Cheap But Imperfect: Can Geoengineering Slow Climate Change?

Interview by Johann Grolle

The 1991 explosion of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. "Aerosoles in the stratosphere reduce the rate of climate change," says David Keith. Zoom
ESA

The 1991 explosion of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. "Aerosoles in the stratosphere reduce the rate of climate change," says David Keith.

Part 2: 'We Should Start Relatively Soon'

SPIEGEL: Are there any concrete plans to experiment with sulfur injection in the atmosphere yet?

Keith: This depends on what you mean by "concrete plans." There are several groups thinking hard about experimental proposals.

SPIEGEL: And who would approve such experiments?

Keith: There are still giant holes in the current law. If I introduce sulfur from a power plant, this is well regulated. If I introduce sulfur from aircraft as part of its fuel, again it's regulated. But if I introduce a million tons of sulfur a year to change the climate, this is not regulated. It's amazing, but by doing this you wouldn't violate any law.

SPIEGEL: So are you asking for restrictions that would be imposed on you and your colleagues?

Keith: Yes, I do. I differ from some of my European colleagues, though, in that I don't think it makes sense to leap right now to a full international treaty for tiny experiments. What we need is a strong memorandum of the large research institutions, which makes sure that in evaluating experiments we will have transparency and strict risk testing protocols. Such rules wouldn't be legally binding, but they would actually have big power.

SPIEGEL: Apart from health and environmental risks, there are also political side effects of geoengineering. The more people perceive climate fixing as an option, the less urgent they will consider the need for emissions cuts to be. Do you understand that activists are concerned about this?

Keith: Absolutely. This is my biggest single concern. The term "moral hazard," which describes exactly what you just talked about, was actually first introduced into this debate by me. Of course, geoengineering might decrease pressure on politics. But, interestingly, in opinion polls you actually find the opposite: After having been told about geoengineering, people appeared to be even more concerned about the climate.

SPIEGEL: Those on the right who deny climate change altogether seem to be remarkably attracted by the idea of geoengineering.

Keith: There are certainly some such people, and of course the oil industry attempts to abuse geoengineering in order to block action. But it is also a fact that most of our support comes from the left, not the right. Supporters of geoengineering overwhelmingly are people who want to see more action on reducing emissions.

SPIEGEL: According to your view, what kind of climate emergency would be necessary to get the first jets started and begin sulfur therapy for the world climate?

Keith: People who talk about a climate emergency need to articulate first what the heck they mean by this. This term reflects a naive and incorrect view of the world. For some ecosystems and some people, there is a climate emergency now. And others even benefit from the current warming. There is no value-free definition of a climate emergency. I don't support the view that we put a technology on the shelf and wait until there's an "emergency."

SPIEGEL: Which means we should get started right away?

Keith: If research shows that these technologies have benefits that greatly exceed the costs, then we should in fact start relatively soon, albeit carefully and with small steps. That will tell us a lot about unknown risks. And it would put us in a much better position to make decisions if there is really some kind of sharp change in climate that constitutes an emergency. The worst time to experiment with new technology like this is in the middle of an emergency.

SPIEGEL: And who should decide when and how to proceed?

Keith: That is the great question, and that is the reason why it's good to start talking about this sooner rather than later. Ultimately, the technological questions are all easy to solve. The governance questions are the ones that are really hard. In the end we have only one planet. And we must, as a species, evolve governance mechanisms that are capable of handling these globally acting technologies -- this is true not only for climate technologies, but also for Internet communications, for altering the human genome or for genetic manipulation of free living organisms.

SPIEGEL: Considering all the technical and political hurdles, what do you predict: Will the era of active climate manipulation start before your retirement?

Keith: I have no idea. I try and answer spontaneously every time I am asked this question. I just turned 50, so if I'm lucky, I will work another 25 years. And political systems, especially in the West, have become extremely inert. Today I think, I am going to answer "No."

SPIEGEL: Professor Keith, we thank you for this interview.

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4 total posts
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1. optional
redroseandy 11/21/2013
Near-Zero CO2 Plans have not been taken seriously by governments, even though the first one was invented in the 1980s.
2. Why not paint mountains and natural snow fields white?
paullang 11/21/2013
This would mimic the effects of snow with whitewash, It could also be sprayed from planes much as agent orange was during the Vietnam war. It has the benifits of being a passive method, and once done it would last a long time.
3. climate change solutions
psychocat7 11/21/2013
Before the Canadians can solve the problem, don't they have to admit there is one? And like Occam's Razor, the simplest solutions will be the answer. But will we run out of oil, gas, and coal before it is too late?
4. optional
spon-facebook-10000061525 11/22/2013
Why so much time, energy and resources are put into this climate change issue? The world has much greater problems, like a secure food suppy, bringing billions out of poverty, overpopulation, and
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