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Should we geoengineer the planet?

Can we just engineer our way out of climate change? Maybe artificially create more clouds to reflect solar radiation away from the Earth's surface? Or perhaps spray sulfur particles into the atmosphere to achieve the same effect?

Ideas such as these, collectively referred to as geoengineering, are becoming more fashionable to debate in policy circles, even though they suffer from association with skeptics of mainstream climate science. This is partly because the world's major economies, particularly the United States, have not gotten serious about cutting their carbon emissions, so we have to consider other ways to deal with a warming world. It's also hard to dismiss the idea that geoengineering may be a rational piece of a larger climate-change program, one that simultaneously mitigates the causes and effects of the phenomenon.

But it's almost certainly not a complete solution, as Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) -- yes, he's a Republican from South Carolina -- pointed out to The Post's Juliet Eilperin, in a quote that deserves amplification:

[Inglis] said he worries about what it means to try to change the climate, even on a small scale.

"Once you've done an experiment, you've done it, and you've got to hope for the best. That's generally not the way you want to do scientific research," Inglis said, adding that the world might be better off just cutting greenhouse emissions outright. "Investing in research is like investing in better brake linings, when taking your foot off the accelerator would do just as well."

That's not a bad analogy. And, to extend it, if you continue to press down on the gas pedal, even better brake linings eventually fail. At some point, you probably have to address the cause of the problem -- the man-made carbon emissions that modern economies pump into the atmosphere -- not just the effects, including higher temperatures and ocean acidification. The latter may be too difficult to engineer our way out of, anyway.

My guess is that geoengineering -- if it worked -- would buy us more time to reduce our carbon dependence, since it might allow people to tolerate higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But successful geoeningeering might also encourage industrialized nations to continue to underwhelm on climate policy, because they would be protected from the consequences of their carbon emissions for longer. The prospect of the first is too attractive to ignore. So let's study geoengineering.

But it's unwise to presume quite yet that fixing climate change is going to be as easy -- or as cheap -- as seeding clouds.

By Stephen Stromberg  | October 4, 2010; 12:03 PM ET
Categories:  Stromberg  | Tags:  Stephen Stromberg  
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Comments

The easist solution is to reconize it for the farce that it is and move on.

Posted by: Pilot1 | October 4, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

it is a tenant of taoism that the more you do, the more you have to do. do nothing, and then everything is done. Look at the mess DC made with social engineering. Leaving the American people alone would have been a vastly superior choice for our government but hey, where's the power in that?

Now we're talking about massively fooling with the world's climate to offset some "change" that daily looks more and more like a hoax.

Pilot1 has it right: recognize this entire issue for the power grab based on a hoax that it is and move on.

Posted by: skipsailing28 | October 4, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

Why dont you just have algore stop flying around in his private jet and sell his mega mansions. That should help.

Posted by: j751 | October 4, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

"But it's unwise to presume quite yet that fixing climate change is going to be as easy..."

Or that it's even necessary. We're still not convinced that WE are the ones changing the climate in the long term. We KNOW that the climate of the Earth varies dramatically over the millennia. Ever heard of the ice age? Indeed, one could say that the very concept of civilization arose because of the warming and drying of the Sahara region that lead inhabitants to congregate around the Nile River and take up farming, and from there, civilization. I don't recall reading about factories and coal fired power plants and gas guzzling SUVs existing for hunter gatherers 5,000 years ago. Do you? Maybe I have an outdated history book that hasn't yet been "revised".

Posted by: traderdad37 | October 4, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Seem to have the usual anti-science types attacking the theory of global warming rather than the author's point.

For those who don't like numbers, let me try percentages: Roughly 96% of the true experts in this area (climatologists) believe in human-influenced global warming.

If you really believe that you are more intelligent and informed than these thousands of scientists, then go ahead and make fools of yourselves.

Posted by: dougd1 | October 4, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Ocean acidification is an issue rarely addressed in the geoengineering solutions.

Posted by: BeamMeUpScotty1 | October 4, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

The easiest solution is to end all subsidies and tax exemptions for carbon-producing oil and coal.

But that would actually work, since it involved the invisible hand of the market, a capitalist solution, and thus will never be supported by the anti-Capitalist anti-American comrades of the GOP or their fellow travelers in Red China.

Posted by: WillSeattle | October 4, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Pilot1: Geoengineering is real and testable. We've been doing uncontrolled geoengineering for millennia sometimes with disastrous local effects. Now we have demonstrable climate change and are faced with some choices.

Scotty - ocean acidification was one of the first applications of geo that I read about some 20 yrs ago.

If we go down this path (intentional geoengineering aiming for specific results) then we need to test on Venus first to guard against unintended consequences.

Posted by: kirtu | October 4, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

Whether the planet is warming is irrelevant to the need to get off fossil fuels.

