Big Questions about Potential Big Climate Fixes or Fiascos: Geoengineering

I’m at Climate Week in New York participating in the Green Bank Network, Sustainable Investment Forum, American Security Project and Moody's briefings. Each is centering on major innovation, swift uptake and deep penetration primarily relating to energy efficiency and renewables. They’re the same themes of every Climate Week I’ve attended in the last five years – and I’m bored. I’m seeking the most strategic contributions about how to accelerate, spread, scale up and deepen climate action, beyond a gentle linear uptake of greenhouse gas mitigation that is not nearly profound enough.  

So, I wonder: What would excite me to take away about climate action at Climate Week, thus exercising my brain to determine if we are making the profound changes required. Today, I’m thinking beyond the apparent limits of the corporate, government and nonprofit leaders presenting here to a global adaptation: geoengineering. It’s the deliberate modification of a planet's environment by adding or subtracting a resource or energy input on a massive scale. 

I’m continually intrigued by Harvard physicist and entrepreneur David Keith, who researches one particular geoengineering technique, A piece this month includes this abstract: Solar geoengineering is no substitute for cutting emissions, but could nevertheless help reduce the atmospheric carbon burden. In the extreme, if solar geoengineering were used to hold radiative forcing constant under RCP8.5, the carbon burden may be reduced by ~100 GTC, equivalent to 12–26% of twenty-first-century emissions at a cost of under US$0.5 per tCO2.

The American Geophysical Union is seeking public comment about geoengineering. Just this week, the Washington Times and the Indian Express investigated geoengineering in major articles. I examine these to investigate the pros and cons of industrial scale technologies for capturing carbon dioxide from the air. While geoengineering as cloud seeding becomes almost mainstream in efforts to protect mega outdoor events like the Olympics or to break droughts, it seems only a matter of time before we apply geoengineering on a bigger scale. Thus, I ask:

  • Who gets to test this big idea?
  • What is the size of the pilot, and is it on a local, regional, national or global scale?
  • When do we start the experiment? Now, before the oceans acidify and the glaciers melt irreversibly (in this millennium)?
  • Can we control these experiments? Who is to say a storm or drought that occurs after them experiments isn’t due to some other force? How will we know that consequences reflect geoengineering?
  • Who pays? Some claim the costs are declining, but can international bodies set priorities for the funds, and should they be the bank?
  • How shall we feel when a country or sector at extreme risk from climate change takes matters into its own hands?
  • Who should be the winners and the losers? Is it better or worst that we cannot necessarily predict the outcome? Do emerging economies get a break, or do the poor remain at greatest risk?

Many of my friends, leaders in climate solutions, shake their heads in disgust when I mention geoengineering. But if we in the climate leadership community are not investigating it, we will find ourselves behind others - government, corporate or others, who are. I encourage all of us to ask these questions and more!

This op-ed is based on a piece I wrote five years ago.