Eli Kintisch on Geoengineering and 'Jumping the Shark'

by |October 5, 2010

By Elizabeth Robinson

As little as five years ago, geoengineering was fringe science. But now, with CO2 concentrations still rising in spite of our knowledge of the consequences, geoengineering is increasingly viewed as an option for coping with the possibility of catastrophic climate change.

On Friday, September 24th, the Columbia Climate Center hosted an event titled Geoengineering the Climate: Ethics, Potential and Politics. Author and Science reporter Eli Kintisch discussed his new book, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe, with Scott Barrett, Lenfest-Earth Institute Professor of Natural Resource Economics at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

Kintisch started his presentation with a video clip from the “Jumping the Shark” episode of “Happy Days,” a popular television show that veered into absurdity in its final season, as many long-running television series do, said Kintisch. This turning point in plot where the writers run out of ideas is now often called jumping the shark. Kintisch said that at this point, it’s clear that many seasons of climate change research, campaigns and global conferences have done little to slow carbon emissions. In other words, conventional ideas about how to deal with climate change- international treaties, carbon prices, and the like- have not been effective. It’s time, he thinks, to explore more extreme options like geoengineering technologies so that, if we do need to undertake highly unconventional measures, we know the consequences.

“Essentially, geoengineering is this idea of large-scale manipulation of the climate,” said Kintisch, “and I like to think about it as an emergency procedure along the lines of the emergency procedures you read about in airplanes.” Geoengineering isn’t an ideal solution for the climate problem, but it’s an option we should explore so that, in case of an emergency, we have some understanding of whether or not it works. “When it comes to making decisions in uncertainty … having enough detail is really important,” said Kintisch.

There are numerous different approaches to geoengineering, but Kintisch focused particularly on strategies to block sunlight. Unlike most other climate change solutions, sun blocking directly and immediately affects temperature. As Kintisch pointed out, “Even if you stop [carbon] emissions dead, they remain in the atmosphere for centuries, which means the temperature remains constant for centuries.” Cloud brightening or sun blocking could bring temperature down quickly and in a specific region to avert temperature-related disaster. “It might allow us to protect the Arctic, or to prevent droughts in certain areas,” Kintisch said.

Scott Barrett talked about geoengineering from his perspective as a researcher in the field, and came to many of the same conclusions as Kintisch. “I knew the term [geoengineering] 20 years ago but I ignored it,” he said, “and I only started working on it more recently when I realized … that I was running out of ideas for how we could do better.”

Geoengineering is a risky approach to dealing with climate change, he says, because it includes solutions that could be implemented relatively cheaply by a single country or organization to the benefit (or peril) of the entire planet. Even small-scale geoengineering carries risk because it involves some interference with the climate system. “We’re in a world, unfortunately, where we have risk/risk tradeoffs,” says Barrett.

Before tests of geoengineering technologies move forward, Barrett thinks we need some sort of international agreement or protocol on how they should be conducted. Kintisch suggested that, inevitably, some country or company will start testing geoengineering technologies, whether they have permission or not, so there is value in pursuing a better understanding of geoengineering as a defensive, preventative measure.

“I think we are jumping the shark with geoengineering,” said Kintisch, “but we don’t know how serious the [consequences are] . The important thing is to think about what the alternative is … ultimately I don’t think we have the option to leave it off the table.”

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