If humans gave up on geoengineering after 50 years, it could be far worse than if we had done nothing at all

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/01/23/timescale-mismatch.html

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Any geoengineering project will have to be unthinkably well-insulated from shifts in the political winds in order to avoid jeopardizing the planet.

Kind of like the Apollo program, right? Any bright ideas how we save the entire world while cutting taxes on anybody who can buy a tax cut?


The only way to implement a long term geo-engineering project would be the follow the supervillain model and do it despite the whims of politics.


we’ll just stop at 49 years then


If the Night King sat around waiting until the political climate was right then winter would NEVER come to the Seven Kingdoms.


That’s a great idea…until the supervillain dies and the supervillian’s daughter likes it just a bit hotter.

The list of possible responses to this news includes: “No shit!”, “Who cares, I’ll be dead anyway,” “Those scientists don’t know what they’re talking about, they used to say smoking was good for you!”, and “LA LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!”

Somehow the handful of “Huh, interesting, I hadn’t thought of that” responses seems unlikely to affect public perception or decision making. This makes me sad.

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Reverse psychology?
Climate scientists and left-leaning politicians could vigorously claim that conservatives were right all along, everything is okay, and that the last thing church groups and conservatives need to do is worry about the environment. Yep, nothing to see here, don’t get involved.

Consider a formal statement expressly forbidding long-term geo-engineering, because long-term geo-engineering will definitely and for sure hurt “those people” (dog whistle of your choice). Really emphasize how much long-term engineering would be a significant “screw you” to “those people”. Probably destroy “their” communities, like long-term geo-engineering would literally raze “those” communities to the ground.

Finally, make the case that atheists oppose geo-engineering on the grounds that God did NOT give man dominion of the Earth, so any claim that humans have the right to engage in long-term geo-engineering is crazy and offensive. Emphasize separation of church and state in this argument, it’s like catnip.

That might work?


And any attempt at geoengineering is virtually certain to be shut down at some point in the future. The thing is, all the model studies for these projects show that they can be used to adjust the global average surface temperature with a surprising degree of accuracy. But the regional effects will be all over the place - some regions will be much warmer, some will experience cooling, and most places will experience significant shifts in their weather patterns. Its only in the average that things look okay. Which means it won’t take long for one of the regions experiencing negative impacts to force the project to be shut down (one way or another).

It’s like arguing over the thermostat setting, but multiplied by 7 billion.


Establish many programs. If we need to idiot-proof this, then maybe that’s what needs to be done.

And then do as much as we can. If possible, over spend on this. Let a thousand flowers bloom, but a million would be better. Those who would prune our efforts to save what we can would then have their work cut out for them.

Get the military involved. That has a tendency to establish standards and procedures (and cement them).

It would be pretty cool if some of this work could be done from space.

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Or it’s all a big conspiracy for reasons A,B and C.

Just to be clear, if humans gave up on THIS form of geoengineering it’d suck. Not necessarily all forms would have this kind of problem.

E.g., anything you do to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is pretty much guaranteed to be safe.* If going from 399 ppm to 400 ppm didn’t send you over some sort of catastrophic tipping point, then neither will going from 400 back down to 399, or getting complacent and letting it rise back up to 400 once again.

* i.e., “safe” in terms of these kinds of effects. No comment on how difficult it would be to do such a thing in a way that was not itself destructive to the environment.


Renewable energy and carbon sequestration simply can’t move fast enough to prevent real disaster in Antarctic above all (and Arctic disaster sooner as a painful harbinger of bigger things). Buying 50 years would substantially increase our hope of doing the rest in time. In those 50 years, sheer exhaustion will also reduce the power of fundamentalists in the oil industry to keep us from saving our lives (and theirs!). Still, we do have a little time to work to develop other geoengineering options besides sulfate particles. If we had any sanity at all, we would be working very energetically to develop such options. This is not a game; if we don’t buy more time, we are ;probably dead.


This seems like a pretty far-fetched failure mode to me. The most cost effective thing to be doing first, is curb emissions, and that doesn’t look like it’ll happen anytime soon anyway.

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Geotherapy rather than geoengineering, please. Geotherapy is the idea of using existing ecological systems to repair the damage anthropogenic activity, like climate change, has caused. It, unlike geoengineering, is a systems solutions for a systems problem.

Geotherapy: Innovative Methods of Soil Fertility Restoration, Carbon Sequestration, and Reversing CO2 Increase (https://www.crcpress.com/Geotherapy-Innovative-Methods-of-Soil-Fertility-Restoration-Carbon-Sequestration/Goreau-Larson-Campe/p/book/9781466595392) is the one academic text I know of which covers at least part of this subject.

The video proceedings of the conferences Biodiversity for a Livable Climate (http://bio4climate.org) has organized are another great resource on this topic as is the continuing work of Soil 4 Climate (http://soil4climate.org).

As a layperson who has been monitoring climate science at Harvard and MIT since the late 1970s, I can tell you that the concept of geotherapy never comes up unless I raise it. I have even attended some of the solar geoengineering seminars David Keith and others have presented at these two institutions and don’t believe that these extremely smart people have a lick of wisdom. They come across to me as engineers excited to have a hammer seeing everything around them as a nail to bang home.


The US Army Corps of Engineers reporting for duty:


Well, we’ve been geoengineering for about 200 years now, with no sign of stopping yet…


True. And it would be ideal. But some of the science I’ve read indicates even if all emissions ceased altogether, some sort of ameliorative effort is still going to be needed.

Go Army!


Well, this is the first time I’ve even read the term, so yeah.
Sounds interesting, I’ll look into it.

TL;DR, but isn’t this “bad outcome scenario” predicated not on the geoengineering itself, but the idea that if you do it people will think they no longer have to reduce carbon, and allow the level to continue to rise? Done in conjunction with carbon reduction geoengineering buys us and our nonhuman shipmates on the good vessel Earth time to correct our errors.

I fear just reduction is simply not enough at this point, and we’re currently not doing it as fast as we can. Witness our Feckless Leader throwing a wrench in the expansion of the solar business just to favor his pals, it’s like fighting over who gets the good seat on a sinking lifeboat.