Geoengineering Report: Could Work, Go Slowly

Photo: Gretchen Weber

More research is essential to determine whether or not geoengineering is a viable approach for addressing climate change, according to the final report from a spring geoengineering conference at Asilomar.

Today’s report, stemming from a week-long conference of scientists in March, states that:

“Without an aggressive pursuit of a multi-faceted global response strategy to limit and and then reverse climate change, the environmental consequences will be severe, with concomitant social costs that are likely to lead to widespread suffering in the most affected regions.”

The types of technologies discussed at the conference included intervention strategies that attempt to remove carbon from the atmosphere such as ocean fertilization, as well as those that attempt to mitigate the effects of climate change by blocking sunlight to reduce warming, such as spraying sulfur aerosols into the atmosphere or increasing the reflectivity of clouds with sea water. The Asilomar report suggests that:

“If research demonstrates that such approaches could be effectively and responsibly deployed, they could contribute a bridging strategy that would have the potential to moderate climate change and at least some of its impacts until sharp cuts in emissions return atmospheric composition and climate change to much lower levels.”

Of course, that’s a big “if.” Continue reading

Climate News Roundup

Geoengineering: Use it or Lose it?

Just as delegates from 193 nations agreed to a voluntary moratorium on geoengineering research last week at the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan, the US House Science and Technology Committee issued a report outlining how federal geoengineering research could be pursued in the United States. The international agreement to ban the research does not apply to the US, which has not ratified the CBD. (More from The Washington Post and Climate Central.) Continue reading

Climate News Roundup

A few items in the climate news that caught our eyes this week…

1. CEC approves 250-megawatt solar thermal project in Kern County
The California Energy Commission approved the Beacon Solar Energy project on Wednesday. It’s the first time in 20 years that state energy regulators have approved construction on a solar thermal farm, the Los Angeles Times reports.

2. Geoengineering won’t curb sea-level rise, study finds
A new report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that geoengineering strategies to combat global warming by blocking the sun’s radiation would not have much of an impact on rising sea levels, unless the efforts are extremely aggressive. (Read more at

3. Earth’s plant growth fell due to climate change, says NASA
After 20 years of increasing growth under warming temperatures, the Earth’s vegetation   saw a slight decrease over the last decade, according to a new NASA analysis.  Scientists reported they were surprised to find that the negative effects of regional droughts outweighed the positive influence of a longer growing season.

4. Another hurdle cleared for the world’s largest solar farm
Federal regulators are one step closer to approving plans for the 1,000 megawatt plant proposed by Oakland-based company Solar Millennium LLC.  The project would be located across more than 7,000 acres in Riverside County. (Read more at The New York Times.)

Geoengineering Field Tests on the Horizon?


Bill Gates may investing in geoengineering projects, but a widely-quoted news story reporting that he contributed $300,000 to a San Francisco company to launch climate-intervention field tests is full of inaccuracies, according to one scientist involved.  The article, which appeared Monday on the Times Online website, asserts that Gates gave the company, Silver Lining Project, the funds to develop machines to spray seawater up to 1,000 meters into the sky in efforts to whiten clouds and increase their reflectivity, thus blocking the sun and ultimately slowing the rate of atmospheric warming.  The article then describes a planned field trial, which would involve 10 ships and 10,000 square km of ocean, leading some readers to assume that Gates is funding the largest-scale geoengineering field test to date.

According to Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute of Global Ecology at Stanford, Silver Lining has received no funds from Gates personally.  Instead, he said, the $300,000 was allotted by Caldeira and David Keith, who have been directing geoengineering project funding for Gates.  Caldeira explained in an email that the scientists dispensed funds not to Silver Lining for field tests, but to engineer Armand Neukermans and his team, “to test the feasibility of fine seawater sprays in the laboratory.”

“There was no funding given for the planning, preparation, or execution of any field tests,” Caldeira wrote.   “I have expressly said that private efforts to conduct field tests should await the development of appropriate governance structures. I am opposed to private entities conducting field tests without appropriate governance and would oppose funding such activities.”

