NPR

Can We 'Cool The Planet' Through Geoengineering?

For years, environmental and energy researchers have been working on solutions to stop or slow down the effects of global warming. One approach that has recently gained popularity is what scientists call geoengineering -- the idea that Earth can essentially be retrofitted with technology to reduce global warming. The field includes proposals to cool the Earth by capturing carbon dioxide emissions, changing the reflectivity of the sun or even redirecting sunlight away from the Earth.

The idea that geoengineering can combat global warming is a controversial one, fraught with scientific uncertainties and ethical issues. In his new book, How to Cool the Planet, Jeff Goodell explains that there are certainly some good reasons to be reluctant to tinker with the Earth's climate -- but there are also some very good reasons to take the idea seriously.

"So far, we've shown absolutely no political will to actually cut carbon dioxide emissions," Goodell says. "You know, we've been talking about global warming in a serious way for some 30 years, and by the only measure that matters -- which is the amount of carbon dioxide that's going into the atmosphere -- we're not doing anything. We have a lot of talk about clean energy, about green energy, people trying to do their part and change their lives in small ways, but in fact, we're really not doing anything."

How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate
By Jeff Goodell
Hardcover, 272 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List price: $26.00
Read an Excerpt

Because of increasing evidence of planetary warming, scientists who previously thought the field was full of what Goodell calls "crackpot ideas" are exploring geoengineering as a serious endeavor. One idea that is being explored by engineers is whether it would be feasible to launch sulfur particles high into the stratosphere in order to lower the Earth's temperature and control the polar melting in the Arctic.

"The impacts of this [on both the atmosphere and the Arctic] are being explored by a number of climate modelers," Goodell says. "One of the concerns right now is that we know that the warming on the planet is happening most quickly in the Arctic and at the poles, so there's a question of, well, if we saw that the Arctic was starting to melt even more quickly than it was now, what could we do to stop it? Is there a way that we could stop the melt of the Arctic?"

Though a high-altitude, sulfur-spraying hose anchored in the stratosphere to a high-altitude balloon sounds implausible, it's doable from a physics perspective, Goodell says.

"The amount of particles you'd have to put up into the stratosphere is quite small," he explains. "But there are, of course, many issues about holding this thing aloft and actually working out the technical bits of it. There are even people at the National Academy of Sciences [who], when they looked into this, even talked about put[ting] this stuff up with artillery. Using artillery shells to shoot this stuff into the stratosphere -- that's sort of a low-tech way of doing it, but it is possible."

Goodell notes that geoengineering raises all sorts of geopolitical questions: Who controls the Earth's thermostat? Would countries act unilaterally or collectively? And what kind of climate do we actually want to live in?

"It's often compared with nuclear arms: One nation could undertake this, one billionaire could fund this and do this, and so how do you restrain that person?," he says. "If India or China or the United States decides that it's in their political interest to try to do something like this, how do you restrain them? What does it mean to stop them? Is it seen as an act of aggression? If it starts to shift the rainfall patterns in other parts of the world -- if we put rainfall particles into the stratosphere and it causes a drought in China -- what are the consequences of that?"

Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine. He also is the author of Big Coal, a book about the coal industry.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

If global warming accelerates, and we face serious consequences, like the rapid melting of arctic ice and rising sea levels that threaten coastal cities, exactly what are we going to do?

Our guest, journalist Jeff Goddell has a new book about ideas he once regarded as bad science fiction: drastic schemes to cool the Earth, like launching billions of particles into the stratosphere to deflect sunlight, dumping iron into the ocean to stimulate plankton blooms that feed on carbon dioxide and lofting contraptions into the sky that suck CO2 out of the air.

Goddell says these geoengineering schemes are fraught with scientific uncertainties and ethical issues. But an increasing number of mainstream scientists are taking them seriously, Goddell says, because of increasing evidence of planetary warming and the failure of leaders to control carbon emissions. Interest in geoengineering, Goddell says, is driven less by mad scientists than by spineless politicians.

Jeff Goddell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and frequent contributor to the New York Times magazine. He wrote a book about the coal industry called "Big Coal." He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about his new book, "How to Cool the Planet."

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Jeff Goddell, welcome back to FRESH AIR. You know, one of the things I liked about your new book is that it is not an unrestrained endorsement of geoengineering. I mean, while it's clear that you think there are ideas here that are worth further research, in some respects you really respect and embrace many of the reservations that are raised about this. Let's talk about that. What are some good reasons to be reluctant to tinker with the climate?

