The Final Gambit: Geoengineering

It is very likely that efforts to prevent CO2 levels from soaring to 450ppm – the level we need to stop at to have any hope of limiting temperature rise to 2C or less – will fail. This will lead to a series of climatic “tipping points”, as Gaia’s stabilizing systems fail to check runaway warming and the Earth veers into a new hothouse steady state in which the Arctic remains unfrozen year round and “zones of uninhabitability” – places where it becomes physiologically impossible for humans to survive during summer days – spread out from the equator. The basic argument is as follows:

  • The current atmosphere CO2 concentration (384ppm) correlates to the Pliocene 3mn years ago, when temperatures were 3C higher and the sea level was 25m higher. [No “hockey stick”, no models even, involved; just paleoclimate].
  • This degree of warming is now inevitable; if all emissions were to stop today, as a rule of thumb, it would take around 30 years for half of that projected warming to occur as the Earth system moves towards the new equilibrium. [Consequences of heat diffusion / laws of thermodynamics].
  • Emissions aren’t stopping, but accelerating, and this will continue with the industrialization of China and India. [Economic growth as linchpin of the System].
  • Global dimming, which had hitherto partially shielded us from the rising temperatures, will start playing a much lesser role. The effects of CO2 are cumulative, soot and SO2 particulates are washed out of the atmosphere within months.
  • Beyond 2C of warming, the Earth will reach tipping points in which GW becomes self-sustaining. Such tipping points include the melting of the Arctic (reduces albedo), release of Siberian methane from melting permafrost, forests around the world turning from carbon sinks to carbon sources due to accelerated decomposition, the possible death of the Amazon rainforest, etc.
  • Though geoengineering may work, as you point out, there are also many arguments against it. It will probably be tried in the end, but only as a last-ditch throw of the dice that cannot be guaranteed to succeed.
  • Furthermore, innate human psychological features such as conservatism, denial, hedonism, and susceptibility to creeping normalcy and “landscape amnesia”, as well as the anarchic nature of the international system, means that the chances of any effective global action being taken in time is near zero.

The Copenhagen Summit, which failed to agree on anything substantial largely thanks to Chinese intransigence, is a good demonstration of the last point. The principle of state sovereignty is a prime value amongst the Chinese ruling elite, translating in practice into a zero-sum, mercantile view of global economic and political affairs, which will make compromise very difficult at a time when the country’s sights are set on breaking through into 21st century advanced industrialism (in which green technologies and geoengineering will probably play a major role). But it will not be able to achieve this breakthrough without its status as the “workshop of the world” (reliant on coal for most of its energy needs), which brings in the foreign currency needed to acquire the advanced technologies it needs to become a true superpower. Other factors to consider are 1) China’s need to maintain fast growth to soak up its growing, restless urban labor force, which requires the high economic growth that is driven by prodigious increases in fossil-fuel dependent energy usage, and 2) the risk of social and political instability if it really committed to firmer mitigation goals, with their implication of lesser growth rates.

And so on. Eventually, it will come to pass that the waning global industrial System, being increasingly overwhelmed by limits to growth, will embark on a “final gambit” in a search of a silver bullet to its energy-and-pollution predicament. Very soon geoengineering research will become a extremely important area – the process is already beginning – and within a few more decades, perhaps as soon as the 2030’s, actual physical construction will begin, probably by a coalition of countries like the US and China, etc.

For a variety of reasons, this is unlikely to work – one of my replies from a fascinating discussion on this topic at Sublime Oblivion Forums.

