Plans by a German and Indian research team to dump iron particles in the sea off Chile in the latest ‘geo-engineering’ ocean fertilisation attempt have triggered serious concern. If you’re interested in finding out more about the controversial field of ‘geo-engineering’, try reading Alan Robock’s excellent overview of the field in “20 reasons why geo-engineering may be a bad idea”, published in the May/June 2008 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Another interesting exploration of the issues is in Australian ABC Radio National’s background briefing “The climate engineers”, transcript below.
11 January 2009
The climate engineers
For years it’s been one of the science community’s great taboos but the idea of global climate control is starting to be openly discussed. Ideas like placing giant mirrors in space or firing sulphur particles into the stratosphere to cool the planet are no longer just in the domain of science fiction. Many scientists now believe the time for these ideas will come.
Reporter, Wendy Carlisle (This program was originally broadcast on 6th April 2008.)
Wendy Carlisle: Hello, I’m Wendy Carlisle, and this week on Background Briefing, how a very big idea has come out of the shadows.
With rapid Arctic ice melts and rising emissions, scientists are now beginning to think planet earth could be running out of time.
And they’ve begun to talk about what’s possibly the most dangerous technofix of all time: artificially manipulating the climate to cool the planet down.
It would be the equivalent of hitting the panic button.
David Keith: Now suppose that space aliens arrived – maybe they are going to land at the UN Headquarters down the road here, or maybe they will pick a smarter spot, but suppose they arrive and they give you a box, and the box has two nobs. One knob is the knob for controlling global temperature, and maybe another knob is a knob for controlling CO2 concentrations. You might imagine that we would fight wars over that box, because we have no way to agree about where to set the knobs. No global governance and different people will have different places they want it set. Now I don’t think that’s going to happen, it’s not very likely, but we are building that box, the scientists and engineers of the world are building it piece by piece in their labs.
Wendy Carlisle: This is the voice of one of the world’s top atmospheric scientists, Canada’s Professor David Keith, speaking at a conference in California late last year. And he’s describing how bit by bit scientists are learning how to artificially control the climate in a process called climate engineering.
David Keith: Even when they’re doing it for other reasons, even when they’re thinking they’re just working on protecting the environment, they have no interest in crazy ideas like engineering the whole planet. They develop science that makes it easier and easier to do.
Wendy Carlisle: As a former lead author on UN Climate Change Reports, his credentials are impeccable. But he’s also a maverick.
David Keith is at the forefront of a group of scientists raising what must be the most unpopular subject in science: climate engineering. It’s a political bombshell and it could be highly dangerous, no-one really knows.
There are lots of reasons David Keith thinks climate engineering is a bad idea. But he’s calling for a brutally honest debate.
David Keith: And so I guess my view on this is not that I want to do it, I do not, but that we should move this out of the shadows and talk about it seriously, because sooner or later we will be confronted with decisions about this, and it’s better if we think hard about it, even if we want to think hard about reasons why we should never do it.
Wendy Carlisle: And on Background Briefing today, you’ll hear why engineering the climate, as far out and crazy as it sounds, is now being seriously talked about by some of the world’s leading scientists and thinkers.
Nobel Prizewinning economist, Professor Tom Schelling.
Tom Schelling: Back then, if I spoke to an audience about geo engineering, half the audience thought I was crazy and the other half thought I was dangerous. And I think scientists who spoke about it or wrote about it found that they either weren’t taken seriously or they were taken too seriously and were believed to be mad scientists who wanted to try to control the climate, and I think now it’s become a respectable subject to talk about, and write about, and I think over the coming years it’s bound to receive a lot more attention.
Wendy Carlisle: Not all of them agree with it, in fact there’s strong opposition to climate engineering in many quarters, not just because it might do more damage than good, but because it could trigger wars.
Thinking on climate engineering has done a complete u-turn in the last 20 years. From Colombia University, Professor Wally Broecker.
Wally Broecker: I used to say that if people had a list of things that they didn’t want scientists to study, probably top of the list would be dependence of intelligence on race, you know, are Chinese really smarter than the rest of us? And then No.2 would be engineering the climate.
Wendy Carlisle: In the mid-1980s, he and a colleague, John Knuckles, decided to look at some modelling by a Russian scientist that suggested an overheated planet could be cooled by shooting sulphur particles into the stratosphere, and they concluded that the Russian was right.