Mr. JEFF GODDELL (Author, "How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate"): Well, the best reason to be reluctant to do anything is this is a very complex system and that we are messing with a system we don't really understand. And the consequences for making it worse, rather than better, and increasing the risk of climate catastrophe are large. And, you know, this is the as one scientist said the operating system for planet Earth that we're messing around with. And if we make a mistake, we can't just hit the reboot button and start over. So, the consequences in this whole endeavor are enormous.

DAVIES: And you also make the point that even if it works well, it can be a distraction from the business of actually reducing the carbon that we're emitting.

Mr. GODDELL: Well, one of the great dangers of even talking about geoengineering and certainly of funding research for it is that it could be seen as a quick fix. I mean, Americans love quick fixes. We love technological solutions to complicated problems.

And it would be very easy to think of geoengineering as just a way of dealing with this complicated social and political problem of global warming. That we can fix it by just spraying some particles in the stratosphere or brightening some clouds, and then we can go on our merry way with our SUVs and our big houses and not really have to think about it.

But, in fact, it's anything but that. Geoengineering may indeed be a way to reduce the risk of serious climate change, but it is not a quick fix. And it is it doesn't replace cutting emissions in the long term, and I think that there's a real political danger in the way this is talked about, that it will be cast that way.

DAVIES: And just to back up a second, you know, when you said earlier that a reason to be reluctant is that the Earth's climate is such a complex system that we don't fully understand, can you think of an example of, you know, an unintended consequence of our intervention in the climate or potential intervention?

Mr. GODDELL: Well, one real consequence that could happen, that a lot of climate scientists and researchers who look into this are concerned about is shifting of rainfall patterns. One way of geoengineering, of reducing the amount of heat on the planet, is to reflect away some sunlight, and if you do that by brightening clouds, for example, or putting particles in the stratosphere, you change the heat distribution on the planet. You reduce the differential between daytime and nighttime temperature. And these kinds of things can have subtle effects on rainfall patterns.

And so, for example, one big concern is the monsoons, which are crucial to food production in much of Asia. Two billion people or so are dependent upon the monsoons for their food production. And if we shifted them just a little bit, that could have profound impacts on these regions' ability to feed themselves. And then, you know, what happens? That's creating perhaps even a bigger problem than the one we are trying to solve.

So things like that are really on the forefront of our scientists thinking about this. And to some degree, it can be modeled with computer models, but to some degree, we're not really going to know, perhaps, until we start perhaps trying this.

DAVIES: Well, given all the good reasons to be cautious about this, to be even reluctant, why do you think it's worth considering?

Mr. GODDELL: Well, because so far, we've shown absolutely no political will to actually cut CO2 emissions. And, you know, we've been talking about global warming for, in a serious way, for some 30 years, and we've by the only measure that matters, which is the amount of CO2 that's going into the atmosphere, we're not doing anything.

We have a lot of talk about green energy and about clean energy and a lot of people trying to do their part and change their lives in small ways, but in fact, we're really not doing anything.

And one of the things that I learned in working on a previous book about the coal industry was that it's unlikely that, in the big picture, we're going to be cutting emissions anytime soon. And the more you talk to climate scientists, the more you see the scale of the risks that we run in the future. And so you begin to think about, well, if we have something like the climate equivalent of the sort of subprime mortgage meltdown, what would we do? How, if we had to cool the planet off in a hurry, if we had to take some kind of action, what would we do? And geoengineering is one answer to that question.

DAVIES: All right, so before we look at some of the technologies that are worth further research, are there some notions of geoengineering which you would dismiss, that you wouldn't take seriously?

Mr. GODDELL: Oh, I mean, this is a field that's full of crackpot ideas. I mean, you know, I ran into a I won't call him a scientist but say a researcher who had this notion that we could, you know, change the reflectivity of the oceans by Special K into the ocean.

DAVIES: The cereal?

Mr. GODDELL: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GODDELL: Millions of tons of Special K, which would have some other effect of fertilizing the waters. I don't know. I didn't take it very seriously, but there's other ideas about shooting nuclear weapons at the moon to blast moon dust high into space to reflect sunlight. I mean, there's all kinds of really nutty ideas. And I didn't have much interest in talking about them in my book because they just discredit what is actually quite a serious scientific endeavor.

DAVIES: What about launching mirrors into space because that has gotten a fair amount of attention?

Mr. GODDELL: Well, launching mirrors into space is interesting because one of the problems with geoengineering is that people can't imagine what it really looks like and what it means. It's a hard thing to grasp in their in your head. What does this geoengineering idea mean?

And so one of the images that everyone latches onto is this notion that we'll put mirrors out in space at this thing called the Lagrange point, which is would allow it to be essentially in stationary orbit out there.

