I ran into author and Rolling Stone contributing editor Jeff Goodell at Arizona State in Phoenix, where he was a speaker at the Covering the Green Economy conference (I also spoke). Though he had just published a book, the rumpled-looking Goodell didn’t talk about it until prodded by his fellow journalists. The book is How to Cool the Planet (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26), and it’s about geoengineering—scientific approaches to reduce the Earth’s temperature that can achieve positive results without actually reducing the carbon dioxide (CO2) we seem unable to stop pumping into the atmosphere.
Goodell’s book is not science-lite: There’s not a lot of pages devoted to crazed schemes and the dreamers who advance them. Instead, he focuses on some key scientists—including a bleeding-heart liberal who used to organize anti-nuke rallies and a former Dr. Death who created weapons systems with H Bomb designer Edward Teller—who might actually be on to something. The book’s message is that there’s no substitute for reducing CO2 emissions, but given the results of the underachieving Kyoto Treaty and the dramatic failure of COP 15, it doesn’t look like that’s happening anytime soon. And if we continue to ignore the Earth’s dire warnings, geoengineering may be a Hail Mary pass for a planet in trouble. I talked to Goodell after the conference:
MNN: How do you define geoengineering?
GOODELL: The British Royal Society defines it as large-scale, intentional intervention in the climate system to offset global warming. It’s figuring out ways to reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the planet in order to cool things off. It’s also about developing new technologies that could suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in artificial ways in order to reduce concentrations in the atmosphere.
Most people would think that was an impossible task. Did your research in how to cool the planet show that these kinds of things are really achievable on such a big scale?
One of the things that’s really surprising is that when it comes to cooling off the planet by blocking sunlight you don’t have to block very much, only 1 or 2 percent. That could offset a doubling of CO2 emissions, and doubling is the common yardstick you’ll find scientists use to talk about climate sensitivity.There are simple things that would mimic natural processes. For instance, we know that big volcanoes like Mount Pinatubo, which erupted in the Philippines in 1992, put a lot of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. The particles act like tiny mirrors. Mount Pinatubo actually lowered the temperature of the Earth by about a degree for several years.
One of the most promising and interesting ideas here is to mimic nature — build an artificial volcano that would put small amounts of such particles high into the stratosphere, higher even than a volcano would do, and reflect away a small amount of sunlight. That has not been done yet, but it is very doable, and it could have the effect of cooling off the planet. It does not eliminate the need for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but if you wanted to find a way to cool off the planet quickly, this is one way to do it.
If I took these ideas to leading climate scientist James Hansen or to environmental writer and350.org founder Bill McKibben, would they scoff at them?
I was on a panel with Bill McKibben a few weeks ago inVermont
. Bill says the fact that we’re even talking about this seriously is a measure of how desperate things have become. One of the reasons I got into geoengineering was that I wrote a book about coal ["Big Coal"]. I realized that the world was not going to stop burning coal anytime soon, and the technology to remove CO2 from the coal stacks is not likely to work on a large scale. And so that means we’re going to be pumping a whole lot more CO2 into the atmosphere for a long time, and we’re going to blow through a whole lot of the targets scientists have set in order to avoid the risk of dangerous climate change.
And so what might we do, what are other ways of dealing with this problem? I think people like Bill McKibben and James Hansen would say this is very dangerous, manipulating the climate on this level. And we really should focus our intentions on reducing CO2 levels. And I totally agree with them. But despite what Hansen has been saying for 30 years and McKibben for almost as long, we’re not doing a very good job of it. Emissions are going up, up, up, and by any meaningful measure we’re not making progress.
So I think it’s important to at least think about geoengineering, to at least articulate what the risks and dangers are so we can better understand it.
What are some of the more far-out geoengineering concepts for reducing global warming effects?
There are basically two categories of techniques, one of which is reducing the amount of sunlight that hits the planet, which would work very quickly — it’s like popping a parasol on a beach. And in that category are things like pumping particles high into the stratosphere, and also brightening marine clouds. We know that can work because ships do it — particles from diesel exhaust stimulate cloud growth and reflect away sunlight. Other ideas are about changing the reflectivity of the Earth — even Energy Secretary Steven Chu
has talked about painting roofs white, and roads white, which would have a small effect.
The other category encompasses ideas that would suck CO2 out of the air, ranging from dumping iron into the ocean to stimulating plankton blooms (which would pull carbon out of the surface waters and out of the air). There is also using a chemical process to build machines called artificial trees that will pull CO2 out of the atmosphere directly. Think of a kind of iron lung for the planet that would allow us to dial in the kind of climate we want. Those are some of the more practical things.
One of the far-out, science-fiction ideas is putting mirrors in space—I don’t take those ideas very seriously because they’re very expensive and would take hundreds of years to implement. Researchers also have had the crazy idea of dumping plastic balls or Styrofoam into the ocean in order to change the reflectivity of the Arctic Ocean. Some have even talked about launching a nuclear weapon at the moon to create a lot of moondust and reflect away sunlight. There are a lot of wacky ideas.
Isn’t there some idea involving the breakfast cereal Special K?
Yes, one researcher has talked about dumping thousands of millions of tons of Special K into the ocean with the idea that it would change the reflectivity of the oceans while also adding nutrients and creating plankton blooms—so it would be a lot of bang for the buck. These are the nutty ideas that a lot of garage thinkers are putting out there. I tried to not focus too much on that stuff, because it just makes you laugh and this is a really serious endeavor. To focus too much attention on those things undercuts the seriousness of the science.
I think you were a bit surprised that the fossil fuel lobby actually loves your book.
When the galleys of the book came out, the first call I got was from one of the big fossil fuel lobbying firms, inviting me to Washington
and offering to sponsor talks. They love the idea, because if it’s positioned for them in the right way, which for me is the wrong way. They hear the message, “We don’t have to worry about cutting back on oil and coal and other fossil fuels if we can just put some sulfur particles up in the sky and continue on our merry way.” It’s a diet pill for our climate problems. But in reality, that’s kind of a nightmare scenario because reducing the sunlight that hits the planet is not a cure-all for the problems of high CO2 levels. Among other things, we’d still have to deal with the most important consequence of those high levels, which is the ongoing acidification of the oceans.
Jim Motavalli is a New York Times contributor who blogs about green transportation for MNN.
Photo courtesy of Rainforest Action Network via MNN.