  1. The science is poorly understood, and despite the research I doubt this will change cardinally – the Earth is an extremely complex system. Solutions may need to be far more extensive, and hence costly, by an order of magnitude. Or alternatively we might overcompensate – “Oops we released too many sulphate particles, we have an Ice Age, sorry Russia & Canada!”
  2. Which brings me to another point – the potential for international conflict (i.e. your “unilateralism” point can be negative as easily as positive). Anything to do with blocking or diluting the Sun’s rays will have very big effect on regional climes, having the potential to cancel the El Nino system, stall the monsoons, induce desertification, drastically reduce photosynthetic potential, etc. It won’t matter if the aggrieved nations are small and weak, but if they are Great Powers they can lash out at the system. Weaponizing the climate becomes an accepted form of warfare (it kind of already is, but even more so).
  3. Another important thing is that climate change is only one part of emerging limits to growth (LtG). Linearly projecting from today, substantial geoengineering projects *might* be inexpensive enough to be implemented without significant cuts in security / military, other investments, or the consumption needed to keep people satiated. In a world facing many other pressures, key amongst them the declining EROEI of energy and an uncertain food outlook, diverting resources for geoengineering may prove to be a significant, if necessary, further strain on the entire system. Everywhere citizens will be growing tired of the ever heavier burden of the state, which will be further reinforced by their perceived arrogance in trying to take control over the weather like some kind of god.
  4. Furthermore, geoengineering can exacerbate some of the LtG stresses. If you follow thru on the releasing sulphate aerosols idea, this will reinforce global dimming and lead to reduced crop yields – a similar effect, ultimately, on food production that you would have had from the heat stress of global warming left unchecked. As I asked in The Dilemmas, would you prefer “Fire or darkness?”
  5. Finally, there’s the fact that all these solution are fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Aggrieved states who suffer from its effects. Even terrorists. For instance, one of the things I think may be done is to combine a solar sunshade with space-based solar power (which is in principle 3x as efficient as ground-based, if you exclude the costs of getting the material into space). Combining them will make a powerful synthesis that could kill two birds with one stone. However, such a huge structure, whose location is always known (“L1”), will be very vulnerable to damage and destruction from Earth for any nation with advanced rocket and/or laser capabilities.

From commentator Martin:

So in particular space mirrors are firmly in SF domain and will remain so, sulfur/sulfate particles might work and lower temperatures by fraction of centigrade as long as we are going to load to stratosphere every year as much as Mt Pinatubo eruption did.
That is because sulfur is quickly washed down on earth (effects of Mt. Pinatubo eruption didn’t last more than a year and a bit).
On the other hand, if we are going to lower temperature by even 1.5*C, then our annual global production of sulfur will not do (for linear drop of temperature you need exponentially growing sulfur load).
So really sulfur based adventure have no prospect of success.
Another approach was based on ocean fertilization with iron with hope that it will deliver a lot of CO2 gobbling algi.
However experiments have shown that it is not the case because algal bloom is swiftly followed by other organisms which are eating algi and so it quickly fizzles out.
Ideas like artificial trees are good, if one want some research funds to waste and live comfortably meantime but above that they are completely useless.

So we are left with about only one hopeful project – “cloud ships” and this may or may not work and if it does, some unexpected and undesirable problems may easily emerge.

It is not even worth to discuss geoengineering from an angle of unilateral action.
We can easily end up with one nation deliberately cooling climate and another one deliberately warming it up.
Outcome would be unpredictable and most likely very unpleasant.
Without a political agreement of major global powers geoengineering is a no go area.

Another perspective from T. Greer:

Both Anatoly (in points #1 and #4) and Martin point out that the science of geoengineering is rather shaky – it is not as if we have a laboratory to practice terraforming experiments with, right?

I do not dispute this point. Nor do I dispute that geoenginnering will have unforeseeable consequences. It is also true that there are very few technologically viable geoengineering options at this moment in time.

None of this detracts from my over all point, however. Humanity has a history of dealing with problems of today without thought of the problems of tomorrow. (An idea at the center of Mr. Tainter’s studies, to choose a work popular here.) There is no reason to expect this to change in the future. If one country is one the brink of an existential climate-inspire subsistence crisis, I doubt that they will slow down to consider the possible unforeseen consequences their actions may have — there simply will not be enough time for such.