The problem with these mirrors in space is that it is a very, very far-fetched idea, extremely expensive, very difficult to do. And even by people who are the few people who do talk seriously about it, it's not something that would happen within the next even 100 years.

So that kind of thing has a big grip on the public imagination, but within sort of scientific circles, it's not taken very seriously.

DAVIES: We're speaking with writer Jeff Goddell. His new book is called "How to Cool the Planet." We'll talk more after a short break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Jeff Goddell. He has a new book looking at the notion of geoengineering. It's called "How to Cool the Planet."

Well, let's talk about some of the approaches that you think at least deserve further research, approaches to geoengineering. You say there are essentially two basic ideas. What are they?

Mr. GODDELL: The first idea, which is sort of the safest and causes least concern among anyone who worries about the consequences of geoengineering, is technology to essentially remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In this sense, they're not unlike trying to capture the carbon dioxide that comes out of the stack of a coal plant and then burying it underground. It's called carbon capture and sequestration, a very mainstream idea about how we might burn coal in a cleaner way.

Some of these technologies are like that. There are some scientists who are working on an idea of essentially an air capture machine that would capture CO2 out of the ambient air and then bury it underground in safe, underground, geologic storage. That's one idea.

Another idea is dumping a kind of iron slurry into the ocean, which would stimulate plankton bloom, which suck up carbon out of the surface waters of the ocean and then would eventually, in theory, sequester it deep in the ocean. So that's one technology.

The other is technologies that block sunlight away from the Earth. These are the ones that can be deployed fairly quickly and fairly cheaply, and they're essentially like putting a kind of sun parasol over the planet. And what's interesting is that you don't need to reflect away very much sunlight to have a big impact. If you can reflect away just, like, 1 to 2 percent, you can essentially offset the temperature rise of a doubling of CO2 emissions, which is a common benchmark that scientists use.

And there are two ways to do this that are most commonly talked about and I think are the most serious proposals. One is to put tiny particles high up in the stratosphere, at around 60,000 feet or something, perhaps made of sulfur or other compounds that would essentially act like tiny mirrors floating around up in the stratosphere that would reflect sunlight away.

And the other one is to brighten marine clouds to change the reflectivity of clouds over parts of the ocean. And you could do that by spraying tiny droplets of saltwater, basically, up into these marine clouds, which would make them whiter and reflect away more sunlight.

DAVIES: All right, well, let's talk about one of these ideas, and that's this idea, which you call doping the stratosphere, where millions, I guess billions, of tiny particles are launched high, high above the surface of the Earth and I guess in particular over the Arctic so as to shield some sunlight, reflect more sunlight and lower the temperature. Who's working on this kind of stuff?

Mr. GODDELL: Well, it's being explored by a number of people. I mean, it's the impacts of this are being explored by a number of climate modelers. One of them is Ken Caldeira, at the Carnegie Institution at the on the Stanford University campus, who's a very well-known climate modeler.

So, people like him are looking at what the impact of these particles would be on the planet if you inject them into the stratosphere and what the impact would be on the Arctic because one of the concerns right now is we know that the warming on the planet is happening most quickly in the Arctic and at the poles.

And so, there's a question of, well, if we saw that the Arctic was starting to melt even more quickly than it is now, and that would mean, of course, sea level rise and many other consequences, what could we do to stop it? Is there a way that we could stop the melt of the Arctic? And one of the issues is or one of the ways is to put these particles in the stratosphere.

And we also have engineers looking at it because one of the issues is, of course, how do you do this? How do you put these particles up there? And some scientists like David Keith at the University of Calgary are looking into using high-altitude airplanes to essentially spray a sulfur gas into the high end of the atmosphere that would create these little particles.

Other ideas that have been looked at are using a kind of hose that would be anchored in the stratosphere by a high-altitude balloon that would essentially pump this allow this stuff to be pumped up into the stratosphere.

DAVIES: So this would be a hose that would be miles long and extend down to the ground?

Mr. GODDELL: Yeah, and it sounds implausible, and it's probably not the most likely way to do this. I think that most people who take this seriously are looking at aircraft as the most likely sort of delivery mechanism.

But this idea of this, you know, hose held aloft, it's essentially, you know, an artificial volcano. It's an artificial, high-altitude volcano that would pump these little particles high up into the stratosphere. And from a physics point of view, it's doable. The amount of particles you'd have to put up into the stratosphere is actually quite small, and - but there are, of course, many issues about holding this thing aloft and actually working out the technical bits of it.

