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Geoengineering, Caldeira and Politics
Alex Steffen, 24 Nov 08

So, my earlier review of Worldwatch's State of the World 2009 report, particularly my comments on the geoengineering chapter ("The editors include a lame chapter on geoengineering that largely ignores the politics of the geoengineering debate and concludes 'geoengineering schemes have the potential to make things better, but they could also make things worse.' For such an important and charged debate, milquetoast equivocation is not a helpful contribution to the discussion.") drew some fire from Ken Caldeira himself on some geoengineering lists, on which he helpfully cc'd us.

It's worth parsing the key points:

From: Ken Caldeira Date: Thu, Nov 20, 2008 at 9:08 PM Subject: Re: [geo] Worldwatch Book a Little Light on the Geo, Says Alex To: ---
...With several paragraphs discussing what I would consider to be "the politics of the geoengineering debate", it is hard for me to understand the first part of this comment. (see attachment). I happen to believe the latter part of this statement is a statement that can be justified by our current understanding of the facts.
I am sure the writer would not have been satisfied with a hearty endorsement of climate engineering, thus only taking the so-called ethical, principled, high ground (let the ice caps melt, let's lose arctic ecosystems and arctic summertime sea ice, and bring on the greenhouse gas emissions from melting permafrost because climate engineering is intrinsically evil) would have been enough to avoid this writer's wrath.
Climate engineering schemes appear to have the potential reduce climate risk, but that cannot be asserted with certainty given the poorly understood complex web of Earth system feedbacks and socio-political ramifications. For those who live in a black and white world, everything is simple and all is known without doubt.

A few very quick notes in response:

1) The politics question is not incidental to the geoengineering debate, and I still think that Caldeira (who has made valuable contributions to the climate change debate as a whole over a number of years) handled it not at all as well as he might have.

I personally remain unconvinced that any large-scale geoengineering scheme I've yet seen looks anything like a good idea. Clearly, all honest participants in this debate admit large degrees of uncertainty on the science involved, but in large measure, the varying assessments of geoengineering megaprojects potential and safety are sort of besides the point. Geoengineering is, above all else, in practical terms a political, not a scientific, question.

It is a political question first because any geoengineering scheme will immediately hit the tar pits of global politics: Who gets to decide what approaches and to what degrees? Whose scientific assumptions do we use? Who monitors the companies doing the geoengineering, and under what laws? How do we deal with the inevitable issues of corruption and transparency? If looked at with any honesty, the international politics of geoengineering make the politics of climate treaties look easy.

But geoengineering has already been politicized in a far more dangerous way: as cover for inaction on climate change. There's a reason why geoengineering has become a beloved idea of the far right: it makes it seem like more years wasted on debate about the reality of climate change and in inaction are okay, because we have a fall back option. That's why the UK refuses to fund research into geoengineering proposals, because (in the words of climate minister Joan Ruddock) these ideas are being used "as a means of doing nothing, of being able to say, 'science will provide, there will be a way out.'"

We may or may not have a fall-back option of geoengineering (I believe at best we have the possibility of a set of desperate-measures options that may or may not work, and may even make the problem much, much worse), but talking like we do is unquestionably giving ammunition to those who want to see us do nothing. When people who support the coal industry think your climate change idea is cool, you need to check yourself.

Caldeira himself seems to see this when he writes in his State of the World article that "Some commentators deny the reality of human-caused greenhouse warming but think it worth developing climate engineering systems as an insurance policy -- just in case events prove them wrong. Others accept human-induced climate change but think reducing emissions will be either too costly or too difficult to achieve, so they favor climate engineering as an alternative approach." But he then shies away from the real political question involved here, which is whether the support being given geoengineering by people with these views (including some extremely powerful political interests, like some of the largest corporations and wealthiest families on Earth) is not skewing the debate in negative ways, saying merely that some people "fear" that talk of geoengineering may "reduce the amount of effort placed on emissions reductions," when that is quite clearly exactly the intended effect on the part of some participants in the debate.

2) The one point about which most reasonable and well-intentioned observers appear to agree is that slashing climate emissions as deeply as possible is a needed first step no matter what our stances towards later geoengineering projects.

Yet note how in his email Caldeira posits exactly three plausible positions: equivocation (might work, might not), a "hearty endorsement" of climate engineering, or do nothing ("let the ice caps melt"). Conspicuously absent is the best idea, which is rapid progress towards the elimination of climate change gasses (followed in the future by a reduction of the concentration of those gasses in the atmosphere through safe and tested means).

Without demands for bold climate action before consideration of geoengineering, geoengineering support (again) seems to be being put forward as an alternative to climate action, which again, is a pretty questionable stance. I suspect Caldeira supports strong action and geoengineering research, but it'd have been nice to hear him say so unequivocally in the Worldwatch article.

3) The standard response of geoengineering advocates to challenge has become pretty clear: accuse the challengers of intellectual rigidity and closed-mindedness ("those who live in a black and white world"). It is entirely consonant with an open-minded approach to the science and policy of climate change to note that some ideas about whose validity smart people can disagree (in this case, the potential possible utility of geoengineering megaprojects) are being used politically as cover for other ideas in the wider debate that completely lack validity (in this case, inaction on climate emissions cuts), and to demand that the advocates of the first set of ideas take responsibility for their impact in the larger debate.

Taking that political responsibility is what I would have hoped to see in a Worldwatch publication.

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Alex, it's worth pointing out that IPCC FAQ for 2007 notes that "complete elimination of CO2 emissions is estimated to lead to a slow decrease in atmospheric CO2 of about 40 ppm over the 21st century" ( In other words, with the stiffest reductions imaginable, we only achieve 350 ppm in 92 years or so. And in the meantime, we lose the aerosols right away, which again according to IPCC science counterbalance much of the radiative forcing of CO2 and other GHGs (

These predictions are just that, but it's clear that there's a huge time lag between emissions reductions and a decline in atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and a decline in radiative forcing.

