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How Do We Intelligently Discuss Politicized Geoengineering?
Alex Steffen, 10 Jun 08

Ever since I wrote about my support for a ban on geoengineering research, I've found myself more involved in a debate about geoengineering, climate science and politics than I anticipated being. Mostly this has meant a bunch of email -- some supportive, some outraged -- and more than a few calls from reporters working on geoengineering stories.

Now I find myself in a strange position, trying to find a useful stance in what has become an incredibly politicized debate. I'd be interested to hear readers' ideas about what a useful debate about geoengineering might look like, given the very real politics swirling around the subject.

Concerns about both politicization and unintended consequences lead me, earlier, to call for a ban on funding geoengineering research:

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.

So I'm already deeply, deeply skeptical of geoengineering, both on technical and political grounds: I think it's likely to fail if tried -- or succeed in disastrous ways -- and it's already being used as part of an argument against acting to prevent catastrophic climate change.

But we're entering a new, more dangerous moment in this debate: one where the U.S. conservative messaging machine is gearing up a three-pronged attack on the growing (but still fragile) consensus that the U.S. needs to lead on climate change.

The first part of that assault is an intensification in the on-going attack on scientists. The history here is long and clear.

The second part is a fear, uncertainty and doubt campaign scaring people about the costs of action and equating cap-and-trade systems and other greenhouse-gas reduction measures with socialism, if not outright communism:

For a century, an ambitious, arrogant, unscrupulous knowledge class — social planners, scientists, intellectuals, experts and their left-wing political allies — arrogated to themselves the right to rule either in the name of the oppressed working class (communism) or, in its more benign form, by virtue of their superior expertise in achieving the highest social progress by means of state planning (socialism)...

Just as the ash heap of history beckoned, the intellectual left was handed the ultimate salvation: environmentalism. Now the experts will regulate your life not in the name of the proletariat or Fabian socialism but — even better — in the name of Earth itself.

Or, as Jim Bunning (R-KY) simply puts it, "Cap and trade is the biggest threat to the US economy I’ve ever seen."

But the third attack is simply to question whether we need to do anything at all, since (the wingnuts claim) carbon sequestration and geoengineering are right around the corner. Geoengineering, especially, has become beloved of the far right:

By physically altering the planet on a global scale, geoengineering projects would theoretically offset warming caused by the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The concept was dismissed as fringe science when it was first introduced in the 1960s. Now, what once seemed like science fiction is not only being deemed feasible, but necessary, said experts at a panel convened here Tuesday by the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.

Of course, the prospect of geoengineering raises a host of objections. Take, for instance, Rutgers meteorologist Alan Robock's article in the latest issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea, in which he lays out a host of rational causes for deep concern about the very prospect of geoengineering, like ocean acidification, ozone depletion, human error, military uses and rapid warming if deployment stops. Says Robock:

I wouldn’t advocate actual small-scale stratospheric experiments unless comprehensive climate modeling results could first show that we could avoid at least all of the potential consequences we know about. Due to the inherent natural variability of the climate system, this task is not trivial.

This is a dangerous moment, one where words count, and geoengineering is being used to very direct (and dishonest) rhetorical purposes. In a very real way, discussions of geoengineering play into the political hands of those in the U.S. who would like to see climate change action blocked.

But at the same time, in order to have a worthwhile discussion about how to confront climate change and other planetary problems, we need to acknowledge both the full extent of human influence on the Earth and the need for intelligent planetary managemet.

To make matters worse, the American political debate is notoriously blind to nuance, so no discussion which is premised on numerous caveats and conditions will do: the boundaries of discussion need to fit in a 60-second soundbite at the very least.

So, how do we have a rational discussion about geoengineering and planetary management, which acknowledges the uses to which those who are unscrupulous on the issue may put that discussion, and yet leaves room for well-intentioned people to debate?

Perhaps that space doesn't exist. Perhaps the best we can do for now is simply say even discussing geoengineering is totally off the table until we get climate change policy and carbon pricing in place.

But maybe there's a clever solution here, a way to frame the debate that impedes nefarious manipulation but leaves open a space for honest discussion.