But there are even people, in fact at the National Academy of Sciences, when they looked into this a couple of decades ago, even talked about you could put this stuff up with artillery, using artillery shells to shoot this stuff into the stratosphere. That's sort of a low-tech way of doing it, but it is possible.

DAVIES: So let's just talk about sending airplanes up with all of these particles. Where do we get the particles? What are they made of? How many airplanes do you send up there? And then what do they how do they get it out? Do they just shoot it up with little propulsion guns? What happens?

Mr. GODDELL: Well, there's lots of different ideas about how you might do this. One of the ideas that is David Keith at the University of Calgary is exploring is using a kind of high-altitude aircraft that the military and others have designed that is specifically for high-altitude research and actually bringing up canisters of sulfuric acid, which sounds quite horrific but really isn't given the small amounts that are required.

And you spray it would essentially release the gas out of the wings of the airplane and it would create, through a chemical reaction in the atmosphere, create these small particles that would then stay aloft in the stratosphere for, you know, about a year, something around that neighborhood.

And one of the complicating things about this is it's a virtue and a kind of liability, is that these particles fall out. They don't stay there forever. So, on one level, that's a good thing because it's reversible. If we do it and it starts to we start to see real consequences, then we could stop.

But one of the problems is what one scientist calls the sort of Damocles problem, which is that if we start doing this, and if we actually do use this to cool off the planet, and if we've been doing it for 10 or 20 or 30 years and we don't reduce CO2 emissions, the CO2 will continue to build up, which acts like an insulating blanket. And if we ever did stop putting these particles up, it would we would have an enormous rebound in the Earth's temperature.

It'd be like closing an umbrella or a parasol on the beach. All of a sudden, you would have this real warming. So if we actually did do this, we would be committing ourselves to this. And, you know, that is a real issue that people have to think about.

DAVIES: And so if this works, you get a cooler planet, but you dont really reduce any of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, right?

Mr. GODDELL: Right.

DAVIES: So an even bigger problem if, for some reason, you can't afford the airplanes and, as you said, you remove the parasol, and suddenly a blast of heat hits us.

Mr. GODDELL: And one of the big issues that this does not deal with is ocean acidification. One of the things that we're seeing from, you know, from dumping so much CO2 into the atmosphere now is that the ocean is becoming more acidic. The ocean is one of the big sinks in the carbon cycle.

A lot of it pulls a lot of CO2 out of the atmosphere. And as it's doing more and more and more, it's getting more acidic. And that's having a real impact on the marine life in the ocean, especially the small creatures and their ability to make the little shells, as well as on coral reefs.

And so, there's a lot of concern about this impact on the food chain of the ocean. And doing this kind of geoengineering would have no impact on that. And the only way to deal with that is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

So I think it's really important to really say that geoengineering is a really, really nutty idea that is we would never do except in a kind of emergency situation and except with real cuts in carbon dioxide emission and dealing with global warming in what many would think of as a conventional way of what we're trying to do now, by cutting emissions through reducing our use of coal and fossil fuels.

DAVIES: One more thing: If we did adopt this strategy of putting particles into the upper atmosphere and effectively shielded some sunlight and effectively cooled the planet, would the sky look different to us?

Mr. GODDELL: It would. And that's a really interesting question because it's pretty clear that if we did put these particles up there, they would change the way the light hits the planet slightly, and they would be the sky would be a little bit paler during the day, and the sunsets would be a little brighter, as they are as people have seen sometimes when there's a dust storm or something. The particles tend to reflect more light.

So we'd have paler skies and brighter sunsets. And is that something that how would people react to that? And I've thought about that a lot, and I don't really know how we would react to that. I think, you know, we see variability in the sky all the time. We look up and sometimes it's a bright blue, and we remark on that, and sometimes we look up, and it's almost white, and we remark on that.

So there's lots of variability in the sky anyway. Would how we feel about that change if we knew there was a human hand behind that, if we knew that the sky is a whiter color today because they're up there now spraying the particles? Would it change the way we feel about our life here on Earth? Would we think about ourselves kind of living in essentially a big terrarium where, instead of looking up and seeing the blue sky of nature, we look up and see the blue sky of human engineers? I don't know.

GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Jeff Goddell in the second half of the show. Goddell's new book is called "How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. We're talking about proposals to slow down climate change through geoengineering. Some of these proposals are pretty radical and are fraught with scientific uncertainties and ethical problems.

Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with journalist Jeff Goodell about Goodell's new book, "How to Cool the Planet."

DAVE DAVIES: Let's talk about one other approach and that is fertilizing the ocean with iron. How does this work or how might this work?

