Is Geoengineering Inevitable?

As I write, talk, teach and think about climate change seemingly non-stop these days, I frequently come back to the pessimistic conclusion that we cannot solve the climate problem through mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions.  I have this pessimistic thought while believing wholeheartedly that we must enact aggressive policies to cut emissions dramatically.

My pessimism stems from at least three places.  An obvious one is China and India.  No matter what the U.S. does, we cannot solve the climate change problem alone.  Even if the U.S. stopped emitting carbon altogehter global emissions would still exceed levels that scientists believe are necessary to minimize temperature increases.  My second cause for pessimism is that virtually every model used to predict climate-related issues has been wrong in the wrong direction.  Global emissions  may be outpacing the worst case scenarios included  in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.    Sea levels are rising faster than predicted.  And the list goes on.   Finally, I fear tipping points and feedback effects:  as the globe warms,  “feedback loops” intensify warming (e.g., warmer oceans store less carbon and release more into the atmosphere,  melting sea ice can accelerate the melting of sea ice and so forth) making climate change worse than predicted.

If my pessimism is justified, does it lead to the inevitable conclusion that  geoengineering looms in our future?  Or at least that we ought to be planning for the possibility?  Geoengineering involves either removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere entirely or manipulating the climate system through, for example, injecting sulfates into the atmosphere in an effort to cool the planet or fertilizing the ocean with iron.   These proposals can be enormously expensive and, more importantly, could make the cure worse than the disease.

And yet.  Shouldn’t we be at least planning for the possibility?  Credible scientists have begun to step into the fray, led in 2005 by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen’s proposal to add sulphate aerosols into the stratsophere.  Should auction revenue from a cap and trade program or new scientific funding be targeted toward responsible geoengineering research?  Should international organziations work to coordinate global cooperation on the topic aimed not just at regulating behavior but at enhancing research and understanding of geoengineering’s possibilities?

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Reader Comments

3 Replies to “Is Geoengineering Inevitable?”

  1. Dear Ann,

    Thank you for the post. A helpful piece pointing in the same direction is David G. Victor, M. Granger Morgan, Jay Apt, John Steinbruner, and Katherine Ricke, The Geoengineering Option – A Last Resort Against Global Warming?, Foreign Affairs 64- (March/April 2009). Like you, they note that strategies include not only ideas for the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but also ideas, more importantly in their view, to increase the albedo of the atmosphere. From a legal standpoint, they argue that international norms regarding such efforts need to be developed. Although Victor et al are more concerned with unilateral efforts by states, the present private undertakings at fertilization of the oceans also foreshadow the future need for such norms.


  2. Thanks David. I’ve seen the Victor et al piece and am glad to see Foreign Affairs addressing geoengineering with a special issue. Scary stuff but I’m afraid perhaps our only option.

  3. At a talk by one of the IPCC authors last spring, an audience member asked whether there would be a way of stopping a country seriously threatened by climate change (think Pakistan or Bangladesh) from, for example, blasting sulfates into the stratosphere. I’ve yet to hear anyone allay that fear.

    In a bit or irony that was either sad or fortunate, I approached a professor about writing a paper on this topic, but he dismissed it as too farfetched to be worth serious thought.

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About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

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About Ann

Ann Carlson is currently on leave from UCLA School of Law. She is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and was the founding Faculty Director of the Emmett I…

READ more