Plan B for global warming

A bold scheme to cool earth almost overnight. But are we ready?

Plan B for global warmingThere’s a drawing of Don Quixote tacked to the wall of David Keith’s University of Calgary office; one of Gustave Doré’s famous illustrations showing the aging knight flying backwards off his horse as his lance bends against the blade of a windmill. The 45-year-old environmental scientist purchased it as a self-mocking reward after the publication of his 2004 paper, “The influence of large-scale wind power on global climate.” Using computer modelling, Keith and his colleagues posited that wind energy might not be quite as green as envisioned, potentially changing climate on a worldwide scale as fields of turbines slow the winds, changing rainfall and the amount of moisture in the soil. Their conclusion that the much-touted benefits from wind farms might actually be outweighed by the costs didn’t meet with broad public approval. Keith’s email inbox quickly filled with hate messages, a rare trick for an academic.

Should the trend hold, the professor might want to start clearing space on his wall for a crucifix. The work Keith is engaged in now messes with nature itself, breaking some of the greatest taboos of the world’s environmental movement. Spurred by new data suggesting global warming is progressing faster, and at a much more profound level than even the worst-case scenarios, he is at the fore of a small group of scientists proposing a quick technological fix: a “Plan B” to slow climate change and cool the earth almost overnight via massive human interventions. Among their science-fiction-style ideas: the deployment of millions of lenses the size of doughnuts in geo-stationary orbit between the earth and the sun, the creation of vast banks of artificial clouds over the world’s oceans, covering deserts with reflective material, and Keith’s preferred solution—seeding the stratosphere with sulphate or other particles. All schemes designed to send a portion of the sun’s rays back into the cosmos, and buy politicians, business and the public time to finally get serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

When Keith first took an interest in such ideas—lumped together under the broad rubric “geoengineering”—as a grad student 20 years ago, they could hardly be discussed in polite scientific company. Even less so in environmental circles, where many viewed any proposal to manage climate change as a threat to efforts to stop it. “It was a freak show,” he recalls. Verboten in mainstream forums, the topic was only debated at secret NASA and White House-organized confabs.

But somewhere amid reports of melting icefields, worsening droughts, and soaring CO2 concentrations, previously closed minds snapped open. In the last two years, geoengineering has gone from the implausible purview of Dr. Evil-style kooks to a subject of serious scientific and political debate. In the U.K., the Royal Society, the country’s de facto academy of science, has launched a major study (Keith is on the panel) and a parliamentary committee is preparing a report. In the U.S., the National Academy of Sciences is planning a similar probe. Last week, President Barack Obama’s chief science adviser, John Holdren, revealed the administration has been discussing the options, with a focus on scattering—perhaps by plane, balloon, giant floating chimneys, or even artillery fire—massive quantities of sulphates or other aerosols in the upper atmosphere.

The idea is to mimic the effect of massive volcanic eruptions like Mount Pinatubo, which lowered global temperatures by 0.5° C after spewing out 18 million tonnes of SO2 in 1991. But what he didn’t mention should be of particular concern to Canadians. The logical lab for such experiments—100,000 tanker plane flights a year per one estimate—would be the Arctic, where the cooling would be of the greatest benefit, restoring sea ice and turning down the global thermostat.

Look at the eccentric history of geoengineering over the past two decades and Keith is there every step of the way. But now, with the research money about to start flowing, he worries things are maybe moving a little too fast. In late January, a joint Indian-German expedition defied a United Nations ban and dumped 20 tonnes of iron sulphate particles off Antarctica in hopes of fertilizing the growth of CO2-eating plankton. It failed—schools of hungry shrimp ate the plankton blooms.

And that’s the basic problem with geoengineering: no one is quite sure what happens “downstream” when you start messing with bits and pieces of the global climate. Would a colder Arctic mean more or less rain in the tropics? If you dissolved more CO2 in the seas, how would that effect marine life? Would the ecosystem be able to handle all that extra sulphur in the atmosphere? The cure could very well end up being worse than the disease.

