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Don't Wait for the Lifeboat: A Response to Geoengineering
Alex Steffen, 17 Apr 09

Imagine finding yourself aboard a burning ocean liner. An increasing number of people are trying to put it out -- and they stand a good chance, if they can get access to the fire axes and hoses. Unfortunately, some rich old fat guys are sitting in deck chairs blocking the equipment, enjoying drinks and appetizers, and every time the other passengers try to get them to move, the rich old fat guys say they don't really believe in the fire, and even if it does exist, it probably can't be put out so we should just trust in the new lifeboat being built. And, sure enough, there on the deck is a guy is a brilliant, somewhat unworldly professor, busily sketching a design for a new lifeboat as the smoke billows in larger and larger clouds.

That's a pretty fair analogy for the situation in which we find ourselves, and for the role geoengineering is playing in the climate debate.

There is no reasonable basis to doubt that climate change is an extremely pressing problem. We can observe its impacts everywhere on the planet. In our ship analogy, the fire is quite real.

Luckily, this is a fire we know how to fight. We know now that we here in the developed world need to cut emissions dramatically and immediately: probably something on the order of 90 percent over the next 20-30 years. We know we can do this, mostly at a profit, and in ways that not only avert disaster but improve the quality of our lives. We know how to build bright green compact cities. We know how to redesign our buildings, transportation systems, infrastructure and factories to slash energy demand (again, usually at a profit). We have a good idea what climate-friendly farming and forestry would look like. We even have pretty clear paths ahead of us toward running our economy entirely on clean energy.

We can do all this, and not only cut the major sources of current emissions, but also provide a model of prosperity that the developing world can use to rise out of poverty without following in our climate-disruptive footprints, thus avoiding future emissions. All of this is within our power now. To return to the analogy, we know where the fire axes and hoses are.

The only reason we aren't already on track towards climate neutrality is that the burning of fossil fuels is extremely profitable, and the coal, oil and gas industries have used their power to completely distort the political debate. Their lackeys -- climate "skeptics," lobbyists, conservative talk radio hosts -- have used every possible strategy to slow progress away from fossil fuels by convincing Americans that climate change isn't a scientific certainty, that it won't be that bad, and that, anyways, cutting greenhouse gas emissions will destroy our economy. The fat guys in the deck chairs are full of bunkum, of course.

The professor on the deck is not. He is earnestly trying to figure out a lifeboat design, just as some scientists are eagerly trying imagine what megascale geoengineering projects might save our planet from runaway climate change. There's nothing wrong with that.

What's wrong is that we have no real reason to believe that he can, in fact, build a working lifeboat from scratch in time -- or that we can, in fact, intervene in the planet's climate on a vast scale without disastrous consequences -- yet right now, those benefiting from inaction are already using the idea of possible lifeboats as an argument against fighting the fire, so to speak, with the idea being that since cutting emissions is "unrealistic" it's good we have a back-up strategy.

This is not good science, and it's not good science policy. At very least, serious proponents of geoengineering need to acknowledge the severe limitations on our actual knowledge of geoengineering, and point out that emissions reductions are a far more certain and safe approach.

The professors should continue sketching lifeboats, by all means, but they should also tell the fat guys to get out of the way and stop misrepresenting their work.

This piece was written in response to a query from SEED Magazine titled, "Will the Future Be Geo-Engineered?

Front page photo credit: flickr/FrodoBabbs, Creative Commons license.

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I understand your concern about geoengineering, the risks are enormous and as I hear, we only have one Earth.

However, you don't seem to have a fact base to support your statement that geoengineering can't work (or work in time). I personally don't think it's the best choice although that's based more on my personal risk assessment than the science per se. However, a couple of simple data points seem to indicate that cost-effective solutions to cool the Earth could be put in place very quickly.

The data I've seen on CFC's in the atmosphere indicate that a very low concentration of reflective material in the atmosphere has a significant impact. I've read of designs that could put (less hazardous) materials in the atmosphere very cheaply.

Should we be concerned? Heck yes, because this makes it easier to think we can avoid cutting back our profligate use of energy. But I'm even more concerned at our ability to control human behavior - whether in the rich markets or the emerging markets.

Good luck to us all...

Posted by: Steve on 17 Apr 09

I applaud Obama's administration for speaking up on this issue, and we all should.

