The Geoengineering Option

EDITOR'S NOTE: The world's slow progress in cutting carbon emissions should prompt policymakers to take a closer look at geo-engineering, David G. Victor, M. Granger Morgan, Jay Apt, John Steinbruner, and Katharine Ricke argue in Foreign Affairs magazine. For the full article, please visit the magazine's Web site. A few excerpts:

Each year, the effects of climate change are coming into sharper focus. Barely a month goes by without some fresh bad news: ice sheets and glaciers are melting faster than expected, sea levels are rising more rapidly than ever in recorded history, plants are blooming earlier in the spring, water supplies and habitats are in danger, birds are being forced to find new migratory patterns.

Eliminating all the risks of climate change is impossible because carbon dioxide emissions, the chief human contribution to global warming, are unlike conventional air pollutants, which stay in the atmosphere for only hours or days. Once carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, much of it remains for over a hundred years. Emissions from anywhere on the planet contribute to the global problem, and once headed in the wrong direction, the climate system is slow to respond to attempts at reversal. As with a bathtub that has a large faucet and a small drain, the only practical way to lower the level is by dramatically cutting the inflow. Holding global warming steady at its current rate would require a worldwide 60-80 percent cut in emissions, and it would still take decades for the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to stabilize.

Most human emissions of carbon dioxide come from burning fossil fuels, and most governments have been reluctant to force the radical changes necessary to reduce those emissions. Economic growth tends to trump vague and elusive global aspirations. The United States has yet to impose even a cap on its emissions, let alone a reduction. The European Union has adopted an emissions-trading scheme that, although promising in theory, has not yet had much real effect because carbon prices are still too low to cause any significant change in behavior. Even Norway, which in 1991 became one of the first nations to impose a stiff tax on emissions, has seen a net increase in its carbon dioxide emissions. Japan, too, has professed its commitment to taming global warming. Nevertheless, Tokyo is struggling to square the need for economic growth with continued dependence on an energy system powered mainly by conventional fossil fuels. And China's emissions recently surpassed those of the United States, thanks to coal-fueled industrialization and a staggering pace of economic growth. The global economic crisis is stanching emissions a bit, but it will not come close to shutting off the faucet.

Geoengineering could provide a useful defense for the planet-an emergency shield that could be deployed if surprisingly nasty climatic shifts put vital ecosystems and billions of people at risk. Actually raising the shield, however, would be a political choice. One nation's emergency can be another's opportunity, and it is unlikely that all countries will have similar assessments of how to balance the ills of unchecked climate change with the risk that geoengineering could do more harm than good. Governments should immediately begin to undertake serious research on geoengineering and help create international norms governing its use.

The rainmakers

Today's proposals for geoengineering are more likely to have an impact because the interventions needed for global-scale geoengineering are much less subtle than those that sought to influence local weather patterns. The earth's climate is largely driven by the fine balance between the light energy with which the sun bathes the earth and the heat that the earth radiates back to space. On average, about 70 percent of the earth's incoming sunlight is absorbed by the atmosphere and the planet's surface; the remainder is reflected back into space. Increasing the reflectivity of the planet (known as the albedo) by about one percentage point could have an effect on the climate system large enough to offset the gross increase in warming that is likely over the next century as a result of a doubling of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Making such tweaks is much more straightforward than causing rain or fog at a particular location in the ways that the weather makers of the late 1940s and 1950s dreamed of doing.

Albedo enhancers

Today, the term "geoengineering" refers to a variety of strategies designed to cool the climate. Some, for example, would slowly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, either by manipulating the biosphere (such as by fertilizing the ocean with nutrients that would allow plankton to grow faster and thus absorb more carbon) or by directly scrubbing the air with devices that resemble big cooling towers. However, from what is known today, increasing the earth's albedo offers the most promising method for rapidly cooling the planet.

Cooling the planet through geoengineering will not, however, fix all of the problems related to climate change. Offsetting warming by reflecting more sunlight back into space will not stop the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Sooner or later, much of that carbon dioxide ends up in the oceans, where it forms carbonic acid. Ocean acidification is a catastrophe for marine ecosystems, for the 100 million people who depend on coral reefs for their livelihoods, and for the many more who depend on them for coastal protection from storms and for biological support of the greater ocean food web. Over the last century, the oceans have become markedly more acidic, and current projections suggest that without a serious effort to control emissions, the concentration of carbon dioxide will be so high by the end of the century that many organisms that make shells will disappear and most coral reef ecosystems will collapse, devastating the marine fishing industry. Recent studies have also suggested that ocean acidification will increase the size and depth of "dead zones," areas of the sea that are so oxygen depleted that larger marine life, such as squid, are unable to breathe properly. Altering the albedo of the earth would also affect atmospheric circulation, rainfall, and other aspects of the hydrologic cycle.

