As ice melts, geoengineering gets a less frosty reception

A leading sea ice expert has predicted the final disappearance of Arctic ice in the summer within four years. In what Cambridge University Professor Peter Wadhams called a “global disaster,” the ice has fallen to its lowest levels ever recorded, and with climate change speeding up faster than models had predicted a decade ago, experts are taking a closer look at more controversial ways of dealing wth the problem – including geoengineering.

“We must not only urgently reduce CO2 emissions,” said Wadhams, “but must urgently examine other ways of slowing global warming, such as the various geoengineering ideas that have been put forward.”

“As the sea ice retreats in summer,” he explained, “the ocean warms up, and this warms the seabed too. The continental shelves of the Arctic are composed of offshore permafrost – frozen sediment left over from the last ice age. As the water warms, the permafrost melts and releases huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas. So this will give a big boost to global warming.”

“Professor Wadhams is right that we’re in a big hole and the recent record sea ice low in the Arctic is a clear warning that we need to act,” said Greenpeace’s Ben Ayliffe. “But it would be cheaper, safer, and easier to stop digging and drilling for more fossil fuels,” he added, referring to the troubling practices supported by climate change-denying Republicans. “We already have the technologies … to make the deep cuts in greenhouse gases that are needed to stave off the worst effects of climate change.”

Involves modification of climate

Geoengineering – also called climate intervention – involves the modification of the earth’s climate, including the manipulation of weather, in order to offset or completely reverse the effects of global warming. Though initially suggested as a ‘fringe idea,’ it was later considered potentially viable, but only as an accompanying strategy to a better solution. Now, scientists are looking at the technology more seriously.

Some potential ways of artificially altering the climate include: brightening clouds through the use of seawater; nourishing the oceans via iron fertilization; creating vertical ocean pipes to mix cool deep water and warm surface water (this could also potentially disrupt threatening hurricanes); using space-based mirrors to obstruct the sun’s radiation (solar radiation management); and simpler steps like painting roofs white and planting many bright-colored crops.

Wadham noted that geoengineering’s main roadblocks right now are the Big Business agendas of politicians (many of them right-wing), and that “small steps” currently being taken are not enough to combat climate change.

“It’s very, very depressing,” he said, “that politicians and the public are attuned to the threat of climate change even less than they were 20 years ago when Margaret Thatcher sounded the alarm. CO2 levels are rising at a faster-than-exponential rate, and yet politicians only want to take utterly trivial steps such as banning plastic bags and building a few windfarms.”

Last chance to avoid catastrophe

In a letter to the Guardian, environmentalist Alan Naismith wrote, “The only chance of avoiding catastrophic global warming lies in geoengineering. A Manhattan Project to develop this technology should be launched.”

Steven Hamburg, chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, talked about solar radiation management in particular, stating, “Solar radiation management might sound, at first, like something from science fiction – but it’s not. There are already serious discussions beginning about it. [It] could be a Plan B to address climate change, but first we must figure out how to research it safely. Only then should we even consider any other steps.”

Energy experts David Keith and Jim Anderson plan to do further research on the technology. Keith noted, “Doing a few responsible experiments will help clarify things.” He also dismissed claims that they had strong backing from billionaires, adding, “Some reports have implied that we’re doing this with funding from Bill Gates. But if we go ahead, we’ll be mostly publicly funded.”

But many experts ask how other countries would feel if any one of them decided to make a full-blown attempt to artificially regulate the planet’s temperature.

Rutger University scientist Alan Robock remarked, “Outdoor geoengineering research is not ethical unless subject to governance. If you could do geoengineering, how much cooling should you do? And whose hand is on the thermostat?”

According to physicist Nathan Myhrvold, however, that concern may not yet be valid, because, “no part of the developed world is making any serious effort to do it at this point.” And that, he suggested, is a problem, because without any large-scale option on the table – even one as risky as direct climate modification – the world could find itself in a troubling place in a few decades’ time.

“I continue to think geoengineering is not only a possible action,” said Myhrvold, “but that every day that goes by makes it more likely. I haven’t seen any progress on reducing emissions. If you’re doing nothing about the problem, you’re going to have to live with the impact, take it on the chin. Geoengineering is how you might avoid that.”


Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. He also writes on environment and culture. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill and the UN Climate Conference in Paris. His coverage has earned him awards from the Illinois Woman’s Press Association and the International Labor Communications Association. He is currently in Weehawken, in his home state of New Jersey. He likes cats, wine, books, music, and nature. He writes a blog that can be found at