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I'm glad you're still thinking about this stuff, Alex, and you've partly answered your own question simply by providing this forum to discuss the issues.

In part, this is just another instance of the classic debate about the responsibility of science. People who politicize geoengineering studies could be seen to be making the mistake of conflating two very different things: learning about something; and doing something with what you've learned. There would be no need for a debate if we knew that nothing would be done without absolute certainty about outcomes. So my stance is pretty straightforward: there is nothing wrong with geoengineering studies--in fact, the more we know the better, and it's impossible to know ahead of time whether studies in that area might lead to crucial breakthroughs somewhere else. Knowledge by itself isn't going to hurt anything; it's the application of it that could hurt or help the world.

And here's where it's possible to become irresponsible. To decide that geoengineering will or won't be beneficial on the basis of your politics alone is irresponsible. That goes for anybody on either side of the debate. For me, an uninformed debate is the evil we need to avoid. If I were researching how to mitigate climate change, I would want to be able to ask any question--even questions like "what would the effect be of putting a giant sun-shield in orbit?" because everything I ask could teach me something new about the system I'm studying. Asking a question like that is entirely different from advocating that course of action. But poisonous politics thrives on ignorance, and the less we know about the effects of geoengineering, the easier it will be for it to become a panacea and political club to bludgeon us with. The less it's understood the more it can appear as whatever the bad guys want it to be.

So, for me, it seems clear that the ethical stance here is to fight those who advocate doing things without adequate knowledge of their effects. That same stance says that we should encourage learning about everything to do with climate by whatever nondestructive means we can--and that includes asking questions (and doing experiments) regarding actions or contingencies that may be highly politicized.

Posted by: Karl Schroeder on 7 Jun 08

It seems best to approach geo-engineering through pragmatism - especially since some (not all) of its advocates approach it blinkered by ideology. Will it work? Will it work better, faster, cheaper than alternatives? Is it a net social benefit? How are the costs and consequences allocated? What's the back-up plan?

I think there's a distinction to make between those advocating geo-engineering as insurance or as one wedge of many, versus those who advocate it as an excuse to do nothing substantive. The latter folks are best flushed out and dismissed by staying pragmatic.

Posted by: David Foley on 7 Jun 08


I guess I'm going to have to add my voice to the choir of the outraged. Just because knowledge can potentially be misused (either in rhetoric or reality) does not mean that it should be forbidden. In this particular case, I am offended on three distinctly different levels:

1.) Forbidding knowledge is evil. This is the game that climate denialists and anti-evolutionists and others of the flat-earth ilk have always tried to play. The moment we start playing this game as well, we lose any claim to integrity. I'm shocked that you would consider it.

2.) This would not be politically astute. I don't think I could say this any better than Karl already has: "To decide that geoengineering will or won't be beneficial on the basis of your politics alone is irresponsible." and "poisonous politics thrives on ignorance, and the less we know about the effects of geoengineering, the easier it will be for it to become a panacea and political club to bludgeon us with. The less it's understood the more it can appear as whatever the bad guys want it to be." Well spoken.

3.) Finally: I have met several well-regarded climate scientists who now believe that the "tipping point" is well below 450ppm, in which case there is simply no combination of conservation and clean energy generation that could conceivably be deployed in time to prevent us from crossing that threshold. They now view the development of large-scale and rapid sequestration technologies as absolutely critical, in a survival of the species sense -- although given the controversy surrounding geoengineering, they are hesitant to express this publicly. Consider what this means, however: if the methane clathrates in the North Sea decide to give it up in year 8 of your geoengineering moratorium, then your politically-driven maneuvering will have prevented us from stopping the biggest mass extinction event since the Permian. Do you really want that on your conscious?

I look forward to seeing this idea retracted.

Posted by: Nathan Koren on 7 Jun 08

Geo-engineering is unnecessary because permaculture can be used to solve the same problems with additional net benefits and zero risk.

Complexity theorists should be brought into the discussion to demonstrate the inherent uncertainties of geo-engineering. It's not that we just don't know enough about the global ecosystem to predict possible side effects--we can literally never ever know enough about the global ecosystem to predict possible side effects. It is an extremely interconnected non-linear system which, despite being deterministic, is beyond our ability to predict the results of a given change even if we knew the value of every single variable in the system at any given time.

