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The American Meteorological Society (AMS) drafted a statement describing its stance on geoengineering. While the draft seemed to have a negative stance toward geoengineering, saying, “Exploration of geoengineering strategies also creates potential risks. Developing any new capacity will require resources, possibly drawn from more productive uses. The possibility of quick and seemingly inexpensive geoengineering fixes could distract the public and policy makers from crtically needed efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and build society’s capacity to deal with unavoidable climate impacts.” From this, it seems that the AMS believes research into geoengineering is a distraction from looking into solutions that are viable, such as adaptation and mitigation. From a policy standpoint, the AMS draft statement points out that the side effects are potentially devastating, and will vary regionally. Because of the variation in consequences, it is ethically wrong to utilize geoengineering.

The take home message for policy makers from the AMS statement is that “transparency and international cooperation” is needed as well as “restrictions on reckless efforts to manipulate the climate system.” They recommend that policy options be further developed to achieve this end. Despite the backdrop of disapproval of geoengineering, the AMS also recommends further research into the environmental effects, along with research into the “historical, ethical, legal, political, and societal aspects of the geoengineering issues.”



Two letters appeared in the February 2009 issue of Physics Today. Both were written by well-regarded scientists, both questioned the definition and ethics of geoengineering. Robert Frosch, a physicist, pointed out the definition of geoengineering, which he gives as, “purposeful action intended to manipulate the environment on a very large–especially global–scale.” Frosch points out that a decline in anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions is included in this definition. Since most people agree that our carbon dioxide emissions should decline, geoengineering in this regard is not so controversial.

Frosch goes on to argue that there might be reason for worry. The intricate feedback loops and adjustments that the climate system has already undergone in accommodating the extra CO2 probably will not follow an exact reverse path if the CO2 concentration declined. To Frosch, the uncertainty in carbon dioxide removal and potential negative side effects are enough to halt CO2 removal. I should point out that this is an opinion letter and has no scientific analysis attached to it other than basic concepts of feedback loops. Frosch’s point is that CO2 mitigation must be studied before it is launched into.

Uncertainty seems to expand every moment with geoengineering. Kevin Trenberth, an NCAR scientist, writes a letter as well which complements Frosch’s plea for caution and research, but tackles geoengineering from an ethical standpoint. Trenberth points out that there will be some regions subjected to the negative effects of climate change, while others flourish. His ethical argument against geoengineering is, “Given that climate change is not universally condemned, how can anyone justify deliberately acting to change the climate to benefit any particular group, perhaps even a majority?” I would argue that the scientific consensus falls on adverse effects outweighing the positive effects. But aside from the science, Dr. Trenberth does point out that for such a large scale change, with such unknown effects, it is unethical to force dissenters to have their climate affected. This is only true where knowledge is available. Our understanding of the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere is much greater than it was when we first started altering the climate in the industrial revolution. We know anthropogenic changes are possible, giving reason to fear any purposely implemented climate change. Of course, when I drive in a car I am actively altering the climate by pumping hydrocarbons into the atmosphere which will become CO2 and remain such for 1000 years.

The ethics of geoengineering are too complicated for me to untangle. Our everyday actions are affecting the climate. Trenberth argues that we can not ethically alter the climate through geoengineering – but our transportation system, our cattle ranches, our factories, things we do every day add up to “geoengineering” by Frosch’s definition.

The ETC group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration) has publicized geoengineering through a contest open to the international public titled, Pie-in-the-Sky-Contest. The goal was to “spotlight the wackiest” creations for geoengineering scenarios. Submissions ranged from ridiculous and somewhat mocking, to others that seemed to fit right in with current inventions created by scientists. The winner, Vicky Schutte of Canada, proposed that we use high powered rockets to permanently pull the earth farther from the sun. A more in-depth description of Ms. Schutte’s proposal can be found here:

The contest seems to have increased public awareness, and definitely public involvement in geoengineering. I wonder what ETC’s motives were in such a competition. The mission of ETC is to promote sustainability on a global and near-global scale through providing those with power over the environment with analysis and research. Altering the earth’s climate falls into that category. It’s alarming to think that a company could potentially take geoengineering, perform their own analysis, and assuming they find financial and technical support, could implement the ideas themselves. The Indian Ocean experiment (see earlier post) may have set an alarming precedent.