This time lag is not well understood by those who think emissions reductions are the best or most urgent solution, and that time lag is one of the reasons why sulfate particles are being proposed.

If we stop the bad stuff (fossil fuel emissions and deforestation), or don't do the bad stuff (geoengineering), we're still toast.

The perhaps unwelcome reality is that climate change is neither a technological problem, such as energy supply or technology, or an environmental problem that involves stopping the bad stuff. It is a carbon cycle problem, and the carbon cycle is a biological network, running on photosynthetic energy, consisting of zillions of self-motivated creatures, most of them microscopic, who can neither be controlled or replaced by technology.

Emissions reductions are urgent, but until there is more support for more broadly effective strategies (such as building soil organic matter through transformation of the Farm Bill), these reductions alone will be a cavalry charge into the barbed wire.

Posted by: Peter Donovan on 24 Nov 08


Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

You say "Emissions reductions are urgent, but until there is more support for more broadly effective strategies (such as building soil organic matter through transformation of the Farm Bill), these reductions alone will be a cavalry charge into the barbed wire."

and I to some extent agree.

But I don't think that a) we know that there really are any worthwhile tools in the geoengineering toolbox, b) discussing geoengineering approaches as if they were confirmed working options helps build the support we need on other fronts.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 24 Nov 08

Recommended reading: Kim Stanley Robinson's global warming trilogy (40 Signs of Rain). I recommend it not because any of his ideas are practical, but because it gives you a sense of what would need to happen. Reforestation and watering the deserts on a global scale are geo-engineering. Global dimming is another option, repugnant but may be needed for a few decades as the world transitions.

This is the hugest crisis humanity has ever faced: we need all hands on deck, and all options being explored and tested in parallel. The reason: climate change is not slow and linear, but "an angry beast" as Broecker says. Read _With Speed and Violence_ by Pearce for a nice summary of the research.

Curt (

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 25 Nov 08

Alex, I'm probing here because I want to understand how you and others understand these things. Rayner and Prins point out in their fine paper The Wrong Trousers that climate change is a wicked problem, where one's framing, understanding, or definition of the problem is joined at the hip to favored solutions.

My perception is that the environmental community, by and large, is wedded to an understanding of the climate problem that privileges emissions reductions over other options, despite the likelihood that stiff emissions reductions would result in accelerated heating due to immediate loss of aerosols and very little near-term effect on atmospheric CO2, as per the IPCC material quoted earlier.

Are there "worthwhile" tools in the emissions-reduction toolbox? How do we know, what's the test or tests?

As Curt implies above we are already engaged in geoengineering, but perhaps without the intentions or the philosophical tinges that may seem so important. We have long been producing aerosols and particulates, but presumably without the intention of providing a climate cooling or global dimming effect. Human-caused changes in the operation of the carbon cycle are resulting in large changes in albedo or reflectivity, for example with the loss of Arctic ice.

Perhaps our intentions, as good environmentalists perhaps, may be insufficient to imagine or recognize the scope of the climate problem, or to act effectively.

Posted by: Peter Donovan on 25 Nov 08

Your comments are reasonable in the paradigm that reducing human CO2 emissions alone would be enough to stop catastrophic climate change. However, this paradigm is very likely not correct. A more likely paradigm is that we are beyond a climate tipping point, and mere emissions reductions will not be enough. Where then does geoengineering stand? It is likely the only way that we can prevent runaway climate change.

However, it is interesting to note that Caldeira, the Royal Society, and other scientists argue that we need geoeningeering *research* now, to determine whether and how it could be implemented safely and effectively. The state of science models shows that sulfate aerosols and ocean iron fertilization have potential to be effective and safer than the alternative of doing nothing.

What matters is that the Arctic ice cap is melting exponentially faster today, thanks to the ice-albedo feedback effect. When the ice cap is gone, the Arctic permafrost will also melt rapidly and completely, which will release approximately 1000 GtC of frozen organic carbon (see Zimov, Science 2006). Convert this to CO2-equivalent, and the Arctic will release roughly 50 times the *historical* total of human CO2 emissions (1,800 GtCO2e - see Canadell et al, PNAS 2007). I find this number staggering, and mind numbing. Even worse, according to Zimov, 100% of the permafrost carbon is converted to methane within 100yrs of thaw. Note, this permafrost carbon reservoir is in addition to the frozen methane clathrates in the Arctic ocean seabed, to which we have no reliable estimate of the size other than it is probably comparably large.

If the Arctic sea ice melts, we have a one-way trip to runaway global warming that exceeds human-caused warming by a staggering amount. It seems likely that the only way we could save the sea ice is to geoengineer the Arctic with sulfate aerosols. Who cares what the coal industry says? Geoengineering is necessary whether we like it or not. We had better figure out how to do it right, and stop arguing against it. Let the scientists do their research, and let the policy makers figure out the extraordinary difficult political issues.

Posted by: Dicynodont on 30 Nov 08

@Dicynodont: we disagree, but your points are well-made.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, all.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 30 Nov 08

Hi Alex,
Would you mind clarifying why you disagree?

Do you disagree on whether the melting arctic sea ice would trigger runaway GHG emissions?

Or do you disagree that geoengineering is the only way to save the Arctic sea ice from melting?

Or do you disagree with my argument that science trumps politics, because soon biogeochemical feedbacks will make human GHG emissions seem like childs play?

Thanks for the clarification. This is really an interesting debate.

Posted by: Dicynodont on 1 Dec 08

I disagree with your whole frame, D.

I think I made my points pretty clearly.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 1 Dec 08

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