Our Singularity Future: Should We Hack the Climate?

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Even the most adamant techno-optimists among us must admit that new technologies can introduce hidden dangers: Fire, as the adage goes, can cook the dinner, but it can also burn the village down.

The most powerful example of unforeseen disadvantages stemming from technology is climate change. Should we attempt to fix a problem caused by technology, using more novel technology to hack the climate? The question has spurred heated debate.

Those in favor point to failed efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions and insist we need other options. What if a poorly understood climatic tipping point tips and the weather becomes dangerous overnight; how will slowing emissions help us then?

“If you look at the projections for how much the Earth’s air temperature is supposed to warm over the next century, it is frightening. We should at least know the options,” said Rob Wood, a University of Washington climatologist who edited a recent special issue of the journal Climatic Change devoted to geoengineering.

Wood’s view is gaining support, as the predictions about the effects of climate change continue to grow more dire, and the weather plays its part to a tee.

But big, important questions need answers before geoengineering projects take off. Critics point to science’s flimsy understanding of the complex systems that drive the weather. And even supporters lament the lack of any experimental framework to contain disparate experiments on how to affect it.

“Proposed projects have been protested or canceled, and calls for a governance framework abound,” Lisa Dilling and Rachel Hauser wrote in a paper that appears in the special issue. “Some have argued, even, that it is difficult if not impossible to answer some research questions in geoengineering at the necessary scale without actually implementing geoengineering itself.”

Most proposed methods of geoengineering derive from pretty basic science, but questions surround how to deploy them at a planetary scale and how to measure desired and undesired effects on complex weather and ocean cycles. Research projects that would shed light on those questions would be big enough themselves potentially to affect neighboring populations, raising ethical questions as well.

stratoshieldEarlier efforts to test fertilizing the ocean with iron to feed algae that would suck carbon dioxide from the air and to spray the pollutant sulfur dioxide, which reflects solar radiation, into the atmosphere were mired in controversy. A reputable UK project abandoned its plans to test its findings in the field.

But refinements on those earlier approaches are percolating. They include efforts both to remove previously emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to reduce the portion of the sun’s radiation that enters the atmosphere.

One method of carbon dioxide removal (or CDR) would expose large quantities of carbon-reactive minerals to the air and then store the resulting compounds underground; another would use large C02 vacuums to suck the greenhouse gas directly from the air into underground storage.

Solar radiation management (or SRM) methods include everything from painting roofs white to seeding the clouds with salt crystals to make them more reflective and mimicking the climate-cooling effects of volcanic eruptions by spraying  sulfur compounds into the atmosphere.

The inevitable impact of geoengineering research on the wider population has led many scientists to compare geoengineering to genetic research. The comparison to genetic research also hints at the huge benefits geoengineering could have if it successfully wards off the most savage effects of climate change.

As with genetic research, principles have been developed to shape the ethics of the research. Still, the principles remain vague, according to a 2012 Nature editorial, and flawed, according to a philosophy-of-science take in the recent journal issue. Neither the U.S. government nor international treaties have addressed geoengineering per se, though many treaties would influence its testing implementation.

The hottest research now explores how long climate-hacks would take to work, lining up their timelines with the slow easing of global warming that would result from dramatically lowered carbon dioxide emissions, and how to weigh the costs of geoengineering projects and accommodate public debate.

Proceeding with caution won't get fast answers, but it seems a wise way to address an issue as thorny as readjusting the global thermostat.

Images: Hannes Grobe/AWI via Wikimedia Commons, Stratoshield via Intellectual Ventures

Cameron Scott

Cameron received degrees in Comparative Literature from Princeton and Cornell universities. He has worked at Mother Jones, SFGate and IDG News Service and been published in California Lawyer and SF Weekly. He lives, predictably, in SF.

Discussion — 4 Responses

  • dobermanmacleod January 8, 2014 on 12:12 pm

    When a complex system like our climate is stressed (like through elevated levels of GHG in the air, causing increasing heat to accumulate), it typically resists changing until a tipping point is reached when it suddenly changes to a new more stable state. This is what is called “abrupt climate change.” Luckily, there is a simple and very cheap way to immediately cool down the climate: just add a little (more) sun dimming pollution to the air. Heck, our short-lived sun dimming pollution already significantly cools the Earth, preventing even more temperature rise. If we don’t like the results of our tinkering, we can just stop, and the sun dimming pollution will just wash out of the air.

    BTW, any geoengineering effort will only have to be relatively brief, since a new technology called LENR is about to emerge onto the market. It utilizes the weak force to produce nuclear energy that is clean (no radioactive material in or our, and as much radiation as a microwave) from hydrogen, using a “nickel matrix.” LENR give hydrogen a factor of 5 orders of magnitude more energy density as gasoline.



  • Keith membertest January 8, 2014 on 1:01 pm

    This is definitely a tough problem. It is sad that solutions will come too late to stop many bad consequences from happening in the next 50-100 years. Hopefully science and technology can come up with some innovative fixes soon.

  • Alain January 9, 2014 on 5:33 am

    thanks to remind LENR development.
    note that “weak force” is only an hypothesis (Widom-Larsen, that NASA and Krivit supports) . some talk of simply screening proton behind electrons which are near the nucleus like in a rydberd atom(Defkalion), of BEC collective effects (Kim-Zubarev), or resonance (Takahashi). No theory is yet verified, and they raise many concern.

    One of the most famous reactor, E-cat, is well advanced and the Swedish research consortium of Swedish electric companies, publicly said they tested the E-cat and it worked. the published it in their corporate magazine.

    There are competitors like Defkalion, Brillouin, Lenuco…
    here is an executive summary

    many physicist think it was debunked, but it was never, the only 4 critics were abandoned by their author, because they could not defend them facing the facts.
    Only critics are obsolete or theory.

    this book, Excess heat by Charles Beaudette describe technically the controversy, the experiments, the critics, the debunking of the critics, the mentalities … a book to read, the book to read.

    (published as PDF for ICCF9)

    hope this helps, and thanks to relay E-cat technology in your article!.

    for climate, first usage would be to increase the level of development of poor countries so they can endure weather catastrophes like we do in rich countries.

    It is also a technology to reduce carbon (to zero, since all energy can be replace, with a cost benefit, autonomy increase, safety increase, pollution reduction…)… and it is compatible with climate skeptic people, who refuse to get poor because of what they consider as scientific error… here they would obey CO2 reduction scheme for free…

    both group will be happy, except the poor guys who sell carbon credits, renewable energies, carbon consulting, climate modeling…

    at the end we could make geoengineering, but I feel it is a bit risky…
    a screw-up on planet climate maybe worse than normal trajectory. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb promote, best is to reserve geoengineering “cure” to life or death situation, and not try to optimize or stabilize anything…

  • Frank Whittemore February 6, 2014 on 3:26 am

    a good read – “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming”