On keeping geoengineering from running amuck

Q. What do you see as the route to getting some sort of international legal structure in place to govern this stuff? Do you see any precedent?

A. There’s really not one. The policy part of this is difficult and complicated. Obviously there’s some comparison to nuclear proliferation, in that you have to ask, how do you restrain a lone actor? It’s striking to me that a lot of people with expertise in nuclear arms and negotiations are beginning to get interested in geoengineering.

One of the things [Stanford law professor] David Victor talks about in my book is the danger of setting policy too early, before we know what the real issues are and what the science tells us. To start imagining governance structures right now is important on some high level, but what’s really important is finding out what the risks are, what works and what doesn’t, which engineering challenges are going to be surmountable and which are not. We still haven’t actually sprayed particles into the atmosphere! So in the near term, the big regulatory and governance challenge is how to set up field experiments. Modeling and conferences only take you so far. At a certain point we need to try some of this stuff.

Q. It was a bit of a surprise to me to read that it would take about ten years to set up a high-quality, controlled experiment with solar shielding. Ten years isn’t long in climate terms, but sociopolitically, ten years is ages. It seems we’ll be in the dark about this for quite a while.

A. That’s how long it will take to set up a large-scale field experiment. And that is a long time. It suggests the importance of starting to think about it now. Also, there’s a lot of other work that can be done prior to that — engineering the sprayers and things like that, work that can be done on a smaller scale. There’s lots more modeling work.

This is ten years to do a top-notch scientific experiment on a large scale. It doesn’t mean somebody can’t go up there and just start doing this, and doing this badly. It doesn’t mean that none of this is going to happen for ten years.

Q. The chapter on Edward Teller, the old Cold War atomic physicist, is fascinating. To me he is the quintessence of a certain kind of 20th century thinking: technology is mankind’s way of beating nature down, overcoming nature by sheer force of will. I mean, the guy wanted to use nukes to create a seaport in Alaska! In a sense, geoengineering strikes me as a descendent of that kind of thinking. There’s a different way of thinking about technology emerging today, which traces its roots more to biology than physics. Technology as smaller and more distributed, working with natural flows rather than against them, converging with nature rather than overcoming nature. I’ve always assumed that the arc of history will leave the 20th century vision of technology behind in favor of this new vision. But geoengineering makes me think that maybe the 20th century vision is going to win out in the end!

A. That speaks to the central theme of my book.

I want to say one thing first. The people I talked to who are the most thoughtful and interesting, a lot of them are physicists, and in the case of Ken Caldeira, actually worked with Teller at the Lawrence Livermore lab. He used to have lunch with Teller. A lot of these guys are really adamant about openness, transparency, the need for research that is not in the Department of Energy — not Edward Teller replaying itself. They are very conscious of the legacy of this kind of large-scale engineering.

This idea of smaller, more active management of our world is right; it is not necessarily true that geoengineering is not a part of that. My final chapter is a kind of parallel between geoengineering and gardening. This is about learning to garden the planet. I was inspired to think about this because of my wife’s garden, seeing this partnership with nature she has in her garden. It leads to a beautiful thing. The hopeful side of me thinks geoengineering doesn’t need to be a totalitarian, Edward Teller vision. It can be smaller, smarter. It can be modest, about regional stuff, experimenting, learning what works, what doesn’t work. Being humble about this, being open about this.

Q. But we’ve learned gardening over centuries. Shooting a bunch of particles up into the stratosphere seems ham-handed, like finding a dry spot in your garden and dumping a gallon jug of water on it. We just don’t know enough to do it elegantly yet.

A. The only reason there’s any urgency about this is there are potential catastrophes that await us if shit gets weird. If any of this stuff about dangerous climate change is anywhere accurate, we’re in for some very rough rides in the coming decades. How do we manage that risk?

But also, it doesn’t have to be shooting particles into the atmosphere in this massive, lets-control-the-universe kind of way. It can be: unless we do something in x number of years, Greenland’s gone and we’ve got 22 feet of sea level rise. Can we try to change the sunlight hitting Greenland and slow the melting somewhat? If it doesn’t work, reversibility is obviously hugely important. But it doesn’t need to be a totalitarian vision.

Q. The obvious looming danger is that rich people do this to save their asses and poor people get hung out to dry — which would be a continuation of what’s happening now, right? How do we go about trying to make sure that doesn’t happen?

A. That’s a really hard question. As you said, we haven’t done a very good job of that in anything we do — not only in climate. Millions of people starving to death and we don’t really care. Certainly there has been lots of progress, but generally, rich people take care of themselves. I don’t know how you change that equation.

It was interesting, when I was first starting this book, I went to a venture capital retreat and ended up sitting with this Wall Street guy. I was talking about exactly this, the problem of equity, worrying out loud about whether I should be writing this book. He had never heard of geoengineering, but I explained it to him briefly. He said, “Look, if we in the West have the ability to cool the climate a little bit, that would help people in the developing world. Don’t we have a moral obligation to find out if it could work?” It struck me. This stuff can be used for all kinds of purposes — it’s up to us as human beings to decide how we’re going to use it.

Q. What does your non-optimist side say?

A. There are a few things I worry about most. One is the fantasy of the quick fix. You already have people like Bjorn Lomborg talking openly about this. I’m sure we will see Heritage Foundation stuff coming out about the virtues of geoengineering. My immediate fear is that it will co-opt the political debate. That’s why it’s really important for scientists and journalists who understand that this is not a substitute for cutting emissions to get out in front. That’s my near-term fear.

Farther out is the idea that a nation or a group of nations will decide, for nationalistic or militaristic reasons, or a genuine belief that they can fix their problems, to do this. And it won’t be a nation like the United States or western Europe. It will be China, India, a collection of developing nations. It could be any group of nations. They will do it badly, and cause a lot of climate chaos, and it’s not clear where we will go from there. It’s a scary scenario. You can imagine this going forward with what look like good intentions, the same way Iran is supposedly going forward with nuclear just to power their country with clean energy, without any kind of vetting, safety guards, or transparency.

But as I wrote in the book, my nightmare scenario is that we won’t do anything. It will just be decades more of apathy. We’ll block progress on research on geoengineering, we won’t reform our energy system, we will just continue with the status quo for another two or three decades. We’ll just ride straight ahead into climate chaos.