climate change

Planet Hacks: Climate Engineering Is About to Get Real

The world's first major international geoengineering meeting is now officially underway in Berlin.

Brian Merchant

Brian Merchant

Doc Searls

An elite cabal of scientists has gathered in Germany, where, in badly lit rooms, it hashes out grand schemes to control the planet's climate.

Okay, comparing geoengineering—or climate engineering, or the "deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system, in order to moderate global warming," as Britain's Royal Society puts it—to mad science supervillainy is a little predictable at this point. But I just couldn't help myself.

This is the Climate Engineering Conference 2014, after all. It's the first major international, interdisciplinary meeting convened to examine, very seriously, an idea that in any other era would literally have seemed either incomprehensible. Or blasphemous: artificially changing the Earth's climate itself. Hacking the planet, in the hackneyed parlance of our times.

Three hundred dignitaries, scholars, and scientists have traveled to Germany from 40 different nations for the occasion. The conference's aim, according to its charter, is to "bring together the diverse stakeholders involved in the debate—including academic researchers and representatives from the policy and civil society communities…" to "address comprehensively and in a balanced manner the technical, geophysical/geochemical, ethical, and social contexts in which the idea of engineering the climate is being contemplated."

Geoengineering's MO is, essentially, to 'correct' for global warming. The thinking goes that we humans are cooking the planet with a torrent of greenhouse gas emissions—34 billion tons of carbon dioxide alone a year, and counting—and we've proved incapable of slowing down in time to avert planetary disaster. So we need some cheat codes.

We either suck vast quantities of CO2 out of the atmosphere, or find a way to bounce back enough sunlight to balance out the the CO2 we've already stuffed up there. These are the two major kinds of geoengineering—carbon dioxide reduction (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM)—and all manner of both are on the docket this week.

More specifically, we're talking injecting the atmosphere with aerosols to bounce back sunlight (SRM), giant mechanical honeycombs that absorb carbon (CDR), ocean drones that spew out clouds (SRM), mirrors launched into space (SRM), or dumping vast amounts of iron into the ocean (CDR).

Those schemes are just the tip of the iceberg, too. All manner of ideas; some bizarre, some feasible, some exorbitantly expensive, some disturbingly cheap, will be brought to the table this week. And just the fact that leading scientists, policymakers, and delegates will be discussing these ideas at CEC 2014 is milestone enough.

In the international and academic communities, geoengineering is still something of a scientific non grata: a field wrapped in taboo wrapped in enigma. It's so loaded that many argue even talking about it is a bad idea; that by even positing that geoengineering is a possibility, these luminaries are detracting from what should be the true and only order of the day on the climate front—transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean energy, and drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

You'll hear the term 'moral hazard' raised a lot in conversations about geoengineering. The implication is that even by floating the idea that climate change can be solved with a techno-fix, it's presenting humanity with a get-out-of-jail-free card that could erode the impetus for tougher action.

Yet geoengineering has wormed its way further into the social and cultural consciousness since the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen published one of the first widely-considered papers on the subject just less than a decade ago.

Since then, there have been New Yorker articles and general audience books and an increasing number of policy and academic institutions publicly deliberating over geoengineering. And, perhaps, there's also a slowly growing familiarity and creeping willingness to consider this risky nuclear option from average citizens. For better or for worse, we're talking about hacking the planet.

Let's be clear: This is fairly terrifying stuff, from every angle. Nearly all of those involved admit that should geonengineering ever be attempted, there will be unintended consequences. Weather patterns could shift, temps might grow too cold; there could be drought. Meanwhile, the fact that humanity has backed itself so far into a carbonic corner as to need to consider these drastic options at all is hellish enough.

And so, lawmakers, scientists, and civic leaders will sit in a hotel in Berlin and stare this possibility in the face: What are the options? Which are the less bad ones? Which have been tested? Which can reflect the most sunlight, draw down the most carbon, for the cheapest? What geoengineering scheme gets the planet the most bang for its buck? Which are so cheap that we need worry about rogue geoengineers going ahead with planetary-scale experiments, intents altruistic or no?

Who's going to stop them? How do we govern any of this in the first place? Who gets to geongineer, if at all, and where, and for how long, and under whose auspices?

These are the questions that will be asked this week, out loud, in public by esteemed scientists and public figures, in the new twisted hot reality that is the Anthropocene. They've already proposed a framework with which to govern future planet-hacking experiments. 

All of the above is why I had to be there. This moment feels heavy and historic, exhilarating and exhausting: We're actually taking this seriously. If humankind is going to end up engineering the climate, the seeds of how it will happen will likely be sown this week, here in Berlin. Stay tuned.