It's the same reason we can't predict the weather with any real accuracy more than four or five days ahead.

Posted by: greensolutions on 8 Jun 08

Give more time, I'm convinced it's just the beginning.

Posted by: sikantis on 8 Jun 08

You might talk to George Lakoff, formerly with the Rockridge Institute. Being a neurolinguist, he is the ultimate wordsmith.

Posted by: Mary Robbins Jones on 9 Jun 08

copy editor: should be LED ME, above graf

''Concerns about both politicization and unintended consequences *lead* me, earlier, to call for a ban on funding geoengineering research......''

Posted by: allan smithee on 9 Jun 08

typo 2 alert:

nathan koren in post comment above really meant to type "DO YOU REALLY WANT THAT ON YOUR CONSCIENCE?" but out came ''CONCIOUS''. He didn't mean that of course.

Do you really want that on your conscious?
I look forward to seeing this idea retracted.
Posted by: Nathan Koren on June 7, 3008 4:32 PM

Posted by: allan smithee on 9 Jun 08

I believe we have already started efforts at geoengineering. This has been achieved by massive clearing of rainforests, black asphalt/bitumen roads, poor land use planning, etc.

I am reading through the Permaculture Designers Manual as a base to help me see patterns that might describe how our earth interacts with itself.

The manual explains that close to the coasts evaporation from the ocean make up the largest percentage of rainfall. As you head further inland the percentage of rainfall due to evaporation from bodies of water and transpiration from trees increases to 100 percent.

Living in Australia, we are continually being informed about the seriousness of the drought and how conditions will get worse in future years thanks to climate change.

I don't completely believe that perspective. The dominant pattern that I observe happening is that we have arrived at the end of the cushioning provided by the moisture reserves held in the soil. Massive deforestation made way for the giant industrial monocultures. With this buffering capacity gradually dissipated and not being maintained or restored, minor weather hiccups have become serious events

Posted by: Benjamin Taheny on 9 Jun 08

Aloha Alex - Geoengineering, in my opinion, is gaining momentum because the science is complicated enough to overwhelm a lay-audience, so that they accept a "marvels of future science" explanation. Honestly, a rigorous public debate on chaotic dynamics and dependent systems risk is unlikely to have broad appeal and affect public policy. The global warming debate is, in my opinion, struggling because the wingnuts are using the "complicated science" technique effectively.

Sustainable alternatives are misunderstood by Americans who have grown comfortable over the last 60 years with their suburban lifestyle. Playing up the complexities of lifestyle changes while simplifying the "silver bullet" of impending geoengineering is, frustratingly, a perfect recipe for maintaining the status quo.

A small community of sustainable engineers have started having success framing their engineering recommendations in terms that are simple, positive, and entirely financial. They skip over the computations and reduce the final recommendation down to the decision that achieves the best return on investment over the project lifespan. Sometimes we do a lot of extra work to overcome short-term financial obstacles. The motivation of those who invest according to these recommendations, though, is simple. We do the financial work for them, reduce the discussion to basic financial terms, and assure that the bottom-line decision is also a sustainable one.

We do this for wastewater treatment plants and distributed power generation systems, pretty small-scale stuff. Is this technique applicable to policy debates on a national or global scale? Probably, but it would take a lot of smart people to figure out how.

Air emissions and carbon trading both were decried as the "greatest threat to the American economy and way-of-life" blah blah blah, and ended up being a tremendous opportunity for the types of people that we Americans admire: clever, innovative, and hardworking. The solutions to anti-sustainable lifestyle problems are going to be developed, and we would be well served to guide those solutions using performance standards ($) close to the hearts of a lay audience.

The wingnuts, frustratingly, know this and seem to be winning the public debate by manipulating the science and, falsely, playing up the cost of change. Technical debate has been made ineffective, and the "moral imperative" argument alienates hardworking families struggling to adjust to the US's post-industrial economy.