As technologies become more efficient, they will be used more. There is a lot of talk about fuel efficient combustion engines, unfortunately the Efficiency Paradox makes it a certainty that fossil fuels will actually be consumed at a higher rate than ever before. That is what happened when James Watt made coal power more efficient... it was used at and exponentially higher rate.

This summer Tata Motors is releasing a tiny new Nano car in India that will get great mileage and will be selling for peanuts. That should scare the shit out of us.

No amount of global coordination will curb the developing world's use of fossil fuel. The consumption of meat and animal products are actually the biggest cause of climate change, and the developing world's meat consumption is soaring like never before.

We should do all we can to work towards clean energy, electric cars, and cultured meat; however, geo-engineering is something which can be implemented at a moments notice, whereas it may take decades for things like Kyoto and personal responsibility to create broad shifts in our fundamental infrastructure and lifestyle. Unfortunately, if predictions are right, we may not have enough decades.

We ought to be thoroughly investigating the risks and benefits of a variety of methods. Some we should be implementing immediately, such as Cool Roofs, Green Roofs, carbon-capturing cement, and terra preta. Others methods, such as cloud seeding, carbon sequestration, ocean fertilization, GMO carbon eating trees, GMO carbon-eating bacteria, and nanotech will require more research.

Clearly intellectual property is a huge barrier to all of this innovation, and all of this work should be conducted out in the open in the commons. Biotech especially holds great promise, but as long as it remains proprietary the danger outweighs the benefit.

Posted by: Edward on 17 Apr 09

I tend to agree with what Steve has to say in his response to this article that the geo-engineering could work, however I also agree with Edward in that we don't exactly have the luxury of time. The rate of global warming is only being accelerated by our actions, and emerging market or ancient industrial superpower it matters not, all are contributing to the problem. I feel that whereas geo-engineering can work, Edward has a good point in that this should be conducted under public scrutiny.

If new technologies were developed under public knowledge, the oppurtunity to screw up would be less likely (or so one would hope) and the consequences for screwing up would be greatly increased.

The point being there are no simple solutions, other than what we're currently doing isn't helping. This climate crisis is as much a learning and growing oppurtunity as any ever known. Change for the better needs to be a global community effort.

Posted by: Owen on 17 Apr 09

I have been thinking about this: it may be geo-engineering that causes us to get our act together. Fact: global warming is happening. Hanson says 350ppm is the maximum we can tolerate without substantial changes to the biosphere, and we are at 385 and climbing. The IPCC says we are already off the far end of their last estimates. Climate modelers think we will get to 500ppm! Even if we were to stop emissions today the ppm would climb.

Nothing will get done politically due to the competing "viewpoints" and the "risks to our economies". Check the papers, it is not just the USA saying these things.

Where does that leave us? Things have to get bad, really bad before we act. I wish that weren't true. When it does get bad we will consider geo-engineering, but it will take international cooperation to agree to it. That is when we will have the will to also limit emissions.

When will this happen? "Climate is an angry beast" Wally Broecker. _With Speed and Violence_ by Pearce.
My guess: somewhere in the next 5-10 years. Climate is not linear.

What should we all do? Plan our own adaptations. Permaculture, regional resilience, change our housing and energy flows, expect severe change.

Curt (

Posted by: Curt McNamara on 17 Apr 09

Nice analogy! But if the professor really was so brilliant, wouldn't he just find an incentive to get the fat guys out of their chairs (look - there's a whale)

Posted by: doyay on 18 Apr 09


The real bunkum here is your personal ignorance of the current debate around geoengineering. Have you not read any of the recent articles, such as the Foreign Affairs article or the just-released American Meteorological Society statement? There is *nobody* who is saying that geoengineering could even begin to replace the need to reduce GHG emissions. If you have evidence otherwise, please post it!

I'll tell you this... if emissions reductions alone were enough to prevent catastrophic climate change, then very few scientists would be arguing for geoengieering research in parallel of with emissions cuts. However, it's clear that emissions reductions alone, even 100% of emissions were cut tomorrow, will not be enough to prevent amplifying emission feedbacks such as Arctic methane release and ocean circulation changes.

