Geo-engineering The Climate: Durban Global Warming Conference

A group of scientists, funded generously by Big Green, which includes the Environmental Defense Fund, have released a report to coincide with the efforts of the Durban Global Warming Conference, COP 17. This reports asks that the world consider geo-engineering as a potential solution to (yet-to-be-realized-but-coming-soon) rampant global warming.

The Guardian reports on several ideas that have been bruited: “huge space reflectors in orbit”, “stratospheric aerosols released in the upper atmosphere”; they even mention “the mechanics of inserting such aerosols” by the means of a “hosepipe attached to a giant balloon.”

The Solar Radiation Management Research Governance Initiative (with the thankfully unpronouncable acronym SRMRGI), which issued the report, is a newly minted group, formed from Big Green largess in response to a 2009 Royal Society report Geoengineering the Climate. The Royal Society said, “It won’t work”, while the folks that created the SRMRGI begged (literally) to differ.

The SRMRGI has “unleased” several ideas on how to best “cool the Earth by reflecting a small percentage of inbound sunlight back into space, in order to reduce global warming.” Such ideas consist of two main thrusts:

  • Marine cloud brightening instantiated by “spraying seawater droplets into the lower atmosphere”;
  • Increasing stratospheric aerosols via “artificial injection.”

What good ideas.

I mean in the sense that if rampant (but-yet-to-be) global warming does strike, what better than a solution that requires merely spritzing the air with a giant squeeze bottle? But I also mean good in the political sense. The reaction to geo-engineering will be a telling yardstick to judge the sincerity of politicians who claim we have to “do something” about climate change.

If the politician under consideration is adamant about the perils that await us yet refuses to consider geo-engineering, saying perhaps that the “science is not well understood” and that instead increased control by governments and government agencies is the ticket, we may be justifiably suspicious that the politician cares more about increasing control by governments—which is to say, his control—than in “saving” the planet.

Now, it is by no means clear if planting a few (thousand? million?) mirrors in space, or directing a fire hose loaded with cloud nucleii upwards, or whatever, will work. We may as a species labor mightily to heft a few tons of reflecting objects into space only to discover that the sun bakes right through them. And then there is the unimpeachable Doctrine of Unintended Consequences, which is ever with us. What’s to stop the mirrors from aligning just so and turning the sun’s ray into a laser beam which smites the planet’s surface? Or what’s to prevent the cloud nucleii from doing their job too well and causing a cataract of forty days and forty nights?

If you say, and say rightly, that we don’t know what will happen if we tinker with the air on such a magisterial scale, then you will also be admitting that we can’t know much about what will happen if we add a few dozen molecules of carbon dioxide to every square meter of air. The effects of forcing due to geo-engineering, since it can be controlled exactly, should be eminently predictable—if we can predict what the atmosphere on global scale will do in absence of geo-engineering.

Restated: if you can’t predict what will happen under geo-engineering, you can’t predict what will happen under increasing carbon dioxide.

Geo-engineering will probably be cheaper than trying to coerce and finagle the world into a carbon usage plan. It will also be more politically tractable, given the honor system in countries holding to agreements hasn’t worked especially well through history.

As far as costs go, we learn from The Telegraph that the UK “has spent more than £600 million on securing an international agreement on climate change and promoting green technologies in developing countries since April 2006.” That’s not a lot of years, but it is a lot of money. And this is money merely spent in lobbying, not in building space missiles or, say, paying the salary of the folks at the University of East Anglia (which has just closed its school of music).

How much more money was spent if we total across countries, each lobbying the other? We could have ploughed that cash into building space elevators or giant balloon-borne misters. We could have, that is, taken it out of the hands on politicians and done something useful with it.


  1. J. Hemmer

    The sorcerer’s apprentices on the move again.

  2. DavidC

    The point isn’t whether the technology proposed addresses the problem or not. The point is to get vast amounts of money sloshing around and stand mid-stream hoping to catch a modest (in proportion to the amount in motion) portion. If geo-engineering isn’t the starkest example of “Virtual science and virtuous corruption” (Kellow, Aynsley, “Science and Public Policy”, Edward Elgar, 2007) then I just don’t know what all (as my grandmother used to say).

  3. Ray

    I thought we had to apply the precautionary principle first and determine if anything could go wrong, and if some harm could be caused then we must not do it. Remember, Murphy was an optimist.