We would be well served to focus the public debate on the opportunities inherent in a sustainable changes. Just the opportunity not to pay $4/gal for gas seems like a winning position. We need to lead, and to lead the people must be interested in following. I suggest that we recognize our lay-audience's interest in grocery and heating bills and focus the debate on the favorable economics of sustainable living.

Posted by: Doug Schwarm on 9 Jun 08

Mr. Steffen: I emailed the folks at the Rockridge Institute, specifically Joe Brewer, and they would be delighted to be involved in this discussion. You should go to , Go to the bottom and click on Joe's email and get in touch with him. He can put you in touch with other cognitive linguists that would like to help. Good Luck. I will be looking forward to seeing how this develops.

Posted by: Robbins Jones on 9 Jun 08

Oh and here is the body of the email I received from Joe. It may give you a starting place to begin your conversation.:

Hello Mary,

I'm afraid that it will be difficult to connect with George Lakoff now as he is off on a tour for his new book throughout most of the summer. I would be happy to speak with Alex about geoengineering, especially with regards to the broad cultural understandings (or, more accurately, misconceptions) about what science is, what is natural, and how to assess the moral dimensions of new technologies. The frames shaping the discourse - especially in the layperson views that exist across much of society - are many and complex.

Another former Rockridge colleague, Evan Frisch, and I looking for ways to put our expertise to use for the environmental community. We are seeking to develop what we call "environmental cognitive policies" informed by the behavioral and cognitive sciences. I think that UCS will be interested in this enterprise and may want to participate in its development and implementation.

Please consider putting us in contact with an appropriate person about this work.

Thank you,

Joe Brewer

Posted by: Robbins Jones on 9 Jun 08

The most intelligent comment I've seen wrt the viability of a geoengineering project was the test proposed by Jamais Cascio: is it reversible?

A possible framework for discussing geo-engineering: We're in a skid now. Most skids lead to crashes when the driver over-corrects. How to avoid this?

While I'm at it, there's something else that's long overdue for a re-framing: conservatives aren't. Maybe the modern variety should be renamed 'selfservatives'?

Speaking of Lakoff. There was an interesting (and not very complimentary) review of his new book made by Owen Flanagan in New Scientist a week or so ago. I think the review itself is a good example of framing and distraction.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 9 Jun 08

13 National Academies have released a document today calling for rapid action on climate change, including mitigation and adaptation. (covered in Andy Revkin's NYT blog)

The document also calls for more research into Geoengineering and large scale reforestation.

Posted by: Dan Whaley on 10 Jun 08

We suddenly find ourselves in a spaceship, built by aliens, hurtling through space towards an unknown destination. We have no blueprints. If we meddle with anything, we have no way of knowing whether we've just started a sequence that will destroy the ship's life support systems, or whether we're monkeying with a food heater in the alien analogue of a crew lounge (zilch over-all effects if we break it).

We need the blueprints. Don't do anything irreversible until we get the blueprints.

Posted by: Zora on 11 Jun 08

This is an excellent issue you raise, and the comments here so far seem to approach it with seriousness and insight. I agree with those who oppose the research moratorium for the reasons they've cited.

I'm an academic, a philosopher actually, just about to begin deciding on a dissertation topic, and this could be potentially fruitful. My general area of interest is summed up nicely by a quotation from the Rockridge letter a commenter includes above: questions concerning "what science is, what is natural, and how to assess the moral dimensions of new technologies".

I've been focusing more recently on the question of human enhancement--something which could undoubtedly result in profound changes to our way of life, and an issue that is finally beginning to appear on the public radar. However, as applies to the Singularitarians you criticize in another post (and human enhancement tends to be one of the causes they champion), all these optimizations and improvements to human ability would be worthless in an uninhabitable environment.

I have been a proponent of geoengineering in the past because I think we're beyond the point of no return (for conventional methods), but it concerns me that the right has taken up this issue. What I'd like to see is a multi-pronged strategy, and a concerted international effort to do everything we can to stabilize the environment. The possibility of geoengineering should not be used as an argument against current policies to promote conservation and efficient use of resources.

I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that no research should ever be forbidden--some types of military research, for instance, ought not to be conducted (which is not to say that the advances leading up to them with wide arrays of potential applications both good and bad, say atomic physics prior to the Manhattan project, should be avoided).