In the six to 18 months following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, rainfall and river flows dropped, particularly in the tropics. Understanding these dangers better would help convince government leaders in rainfall-sensitive regions, such as parts of China and India (along with North Africa, the Middle East, and the desert regions of the southwestern United States), not to prematurely deploy poorly designed geoengineering schemes that could wreak havoc on agricultural productivity. Indeed, some climate models already suggest that negative outcomes-decreased precipitation over land (especially in the tropics) and increased precipitation over the oceans-would accompany a geoengineering scheme that sought to lower average temperatures by raising the planet's albedo. Such changes could increase the risk of major droughts in some regions and have a major impact on agriculture and the supply of fresh water. Complementary policies-such as investing in better water-management schemes-may be needed.

Lone rangers

An effective foreign policy strategy for managing geoengineering is difficult to formulate because the technology involved turns the normal debate over climate change on its head. The best way to reduce the danger of global warming is, of course, to cut emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But success in that venture will require all the major emitting countries, with their divergent interests, to cooperate for several decades in a sustained effort to develop and deploy completely new energy systems with much lower emissions. Incentives to defect and avoid the high cost of emissions controls will be strong.

By contrast, geoengineering is an option at the disposal of any reasonably advanced nation. A single country could deploy geoengineering systems from its own territory without consulting the rest of the planet. Geoengineers keen to alter their own country's climate might not assess or even care about the dangers their actions could create for climates, ecosystems, and economies elsewhere. A unilateral geoengineering project could impose costs on other countries, such as changes in precipitation patterns and river flows or adverse impacts on agriculture, marine fishing, and tourism. And merely knowing that geoengineering exists as an option may take the pressure off governments to implement the policies needed to cut emissions.

Although governments are the most likely actors, some geoengineering options are cheap enough to be deployed by wealthy and capable individuals or corporations. Although it may sound like the stuff of a future James Bond movie, private-sector geoengineers might very well attempt to deploy affordable geoengineering schemes on their own. And even if governments manage to keep freelance geoengineers in check, the private sector could emerge as a potent force by becoming an interest group that pushes for deployment or drives the direction of geoengineering research and assessment. Already, private companies are running experiments on ocean fertilization in the hope of sequestering carbon dioxide and earning credits that they could trade in carbon markets. Private developers of technology for albedo modification could obstruct an open and transparent research environment as they jockey for position in the potentially lucrative market for testing and deploying geoengineering systems. To prevent such scenarios and to establish the rules that should govern the use of geoengineering technology for the good of the entire planet, a cooperative, international research agenda is vital.

From science fiction to facts

Many scientists have been reluctant to raise the issue for fear that it might create a moral hazard: encouraging governments to deploy geoengineering rather than invest in cutting emissions. Indeed, geoengineering ventures will be viewed with particular suspicion if the nations funding geoengineering research are not also investing in dramatically reducing their emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Many scientists also rightly fear that grants for geoengineering research would be subtracted from the existing funds for urgently needed climate-science research and carbon-abatement technologies.

The scientific academies in the leading industrialized and emerging countries-which often control the purse strings for major research grants-must orchestrate a serious and transparent international research effort funded by their governments. Although some work is already under way, a more comprehensive understanding of geoengineering options and of risk-assessment procedures would make countries less trigger-happy and more inclined to consider deploying geoengineering systems in concert rather than on their own. (The International Council for Science, which has a long and successful history of coordinating scientific assessments of technical topics, could also lend a helping hand.) Eventually, a dedicated international entity overseen by the leading academies, provided with a large budget, and suffused with the norms of transparency and peer review will be necessary.

Although the international scientific community should take the lead in developing a research agenda, social scientists, international lawyers, and foreign policy experts will also have to play a role. Eventually, there will have to be international laws to ensure that globally credible and legitimate rules govern the deployment of geoengineering systems. But effective legal norms cannot be imperiously declared. They must be carefully developed by informed consensus in order to avoid encouraging the rogue forms of geoengineering they are intended to prevent.

Brave new world

Humans have already engaged in a dangerous geophysical experiment by pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The best and safest strategy for reversing climate change is to halt this buildup of greenhouse gases, but this solution will take time, and it involves myriad practical and political difficulties. Meanwhile, the dangers are mounting. In a few decades, the option of geoengineering could look less ugly for some countries than unchecked changes in the climate. Nor is it impossible that later in the century the planet will experience a climatic disaster that puts ecosystems and human prosperity at risk. It is time to take geoengineering out of the closet-to better control the risk of unilateral action and also to know the costs and consequences of its use so that the nations of the world can collectively decide whether to raise the shield if they think the planet needs it.

David G. Victor is a professor at Stanford Law School, director of Stanford's Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. M. Granger Morgan is head of Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Engineering and Public Policy and director of the Climate Decision Making Center. Jay Apt is professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. John Steinbruner is professor of Public Policy and director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland. Katharine Ricke is a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University.

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