The  ​SPICE project sought to investigate whether a balloon could be an affordable option for dispensing sunlight-reflecting particles into the sky. Illustrations by Dylan Glynn. 

​Planet Hackers

How close are we to engineering the planet?

Jan 8 2015, 2:00pm

The  ​SPICE project sought to investigate whether a balloon could be an affordable option for dispensing sunlight-reflecting particles into the sky. Illustrations by Dylan Glynn. 

The scientists had whipped themselves into a frenzy. Gathered in a stuffy conference room in the bowels of a hotel in Berlin, scores of respected climate researchers, mostly middle-aged, mostly white, and mostly men, were arguing about a one-page document that had tentatively been christened the  ​"Berlin Declaration." It proposed ground rules for conducting experiments to explore how we might artificially cool the Earth—planet hacking, basically.

It's most commonly called ​geoengineering. Think Bond-villain-caliber schemes but with better intentions. It's a highly controversial field that studies ideas like ​launching high-flying jets to dust the skies with sulfur in order to block out a small fraction of the solar rays entering the atmosphere, or sending a fleet of drones across the ocean to spray seawater into clouds to ​make them brighter and thus reflect more sunlight.

Those are two of the most discussed proposals for using technology to chill the planet and combat climate change, and each would ostensibly cost a few billion dollars a year—peanuts in the scheme of the global economy. We're about to see the dawn of the first real-world experiments designed to test ideas like these, but first, the scientists wanted to agree on a code of ethics—how to move forward without alarming the public or breaking any laws.

An engineer stepped up to the mic and said that there was no need to regulate any "climatically trivial" experiments in the field. Another disagreed. The only "trivial" real-world geoengineering experiment yet attempted, he said, had caused "very grave social considerations. So apologies, Andrew, but you're talking nonsense." The room buzzed with stifled laughter.

Global warming offers us proof that humans can ​haphazardly toggle the planet's thermostat. Might it be possible that we could harness technology to toggle it back?

Many of the experts in the room—climatologists,  engineers, physicists, anthropologists, legal scholars—had flown to Berlin last August to attend the Climate Engineering Conference, the ​first major international meeting of its kind, because they are becoming increasingly certain that humanity is going to try to answer that question.

Hugh Hunt, one of the attendees, wants to help. He's the epitome of an absentminded professor: cheerful and ruddy-faced, with a freewheeling mind that makes him about as likely, in the presence of a journalist, to rattle off an impressive battery of facts about global carbon production as he is to burst into a show tune. He is a professor of engineering at Cambridge University and one of the key architects of ​the SPICE project—Stratospheric Particle:">Injection for Climate Engineering—which is behind the world's best-known geoengineering experiment.

"Unabated climate change is potentially pretty bad," Hunt told me over lunch. "Geoengineering to fix that is potentially pretty bad. I don't know if you know anyone who has cancer, but chemotherapy is pretty bad. Your hair falls out, your organs fail, and actually, you probably die. But maybe you don't die. Maybe you're cured."

Talk of climate engineering swirled  around us, and it was impossible not to eavesdrop. Richard Branson had sent an emissary to check out carbon-removal projects for the Virgin Earth Challenge. Someone else rattled off the ins and outs of launching a giant mirror into space. ​There were crazier ideas, too.

"Using the cancer analogy, have we  caught climate change early enough, and can we deal with it in gentle ways, soft ways?" Hunt continued. "If we haven't… do we just keel over and die, to use that rather dramatic analogy? Or do we have technologies like chemotherapy that we might apply?"

In 2012, Hunt and his colleagues at  SPICE had planned to lift a balloon tied to a giant hose into the atmosphere, where it would spray out water. They wanted to test a potential delivery mechanism for sulfate aerosols. (In studying volcanic eruptions, climate modelers have learned that the ​expelled sulfur left in the atmosphere temporarily lowers global temperatures.)

Another  schematic from the canceled SPICE project, the closest we've come to real-world experimentation with geoengineering

But the project was canceled amid concerns about conflicts of interest among the researchers involved and what was described in the press as a "public outcry" against geoengineering.

"People think that I'm doing this research in order to promote the use of geoengineering," Hunt said. "It's almost the opposite. I think the idea of geoengineering is abhorrent. We should not have gotten to this shitty place in the first place. We should do everything we can to fix our predicament using the gentlest technologies that we can. Because geoengineering in some of its forms will be pretty horrible."

What are environmental activists so worried about? The major X factors with solar geoengineering include whether it might further dry out Africa, tamper with monsoon seasons, or deplete the ozone layer.

