To head off the worst impacts of climate change, should human beings deliberately engineer the earth’s climate? Or rather, should they try, with uncertain odds of success and at least some chance of inadvertent catastrophe? Should they even learn how, or would the knowledge itself wreak havoc?
These are the sorts of questions journalist Jeff Goodell grapples with in How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate, due out on April 15. As readers of his previous book Big Coal know, Goodell’s talent lies in addressing heavy economic and political issues through the prism of individual human narratives. Once again he’s gathered a cast of eccentric characters and darkly entertaining stories that carry the reader through choppy conceptual waters.
Goodell and I discussed the promise and perils of geoengineering in wide-ranging conversation earlier this month. Here are some highlights, followed by more in-depth excerpts from our conversation.
On geoengineering of the crazier sort:
This is field of wacky ideas. I talked to a guy who thought it would be great to spread Special K out in the ocean to reflect sunlight and cool the earth’s temperature. People who want to launch nuclear bombs at the moon, to shoot moon dust into the outer space to reflect sunlight away.
On the two serious forms of geoengineering:
“Solar radiation management” or “solar shielding.” It’s about blocking sunlight. In order to offset the temperature change from a doubling of CO2 emissions, you only have to reflect a small amount of sunlight away from the earth — one or two percent. The other category is carbon dioxide removal — machines and technologies that can pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. These are far less problematic, politically and morally.
On environmental groups’ concerns about geoengineering:
It’s not so much the fear that we’re going to screw this up, though that’s part of it, but more the fear that we’re still trying to get a cap on CO2 and this is just seen as a kind of a political nightmare. It becomes an alternative, a quick fix, an easy sell. Why do we have to go through all the pain and hassle of political coalitions to cut emissions if we can just spray some particles in the atmosphere?
I went to Pompeii once a few years ago. They had all the porn in a separate room at the museum. It used to be that only men could go in there. It was seen as dangerous for women to go look at giant phalluses, because they’d get corrupted morally. It’s a bad idea for geoengineering to be the equivalent of the Pompeii sex room.
On whether geoengineering can be humane:
[There's] 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 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.
On his worse fears about geoengineering:
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. They will do it badly, and cause a lot of climate chaos. … You can imagine the island nations getting together and saying, “You guys have been fucking around for 30 years, and we don’t want to drown, so we’ve got a couple of billionaires that are helping us with some airplanes. We are going to do this.” … It’s going to get taken up by the guys who want to blow up New York City.
But 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.
On reactions to his book:
I’m already getting people who are pissed off at me for writing this book. It’s going to be controversial.
Read more from the conversation with Jeff Goodell:
- On the different kinds of geoengineering
- On “taking control” of the climate
- On messing with nature and being transparent
- On techno-determinism and inevitability
- On keeping geoengineering from running amuck