The Pros and Cons of Geoengineering
An example of natural geoengineering, volcanic eruptions emit sulfur dioxide, which can cause cooler temperatures. (US Geological Survey)
In a bid to avoid some of the worst effects of climate change some scientists are advocating possible strategies to artificially alter the climate. But critics warn of unforeseen and dangerous consequences of any atmosphere altering intervention. David Keith from Harvard University and Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University in Australia debate the case for each side with host Steve Curwood.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Since we started farming in the Fertile Crescent over 10,000 years ago, human activities have been altering the climate. But since we started burning vast quantities of fossil fuels about 200 years ago, emissions of CO2 in Earth's atmosphere have soared to levels not known in more than a million years, and heated the planet to levels not seen since civilization emerged. So scientists have started to contemplate the once unthinkable and impossible to find a way to take carbon out of the atmosphere, and cool the planet. And there are ways we might possibly do that.
WOMAN 1: We could plant billions of trees.
MAN: We could use chemical sponges to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, then bury them.
WOMAN 2: Or we could block some of the sun's heat from the earth with a cloud of droplets of sulfur dioxide.
CURWOOD: Well, some scientists argue that last solution - a solar shield - is the most plausible. They point to the effects of eruptions from volcanoes like Mount Pinatubo for evidence that it works. We've invited into our studio two highly regarded experts with decidedly different views to debate the issue. In what we might call the blue corner is David Keith, who divides his time between Harvard University, and a Carbon Engineering company in Calgary, and is author of a recently published book, A Case for Climate Engineering. David Keith, welcome to Living on Earth.
KEITH: Thanks a lot. Great to be here.
CURWOOD: And over in the red corner, we have Clive Hamilton. He’s a Professor of Ethics at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the Charles Sturt University in Canberra, Australia. And his recent book is called Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering.
CURWOOD: Professor, welcome to you.
HAMILTON: It’s good to be here.
CURWOOD: So gentlemen, let’s agree at the very beginning that your views aren’t entirely opposite. In fact, both of you say any attempt at geoengineering would be very serious, even potentially a hazardous step to take, but why do we need to do this? David Keith, sum up for us basically this case for geoengineering.
KEITH: The simple case for taking seriously the idea that we might find technological ways to increase the reflectivity of the Earth, say by putting a kind of pollutant sulfuric acid in the upper atmosphere to reflect away a little sunlight and cool the planet, The significant case for doing that is it appears on technical grounds that it could, in a temporary and imperfect way, substantially reduce the risks for carbon in the atmosphere. It’s one of the few ways we know to materially reduce the risks over, say, the next half century, risks that will fall most on people who are relatively poor and vulnerable living in the hottest parts of the world and also risks to the natural world that is seeing unprecedented levels of climate change.
CURWOOD: Sounds all very reasonable, Clive Hamilton. What’s the problem?
HAMILTON: Well, when we think about it a bit more, the proposal is to coat the Earth with a layer of tiny sulfate particles, to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches planet Earth. First of all, we’re not actually tackling the problem of climate change, we’re just suppressing one of its symptoms, that is, the warming of the globe, but the other impacts of climate change will continue, for example, and in particular, the continued acidification of the oceans. And one of the biggest problems with this solar shield would be we can’t test it, we can’t do it in a small way to see if it would work in a big way. In order to see if it would actually work in the way anticipated as in David’s book, we would actually have to implement it...install the solar shield, surround the Earth with a layer of sulfate and aerosols, and then sit back and monitor the climate and hope that it worked. But we know the climate system’s incredibly complex. There would be surprises, some of them probably nasty, so that we could actually make the situation worse.
CURWOOD: But what about the fundamental concept here that he’s put forward that, hey, we should be looking at engineering solutions that would ameliorate the effects of climate disruption.
HAMILTON: Well, I think geoengineering is a way of trying to get around a social and political problem with some kind of techno fix. And we’re talking about taking control of the climate system of planet Earth and regulating it to suit our needs. If political leaders believe that they have a technogical solution that will obviate the need to take on big fossil fuel corporations, then they will use it as a substitute for doing what they should be doing, that is, cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If we think about what it means to try and essentially install a thermostat in the climate system it raises the fundamental question of who is going to have their hand on the global thermostat.
KEITH: I think one thing that Clive does, and did here, is attempt to say that people advocating research in this technology like me are doing it as a way to avoid the social change we need. And to put it simply, it’s nonsense. So there are a lot of reasons why this might be wrong, why my advocacy of this might be dangerous, and I lie awake worried about them and did long before Clive first thought of it.
