(From left) Jeff Goodell, David Keith, Andrew Parker (all photos by Asa Mathat)
Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics and Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University
Research Fellow, Belfer Center for Science & International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School
Contributing Editor, Rolling Stone
Without tech and science, we cannot create a thermostat for the planet. What are the risks, the opportunities, and the socioeconomic and political implications of the rapidly- evolving science of geo-engineering? Who will decide whether and how we alter our atmosphere? Read excerpts from the discussion below, or download the full transcript.
Goodell: Why don’t you just tell us really bluntly how we would do this? I know you have been thinking a lot about this. So let’s just say Hurricane Sandy just hit. In two weeks Hurricane Sandy II comes and everyone says, “Oh, my God, let’s cool this off. We’ve got to do something now.” What do we do?
Keith: So let’s say you wanted to cut in half the rate of warming starting in 2020. So what you’d do is you start in 2020 with about two or three Gulfstream G650 aircraft, re-engined with a military low bypass engine. That’s a stock commercial airplane. And they’d put about 20,000 tons of sulfur into the stratosphere, the upper atmosphere, every year. And you’d need to do some work on that. And 20,000 tons may seem like a meaninglessly big or small number, but that’s something like two or three hundred times less than the amount of sulfur we now pump into the lower atmosphere in pollution, which, by the way, kills something like a million people around the world a year.
So 10 years out, in 2030, you’d be putting—you’d have maybe 10 aircraft running. It would cost you a couple of hundred million a year, all up. And this is a horrifyingly tiny amount of money. So we spent, the year before last, $300 billion roughly. $270 is what Bloomberg says, globally, $270 billion on clean tech.
The kind of numbers people talk about as the cost of climate impacts, or the cost of managing the problem, are trillion numbers—sort of one percent of global GDP class numbers. So numbers at the level of a couple of hundred million are basically zero. At a cost that’s tiny, that essentially any country in the world, certainly any kind of G20 country could do, you could divide the rate of warming in half.
Now, is it perfect? No. Does it remove all climate problems? No. Does it cause its own risks? Of course, it does. But whether you think this is a completely nutty idea or a perhaps good idea, what’s clear is it is kind of frighteningly doable.
If you want to actually reduce the risks to many of the people who will suffer real climate impacts in the next decades, including some of the poorest people in the world, this is essentially the only thing you could do, because nothing you do to cut emissions has essentially any real impact over the next few decades because of this long inertia.
I don’t think we’re actually quite ready to commit to do it in 2020. I would not advocate that, but I’d come pretty close.
Goodell: The conventional scenario is something like the United States would do this, would do some kind of a sort of well-run program. But you were talking about how it’s equally likely or even more likely that the developing world could really push for this.
Parker: Extrapolating by a few years, one could imagine—take, for example, the Pacific Islands or the African equatorial states, projected to suffer climate change impacts far more keenly than Europe or the United States. And I don’t see any reasons why they wouldn’t be the ones demanding this to be done, or doing it themselves. David says how terrifyingly cheap it might be to actually deploy solar geo-engineering.
I can see there’s two large groups who might be interested in deployment in 15 years, say. Folks, perhaps the elites in the developed world who don’t want to do anything about mitigation and see this as a way of stalling action on our emissions, or people who are feeling the effects most keenly, and those are the people in the developing world. What concerns me, what terrifies me most about this idea is probably more the political ramifications of that than the physical ramifications.
Unfortunately, when it comes to peaceful uses, i.e., trying to treat climate change, there’s very little international regulation out there to stop us here pooling our wealth and going out to do it tomorrow.
Keith: None of the current treaties, not the climate treaty, not other environmental treaties, even control doing this. So it is in principle legal to engineer the whole planet this way today, under international law, which is crazy.
The biggest single fear is just the idea of this takes away the incentive to get serious about cutting emissions. That this provides a kind of technical fix, get out of jail free card or appears to provide one, and perhaps actually does not, that will then lead us further down a pathway where we put more carbon in the atmosphere and increase our risk without actually managing the kind of root problem which is the build-up of carbon.
Parker: Some ethicists have argued that you are crossing a crucial line, even though we are interfering with the atmosphere on so great a level. The moment you start to do it deliberately, something has changed and something fundamentally has changed. People who hold that point of view have to then answer how they will deal with the suffering in the next 50, 60 years before mitigation really kicks in. How they will deal with the suffering of the people most vulnerable to climate change.
Keith: I think this is, in the grandest sense, a challenge for international institutions and innovation that we are not meeting. And we keep saying this is a new idea. This idea actually goes back to the ’60s. This idea is in the report that President Johnson got about climate change in 1965.