But their research was never intended to give political leaders an excuse not to act on global warming.
It was meant to be a last resort.
Wally Broecker: When Knuckles and I wrote this paper we entitled it an insurance policy against a bad CO2 trip. So we were thinking of it as a bail-out, saying ‘Well if nothing is done and the climate becomes everybody’s evaluation a lot worse than it is now, then people are going to demand that we bail it out and that’s the way to do it.’ So we weren’t proposing it as a solution to the CO2 problem, we were sort of proposing it as a way to salvage the situation if things went bad.
Wendy Carlisle: Their modelling was based on mimicking volcanic explosions which shot sulphur particles into the stratosphere.
But it wouldn’t be without aesthetic problems.
Wally Broecker: I think one of the principal side effects would be a psychological one. If we did this, we’d never have a blue sky day again, because the things we added up there would bleach the sky, so it would always be a pale blue or white, and that would be worldwide.
In a sense the end of really blue sky days which sort of you know I think around here anyway, and probably in Europe and places where you don’t have many, they buoy people’s spirits, don’t they. If you had them all the time, maybe like cloudy days, I don’t know, you Aussies have a lot of blue sky days.
Wendy Carlisle: Professor Broecker told Background Briefing he thought that climate engineering was, ‘the equivalent of screwing with the atmosphere’. But like many scientists, he’s worried that when global warming starts to bite, the public will demand action to cool the planet.
Wally Broecker: Doubling of CO2 in models would say is 3-1/2 degrees warming. I think that’s going to dry out Australia like mad; you ought to be scared to death of that. You’re going to really be dry. Dry, dry, dry, dry. And you know, that’s going to cause sea levels to go up and so forth. So even doubling is going to cause big changes, but if we don’t get serious about it, we’re going to triple or quadruple the CO2, no doubt about it. And that’s going to drive us into the realm where people are going to scream, ‘We’ve got to cool the planet off!’
Wendy Carlisle: But Professor Broecker’s paper was never published. Not because it was junk science, it wasn’t, but because the scientific community decided that a bit of self-censorship was in order.
Wally Broecker: And we wrote a paper about it, and we sent it around to prominent people in the field, and they said, ‘By all means don’t publish this; the world is not ready for it.’ So we just put it on the shelf.
Wendy Carlisle: The view was that if politicians discovered you could artificially cool the planet, they’d do nothing to cut emissions.
Now 20 years later, there’s been a sea-change. Instead of shutting the debate down, it’s now game on. And the trigger for the debate has come from impeccable quarters.
Just two years ago at the end of 2006, the Nobel Prizewinning scientist, Dr Paul Crutzen, the man who received the Prize for his groundbreaking work on the ozone layer, wrote an important editorial under the heading:
‘Albedo enhancement by stratospheric sulphur injections: a contribution to resolve a policy dilemma.’
In lay terms, it was about the possible use of technology to bounce the sun’s rays off the planet, to slow down the rate of warming.
Some of the ideas he discussed were things like pumping sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere, using balloons or artillery guns. Another idea was to create little ‘nuclear winters’, using soot.
Professor Crutzen’s essay was clearly written in anger and frustration, at the lack of action to reduce emissions. He pointed out that messing with the stratosphere could blow a hole in the ozone layer and make ocean acidification even worse.
But he thought climate geo-engineering should be investigated, because it might be the only escape route.
Background Briefing sought an interview with Professor Crutzen, but he declined, telling us he’d said his piece.
Here’s a reading from his editorial:
Reader: Building trust between scientists and the general public would be needed to make such a large-scale climate modification acceptable. Finally, I repeat: the very best would be if emissions of the greenhouse gases could be reduced so much that the stratospheric sulphur release experiment would not need to take place. Currently, this looks like a pious wish.
Wendy Carlisle: Support for Professor Crutzen’s provocative editorial was by no means unanimous, and like Wally Broecker’s experience 20 years before, he encountered substantial opposition. But this time the science heavyweights swung in behind him.
The President of America’s peak science institution, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ralph Cicerone, wrote in defence of his stance:
Reader: I am aware that various individuals have opposed the publication of Crutzen’s paper, even after peer review and revisions, for various and sincere reasons that are not wholly scientific. Here I write in support of his call for research on geo-engineering.
Wendy Carlisle: And that, it seems, was all it took to liberate the discussion.
In November last year, an off-the-record gathering of North America’s top scientists and economists met at Harvard University for two days to discuss climate engineering.
The meeting was organised by Professor David Keith whom you heard earlier in the program.
David Keith is the research Chair in Energy and the Environment at the University of Calgary in Canada, which is where he was when Background Briefing put in a call to him.
David Keith: That was an amazing fact about this meeting. So in some ways I found that meeting personally intimidating, because I was coming back to Harvard and co-organising this meeting in front of all the most famous crowd in the world. I mean it really was the ‘brain trust’, a bunch of the atmospheric science community as well as some of the public policy
community, like the former Head of the World Bank the president of Harvard.
So a really impressive crowd of people. And at the end of the meeting there was really an extraordinary level of agreement, not every person, but an amazing consistent level of agreement in the room, that we have to take this seriously. And you might think that I would feel this was a huge personal vindication after all I published an early paper in the early ’90s arguing that we should take geo-engineering seriously.
Not that we should do it, but we should take it seriously. So you might imagine that my reaction at the end of having this meeting of these famous people at Harvard, that people finally agreed, Yes, we should take it seriously, that I would feel some huge triumph. But it was the opposite. What I felt was fear.
Wendy Carlisle: What really shocked Professor Keith was to hear the urgency with which some of his fellow scientists were now viewing this.
David Keith: Also another stunning thing at that meeting was that there were several people who talking of doing it quite soon, so my line has always been, ‘we should do some research about this now and think about the politics and ethics, because one day we’re going to face it, 30 or 50 years from now.’ But several credible people in the room were saying, ‘well hold on, if the Arctic ice really keeps melting as fast as in the last few years, and we have some geo-engineering method that really seems like it might work, albeit with some side effects, why wouldn’t you begin to do a little bit of geo-engineering even ten or twenty years from now to begin to take the edge off the rate of warming.’
Wendy Carlisle: And that surprised you, and frightened you?
David Keith: It surprised me a lot. And my instant reaction is that I disagreed with that. But then when you try and think logically about why exactly you wouldn’t do it it’s not so clear.
Wendy Carlisle: Sitting in that Harvard University seminar room, was Professor Scott Barrett, the Director of the International Policy Program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. And as he listened to the presentations, he imagined a ghastly ‘perfect storm’ brewing, where political inaction collides with a worsening climate change forecast.
Scott Barrett: So there’s almost a kind of a collision here between the world failing to address the problem in any kind of fundamental way on the one hand, and on the other hand the problem itself being perhaps even more concerning than was thought previously. And if this continues and we continue not to address the problem in this fundamental way, and the science of climate change reveals itself to be even more worrisome, with every passing year, then eventually we’re going to get to the point where people are going to consider using a technology like this, whether we discuss it or not. So there was a sense of really necessity and that’s really what I think was on a lot of people’s minds at that meeting.
Wendy Carlisle: So when you went into this meeting at Harvard late last year, I suppose were you one of those people who thought this was really crazy science, and did you come out of that meeting thinking it still was crazy science?
Scott Barrett: No, I should say that the first time I heard of it, I thought it was crazy science; it sounded more like science fiction. It was something that we certainly didn’t need to take very seriously; at the time I first heard about it about 1990 or so, and the idea of tampering with the global climate it is the stuff of movies, it’s not the sort of thing that most scientists would think about. Scientists tend to be very conservative in their thinking, and also on the policy side, people like me were thinking very much about how to address the problem fundamentally.
So I never went into this with great enthusiasm, and I deliberately neglected the topic actually until 2006, and I think that’s true for a lot of people; I think a lot of scientists had known about it for quite a long time, but they have been working to help the world understand this challenge, and in the case of some scientists working to promote activities that will address the problem in a fundamental way. I think virtually everyone in that room really was there because of the realisation that all this effort really so far has not borne fruit.
Wendy Carlisle: The Harvard meeting was not the first top level scientific gathering convened in the wake of Professor Paul Crutzen’s editorial. A previous meeting at NASA in California, brought together another gathering of scientists. Amongst the invitees was Professor Jim Fleming, a historian of weather and climate control.
