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Getting it Right

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A Survival Guide to Geoengineering, my essay for Momentum, the journal of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, is now available online and via PDF. It's an exploration of what would be necessary to reduce the risks associated with geoengineering, if (or, sadly, when) it gets deployed. This essay served as the basis of the talk I gave at the State of Green Business Forum last month.

The first part of the essay is a recap of the main issues around geoengineering -- the kinds of proposals out there, the uncertainties involved, and the political dilemmas. But the real focus is the list of five key steps that I believe to be mandatory to steer us away from the worst potential results of geoengineering:

  • Transparency
  • Ongoing international advisory group
  • A bottom-up "Ecoscientists without Borders"
  • Clear mechanisms for resolving disputes
  • Ban (with teeth) on non-state projects

Interestingly, when I gave the talk in February going over these ideas, the last is the one that I got the most push-back on. I suspect that, once real mechanisms for monitoring and managing global climate systems are in place, non-state projects could be useful and warranted. For now, however, it seems clear that non-state groups acting independently are more likely to lead to inter-state disputes than any persistent moderation of temperatures or carbon.


One of the ideas I heard at the Fall 2009 conference on geoengineering at MIT was that any geoengineering scheme must be reversible. Probably a good idea and an extension of the precautionary principle.

Another is that once you start geoengineering, you have to continue doing it. Unfortunately, we have already started geoengineering: thinning of stratospheric ozone, climate change, ocean acidification, plastic garbage islands.... We've done it ignorantly and very badly and now we have to get good at it.

I say start with zero emissions and then proceed with ecological systems designs or advanced biomimicry. Unfortunately, this will not be seen as heroic and macho enough for the media and the politicians.

This stuff just scares the fertilizer out of me. I agree that we need all the key steps you listed, and I'm certain we won't get them all. Transparency? I just don't see it happening (No pun intended. Well, maybe a bit.) Restrictions against non-state actors? What's to stop a Greenpeace-like group from fertilizing the Southern Ocean with powdered iron, once the deed is done?

As to any geoengineering activity being reversible, I worry about a triggering a chaotic flip that we won't notice until we've passed it. Then what do we do? Say "oops"?

Here's a thought experiment for you, grounded in a developing technology.

It may be possible to use concentrating solar power to achieve high-enough temperatures that a catalyst such as zinc can be used to extract hydrocarbons from atmospheric CO2. One process yields CO, another CH4. No indications yet if this is scaleable, but if it is, it would be a way to "reverse" the flow of hydrocarbons to CO2 to atmosphere. Nifty, yes? (Of course, if the hydrocarbons are burned again, the CO2 re-enters the atmosphere, but a large portion might become plastics, "synthetic biochar," etc.)

But what if we get greedy? What if several nations EACH decide to extract significant hydrocarbons from the atmosphere? The atmosphere, after all, is a commons - and that has been a fundamental problem when it comes to greenhouse gasses. But what happens if the process can be reversed and the atmosphere is still a commons?

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