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What Happens When Geoengineers 'Hack The Planet'? (thebulletin.org) 193

Dan Drollette shares an article by an Oxford physics professor who's concerned about the popularity of radical new proposals to fight global warming. The Christian Science Monitor wonders if it's time to re-engineer our climate. MIT's Technology Review basically thinks the answer is "yes," having described it earlier as "cheap and easy." The Atlantic seems quite smitten with Economist writer Oliver Morton's vision of remaking the planet, which geoengineering booster Jane Long breathlessly called "geopoetry." The idea received recent coverage (much of it favorable) by New Scientist, NBC, and in TED talks; I myself have recently participated in an NPR panel discussion on the subject... But what has really catapulted the idea into the public eye is Harvard's reckless plan for a privately-funded field trial testing some of the key elements needed... Proceeding to field experimentation crosses a thin red line beyond which lies the slippery slope down to ever-larger field trials and ultimately deployment.
Harvard's experiment -- which is partially funded by Bill Gates -- is "subject to no governance save what Harvard chooses to impose upon itself," according to the article. The experiment involves "putting something in the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back out into space," which the article warns will create "enduring" effects -- and require humanity to commit to maintaining the same atmospheric conditions forever.
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What Happens When Geoengineers 'Hack The Planet'?

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    I really can't stand this "OMG, I don't think we should do a scientific experiment, because waaa!" bullshit. There is nothing about the Harvard study that will force us to keep replenishing the effect, just like using your home AC doesn't force you to just keep using your AC for the rest of the day. You only keep going if you judge the effect to be beneficial. And if even critics are saying that the effect will be so beneficial that we won't want to stop - and somehow that's the problem! - I have to wonder
    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      What is the control? It can't be a scientific experiment without a control.

      • So, astronomy is not science? I think you are wrong. A control makes things easier, but it is not essential.

    • What opponents of geoengineering ideas fail to realize (or perhaps intentionally fail to admit) is that continuing to use fossil fuels amounts to continuing an unintentional, unorganized, aimless geoengineering effort that's been running for hundreds of years now. Apparently they prefer this to an intentional, organized effort with a pro-civilization goal.

      Burning fossil fuels is as much of a manmade climate-altering action as any shiny new geoengineering concept, and may be exactly what humanity ends up doi

    • Early in the cold war there were a lot of wild scientific experiments with nuclear technology, including quite a few above-ground detonations. These were definitely serious hardcore science. Way way more rigorous than your typical Chicken Little climate modeling exercise.

      Apparently those experiments did not bring about the end of our species. QED those experiments were 100% totally safe! People who claim they ravished the environment with life-destroying pollution are just redneck anti-vaxxer shitlords.

      I

    • I really can't stand this "OMG, I don't think we should do a scientific experiment, because waaa!" bullshit.

      Conducting scientific experiments is not in itself a bad thing, if we are willing to accept the outcome of the experiments, and if we are willing to accept that scientific experiments are not simply a proof of concept thing, by which I mean that one or a few experiemnts are not enough to give us confidence that we know eough about the benefits as well as the costs. Also, if we are to accept the scientific validity of climate modification, aren't also to accept the same for (other) climate science: the scien

  • by niks42 ( 768188 ) on Sunday June 25, 2017 @07:29AM (#54685807)
    Please don't trust that you understand all of the ways this might go wrong. Ensure that every change can be backed out before you make it.
    • Why dont we remember that law when banning CO2 emissions?
    • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

      Please don't trust that you understand all of the ways this might go wrong. Ensure that every change can be backed out before you make it.

      Because we did such a great job of that already? Everything in life is a roll of the dice. The best we can do is calculate a probability and probabilities are not certain. There is no such thing as certainty in life.

      • Because we did such a great job of that already? Everything in life is a roll of the dice. The best we can do is calculate a probability and probabilities are not certain. There is no such thing as certainty in life.

        A really rapid shedding of many terawatts of radiative forcing over a short time is hardly a roll of the dice. It doesn't take a rocket surgeon to know that will be really disruptive weather wise.

