'It's Only a Matter of Time': Scientists Consider Geoengineering a Cooler Planet

The current state of geoengineering, as seen from the front lines of the first and biggest international conference ever held to examine the subject.

Geoengineering—basically, hacking the planet's climate system to cool it off—is a touchy subject. So touchy that some argue it shouldn't be touched at all. Yet 300 scientists, policymakers, legal experts, and NGOs have traveled to Berlin precisely to discuss it, in its biggest public forum yet.

That paradox is central to understanding the concept of climate engineering, which scares just about everybody who actually works on it. But so does the prospect that humanity might not reduce its carbon emissions in time to stave off catastrophic global warming.

"We have to decide what it would mean if humans were to try to take control of the world's climate," said Dr. Mark Lawrence, the scientific director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, who delivered the opening remarks.

As such, the first two days of the Climate Engineering Conference 2014 offers what we could plausibly consider an accurate snapshot of the current state of geoeningeering: Interested scientists are calling for more research and proposing new ideas for climate control; public institutions and politicians are weary of getting too involved; humanitarian groups are worried about the ramifications; and legal scholars are already declaring the most ambitious geoengineering proposals "ungovernable."

A few staunch geoengineering advocates want to put the pedal down, hard.

And a few staunch advocates want to put the pedal down, hard.

Regardless, more parties than ever are taking seriously the notion that geoengineering may become a reality.

If it did, the group assembled here would play a serious role: Fiercely intelligent scientists and civic leaders—mostly white, mostly men, and mostly Americans and Europeans—who've spent years deliberating and studying how and when the global climate system could be modified. At least, that's what the first two panels that launched the conference looked like, and it's fairly representative of the group gathered in Berlin. (Organizers did take care to invite representatives from around the world, but attendees skew heavily towards Americans and Europeans.)

The plans fall into two categories—highly contentious solar radiation management plans, like scattering aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and rapidly lower global temperatures, and less controversial carbon dioxide removal schemes, like using machines to suck CO2 out of the sky to slow warming.

The scientists here are, for the most part, in favor of at least greenlighting further research on the subject—as long as it is carefully monitored, even internationally regulated. The hot topic of the first day was the so-called Berlin Declaration, a document submitted by Oxford anthropologist Steve Rayner that proposes a framework for scientific research on climate engineering.

"We should be mindful of the wisdom of the crowd," he said, and should "not proceed without a transparent and open review process." Proposed experiments thus far, like floating a balloon into the atmosphere that could seed clouds, would have a negligible impact on the climate at large, but have alarmed the public on the strength of their mere implications: that scientists and governments are considering geoengineering the globe.

Ken Caldeira, a high-profile American climatologist who supports research into geoengineering, questions the feasibility of such governance. And he notes that much more research is needed:

"The class of things that we think we know but don't is bigger than we think," he said.

At the end of the second day, the climate strategy consultant Rafe Pomerance suggested that ARPA-E, the US government's cleantech incubator, should invest in geoengineering techniques. In breakout sessions, scientists described ideas like 'enhanced mineral weathering', like dumping huge amounts of the abundant mineral olivine into the ocean or onto beaches, where it would dissolve in the sea and act as a carbon sink.

Olivine, image: Wikimedia

Every decision has to be reversible.

Most of the geoengineering community's discussion takes place in a weedy middle ground: Few want to be seen as championing it outright, some are convinced it should be off the table entirely, and most think it should be studied in greater detail, cautiously. Politicians, especially, sounded more restrained notes.

"Every decision has to be reversible," said René Rospel, a parliamentarian with Germany's Social Democratic Party, who appeared supportive of further research. Georg Schutte, the German State Secretary at the Federal Ministry for Education and Research, emphasized that the focus had to be on carbon reduction. But:

"There has to be a plan B," he said, "this is why we have been following the debate for some time, and why we wanted to get involved."

More vigorous strains of opposition came from the legal and humanitarian sectors.

"Something will go wrong," Dr. Pablo Suarez, of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center, said in his talk. "Not everything will go wrong, but something will go wrong. When something goes wrong, it is us the humanitarian workers that will have to pick up the pieces. That has me very concerned. Who should pay for humanitarian funding in a geoneingeered world?" 

"The assumption of rationality is way too strong," Suarez added, noting that in Latin America, many would be inherently suspicious of American and European efforts to modify the climate.

The handful of African scientists in attendance echoed that concern. "What you're going to do, is to improve the situation in some parts of the world, but worsen it in others," Dr. Cush Ngonzo Luwesi, of Kenya's Kenyatta University, said. He agreed with a statement from a 2013 report called the Governance of Research on Solar Geoengineering: African Perspectives, that proposed that "[Solar radiation management] should likewise be overseen by a newly formed institution, ideally with veto power resting on Africa and other countries most vulnerable to climate change."

Rachel Smolker, the co-director of Biofuelwatch, pointed out to me that civil society has barely been engaged on the topic—so the public is largely in the dark about geoengineering issues in general.

Meanwhile, some legal scholars found the very idea of geonengineering all but unworkable.

"It is ungovernable. Because it is ungovernable, it will have huge social costs," University of Sussex professor Paul Nightingale, the author of The Security Implications of Geoengineering, said. "I strongly believe it is completely ungovernable."

"We seem to be operating under the assumption that scientists are going to be doing the geoengineering. I would like to challenge that," he added. "Scientists are going to be constrained by international law. It's much easier for the military to engage in these activities."

Salter's design for cloud whiteners

Yet there are some who are entirely convinced that geoengineering should be fast-tracked. Dr. Stephen Salter, the renowned wave energy expert who has proposed whitening marine clouds with a fleet of autonomous vessels, is the most vocal climate engineering proponent I've spoken to. He emphasized the risks presented by a thawing Arctic as a reason to actually commence geoengineering with cloud brightening, a method he says could be halted with ease if its effects proved deleterious.

"I feel like an outsider. The majority of people here don't want this to happen," Salter says. "There's four or five people actually here working to make this to happen, and they're all feeling very much like unwelcome outsiders."

Whether they want it to happen or not, many scientists I interviewed considered geoengineering inevitable, given mankind's unwillingness to address climate change otherwise. The climate and policy analyst Penehuro Lefale and hydrologist Masahiko Haraguchi each predicted climate engineering was all but guaranteed. Caldeira told me he gave it a 10-30 percent chance of happening. Rayner told me that part of the reason he drafted the Declaration is that some scientist, somewhere, was going to take a stab at geoengineering, with or without a framework.

The consensus seemed to be that climate engineering experiments were on the horizon. So are we going hack the planet?

"I'm pretty sure we will," Lefale said. "It's only a matter of time."