“I have mixed feelings about it,” says Keith. “I think there are a lot of ways to manipulate the system, and when you start thinking about them, you just come up with more and more.” He clicks through on his computer to a research paper on “levitating particles,” a possible alternative to sulphate. For months, he wasn’t able to bring himself to submit it for publication. “I’m worried about opening up Pandora’s box,” he explains. “Even though I am basically doing it.”

Global warming can’t be stopped. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced to zero today, the CO2 we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere will take 1,000 years to dissipate. Worldwide temperatures would continue to rise—about three-quarters of a degree Celsius according to the best estimates. And that’s the good news.

For all the talk about climate change, no real progress—political or otherwise—has been made. In fact, things are getting worse. According to new data, global carbon emissions have grown 3.5 per cent a year since 2000, substantially up from the 0.9 per cent annual growth of the 1990s. The main cause has been the booming, coal-reliant economies of the developing world, although it’s not as if Europe or North America have lessons to impart: no region’s emissions have declined.

Current rates of warming already have glaciers melting at alarming rates. Arctic waters may be ice-free in summer as soon as 2013. And the latest satellite measurements show sea levels rising even faster than expected—as much as a centimetre a year. As things accelerate, they could be up to 78 cm higher by century’s end. This all means that the International Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case scenarios of just two years ago—a 7° C global average temperature rise by century’s end—may now be too optimistic. And it is frankly scaring the hell out of a lot of experts. “The recent science suggests we have to rethink everything,” says Joe Chaisson, director of research for the Clean Air Task Force, a Boston-based group that focuses on atmospheric issues. “Because we’re a lot closer to the lip of the cliff than we thought.”

And in bad times, desperate measures begin to look a lot more inviting. Earlier this year, the British newspaper the Independent asked 80 international climate specialists whether things are so dire that the world needs a back-up plan. Just over half—54 per cent—came down in favour of goosing the climate. True, a bare majority is hardly a ringing endorsement, but one has to understand how unpopular the concept of artificial manipulation has been. “As recently as last year, nearly the whole community would fit comfortably in a university seminar room,” David Victor, the head of Stanford University’s Program on Energy & Sustainable Development, and his co-authors write in “The geoengineering option,” a piece in this month’s issue of Foreign Affairs. “And the entire scientific literature on the subject could be read during the course of a transcontinental airplane flight.”

For years, mainstream researchers wrote climate-fixing ideas off as more fantasy than science. It didn’t help that most early advocates were fierce Cold Warriors, and proponents of using the weather as a military weapon. In Russia, it was the geophysicist Michael Budyko who in the early 1970s first suggested reducing the albedo (earth’s solar reflection) by adding particles to the stratosphere. In the U.S. it was Edward Teller, co-founder of the famous Lawrence Livermore weapons lab, father of Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative—and the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—who was most intrigued with the idea of playing with the temperature control. “This is just part of a continuous history of tinkering on larger scales,” says James Fleming, a science historian at Maine’s Colby College, whose book, Fixing the Sky: The chequered history of weather and climate control, will be published later this year. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, for example, the U.S. flew more than 2,600 cloud-seeding sorties over the jungles of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in hopes making the Ho Chi Minh Trail impassable. The most they could claim was a 10 per cent rainfall increase, and even that was unverifiable.

David Keith was different. He first stumbled across geoengineering while working on his Ph.D. in experimental physics at MIT in the late 1980s. The schemes appealed to the Ottawa native’s contrarian nature, and offered a fun way to explore earth sciences, a field he knew little about. “Asking hard questions is a useful way to learn your way into something new,” he says. The same went for global warming. At the time, he was openly skeptical about claims it was man-made. A heresy he long ago repented.