      • Life has lots of certainties. Death is one. Entropy is the Final Boss of the Universe.

    • Please don't trust that you understand all of the ways this might go wrong.

      It reminds me of the kid's song, "The old Lady that swallowed the fly", where a woman kept swallowing larger and large animals to catch the animal she swallowed earlier.

      This is a bad idea on several levels. First is that the aerosols that work best create acid rain. Do we wish to acidify the oceans more than is already going to happen?

      Second, if we do this on a global scale, it will destabilize the atmosphere all over again. The world has been working to stabilize weather since we've altered the composi

      • by Chris Mattern ( 191822 ) on Sunday June 25, 2017 @09:44AM (#54686205)

        But that's the beautiful part. When the ice age rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death!

      • ...with a twist (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Roger W Moore ( 538166 ) on Sunday June 25, 2017 @12:02PM (#54686741) Journal

        It reminds me of the kid's song, "The old Lady that swallowed the fly", where a woman kept swallowing larger and large animals to catch the animal she swallowed earlier.

        Except in this version after swallowing the spider the old lady will probably decide that now she can swallow all the flies she wants, the spider over eats on flies and dies and she now has a fly problem ten times the size of the one she started with.

      • And do we really want a solution that requires constant intervention?

        Yes, we do -- because the fact that it requires constant intervention invalidates all of your fears. If something goes wrong, all we have to do is stop constantly intervening.

        And it's not like we don't have experience with much more dangerous world-wide uncontrolled things like this -- we spent a long time pumping CFCs into the atmosphere which reflected sunlight, observed the damage, and have been fairly successfully trying to make everyo

        • And do we really want a solution that requires constant intervention?

          Yes, we do -- because the fact that it requires constant intervention invalidates all of your fears.

          And who will pay for the constant production of the huge amount of aerosols and delivery system needed to constantly alter the planet's average temperature?

    • What we need is a second Earth where we can production test ideas like this. Let's build one. Doing so would be only slightly more difficult than most of the ideas being batted around be "futurists". I'm sure Elon Musk can promise to build it for less than $150B (roughly the cost in current dollars of Apollo, the Space Shuttle, and the ISS).

    • Thalidomide was studied for 3 years by German scientists, including animal testing. Ooops, the effect on developing fetuses was overlooked, with disastrous results. Also remember that during the 1970's, some were proposing sprinkling coal on the polar ice caps because they feared a new ice age was coming. Hubris can be very dangerous.
  • Because when engineers had found this safe, non-toxic and stable gas [wikipedia.org] they and the industry were all like hurray, let's use this like crazy because there are no negative consequences. Until many years later scientists start discovering that while locally, CFC is harmless enough, but on global scale it is very negative for the ozone layer [wikipedia.org].

    And it's not because the engineers were careless, stupid or did not care. They genuinely believed [wikipedia.org] that CFC was a safe and harmless product. It was just because no one thought about the potential connection with the ozone layer (and granted, CFC were discovered before the basic physical and chemical processes that lead to the formation of an ozone layer). And while if CFC turned out to be relatively harmless locally, it's not like history is lacking examples [wikipedia.org] of products that are initially considered safe, only to later be discovered to be anything but.

    There is exactly zero chance that similar oh, we did not think of that issues will pop up for attempts to "positively" modify the earth's climate on global scale.

    The core of the problem is that humans are polluting. We should stop polluting.

    • And it's not because the engineers were careless, stupid or did not care.

      Oh, Thomas Midgley [wikipedia.org] was both careless, stupid and did not care. It's not too long a shot to call his work in lead additives to petrol down right evil (check the link).

      Now, whether he knew CFCs were bad, is somewhat moot given that it's not difficult to imagine that he would have gone ahead anyway. Like he did with tetra ethyl lead before.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Besides the danger of unintended consequences from "geoengineering", even if such an effort was successful at reducing global temperature by partially obscuring sunlight, it would do nothing to actually decrease the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. Besides warming, the increased CO2 is also causing ocean acidification, which would continue unabated.