The economic, geopolitical and environmental benefits will kick in even without a CO2 benefit. Less pollution, less military deployments, energy dollars stay at home.

- Balkingpoints / www

Posted by: RField7 | October 4, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

The author's comment about 'fixing climate change is going to be as easy -- or as cheap -- as seeding clouds' suffers from the same arithmetical deficiency as the alternative energy types promoting windmills and solar electricity. The entire alternative energy contribution world wide is something close to one percent, and the CAGW folks think the producers of the other 99% are quaking in their boots and massively financing the people they call deniers. The alternative energy movement is just huge sinkhole down which money taken from honest working people is being wasted.

Seeding clouds would require massive amounts of energy and money in order to make any difference. Those who stand to collect public subsidies will be highly in favor of more research and, of course, more public money. If enough taxpayers figure out where that public money is coming from and just how worthless the expenditure is, the geoengineering will be finished.

Posted by: AGWsceptic99 | October 4, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Astounding that there are still so many individuals who deny Human Caused Global Warming. Same level ignorance as the large number who can't grasp or believe in the FACT of evolution.

The REALLY sad aspect is the inability of so many people (including leaders; example, Vatican) to understand that the BASIC cause of Pollution/Global Warming/Deforestation/Immigration Problems/Shortage of Energy Sources, etc. is SIMPLY the EXPONENTIAL GROWTH OF THE HUMAN POPULATION . . . "THE POPULATION BOMB".

Thanks to human ignorance arrogance,and Dark Ages Religious Dogma, there is NO peaceful escape from the already evident destructive consequences of THIS BOMB.

Erlich tried to warn us decades ago.

Posted by: lufrank1 | October 4, 2010 3:23 PM | Report abuse


We need good science, VERY good science, to tackle the real problems behind climate change. Geoengineering MAY have a legitimate role (although I doubt it given the unintended consequences that are sure to follow).

We NEED to vacate the carbon economy, the sooner the better. Only the truly ignorant seriously believe that petrochemical abuse has not contributed substantially to climate change. Although there may be no way to vacate the carbon economy promptly, that must be a principal goal.

Every other option must be on the table – but with an eye to unintended consequences. The war on climate change (yes, it is a war, and yes, wars kill, including this one) will kill us and numerous other species on earth unless we conduct it wisely. We must not permit the cure to be worse than the disease.

Why we have this war is rather easy to discern: We over-consume natural resources and have taken little stewardship responsibility for the only life support system we will ever have. And if we continue, there WILL be no tomorrow.

Nothing less than a paradigm shift in the way we think, speak and live will protect us from our own self-extinction. We are the source of our own problems. We are responsible for solving them. And geoengineering sounds like yet another cop out to me.

Posted by: bloommarko4 | October 4, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse


Our situation must get dire before we attempt a solution that is so fraught with the potential for unintended consequences.

Posted by: edbyronadams | October 4, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Climate change may certainly be influenced by human consumption of fossil fuels. It is also true that our planet's climates are cyclical and influenced by orbit, solar flares and the planet's tip. Climates have never been static. While it is smart conservation to reduce fossil fuel consumption, it is smart science to develop strategies to make preparations for the inevitable, dramatic adjustments humans will be facing in the next century.

Posted by: yankeei | October 4, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

In as much as we need to engineer an oceanic wall to prevent ships from sailing off the edge of the earth, so to should we pursue engineering solutions to reduce carbon emissions in the name of stopping global warming.

Most people can easily see the folly in building an oceanic fence to keep ships from sailing off the edge of the earth...the earth is ROUND, not flat.

Few however can see the great glaring flaw in arguments centered on countering global warming by engineering. The central premise that atmospheric increases in CO2 on the order of 10-100PPM will result in catostrophic global warming is FALSE.

150 million years ago our planet had 1000-2000PPM, and we were in a global glacial period with temperatures 1C less than present day. Contrast this with the 380PPM today, and it becomes obvious that a few hundred PPM not only were present naturally in the past, but had no significant effect on global temperature.

Ice core data shows temperature peaks 800years BEFORE CO2 does, implying temperature releases CO2 from the oceans, rather than increasing CO2 causing temperature rise.

The politics on this issue is clearer than the science. We have left leaning eco types getting funding year after year to find out that yes, global warming is scary, and yes, they need more money to study it. This is clearly a conflict of interest. The Climategate scandal in which ICU scientists deliberately hid the decline in temperatures from tree ring data shows a willful and deliberate attempt to fudge the data to fit their politics of anti-industrialization. When you see hockey stick diagrams in Scientfic American that deliberately chop out the well documented medieval warming period, it is obvious we have a bit of scientific corruption in the name of foisting off this theory as valid.