Jim Fleming: I was invited as a historian working in the field and writing about this, and we went to the NASA Aimes campus, which is at the south end of San Francisco Bay, and it was a gated, it was relatively secure base, in which they do some classified experiments. And so we had to come in and show our identifications, and I remember the press was waiting there, wondering if they could get in, and it was a behind-the-scenes kind of meeting.
Wendy Carlisle: Professor Fleming told the scientists that efforts to control the weather were not new.
Jim Fleming: And that others had said it was OK to think about climate engineering. One of the most prominent others was John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1962, who had called on the Soviets and the Americans, in fact all nations of the world, to work together on peaceful uses of outer space and peaceful ways that they could co-operate in weather programs, including climate studies, and as he put it, ‘large-scale weather control’. And so I said this field has a very long history. It’s not always the most dignified history, it’s really quite a, what I call ‘chequered history’. But it does go back in the US case at least, to the 1830s.
Wendy Carlisle: Jim Fleming had never met any of the people who attended. But one person he did know by reputation was Dr Lowell Wood, a charismatic and controversial figure.
Jim Fleming: The others were unknown to me before that time, but people like Lowell Wood, who was a very prominent defence intellectual, protégé of Edward Teller, (Teller was the father of the H-bomb) and Wood was very much engaged in SDI kind of Star Wars defence projects here in the United States, and was now advocating putting up sunscreens to shade the planet in case the CO2 warming gets out of hand. And Wood’s a cultural icon, formerly with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories and you would imagine if there is going to be a global thermostat, some people are assuming it might be built there, the temperature of the world might be adjusted there. It’s a very centrally controlled kind of vision. He talked, in his presentation, about futuristic hardware, sort of stratospheric gigantic military balloons on which you could hang hoses to pump sulphates into the stratosphere. He is very sure of himself, he was very clear to the meteorologists who were in the group, that their expertise wasn’t really relevant to this topic, it was, in his terms, all physics, he says, ‘I understand the radiation budget, and I know how to attenuate these sunbeams.’ And also I got an impression of him as a very self-assured but in a sense likeable fellow who was an icon of that era of SDI.
Wendy Carlisle: About a year ago, Rolling Stone magazine ran a feature profile on Dr Lowell Wood, who they called Dr Evil. The story was about his ideas on engineering the climate, and the story was called ‘Can Dr Evil Save the World?’ Here’s a reading.
Reader: In scientific circles, Wood is a dark star. As a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California for more than four decades, Wood has long been one of the Pentagon’s top weaponeers, the agency’s go-to guru for threat assessment and weapons development. Wood is infamous for championing fringe science, from X-ray lasers to cold-fusion nuclear reactors, as well as for his long affiliation with the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think-tank on the Stanford campus. Everyone knew Wood’s reputation. To some, he was a brilliant outside-the-box thinker; to others, he was the embodiment of ‘big science’ gone awry.
Wendy Carlisle: Background Briefing requested an interview with Dr Wood, but he declined, with the following correspondence:
Reader: I’ve taken a ‘vow of silence’ after the Rolling Stone ‘adventure’. (“Fool me once, shame on you! Fool me twice, shame on me!”)
Wendy Carlisle: In another email, Background Briefing told Dr Wood that we wanted to address some of the claims floating around that the Pentagon might be interested in funding research into climate control as a tool of war, and we asked Dr Wood if this was the case.
Here’s a reading.
Reader: No, the Pentagon has nothing whatsoever to do with this research, to the best of my knowledge. Why in the world would they? And no, I’ve never taken any money, or any other form of support from the energy/fuels industry etc., etc. I’ve also executed no contracts of any kind with the Devil, nor do I intend to do so …
Wendy Carlisle: Lowell Wood recommended we speak to his colleague Dr Ken Caldeira, whom he has worked with in modelling climate engineering options. Ken Caldeira is the senior scientist at the Carnegie Institute for Science at Stanford University, and he’s just about the only scientist working on this full time.
Because most of the work on climate engineering is back-of-the-envelope stuff by scientists dabbling in their spare time. But Caldeira is on a mission to make it a research priority for the US government.
But it’s clear that when you talk to him, he’s sickened at the prospect of the world resorting to climate engineering. But he can see it coming.
Ken Caldeira spoke to Background Briefing on a studio hook-up from California.
