”

MacMartin agrees, and compares geoengineering to putting an airbag in a car. “Yes we should take the foot off the gas, yes we should put the foot on the brakes,” he says, “but if you’re going to have an accident, we’d really actually like to reduce the impacts. We’d like to understand whether that’s possible.”

Despite some claims to the contrary, there have so far been almost no physical geoengineering experiments — it’s essentially all computer modeling. At the AGU meeting, though, one of the themes was exactly where to go next. Some experts, such as Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science in California, think the modeling has more or less run its course; others, including MacMartin, think there is plenty more that the computers have to offer, and that “we don’t know what experiments we need to do.” (One small but prominent outdoor experiment, dubbed SCoPEx, is planned, though it awaits the establishment of an external advisory board before it receives full approval.)

“If you’re going to have an accident, we’d really actually like to reduce the impacts.”

There was a hint of defensiveness in the room as well, a sense that they’re only studying this because the world has forced it upon them. Presenters mentioned the dramatic effects of unchecked climate change, and how the uncertain negative effects of SRM likely pale in comparison to the alternative.

But mostly, these scientists appear to like going to work every day, even though their chosen field is, to put it gently, a bit noisy. Nicholson calls the field “complex and intellectually enlivening,” and MacMartin enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of the work — you can’t separate the science from the sociopolitical angles, and that makes for a stimulating environment.

That’s not to say that there aren’t still discouragements along the way. Some research has suggested that actually explaining SRM to the public causes support for it to drop, so it remains an open question whether the brighter spotlight on the field will improve its reputation. Jadwiga Richter, a geoengineering scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, says while most of her colleagues support her research, she still sometimes gets a sense of disapproval from other scientists. “There are definitely people who, you walk down a hall, and they’re shaking their head,” she says. They feel that “this is not what you should be doing.”


Dave Levitan is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia who writes about energy, the environment, and health. He is the author of “Not A Scientist: How Politicians Mistake, Misrepresent, and Utterly Mangle Science.”

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12 comments / Join the Discussion

    Why is it that these scientists study geo-engineering (which is good to learn, no doubt) but do not REALLY study how to make the best nuclear reactor and the best battery, cheaper solar, wind, etc? Obviously, the solution is to not allow all the leaders of enviro orgs, and policy makers that denounce Gen 4 nuclear. Of course, the world has been divided over much less important issues and so, we’d have a hard time figuring out how to “not allow”. I would call it treason! Since threatening to denounce nuclear as a viable solution is akin to threatening to cutting down your neighbor’s powerlines, sometime in the future, exactly the same. It is also like threatening to destroy your neighbor’s planet, I mean biosphere. Isn’t that worthy of treason?
    Now, the argument for solar, wind and hydro will usually counter the argument for nuclear, and indeed, we should be able to theoretically power the world with a buildup of solar to the inverse of its capacity factor plus inefficiency of storage plus ERoEI plus ESoEI (of the batteries or other storage). This means to build up the solar by about 1.25x the inverse of its CF. Which begs the question, can a renewable energy infrastructure energy pay for itself? I believe the solar is good on its word of needing only about a tenth of the energy as it’ll generate. However, I have no clue about how much energy is required for the batteries (I have guesstimate from EVs requiring more energy than ICE vehicle to make).
    Thus, why would anyone not want nuclear to at least power up the mass manufacture of RE? They “cry global warming” but don’t want to do anything (worthy) about it.
    France proved to the world that it and it only has cut CO2 emissions from electricity generation by like 75% (I forget exactly). And now, we have this yahoo in office threatening to shut many of them down! Why? I was “told” that he knew about global warming. However, now I know that he doesn’t care (and would rather tax the people).
    It is exactly these type of policy makers (and orgs like Greenpeace) that are causing the entire world and most the species in the biosphere to face extinction. Why? I don’t know, but I do know that they must either be anti-human or anti-nature, or both. Many of them don’t even receive handouts from the FF industry, even!
    So, we better learn how to deal with new ozone hole depletion and new acid rain (the result of improper SRM, because that’s better than actually using nuclear – what a bunch of…………..!

    Reply

    The writer makes a serious error here: “If humanity somehow managed to switch off the CO2 spigot tomorrow … geoengineers’ field could disappear.”

    Global warming is caused by the energy imbalance from excess GHGs. Switching off the GHG spigot (not just CO2!) would stabilize this imbalance. However, it would remain at roughly its current level, and its damage would continue.

    The key principles are these: Reducing emissions SLOWS THE INCREASE in the energy imbalance. Geoengineering REVERSES it and could eventually restore the pre-industrial balance. Until this happy day arrives, the field will be sorely needed.

    Reply

    The oceans already have the added heat of 5.5 to 7 billion Hiroshima sized atoms bombs from HGHGs. It is melting the Arctic sea ice like clockwork on the cover over 1500 billion toms of methane hydrate shallow shelf deposits uplifted sine the last interglacial into the danger zone of runaway releases of a methane turnover event probably worse than the Permian End MT Event. Active aerosol masking has been going on since 1997, and masking from the soots of combustion in addition and before that. Yellowstone blowing could do the cooling in time, if all the nuclear power except Gen 4 is shut down safely and to fuel Gen 4 modular for the over 100K needed CO2 to carbonate brick factories, thousands of drones to replant much of the more than 3 trillion trees cut down by humans, and OMTEC refrigeration devices enough in the Arctic to keep the ice cover safely over the shallow hydrates, and keep the Arctic cool enough to prevent the 10K swellings of CH4 from making blowholes. There are stocked underground fortresses for 30 to 50 million people to survive, while much surface life goes dormant for the long winter. An event like Toba would decrease human population rapidly by starvation and cool the oceans also quickly. Survivors of course would have to adopt an environmental morality and spirituality.

    Reply

    I reject forms of geoengineering that are trying to mitigate the problems but don’t take away the cause. Because as soon as you make them work, you depend on them. There is no way back, because the jump in temperature will be lethal. You better let the temperature rise when it needs to rise, so you can in some way gradually adapt to it. (if such a thing is possible)

    I prefer helping / feeding / maximising the biosphere as a main form of geoengineering.
    Ways to do this are:
    1. feeding buoys drifting in the ocean, that slowly dissolve and feed plankton.
    2. De-acidification of the oceans (applying chalk)
    3. Divert fresh water into desert area’s (like a Kongo river-lake Tsjaad connection)
    4. Creating salt water lagunes along seashores and wetlands, seed them with seagrass (like the Qattara depression in Egypt). 5 Green the Sahara and other deserts.
    6. Stop deforestation, apply silvopasture on all grazing grounds, return all human waste into solid carbon into the soil.
    7. Reduce human population. < this is actually the most important and obvious kind of geoengineering, because we are basically suffering from anthropocenic symptoms.

    Reply

    There is not a lot of mystery here about how to stop the threat of increasing greenhouse gases. Just stop adding them to the atmosphere, and start drawing them down from the atmosphere. That’s the essence of global climate engineering, and it’s all spelled out beautifully in Project Drawdown. The book, Drawdown, is available widely online. This is something we can do! We just need to get busy and do the many things that will mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. For example, from the book: educate women and girls in underdeveloped and developing nations, and in regions of so-called developed nations where poverty and ignorance about family planning exist. Move away from the industrial agriculture model, a model of extravagant waste, and destructive of soils. Reinvigorate depleted soils all over the world, with trees and grasses that are sinks for atmospheric CO2. Invest heavily in solar and on-shore wind farms. Modify tax incentives toward electric cars and away from fossil fuels. Impose carbon taxes on the sources of fossil fuels, to shift away from fossil fuel power plants. There are a lot more great ideas in this book, which costs less than $20. Worth every penny of it.

    Reply

    It’s sad to see so many smart people so thoroughly indoctrinated into the “manmade climate cataclysm catechism.” What if CO2 isn’t the culprit? What if the driver for the gradual warming that has been going on – up to 1997 but not beyond – turns out to be natural forces beyond our control. Of course SRM is going to be resisted — no one on the left wants to solve the problem without imposing socialist control over advanced economies. But studying geoengineering and exploring ways to cool the planet is wise. Another problem arises, however. If we had the ability to set the planetary thermostat, who gets to decide what temperature to set it at? Do those folks in Siberia and Alaska, who really like a warmer planet, get a say?

    Reply

    Geoengineering through Stratospheric Aerosol Injections are an almost daily occurrence in Colorado and all over the globe. In situ application of Solar Radiation Management has been going on with substantial documentation for more than a decade and ramping up drastically over the past couple of years. My instagram account documenting relentless applications over Colorado the past year has over 4,000 posts documenting Climate Engineering (@bringbackblueskies), My snow melt tests shows all of the heavy metals from Geoengineering patents. The sky often resembles an oil spills from the toxic nano particulate fall out, today was no exception. 1/17/19. The cover up of these Weather Engineering programs is a crime against the entire planet. The ozone layer is almost completely gone. We need heroes and disclosure. Please, tell the truth. The unintended consequences far out number the benefit of temporary cool down. Visit http://wwe.geoengineeringwatch for undeniable evidence of ongoing and escalating weather modification programs. This is urgent! #wedonotconsent

    Reply

    What’s the big scare about CO2. Isnt that what our billions of plants and trees feed from.

    Reply

    It’s already been examined and is far too costly. Plus trying to get these cylinders into orbit would create more emissions then they captured. And it wouldn’t actually help one bit, the amount of greenhouse gasses caused by these proposals exceed what could be stored.

    Reply

    Pump some of the greenhouse gas into oldish gas cylinders or other containers that can hold psi. that way its not in the atmosphere. Bury them or put them in some stellites that go to the moon and beyond. Done continuously could help a bit for now.

    Reply

    Geoengineering is inevitable. The warming of our ocean has occurred on a geological timescale, it would be physically impossible to maintain the current sea level with emissions reductions alone. Scientists who argue otherwise view climate change as an opportunity to move toward “social justice” Deep down, even they know that island nations like Jamaica or Bangladesh have no chance without geoengineering. Thank you for this article and thanks to the hard working scientists and academics who are literally saving humanity.

    Reply
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