New Column: Jamais Cascio on The Geoengineering Option

Jamais Cascio returns to Futurismic to examine our potential choices in the face of environmental catastrophe. If the worst-case scenario ends up as the only game in town, geoengineering may not be the best or most sensible option – but we need to consider it now, before it becomes the only option.

Here’s the good scenario: we have maybe a decade, fifteen years on the outside, before we need start seeing a significant and sustained global reduction of greenhouse gases if we are to avoid absolutely catastrophic environmental results. You know the litany by now: unstoppable sea level rise, famine from loss of agricultural land, countless deaths around the world from the heat and opportunistic diseases, extinctions galore, and on and on. Ten years is enough time to implement significant improvements in our transportation and energy technologies, our consumption patterns, and the design of our communities. We know the pieces that we need to put into place, it’s just a question of getting them assembled in time.

Here’s the not-so-good scenario: you know that decade we thought we had? It’s more like a year or two. Good luck.

Nearly every plan for dealing with disastrous climate change depends on there being enough time to boost energy efficiency, redesign urban systems, change to cleaner transportation, and so forth, all to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before it’s too late. If we don’t make it, we likely hit a climate transition point where the global climate system finds a new stable state — a “tipping point,” if you will, into a climate this planet hasn’t seen in a million years or more. The answer is simple, if daunting: we need to make sure that we start reducing anthrogenic carbon emissions before we get to that tipping point.

Probably the best example of what a reasonable greenhouse reduction plan looks like comes from Robert Socolow of Princeton University. His “stabilization wedges” idea has gotten some attention of late due to a brief appearance in An Inconvenient Truth, but he’s been writing about the idea for several years. With Socolow’s plan, no one solution dominates. Well-understood technologies and practices like energy efficiency, renewable energy, biofuels, urban redesign, carbon sequestration, nuclear power, and so forth, all play a role. The stabilization plan takes fifty years to carry out, but starts to reduce greenhouse gases in relatively short order.

But what if we don’t have ten years to get started and fifty years to make it happen?

The latest word from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (which specializes in studying the Earth’s environmental systems) is that the Earth is currently a degree or so away from its million year temperature peak, and that another degree of increase could hit the climate tipping point. How long would that take? We’ve seen temperature increases of 0.2-0.3 degrees per decade over the past thirty years, so — if NASA is right, and if nothing changes — we’d hit the point of no return by 2040-2050 (or, to be technically correct, no return for tens of thousands of years).

But there’s a twist: nothing we do will have an immediate result. The slow pace at which the planet’s temperature adjusts to perturbations, or Earth’s thermal inertia, means that we’re only now seeing the temperature results from twenty or thirty years ago. Even if we were to stop putting out any anthrogenic greenhouse gases today, thermal inertia would guarantee that we’d still see temperature increases for at least the next twenty years.

This means that we’re looking at an increase of at least another half degree or so, guaranteed. If plans like stabilization wedges take another decade to get going, that’s roughly another quarter-degree increase. And if the emissions reduction plans don’t work as well as intended or see technical or political delays, or if we have faster-than-expected temperature increases, we may end up hitting that one degree increase despite taking all the right steps now.

Now, it’s possible that one degree is insufficient to push us into a climate tipping point (and previous studies have suggested that an increase of three to six degrees would be necessary). It’s also possible that a brief period at “tipping point” temperatures may not be enough to make the change stick — so that we hit the danger point, but efforts long underway pay off at the right time to pull us back from the brink.

But if we do face an incipient global climate disaster, we have one last card to play: geoengineering.

Geoengineering solutions (sometimes referred to as “terraforming Earth“) are the science fiction-sounding ideas that try to make large-scale adjustments to the geophysics of our home planet: blocking a fraction of incoming sunlight with a giant mirror in space: using genetically-engineered plants and microbes to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane at a faster-than-natural rate; seeding the atmosphere with fine particles to reflect sunlight away; dumping iron into the oceans to stimulate the growth of carbon dioxide-devouring plankton; and more. None of these would be done easily, or cheaply; quite possibly, none of these could be done effectively, or without grossly negative results (for example, a too-large plankton bloom has the potential to render parts of the ocean sterile).

In fact, none of the likely geoengineering proposals would be devoid of possible consequences that could make an already-bad situation even worse. We still know too little about the nuances of geophysical systems to be confident in our ability to engineer changes without a large risk of disaster. This is enough to make some otherwise tech-friendly environmentalists reject the notion of geoengineering out of hand. (They also worry that consideration of geoengineering would play into the hands of “do nothing” denialists, but I doubt that many people would be swayed by the argument that spending tens of billions of dollars to put a giant mirror in space in 20 years is a wiser user of resources than shifting to renewable energy and high-efficiency vehicles now.)

But while I consider global warming-induced climate disruption the single greatest problem facing us today, and believe that it should receive far more attention and mitigation effort than it does, I’m willing to look at what we do in case our best efforts fail.

The question isn’t whether geoengineering is a better approach than more conventional ideas like stabilization wedges — it’s not, and it won’t be without decades more research into how the Earth works, decades that we don’t have. Geoengineering solutions are drastic remedies for disastrous situations. At the very least, we should be able to weed out the geoengineering proposals that would be likely to cause even greater problems than they solve.

The early examination of options we’d rather not use is vital. If the climate collapses faster than expected, or if our efforts fail (or are blocked by recalcitrant leaders), we will see people desperate for survival trying out these kinds of last-ditch solutions. It would be a good idea if they knew what the consequences could be before they choose which one(s) to try. If the planet faces disaster, not everyone will be willing to simply throw up their hands and say, “well, we’re boned!” — some of us will do what we can to catch human civilization before it’s gone completely over the cliff.

5 thoughts on “New Column: Jamais Cascio on The Geoengineering Option”

  1. One of the recently recognised contributing factors to global warming is the con-trails of aircraft. How feasible is it to alter the properties of a con-trail (eg by fuel additives to vary particle size/absorption properties) to alleviate the blanket effect, or even make it a net radiator?

    This is a small bit of geo-engineering (which we’re already doing, albeit wrongly) that would buy us some time…

  2. Very good summary of the situation. I would suggest, unfortunately, that as the crisis becomes more and more obvious, society will be less and less able to mobilize resources as well. Imagine trying to build and launch the space mirror at the same time that we’re dealing with multiple displacements and destruction on the order of hurricane Katrina and the recent tsunami.

    I can only hope that there are enough tweaks like beneficial con trails that are inordinately effective and we start acting on those wedges yesterday or sooner.

  3. So basically we have the plot for a great Japanese science fiction thriller — Global Warming vs. Nuclear Winter.

  4. 2040-2050 huh? Thats perfect… just when my life is about to end, I’ll be able to watch all the lemmings go cliff diving. Thank you, I was starting to worry about getting old. I’ll get to stand on my porch like a grumpy old man, shaking my fist and yelling,”Chuck’s coming!!!! I told you Darwin was right…”

    See You Guys Later, I gotta go fill my SUV, AND turn up my oil heat……


  5. Good summary of this part of the problem. My concern is that the entire carbon problem is focused on climate change. This is only one aspect of our opening up the huge mass of chemicals sequestered in fossil fuels. Little press has gone to problem of the oceans lowering it’s PH and making it difficult for calification, potentially fatal to plankton and coral, thus the basis for ocean food chain. See:

    The idea that we can engineer our way out of this mess is misleading and potentionaly fatally distracting.

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