It’s possible, as critics assert, that the technology developed by Neukermans could eventually be used in Silver Lining Project field tests. However, the $300,000 from Caldeira and Keith would most likely be a drop in that bucket.  The Vancouver Sun reports that a scientist collaborating with Silver Lining, Robert Wood, said that it will likely take $25 to $30 million to fund the proposed field experiments.

The Times Online article touched on a particularly hot issue with the statement, “The British and American scientists involved do not intend to wait for international rules on technology that deliberately alters the climate.”

In March, scientists and policymakers gathered in Monterey for a week to discuss this very issue.  The general sentiment at the close of the talks was that more research is needed, as well as more input from governing bodies and the public, before potentially damaging field experiments are undertaken.

“This is a first step down a dangerous road,” said Rutgers scientist Alan Robock about the reported Silver Lining Project field test plans.  “Because, where do you stop?  There is no governance or agreed-upon restrictions determining what’s safe.”

Geoengineering: A Hot Topic

Ash plume across the North Atlantic from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull Volcano (Photo: NASA's Earth Observatory)

Ash plume across the North Atlantic from Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull Volcano (Photo: NASA's Earth Observatory)

As we reported last month for The California Report and on the Climate Watch Blog, the subject of geoengineering, or deliberate climate intervention, is becoming an increasingly hot topic; ideas such as brightening clouds to reflect sunlight away from the Earth or shooting aerosol particles into the stratosphere to block it. They’re just two of the science-fiction-sounding ideas garnering interest from the scientific community and the public as prospects dim for CO2 mitigation efforts across the world.

This morning on KQED’s Forum program, host Dave Iverson was joined by Ken Caldeira, climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, and Martin Bunzl, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and director of the Rutgers Initiative on Climate and Social Policy.

At the outset, Caldeira explained the distinction between two basic kinds of intervention: one bucket of strategies that focus on removing carbon from the atmosphere, which tend to be expensive, but less controversial, and a second bucket of strategies that are being designed to reflect or block sunlight to cool temperatures, irrespective of CO2 levels.

This second bucket is where the bulk of the controversy lies for various reasons, including environmental and political concerns, as well as a fear by some that the more attention geoengineering gets, the less likely people will be to do the critical work required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“The only real way to solve our climate problem is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Calderia. “But I’m concerned that we’re not doing that, and I’m thinking, what will we do in the event of an emergency?””

Because climate modeling is not yet sophisticated enough to capture the regional and local effects of geoengineering strategies, and because with current technology, it would likely be impossible to limit the effects to a specific area of the planet, both Caldeira and Bunzl expressed the need for caution when considering deployment.  Caldeira said that more research needs to be done on potential environmental impacts of geoengineering, something Bunzl said might be premature.  Bunzl advocated that research be focused on improving computer modeling before taking any experiments into the field.

“I’m concerned about the limitations of our climate models in predicting regional effects, and especially regional effects due to precipitation. Until and unless those climate models become a lot better with their fine-grained prediction, its a crapshoot,” said Bunzl.

One concern Climate Watch readers and listeners have raised about using sulfur aerosol for solar radiation management is acid rain.  Caldeira said that this strategy could produce a “small acid rain problem,” but that it would not be consequential given the relatively small amount of particles that would be used (a few percent, compared with what we’re already emitting in other ways).  In a separate interview last month, Rutgers geoengineering expert Alan Robock dismissed the acid rain concern by saying that the amount of sulfur that would be used in geoengineering strategies would be close to negligible, compared with the sulfur already spewing into the atmosphere from coal plants.  In fact, Robock said he recently removed acid rain from his list of “20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea” list.

Two new books on the subject will appear on shelves this month: How to Cool the Planet by Jeff Goodell, and Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch. Both books are reviewed by Mason Inman at Nature Reports Climate Change this week and on Thursday, Goodell discussed his book on NPR’s Fresh Air.  Kintisch has also developed the Earth Emergency Procedures Safety Card which is a clever, quick introduction to the why’s and how’s of geoengineering, available either as a physical card or an online flash interactive animation.