Mr. GOODELL: Well, fertilizing the ocean with iron is one aspect of geoengineering that many people have heard of because there was a relatively high profile attempt by a company out of California called Planktos to go out into the ocean and dump iron slurry into the ocean and to sequester carbon and then to sell those carbon credits on a voluntary carbon market. And the idea is fundamentally solid. We know that certain parts of the ocean, especially the southern Oceans, are essentially a kind of nutrient-poor deserts and one of the nutrients that is lacking in these areas is iron.

So if you dump iron into the ocean in relatively modest quantities you can stimulate - it's like fertilizer. It stimulates the growth of the plant life in the ocean. And this plant life, the plankton, phytoplankton, suck up CO2 out of the surface waters of the ocean and those plankton die and then they float down. And in theory, they are sequestered deep in the deep waters of the ocean for hundreds of years. One of the problems is is that it's very, very difficult to quantify how much carbon is actually pulled out by this method and to know how long and how deeply and how securely it is buried.

And one of the other big problems is we haven't done really good studies yet on what the other impacts of this might be and what impact it might have to the food chain in the ocean, what impact it has pulling these nutrients in from this area of the ocean, what impact that has in other areas. There's a lot of unknown questions. And the reasons it's got a lot of controversy is that you had companies who were essentially trying to profit off this idea before the science was very solid and that threw up a lot of alarm bells among a lot of environmentalists and others.

DAVIES: You note in the book that this notion of geoengineering, assuming that we get some feasible technologies to implement, raises all kinds of vexing ethical and political questions. Let's talk about some of those. One way you kind of put this simply is who controls the Earth's thermostat? What do you mean?

Mr. GOODELL: Well, in a very broad sense, what we're really talking about is building a thermostat for the Earth's climate. It's about figuring out a way to cool things down if we need to. But it's also a way of figuring out - thinking about what kind of climate we want to live in.

One of the questions here is who we are when we talk about we want to live in this. Because obviously, just as there is with global warming, there will be winners and losers with global warming. The Russians would like, you know, the Arctic to melt so they can get to the oil up there. And, you know, many northern latitudes will see increase in agricultural production, perhaps. But there will also be, you know, significant losers in global warming and the same is true with geoengineering, there will be winners and losers.

And one of the tricky things about geoengineering is that it's a deliberate conscious decision. We will have to decide well, what kind of climate do we want to live in? How much warming do we want to deal with? And right now, we're just kind of letting it go and we're saying nature is going to decide what our, you know, how much the Arctic works and things like that.

But geoengineering really injects this level of consciousness into this and so it injects a lot of questions about okay, well, you know, do we the rich people who are of the Western world, are we the ones who are going to decide what the climate should be like? And how do we include thoughts and the benefits and losses to people in say, the Sahel or in Africa, in various parts of Africa and the consequences to them? How do their voices get into this conversation? How do we do this in a fair and equitable way and is that even possible?

DAVIES: You know, as youve spent time, you know, looking into these technologies and talking to people who research them and think about their consequences, I wonder if it's made you think differently about our relationship to the planet.

Mr. GOODELL: Well, it has. You know, I started this thinking about this as anyone does when I heard about the idea of geoengineering as just a crazy idea, and, of course, the - maybe the purest expression I know of, of sort of human hubris and technological hubris. And - but over the course of looking into this and meeting the scientists who were involved and thinking more deeply about this, I've actually come to see that there's advantages, that to be more optimistic about where this might lead us.

I think that I've come to the conclusion that the biggest problem we face right now is not technological hubris, but human apathy. That the big risk we run right now is that we are not doing anything. We are talking a good game. We are holding conferences about green and clean technology. We're building Web sites about it. We're giving speeches about it but we're not doing anything. And I think that there's something to be gained from this sort of active engagement with the climate and with nature. And one of the most powerful things I think about geoengineering is that it forces us to have an explicit discussion about what kind of world we want to live in.

It forces us to say, you know what, we are now in control of what our world is going to be like and we have to make - we have to have a conversation about this. We have to have discussion about maybe we dont want to do geoengineering and maybe we dont want cut emissions and maybe we just want to just warm the planet and ride it out. Maybe.

And maybe we want to not do geoengineering and, you know, put all of our efforts behind CO2, and maybe we'll make a collective decision about that. But we need to make this more explicit and I think that one of the virtues of this is that it does that. It says we as humans are in control now. What are we going to do about?

DAVIES: Well, Jeff Goodell, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. GOODELL: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Jeff Goodell spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Goodell's new book is called "How to Cool the Planet." You can read an excerpt on our Web site freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find links to previous FRESH AIR interviews with Jeff Goodell about the coal industry and the politics of climate change.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD he describes as a knockout.

This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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