Please stop smoking your bunkum and try reading a serious article on geoengineering that has been published within the last year. You keep posting the same tired non-factual arguments over and over again without any recognition of the serious debating that has happened on this issue in the past year.


Posted by: Cynodont on 18 Apr 09

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Steve, you say "However, you don't seem to have a fact base to support your statement that geoengineering can't work (or work in time)... a couple of simple data points seem to indicate that cost-effective solutions to cool the Earth could be put in place very quickly."

The problem is that the systems about which we're talking are anything but simple, and second-order effects can be at least as important as the direct primary effects here.

The burden of proof is on the proponents to show that it can be done, can be done safely, and can be done at a reasonable cost at scale in time to make a difference.

Until we have that proof, we ethically need to assume the negative, and follow the clear path to low-carbon prosperity that we can already see in front of us, with quite known costs and benefits.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 19 Apr 09


Well, the geoengineering can replace emissions cut argument was made fairly directly by Bush Administration officials, and has since been repeated numerous times in the right wing think tank crowd.

We can disagree about whether or not megascale geoengineering is needed or would work as desired, but there's no argument about how it's being used today politically, which is to attempt to undermine the urgency of emissions reductions negotiations.

More here:

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 19 Apr 09

Thanks for clarifying that you are using a "straw man" approach and basing your arguments on the antiquated Bush Administration policies on climate change. However, you frame your argument as if it is relevant to the issues of today. Obama's Administration is a quantum leap compared to Bush when it comes to developing effective policies to respond to climate change.

Is there any reason why you are "still stuck in 2008" in your writing on this subject? You might want to read up on the latest nuances of the debate:


Posted by: Cynodont on 19 Apr 09

Geo-engineering is a scary term because because it often focuses on single variable in reductionist and non-holistic ways. This might be corrected if the the grand schemers were to demonstrate how they are going to preserve natural ecosystem services such as those provided by remnant standing forests.

The problem with mega projects is that they include the possibility of mega mistakes. So what do we do? And where do we find the guidance to act wisely?

I would turn to Aldo Leopold famously said, "The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save the parts" and "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Posted by: Lou Gold on 20 Apr 09

Mankind is already geoengineering by accident! Mankind's short-term sun dimming pollution is cooling down the Earth 1 to 2 degrees C! Dr James Lovelocks says we are living in a "fool's climate" because we would already be baking if it wasn't for our accidental sun dimming pollution.

There is a simple and cheap way to immediately cool down the Earth: just add a little (more) sun dimming aerosol to the upper atmosphere. If you don't like the results, just stop, and the the aerosol will leave the air in a couple of years. The aerosol can even be engineered to not destroy the ozone layer, cause acid rain, and would be about ten times more effective than the sun dimming aerosol volcanoes put into the air (that we know works to cool the Earth).

"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

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

Posted by: Brad Arnold on 20 Apr 09

"Climate Resistance"?? You must be joking.

Posted by: ppp on 20 Apr 09

I'm with Alex on this one. To me, the logic behind geo-engineering is the same logic that got us into the ecological crisis and the same logic that got us into the financial crisis: over-leveraged bets on the future. Do the research, look into these climate adaptation/reversal ideas at the margin-- but with a humble respect for the complexity of the natural world. The real issue is a crisis within ourselves and our ability to live together on a full planet. I increasingly think there's a moral core to the sustainability challenge, and technology will only take us so far. We've gotta learn to live within our means today, rather than hope we'll have a bigger wallet tomorrow. I think confronting the hard questions-- rethinking the economy and inspiring cultural change-- is the way forward.

Posted by: Scott G on 20 Apr 09

Alex... just wondered if my comment of yesterday met with your approval here....

Posted by: Dan Whaley on 22 Apr 09

Dan Whaley has a comment which I'm posting for him. He makes points worth response, which I'll try to get to tomorrow (when, by the way, I'm also posting another geoengineering piece). But here's his comment:

---begin Dan Whaley---

[Full disclosure, I am the CEO of a company involved in supporting the inquiry into geoengineering techniques].

I excerpt here a post I made in the geoengineering forum at

in a discussion on Peter Read's recent UK Guardian article. You'll need to read the whole thread... I only include my response.

The relevance here is that much of Alex's post is based on an assumption that a) we're not doing all we can do and/or that b) we have the time to figure it out.

