Science, Tech & Environment

Engineering the climate

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Story by Alex Gallafent, PRI's "The World"

An environmental problem of a whole different order has got scientists and policy makers around the world contemplating drastic measures. They fear that governments aren’t doing enough to cut the pollution that’s contributing to climate change, so they’re considering something they call geo-engineering. They’re exploring technologies that could cool the planet and avoid the catastrophes that a warmer earth might suffer. But the possibility of massive climate interventions is raising big ethical and geo-political concerns.

It sounds like an evil plot: deliberately changing the global climate. And at first glance, you’d think geoengineering would be the domain of evil cranks and megalomaniacs. But Eli Kintisch, who actually met a few would-be geoengineers while writing his book "Hack the Planet," says that couldn't be further from the truth.

"Unfortunately they were clear thinking, responsible, highly cited scientists; some of the giants in the field. And that’s really scary."

Then again, many considered these scary times. We’re already conducting a massive unintentional geoengineering experiment by injecting millions of tons of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere.

Journalist Dianne Dumanowski wrote about climate change and geoengineering in her book, "The End of the Long Summer." She doesn’t see any easy way back from the climate crisis humanity has created for itself.

"A lot of scientists think that we’ve entered the time of desperate measures, which is why geoengineering has basically come out of the closet."

Indeed, geoengineering was recently the subject of a report published by perhaps the most august science academy in the world, Britain’s Royal Society.

Climate scientist John Shepherd, who led the study, says the geoengineering closet holds two main choices: "One which attempts to cool the planet slightly by reflecting a small percentage of sunlight back into space. And the others which approach from the other end and try and actually remove the greenhouse gases that are causing the problem."

The former could mean building arrays of mirrors in space or injecting reflective particles into the stratosphere; the latter, massive forests of artificial trees, rocks that suck up CO2, or devices that scrub the air.

Scott Barrett is an economist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. As an economist, he thinks about action on climate change in terms of incentives. Barrett says one of the reasons it’s been so hard for countries to reduce their climate pollution so far is that the incentives are all wrong.

"When one country reduces emissions, all countries benefit. The country that pays the cost gets a tiny fraction of the benefit."

But the incentives to use geo-engineering might be different. Let’s say temperatures are going up in one discrete part of the world, India for example. And agriculture there is suffering. And now let’s say there’s a geoengineering technique that might bring temperatures down again. The government of India would be pressured to act in this scenario.

But a positive for one country, India in this case, might well be a negative for another. Making it rain in one part of the world, might cause drought in another. So India’s action might not be okay with other countries and that kind of disagreement could lead to a geoengineering arms race.

That’s why Scott Barrett invokes the idea of mutual restraint when talking about geoengineering, much like arms negotiators talk about mutual restraint in the use of nuclear weapons.

"You actually want countries not to do something they’re inclined to want to do," Barrett says. "So a big part of the problem is not at all technical, it is institutional. How can we control ourselves?"

Right now there are no international institutions or rules specifically tailored to geoengineering. But even if the world does agree to use geoengineering only when it’s in the interest of many countries, that still wouldn’t solve the dilemma. Who gets to decide to use it, and who determines what the global temperature should be could get tricky.

Global institutions tend to move pretty slowly. So for the moment, scientists are setting their own rules and along with some governments and even for-profit companies, they’re now talking about testing various technologies.  And that’s the immediate challenge: what limits should there be on tests of geoengineering techniques? Because testing is required to get results and results are uncertain.

 That’s why author Dianne Dumanowski cautions against expecting geoengineering to fix things. "Because we don’t know if it’s going to really be a card that we can play. We better hope that we’ve got a lot of different cards to play, because we’re going to need to play them all."

Most of the world has so far avoided playing the highest value card: reducing greenhouse emissions. At last winter’s Climate Summit in Copenhagen, many countries pledged to do that and to help other countries do the same. But there were no firm commitments, no new cards were actually played. Now, look into the future, and assume one of those other countries has the ability to geoengineer the climate. That would be a powerful bargaining chip, and Copenhagen-style negotiations would suddenly look a whole lot more interesting. 

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."