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Is the cure (geoengineering) worse than the disease (global warming)?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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mount-pinatuboIf there’s one thing more potentially contentious than the international politics of global warming (which the world has spent at least the past 20-plus years dithering about), it’s the politics of the most radical suggestion to solve it: geoengineering. After all, he who controls Earth’s thermostat may well control Earth. And what’s good for one nation (Bangladesh and its shoreline prefer today’s climate, fearing sea level rise under a warmer one) may not be good for another (Russia might enjoy a balmier Arctic Circle).

That’s exactly what some new computer modeling suggests, as published July 18 in Nature Geoscience. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) Geophysicist Kate Ricke of Carnegie Mellon University and her colleagues show that one of the more feasible geoengineering methods—injecting reflective particles into the atmosphere to mimic the world-cooling effects of a volcanic eruption—will have effects that vary from place to place. So, for example, India might be rendered too cold (and wet) by a level of particle injection that’s just right for its neighbor China while setting the levels to India’s liking would toast the Middle Kingdom.

What’s worse, the computer models that show that such injections might work in the short term also show that they will change global weather patterns by making part of the atmosphere more stable—and therefore less likely to promote storms. That means less rainfall to go around—and these side effects become worse with time.

"The generic results—what’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander—is robust," says climate modeler and geoengineering expert Ken Caldeira of Stanford University, whose own computer modeling in the late-1990s proved that such sulfate injection could work, at least in the short term. "I would not believe the specifics regarding India versus China in this one model."

Caldeira notes that Ricke and her fellows relied on just one model to make these predictions. Nor does he think that any geoengineering will be tailored locally: "The world is inextricably linked economically, so the idea that each location will be trying to optimize local weather is not right," he says. "The process of globalization of our economy will lead people to consider a more global optimization of climate."

Of course, international negotiations to cope with climate change—the environmental side-effect of such globalization—have proved intensely regional, national and even classist. And even Caldeira admits that "in the case of a real climate emergency, where leaders are trying to save their citizens from famine and starvation, the leaders will simply deploy a system and treat damage from breaking international guidelines as a cost to be considered."

Or, as economist Gary Yohe of Wesleyan University, puts it: "It’s something to have on the shelf in case you look up and say ‘We’re really going over a cliff here. We have to do something.’"

Image: Mount Pinatubo, the catastrophic eruption of which would-be geoengineers would mimic.

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 4:27 pm 07/19/2010

    Modification of complex systems often produce unexpected results, especially when expectations are based on evaluations of simplified analytical models.

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  2. 2. Mims 4:33 pm 07/19/2010

    In other words, we desperately need better geoengineering schemes. :)

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  3. 3. Jokunen 5:29 pm 07/19/2010

    What we need to do is to find better ways to stop CO2 pollution. That is driving climate to wrong direction currently. And until we get this pollution to reverse it’s course and by longer sight, get more CO2 out of air than we put there, all these problems are going to be getting worse. So more money is needed for making CO2 friendlier energy systems more usable and used. The more we invest that money now, the less we need to use money to fix problems that are caused by the CO2 pollution. These include global warming and ocean acidification.

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  4. 4. mikecimerian 9:04 pm 07/19/2010

    While rejecting a field of research out of hand has shown in the past to be a mistake, research still requires to have control over the field where technology is tested.

    Aiming for a a top down approach while we still can’t connect the bottom up dots is poor science.

    I want to see successful results at ecological niche level before I’ll agree with a global approach.

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  5. 5. paulserious 9:27 pm 07/19/2010


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  6. 6. paulserious 9:59 pm 07/19/2010

    Geoengineering, whether local, or global is likely to effect the whole. The definition of "local" needs to be re-defined: " local" has no meaning where one area cannot be absolutely separated from another; and that is impossible on Earth. We can only state that we will favour one area, and that for a limited time.
    This is already happening with the creation of dams, plantations, oil and gas exploration, agriculture, etc.
    Given that solar and other radiation cycles, as well as volcanism and tectonics cannot be accurately modelled by current science, the idea of global geoengineering is nothing but control-driven madness. Our focus should be engineering efforts aimed at adaptation to climatic changes; like relocation, pollution reduction, foods production and distribution, new building codification, consumption and transport, just to name a few. We need to come down a few notches from deluding ourselves that we can be in total control of our environs; take a good hard look at the disruptions generated by one single volcano in Iceland.

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  7. 7. Danichan 3:12 am 07/20/2010

    They should leave nature to nature and only stop the pollution!

    From geoenginering it’s an easy step to move to geo-warfare: neigbouring countries battling each other over resources (probably mostly about rain) for that area.

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  8. 8. dobermanmacleod 6:57 am 07/20/2010

    "The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

    They will geoengineer rather than starve, don’t worry about that. What ought to concern us is that we suffer an abrupt climate change before we deploy a geoengineering scheme.

    "Recently some have begun to advocate engineered climate selection as a fallback or insurance policy, in case their preferred regulatory decarbonization approach does not solve the problem or an unforeseen event occurs that requires a rapid response. A more prudent and efficient strategy would appear to be to implement engineered climate selection first and then see what further needs to be done." –Alan Carlin, University of Pennsylvania Law Review, June 2007

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  9. 9. jstreet 12:56 pm 07/20/2010

    This article sounds awfully breezy for a topic that could lead to a disaster that would make the two world wars look like preludes.

    Computer modeling?

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  10. 10. eddiequest 3:59 pm 07/20/2010

    Our house is on fire. Admittedly, it is because we caused it. Everything we own-everyone we love-everything we are is IN that house. We cannot open the windows. We cannot "let nature take care of it". WE MUST PUT THE FIRE OUT, OURSELVES. And while it may make a mess of some other things, it is the lesser of two evils. NOTHING is worse than climate change.

