Dear Sen. Harry Reid,

By derailing or delaying — or whatever it is you’re doing to — the introduction of a climate bill in the U.S. Senate, you have once again raised the question about whether the richest, most technologically sophisticated nation that has ever lived is capable of taking swift action to save itself from almost certain environmental and economic calamity. In other words, despite millions of years of evolution, when it comes to thinking about the future, we’re still as dumb as bugs.

As I’m sure you know, I just published a new book about geoengineering called How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate. Geoengineering, a term that scientists define as the deliberate, intentional modification of the earth’s climate system to reduce the risks of global warming, is a dangerous and controversial idea. It involves things like spraying sulfur particles into the stratosphere and brightening clouds to reflect away sunlight and cool the earth.

Book cover. These and other geoengineering ideas (there are lots more) are likely to have serious unintended consequences — and they do nothing to fix other serious problems associated with rising CO2 levels, such as ocean acidification.

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But if we aren’t up to the task of solving global warming in the rational way, by cutting greenhouse-gas pollution, it is increasingly likely that we will turn to geoengineering as a quick fix.

I must say I am conflicted about this possibility. Geoengineering may turn out to be necessary in order to reduce the risks associated with ever-rising greenhouse-gas pollution, but it is fraught with risk.

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On the other hand, a focus on geoengineering would be great for my book!  Indeed, your recent actions make my book look prescient.  And for that, I thank you.

It’s just that it doesn’t have to be this way. The world has been waiting a long time for America to pull its head out of the sand and deal forthrightly with the climate crisis. The political moment is ripe for a big bold move — put a price on carbon, jumpstart the cleantech revolution, show the world that America gets it.

So why not take the plunge?

Yeah, the tea partiers ranted about “cap and tax.”  And yes, I know, this criticism should really be addressed to President Obama, who — let’s be frank — has still not given any sign that he understands that this little problem with cooking the planet is more than just another political issue. Where is the big climate speech? Where is the political muscle? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who noticed that the president flew to West Virginia to attend services for the 29 miners killed in the recent mining tragedy, but sent only brief videotaped remarks to the tens of thousands of climate activists who rallied on the National Mall last weekend. So hey, if the president isn’t going to show any spine on this, why should you?

I want to be honest with you, Harry. I’ve been out on a book tour for the past few weeks and I’ve run into a lot of people who are really freaked out about what the hell is going on in America. They are starting to think our failure to do anything meaningful to address global warming is symbolic of a larger failure of democracy. And I have to say, they have a point. What exactly is the role of government in our society if not to protect us from our own short-term stupidity and greed?

Anyway, if you help to ensure that America does nothing to address rising greenhouse-gas pollution in the near future, you have done a lot to make geoengineering a more plausible scenario.

If you’re going to force us in this direction, maybe it’s time to announce your support for a federally funded research program to study the risks of geoengineering. The program wouldn’t cost much — $100 million a year would be a good start. It should include funding for more sophisticated computer modeling of potential geoengineering technologies, more funding for observational studies, maybe even some money for sub-scale field tests of planet-cooling technology and new observational satellites. Get NOAA involved, and NASA, and DOE. Fund studies on the potential human impacts of geoengineering, and offer up some cash for political scientists to think long and hard about governance structures.

If you’re going to send us down this road, Sen. Reid, there really is a lot to think about.

I know this is a big ask. But whether you want to admit it or not, this is exactly where your leadership is taking us. Who knows — history might well remember you as the man who made the world safe for geoengineering.


Jeff Goodell

Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of posts from Jeff Goodell, author of How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate. See all of Goodell’s posts here.  And check out our recent interview with Goodell about his new book.