Ken Caldeira: Yes, I think that the fact that these ideas largely came out of the weaponeers and the nuclear weapons experts, gave this sort of a dirty or immoral kind of feel to it that it was something that was the domain of people who were ready to incinerate cities, and not the sort of thing that people who are worried about polar bears and ice sheets should really entertain. And so I think it was seen as the idea of sort of crazy weaponeers and not the domain of sober scientists.
Wendy Carlisle: The ‘crazy weaponeers’ that Dr Caldeira is referring to include not only Dr Lowell Wood, but Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb. Edward Teller believed that technology would save humans from themselves. It was this kind of thinking that drove him to work on the H-bomb, and ultimately on engineering the climate.
Edward Teller: I myself was interested in theoretical physics in explaining atoms molecular vibrations, knowledge and more knowledge. I didn’t want to
do it, but then Hitler not only swallowed up half of Poland, he invaded the west, and two days later there was an invitation to a pan-American congress that Roosevelt, whom I have never seen before, was going to speak. And he made a remarkable speech, how the world is really endangered by Hitler among other things, and at the climax, he said ‘You scientists are blamed for the weapons to be used, but I tell you that if you now won’t work on weapons, the freedom of the world will be lost.’
Ken Caldeira: Yes, Edward Teller was optimistic about technology and pessimistic about human nature. For example, after the atomic bomb was used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he thought, ‘well humans will never, through their nature, avoid using these weapons again.’ And so what we need to do is to create a technology that would make these weapons unusable. And so his idea was to make the super bomb, which was later called the hydrogen bomb. And the idea was that this was a weapon so terrible that nobody could imagine a war like this and so nobody would use a regular atomic bombs. And by the early 1980s, the idea of a first strike nuclear war between Russia and the United States became thinkable, so then he said, ‘Oh well, we’d better make this Star Wars missile defence system, that we can’t trust treaties to prevent nuclear war, but we can create a technology that will shield us from incoming ballistic missiles. And so they talked to Ronald Reagan and got funding for the Star Wars missile defence program.
Wendy Carlisle: It was after the Star Wars adventure that Edward Teller and Lowell Wood turned their attention to global warming.
Ken Caldeira: And again he thought, Well we can’t rely on fallible humans to reduce their carbondioxide emissions because humans are basically a selfish, corrupt organism, and will never co-operate on a global scale to achieve anything. But we could do a number of things to counteract the climate effects of greenhouse gases, and so one of his colleagues, James Early suggested that we could put satellites in space between earth and the sun, maybe a million miles out in space, that would deflect sunlight away from the earth. They also looked at designer particles that instead of just blocking the bulk of solar radiation the way sulphur might do, could just deflect the ultraviolet radiation, or primarily ultraviolet radiation, and since ultraviolet radiation causes skin cancer and damages crops, they were saying, ‘well not only are we going to solve the climate problem, but we’re going to improve crop yields and we’re going to reduce skin cancer, and so it would be immoral not to do this kind of engineering of the planet.’ And so this is really the most extreme view, saying that we’re not just engineering the planet to alleviate some of the negative effects or actions, but we could engineer the planet to make it a better place to live.
Wendy Carlisle: Dr Ken Caldeira.
But Professor Jim Fleming says the military has historically been interested in exploiting technological advances in weather control.
Jim Fleming: The US military has always been interested in controlling the weather, so it’s not simply the modern pentagon. And even one strategic Air Command General was quoted as saying in the 1950s ‘If you control the weather, you can control the world.’ I think this interest has continued.
Wendy Carlisle: Yes, well I wonder if you could talk more about that, because you do see a real resonance between the weaponeers and the climate engineers, don’t you?
Jim Fleming: Well I think the technology is potentially so powerful that once people begin to think that they can master it, the military has resources that private scientific labs or university scale laboratories simply don’t have. And so once an enthusiastic person, for example, one of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the Secretary of Defence, begins to be convinced about this, they can throw vast resources at it. Some of it can be justified. During the Cold War there was an attempt to make it rain on demand. It was thought that we could have such precise forecasts using computers, that we could deploy field troops out ahead of the storms to sort of divert them to possibly calm the waters when a hurricane is coming onshore. And then in the Vietnam era, the Pentagon was secretly seeding the clouds over the Ho Chi Minh trail, trying to make it rain and make mud on the trail to reduce the trafficability.
Wendy Carlisle: It’s Jim Fleming’s view that climate engineering could be used as a weapon.
Jim Fleming: I think it could, if push came to shove. I have discovered there is just a tip of the iceberg showing on defence intellectuals interested in this. Because they’re saying climate change is a national security issue, it’s not simply cast in vague, apocalyptic terms, it’s actually threats to their war fighting capability to national security. And when you see this tip, you must assume that there’s more going on that’s not being reported.
Wendy Carlisle: And that present-day military hardware, guns and artillery, could be retrofitted and used to launch weather-changing particles into the stratosphere.
Jim Fleming: Well there’s comments like the original 1992 National Academy study, had concluded that it was simpler to shoot sulphates into the stratosphere using naval guns, than it would be to sequester or reduce carbon dioxide in our environment. And when I mentioned this to one of the participants, he had been one of the chairs at that National Academy study and a former Navy official. He said, ‘Sure, we’ve got the Navy guns, we still have them in mothballs; all we need to do is put liners in them, and we can be shooting sulphates very soon.’ These are huge Naval guns that would lob basically in the military sense, they would be declaring war on the stratosphere by shooting sulphates up there to make it more reflective.
Wendy Carlisle: During his time at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, Ken Caldeira says he’s been in a meeting to discuss the idea of manipulating the weather for war. But he doesn’t think it’s a realistic option.
Ken Caldeira: I used to work at Lawrence Livermore National Lab., which is basically the lab that created the hydrogen bomb. And one of the strange things that occurs when you work in such a place is you find yourself in odd meetings. And one meeting was this question of are there ways to use the weather or geophysical systems as a weapon. And it turns out that it’s much easier just to drop a bomb on people, or do something much more direct than toy with the weather and try to get them through some weather manipulation. And so I really don’t think that weather manipulation as a military weapon is a realistic concern. I do think that climate engineering could provoke wars and result in military actions.
Wendy Carlisle: And that’s the heart of the problem. It’s not that climate engineering could become a weapon of war, but it could be the reason for wars to begin.
For instance, what might happen if Russia or China or Canada decided that a few degrees of extra warmth was good, but Australia found this same temperature rise caused water shortages and crop failure? Whose priorities would prevail then?
Professor Scott Barrett.
Scott Barrett: The difficulty I think here is that as one country acts, other countries will be affected. Now they may be affected positively, but there’s also the possibility that they would be affected negatively. And you really have the prospect here with this technology, of individual countries essentially having their fingers on the global thermostat. And that’s why there’s this question ‘who decides?’ It’s not the same question we’ve been grappling with, about how much to reduce and which countries should cut back, by how much, when. This is much more what should the temperature be? And different countries of course will be affected by climate change in different kinds of ways, and they may have very different views about this. The technology also has the potential of allowing manipulation of the climate in different directions, so you actually can even entertain the scenario that one country may want to use geo-engineering to offset warming, to cool the planet somewhat, against this background of warming. And other countries might want to do the opposite. And so there will be the prospect, the potential for conflict, because of this new technology and the collision really with this environmental challenge, and our inability so far to address it fundamentally.
Wendy Carlisle: It’s these issues that are now occupying minds at the Washington think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations. Next month, they’ve convened a meeting to discuss what they’ve termed a most unusual topic: unilateral planetary scale geo-engineering.
Those on the council think it’s time that the policy community started seriously thinking about what might happen if climate engineering was deployed.
Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Professor David Victor.
David Victor: The meeting that we’re calling is particularly focused on how to manage the risk that countries will go off and unilaterally start engineering the climate. And that’s the really difficult aspect of this question, because if a country decides that it very strongly, in its own merits, wants to do something about this, it’ll find that isn’t that expensive, and there isn’t a lot of law or expectations to guide its behaviour right now.
Wendy Carlisle: In fact, David Victor says climate engineering effectively means that the geopolitics of climate change are turned upside down.
David Victor: When you’re trying to control emissions, the only way to be effective is to get almost all the world’s emitters together and get them to agree to undertake measures that could be expensive, to control their emissions. And every country has a strong incentive to defect, to free ride on the efforts of other countries. And this is what makes the climate change problem politically such a difficult issue to deal with at an international level. Geo-engineering is exactly the opposite. One country, or a few countries could get together and decide on their own to go out and intervene in the atmosphere to offset some of the effects of climate change, and maybe to intervene in ways that are beneficial to themselves, so high latitude countries that are worried about the loss of their ice cover might intervene to block some of the sunlight and help their ice recover, and that could be beneficial for them but it could be harmful to other nations on earth. And so it’s this complete turning upside down of the politics that I think will come to be the big political issue in the geo-engineering debate.
