Geoengineering on the table


John Holdren, recently confirmed as President Obama’s science adviser, has said in an interview that discussions at the White House include looking at geoengineering options to reduce the effects of global warming. He stressed that it would be a last resort, but can’t be ruled out of discussion if the failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions continues. He is concerned that several tipping points could be fast approaching, with chances of “really intolerable consequences”, instancing the possible loss of Arctic summer sea ice within six years, the release of frozen methane from thawing permafrost in Siberia, and more and bigger wildfires worldwide. He would much prefer to see the problem solved by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, but global warming is happening so fast that geoengineering has to be looked at. “We don’t have the luxury … of ruling any approach off the table.”

Holdren mentioned two geoengineering options in the interview. One was shooting sulphur particles into the upper atmosphere, mimicking the effect of volcanoes in screening out the incoming sunlight. There could be grave side effects to such an operation. Studies indicate they might include eating away a large chunk of the ozone layer above the poles and causing the Mediterranean and the Mideast to be much drier. The other option mentioned was the so-called artificial trees proposed by Lackner to strip CO2 from the atmosphere for sequestration.

The Presidential science adviser is leaving no doubt as to how seriously he regards the threat of climate change. The geoengineering options are not offered as optimistic alternatives to emissions reduction, but as emergency measures we may be forced to try if we fail to reduce emissions. The interview was cheering in its indication that the full reality of global warming is understood in the White House but sobering in its acknowledgment that desperate measures may have to be considered. Scientific reality has been admitted to the White House, but it is not yet clear to what extent Congress has put out the welcome mat. If legislation doesn’t soon produce major emission reductions desperate measures become more likely.

Hot Topic’s review of Fixing Climate described the CO2 stripping process Holdren referred to, and this post explored it further. It would require major construction efforts and careful attention to safe CO2 storage, but it looks a much less risky process than some of the other geoengineering proposals. Its scale is more modest, aiming at restoring balance by taking back some of the excess carbon we have released into the atmosphere. Its risks seem confined to the safety of the sequestration.

5 thoughts on “Geoengineering on the table”

  1. It’s pretty disheartening to see this geoengineering card laid on the table by a person as high up the ladder as John Holdren.
    Please don’t misunderstand, I realize that the possible future use of geoengineering cannot be ignored.
    But it’s the fact that it is entering into the picture should make everyone realize just how much danger we are in…

  2. I see that Holdren has issued a clarification of his comments in the interview I reported in this post. He explains that although he had mentioned geoengineering in discussions at the White House this did not mean that the White House is giving serious consideration to it. His personal view is that if we get desperate enough we will have to consider geoengineering, but that is not White House policy. He emphasized that our most pressing concern should be to curb greenhouse gas emissions to prevent global warming from reaching catastrophic proportions.

    But he does think we are in serious danger and I’m sure his clarification won’t intend to soft-pedal on that perception. In all that I have read or heard from him there is an unrelenting clarity about the scientific understanding of what is happening.

  3. Joseph Romm has a post today on John Holdren’s comments, in which he points to Holdren’s long-standing critique of geoengineering. He asked Holdren whether he stands by what he said three years ago, which Romm often quotes: “The ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.“ Holdren replied to Romm in an email that that was exactly what he said in his interview.

  4. Having done many press interviews:

    1) Interviewee
    2) Reporter
    3) Person who adds the article title (oftne NOT the reporter)
    4) Editor
    and anything can happen at any stage. In many companies, only a few people are allowed to talk to the press… and even good reporters can goof, and even when they do it well, an editor may squeeze the words, or the titler not capture a nuanced discussion into a short title, or accidentally mis-title in bizarre ways.
    See How I lost 15% of a company’s stock value in a few hours, for example.

    This sequence reminds one to *always* consider the old military maxim (usually attributed to General Sherman, but I suspect it is much older):

    “The first report from the front is always wrong.”

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