The scarier the global warming alarmists make this threat out to be to the vast multitudes of scientifically illiterate believers who support their political posturing, the more money they get for climate change research, and the more money they earn off of their green energy startups.

The most appalling ad campaign now in the UK (youtube "under pressure" to view this piece of garbage) has global warming alarmists blowing up human beings into bloody pulps for disagreeing with their action plan. This ad is symbolic of what is rotten about the entire global warming nonsense...skeptics are being attacked brutally and personally, yet none of their well founded objections addressed through actual scientific refute.

The more you guys bandwagon on supporting global warming action agendas without actually understanding the science, the more harm you do. Please educate yourself before you mindlessly condone action in the name of alarmism. There are better ways to demonstrate your liberal bona fides than to lend your support to scientific malpractice.

Posted by: Wiggan | October 4, 2010 4:34 PM | Report abuse

skipsailing28 @ October 4, 2010 12:48 PM wrote "it is a tenant of taoism that the more you do, the more you have to do. do nothing, and then everything is done."

There is much merit to this. SO, how does skipsailing28 propose that we go about eliminating the internal combustion engine? That after all is the best way of doing nothing.

Posted by: AMviennaVA | October 4, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

"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: dobermantmacleod | October 4, 2010 4:46 PM | Report abuse

We simply don't know enough to go fooling around with our environment on such a massive scale. We will screw it up. There are so many variables that an effort made to cool the planet could have the opposite effect. It might be better for us to adapt than trying to adapt our environment. Take a look at the histor of Yellowstone National Park. We tried to "manage" nature and ended up making things worse.

Posted by: phntsm | October 4, 2010 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Make more clouds? Why? As temperature increases, so does humidity from evaporation from oceans etc. This results in more cloud cover, which cools the earth. Nature already knows how to do it. We don't need to interfere>

Posted by: rhjames | October 4, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

It's interesting to hear some (relative) common sense coming from a Republican congressman, for a change. Oops, I almost forgot, he's one of those Republicans that got knocked off in the primary for not being conservative enough. Bye, bye, common sense.

Posted by: bigfish2 | October 4, 2010 8:26 PM | Report abuse

Looking at the reduction in ice sheets (also reduces krill which everything eats), burning rainforests for agribusiness, the ever expanding human carbon footprint, we must lead the world in a better way. First thing is replacing all our fossil fuel electrical production with nuclear. With small reactorless plants that can generate electricity from fuel rods even out of the way places can use nuclear. Nuclear plants are a perfect place to distill water and run a charge through it to produce hydrogen. With enough nuclear power we can change our motor fleets to electric/hydrogen. The development of a working commercial fusion plant is the best solution but probably decades away. Tree planting worldwide should be brought up at the U.N. to set some balance in the other direction.

Posted by: jameschirico | October 4, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

Since clerical philosphers, allegedly of high intelligence, exerted great mental efforts wondering how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, I doubt if a more useless or ignorant question than this one on geoengineering has been asked by people with IQ's above 8

Posted by: jimhill1 | October 5, 2010 1:18 AM | Report abuse

The idea of geo-engineering is something that we lack the technical skills to pull off. By the time we could acheive such a feat, it will already be too late.

I am constantly amazed when I read that there are still people who believe the concept of global warming is a hoax, having been hatched by environmental wackos to take control of everything.

Let's think over this idea for a moment: chemical reactivity. The Earth is a body that contains various elements and compounds, and the sum of those make up the air, oceans, continents and all forms of life, including the dumb ones.

In chemistry, it is possible to measure the reactions that occur when one element is mixed with another, and what resulting compound is going to be created. It's properties can be measured as well.

As we pour millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air EVERY DAY worldwide, we are slowly by steadily creating a new air mixture, changing the chemical makeup of our atmosphere in a radical way. In fact, its probably the most radical change in the atmosphere in millions of years.

This is basic chemistry. The more CO2 we add, the more heat we are going to trap. The more heat we trap, the hotter it will get. Hoping the problem will go away isn't going to cut it. You can pray to whoever you like, but you'll be disappointed in the morning as well.

Natural forces cannot be bought like Congressmen. As we change their characteristics, they will change their behavior, and do so without regard to the destruction it will cause, the death toll that will result, or with any concern whether you believe in what is happening or not.

And, it is happening. It's simple chemistry.

