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When Will Geoengineering “Tip”?

Let’s Hope Real Public Dialogue, Rather than Scandal, Will Be the Trigger

sunset SOURCE: NASA The titanic issues that surround the prospect of modifying the planet, currently off the radar for most Americans, could come up in a very big way in the relatively near future. We need leaders to start talking to the public before that happens.

Science Insider had the scoop: It appears the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is holding a meeting at Stanford University soon on the controversial topic of geoengineering, or modifying the planet artificially in order to offset the effects of global warming. This is newsworthy for at least two reasons: The U.S. government has, thus far, kept the subject of geoengineering at a relative arm’s-length; and one reason for that shyness is the extremely checkered past history of U.S. military ventures in weather modification, including the notorious attempt to use “weather warfare” to our advantage in Vietnam.

Science, Cultured

Contributing editor Chris Mooney

Science Progress contributing editor Chris Mooney surveys the interactions between science, politics, and culture. He is the author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.” (Photo:

I’m not personally scandalized to learn of DARPA holding a conference or having a discussion. One thing about geoengineering, after all, is that not only may we want to do it, but we might also have reason to be concerned about someone else doing it—so the more dialogue, the better.

Indeed, I suspect that at some point soon this topic, currently off the radar of most Americans, is going to come up in a very big way, whether through politico-media scandal or, very preferably, otherwise.

Why? Put simply, because at least in some versions, geoengineering is likely to be cheap, and likely to work. These two attributes are already proving intellectually irresistible to many climate scientists, who at minimum call for geoengineering to be “studied,” and who are already doing so themselves in climate models. At some point, as we continue to struggle to get a handle on the global warming problem, they may also prove practically irresistible to politicians and governments.

In a story in Wired magazine last year, I explained the most likely geoengineering scenario to get serious consideration: Infusion of the stratosphere with sulfate aerosol particles, which will reflect sunlight and cause global cooling. This we know with something bordering on certainty: It’s precisely what volcanic eruptions do. Our planet has already run the experiment. What other environmental side effects would occur is not nearly as certain, of course—this is where the real scandal and controversy kicks in—but in a situation of climate crisis, we might not have the luxury of worrying about them.

Indeed, a group of experts—Stanford’s David Victor, Carnegie Mellon’s M. Granger Morgan, and others—recently made roughly this case in Foreign Affairs (subscription required). It’s just the latest in a series of articles by major climate researchers, or policy wonks, essentially sounding the alarm about geoengineering: This is real, this is very possible, this is scary, this requires attention.

The question to my mind is when the broader political discourse will catch on to what these experts are already realizing. We pay vastly too little attention to global warming in the media; geoengineering is nowhere on the news agenda at all. Yet it’s one of many examples of a coming scientific controversy that is reasonably forseeable in advance—at least to those who are paying attention—but nevertheless seems doomed to catch the broader public unawares at some undetermined point in the future (think of cloning and the Raelians). Whereupon, a reasoned dialogue about the pros and cons of climate control, which is increasingly coming within humanity’s grasp, will probably be the last thing we see.

What would I propose instead? That some important figure in the media or our government broach a dialogue on this topic now, at the very highest of levels. That everyone find some way of going to see the documentary Owning the Weather, which is about this subject and will be premiering at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 3rd. That Congress hold serious hearings. And so on. We must try in all conceivable ways to create a broader dialogue, one that goes far beyond the scientific, expert community.

I’m perfectly aware of the counterargument to this stance: Some worry that the more we discuss geoengineering and give people the idea that it could be a panacea—a faster, cheaper way of averting global warming—then the more likely we could be as a society to go for the easy “techno-fix,” rather than take the hard steps needed to really cut down our emissions. It’s a serious concern, but I believe it must be weighed against several others.

First, science and technology could make geoengineering a foregone conclusion before we’ve even had a chance to determine what we think about it. That will hardly lead to the best societal decision-making. And second, everything I know about global warming suggests that having a backup plan does make a lot of sense. We don’t know how bad it’s going to get, or how fast, or how effective (or ineffective) our eventual climate policies will be. And we only have one planet.

Sadly, there could come a time when nothing is off the table.

Chris Mooney is contributing editor to Science Progress and author of several books, including The Republican War on Science and the forthcoming Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. He and Kirshenbaum blog at “The Intersection.”

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