  4. William Sears

    Even if (a big if) climate could be controlled through geo-engineering, there would be major disagreements between countries as to the optimal set point. That which benefits North America is not necessarily the same global equilibrium that benefits Africa or Asia. The people that propose this assume a world consensus will emerge that makes everyone happy. A series of climate wars is a more likely scenario.

  5. I am all for geoengineering — to make the planet WARMER, not colder.

    The urge to freeze the Earth like a giant snowball is barking madness. It’s too cold here, not too warm. And all signs point to DECREASING temperatures. Neoglaciation has been going on for 6,000 years. Regular 100,000-year-long glacial epochs are the norm and the next one is on its way.

    What can humanity do about it? Three geoengineering projects come to mind.

    1. Decrease albedos. The less the Earth reflects light back into outer space, the better. We should coat all polar and boreal ice surfaces with coal dust so that solar energy is retained, not reflected.

    2. Circulate water. The Pleistocene Ice Age is the coldest period on Earth since the Karoo Ice Age of 240 million years ago. The cause is Antarctica, the continent square on the South Pole. That land mass prevents the circulation of water from South Polar regions to and from the Equator. In other words, the Earth’s aqueous thermal mixing system is plugged up. The solution is to nuke the Antarctic marine ice shelves and to tow the bergs north to Equatorial waters.

    3. Burn fossil fuels. If we can double the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, we might be able to raise global temps a degree or two. That would get us back to Pliocene conditions, which weren’t great but were better than now.


  6. j ferguson

    I’m not terrified by very much, but the possible ill effects, some unanticipated, of a geo-engineered solution to the warmup make me very nervous. The concept would appeal to the type of megalo-maniac who frequent politics. Since there are so few of those just now, maybe the whole idea will die a well deserved death simply through failure to agree on the method.

  7. JJD

    As ‘climate scientists’ often explain, climate is long-term weather statistics. As such, it has already been ‘engineered’ by geniuses at UEA, Penn State, and University of Victoria. All that is needed is to convince these worthies to fudge their numbers in the other direction.

  8. Eric Anderson

    Hey, if aerosols and particulates are part of the solution, why not just encourage people to pump more particulates into the atmosphere? Maybe encourage everyone to throw another log on the fire one day a week, instead of an spare-the-air day.

    On a more serious note, the good thing about engineering solutions (as opposed to, say, carbon trading markets), is that engineering solutions — no matter how bizarre or outlandish — eventually have to bow to the laws of chemistry and physics. Once they figure out the kinds of engineering constraints and costs required for hoisting a bunch of mirrors into space, the idea will wither and die on the vine of natural causes. More nefarious are the proposed regulatory and market “solutions,” where the costs are much more ephemeral and where temptations abound to make lots of money lobbying/buying/selling/trading literally nothing.


    Shades of Dr. No

  10. Mack

    I’ve never been concerned about the climate. But schemes of geo-engineering a poorly understood system do give me cause for concern.

  11. Howard

    Don’t most problems start out as solutions?

  12. Noblesse Oblige

    I once shared a beer with a fellow who was at the time head of GreenPeace Research (yes, they have people ensconced at some UK universities working mostly on bio-issues). We agreed on very little, but one big thing we agreed on was that when you start mucking around with geoengineering, you REALLY don’t know what you are doing and what could happen.

    You can take this to be another sign of increasing desperation. Desperation makes these clowns both more ridiculous and more dangerous.

  13. Will

    I remember when weather control and giant space mirrors were the sole domain of mad scientists bent on world domination.

    Imagine what all the chemtrail/HAARP folk will say. Conspiracies wrapped in conspiracies!!!! Lol

  14. Dave Andrews

    Geo-engineering is a rubbish idea because it will require unanimity across all the 190 odd nations of the world on the particular solution, which may or may not work anyway.

    Long experience from the operation of the UN, and more recently that of the ‘eurozone’ countries suggests that such consensus will never be achieved.

  15. Alex Heyworth

    “Geo-engineering is a rubbish idea because it will require unanimity across all the 190 odd nations of the world on the particular solution”

    One might hope that would be the case. What if a rogue state decided to unilaterally start (say) seeding the ocean with iron?

    Cue climate wars?

  16. Copie

    What a lot of nonsense these “Global Warming” alarmists spout. As any person who relies upon the weather for their living can tell you, the weather is always changing, nothing is consistant. And as for the stupid people who say that we must lower our co2 levels, as any child in school can tell you, co2 is essential for all life, the more the better. And as for the nonsense about sea levels rising, a brief glance athe long term facts produced by Dr Nils Axel Morner will prove that sea levels are not rising now any faster than the past several hundred yaers.

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