GeoEngineering: Contemplating the Last Resort

December 2, 2014

“If we’re going to be as Gods, we might as well get good at it” was a catch phrase in the Last Whole Earth Catalog.
I don’t think this is what they had in mind.
Scientists have been contemplating the Last Resort.  Above, Rutger’s Alan Robock on pros, and cons.


The carbon emissions that cause climate change are continuing to rise and, without sharp cuts, the world is set for “severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts”. This has led some to propose geoengineering but others have warned that unforeseen impacts of global-scale action to try to counteract warming could make the situation worse.

Matthew Watson, at the University of Bristol, who led one of the studies in the £5m research programme, said: “We are sleepwalking to a disaster with climate change. Cutting emissions is undoubtedly the thing we should be focusing on but it seems to be failing. Although geoengineering is terrifying to many people, and I include myself in this, [its feasibility and safety] are questions that have to be answered.”

Watson led the Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (Spice) project, which abandoned controversial attempts to test spraying droplets into the atmosphere from a balloon in 2012. But he said on Wednesday: “We will have to go outside eventually. There are just some things you cannot do in the lab.”

Prof Steve Rayner at the University of Oxford, who led the Climate Geoengineering Governance project, said the research showed geoengineering was “neither a magic bullet nor a Pandora’s box”.

But he said global security would be threatened unless an international treaty was agreed to oversee any sun-blocking projects. “For example, if India had put sulphate particles into the stratosphere, even as a test, two years before the recent floods in Pakistan, no one would ever persuade Pakistan that that had not caused the floods.”

Here, Dr. Mike MacCracken fleshes out some additional ideas, including, very interesting possibilities for ice breakers and Arctic solar heat management.


Dr Watson, principal investigator for the Spice project which is looking at ways of simulating the cooling effects of volcanoes, said: “Personally, this stuff terrifies me.

“I’m easily terrified. I think if we ever deploy SRM (Solar Radiation Management) it will be the closest indication yet that we’ve failed as planetary stewards.

“I believe that. It’s a watershed for our relationship with the Earth and with nature. It fundamentally changes the way seven billion people are going to interact with the world, and I’m not sure the system is going to be controllable in the way we want.”

SRM envisages using water droplets or sulphur particles to reduce the amount of radiation from the Sun reaching the Earth, mimicking what happens after major volcanic eruptions.

An early Spice experiment, one of the first to move geoengineering technology out of the laboratory, was cancelled in May amid controversy over alleged conflicts of interest.

The trial would have used a weather balloon to inject 150 litres of piped water into the atmosphere.

Scientists are still in the process of uncovering the potential hazards of geoengineering to counteract climate change.

One of the biggest risks is disrupting the delicate balance of land and sea weather influences, resulting in drought and extreme rainfall in different parts of the world.

Another danger specifically linked to sulphur particles is the destruction of atmospheric ozone, a vital barrier to harmful solar radiation that can trigger skin cancer and have damaging effects on plants and animals.

Dr Watson, a reader in natural hazards from the University of Bristol, does not expect to see such technology deployed in this decade, but believes the day may come when it cannot be avoided.



10 Responses to “GeoEngineering: Contemplating the Last Resort”

  1. indy222 Says:

    The one geo-engineering idea which would seem NOT to have much in the way of unintended consequences is atmospheric CO2 removal. Difficult and energy-intensive, but I don’t see much about that any more. What happened to Lackner’s idea of resins and artificial trees? He had some pretty dramatic claims about efficiency and cost, and then got with a private outfit, and since then I’ve heard nothing.
    But if we wait too long, even if we decide we must do it regardless of $cost, we may have to risk triggering an Ice Age by the magnitude of the removal necessary.

    • Enhanced weathering takes advantage of the chemical potential energy in the system (mantle outcroppings, atmospheric CO2) to take the latter down in a pretty much self-powering way. Not perfectly so, but one coal – fired electricity plant dedicated to it could make itself and seven others carbon – neutral.

  2. Countering Carbon Dioxide Increase with Carbon Dioxide Reduction is the opposite of geo-engineering.

  3. ubrew12 Says:

    Plow the southern ocean. Trawlers pull a ‘water-brake’ type of plow miles wide and reaching 200ft deep. The plow induces an artificial bloom behind it by pulling nutrient-laden water up into the sunlight zone. Carbon is captured as CaCO3 by plankton and much of that drifts to the ocean bottom in the usual way. A side benefit is an increase in fishery mass.

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    Let’s turn “cynical Monday” into “Cynic Week”. Robuck, McCracken et al are presently “dining out” on the concept of geo-engineering, but if they had any honesty at all, they’d be screaming “What are you people?, F**KING CRAZY??!

    It’s just more of the hubris, anthropocentrism, and technocentrism that infects the human race like a virus that anyone is contemplating geo-engineering of any sort. We’re in the end stages of one grand experiment now—-burning up millions of years worth of accumulated fossil fuels in just three centuries, and it’s not going well. Why does anyone think that we can possibly “undo” it with more “experimentation”?

    It’s obvious that all we have to do is reverse course and cut CO2 emissions back to the point where the planet can “heal” itself. That’s assuming, of course, that we haven’t already exceeded some tipping points and it’s only lag time that is keeping us from knowing that.

    True to form, folks start chipping in om Crock with Lackner’s “trees” and “plowing” the oceans (although that last one may have been encouraged by the “plowing” of the arctic ice with icebreakers bit). Lord love a duck, but we DO like to wander around in the weeds.

    And all this talk may be a bit late since “the government” has been secretly geo-engineering anyway. It’s another legacy of George W. Bush’s brilliant tenure. Those in the know are well aware of the contrail controversy, and Rainbow Lady nails it.

  5. mboli Says:

    Until greenhouse gasses are stabilized, radiative forcing keeps getting worse.

    If a sulfur is dumped in the atmosphere, a larger amount will be needed next year, and yet larger amounts the year after that. Most geoengineering schemes, I think, suffer from this problem.

    The denier idea that humankind will adapt to a somewhat warmer climate has the same fallacy. For eample if farmland is rearranged on the Earth’s surface according to a global 2 degree warmer climate, it will soon become 3 degrees warmer and then 4 degrees warmer. You can’t adapt to a moving target.

    We need to stabilize greenhouse gasses. Some combination of geoengineering and “adaptation” does not obviate the requirement.

  6. This approach to climate change is almost as desperate as mine:

  7. henrybuehlerhenrybuehler Says:

    bio energy with carbon capture and storage. “all power labs ”
    wood chip fueled grid tied generator. remnants of wood is black powder that I intend on incorporating in soil. exhaust from generator I intend on ducting to green house.
    I may be required to plant hybrid poplar trees as dedicated energy crop for approval of generator. Helena Chum gave general approval of “all power labs ” generator as BECCS

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