So the idea that there’s a kind of moral hazard, that this might allow fossil fuel interests to avoid regulation, I believe I’m the one who used that term “moral hazard” in this debate 15 years ago. So I’m hardly unaware of it, but the idea that I and other people working on this somehow think that this can only be done by technology and that we can avoid a social solution is at least in my case, utter nonsense. I’ve just come close to losing my job in Calgary because of clear advocacy that we need social change to eliminate carbon emissions. I think it’s kind of a cheap shot.
I think Clive needs to take seriously the fact that most of the people working on this actually are very serious about the social changes needed, and we may still be wrong to advocate it, but Clive needs to take us on on the reasons we’re wrong, not on a kind of ad hominem attack that we really just like techno fixes and want to as he said in his book “mollify the owners of the fossil fuel infrastructure”. That’s nonsense.
HAMILTON: But I haven’t claimed that at all.
KEITH: Uh, well actually, I’m reading a quote.
HAMILTON: No. I haven’t said that at all. Some of the scientists advocating geoengineering, in fact, most of them, I think, are motivated by the best of concerns, that is they’re deeply concerned about the damage of climate change on people and the natural environment and they’re looking for a solution.
I’m not worried so much about the scientists that are doing work on geoengineering, I’m worried about the political and corporate actors who are drawn to geoengineering as a response to climate change. And so already we see companies like Exxon and Conoco-Phillips and Shell dipping their toes in their water. We see conservative think tanks in Washington saying “Ah-ha! Here’s the answer to climate change. We don’t need to reduce carbon emissions. We can instead deploy these geoengineering solutions.” So it’s not the motive or the work of these scientists in geoengineering that’s the problem. It’s the people who will take it on as a political solution to climate change.
KEITH: On that score I think the key issue is thinking creatively about how to manage the problem. So specific things like ensuring funding is public, like banning patenting in this area. Like finding specific ways to prevent the kind of technological lock-in, institutional lock-in that will advocate for this solution even if it turns out to be a bad one.
CURWOOD: David Keith, just for the record, um, what funding do you get from the fossil fuel industry?
KEITH: From the fossil fuel industry, zero research funding. For a company that I run called Carbonation Ring, that’s attempting to use methods of getting CO2 out of the atmosphere to develop low carbon fuels, we have some funding from people that are tightly allied to the fossil industry, one of them a guy called Murray Edwards.
CURWOOD: Clive Hamilton, for the record, funding from fossil fuel folks or...
HAMILTON: No. No. No.
CURWOOD: ...well financed opponents of fossil fuels?
HAMILTON: No. I get paid from my university and royalties from the book if it sells.
CURWOOD: David Keith says that your attacks on his position are, well, ad hominem. They’re personal. They ignore the nuance that he has in his book that he’s calling for research on this, that we should understand what the options might possibly be, but to ignore it at this point would be perhaps to do something at our peril.
HAMILTON: Well, firstly, David has gone beyond just calling for research into sulfate aerosol spraying. His latest book says in fact we should pursue a research program, but if the research supports geoengineering’s early promise, then he would choose gradual deployment of the sulfate aerosol spraying. So the worst I would accuse David of is naiviety in thinking that scientists can go ahead with their research program and somehow, now or down the track, quarantine their research from the kind of political use that would be made of the technology should it prove to live up to what he calls its promise.
Because it won’t be David or his fellow scientific researchers who implement, who deploy this solar shield around the Earth, it will be one or more governments. I mean, for example, China is now starting to include geoengineering in its Earth Science research priorities. Russia, in particular, pushed strongly for a strong pro-geoengineering statement in the last IPCC report. So there are lots of political players coming into this domain, and it means these scientists, and most of them including David have perfectly good motives in pursuing this, but it’s naive to think that they’re engaged in pure research which can then be assessed and not be taken up by political actors with sometimes quite inappropriate and even dangerous motivations.
KEITH: It would be completely naive, it would be idiotic to say that. Which is why I and many people have spent a lot of time thinking explicitly about all the ways this research could be used in horrible ways. So going back to the first thing I wrote in the early ’90s, we talked about ways it could be used for war, we talked about ways it could be used to defend interests, I’m actutely and painfully aware of the fact that these are hard political decisions and that the interests of the environmental community who developed them will not be the ones that make the decision.
So I think let’s go beyond this kind of “do we know that or not” and talk constructively about how we deal with that head on, and to be absolutely clear, this in no way is an excuse for cutting emissions. In the long run, emissions stay in the atmosphere for millenia, and if you don’t bring emissions to zero, you will have a climate radically different from today’s. But the fact that geoengineering can reduce the risk in an imperfect way is not argument in itself for ignoring the possibility of reducing that risk.
CURWOOD: So, in other words, you’re not saying to do this instead of reducing emissions, but to do this with the reduction of emissions.