Keith’s first work on the subject was a presentation for a group of fellow MIT and Harvard brainiacs who met weekly for lunchtime seminars. It must have been impressive. Twenty years later, many of those who were around the table are among the voices now calling for more research. David Victor is one. So is Thomas Homer-Dixon, the University of Waterloo futurist who co-authored a New York Times op-ed on geoengineering with Keith last fall. (Keith has returned the favour, penning a chapter in Dixon’s new book, Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future, out next week.) “It’s astonishing that we’ve come to this,” says Ted Parson, a fellow Canadian who organized the group, now a University of Michigan law professor. “But the longer we screw up and fail to get serious action on mitigation, the more attractive the geoengineering option starts to look.”

Keith and a colleague published a paper with the somewhat defensive title, “A serious look at geoengineering,” in 1992. And through his early career as a researcher at Harvard, then a prof at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, he remained one of the few serious academics who would talk publicly on the subject. “David is really one of the most far-seeing thinkers on this question,” says Parson.

In October 2001, Keith was among 25 bureaucrats and academics quietly brought together by the U.S. Department of Energy to brainstorm about technological responses to “rapid or severe climate change.” An odd assignment given George W. Bush’s public questioning of whether climate change was even happening, and his controversial decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol just months before. “If they had broadcast that meeting live to people in Europe, there would have been riots,” Keith has said. Which surely explains why the white paper that flowed from the discussions—a research agenda not dissimilar to what geoengineering backers want today—never saw the light of day.

It’s not that the climate change community was unaware of the schemes. But there was a general consensus that publicly airing them was somehow irresponsible, if not downright dangerous. Environmental groups and many senior scientists viewed the very idea as a “moral hazard,” and were not keen to provide governments and business with an excuse to turn away from the tough work of emission cuts. In 2006, NASA organized a hush-hush conference at its Ames Research Center in San Francisco (Keith was in attendance); it was billed as a meeting on “managing solar radiation.”

When you ask geoengineering supporters what finally pushed them out of the closet, all point to one event: an article on sulphur injections by the Dutch chemist Paul J. Crutzen, winner of a 1995 Nobel Prize for his work on the degrading ozone layer. His cautious endorsement of more research gave the schemes instant scientific credibility.

In 2007, Keith and Dan Schrag, a Harvard climate scientist, organized a conference in Cambridge, Mass., that brought together not just the usual enthusiasts, but climate modellers, oceanographers, and political heavyweights like Larry Summers, now President Obama’s chief economic adviser. According to some participants, the off-the-record two-day session was wrenching, as scientists clashed, grappling with the implications. “A lot of people when they hear this topic for the first time think it’s horrible,” says Schrag. “What arrogance to think we can control such a complex system.” But the meeting marked another turning point. Geoengineering was now undeniably on the climate change agenda. “I talk about this as a tourniquet. It’s not a fix and it’s not a Band-Aid. It’s only to be used when you think you are going to bleed to death,” says Schrag. “It’s the worst possible solution in the world. Except for the alternative.”

Ask Ray Pierrehumbert, a University of Chicago climate dynamicist, about geoengineering, and he doesn’t mince words. “It’s like taking Aspirin when you’ve got a brain tumour.” For people who have spent their careers trying to get the world to take global warming seriously, the abrupt shift toward a quick fix is galling. “The science is really cool. It’s a way that some people can get their names in the newspapers as the saviours of the globe,” he says. “But we will never know how dangerous it is until we try it on a large scale. It could be like throwing gasoline on the fire.”

A handful of recent papers are raising similar concerns. Last spring, scientists at the Livermore Labs predicted that “sunshade” geoengineering projects like stratospheric particles or space-based lenses will slow the global water cycle and lessen rainfall. Another study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado suggested that adding sulphates will destroy a quarter to three-quarters of the ozone layer over the Arctic. And in December, Richard Turco, a UCLA professor, estimated the “preposterous” stratospheric spraying being talked about would require thousands of high-altitude jet flights every day.

Pierrehumbert says he sympathizes with his colleagues’ despair over the bleak new climate change data, but that their “sincere panic” isn’t helping. Geoengineering will do nothing about the root problem—growing CO2 concentrations—and once started would have to be maintained almost indefinitely. “It would become addictive,” he says. “It would just result in people putting off the hard decisions because some of the most obvious problems in the First World would be mitigated.”

