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Planktos, Geo-Engineering and Politics
Alex Steffen, 14 Feb 08
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A great fluttering has arisen out there around the news that Planktos, the company which aimed to make a killing by selling carbon offsets from fertilizing ocean algal blooms with iron dust, has pulled the plug on their field tests, but not before grumbling that they'd been done in by a “highly effective disinformation campaign waged by anti-offset crusaders.”

The Planktos failure ought to draw our attention even more clearly to what I am starting to think is a question we just need to get settled: should geo-engineering be part of our tool chest for confronting climate change, and under what conditions?

Though I feel strongly about the issue, I recognize that opinions differ. As the debate over my last piece Why Geo-Engineering is an Idea Whose Time Has Gone showed, smart and credible people can clearly differ on this question, and some believe in the necessity of the Big Fix.

In the comments, Andy Revkin said:

So, at least as a backstop, they say (and this group includes the likes of Ralph Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of Sciences), why not include significant research along this path as part of a menu of responses to global warming -- including mitigation of emissions, adaptation to unavoidable change (and garden-variety climate threats), and a concerted quest for next-generation energy options?

to which Alan AtKisson added:

If "tipping points" are for real, and it simply doesn't prove feasible to get the world moved off of carbon energy (while also keeping people fed and employed) quickly enough, then every humane solution that *is* feasible must be on the table for serious review, including the family of interventions called "geo-engineering". ...No one is saying "start the pre-fab volcanos." But *not* to research the options for stabilizing possible runaway climate change would at this point be inethical.

So, it seems to me there are two main positions held by credible people that run counter to my argument, nicely typified by our allies here. The first is that geo-engineering is part of a menu of responses, and we ought to explore the range of our options, perhaps incorporating massive engineering as part of those responses. The second is that we need a backstop, some sort of last-ditch proposal should we at some point find that we have already pushed the climate past catastrophic tipping points.

There are two giant problems with these positions as I see it.

The first is that existing proposals won't work, not the way we want them to. Both the two main contenders -- seeding the oceans (ala Planktos) and filling the upper atmosphere with sulfate particles (what some call the artificial volcano approach, best presented by David Keith in his TED video) -- run up against the same problem: they have the potential to wreak unholy havoc on the chemistry of the oceans, with dire consequences for pretty much all life on Earth.

That's because seeding the ocean would take CO2 out of the atmosphere by encouraging giant slicks of algae to grow and suck into the water, where it would raise the acidity of the ocean itself, while the artificial volcanos approach wouldn't actually take any CO2 out of the atmosphere at all -- it'd merely temporarily shield us from the heat effects of what we've already put up there, and much of that CO2 would in turn find its way into the ocean as well. That acidity, in turn would kill off all sorts of critters, disturb all sorts of unseen-and-yet-vital natural processes, and quite potentially cook our goose just as thoroughly as climate change itself... not to mention that acidification would generate massive GHG emissions feedback loops, thus worsening the very problem we sought to solve in the first place.

What's more, the really is very little evidence that any planetary interventions on the scale we're talking about here will actually work. Space mirrors are a joke; hacking plants to make them suck more carbon out of the air could impoverish the topsoil and lead to more invasive species; the list goes on.

John Holdren, President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has said,

"The 'geo-engineering' approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects."

That's why talking about geo-engineering as a means to "reboot" the planet's ecosystems is so off-base. We don't actually know that much about the planet, its natural systems and their workings at these scales (if any massive, centralized research project is called for, a much more complete biological survey of the Earth is probably it). What, for instance, might the impacts be on the critical ecosystem services provided by other natural systems?

Here's the other problem: not only is geo-engineering unlikely to work, but we don't need it and discussing it as a fantasy option is, I think, politically dangerous at a time when so much of the debate about the crisis we face already floats in a mist of surreality. Put another way, discussion of geo-engineering offers a distant, quite likely illusory benefit in exchange for a real and immediate political harm.

We've known for at least twenty years that climate change demanded action; we've had a high degree of certainty for at least ten, and for at least the last couple years, the scientific alarms have been ringing at a deafening volume. Yet we have very little real action on the ground -- indeed, per global CO2 emissions have continued to rise -- precisely because those who benefit most from the status quo have waged an entirely intentional (and fairly well-documented) campaign to cast doubt on the science of climate change, raise the specter of economic crisis, question the need for speedy action and, most recently, to question whether or not such action can succeed even if we undertake it (moving, as Al Gore quipped, straight from denial to despair).