Posted by: bryangalt1 | October 5, 2010 5:06 AM | Report abuse

Am I the only one who finds it PECULIAR, that, in all of these comments, you don't find any mention of the SUN. I see S-U-V, but I don't see S-U-N.
Call me old fashion, but when I went to school, they taught us that the SUN made us warm. And that's not all. You may not believe this, but the SUN isn't always the same temperature. Sometimes it's really active - Middle Age Warm Period - and sometimes it's not that active - Little Ice Age. GREENLAND, was once aptly named. It wasn't some drunk trying to be a smart*ss. It was GREEN.
And all this talk about Sea Levels, and Melting Ice. BOO! I'm thinking about all those places in History, that are UNDERWATER now. And HAVE BEEN, for centuries. Archaeologists believe that they've found Cleopatra's' Tomb, UNDERWATER, at Alexandria, I believe. Parts of GREECE. Parts of JAPAN.
Climate Change? Yeah? So what? Every Scientist knows the old Maxim. Even this little weasel - Stromberg - must know this one.
"The only constant in the Universe is CHANGE."
This is all about the Benjamins. Don't EVER forget that. Just ask AL GORE. I hear he's made almost a BILLION $'s off of the SUCKERS. He's got a BIG HOUSE BY THE WATER. He's got BIG CARS. He flies around in BIG JETS, and eats BIG MEALS, and is Laughing all the way to the Bank, where he's got a BIG BALANCE.
You people couldn't be STUPIDER if you tried.

Posted by: GoomyGommy | October 5, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

..."The idea of geo-engineering is something that we lack the technical skills to pull off. By the time we could acheive such a feat, it will already be too late."

..."We simply don't know enough to go fooling around with our environment on such a massive scale. We will screw it up. There are so many variables that an effort made to cool the planet could have the opposite effect."

..."Our situation must get dire before we attempt a solution that is so fraught with the potential for unintended consequences."


See the three clips from previous comments above - these writers each make a great point about the complexity of global systems and the risk of unintended consequences if geoengineering tactics are deployed.

However, each of these commenters then proceed to argue that global warming is, IN FACT, caused by fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions.

Given that it's the same complex global climate system that can't be geoengineered without unintended consequences, isn't there some possiblity that critical interactions in the system are not understood and that the observed warming is infuenced by factors that could dwarf the impact of CO2 from combustion?

My point is not that we should ignore evidence that the climate is changing, but leaping to solutions like "the answer is to cease all carbon based fuel usage" has significant potential consequences - to climate (probably positive) and also social (some positive, many negative) which will be very difficult to predict.

It appears to me that we're all guilty of trying to oversimplify this challenging problem Polarizing into "believer" and "skeptic" camps and shouting insults at each other is not going to advance the ball...

Posted by: jeffb7753 | October 5, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Journalists commonly do a public disservice by discussing varieties of geoengineering that merely counteract some effects of fossil fuel-derived CO2, rather than removing it from the atmosphere -- SACTCAR varieties, as I like to call them. ("Swallow A Cat ...")

The alternatives are BTRO solutions such as burying biochar, which IMO has the difficulty that the persons burying it could make more money by burning it, and the pulverization and dispersal of outcroppings of the Earth's mantle.

The mantle-outcropping one works. It's already working on a small scale -- but this small scale is enormously larger than any existing end-of-pipe CCS demos -- as a side effect of some mining operations. The CO2 becomes stable rock or marine solution, and does not have to be buried.

Scaled up to be the main effect, it would cost about one-eighth as much energy to pull CO2 down as the coal-burning that, years earlier, yielded that CO2 produced.

(How fire can be domesticated)

Posted by: GRLCowan | October 5, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

"The easiest solution is to end all subsidies and tax exemptions for carbon-producing oil and coal --"

Those subsidies and tax breaks are small compared to the revenues from special consumption taxes on oil and natural gas. As we get off fossil fuels, governments -- at least at first -- get poorer. That's the nub of the problem, I think. It is why governments acknowledge an antinuclear climate of public opinion that doesn't exist, and extravagantly fund renewable energies that they believe are no threat to their oil and gas income.

People who like their government cheques commonly don't seem to understand that they, collectively, are "the fossil fuel interests". But they understand that more oil money for their paymaster is always better.

We need people on government paycheques to think of something other than themselves, and recommend fossil fuel tax reductions, or revenue dividends, as in Dr. Hansen's plan.

Posted by: GRLCowan | October 5, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

Scientists not only polluted the planet with their chemicals they developed, they produced cruise missiles, toxic chemicals, land mine technology, nuclear weapons, germ warfare, strip mining technology, deep sea drilling technology and now climate change. Consensus is an empty word because climate change isn’t observable by us because it’s a prediction, not a visible war we all would have been suffering together with, after 24 years of predictions. So when this prediction can't be proved or disproved, saying just about anything is a free pass. Climatologists are to science what alter boy abusing priests are to the Catholic church. Voters have the real consensus. Not these a s s kissing mainscream media lab coat consultants they called saintly “scientists”. History will not be kind to this shamefully wasteful era of CO2 environMENTALism. What about population control instead?

Posted by: paulmerrifield | October 5, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

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