I agree on the first point.

-- beginning of excerpt

"What if we did begin to really "get" the urgency of AGW? If we made it not a 5% of GNP priority, but a 10 or 15% priority of GNP priority? I think people forget the complete mobilization scenario that society is capable of, where factories are simply shifted over enew kinds of production perhaps by decree, etc. (yes, many are more specialized today... but certainly, if we say, this is planet earth's #1 priority, I think we would surprise ourselves.)

I think part of the objection to geoengineering is that we're not seeing the "scared" response to AGW yet. And if we're not scared yet, should we really be looking at "work-arounds"?

So, the date of 2035 as Peter suggests accepts the argument of some (most notably Alex Steffen in his recent 'lifeboat' article ) that we're not doing all that we could today, not really taking it seriously. Alex proposed 90% in the next 20-30 years. Peter's 0% by 2035 is essentially the same thing.

By accepting that argument, you clear the overgrowth away from the unstated assumption that underpins most of the opposition arguments to exploring our geoengineering options. i.e. that emissions reductions will get us there--- that 2C is "safe". (even though 2C is essentially off the table and we're already seeing troubling signs now--at .8C--even though we likely have 50-1000 years of warming built in w/ emissions the way they are now)

At the same time you communicate to others quietly reading / observing from the sidelines that "we proponents" of research into geoengineering do not intend it as a "distraction"-- far from it-- rather that we actually suggest much more aggressive emissions cuts in combination with it.

Another example is this piece in the Huffington Post piece that came out yesterday...

Johann says "Yet if we don't slash emissions now, in just a few decades' time we will be inescapably smacking into these geo-engineering choices."

Where on earth are thinking individuals getting this idea that we have 20 years to get our act together?

-- end of excerpt.

Alex, you never responded to the criticism above from Cynodont that you mostly cite the Bush Administration's attempt to influence the IPCC report, but don't really reflect the current political reality.

I would also draw attention to your inclusion of the AEI geoengineering summit as (the single?) example of "right wing think tanks" entering the scene and theoretically influencing the political dialogue / urgency around emissions reduction as a result. Can I recommend you read the LA Times article op-ed by Sam Thernstrom (the organizer of the summit from AEI)? It was written directly after the event.,0,5199358.story

I'll quote the key passage:
"Critics worry that geo-engineering could be used as an excuse to continue unchecked emissions forever... This concern is badly misplaced. Geo-engineering is a remarkable idea with tremendous potential, but it is neither a permanent nor a perfect solution to warming. There are risks to and, more important, limitations on what it can do. Even among its most enthusiastic advocates, no one calls for a policy of "geo-engineering forever, emissions reductions never."

Does this sound like the same right wing think tank that you argue is trying to "undermine the urgency of emissions reductions negotiations."? Sure, we need to keep an eye on AEI, but I think you also have to react to what they actually say and not what you expect them to say.

Do you have any more recent examples where people are using a geoengineering argument to avoid action, or suggest that things are not that urgent? Well, OK, I'll give you one... here! :

Disappointing take-away isn't it? Expect more of these. But is this a reason why serious scientists shouldn't still get involved in understanding what our options are? To argue that we cannot explore any options to reduce atmospheric carbon or potentially deflect solar radiation is to argue that we cannot pursue aggressive policy and mitigation at the same time. I think this an extraordinary statement. You offer it as a given, but can you provide support? I also suggest that it somewhat naively ignores that this is the world we live in--like your fleeting argument last year that we shouldn't even allow discussion of geoengineering. Multiple discussions, multiple points of view exist. We operate within this reality, not outside of it.

I would support the earlier remark that you do not seem to be arguing from an up-to-date point of view, either in terms of our understanding of the threat of climate change, or in terms of how the dialoge around geoengineering has advanced. You don't mention John Holdren's recent comments that we can't "afford to take anything off the table", etc. You don't refer to the Royal Society study underway, the draft American Meteorological Society statement (available from their home page) or other relevant credible sources saying that we need to at least look in this direction, and understand it better.

For example? How about the Foreign Affairs article that argues for a thoughtful approach, and suggests an effort to understand the risks associated with the field very like Paul Berg's Asilomar conference in 1975.

I look forward to your response.

Dan Whaley
CEO, Climos

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 26 Apr 09

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