After the Forum broadcast, I asked Caldeira about the volcano erupting in Iceland that is currently grounding flights across Europe.  Could Eyjafjallajokull be another Mt. Pinatubo?  (The massive 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in The Philippines sent so much ash into the stratosphere, that it was responsible for cooling the Earth’s atmosphere 1/2 degree Celsius.)  Not likely, said Caldeira.  While the Icelandic volcano is wreaking havoc on air travel, he said, the eruption is too small to disrupt global climate.  The only effects Californians might see, he said, are “better sunsets.”

Icelandic Volcano Chills Travel Plans…But What About the Climate?

This post was contributed by Andrew Freedman of our content partners at Climate Central. Find out why scientists are using volcanoes as a possible model for global climate intervention, on the Climate Watch blog and on KQED’s Forum program.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland  (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland (Photo: NASA Earth Observatory)

The ongoing eruption of Mt. Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland is disrupting flights across Europe, shutting down some of the busiest airports and aviation corridors in the world. But could it also disrupt the climate system, leading to a temporary cooling trend this summer?

Not likely, according to Rutgers University environmental sciences professor Alan Robock, an expert on how volcanoes alter the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Robock, the Icelandic eruption hasn’t contributed enough sulfur dioxide to the upper atmosphere to significantly alter the climate.

“From what I’ve seen from the observations so far, there hasn’t been enough put into the atmosphere to have a large climate effect,” he said in a telephone interview.

It is well known that volcanic eruptions can affect the climate. Just ask historians, who can tell you about the “year without a summer” that followed the enormous eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia in 1816. More recently, the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which contributed about 20 megatons of volcanic material to the atmosphere, cooled global average surface temperatures by about one degree Fahrenheit in the year following the eruption.

By vaulting particles of sulfur dioxide and other reflective aerosols high into the stratosphere, volcanic eruptions can reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the planet’s surface. However, this only results in temporary cooling, since chemical processes and air currents remove the particles over time.

NOAA plot showing a decrease in solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface after major volcanic eruptions

NOAA plot showing a decrease in solar radiation reaching the Earth's surface after major volcanic eruptions

In addition to causing short-term cooling, volcanoes also contribute carbon dioxide (CO2) to the atmosphere, which in the very long-term balances slow CO2 losses from other causes. The volcanic contribution of CO2 to the atmosphere is estimated to be well less than the recent human contribution, on average.

Robock noted that the ash cloud that is canceling flights would not alter the climate, since it will fall out of the air in a matter of days. “What’s dangerous for airplanes is not what causes climate to change,” he said.

The volcano’s climate impacts may also be limited by its high-latitude location, since the air circulation in the upper atmosphere in the high latitudes tends to be more efficient at getting rid of volcanic material, compared to lower latitudes where sulfur dioxide particles from volcanoes can linger for years.

Robock noted that Icelandic eruptions have disrupted climate in the past, such as a long duration event in 1783-4 that cooled temperatures in Europe, catching then US ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin’s attention. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Franklin was a pioneer in linking a volcanic eruption to climate change.

It’s still possible that this volcano, which is continuing to erupt, may yet send more volcanic material into the upper atmosphere, thereby causing a cooler summer in the northern hemisphere.

Geoengineering: Starting the Conversation

Storms over California. Image: NASA

Storms over California. Image: NASA

After five days of talks at Asilomar this week, scientists concluded that more research is needed on climate intervention strategies and their potential risks and rewards, as is a broader discussion involving governments and the public.

The meeting, hosted by The Climate Response Fund (CRF), drew more than 175  people from at least 15 countries, and from  disciplines in the natural sciences as well as social sciences, humanities, engineering, law, and policy, organizers said.

“The purpose of the conference was to figure out what are the processes and procedures that scientists should be thinking about as they undertake this research,”said Mike McCracken, who chaired the event’s Scientific Organizing Committee.  “This was not a conference about comparing geo-engineering ideas to one another, or about bringing new technological ideas to table.”

At the close of the meeting, there seemed to be more questions than answers.  What was clear from meeting discussions and Q&A sessions is that there was no single agenda shared by all participants.  Several voiced grave concerns about the potential risks of climate intervention, on several levels: environmental, social, political, and ethical.