    The only comprehensive solution to the effects of increased atmospheric and ocean CO2 concentration is to actually decrease CO2 emissions.

  • Climate/weather control has always been a controversial field. Mostly because meteorology is one of the last frontiers of physics, a problem that's still as unpredictable as ever. And when you can't predict what the result should've been without intervention, it's hard to tell whether you made any difference. The Chinese have been experimenting with weather control for decades, and we're no smarter than before. Now climate control would take these methods that we can't even use in a reliable way locally, an

    • Exactly, I catch myself watching weather radar online, slowly zooming out, with this itch in the back of my brain that says "If i just see a little more, all this will make sense and be predictable" until i'm watching a global radar view and thinking "just a little more data..." because it *looks* predictable, but its just... not.
    • Weather control is a lot more common in more places than people realize. Here in northern California, a local utility company SMUD routinely seeds clouds to increase rain over their hydroelectric dams. That's in a wet forested region, and simply because they find it improves their power generation by a few percent, not because it'll run dry otherwise.

  • by ToTheStars ( 4807725 ) on Sunday June 25, 2017 @08:47AM (#54686025)

    I saw a talk by a colleague of mine who worked at JPL on climate science in which he talked about some work he'd done studying geoengineering. He said that, in his opinion, geoengineering was one of the stupidest ideas he'd ever heard of, but that not studying it was even stupider. (Especially because it can be done by a wealthy private individual or group, as opposed to the usual industry-scale causes of and proposed solutions to climate change. This makes it more likely to happen, and so more important to understand.)

    Later in that talk, he laid out five methods for dealing with climate change:

    1. Reductions of emissions. Increasing CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the cause of this trouble, so let's stop making the situation worse.

    2. Sequestration of greenhouse gases. Even if we stopped emitting CO2 altogether tomorrow, the atmospheric concentration is still higher than it has ever been in human history, and that can still cause serious climate disruption. Absorbing and storing (or repurposing?) greenhouse gases can move the equilibrium back to historical levels

    3. Geoengineering. Tinker with the other variables in the climate system (albedo, sunshades, etc.) to keep the global average temperature the same even though atmospheric CO2 is rising. Climate change happened more or less by accident -- just imagine what we can do on purpose!

    4. Adaptation. Rebuild roads and buildings, relocate crops, and shift travel patterns to adapt to changes in local climates (temperature, wet/dry/growing seasons, etc.).

    5. Suffering. The above solutions are all incredibly expensive in time and money. However, doing nothing will be expensive in human lives.

    We built our roads, farms, and economies to fit in the weather patterns of the last century, assuming they would last forever. It is increasingly obvious that this is not the case (largely due to our own economic activity, though climate change also occurs naturally on longer timescales). Something has to give -- either we have to intervene to keep the climate steady, or we have to adjust our societies to move with it, or the human-nature system will tear itself apart (and the Earth weighs a lot more than we do).

    • by plopez ( 54068 )

      I once saw a presentation on #2. The guy was from Princeton and he had the banners of his sponsors behind him; Shell, Bechtel, Dow, Halliburton etc.; which was fine he was mentioning where he was getting his grant money, unlike economists he was honest.

      It seemed like a Rube Goldberg approach to the problem which would be massively expensive compared to controlling emissions and based on certain assumptions like penetrating impermeable formation deep underground.

      But the kicker was at the end. He stated some

      • Yeah, the energetics of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and stuffing it underground are pretty daunting (it took the better part of 300 million years to get down there in the first place). I've seen some interesting news a few years back about converting CO2 back into useful hydrocarbons (using excess power from nuclear reactors, essentially a way to spend their power when demand dips, as they 'throttle' up and down very slowly and move large volumes of air through their cooling towers...but that depe
    • I think part of the criticism against geoengineering is similar to the criticism against communist era economic planning: imposed large scale designs that do not react adequately to the changing circumstances. If you have an incremental and adaptive approach (which may require more patience than people are willing to give to the issue) then a lot of the criticism could be mitigated.