Others have pointed out that by encouraging research, scientists are pulling geoengineering further into the mainstream. Oxford University anthropologist Steve Rayner told me that he and his colleagues were concerned that they were making things "thinkable that ought to be unthinkable."

He feels the idea has become too pervasive, attracted too much attention to be banned outright—someone somewhere will experiment, and some government somewhere will be interested in the results.

"We're looking at dangerous technologies," Hunt said. "If we develop them carefully and responsibly, when governments suddenly wake up to this geoengineering idea they'll discover that people have done quite a lot of work on this and it looks really nasty—rather than say, 'Hey, no one's thought about this, but it looks cheap, it looks good, let's do it tomorrow.' Anyway, that's like the Manhattan Project: 'Hey, no one's thought about nuclear weapons. That looks good, that looks effective, let's do it tomorrow.' They did."

In 2010, 74 percent of the American public had never heard of geoengineering. Since then, it has been the subject of a New Yorker article, a plot device in the sci-fi film Snowpiercer, and a story in a few news cycles. Like when the entrepreneur Russ George dumped 100 tons of iron off the coast of Canada to see if it would grow plankton blooms to suck CO2 out of the sea, or when the authors of Freakonomics claimed geoengineering could be a cheap way to fight climate change. All of the above helped grow geoengineering from an idea laughed off by the scientific community into something that global-warming-wary governments could feasibly consider an option.

Most recently, a team of Harvard scientists published new research on climate engineering and outlined a detailed proposal for a real-world experiment to test the effect of geoengineering on the ozone layer. The study's lead author said it could take place in under two years.

It's in our nature to gravitate toward the promise of miracles in the face of tragedy.

Back in the town-hall meeting, Rayner  paced the room. With his white beard and hair and affable eloquence, he looked like Jurassic Park's John Hammond considering the ethical ramifications of breeding dinosaurs.

"We think a ban [on geoengineering  projects] would not be sustainable," Rayner said. "We are also very uncomfortable about the idea of giving carte blanche to the scientific community simply to proceed with experimentation."

Hunt stood and asked how many actual  engineers were in the room. Only three hands went up.

The Berlin Declaration was eventually  abandoned. The aim had been to produce a framework scientists could use to assure the public that future geoengineering experiments would be conducted responsibly, but nothing close to a consensus ever emerged.

The Declaration is more important as  a metaphor, anyway—a growing core of scientists are focusing their energies on geoengineering, and they can't agree on how to proceed. But they may not have to.

"The decisions will be made in the  halls of power, not in these types of meetings. I hate to break it to you," Dr. Wil Burns, of the Washington Geoengineering Consortium, said on the last day of the conference. "The vision I'm putting forward is of the 'Misanthropocene.' It's in our nature to gravitate toward the promise of miracles in the face of tragedy."

Simon Nicholson, of American University,  had a similar worry. "If the political right gets ahold of climate engineering as the rational solution, as the response to climate change, we may see a rush to climate engineering," he said in his speech.

And herein lies the fear of every one  of the scientists working in the field—the severity of climate change and the relative inexpensiveness of climate engineering will lead governments to lean on the technical fix as a solution, when it's anything but. At best, it would be a very temporary, poorly applied Band-Aid. At worst, it could deepen the wound by actively deterring future action. This is the moral hazard of geoengineering—the more likely it seems to serve as a viable solution, the less likely people, governments, and businesses will be to combat climate change the old-fashioned way.

In fact,  ​research carried out by Yale's Dan Kahan found that if geoengineering were first presented as an effective solution to climate change, conservatives would be more likely to actually believe in climate change in the first place. This may be because geoengineering is a capitalist-friendly feat of human ingenuity. It can be carried out by industry, for a fee, and speaks to humanity's capacity to harness technology to overcome our problems. Plus, they could argue, no one would have  to cut down on consumption.

But a number of experts say geoengineering  would be "nearly impossible" to govern.

"I'm actually deeply skeptical that humanity  will ever deploy aerosol sulfates," Rayner said. "Maybe a small island state doing it as an act of civil disobedience, as in, 'We're going to take a small fleet of aircraft and do it, and just you try to stop it.'"

On the last day of the conference, the  Declaration definitively dead, the organizers tried a little experiment to close out the proceedings.

Do these experts—the top scholars and scientists researching the subject in the world—think we will see geoengineering in our lifetime?

"Let's see it for ten years," the emcee said. A few scientists cautiously raised their  hands. Twenty and 30 years saw some more converts. When he called out "fifty years," more than half the room had their hands up.

That, according to the experts, is a 50-50  shot that someone is going to try, this century, to engineer the Earth's climate. To hack the planet.

This article is featured in the January Issue of VICE