Friday morning provided a glimpse of the tortuous path that awaits this concept, when for more than an hour, participants lined up at a microphone to voice their concerns about the language and intention of a draft news release for the event. The committee then regrouped, drafted a second version of the release, and brought it back to the gathering an hour later.  Objections remained and therefore the release is attributed to the conference Steering Committee, and not the conference as a whole.

From the statement:

“The participants explored a range of issues that need to be addressed to ensure that research into risks, impacts and efficacy of climate intervention methods is responsibly and transparently conducted and that potential consequences are thoroughly understood.  The group recognized that given our limited understanding  of these methods and the potential for significant impacts on people and ecosystems, further discussions must involve government and civil society….  We do not yet have sufficient knowledge of the risks associated with using climate intervention methods, their intended and unintended impacts and their efficacy in reducing the rate of climatic change to assess whether they should or should not be implemented. Thus, further research is indispensible.”

“I think this was the first dialogue, and it was a real dialogue,” said Margaret Leinen of the CRF.  “You have to start somewhere, and this is the beginning of the conversation, definitely not the end of the conversation. I would agree with people who say that many more voices need to come in, and I think it’s not just one additional conference. This is a process, and it’s a process of engagement.”

Those missing voices were among the chief concerns of those protesting the conference.  Diana Bronson of the advocacy organization ETC Group says that conversations about geoengineering need to take place in a UN-like forum, where people who will be most affected by climate change–and potentially by climate intervention strategies–can make themselves heard.  The conference at Asilomar, she said, did not provide that.

“This is the wrong conversation, with the wrong people, at the wrong time,” said Bronson.

Leinen countered that the very purpose of the Asilomar conference was to begin bringing diverse voices together.

“I think that one thing people were concerned about was that this was a conference of the technologists getting together in a closed room, and coming up with the rules that they would use for self-governing,” said Leinen. “That wasn’t at all what this conference was about.”

McCracken said a statement of guiding principles developed at the conference will be released in about four weeks, after it has been reviewed and commented on by meeting participants.

The conference was funded by the State of Victoria, Australia, and by private individuals and foundations.

Environmental Risks of “Geoegineering”

This week, as scientists meet in Monterey to discuss the potential for large-scale climate intervention strategies, we’re posting short discussions on some of the issues surrounding “geoengineering.”

87784767Aside from the political and economic risks associated with geoengineering, which we explored in Monday’s radio segment on The California Report, critics warn that climate intervention strategies involve some serious potential environmental consequences as well.

In one 2008 study, scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab found that one of the leading geoengineering ideas–blocking solar radiation by pumping sulfur aerosol into the stratosphere–may lead to decreased precipitation across the globe.

Climate scientist Phil Duffy, now of the education organization Climate Central and one of the authors of the 2008 study, says that the decrease in precipitation would follow a slowdown of the overall hydrologic cycle, caused by a decrease in evaporation.  Blocking sunlight reduces evaporation, and since what comes down much first go up, less evaporation means less rain and snow.  As this geoengineering scheme is being proposed as an emergency brake to counter effects of climate change like drought, this is problematic news.

Stratospheric sulfur injection could also seriously damage the Earth’s ozone layer above the Arctic, another 2008 study found.  And opponents fear that it could lead to acid rain, which could exacerbate the growing problem of ocean acidification.

Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute for Science says that computer modeling from his lab indicates that even if the strategy improved living conditions for 90% of the people on the planet, it’s likely that 10% would suffer negative environmental consequences, and, he says, it would be hard to predict where on the planet that 10% would be.

“We’ve come to the conclusion that there are no experiments that will tell you ahead of time what the regional effects will be,” said Caldeira.

Another high-profile strategy involves fertilizing the ocean with iron as a way to  encourage algae blooms for carbon sequestration.  Algae absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, and the theory is that when they die, they’ll sink to the bottom of the ocean and take the CO2 with it.  There is conflicting research about whether this could work as a long-term sequestration strategy, but a recent study suggests that regardless of whether it’s effective at sequestering CO2 or not, fertilizing the oceans with iron could harm marine ecosystems.   The research shows that increases in algae from the genus Pseudonitzschia can promote concentrations of domoic acid, a poison that can kill birds and marine mammals.  Richard Black has more on the new findings at the BBC website.

