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Climate Panic Button

Ecology scientist Ken Caldeira sheds light on some radical ideas for fighting global warming.

Fortnightly Magazine - February 2007

with the climate you might damage the planet in ways you can’t fix. But our model simulations indicate these schemes would work quite well to reverse the effects of global warming, and nothing terrible would happen.

Of course the climate is a lot more complicated than what is represented in models, and nobody really knows what would happen.

Fortnightly: What are the biggest risks of this approach?

Caldeira: There are concerns about what it would do to ozone chemistry. Would it end up destroying the ozone layer? Scientists and models say it won’t, but nobody predicted the ozone hole over Antarctica before it appeared either.

One problem would be ocean acidification, from the ocean absorbing CO 2 and killing coral reefs and other species. Geoengineering won’t solve that problem.

Some people suggest blocking sunlight will hurt agriculture, but our simulations indicate, on balance, sunlight that is more diffuse combined with increased CO 2 would make the biosphere grow more vigorously.

I would feel happier if our simulations suggested some clear reason that geoengineering is a terrible idea, but no real show stoppers have presented themselves.

Fortnightly: These ideas have received attention recently, but historically they’ve been considered too speculative and grandiose to be taken seriously. Is that changing, or is this still the stuff of science fiction?

Caldeira: It’s a little beyond sci-fi. People who are pretty savvy from a policy point of view are at least discussing it. There’s still no funding for it, probably because it is considered too politically dangerous for anyone to touch it. But in backrooms more serious people are thinking sooner or later we will end up deploying these schemes.

In November 2006 we convened a meeting at the NASA Ames Research Center [Editor’s note: This was a closed-door meeting] that included many luminaries, including Nobel Laureate Tom Schelling. He and others are getting a sense of despair that we will ever a-chieve international coordination on the level necessary to reverse climate change.

I compare it to the Iraqi oil-for-food program. How are you going to actually police a carbon-capture and storage regime? When you start thinking about how you actually solve these problems, it would be very attractive if we had a quick technology solution like geoengineering, which doesn’t need international agreements but can be done by one country, and is economically feasible and effective according to the climate models. On that basis it is a realistic proposition.

Fortnightly: What about the argument that geoengineering is a distraction that will hinder efforts to address the root causes of global warming?

Caldeira: I don’t see a whole lot of political momentum toward seriously addressing the problem, just a lot of superficial things that will be ineffective. That’s because politicians have a lot to gain from appearing to address it, but little to gain from actually solving what is a multi-decade problem.

One scenario is that we won’t really do anything until a catastrophe happens, and then people will demand that we do both [transition away from fossil fuels and conduct geoengineering]. When the s--- really hits the fan—