      There is also a critical attitude that is based on 'natural is good, and interfering is artificial and bad'. I can agree with t

    • He said that, in his opinion, geoengineering was one of the stupidest ideas he'd ever heard of, but that not studying it was even stupider.

      Huh? Don't people generally study a topic so they can do something with that information later?

      Assuming people are producing CO2 at a rate that is geologically significant then reducing CO2 with the goal of reversing the effect we've had on the environment is geoengineering. We might not normally call it that but that is what it is.

      I think back to when my sister graduated with a civil engineering degree. The degree was offered by the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. I thought that was

  • by w3woody ( 44457 ) on Sunday June 25, 2017 @08:52AM (#54686043) Homepage

    I'm reminded of the policies of the U.S. in managing national forests at the start of the 20th century. For decades the policy of the U.S. was to put out all forest fires immediately, not realizing that forest fires play a role in forest ecology out West. (Some pine trees cannot reproduce, for example, without a fire to help open up pine cones full of seeds. Fire also helps to clear out dry undergrowth which chokes out forests.)

    That policy lead to several unintended consequences. Without fire, timber harvests shrank as trees wound up competing with undergrowth for resources. Fuel for fire also accumulated (as it was not being regularly burned off)--and that lead to several incredibly catastrophic forest fires which persist to this day.

    It doesn't help that, thinking the risk of fire had been controlled, a lot of homes have been built adjacent to at-risk forests.

    Every time I hear of some group wanting to engage in planet-scale geo-engineering, I think of how poorly we understand the ecology of forests, and the forest fires out west which regularly burn millions of acres each year. I think of the 2007 California wildfires which caused the evacuation of towns all over the Southern California area--at one point displacing 1 million people.

    But I'm sure today's geo-hackers will do a better job. </sarcasm>

    • Your forest fire example is problematic, because we're still constantly engineering forests with controlled burns -- setting fires because we've learned the benefits of fires. It's not as if the solution was to leave the forest alone.

  • Firstly, we are already hacking the planet. We started out by filling the oceans with mercury, the air with carbon dioxide, and fluorocarbons. Of course, all of those are failures. But note they took many years to start affecting things.

    Slowly we are learning how to do it right and also learning what to do. By the time we have learned how to actually be effective, we will also have learned the proper safeguards. Our own incompetence will protect us until we learn how do the powerful stuff.

  • ... which geoengineering booster Jane Long breathlessly called "geopoetry."

    Probably a methane bloom. She could try getting to higher ground.

  • by GrumpySteen ( 1250194 ) on Sunday June 25, 2017 @09:19AM (#54686125)

    What we're seeing is fad diet marketing applied to the global climate.

    Unfortunately, the promise of a quick, easy solution often wins over long term behavior modification and self-control, even when it causes harm in the long term. Expect a plethora of expensive solutions which might appear to provide some benefit if you look at the data just right, but which actually make things worse. At best, they'll cause directly observable harm and be quickly abandoned. At worst, it will appear to work and people will stop worrying about emissions, allowing all progress we've made towards sustainable emissions to be rolled back in the name of profit (although it will be called progress).

  • Harvard's experiment -- which is partially funded by Bill Gates -- is "subject to no governance save what Harvard chooses to impose upon itself," according to the article.

    This should be irrelevant. If geoengineering experiments are bad it's bad regardless of whether or not there's government oversight. Government oversight wouldn't magically sanctify the experiments. Even if it did, then it'd be the US government doing something without the oversight of the rest of the world. You'd think this point would be salient to an Oxford professor who presumably doesn't want the USA to dictate terms to the rest of the world.

    In the current political regime there's little chance the USA

  • Anyone else find themselves yelling out loud (or in their heads) "HACK THE PLANET!!!" when they read the summary?