So we're left with a political struggle which pits those who believe we must act, can act in time and can do so in a way that leaves us better off against those who don't really want us to act at all, and will drag their heels until rising seas wash the ground out from underneath their feet. That's climate politics, circa 2008. To believe otherwise is to set yourself up to get played for a sucker. (You can guess which side I'm on.)

To meet this crisis, we need a tidal wave of innovation, of clever policy, of entrepreneurial thinking and new technologies. There are a huge number of important niches where we need real egineering breakthroughs -- greening air travel and putting out coal fires spring immediately to mind. But none of these things alone will be enough.

Our biggest challenge is not technological. It is not a question of policy. It requires no further scientific validation to address. Our biggest challenge is to change our own thinking and the thinking of our fellow citizens. We need to encourage widespread planetary thinking; we have to start preparing people to take actions commensurate to the scope of the emergency.

And that's precisely where talking about geo-engineering as if it were a proven option becomes so dangerous. It is already being spoken of in mainstream media sources as the solution for our failure to adequately cut CO2:

Geo-engineering cannot replace emissions reductions. The less CO2 you have to balance with sulfates, the more effective geo-engineering would be. But reducing CO2 emissions by, say, substituting solar and nuclear for coal will only delay climate change. Any net emissions will eventually tip the atmosphere into dangerous territory.

This argument, of course, dovetails nicely with the latest spin from those benefitting from the status quo: "A sane climate policy? Too expensive, too slow, too late bound to fail. But don't worry, we've got our best people working on a backup plan." Or, as the Guardian reports the Bush administration's position:

"The US has also attempted to steer the UN report, prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), away from conclusions that would support a new worldwide climate treaty based on binding targets to reduce emissions... The US response, a copy of which has been obtained by the Guardian, says the idea of interfering with sunlight should be included in the summary for policymakers, the prominent chapter at the front of each IPCC report. It says: 'Modifying solar radiance may be an important strategy if mitigation of emissions fails. Doing the R&D to estimate the consequences of applying such a strategy is important insurance that should be taken out. This is a very important possibility that should be considered.'"

But the reality is that we already know how to dramatically reduce emissions. Many of the things we need to do to fight climate change, even to launch a full-scale war against it, are things we'd want to do anyways, and done properly, at the right scales, with transparency and democratic oversight, the offer very little risk (compared to any of the geo-engineering proposals currently topping the charts) and a high degree of reversibility

Even acknowledging that our goal must be very soon be carbon-negative economic growth and an environmentally-beneficial ecological handprint, the technological and social innovations needed are entirely within our scope, given our current capacities. It's even quite likely that many of the steps we'd need to take to get there are economically beneficial, especially when the true costs of our current patterns (and their future consequences) are taken into account.

What we lack is the political will.

I can't see how geo-engineering will change that. Even if one of these proposals could work, the politics around them make Bali look like a diplomatic cake-walk. I've already written quite a bit about the naive assumption that governments which lack the political will to follow comparatively simple scientific counsel and take comparatively safe actions can be trusted to properly oversee mega-scale centralized engineering projects. But the political minefields don't end there. Just as a for instance, who, under international law, actually has the authority to deliberately change the chemistry of the world's oceans, with unpredictable results?

As Scott Saleska of the University of Arizona asks:

Let's say air capture, or any of the many geoengineering options being widely discussed... ends up being feasible in a few decades. And let’s say we actually reach the point where we can, as Roger Pielke suggested, tune the atmosphere’s CO2. What level do we tune it to? And who gets to decide that level? The "worst off" individual (to follow Rawls famous "Theory of Justice")? Then we probably let the Maldivians decide, since under current projections, sea level rise could completely wipe them off the map. Places like Russia, on the other hand, would probably prefer to have some moderate global warming, because that probably would give them better agriculture in Siberia, and ice-free ports on the north Atlantic.

