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Geoengineering research, getting real

Marc Gunther's picture
, FORTUNE magazine

Marc Gunther is a writer and speaker who focuses on business and the environment. He worked for 12 years as a senior writer at FORTUNE magazine, where he is now a contributing editor. His most...

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  • Dec 2, 2010

Geoengineering research is emerging from the laboratory.

Government-funded scientists in the UK are moving forward with a pair of small-scale, carefully-controlled experiments–one to test the qualities of particles that could be used to block the sun’s rays, and another in which droplets of water will be pumped into the air using a one-kilometer-long pipe.

The experiments are designed to help scientists better understand how a geoengineering technique known as solar radiation management, often called SRM, would work. For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, Geoengineering is the deliberate manipulation of the earth’s climate to counter the effects of global warming. Solar radiation management, meanwhile, is a technique intended to reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the earth, and thereby cool the planet. SRM can be attempted in a variety of ways, including by  injecting sulfate particles into the upper atmosphere to form aerosols–a process that happens naturally when volcanoes erupt, leading to a temporary global cooling.

How (maybe) to cool the planet

This is my fifth blogpost this year on geoengineering. (The others can be found here.) While the idea of geoengineering is, at first glance, so  so strange and scary that some people want to ban any research into climate manipulation,  I’m convinced the time has come not just for scientific research but for public conversation about geoengineering.

Why? Simply because the world’s collective efforts to curb climate change, such as they are, are failing. This week, while thousands of officials are meeting in Cancun for the UN’s COP16, the 16th major round of negotiations to deal with climate change, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. (See Cancun can’t: Ten reasons why the climate talks will fail) Last year’s emissions were 37% above those in 1990. So we’re not mitigating at all–to the contrary, our actions, each and every day, increase the danger of catastrophic climate disruptions. Earlier this year, a U.S. government interagency report concluded:

It is clear that impacts in the United States are already occurring and are projected to increase in the future, particularly if the concentration of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise.

Which is why we need to think about geoengineering, if only as a way to buy time for a gradual transition to clean energy. The Brits are ahead of us in this regard; the UK’s Royal Society, Britain’s premiere scientific society,  published a major study on geoengineering last year, saying that man-made efforts to cool the earth “may provide a potentially useful short-term back-up to mitigation in case rapid reductions in global temperature are needed.”

Since then, government-funded research councils have agreed to sponsor two projects. One is known as the Integrated Assessment of Geoengineering Proposals (IAGP), which will deliver an overview of the different potential techniques that might be used to geoengineer climate. The other, known as Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering, or SPICE, spans four UK universities and is intended to address “the gaps in our knowledge about effectiveness and side effects of geoengineering schemes.” Funding is 1.61 million pounds, according to Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a major funder.

Matt Watson

Recently, Matthew Watson, an earth scientist at the University of Bristol, who’s leading one of the research projects, came to Washington to talk about the SPICE project. He spoke to a geoengineering task force assembled by the DC-based Bipartisan Policy Center, which is studying the issue. The SPICE research, he said, is notably because it is publicly-funded and because it will be the first peer-reviewed research that takes geoengineering beyond computer simulations.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council describes SPICE this way:

The SPICE project will investigate the effectiveness of stratospheric particle injection. It will address the three grand challenges in solar radiation management: 1. How much, of what, needs to be injected where into the atmosphere to effectively and safely manage the climate system? 2. How do we deliver it there? 3. What are the likely impacts?

One part of SPICE, according to Watson, will examine the qualities of particles to be injected into the stratosphere by using lasers at the Rutherford-Appleton laboratory in Oxfordshire. “We’re going to investigate a range of natural and man made particles,” he said, in an effort to figure out which would be best. The issues are quite technical–particles must be very small (o.2 or 0.3 microns thick) to be effective.

A second part of project, he explained, will examine the question of how to deliver the particles. Scientists have talked about using airplanes, balloons or pipes tethered to the ground. Former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold, who is co-founder of Intellectual Ventures in Seatlle, has talked about building a “garden hose to the sky” to deliver the particles.

Plans call for scientists to build a 1Km-long pipe, about 1/20 of the length that would eventually be needed, on a location still to be determined, and to pump either water or saltwater into the air, to see how the pipe would work. “This is an engineering test, not a climate test,” Watson said.

None of this, it should be noted, will go forward without ample opportunity for the public to comment. Geoengineering raises an array of ethical, political and governance issues; no one would want the discussion to be left to the scientists.

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Dec 2, 2010

One question Watson isn’t asking is if enough is known to “safely” do anything. 

The way he posed the question, “how much, of what, needs to be injected where into the atmosphere to effectively and safely…” assumes enough is known to inject anything.  Enough isn’t known.  He must know that.  They all know it.  This, geoengineering, is preparing for what happens if all hell breaks loose, war is about to break out or it already has, and at some last conference the politicians are asking the scientists if there’s anything they can do to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.  The scientist want to be in a better position to answer that question than they are now.  Right now they wouldn’t be able to say they had confidence in any plan at all. 

And I support the research. 

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Dec 3, 2010


Yeoman’s work, as always, keeping this issue in front of TEC’s readership.  Interesting that you mentioned ethics, because that might prove to be the most crucial leg of your stool of “ethical, political and governance issues.”  One look at Copenhagen, or just about any session of the General Assembly, should be sufficient to underline the slim chances of getting a global consensus to proceed with SPICE, sun mirrors, or some other geoengineering effort, even in extremis.  Ethically, how small a group of countries would be sufficient and under what circumstances?  G-20?  Security Council? 

Jesse Jenkins's picture
Jesse Jenkins on Dec 2, 2010

Excellent post Marc. Thanks for overing this important beat.

This seems like exactly the right kind of cautious research that must proceed on geoengineering to start expanding our knowledge about potential risks, benefits, and processes involved. It is unlikely we will need to pursue geoengineering options until many decades from now — and the precise date will be delayed or even made irrelevant by the right steps to develop and field low-cost, scalable, zero-carbon energy sources — but that research must begin today to be properly prepared. The LAST thing we want to do is being a full-scale geongineering effort in an emergency mode, without preparation and foresight.

Keep up the coverage on this Marc. Cheers,


Marc Gunther's picture
Thank Marc for the Post!
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