For more on the potential risks of geoengineering, Alan Robock‘s article “20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea” appears in the May/June issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

Concerns Abound as Geoengineering Conference Opens

Craig Miller

Photo: Craig Miller

This week in Monterey, an international group of scientists and policymakers are  are gathering to hash out some ground rules for experimenting with climate intervention, or “geoengineering”–what many are calling “Plan B” for dealing with climate change.

There are two main categories of geoengineering strategies: one focuses on blocking solar radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface, the other aims to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.  The goal of both is to pull an emergency brake on global warming, using technology that is, in many cases, experimental.

Ideas for blocking the sun include science-fiction-sounding ideas like spraying sulfur aerosol into the stratosphere (which we explore in a radio feature on The California Report), launching reflectors into orbit, and spraying seawater at clouds to make them brighter and more reflective.

Because much of the technology remains untested, and because, given the complexities of the climate system there’s no real way to test them out in a lab, (not to mention the philosophical issue of interfering in such a direct way with the Earth), the very idea of geoengineering is controversial (watch this space for more about that in the week ahead) But as it turns out, this week’s conference in Monterey is shaping up to be controversial on its own.

The stated goal of the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies is “to develop norms and guidelines for controlled experimentation on climate engineering or intervention techniques.” Some big names in climate circles are expected to be in attendance, including the Climate Institute‘s Michael McCracken, who is chairing the conference, and former IPCC lead author Richard Somerville, now retired from Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

Other leading scientists, however, have chosen to skip the conference, including Stanford’s Ken Caldeira, Martin Bunzl, who directs the Rutgers Initiative on Climate Change and Social Policy, and Braden Allenby, a professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University, both of whom participated in a lively panel on geoengineering at the AAAS annual meeting in February. Bunzl told Climate Watch Senior Editor Craig Miller that the five-day event was too much time to devote to the topic, and Allenby called the conference premature.

Many scientists say that more research needs to be done to determine whether these strategies would even work, before we start hashing out how to to deploy them, even if only on a limited, experimental basis.  Others fear a focus on intervention might lead to complacency and distract from the immediate task of reducing CO2 emissions.

The latest controversy surrounding the conference, however, revolves around accusations of a conflict of interest.  The Climate Response Fund (CRF), which is organizing the conference, has ties to a geoengineering firm, San Francisco-based Climos.  Climate blogger Joe Romm (who is admittedly “not a fan of geoengineering”) writes about these connections in-depth at Climate Progress, and details email exchanges he had on the subject with Margaret Leinen of the CRF, David Keith of the University of Calgary and Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute for Science, all of whom reportedly expressed concerns about the potential conflict of interest (one reason Caldeira cites for skipping the conference).

Meanwhile organizers will try to enforce media restrictions almost unheard of in the Internet age, including a ban on daily reporting from the conference, and on quoting presenters without their express consent.  The rationale was laid out in an email from the conference organizers:

“The conference is designed to allow the conferees to consider multiple points of view during the course of the meetings.  Reporting before participants have had the opportunity to consider the full mix of views will necessarily be incomplete and therefore risk being misleading.  This also is  matter of courtesy to your fellow conferees, will help in maintaining the focus of the discussions and efforts to achieve the Conference objectives, and will help reduce the likelihood that Internet exchanges about the Conference will break out before we all have an opportunity to be participating in them, as appropriate, based on our actual experiences here at Asilomar.”

Some form of announcement is scheduled for Friday, when the meeting comes to a close.

Update 3/22/10
The Board of Directors of the Climate Response Fund has issued a statement addressing the concerns raised about a potential conflict of interest.  It states that CRF “will not fund field experiments for any climate intervention technique now or in the future.”  This reportedly has assuaged some scientists’ (and journalists’) concerns about the intentions of the organization and the purpose of the Asilomar conference.