James Fleming, the science historian, likens proponents to the “loonies, charlatans and pathological scientists” of the past who promised governments and the public that they could control the weather, with negligible results. One of the few outsiders in attendance at the NASA conference (Keith invited him), he describes the vibe as chilling. “This is an odd bunch of people that really, truly believe there is a planetary emergency,” he says. “It’s post-Al Gore. Gore believes we’ll be all right if everybody brushes their teeth. These guys are into severe restorative dentistry.”

Yet even the harshest critics seem to agree further research into geoengineering is both inevitable, and to some extent, desirable. Pierrehumbert offers what may be the most grudging endorsement in the history of grudging endorsements. “I thought it should be obvious to any sane person that this is barking mad. But since it isn’t going away, and in the absence of any international treaty to ban people from doing it, I feel like we do have to have a very small amount of research just to expose the downsides.”

Protests may be futile anyway. Novim, an influential science think tank in California, has started circulating a research blueprint. (Keith is one of the authors. So is Steve Koonin, Obama’s pick for undersecretary for science.) A surprising array of climate change bodies—including environmental groups and one of Washington’s most conservative policy factories—are quietly working on a coordinated lobbying strategy in support of government funding. Money that is surely on its way, given the White House’s new links and interest.

The focus is already shifting to the next big challenge surrounding geoengineering: how to regulate it. The early estimates that make sulphate scattering look both technologically simple and incredibly cheap—an annual cost of less than 0.5 per cent of global economic output, suggests Keith—also make it dangerous. “You need a strategy because it’s not inconceivable that you could see one country, or even a very wealthy individual, decide to intervene in the climate system,” says Stanford’s Victor. Last spring, he organized a Council on Foreign Relations workshop to kick-start discussions about an international regulatory framework. Another meeting, involving representatives from several European nations and the EU, will take place in Portugal next week.

So far, geoengineering doesn’t appear to be on Ottawa’s radar, but it should be. “The Arctic is going to be the first testing ground,” says Michael Ditmore, the executive director of Novim. The think tank’s 70-page research agenda maps out a quick progression from climate modelling, to lab experiments, then atmospheric tests. “We need to build an international consensus,” he says. But the sulphate-sunshield testing may already have begun. The Russians, keen supporters, tried to put it on the G8 agenda in 2008, and this past summer, Yuri Izrael, their senior climate scientist, announced plans to conduct his own experiments, although it’s not clear if he has followed through.

Keith, who has strong ties to the North—an avid outdoorsman, he has hiked, skied and canoed across much of the Arctic—isn’t that worried. In his mind, there is no question that seeding the stratosphere would be a boon to Canada, reversing the upward temperature trend and protecting the North’s fragile environment. It’s around the equator, where the benefits—and more importantly risks—are harder to predict.

Besides, geoengineering will hardly happen overnight. For all the worry over new data, climate change remains a slow-moving problem, he says. And the research he and other proponents are talking about is merely prudent, like having a fire extinguisher in your house. All the controversy might just spur some meaningful action, Keith argues. “We’re in a phony war on climate. Real money is being spent, but it’s being pissed away. Programs are being enacted, but they’re not close to what you would do if you are serious.”

He pulls up another file on his computer, a joke graphic plotting a colleague’s research interests along the axes of importance and probability of success. A good scientist has a range of projects, says Keith, from the mundane sure bets, to the spectacular long shots. Geoengineering is the perfect synthesis because “it actually might be important, and we might have to do it.”

It’s a neat explanation, but it leaves the whole matter of hubris out of the equation. More than 2,200 years ago, the Greek mathematician Archimedes came up with a formula to explain the workings of the lever. It led him to boast he could move the whole world, if only he had a sufficiently distant place to stand. There’s a famous illustration from the early 19th century of the old Greek doing just that. Keith has included it in a chapter he’s written on geoengineering for a soon-to-be-published textbook. Perhaps someday it too will hang on his office wall.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.