This post is largely drawn from an article titled, “The Incredible Economics of Geoengineering,” written by Scott Barrett and published in Environmental Resource Economics in 2007.

As it turns out, economic analysis of geoengineering have found that methods such as stratospheric aerosol injections are extremely cost effective. Barrett explains, “pennies per ton of CO2 mitigated” and it has been reported that “offsetting all greenhouse gas emissions today would cost about $8 billion per year.” Incredible indeed. Of course, the side-effects of geoengineering, which cannot completely be predicted, are neglected in this price. The decline in solar irradiance available to produce solar energy, or grow crops, and the cost if something catastrophic should result from a geoengineered climate–these have not been included in the cost presented. However, as Barrett points out, the current policy of limiting emissions just isn’t cutting it. Most national governments as of now, are unwilling (due to fear of adverse effects on the economy) or unable (due to financial standing) to make the adjustments that would be necessary to cut emissions to the extent needed to reduce climate change (60%-80% as quoted in the Barrett article). Geoengineering provides a much easier solution in terms of economics and convenience.

Another point to consider is that geoengineering is a temporary fix; most options are not permanent, which makes them attractive options in case negative consequences present themselves (for example, depleting the ozone layer). A more comfortable idea for many, is that nations will adjust carbon emissions to the target while using geoengineering to cool the climate in the meantime. This option sounds safe, although Barrett points out, “If geoengineering should prove benign, the incentive to reduce atmospheric concentrations would be muted. A promise to use geoengineering only temporarily may thus lack credibility.” So economically, geoengineering sounds like a great idea before taking into account time and possible adverse effects, which are both unknown quantities. Politically, geoengineering could be sold as a very appealing solution to climate change IF the effect of climate change become threatening.

The ENMOD Convention (full name, Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques) signed in 1977, began as a response to outcry following the controversial use of Agent Orange. Its main goal was to prevent militaries from widespread destruction of the environment, similar to that done by the United States in its use with Agent Orage in the Vietnam War. The United States signed onto the original convention treaty, and nearly 70 countries have signed on to date.

Of interest to the policy debate on geoengineering is the clause that regulates the use of technology on a global environmental scale. Article 1, Section 1 states, “Each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to engage in military or any other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects as the means of destruction, damage or injury to any other State Party.” To elaborate, Article 2 states, “As used in Article 1, the term ‘environmental modification techniques’ refers to any technique for changing–through the deliberate manipulation of natural processes–the dynamics, composition or structure of the Earth, including its biota, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, or of outer space.”

Fascinating–this document, agreed upon by almost eighty countries–explicitly states that no part of the earth system can be deliberately altered through human intervention. This would appear to prevent any attempts at geoengineering, which usually involve alteration to the hydrosphere and atmosphere, from occurring. It at least has laid a platform that if geoengineering were to be implemented, an international convention similar to the one that created ENMOD would be needed to establish consensus to override ENMOD in situations.

However, it is interesting to note that Germany and India recently performed a geoengineering experiment in the Indian Ocean. Both have signed on to ENMOD.


My last post was about the Obama administration’s policy on geoengineering through the words of the president’s science adviser, John Holdren. After backlash resulting from Holdren’s comments, he reportledly had to reclarify that it was his own personal view that geoengineering should be considered, and not that of the administration.

If whatever Holdren says will be taken as a direct stance of the administration, maybe he will be forced into the role of 24/7 spokesman of the administration’s goals, without chance to promote his personal views. Although, shortly after the clarification, Holdren gave a talk at MIT describing his support for geoengineering as a policy option. An option.

