Geoengineering – The Opium of the People? Pain-killer, Plane-chiller, Plane crasher

The Artificial Intelligence of Geoengineering, Part II 

(To read Part I, click here)

In the first two months of 2013, leading advocates of geoengineering have argued variously that researching geoengineering (as a Plan B to GHG emission cuts) is like helping a cancer patient manage pain while seeking a cure; or, that an accelerating gaggle of executive jets circling the equator could spray enough sulphuric acid in the stratosphere to keep the Earth’s thermostat within bounds; or, that a single island state could thumb its nose at the military might of the major powers and geoengineer the planet to its liking. So much lobbying and still months to go before the IPCC delivers its fifth assessment report – with  an anticipated treatment of geoengineering.

Pain-killer: Ken Caldeira[i] of the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford is arguing that solar radiation management (SRM) is a short- to medium-term strategy to ward off the worst effects of climate change while politicians and scientists work to mitigate emissions and address the fundamental causes. Specifically, Caldeira insists that geoengineering is like giving a cancer patient morphine to make the pain tolerable while the major research effort continues to find a cure for cancer. Although Caldeira notes that diverting research and resources to painkillers could take away money from addressing the climate conundrum, he insists it is only humane. The analogy may be  diverting  but the intelligence is artificial. There has never been any connection between the development of painkillers and efforts to cure any disease. Painkillers and anti-depressants are a large and profitable market, but as grateful as a cancer victim may be for pain relief, the cancer’s life-threatening trajectory soldiers on. The patient won’t long mistake the respite for the remedy. Very differently, geoengineering is a painkiller whose purpose and profits are directly tied to the prolongation of the GHG disease. Plan B is a remedy for politicians and polluters who want to transfer tough socioeconomic decisions to another election or even another generation.

Plane chiller: Pursuing the drug-addiction analogy, physics professor David Keith at Harvard[ii] describes a fast and cheap SRM “solution” that requires higher and higher doses to achieve the same “fix.”  Keith has calculated that if, in 2020, one or two Gulfstream business jets began flying 20 km above the equator blowing 25,000 metric tons of sulphuric acid into the lower stratosphere they could block about 1% of the sunlight within the first year. By 2040 however, to maintain the same temperature (“high”?), Keith estimates that the acid dose would need a tenfold boost (to 250,000 metric tons per annum) and the number of executive jets would climb to 10 or more. Around 2070, 100 or more planes would be shooting up a million tons of acid a year at an annual cost in the low billions. (Business jets as usual?) At some time before the stratosphere clogs up with airplane wings excreting fossil fuel emissions we would have to figure a way to safely stuff our planet into a detox unit. 

Plane crasher: Science entrepreneur, Nathan Myhrvold recently told the Climate Spectator[iii] that Plan B is inevitable because an island nation like the Maldives – clearly threatened by sea level rise – will launch its own Gulfstream jets or hoist sulphate-spewing pipes into the stratosphere – to ward off the rising tides. Myrhvold seems unperturbed that a unilateral initiative by a tiny state might occasion the ire of the US, Indian or Chinese air forces less appreciative of the island’s sovereignty than of their own vulnerability. Drug addicts – and nations – have fought over less. 

The artificial intelligence of geoengineering continues. Stretched out, the brain’s nerve fibers can circle the globe four times but geoengineers still can’t get their heads around responsible climate governance.[iv]


[i] Ken Caldeira,  “We Need Symptomatic Relief,”, Earth Island Journal, February 2013: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/hack_the_sky.

[ii] David Rotman, “A Cheap and Easy Plan to Stop Global Warming,” Technology Review, February 8, 2013: http://www.technologyreview.com/featuredstory/511016/a-cheap-and-easy-pl....

[iii] David Hodgkinson, “Geoengineering’s reckless risk,” Climate Spectator, 4 March 4 2013: http://www.businessspectator.com.au/article/2013/3/4/science-environment....

[iv] Colin Barras, “Mind maths: Small world with big connections,” New Scientist electronic edition, 9 February 9 2013: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21729032.000-mind-maths-small-worl....