Becoming Planetary Gardeners: Geoengineering

The Earth’s climate is a complex web of systems: ocean temperature and current, sea and glacier ice, air, wind, sun, and more. Strands of that web are being plucked by the variety of things which are causing our climate to change: pollution, extra carbon dioxide, soot, cow farts, and maybe even sunspots. Superpower countries are vying for control of the Northern Passage and energy moguls are making record profits while doing serious damage. We’re letting them do it; it’s convenient to drive and shop and waste and live the lives we were taught we’d have. Me, too. Just as guilty as the next person. Heck, I ordered an ipad the first day I could. I, too, want the newest stuff.

One way out? Undo the damage and apply the principles of engineering to the systems that run the earth. In other words, come full circle, and like Adam and Eve, have dominion over all the plants and animals. Do things like design cities around wildlife corridors, weed the parks, manage the courses of rivers, manage the population of wild animals, and control the weather. Engineer the Earth.

I picked this topic for a few reasons. The simple one is that I had a panel at a convention on the topic, so it’s reasonable to do research once and use it twice. But I asked to be on the panel in the first place because I’m truly afraid that we’ll try the things I’m going to talk about here. Worse, I’m afraid we’ll need to try them.

What’s Happening

There are a number of geo-engineering ideas that are widely discussed. I’ll touch on three of them here:

  • On the low-tech and probably low risk side is a topic called cool roofs. The idea is to color large flat sun-facing surfaces white to reflect sunlight rather than the usual dark colors that actual absorb it. A number of tests have shown that cool roofs work in hot summers, and work is ongoing to decide when and where they work the best. The idea is popular enough that there is a nice New York Times piece on cool roofing.
  • In the medium-risk category, there have actually already been reported illegal experiments that involve dumping iron into the ocean in order to encourage algal blooms. It turns out that algae does a great job of capturing carbon and taking it down to the bottom of the sea. One of the recently identified potential downsides is that some of the kinds of phytoplankton that like to eat rust also produce some nasty neurotoxins.
  • In a slightly higher risk category, there are plans afoot to add sulphur to the atmosphere to create a haze that would act like a cooling blanket across the earth, reflecting light and heat way. This is actually pretty cheap on the scale of geo-engineering projects, which makes it a fairly attractive option. There are a lot of articles that say it’s being done already, largely as a means of local weather control. Examples include both of the most recent Olympic games. Beside the fact that this activity might turn blue skies white, the health risks to us aren’t known, the larger scale risks to the environment are also unknown, and if we start we may never be able to stop.

Who are the players?

Well, for one, the man with more power than many small governments is investing in geo-engineering ideas. This, of course, is Bill Gates. An January Discover blog details Gate’s investments in this area fairly well. Gates is an engineer at heart, and I think this is largely his philanthropic side wanting to make the world better, and that he sees a link between climate and the projects which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funding to stop disease and climate change.

Just this month, the bipartisan policy center in the United States created a task force on geoengineering. This is a little less immediate than Gates’s work since Gates is more likely to be able to get things done than the United States government. Still, a quick web search returns hundreds or results that repeat a White House comment that we must remain “Open to geoengineering.”

China is geoengineering on a big scale, and proud of it. Remember those Olympic games? There’s more. China has apparently decided its okay to try to mitigate fairly usual events like hailstorms. It makes me wonder a bit if we’ll be moving from cyberwars into weather wars.

My prediction?

To way oversimplify things, we got to be the top predators on the food chain because we got clever with tools. So it would be more unusual for us to leave things be than to try to tinker with the earth.

From the man-made islands in Dubai to the recent Chinese effort to relieve drought through managing the contents of the skies, geoengineering is already happening.

I expect to see a world with treaties that attempt to limit geoengineering, but for countries or even individuals with more science and money than actual knowledge to try to save their own bit of the world. Some of the things that get tried will have more negative consequences than positive. Maybe – hopefully – we’ll get scared enough to go slow on geoengineering and speeding up changes in our energy habits.

The next thirty years feels like one of those risky species-defining times when we could pretty easily wipe ourselves out. There are a few ways that could happen, but a geoengineering disaster is near the top of my personal list of things to fear.

Science Fiction and Geo-engineering

If you want to learn a bit of the science around all of this, there are two sets of Kim Stanley Robinson books waiting for you. His Mars books, starting with Red Mars, explore taking a largely barren planet and making it habitable, which I have to admit I hope we never have to do here. His climate change books start with Forty Days of Rain, and include actual geo-engineering feats, an escaped zoo, a frozen city, frisbee golf, and a few actual heroes.

Some links for further perusal:


Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

8 thoughts on “Becoming Planetary Gardeners: Geoengineering”

  1. Thanks Brenda,

    Your’s is an excellent meditation on climate and geoengineering.

    So many SF books introduce weather control that I think many of us have ignored the potential mischief inherent in control of the weather. Who will be the controller?

    If we can mitigate the damage from terrible storms, then we have the tools to create those self-same storms.

  2. Geoengineering has given us the situation we are in now. Thomas Midgley Jr was a great engineer and his discovery of the safe, non-flammable refrigerant chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) nearly destroyed the stratospheric ozone layer that protects all land creatures from UV radiation. He died decades before we even knew that chlorine destroyed high atmosphere ozone. (Thomas Midgley Jr’s death is especially instructive.)