And here we are led to what may be to me the most damning shortcoming of geo-engineering: These proposals are not actually very smart or cutting edge. They are a set of 20th century proposals kitted out in 21st century drag. This is the response you'd get if you took a bunch of 1950s scientists with slide rules and crew cuts, put them in a room, and showed them An Inconvenient Truth. "First, we build a space mirror, then, if that doesn't work, we'll fall back to the artificial volcano... it may be a long shot, but nothing else will save the American way of life!"

Many of the scientists who are being cited by the chattering classes as proponents of geo-engineering are worried about the idea moving beyond the thought-experiment stage. Take Paul J. Crutzen, of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, who, though often cited as a proponent of geo-engineering, is "not enthusiastic about it":

"It was meant to startle the policymakers... If they don't take action much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end we have to do experiments like this."

Or as the folks at RealClimate put it:

The problem is that geoengineering a sunshade is being sold as insurance long before anybody has any idea whether it would work and what the unintended consequences would be. It's not really insurance. It's more like building a lifeboat, but a lifeboat based on a design that has never been used before which has to work more or less perfectly the first time the panicked passengers are loaded into it. The problem is that by the time we know enough to have any confidence at all in this lifeboat, CO2 may have risen to the point where the lifeboat becomes not just a backup, but a necessity. Would diverting 1% of the world's climate research funds into this problem clarify the issues in time? I doubt it. Would devoting 10% a year to the problem be worth it? I doubt that, too, in comparison to more pressing research needs.

A number of marine scientists have called for a ban on any geo-engineering of the oceans. Climate scientist Raymond Pierrehumbert's proposed 10 year moratorium on geo-engineering efforts goes farther still. I'd like to propose a further step: what if we table all discussion of geo-engineering as a strategy for 10 years, primarily by instituting a moratorium on funding research into any specific geo-engineering interventions.

We can -- and should -- increase funding into climate and biological sciences; we can and should increase funding into all manner of green technologies and innovations; we can even have serious discussions about how we might evaluate and design geo-engineering approaches in the future. But for the next ten years, we ought to concentrate on the business at hand: building a prosperous, fair and carbon-negative society as quickly as we possibly can.

Before we call out "to the lifeboats!" let's both try to stop the ship from sinking, and make sure that the lifeboats actually exist.

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Comments

Great post. You hit the nail on the head - this is 20th century industrial thinking, not 21st century systems thinking.
The problem, really, is that we are unaccustomed - and uncomfortable - with solutions that are not hi-tech, not big... think of the Apollo Alliance, adopting as their moniker a 20th century effort instead of coming up with our own.
Some solutions are big and technological: energy will be, water probably will be, food might be... but most will be low-tech, small, far-reaching but not terribly visible changes in daily life. This is why it has been so hard to get traction on them.

But the main point is simple. Why are we talking about these big expensive uncertain 'solutions' when we haven't even tried any of the easier cheaper smaller solutions yet? We don't know what we can accomplish, because we haven't yet tried.


Posted by: justus on 14 Feb 08

Ideally, we'd want the research to be there as a backup plan, but not have any policymakers or general public aware of it, so they wouldn't count on it as a possible option. But if we had the political will to do the right things (radically reduce emissions), having the research in place for this wouldn't be a problem.

By the way, I spoke with an employee of Planktos sometime last year, and leveled the same concerns you did about their idea. She said that actually ocean plankton is currently a small fraction of what it should be (1/4? 1/3? I forget), and so fertilizing it to grow more is actually an ecological _restoration_, not an upset. Also that it wouldn't increase acidity of the ocean because the CO2 is held in the plankton itself, not in the water.


Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 14 Feb 08

Dear Alex,

As you know, I admire your forward-thinking positive approach and, like you, reject "woe is me, shame on you" rhetoric on climate and energy.

But there's a potential problem with the rejection of any work on climate engineering above.

We are already engineering the Earth at planet scale, and have been for a century or more. We just didn't fully realize it until the last decade or so, and still haven't really integrated the idea that Earth, from here on in, is increasingly what we choose to make it (including the bioscape and atmosphere/climate).

The dilemmas predicted above already exist.

The big impediment right now to global action to limit emissions of CO2 is the same as the huge roadblock (rightly mentioned above) to coming up with some mutually-agreed upper limit on the global thermostat -- the variegated status and interests of different states worldwide.