KEITH: Of course, and I’m not just saying it; I’ve invested far more of my personal time in lobbying to cut emissions, and taking personal risks to try and see emission cuts than I have for lobbying for stuff related to geoengineering. But the fact that there’s a trade-off here is not an argument for not using a potentially risk-reducing technology. So if you introduce anti-AIDS drugs, some people will go ahead and have more risky sex, but it would be perverse in the extreme to argue that is a reason not to introduce such drugs.
CURWOOD: David Keith, right now, what would you recommend the United States do in this area of looking at geoengineering? Suppose we weren’t simply talking on the radio program Living on Earth, but we were at the White House. You have the President’s ear and you have just a moment to explain why and how we should do this. What would you say?
KEITH: Have a modest and decentralized research program, and so I would advocate a research program that was very careful to be public, to push out private interests, and be careful the research program spent most of its money actually funding work to find out how it wouldn’t work, and only a small amount trying to develop ways it would work, and I wouldn’t have that in a single institution because government institutions just like private industry suffer from institutional lock-in, and so I would attempt to have a dispersed program, with pros and antis separated.
CURWOOD: Clive Hamilton, how does that sound to you?
HAMILTON: Well, one of the fascinating things about this push for research into geoengineering, particularly, sulfate aerosol spraying, is that we’ve seen a number of conservative think tanks in Washington like the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute, which for years have been denying that climate change exists, have now come out in favor of sulfate aerosol spraying. So, you know, this sounds weird, how can they advocate a solution to a problem they’ve been saying doesn’t exist? And you can see why. Actually their arguments are not about the science, but about ideology. So, whereas climate change represents a drastic failure of the free enterprise system, geoengineering could turn that into a triumph of human ingenuity. Instead of climate change calling on us to be more humble about our relationship to the natural world, geoengineering, the techno fix to beat all techno fixes, promises greater mastery over nature. So you can why those conservative organizations are attracted to this, and that’s why whatever the beneficial motives of those doing the research are politically - there’s a real quagmire here - that could derail the whole process and lead us into a worse world than we’re going to have anyway.
CURWOOD: We’re just about out of time here, gentlemen. But David, Clive is saying that his kind of thinking, that the notion of geoengineering is leading us into a trap at the end of the day.
KEITH: I think what he’s saying is that it could, and I agree. I think there’s a real risk, that just the thing Clive was talking about will happen. I think the answer is it’s a new thing, and we don’t know what will happen, and it’s splitting the political dynamic in interesting ways. So on the left you see people from the green world who really want to see research in this in a serious way and other ones who dead oppose it. And on the right you see the thing Clive was talking about. What I hope is we can turn the tables a bit on Cato and say well you can’t at the same time say this and deny the science. So let’s cut some kind of deal where you accept a rational reality of science and we move towards to restricting carbon emissions.
CURWOOD: Clive Hamilton, what do you think are the deeper ethical issues of geoengineering?
HAMILTON: One reason why I find geoengineering so fascinating is because it does pose some very big questions about the state that humanity finds itself in. Here we are, transforming the climate system on planet Earth through putting carbon pollution into the atmosphere which is going to completely change the Earth’s system for thousands of years. So what kind of creature have we become when we say the answer to this is to take control of the Earth’s system and regulate it to suit our needs. I think this is a very profound event in human history. Sometimes people use this phrase “playing God”, this idea that we imagine that we are so omniscient and so omnipotent that we can essentially fulfill the role that God traditionally did, and that is to create circumstances in which life on this planet evolved. So I think there’s some big theological, philosophical and ethical questions that geoengineering raises.
CURWOOD: David, did you want to respond to what Clive just said?
KEITH: Yes, not to disagree, but to have a different take maybe. It can never make sense to use kind of engineering methods to make nature more natural. I think there is not an easy answer to that, but this anecdote may be helpful. As a boy I worked on Peregrine falcon introduction with my parents, and that was an engineered system, we built boxes and imported falcons that were bred in captivity from across the country to try to reintroduce them into North America, and that reintroduction program was only conceivable because we had banned DDT, the thing that had killed them. And in fact I would say it worked. We have free living Peregrines now through a combination of DDT and the reintroduction program.
And I think you can ask whether it’s possible to think about that analogy at global scale. It only makes sense to manage climate if we, in the end, bring emissions to zero. But the fact that that’s true doesn’t mean it might not also be worth doing some explicit engineering to try and reduce the rates of climate change.
CURWOOD: Gentlemen, I want to thank you both for taking the time with me today. David Keith’s book is called A Case for Climate Engineering, and Clive Hamilton’s book is called Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. Thank you both.
KEITH: Thank you.
HAMILTON: Thank you very much.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Newsletter [Click here]
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth