Cheap But Imperfect Can Geoengineering Slow Climate Change?

Canadian environmental scientist David Keith wants to change the world's climate by creating a type of sun filter in the sky to halt global warming. In an interview, he argues the technology is effective and inexpensive, but critics liken it to a nuclear bomb.
The 1991 explosion of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. "Aerosoles in the stratosphere reduce the rate of climate change," says David Keith.

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

Foto: ESA

While delegates meeting in Warsaw at the United Nations climate talks push for targets for reducing greenhouse gases, a small splinter group of scientists is promoting an entirely different approach to fighting climate change: They want to artficially manipulate the planet's climate to help stop global warming.

The name most commonly associated with this "geoengineering" is David Keith, a 50-year-old environmental scientist from Canada. Keith is arguably the best-known advocate of geoengineering. When he first devoted himself to the idea more than 20 years ago, it was considered dangerous nonsense. It enraged climate activists, and even Keith received death threats on his answering machine.

Since then, the concept of geoengineering has increasingly won over supporters, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even grappled with the issue in its most recent report.

Keith runs a company called Carbon Engineering in Calgary, which is developing technology to capture carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. He currently travels back and forth between Calgary and Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is a professor of applied physics and public policy at Harvard University.

He recently sat down with SPIEGEL for an interview about his work.

SPIEGEL: Professor Keith, are you a climate fixer?

Keith: That's what they said in the New Yorker, right? People have called me all sorts of things. But I wouldn't say that. I'm a professional whose work is on climate technology, on so-called geoengineering.

SPIEGEL: How would you describe the goal of climate engineers?

Keith: Geoengineering is the deliberate attempt to alter the climate on a global scale.

SPIEGEL: That's quite a bold claim. The New Yorker quotes you saying that you could easily imagine how the tools of climate engineering could spur "a chain of events that would extinguish life on earth."

Keith: … and a lot of my colleagues were unhappy I said that. What I mean by that is the following: If we use this technology with wisdom and humility, and in combination with big emission cuts, then it will almost certainly be a benefit to the world. But it's our responsibility to ask: What is the worst that could happen? What if the user goes nuts? What if humanity decided to commit some kind of racial suicide?

SPIEGEL: Then, you want to say, geoengineering might be the technology to use? In other words: You are dealing here with the most dangerous technology in the world?

Keith: Well, yes and no. There has been a lot of talk about the analogy to nuclear weapons. And in one way the analogy makes sense: This technology has a huge amount of leverage, meaning relatively small amounts of material give a huge amount of power. But the big difference is it all moves slowly -- in years, not minutes. This gives us more room to think and proceed carefully.

SPIEGEL: Critics have accused geoengineers of trying to play God …

Keith: … and maybe it's a fair attribution. I don't think I'm playing God, but I do think the phrase captures some of what's going on here: the desire to deliberately alter nature on a global scale.

SPIEGEL: And you share this desire?

Keith: Well, mankind is already changing the planet. Take agriculture, the emission of carbon dioxide, the intervention in the nitrogen cycle.

SPIEGEL: But in all those cases people didn't intend to change the planet.

Keith: You're right, but intention matters -- as we also distinguish between manslaughter and murder. But the intention of myself and my colleagues is actually to reduce mankind's impact on the natural environment, which is very different from the intent to design it to our liking. As long as we just try to slow down the rate of climate change, I wouldn't say that we are playing God.

SPIEGEL: How exactly would you slow down climate change?

Keith: The idea is to make earth a little bit more reflective by putting say, sulfate or sulfuric acid aerosols in the upper atmosphere. This method is cheap, effective, quickly implantable but rather imperfect.

SPIEGEL: Why imperfect?

Keith: Because it cannot deal with all problems with CO2 in the atmosphere. For example, it does nothing about ocean acidification.

SPIEGEL: And what do you mean by "cheap?"

Keith: According to my estimate the injection of a dose with an appreciable effect on climate would cost about a $1 billion per year -- which is essentially zero if you compare it to the costs of climate damage, which are expected to be at least a $1 trillion a year by mid-century.

SPIEGEL: A billion dollars! This is, in fact, frighteningly cheap. It means that any billionaire could start to change the climate according to his will?

Keith: True. We have a case here, where low cost is not necessarily good. But I don't consider it to be very credible that an individual would be doing this. A government would be able to prevent him.

SPIEGEL: And what if some small island state that feels threatened by rising sea levels decides to cool down the earth a little bit?

Keith: Even in that case the international community has lots of mechanisms to stop this. My real concern is the big countries, like Indonesia, India or the United States.

SPIEGEL: Whoever injects sulfur into the stratosphere will put heavy risks on health and environment. This doesn't frighten you?

Keith: No doubt there are considerable risks. Eventually the sulfur will settle down into the lower atmosphere. And then there's the ozone loss risk.

SPIEGEL: Ozone damage means more ultraviolet radiation on earth, and this means an increase in skin cancer fatalities. Would you accept fatalities for the sake of climate therapy?

Keith: I don't think the fundamental justification is hard. We routinely introduce technologies which threaten some people. If you build a power plant, you are adding some air pollution, and new air pollution means deaths. And, by the way, the net impact of sulfur aerosols on mortality is by no means sure. They do reduce ozone, but they also increase UV scattering, which reduces UV exposure down on earth.

SPIEGEL: How well do you know whether you can actually achieve your ultimate goal to slow down climate change with these sulfur aerosols?

Keith: Well, we know a lot about that. Aerosols in the stratosphere reduce the rate of climate change. This is what we expect from basic theory; this is what we observe after eruptions of volcanoes like Pinatubo (which erupted in the Philippines in 1991); and this is what we see in every climate model that has ever been tested for the impact of aerosols.

SPIEGEL: Some people seem to be concerned that the Asian monsoon might be severely altered by such an aerosol therapy.

Keith: The Indian monsoon has indeed become a touchstone of this confused debate. The whole argument started with an early paper by Alan Robock, who said that geoengineering could shut down the monsoon and threaten billions of lives. He is right to focus on potential impacts on the poor, but the really bad outcomes only come when models are run with a crazy amount of geoengineering. Most models -- including Alan's own results -- show that modest interventions can significantly reduce climate impacts in the Indian subcontinent. It's as in pharmacology: An overdose of a drug is fatal -- but a small dose can save a life.

Graphic: Scientists would like to slow global warming by reproducing the effects of a volcano.

Graphic: Scientists would like to slow global warming by reproducing the effects of a volcano.


SPIEGEL: When you talk about manipulating the climate, do you mean the regulation of average world temperature as a whole, or will it someday also be possible to tune climate differently in different locations?

Keith: This is delicate question. As an engineer you think, the more control the better. But I think in this case we might be better off if we couldn't turn too many knobs. While I oppose any military use of climate technology, you can be sure of one thing: The more targeted or tailored this technology gets, the more seriously military use will be considered.

SPIEGEL: Is it technically feasible to fine-tune the climate locally?

Keith: Sure it is. I have even published on this, but I wonder how much we should go on in this direction.

SPIEGEL: You won't be able to detain research anyway.

Keith: Not perfectly, but a little bit. Public programs have clearly stated goals. And you have the choice, whether making tailored modifications should be one of those goals.

'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.