Geoengineering 101: A cheat sheet to the terminology, the key players, and more.
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The Biggest Questions About Climate Engineering

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The Biggest Questions About Climate Engineering

The citizen’s guide to the future.
Jan. 6 2016 6:51 AM
FROM SLATE, NEW AMERICA, AND ASU

Your Geoengineering Cheat Sheet

Who's who in climate engineering? What are the big ethical debates? And what the heck is the albedo?

Geoengineering describes the active transformation of our planet’s climate through human intervention. Here are some of the key players, major debates, and pop cultural landmarks shaping the ways that we understand this emerging field.

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Paul Crutzen: Crutzen, a Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist, helped legitimize scientific conversations about geoengineering with his 2006 paper about seeding the atmosphere with sulfur to reflect sunlight back into space.

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Peter Eisenberger: Working to extract carbon dioxide from the air through his company Global Thermostat, Eisenberger is at the forefront of the still-developing business side of geoengineering.

Russ George: In 2012, the climate entrepreneur George attempted an unauthorized experiment in iron fertilization, dumping large quantities of metal into the ocean to stimulate the growth of carbon-consuming phytoplankton.

Newt Gingrich: The former speaker of the House, Gingrich is one of geoengineering’s most politically connected advocates, insisting that it’s an important weapon in the fight against climate change.

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David Keith: Having literally written the book on solar radiation management, Harvard Kennedy School professor Keith also works to advance the science of CO2 reduction with his company Carbon Engineering.

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Marcia McNutt: An oceanographer and editor-in-chief of Science, McNutt chaired the National Academy of Sciences’ comprehensive inquiry into geoengineering, which published its findings in February 2015.

Nathan Myhrvold: The former chief technology officer of Microsoft, Myhrvold has proposed a project he calls the Stratoshield, in which giant hoses would be lifted into the sky by balloons to spray aerosols into the upper atmosphere.

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Raymond Pierrehumbert: A University of Oxford–based climatologist, Pierrehumbert has vocally argued against geoengineering by solar radiation management, famously calling such efforts “barking mad.”

Alan Robock: Rutgers University professor Robock’s widely discussed “Twenty Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea” provided a sweeping response to the proposals of Crutzen and other geoengineering advocates.

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Lynn Russell: An atmospheric scientist based at Scripps, Russell has led research into the potential impacts of geoengineering on ecosystems.

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Further environmental degradation: Though some geoengineering technologies may help cool the planet, it’s possible that they may release additional greenhouse gasses, harm the ozone layer, or otherwise advance the damage they aim to prevent. Is geoengineering an environmental dead end?

Induced complacency: Even geoengineering’s advocates acknowledge that it’s not a true solution to climate change. But if it’s successfully implemented, will it prevent us from doing more to save the planet? Will it simply give us permission to keep burning fossil fuels?

International cooperation: In the absence of treaties regulating geoengineering, there’s a risk that companies or countries will pursue projects without taking proper precautions—and the climate doesn’t respect national borders. Some commentators even worry that “rogue billionaires” might take matters into their own hands. Can we regulate geoengineering without restricting innovation?

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Long-term commitment: Scientists such as Pierrehumbert argue that we’ll have to stick with geoengineering some technologies for thousands of years once we embrace them, lest we cause even worse catastrophes. Will civilization stay stable for long enough to make a difference?

Price tag: At present, the most effective geoengineering technologies are prohibitively expensive, often less cost-effective than converting to environmentally safe energies. Can scientists bring down the expense? Or should we pursue these avenues regardless?

Unequal effects: Most geoengineering proposals would have different (and often unpredictable) effects on different regions of the planet. Even as some benefit, others would potentially suffer colder winters, decreased rainfall, or other problems. How can we assure that it helps all?

Unintended consequences: We lack the technological sophistication to accurately model most geoengineering proposals on a global scale, making it difficult to anticipate their effects. Should we continue researching these consequences or try to aggressively push the technology ahead?

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Weaponization: Many geoengineering proposals originate in Cold War technologies. As the science advances, will we be able to prevent their renewed use as weapons? How can we prevent climatological conflicts?

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The Brothers Vonnegut, by Ginger Strand: Delving into the historical origins of climate technology, this biography demonstrates how weather-control technology shaped science fiction—and how science fiction helped shaped geoengineering in its wake.

Green Earth, by Kim Stanley Robinson: Collecting and condensing the three volumes previously known as the “Science in the Capital” trilogy into one novel, Robinson imagines attempts to resist the effects of climate change—and some of the disasters that could ensue.

Hypercane,” by Eric Holthaus: In this short story published in Vice, Slate’s Holthaus shows how the promise of geoengineering could make things worse if we don’t aggressively investigate the technologies behind it.

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Ice Twisters, directed by Steven R. Monroe: In this box office bomb, cloud seeding–based geoengineering creates an absurd disaster. But science can fix what it has wrought!

Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho: This acclaimed film depicts a world driven into a new ice age by geoengineering gone wrong.

Thunder & Lightning, by Lauren Redniss: In this beautifully illustrated hybrid of comics and science journalism, Redniss visualizes some of the ways humans have attempted to regulate the weather, especially in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change.

Who Shot Mr. Burns?: The famous Simpsons whodunit began with Mr. Burns plotting to block out the sun so that Springfieldians would be forced to consume more energy. It’s kind of geoengineering!

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20 Reasons Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea,” by Alan Robock: Despite its listicle format, this thoroughly annotated article offers one of the most comprehensive, rigorous challenges to geoengineering advocates.

Albedo Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections,” by Paul Crutzen: With this seminal paper, Crutzen helped to legitimize scientific conversations about geoengineering.

A Case for Climate Engineering, by David Keith: In this readable volume, climate scientist Keith makes a passionate case for albedo modification technologies, exploring their promise and the effort required to put them into practice.

Climate Intervention Reports, by the National Academy of Sciences: The product of years of research, this report comes close to offering the scientific consensus on both carbon dioxide removal and albedo modification.

The Ethics of Geoengineering,” by David Appell: The first of a two-part series, this essay offers a thorough, balanced examination of geoengineering’s risks, as well as its possible rewards.

The Planet Remade, by Oliver Morton: Even as he discusses the science behind geoengineering technologies, Morton goes deep into the social and political anxieties that hover around them.

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Albedo: The portion of sunlight that the Earth reflects back into space. The albedo is shaped by factors like cloud cover and snowfall.

Biological pump: Under ordinary circumstances, oceanic plankton naturally pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. By increasing plankton quantities, some geoengineers hope to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels.

Carbon dioxide reduction: A key geoengineering strategy, carbon dioxide reduction would involve removing pollutants directly from the air.

Ocean fertilization: The artificial stimulation of the ocean’s biological pump. Ocean fertilization might help pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, but it could also damage fisheries.

Solar radiation management: The second major geoengineering strategy, solar radiation management aims to cool the Earth by increasing its reflective properties (see albedo).

This article is part of the geoengineering installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through May 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down.

On Tuesday, Jan. 19, at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, Future Tense will host a live Q&A on geoengineering with journalist Jeff Goodell, author of How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate, and Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, who is the Halley professor of physics at the University of Oxford and has called geoengineering “barking mad.” Submit your questions now.

Read more from Futurography on geoengineering:

Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. To get the latest from Futurography in your inbox, sign up for the weekly Future Tense newsletter.