Should We Geoengineer the Climate to Stop Global Warming?

shipsLast week, we reported on a study from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers that suggested creating forests of synthetic trees and algae-lined buildings to absorb CO2 and delay climate change. And earlier this month, we wrote about a suggestion from scientists at the Copenhagen Consensus Center to build ships that spray climate-altering clouds into the sky. Now the Royal Society in the U.K. has chimed in with a report that suggests these quixotic schemes are in fact necessary. And if we don't implement them soon, we might be permanently screwed.

The Royal Society, which is headed up by famed astrophysicist Martin Rees, believes that geoengineering is imperative, especially if we fail to cut our emissions to half of what they were in 1990. And if talks at this fall's Copenhagen climate summit don't produce results, there's a good chance that we will fail.

Little real-world testing has been done with promising geoengineering technologies like synthetic CO2 absorbing trees and cloud-spraying ships, so the Society suggests that $16 million be spent each year in the U.K. on experimentation. That's about 10 times less than what is currently spent on climate change research, but 10 times more than what is spent on geoengineering.

The Society also questions if geoengineering should only be the plan of last resort, asking: "Assuming that acceptable standards for effectiveness, safety, public acceptance and cost were established, why should appropriate geoengineering options not be added to the portfolio of options that society will need and may wish to use to combat the challenges posed by climate change?"

One reason is that swift implementation of geoengineering could demoralize the public in taking real steps to lower emissions, but the Society questions that as well, acknowledging that, "Although this prospect should be taken seriously, there is as yet little empirical evidence on whether the prospect of climate intervention galvanizes or undermines efforts to reduce emissions. The moral hazard argument requires further investigation to establish how important an issue this should be for decision makers." It's a good point, and one that should probably be explored further while testing is completed to determine which geoengineering techniques are feasible. Whether or not we ever choose to use geoengineering, we should at least get the technology down pat in case we need it.

[The Royal Society]

Add New Comment


  • R. Boschen

    This is a really interesting article and I wonder about the effectiveness, long term success and safety of engineered responses to global warming. It makes me think about something that I experienced when I was about 12 years old. Because of my age at the time, the details may be fuzzy especially since the environment wasn't on my radar at the time....going to Disney for the first time was. I was down in Florida during a time when I believe the northern part of Lake Okeechobee was in drought. I was visiting my family in Homestead, Fl. and they had decided to take me on my first trip to Disney. We drove to Disney and on the way home, the skies opened up with rain, and as I recall it rained torrentially for about 3 days. We weren't even sure we would be able to get on a plane to return to New York. If my fuzzy memory serves me any kind of justice, I seem to recall that this torrential 3-day storm was the result of seeding the clouds over Lake Okeechobee to get rain in the drought ravaged northern part of the lake...the clouds however had headed south, like the rest of us. After the three days, Homestead, Fl was flooded beyond belief and I don't think it resolved the drought situation in Lake Okeechobee. I only mention this because it illustrates the concerns of geoengineering.