Wendy Carlisle: In late last year, 30 of America’s leading scientists and thinkers, including some of the people you’ve heard on this program, Professor Scott Barrett, Wally Broecker, David Keith, Tom Schelling and Paul Crutzen, wrote an open letter to US Presidential candidates. They urged them to fund a $30-billion clean energy research project, with the vigour of the moon mission, as conceived by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.
John F. Kennedy: We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.
Wendy Carlisle: The scientists who signed the letter said they believed that private investment and the market alone was insufficient to drive the research needed in the limited time available. They said it needed to be funded by government.
Back in 1961, President Kennedy recognised that to put a man on the moon would need vision, commitment, leadership and money. What these scientists want is another Apollo effort.
John F. Kennedy: But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earthy, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun – almost as hot as it is here today -and do all this, and do it right, and do it first, before this decade is out, then we must be bold.
John F. Kennedy: I’m the one who’s doing all the work, so we just want you to stay cool for a minute.
SONG: ‘Blue Moon’.
Scott Barrett: Yes, President Kennedy was an extraordinary President, because he showed real leadership. He made the country think about itself and its role in the world in a different way.
Wendy Carlisle: One of the other things I found extraordinary about President Kennedy’s speech was he talks about this grand idea of putting a man on the moon, and he doesn’t know how it’s going to be done. In fact he says in his speech that all this ‘money will be thrown at it and we will invent alloys that we don’t know about yet. We will invent energy systems we don’t know about yet.’ So there was no kind of the known knowns there, he was talking about the known unknowns.
Scott Barrett: Yes, that’s exactly why we need basic research, that’s exactly right. And when you contemplate the magnitude of this challenge, the idea that you’re going to do it with just things that are on the shelf and so on, I mean to some extent, yes, we can take action using those existing technologies, but to really address it fundamentally we’re going to need to have this incredible transformation and what you just said really explains why the science is needed and why basic research is needed, because we’ll need to uncover things that we haven’t contemplated, and that’s what basic science and research does.
Wendy Carlisle: Professor Scott Barrett.
In 2005, the economist, Professor Tom Schelling received the Nobel Prize for his work on game theory. It’s a branch of economics which describes how rational actors behave in a given set of circumstances. It’s all about strategic behaviour.
Professor Schelling was the brains behind the thinking on nuclear deterrence during the Cold War.
In the 1980s he got involved with the global warming debate during the Carter Administration, and he’s still involved. He doesn’t think global attempts to reduce emissions through treaties or trading will work. He thinks the developed world should show it’s serious about climate change, by massively investing in new technology, just like the moon mission. But if that doesn’t work, he thinks climate engineering could prove irresistible.
Tom Schelling: If geo-engineering should work, and we don’t know whether it will, we don’t know what the side effects might be, but it really transforms the problem from one of regulating the behaviour of 7 or 8 billion people in the way they cook their food and transport themselves, and warm and cool themselves, and all of that, instead of having to change lifestyles and behaviour of billions of people, it simply turns off the global warming, and that’s bound to be very tempting.
And I think what is going to be needed is for some small scale reversible experiments, to find out just how well some of the ideas work, and what some of the side effect may be that we have to worry about.
Wendy Carlisle: And would you be able to gauge for me what you think is amongst the mainstream climate scientist community, what they’re attitude is towards this now? Do they now believe, do you think, that this needs to be talked about? They’ve stopped self-censoring themselves, in other words?
Tom Schelling: I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we’re going to be there in a few more years. I think the argument in favour of at least testing some of the ideas about geo-engineering on a small scale, without any long-term commitment yet, until we’ve discovered how it works and whether it works, and whether there are serious disadvantages, I think gradually this is going to become a subject that eventually be on the editorial pages of newspapers in Australia or the USA or the UK, or Germany and such places.
Wendy Carlisle: Professor Schelling believes climate engineering is going to be a much more attractive option to wealthy nations than trying to reduce their emissions. And that’s the problem, it’s cheap and unilateral. Nations, he says, will act in their own self interest. And he says under this scenario, conflict is inevitable.