Nevertheless, in this case a ban is probably counterproductive. What if we find a reversible and relatively safe way to change the environment that could be potentially fruitful? If we have no alternatives, we should still try something, rather than let a hostile climate destroy civilization.

Posted by: Dom E. on 11 Jun 08

this is a very simple picture, for me.

if you compare the tragedy of cyclone nargis to the drama of hurricane katrina, there are so many things that make those two storms comparable. and there is one very powerful thing that separates them:


if you don't prepare, if you don't do the nuts-and-bolts basics to reduce the danger of the emergency, and the costs and risks associated with both the emergency and any rescue operation, any relief operation, you are simply overwhelmed.

eliminating our greenhouse gas pollution is the easiest, cheapest, and most effective way we know of averting severe climate shifts. it is the only action we can say with any certainty has a chance of bringing our home back to health. and, maybe most importantly, it's the only way we know to slow and shrink the worst case scenarios so that we might have a chance to change them, with emergency measures.

and maybe it's strange to say that high-tech triple pane windows and solar thermal power and bamboo hybrid bicycles are our magic bullet difference-makers in trying to keep on the katrina side of the worst case scenario -- but those are the kinds of things we can do to soften the blow -- those are the appropriate measures to reducing the risk.

and it's lucky for us that they're also a path to prosperity and fairness in a much more resource-constrained world. it's lucky for us that our fire extinguisher can lift us up. it means we don't have to get down in the bunker. we can work to reduce the danger and improve our lives in one step.

and having done that, more drastic schemes stay within the realm of possibility, should the situation get ahead of our best efforts. the costs, the risks, the effectiveness -- we can debate them, compare them, model them, test them -- but unless we keep the planet out of a tailspin -- they won't mean a thing.

now, in terms of sort of casually engineering the planet, other than planting trees and fixing soil and water systems, there's another link between burma and new orleans to consider.

in both places, the natural landscape barrier -- the river delta and its plant life -- was damaged, by human hands, for our purposes -- and both storms sped across that damaged ground -- with killing force.

i cannot say strongly enough how risky it is for us to put more stress on nature, by tinkering on a planetary scale. we would have no idea how big a can of worms we might be opening or what new weaknesses, new vulnerabilities, we might be creating for ourselves.

truly, i think, from every angle, we are best served now by treading lightly. if we want the planet to heal, we should give it comfort and aid. not new problems.

Posted by: hapa on 12 Jun 08

Alex, with all those wingnuts you're citing, you are clearly calling for a ban on AMERICAN geo-engineering.

That might be a great idea -- but that doesn't mean everybody on the planet oughta be lobotomized just because the American Enterprise Institute rules K Street (for the moment).

Posted by: Bruce Sterling on 13 Jun 08

I know of no realistic person who thinks carbon dioxide emissions are going to do anything but grow. Most European countries are not meeting their emissions goals, and of the ones that have, it's because their economies are collapsing. In the United States, this notion that we're going to reduce our emissions by 80 percent is pure fantasy. --Pete Geddes, Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, 2 April 2008

"I'm going to tell you something I probably shouldn't: we may not be able to stop global warming. We need to begin curbing global greenhouse emissions right now, but more than a decade after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, the world has utterly failed to do so. Unless the geopolitics of global warming change soon, the Hail Mary pass of geoengineering might become our best shot." --Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine, 17 March 2008.

There is a very inexpensive simple way to immediately cool the Earth: just put a small amount of aerosol into the air to dim the sun. We won't be able to stop rapid ecosystem collapse without geoengineering.

The Greens' resistance to geo-engineering sits very uncomfortably with its message that the planet is screwed and we're all going to die. It suggests that Environmentalism has less to do with saving the planet than it does with reining in human aspirations. It suggests that they don't actually believe their own press releases, and that they know the situation is not as dire as they would like the rest of us to think it is. And that Environmentalists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces - "we'll save the planet our way or not at all." It suggests that Environmentalists regard science and engineering as the cause of problems, and not the solution. --Climate Resistance, 24 March 2008

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 17 Jun 08



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