John Holdren, science adviser to the president, has made a statement that geoengineeing must be considered an option in handling climate change. He claims, “We don’t have the luxury of taking any approach off the table.” Holdren made it clear that geoengineering is a drastic measures and should only be used as a last resort. An article released by the Associated Press seen here: was based on the first interview Holdren has given since becoming Obama’s science adviser. Holdren’s message was strong and clear. He mentioned that several tipping points (which we are now approaching) would bring us to “really untolerable consequences.” The AP article states, “At first, Holdren characterized the potential need to tinker with the climate just his personal view. However, he went on to say he has raised it in administration discussions.” The fact that such strong “personal” statements are being promoted by the president’s science adviser raises a few questions pertinent to figuring out the role of the science adviser.

Is the role of the science adviser that of a scientist, or rather an extension of the president with respect to issues in science? To clarify; by scientist I mean an extremely scientifically literate person, presenting scientific issues to policymakers without bias–synthesizing a body of knowledge from the scientific community and communicating it to the president. And by science adviser as an extension of the president, I mean a person who shares the political goals of the president, but who specialized in science, and is to carry out goals the president may not have the time or scientific background otherwise required. Is Obama looking for extra hands in carrying out his job? Roger Pielke’s concept of the “Honest Broker” (also the title of his book about it) would not support this role, I believe. The role of the scientist in an advising position would be without bias and reliant solely on fact, similar to Roger Pielke’s “Honest Broker.” Pielke himself commented in the New York Times recently that Holdren’s track record is not that of the honest broker. Holdren is outspoken on the aspects of global warming that societal as well as scientific. So for such a vast and unknown issue as global warming, with such huge impacts for society, what exactly is the role of the science adviser? Should Holdren use his scientific knowledge and position of influence to steer the administration to do what he sees fit? He was picked as science adviser for a reason after all. This is a breech of the Honest Broker role, but is the Honest Broker role applicable to the job that links the executive branch to the scientific world?

Today’s New York Times proclaims that the Obama administration seeks to advance work in climate and energy issues by meeting with “representatives of 16 countries and the European Union” in April and July. The talks will focus on “concrete initiatives and joint ventures that increase the supply of clean energy while cutting greenhouse gas emissions.” The focus of the upcoming meetings is similar to efforts of the past, although greater effort and more urgent action to climate and energy is implied in the article. From a policy standpoint, it appears that geoengineering will not be a policy option until the great carbon dioxide producers of the world have exhausted their attempts to limit greenhouse gas emission.

A March 19th opinion piece in New Scientist summarized the interplay of science and policy in geoengineering. The author states that science can only go so far, and that scientists need to be at the forefront of the geoengineering movement, advising policymakers every step of the way. As highly trained professionals, scientists are best equipped to analyze all the information and implications of the science involved. Policymakers are best equipped to make a decision weighing all risks and societal values. The author asks “politicians to stop begging climatologists for easy answers” and urges scientists to “take off their labcoats sometimes and speak as concerned citizens.”

See link below for full story:

A NOAA scientist in Boulder, Daniel Murphy, recently published a study on the effect that geoengineered sulfur injections in the atmosphere would have on incoming solar radiation. He finds that incoming photons are three times more likely to diffuse and scatter rather than reflect (reflection is responsible for cooling effects). Dr. Murphy also calculated the potential effect this would have on solar power plants. Because solar collectors can only utilize direct solar radiation, Murphy predicts as much as a 20% decrease in solar productivity from solar panels (for details see links below). He also points out that low-budget energy saving efforts like south-facing windows would be less effective with sulfur geoengineered cooling due to the decine in direct sunlight.

These findings, aside from being interesting, show how important it is to have a diverse, interdisciplinary approach to examine the effects of geoengineering. For any type of geoengineering, the entire earth is affected. It behooves governments to encourage (fund) research on the possible and probable outcomes from ecological, atmospheric, energetic and every other kind of scientific standpoint around. To tie into the post before this, maybe extra government funding and time is needed for enough research to make an IPCC-esque panel on geoengineering possible. While it requires the luxury of time to allow the research to develop naturally, it seems that it would be much more thorough than the multiple, independent, focused groups that Victor proposed were needed to tackle the issue. For the great uncertainties in geoengineering to be fully studied a Manhattan Project would not be effective. There are simply too many disciplines, too many unknowns, and no common goal or end in sight. Merely the acquisition of knowledge, which seems able to be handled by our current R&D infrastructure.