  • We could tie all of our military and air defense systems into a giant AI and give it complete, autonomous control of all our weapon systems. If I could just think of a catchy name! SkyWatcher...SkyWarn...come on, help me out.

  • We do have some spares, right? Also, we have a lot of experience with this process and understand all its details, so we should surely be able to get it right on the 2nd or 3rd try.

    Seriously, we are screwing up the climate in a fashion we know and understand, yet we can still not stop doing so due to incompetence as a species. And they want to do geoengineering?

  • If we perform such nonsense, it will be looked back on like killing all the buffalo to starve the Indians.

  • Sounds like these people need to spend 2 - 3 years on a good Environmental Impact Statement, and perhaps should be considered for a Weapons Impact Statement.
  • The fix could be quite easy: let's remove all particle filters from plants with high emission. Grey skies will be back, less light week reach the surface.

  • possibly went wrong.
  • more than global warming ever will.

  • It's a dumb ass experiment that was already tried; barking seal. I hear the other side of the planet is just the place for you.
  • What will they be using as a control? No control means it is not a scientific experiment in any sense.

    *sarcasm* I know! We can easily engineer another Earth and then use it as a control! We have all the plants and animals we need we jsut need to mine the asteroids to create an object with similar mass and then seed it and let evolution do it's work.

    Then we can have an experiment to see if we can re-engineer the Earth! *sarcasm*

  • Science: "We need to stop polluting or we'll kill the planet!"
    Righties: "We won't give up profits unless you can prove 100% that you're right. Show us your test planet already!"
    Science: "That's kind of the problem we only got one to work with and we'd rather it still be here in 100 years."
    Whacko: "How about we spray glitter in the oceans and paint all the snow black?"
    Righties: "Cool. Don't see a problem there."
    Science: "But what about that whole 100% right issue?"
    Righties: "Who cares? Profitzzz!" ... And

  • In 2 centuries, people have expanded their numbers by an order of magnitude and become literally a monoculture.

    I could go on, but the note above suggests that like agricultural systems (which people surely are actually), monocultures have fast die-offs.

  • The worst thing we could ever do is to try to modify climate on a global scale.
    There are natural forces at work that tend toward equilibrium, and any attempt to "adjust" things will result in a different equilibrium. We may like that one even less that we like the current outlook with no way to revert back.

    No irreversible change should be attempted.

    That being said, we definitely need to stop fouling the only nest we have.

    The most sensible approach to climate change is to do what humans have done s
  • by John Jorsett ( 171560 ) on Sunday June 25, 2017 @01:13PM (#54687083)
    you get sued. When climate is in the control of God, there's nobody to blame when a hurricane kills thousands. Start deliberately monkeying with the climate and you'll be the attractive scapegoat for every weather calamity that befalls. Drought in California? Your fault. Flooding in Missouri? Your fault. Increased desertification in Africa? Your fault.

    That's if you're even allowed to continue. It's more likely the UN will shut you down just because many countries will simply fear what will happen. The more paranoid ones like North Korea will probably accuse you of trying to alter the weather to attack them, and decide that you and your operation must be dealt with.
    • by djinn6 ( 1868030 )
      On the other hand, the effects of geoengineering could last 1000 years, while you're only around for another 30.
  • putting something in the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back out into space

    Yes, clearly, our current troubles are caused by the sun, so let’s just decrease the solar energy we receive.
    Of course, this could have some adverse consequences on photosynthesis and also on solar energy production, but we can always compensate the latter by burning some more fossil fuel.

  • From the summery link " vision of remaking the planet" http://www.isitdownrightnow.co... [isitdownrightnow.com]

  • partially funded by Bill Gates -- is "subject to no governance...experiment involves "putting something in the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight back out into space,"

    The first planet-wide BSOD

  • To those who think experimentation should just be a free for all, I'd argue that there are well designed experiments, and there are poorly designed ones. And if you're fucking around with the climate on any scale larger than the laboratory, then there should be some oversight. Just a couple of famous examples of shit happens....

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

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