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  11. 11. IBScipio 5:26 pm 07/20/2010

    Geoengineering if handled properly is bioremediation on a large scale. As long as dynamics for manipulation are chosen properly and they don’t require polluting in and of themselves, I believe it canbe done relatively quickly, easily and at a lower cost than the alternative.

    Matt Snyder
    President/ Director
    Scipio Biofuels

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  12. 12. IBScipio 5:27 pm 07/20/2010

    Geoengineering if handled properly is bioremediation on a large scale. As long as dynamics for manipulation are chosen properly and they don’t require polluting in and of themselves, I believe it canbe done relatively quickly, easily and at a lower cost than the alternative.

    Matt Snyder
    President/ Director
    Scipio Biofuels

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  13. 13. eco-steve 5:35 pm 07/20/2010

    Everyone seems to imagine that climate engineering is a thing of the future, whereas we can do it economically now. The method is very simple : Pyrolyse biomass, which converts any organic matter into biochar and hydrogen. Biomass removes CO2 from the air, and the biochar is buried in soil, thus sequestering it definitively. See for more information.

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  14. 14. madmac 6:30 pm 07/20/2010

    Are you all forgetting that carbon and it’s related emissions, especially CO2 are a — if not THE — key to life? Cultivate a plant in artificially raised CO2, and watch it get bigger and stronger, more foliage and root length, than those outdoors.

    I used to enjoy reading science journals when it was about happy things, like transistors — not mad hatters hoping (not waiting) for the "international governance" required to poison our stratosphere and block out our sun (I am writing this while looking up at the alleged contrails of 3 planes which have been crossing back and forth all afternoon — and unless you live in the country, you know what I am talking about).

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  15. 15. IBScipio 11:12 pm 07/20/2010

    We have all IP for our algae cultivation & harvesting process protected by U.S. Patent Pending as well as our International patent placeholder having recently also been awarded. It is possible to generate algae oil (or green crude) for algae based biofuels in the tens, to thousands of tons per day depending on the number of PBR’s at a given facility. As long as geothermal energy also can be tapped on site, the latitude limits for algae cultivation, year-round, stretch past the U.S./Canadian border until photo-period simply won’t support growth. As luck would have it, we have a solution for that as well.

    Acceptable refining technologies are available for license to make some but not all commonly needed fuels. But some will make more than one. A more complete study, including the variable of the cost of licensing the refining technology is needed to be able to accurately answer question on the refining end of the value stream.

    for eutrophic fresh water bodies:

    Many different techniques are initiated and discontinued in a very specific order, sequence and period which is then tested, plant species possibly adjusted then repeated annually for up to 40 years or more for very heavily contaminated areas with below average rain, wind and/or weather. After the first 2 or 3 years, water as dirty as Lake Elsinore in California would be walk-up drinkable year-round assuming it could be kept adequately full. By that time, contamination levels should decrease to allow more & different plants to be grown as feed-stocks for other industries to be clean enough to sell to industry offsetting the systems cost substantially. There are over 500 lakes in the southwest U.S. alone on EPA clean-up lists with funding waiting in vane, until now. It is a most important connection to make between Scipio Biofuels & the high level EPA as soon as possible.

    for the ocean acidification:

    With the deployment of a TBD number of specifically designed, wind powered mechanical compressors, each affixed to an anchored barge or anchored high stability floating platform anywhere on the ocean near where the Mississippi River Estuary there is virtually no sea life due to cumulative affects of eutrophism from the Mississippi River. Our machines will make the greatest impacts in the shortest time with the lowest cost over time without any artificial power sources offsetting the effectiveness. In order to both arrest the growth of most all algae species who survive and thrive in theses conditions the oxygen levels must be raised by enough to support sealife.

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  16. 16. mikecimerian 11:40 pm 07/20/2010

    China does intensive cloud seeding. They have a network of 35,000 cloud seeding cannon batteries.

    Intensive seeding was done prior to the Beijing games followed by a drought that required water diversion from other areas.

    This was relatively small scale compared to geoengineering itself. Particle based engineering should be banned out of hand since it is almost irreversible.

    There are social processes capable of overwhelming greed and egoism as history has taught us. It is only an opinion but I think the urgency we are facing requires our full capabilities and cannot suffer social unrest and infrastructure collapse.

    The optimal time frame for minimal human suffering while downgrading human impact is growing thin.

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  17. 17. Neptunerover 6:11 am 07/21/2010

    Certainly it’s worth a try, duh, right?
    Nothing unexpected could possibly happen, duh, right?
    Duh, let’s do it! Let’s change the weather on Planet Earth!
    We can’t even accurately predict the weather as it is, but these computer models are gonna somehow be reliable? LMFAO

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  18. 18. Ramundo 8:15 am 07/21/2010

    This is just what we need. Politicians controlling our weather. Things will be great then!!

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  19. 19. Ramundo 8:17 am 07/21/2010

    This is just what we need. Politicians controlling the weather. Things will be much better when that happens!!

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  20. 20. nismail 4:42 pm 07/23/2010

    geoengineering falls into the invent-a-pill mentality for profit rather than analyse its cause to avoid the disease. It is another reactive approach as opposed to proactive that is more effective and less costly. Reactive calls for massive R&D at high risks and often with dubious results. The hardest part is in ensuring that the R&D starts off with the correct suppositions.

    If one is wrong, the so called cure will be worse guyaranteed.

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