Likewise, I do not think India is going to give a wit for how Russia will fare in an ice age.

The possibility of conflict is thus very high. If the Russians think that the Indians are about to trigger an ice age then they will doubtlessly do all they can to stop the Indians from moving forward. If this involves the utilization of military force, then it shall be utilized.

The really frightening scenario, however, is one in which many countries are attempting to manipulate the climate at the same time. We both have mentioned this in our respective posts, but I think it merits further discussion. Retaliatory climate degradation might be the future of warfare; it may very well prove to be one of the more dangerous threats to face humanity. If multiple actors are playing with the climate, the chances of any one of them messing up on a grand and irreversible scale skyrockets.

Yet even if the technology appears, costs become realistic, and the geoengineering works, the results may well be like a “dystopic world out of a science fiction story” (Ken Caldeira):

If we keep emitting greenhouse gases with the intent of offsetting the global warming with ever increasing loadings of particles in the stratosphere, we will be heading to a planet with extremely high greenhouse gases and a thick stratospheric haze that we would need to main more-or-less indefinitely. This seems to be a dystopic world out of a science fiction story. First, we can assume the oceans have been heavily acidified with shellfish and corals largely a thing of the past. We can assume that ecosystems will be greatly affected by the high CO2 / low sunlight conditions — similar to what Earth experienced hundreds of millions years ago. The sunlight would likely be very diffuse — maybe good for portrait photography, but with unknown consequences for ecosystems.

We know also that CO2 and sunlight affect Earth’s climate system in different ways. For the same amount of change in rainfall, CO2 affects temperature more than sunlight, so if we are to try to correct for changes in precipitation patterns, we will be left with some residual warming that would grow with time.

And what will this increasing loading of particles in the stratosphere do to the ozone layer and the other parts of Earth’s climate system that we depend on?

On top of all of these environmental considerations, there are socio-political considerations: We we have a cooperative world government deciding exactly how much geoengineering to deploy where? What if China were to go into decades of drought? Would they sit idly by as the Climate Intervention Bureau apparently ignores their plight? And what if political instability where to mean that for a few years, the intervention system were not maintained … all of that accumulated pent-up climate change would be unleashed upon the Earth … and perhaps make “The Day After” movie look less silly than it does.

Long-term risk reduction depends on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Nevertheless, there is a chance that some of these options might be able to diminish short-term risk in the event of a climate crisis.

Caldeira does the sci-fi angle. I’ll do the fantasy angle, if I may.

[The heroine of the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, in front of the despotic Lord Ruler’s capital of Luthadel and one of the ashmounts that cool the world enough so as to allow human survival. Art by Mike King].

I recently read the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson, an original fantasy series in which all the major tropes of the genre are inverted – it is a world in which the Dark Lord has won, in which the heroine’s own altruism is a tragic flaw, and in which the final apocalypse leads to utopia.

In this world, Scadriel, the landscape is dominated by the ashmounts – volcanoes streaming a never-ending sea of ash across a brown, desolate landscape. The so-called Final Empire, presided over by the tyrannical Lord Ruler, dominates the world through a brutal political system of bureaucratic surveillance, military coercion, and feudalistic obligation. The peasant slaves are hard-pressed to eke out a subsistence existing, let alone provide the surplus to maintain the Empire with its extensive socio-political complexity; yet provide they do, under the brutal knout of their noble masters.

Yet one of its most fascinating features is that it may well be an allegory for our future artificial, controlled world, in which nature’s formerly free ecological services would have to be provided by human effort. Far from being a reflection of the Lord Ruler’s evil, the ashmounts are, in fact, intended to cool the Earth, so as to prevent it from burning up. One thousand years ago, the Lord Ruler had used a source of near boundless power, the “Well of Ascension” (the fossil fuels that enabled the rise of industrialism) to protect the world from another evil force, the Deepness (our Malthusian past) – mists that crept out in the daylight and killed the crops by depriving them of sunlight. But in using this power, he rashly moved the Earth closer to the Sun in order to burn off those mists (geoengineering); he overestimated the shift, and to prevent a fiery cataclysm, had to hurriedly create the ashmounts, and re-engineer human physiology to be able to withstand the ash (bioengineering).

