Geoengineering to save the planet: The controversial Plan B that could become inevitable

Science writer Jeff Goodell started out as a geoengineering skeptic, worried about fiddling with the planet’s thermostat. 10 years later, amidst growing concern over climate change, he says it will have to be part of the solution.

As the world fails to cut carbon emissions, support is growing for once-radical ideas

People attend a Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice demonstration before the final session of the COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, December 14, 2018. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)
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When environment writer Jeff Goodell wrote about geoengineering a decade ago, it was a risky, fringe idea.

But as the earth speeds toward a climate change tipping point, as predicted by the International Panel on Climate Change in October, Goodell, the author of How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate says it may be our best "Plan B."

"When I wrote my book 10 years ago there was still a lot of hope that we ... who are most responsible for climate change would kind of get our act together," he told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

"The last decade has sort of proven that not to be true."

Climate scientists, activists and government leaders are talking about global warming yet again as the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, which began on Dec. 3, wrapped up on Friday.

Sometimes known as "planet hacking," geoengineering refers to a variety of methods that can manually manipulate the Earth's temperature.

The mainstream approach, Goodell says, would be to fill the stratosphere with sulfur dioxide particles, a substance released during volcano eruptions, that would have the effect of reflecting the sun's rays away from the planet like a giant parasol.

It's not a kind of diet pill for our fossil fuel consumption habits, but it is something that might buy us some time.- Jeff Goodell , environment writer

While the sci-fi-esque approach has its risks and critics, Goodell says that certain techniques, combined with the continued decline of fossil fuel use, could be what's needed to "take the edge off" the warming planet.

"Depending on how it's done, [for example] the amount of particulates you put up there, you can kind of create a thermostat for the climate, to a degree," he said.

Who controls the thermostat?

Geoengineering isn't a new idea, and it's starting to pick up steam.

The concept was featured in science journal Nature's August 2018 cover story. Harvard University even has a research team dedicated to geoengineering.

"We now have convincing science linking many of the weather extremes we are experiencing to climate change," University of California San Diego climate sciences professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan told Day 6.

Writer Jeff Goodell says that geoengineering could help slow the rate of melting ice sheets in the Arctic. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

He says that as science suggests we're moving more rapidly toward greater warming, drastic intervention is needed. While he's skeptical of how geoengineering would play out, he acknowledges it could be an emergency option.

"The key thing is which nation, or who, is going to hold the thermostat of the planet," he said. The drastic measures would require global cooperation — which could lead to conflict, warns Ramanathan — and who holds the key is sure to be debated.

But, Goodell worries that if action to reduce rising global temperatures isn't taken soon, it may not be up to governments or agencies to decide who geoengineers the planet, and how.

"I don't know that we will come to a decision in the sense that it will be decided in any kind of democratic or even perhaps rational way," he said.

"It may be decided by a lone actor. It may be decided by a group of individuals. It may be decided by a nation state."

'I wish I were wrong'

Aside from the possible political implications, geoengineering won't solve climate change — especially if there isn't a drastic reduction in carbon emissions, Goodell says.

"That's sort of a nightmare scenario … because then we are continuing to load up the atmosphere with carbon, with all the consequences of that," he said.

Sulfate particles also have a limited lifespan, meaning that the geoengineering process would have to be continuous, according to Goodall.

Without reducing fossil fuel use, then, "we're creating what amounts to a kind of Sword of Damocles," he said, adding if we stopped geoengineering suddenly, it could result in a period of rapid rewarming.

"It's not a kind of diet pill for our fossil fuel consumption habits, but it is something that might buy us some time."

Scientist and professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan says that we'll continue to see weather become more extreme, like wildfires in California this fall, as climate change continues. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

According to Ramanathan, blowing particles into the stratosphere will also reduce rainfall — a particularly problematic outcome for tropical regions.

While Goodell acknowledges that fossil fuel use is on the decline, he worries that geoengineering is quickly becoming a Hail Mary solution.

"I wish I were wrong, and I wish that that wasn't true," he said. "But even 10 years ago it was pretty apparent that geoengineering has a lot of political and technological appeal."

"That's why I took the plunge and wrote the book."


To hear the full interview with Jeff Goodell, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

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