    Great engineering gave us a wide variety of extremely useful plastics, plastics which now comprise large islands of garbage in both the Pacific and Atlantic. That’s also geoengineering.

    Geoengineering is exactly what we don’t need. We need ecosystem design, Gaian design, biospheric design. We don’t need another bunch of extremely smart and extremely unwise reductionists hyping “solutions” that only lead to more problems. We need systems thinkers who understand how ecologies and biomes actually work. I don’t want to hear from Bill Gates. I want to hear from Lynn Margulies or John Todd.

  3. Hi Gmoke. I agree completely that engineering is what gave us many of the problems we have today. It also gave us a lot of things I like, like the ability for us to be having this conversation right now.
    I like your choice of individuals to work on this. Just this last weekend I moderated a panel on a related topic at an SF con and it was scary how the engineers immediately went to the big engineering solutions, which are the ones I find most worrisome.

  4. I see coming an entirely new category of geopolitical problems (something we have a shortage of, actually). Assuming that athmospheric water is a limited resource, any state forcing the clouds to release water on its territory is actually impoverishing the water content of the local athmosphere, and therefore diminishing the quantity of rain which will fall on nearby states. Judging from the success of China’s attempts in this field (see links in the post) and considering that climate change is modifying the weather, we risk “wars on rain”.

  5. Like all things powerful, as long as their are regulations and as long as there is careful planning into its use, then it can be an amazing thing. Like in school – if you don’t do you’re homework, you’re doomed to fail

  6. Geoengineering creates as many problems as it solves. A recent study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research (Robock, et al, 2008) found that injecting huge amounts of SO2 in the tropical or arctic atmosphere would result in a substantial reduction in precipitation in the northern tropics. Think failure of the Indian Monsoon, the Sahara desert overtaking the Sahel and the Amazon basin drying up. Other things to worry about include impacts to stratospheric ozone and acid rain the the polar regions. And, as you noted, the cooling experienced in the higher latitudes would end rapidly when the SO2 injections ceased. How long any nation or other entity could sustain such an expensive and labor-intensive operation would be anybody’s guess.

    I don’t view things like cool roofs as geoengineering. Yes, the things we build on the planet’s surface can have an effect on the surrounding environment. But instituting smart building practices like cool roofs is good business on many levels. The more important effect of cool roofs is that they reduce the amount of energy needed to cool the building. I hate to see sensible measures like that lumped in with spraying mass quantities of a regulated pollutant (SO2) into the atmosphere or dumping iron into the ocean. Changing our behavior and increasing efficiency in our energy use is the way to address this problem, not trying to change a hugely complex system (Earth’s atmosphere) that we don’t fully understand.

    I wouldn’t classify the Chinese efforts you mentioned above as geoengineering. They are attempting weather modification which is local and short term in its effect. Geoengineering attempts to change the climate. (“Climate encompasses the statistics of temperature, humidity, atmospheric pressure, wind, rainfall, atmospheric particle count and numerous other meteorological elements in a given region over long periods of time. Climate can be contrasted to weather, which is the present condition of these same elements over periods up to two weeks.”) Weather modification has been experimented with for several decades now, but is hasn’t caught on because it doesn’t work very well, as the article you linked to on the snow in Beijing noted (yes it snowed in Beijing, but it hasn’t eased the drought appreciably.) One of the biggest problems is that you can’t seed the clouds if there are no clouds to start with.

    Thanks for a great article on a topic, I, too am really concerned about!

  7. Nice to meet you, Brenda. I don’t dislike engineering nor all the products it gives us. I don’t think the engineering mind is the right tool to solve biospheric problems. These problems are not as discrete or as concrete as the engineers would have you believe.

    In October 2009, MIT had a day-long conference on geoengineering with atmospheric scientists and their admissions of the complexity of the science was refreshingly humble. In March 2010, Harvard had a panel on geoengineering with a couple of journalists and a policy wonk. Their certainty was disturbing. When I asked why I didn’t hear the words efficiency, biosphere, or ecosystem design, the moderator stepped on the question and directed it towards “energy conservation” and individual versus collective efforts. Not a good sign.

    Geoengineering is going to be increasingly marketed as the deus ex machina, the heroic big swinging dick technology that can save us. I don’t think so. I think we need something entirely different with a totally different mindset: systems thinking and attention to detail concentrating on root causes rather than band-aids for symptoms. Geoengineering is not and never will be planetary gardening. It’s industrial agriculture writ even larger.

    Biospheric design and permaculture are more to my taste and probably better terms all around. I suspect anything called “geoengineering” is gonna have catastrophic unintended consequences.

    Here’s how to heal the world, or at least one way,

    PS: I saw a news report years ago about the biological life on clouds. I wonder if any of our prospective geoengineers are aware of that particular ecological system.

  8. Nick — if we knew enough, I think we could do amazing things. In Building Harlequin’s Moon, Larry and I terraformed a whole livable planet out of a bunch of moons orbiting a gas giant. The challenge is that I don’t think we know enough about our ecosystems to do careful planning at this stage.

    Gmoke – thanks for the comments and the link. I wish I felt differently, but right now, I think geoengineering is more likely to kill us than save us. We just don’t know enough, and we don’t act like a united species either – we and other large countries could work at cross-purposes on this kind of project very easily.

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