Those with heaps of coal (led by the US and China) want to use it. Those with big vulnerabilities to climate or coastal risks, and little history of emitting (Maldives, e.g.), want the rich emitters to protect and compensate them, and limit the risk imposed by rising temperatures or seas.

In the meantime, the rich emitters have insulated themselves from risk with their wealth and technology (for decades to come, at least, according to IPCC AR4), as we reported last year in the "Climate Divide" series.

So, presuming one accepts the IPCC findings (which all the world's nations -- ostensibly at least -- say they do) we're already in the climate management (or conscious mismanagement) game.

Who gets to choose how fast to cut the 27-billion-tons-a-year-and-rising CO2 flow: Europe with its 2-degree-C threshold? China and the U.S. in their "You first" Alphonse & Gaston routine? Malawi?

For the moment, Alphonse & Gaston are winning, it seems. That's why a lot of scientists see the need for cobbling together a long-term insurance policy (or at least explore whether one is even available.)


Posted by: Andy Revkin on 14 Feb 08

Dear Alex,

As you know, I admire your forward-thinking positive approach and, like you, reject "woe is me, shame on you" rhetoric on climate and energy.

But there's a potential problem with the rejection of any work on climate engineering above.

We are already engineering the Earth at planet scale, and have been for a century or more. We just didn't fully realize it until the last decade or so, and still haven't really integrated the idea that Earth, from here on in, is increasingly what we choose to make it (including the bioscape and atmosphere/climate).

The dilemmas predicted above already exist.

The big impediment right now to global action to limit emissions of CO2 is the same as the huge roadblock (rightly mentioned above) to coming up with some mutually-agreed upper limit on the global thermostat -- the variegated status and interests of different states worldwide.

Those with heaps of coal (led by the US and China) want to use it. Those with big vulnerabilities to climate or coastal risks, and little history of emitting (Maldives, e.g.), want the rich emitters to protect and compensate them, and limit the risk imposed by rising temperatures or seas.

In the meantime, the rich emitters have insulated themselves from risk with their wealth and technology (for decades to come, at least, according to IPCC AR4), as we reported last year in the "Climate Divide" series.

So, presuming one accepts the IPCC findings (which all the world's nations -- ostensibly at least -- say they do) we're already in the climate management (or conscious mismanagement) game.

Who gets to choose how fast to cut the 27-billion-tons-a-year-and-rising CO2 flow: Europe with its 2-degree-C threshold? China and the U.S. in their "You first" Alphonse & Gaston routine? Malawi?

For the moment, Alphonse & Gaston are winning, it seems. That's why a lot of scientists see the need for cobbling together a long-term insurance policy (or at least explore whether one is even available.)


Posted by: Andy Revkin on 14 Feb 08

What counts as geo-engineering? Both reforestation and remediation of peat bogs (and possibly the creation of new ones) would operate precisely the same way as ocean seeding; so if it's off the table are they also off the table? What is it exactly that you're against, here? If it's the fact that we don't know what all the consequences of iron seeding would be, then obviously studying the issue is the way to settle that. However, you've revealed quite clearly in this post that in fact it's not really the consequences of geo-engineering that you're concerned about; it's the possibility that the attitude you perceive as being behind it will experience yet another triumph. As you put it: "This is the response you'd get if you took a bunch of 1950s scientists with slide rules and crew cuts, put them in a room, and showed them An Inconvenient Truth." But which is the more frightening prospect for you: that these (ridiculously cliched) technological fixers might fail; or that they might succeed?

The reason I ask this is that I have come to suspect a widespread motivation behind many in the green movements that actually has nothing to do with reducing our damage to the natural world, and everything to do with fighting a moral battle against our current, consumerist civilization. Such people are horrified at the possibility that there could be a technological "quick fix" to climate change, because it's not really the present mass extinction that they're worried about; it's the perceived decadence of current human civilization that they hate.

So, I think your arguments here need to be a bit more nuanced. I'd like to see a little less "slide rules and crew cuts" nerd-bashing, and a little more of an explanation of why it's preferable to keep the carbon that's already in the air where it is, rather than attempting to remove it.

Which brings us back to the question of how (properly studied and tested) ocean seeding is different from large-scale aforestation or digging new peat bogs. Nature is actually indifferent to the distinction between 'natural' and 'artificial.' That distinction is a human, and expressly political, distinction. It's as if you're saying that now that the carbon is in the air, it's part of "nature" and so shouldn't be touched. This is the old concept of original sin raising its ugly head again: if humans do it, it's bad; if nature does it, it's good.

I really hope that's not what you're saying here. 'Cause I like to think I'm on the side of biodiversity and rewilding and suchlike; and I doubt that the species at risk are going to care whether they survive because of natural climatic recovery processes, or whether it's because humans massively intervened. But it worries me that this is exactly what many people seem to be concerned about.


Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 14 Feb 08

Question: what is the difference between...

a) Fundementalist christians persuading the Bush administration to ban funding for stem cell research, and...

b) Environmentalists calling for bans on funding of iron fertilizaton research (or the equivalent...calling for an arbitrary ban on carbon credits, thus removing incentive to conduct research).

Answer: no difference. In both cases, the normal progress of science is being manipulated for purely ideological or political reasons, by people who afraid that a new scientific discovery will be a blow against their cause.

Is this right? Is this wrong? I suppose that depends on whether you believe that scientific discovery should be controlled by the political whims of of the moment.


Posted by: Steven Kerry on 14 Feb 08

Hi Alex,

Nice provocative post, as always. I have several comments.

First, our CO2 emissions are already geoengineering the planet. I call this 'unintentional geoengineering', and the magnitude of this is quite significant. There is growing geologic evidence that mass extinctions are associated with a rapid rise in atmospheric CO2 (e.g. the Permo-Triassic Boundary). It is disturbing to contemplate the ecologic conditions that might cause an extinction of over 90% of existing species. So any consideration of geoengineering must take into account the effects of "both kinds" (e.g. intentional and unintentional).

Second, only science can inform us of the effects of both intentional and unintentional geoengineering. Your suggestion that scientific research should be limited to only unintentional geoengineering seems like an arbitrary and unnecessary limitation.

Finally, by no means should geoengineering displace the necessity of reducing existing GHG emissions. Unfortunately the magnitude of the CO2 problem is so great, that we simply cannot afford to ignore any potential solutions. We need to research them all, and let science ultimately decide which solutions can be replicated safely on a large scale.

One nitpick is that your understanding of the consequences of ocean iron fertilization (OIF) is incorrect. OIF actually reduces surface ocean acidity through the action of the biological pump, which effectively shunts atmospheric CO2 into the deep ocean. This does increase the acidity of the deep ocean, but this increase is insignificant due to the size of the deep ocean carbon reservoir compared to all others (86% of all mobile carbon). The surface ocean is where acidity is the greatest problem, and OIF provides a positive benefit to this problem. The potential for other ecologic consequences, while not insignificant, is also not as dire as you describe.

Ocean Iron Fertilization is a natural process that has a substantial influence on the reduction of atmospheric CO2 during the Ice Ages. The recent paper in Science by Cassar et al makes a very strong statement to this effect, which says, "Our work shows that delivery of airborne Fe increases production of subantarctic waters, strengthening the link between enhanced Fe delivery and lower CO2 during the ice ages." Cassar et al also say that this enhanced natural iron delivery, "led to an atmospheric CO2 draw-down of up to 40 parts per million, accounting for nearly half the glacial lowering of atmospheric CO2." Doesn't this sound like a process that should be investigated further by science?

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/317/5841/1067

Kevin Whilden
Director Market Strategy
Climos


Posted by: Kevin Whilden on 14 Feb 08

I have to agree with some of the other commenters. Whether or not you agree with historians like Charles Mann about the extent of anthropogenic environments, it's difficult to argue that humans leave small footprints.

Just as distributed computing can harness the power of many small nodes to create a massive parallel system comparable to a supercomputer, clusters of repeated small actions have reshaped the planet on a huge scale, simply as a secondary effect of human existence! Humans, viewed from very far away, are just another force of nature, constantly eroding the landscape in some places while accreting new landscape in others.

It's possible that when comparing a massively parallel distributed geoengineering effort (i.e. personal choices to cut carbon or laws to increase MPG), versus a single large action (i.e. a big carbon vacuum cleaner), the outcomes could be indistinguishable from each other. It's not just possible but likely that both a massively parallel individual effort to combat climate change and a single large-scale action would have unforeseen consequences.

The question, for my part, is that if consuming a lot of oil is the action that causes carbon to increase in the atmosphere that causes abrupt climate change, then (a) is this a reversible action (e.g. it's difficult to uncook a hard-boiled egg), and (b) is simply stopping the consumption of petroleum a sufficient answer, or does reversibility require un-burning all the petroleum that's been burned so far?

Scientists seem to be pretty hard at work studying (a), but using FUD to try to disqualify research into option (b) smacks of stem cell hysteria.


Posted by: Neshura on 15 Feb 08

Thanks for all the interesting comments.

A few thoughts: there is a huge difference between the political contexts of stem cell research and geo-engineering. No one (as far as I know) is using the possibility of stem cell breakthroughs to attempt to undermine regulatory approaches to public health -- no one is saying "we might have breakthroughs here, so it's too early to put sin taxes on ciggies." The same is just not true in climate science, which is now, and for the foreseeable future, irrevocably politicized. There's no getting free of the political uses to which geoengineering research *has already been put*.

But of course the idea that science proceeds in a "natural" way if free from political interference is a deeply a-historical and inaccurate understanding. Science, like essentially every human endeavor, is always political to some degree.

Is geo-engineering a bad idea because it's unnatural? No. It's a bad idea because it's a bad idea. I do differentiate between geo-engineering and planetary management in my writing. We're doing the second already, there is no "natural" nature anywhere... and that still doesn't mean that single-approach massive-scale engineering projects that fail to take in the whole-system effects are wise.

People who read me regularly should know that I am far from anti-science or anti-technology. Indeed, I believe both are essential for the survival of civilization in this time of crisis.

But we are capable of managing the planet's carbon balance quite well through policy, innovation and enterprise -- and getting wealthier in the process. What impedes us is largely the political power of those who benefit from the status quo.

I think the debate about geo-engineering plays into their hands, while not providing us with any alternatives worth having.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Feb 08

Carbon emissions will continue to increase. Accept that, because there is nothing you can do to change it. No amount of talk of crisis, etc. will persuade China, India and their smaller developing cousins to reduce their present emission growth rates of roughly 6% annually. Nor will the developed world, whose emissions are nearly static, drastically reduce its. In each case the lifestyle costs would be large and the benefits remote.

So there are three possibilities:
1. Anthropogenic carbon emission is not a major cause of global warming. Possible, but not widely believed.
2. We'll adapt to a warmer climate. In the late Middle Ages this is called a Climatic Optimum. Cities naturally turn over their infrastructure on a time of 50--100 years, so the cost of moving inland (uphill) is not prohibitive compared to the ordinary costs of maintaining a living city.
3. We'll do something about carbon emission. Aside from nuclear power (doesn't help with transport, process heat and buildings) and hydropower (little growth potential), each of which have their own implacable enemies, nothing will be adopted on a large scale because all the utopian renewable schemes cost a lot more than $100 oil. So if you reject 1. you must consider geoengineering. Refusal to research it suggests that your goal is 2. We'll survive, so stop threatening us with doomsday.


Posted by: Jonathan Katz on 15 Feb 08

Ocean acidification is the result of the oceans absorbing CO2 unrelated to the presence of plankton which consumes the carbon...
By fixing the carbon in other forms the only effect plankton will have on ocean absorption rate is by lowering the concentration of CO2 in the water allowing slightly more CO2 to be taken up by the oceans. However this is via the mechanism of removing CO2 from the water, lowering CO2 concentrations lowers acidity..

Sorry, objections are moral, masquerading as other...


Posted by: Mike on 15 Feb 08

What are we talking about in practical terms, with geo-engineering schemes? Probably decades, hundreds of millions of dollars on R&D, uncertain side effects... that time, money, energy, political capital, innovation, etc. is all better spent doing any of the thousand little things we know we can do, with *existing* technology, if we would just do it. It's not anti-science, or a denial of our impact. It's a practical concern of where to put precious resources. We still have a long way to go with solar technology, water recycling is expensive, tax structures needs to be changed - very difficult, we need to phase out the internal combustion engine... and on and on.

Personally, I think all this geo-engineering talk is overly utopian, overly optimistic. We have a lot of hard work to do without hoping for miracles.


Posted by: justus on 15 Feb 08

"By fixing the carbon in other forms the only effect plankton will have on ocean absorption rate is by lowering the concentration of CO2 in the water allowing slightly more CO2 to be taken up by the oceans."

This is very explicitly NOT the conclusion reached by a number of marine scientists (unless they're being wildly misquoted), who say that the uptake of CO2 by means of ocean seeding will increase ocean acidity.

I find it interesting that the assumption on the part of several commenters is that if I opposed specific kinds of planetary management I must be some sort of anti-scientific kook with merely "moral" objections, rather than someone who's weighed the evidence and formed an opinion they don't like.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Feb 08

"nothing will be adopted on a large scale because all the utopian renewable schemes cost a lot more than $100 oil"

Actually, energy efficiency costs significantly less, and -- with level subsidies -- we're very close to competitive wind and solar in select spots. Slap a cap-and-dividend system on top of existing trends, and renewables out compete any day of the week.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 15 Feb 08

With the right subsidies they might out-compete, but then your grid is left without base power. Which is important. When you heat with electric and it goes to minus 40, it's veeery important to have a good base to keep things running on those dark, calm winter nights. (Maybe that's just a Canada thing, but I think the Russians can relate. Some days I can't say I'd mind a little global warming either! [kidding])
Question: What's wrong with a giant sunshade? Why do you call it a joke? Quite a bit easier than solar power satellites (now _that's_ how you do solar. Space is where they keep the Sun!)
Another Question: You have to admit, things with CO2 are going to get worse before they get better. Shouldn't we scrub the excess out of the atmosphere even once we do have a carbon neutral economy, for fear of tipping points? That sounds like a valid use for geoengineering. You've also yet to address valid question posed as why you think fertilizing algae is so much different and more insidious than planting trees and sequestering peat, also currently used as offsets.


Posted by: Tyler August on 16 Feb 08

Very good post, Alex.

Re: "Before we call out "to the lifeboats!" let's both try to stop the ship from sinking, and make sure that the lifeboats actually exist."

They DO exist already. They are called POLAR CITIES. But nobody will take the idea seriously yet, since it seems to be part of a huge scaremongering wave. But acutally, in fact, polar cities just MIGHT be the lifeboats humanity will need in the far distant future. Not a solutuon to global warming, for sure. Not even a remedy. But a possible ADAPTATION strategy that people should at least be discussing now, in quiet, gentle, humane terms. It doesn't have to be a '''Mad Max' Meets 'The Road''' scenario. These polar city "lifeboats" could be the places that James Lovelock envisioned when he spoke of "breeding pairs" in the Arctic regions in the distant future, as humankind's only way to continue the human species....


Posted by: Danny Bloom on 17 Feb 08

"I find it interesting that the assumption on the part of several commenters is that if I opposed specific kinds of planetary management I must be some sort of anti-scientific kook with merely "moral" objections, rather than someone who's weighed the evidence and formed an opinion they don't like."

Alex, we all like to put ideas (and people) into well defined, and incorrect boxes- and that very well might be part of the problem.

I tend to agree with you that massive geo-engineering solutions aimed at mitigating one aspect of a complex system likely solves one problem by creating another (usually unpredictable) problem. The scenario forecasters can only offer what we can understand using approximation methods, giving several 'options' all of which lead down almost-unknown paths.

But I have hope, not because of geo-engineering, but because a more complicated solution set also exists - one that depends less on a top-down approach and more on a diverse, distributed, and robust interface; our relationship to nature, our technology, and our relationships with each other.It is in these confines that media, politics,faith and philosophy influence how we think, govern, and create.

As Paul Hawken's "Blessed Unrest" begins to describe there is a ground swell, a 'movement', that can't be defined, or put into a neat (incorrect) box. I find it telling that the systems that survive in nature are those that adapt, and allow for increased connections and feedback with the rest of the world. Geo-engineering is less listening, and more telling the world what we want it do.

Geo-engineering solutions miss the point.


Posted by: Tim McGee on 18 Feb 08

There are some pretty sound claims that major changes in agriculture towards topsoil development would actually dramatically reduce atmospheric CO2. If folks are considering incredibly disruptive atmospheric interventions, how about just rebuilding the organic content of agricultural soils? We coudl achieve that through some pretty basic changes to the farm policy.


Posted by: Donald Jackson on 24 Feb 08



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