From this perspective, the Lord Ruler’s conservative totalitarianism, with its Asiatic mode of production-type economic system, becomes explainable and even justifiable. To maintain the Lord Ruler’s Empire, which held evil forces at bay and created massive underground retreats and food stockpiles, there needed to be 1) extensive exploitation to squeeze our the necessary surplus from a barren land, 2) the suppression of dangerous liberalism and innovation (see past experience), and 3) there needed to be extensive legitimization of his rule (the benefits of Empire, the religion of the Steel Ministry, etc) as well as coercion (the koloss armies). Like Stalin, the Lord Ruler was a despotic Messiah, who leads his people like the God of the Old Testament.

It is not too difficult to think of futurist parallels for our own world. Like Faustus and his pet demon Mephistopheles, humanity is recklessly using its overabundance of energy to transform the world in all ways, depleting its fossil fuels (just as the Lord Ruler depleted the Well of Ascension and had to wait for it to recharge for a millennium), while the resultant pollution spells doom for many of the stabilizing mechanisms and ecological services that make the world a Goldilocks planet perfect for human habitation. (This pollution, btw, could be analogous to the force “Ruin”, the primal antithesis to the force of “Preservation”. that is unleashed when the heroine Vin lets out the power in the Well of Ascension, instead of taking it for herself like the Lord Ruler did a thousand years ago). The ashmounts could be ashboats, or “cloud boats”, to spray seawater into the atmosphere to increase cloud albedo, or fertilize the world’s oceans with iron filaments; they keep the planet cool enough for human survival, at the cost of a global dimming that depresses crop yields.

Few people understand the real necessity of the Lord Ruler’s system for human survival (“You know not what I do for mankind!”, – his dying words before being killed by the heroine), and so too the common people will curse the NWO / “world government”, with its armies of bureaucrats (obligators / Inquisitors) and transnational elites (nobles), for their resource-intensive, aesthetically-ugly geoengineering projects. (Speaking of which, it will have to be a world government of some sort to build the consensus for and concentrate the requisite resources for massive geoengineering projects). Due to popular antagonism, even more resources will have to be devoted to legitimization of the regime (propaganda about the renewable, innovative society, drawing energy from wind mills and protecting the Earth from the scorching Sun), and to coercion (no doubt involving an extensive surveillance and militarized police apparatus – much of the framework already happens to be in place, anyway, and who knows, perhaps even bioconstruct armies like the koloss to crush any rebellious provinces). Any rebels will not believe the legitimizing arguments of the NWO, seeing them as self-serving; just as Vin and her rebel comrades did not see the Lord Ruler as the indispensable God that his religion proclaimed Him to be.

Collapse is not an option, despite the massive costs accruing to maintaining this high level of complexity. Quite simply, once the extensive industrial infrastructure of the System / NWO is no longer maintained, the land will go to chaos and population dieoff will begin. This will be made worse by our unleashed forces of Ruin – global warming, which will jumpstart with earnest once the power of Preservation (the geoengineering installations) ground to a halt. Perhaps, just as in the last minutes of the Mistborn trilogy, the world will experience truly runaway warming, as civilization falls apart, the oceans begin to boil away, and the Earth turns into Venus. What then? In Mistborn, Ruin lost the atium supplies that were the fundamental source of its ruinous power; the real-life equivalent could be a cloud of self-replicating nanobots designed to cleanse the atmosphere of CO2, a cache of which was build under the NWO to release should the worse come to pass (breakdown of the geoengineering system that keeps the world habitable). But that would present its own problems, such as overshoot (clearing away so much of the CO2 that we revert to Snowball Earth). An even more apocalyptic possibility is that the nanobots mutate into a “grey goo” that spreads uncontrollably, devouring all organic matter until the surface of the Earth is entirely covered by a film of dead, grey dust, the red Sun gleaming balefully through the roiling sea of inverted ashen waves hiding the star-spangled heavens above.