Tom Schelling: Ordinarily we’d think that the problem is going to be get all the nations together to co-operate at substantial sacrifice. On the other hand, if geo-engineering turns out to be as effective and as cheap as some people think it will be, then the question is, ‘how many nations will there be any one of which could afford to undertake its own geo-engineering, leaving all the other nations to enjoy or suffer the consequences.’ So that if it turns out that the Chinese decide they can afford to engage in geo-engineering and other nations don’t like it, how do we arrive at a compromise? I think that’s likely to be a matter of real dispute, especially if some people think that we want to reduce global atmospheric change in temperature by 1-degree Celsius, and others think we ought to do it by 4-degrees Celsius, there’s a lot of room for dispute there, and I think we ought to recognise that geo-engineering may prove to be a too attractive solution to the problem. Too attractive to some nations that foresee that they themselves are going to suffer very seriously, while other nations would rather not take the risk.
Wendy Carlisle: So how does the world go about governing who should set the global thermostat? I mean how do we do that?
Tom Schelling: I don’t think you can prevent the conflict, I think you have to recognise with respect to geo-engineering, there is almost certain to be a conflict over exactly what to do and how much to do and who should pay for it. I think reaching agreement on how much geo-engineering to engage in especially if it turns out that there are risks that we haven’t yet identified with geo-engineering, it might appear more dangerous to some countries than others.
Wendy Carlisle: The idea of controlling the climate through direct intervention has been around for a long time. But it’s true to say it’s come a long way in a very short time, out of the realm of science fiction
and into the science lab.
But the great dilemmas are no closer to being solved. How do you prevent climate engineering from happening once countries discover it could be do-able and cheap? And even then, no-one can be sure that the climate engineering option won’t cause an environmental disaster.
As Professor David Keith stood in front of a spellbound audience of scientists at Harvard University, he laid out what has become a truly awful set of possibilities, that the more we engage in climate engineering, the more we walk away from our existing climate.
David Keith: So, here’s one way to think about it, which is that we just do this instead of cutting emissions because it’s cheaper. I guess the thing I haven’t said about this is that it is absurdly cheap, it’s conceivable that say using the sulphates method, or this method I’ve come up with, you could create an ice age at a cost of .001% of GDP. It’s very cheap, we have a lot of leverage. It’s not a good idea, but it’s just important. I’ll tell you how big the lever is, the lever is that big. And that calculation isn’t in much dispute. You might argue about the sanity of it, but the leverage is real. But here’s a case which is harder to reject.
Let’s say that we don’t do geo-engineering, we do what we ought to do, which is get serious about cutting emissions. But we don’t really know how quickly we have to cut them. There’s a lot of uncertainty about exactly how much climate change is too much.
So let’s say that we work hard and we actually don’t just tap the brakes, but we step hard on the brakes and really reduce emissions and then actually reduce concentrations, and maybe someday, like 2075, October 23rd, we finally reach that glorious day where concentrations have peaked and are rolling down the other side, and we have global celebrations and we’ve actually started to – we’ve seen the worst of it.
But maybe on that day we also find that the Greenland ice sheet is really melting unacceptably fast, fast enough to put meters of sea level on the oceans in the next 100 years, and remove some of the biggest cities from the map. That’s an absolutely possible scenario. We might decide at that point that even though geo-engineering was uncertain and morally unhappy, that it’s a lot better than not geo-engineering, and that’s a very different way to look at the problem. It’s using this as risk control not instead of action. It’s saying that you do some geo-engineering for a little while, to take the worst of the heat off, not use it as a substitute for action.
But there is a problem with that view, and the problem is the following:
Knowledge that geo-engineering is possible makes the climate impacts look less fearsome, and that makes a weaker commitment to cutting emissions today. This is what economists call a moral hazard. And that’s one of the fundamental reasons that this problem is so hard to talk about; in general, I think it’s the underlying reason that it’s been politically unacceptable to talk about this, but you don’t make good policy by hiding things in a drawer.
Wendy Carlisle: Background Briefing’s Executive Producer is Chris Bullock.
Co-ordinating Producer, Linda McGinness. Research, Anna Whitfeld, and technical production this week, Mark Don. I’m Wendy Carlisle and you’re listening to Background Briefing on ABC Radio National.
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