Eventually, Ruin will win over Preservation in our solar system, and eventually the universe. Second Law of Thermodynamics and all that. All order has a tendency to degenerate into chaos, though some interesting patterns and complex patterns like human civilization can appear in between. If you consider our current civilization to have some kind of positive worth or value, then it follows that it is worthwhile trying to minimize its chances of coming to a sticky, premature end. The most effective way of doing that is to embark on the road to Green Communism.


  1. georgesdelatour says:

    “If you consider our current civilisation to have some kind of positive worth or value, then it follows that it is worthwhile trying to minimise its chances of coming to a sticky, premature end.”

    That’s exactly why we have to start colonising space. As the example of the dinosaurs shows, if you have all of of your species on just one planet, you’re far more likely to get wiped out; by a terrestrial catastrophe, an asteroid or comet impact, or a gamma ray burst. Join the Mars Society today, and campaign to improve asteroid and comet defence for a starter.

    The long-term continuation of the human species will require geo-engineering, even without man-made global warming:

    1. Earth naturally cycles into ice ages. The next one, if not altered by geo-engineering, will massively reduce the habitable area to a tiny band around the equator.

    2. The continents are still moving, and will eventually re-form a super-continent like the previous Pangaea. Then it’ll be much colder and more arid. Which will need geo-engineering fixes.

    3. The long term trend is for Earth to lose CO2 through silicate weathering. Our industrial emissions are momentary noise against that much larger trend. Within 500,000 years, CO2 levels will be too low for plants to photosynthesise. So they’ll all die, followed by us. Only ambitious geo-engineering, to re-release the carbon, will keep life on Earth going.

    4. The Sun will get hotter. Eventually it will consume the Earth and all life on it. But we could buy hundreds of thousands of years more time, either by building sun-screens in space, or by moving Earth outwards. In “The Life And Death Of Planet Earth”, Ward & Brownlee explain how to move the Earth. You need to capture a comet and make it loop constantly between Earth and Jupiter. Each flyby nudges the Earth outwards by a tiny amount. Keep going and eventually you’ll crash into Mars. So it’s not a permanent solution.

    Because – there are no permanent, “sustainable” solutions – only adaptations to new temporary conditions. Whatever we do Earth will change; get colder, hotter, wetter, dryer. What’s effective in the current dispensation will be ineffective in the the next. It was ever thus.

    • Re-Ice Ages, nothing to worry about since we’ve locked Gaia into a hothouse state anyway with current CO2 levels.

      As for the rest, the timescales are too long to be meaningful on the level of homo sapiens. Most species last a million years, ours will probably last a great deal less (either we manage to kill ourselves through climate apocalypse or we make ourselves irrelevant by kick-starting the “Artilect Age” (AI) by achieving a technological singularity). Or if we return back to primitive bliss we won’t have to think about any of this nonsense at all!

      PS. I don’t think human colonization of space will ever happen, and furthermore I hope it doesn’t. We have our solar system, any other life forms should have the opportunity to realize the full range of their potentialities without outside interference.

      • georgesdelatour says:

        I love humans.

        Do you?

        Humans are my absolute favourite life-form. I find them utterly fascinating. I love reading the opinions, even of seemingly misanthropic humans like yourself on blogs. As far as I know, no trilobite ever expressed any opinion about anything on a blog. That’s why I think we’re utterly unlike “most species”, and have a chance of surviving longer, if we apply ourselves to it.

        As Pascal put it:

        “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him. The universe knows nothing of this.”

        (BTW Peter Ward rejects James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. He has his own – very opposite – Medea hypothesis.)

  2. As an engineer I’m captivated by the challenges of space travel and extra terrestrial habitats, but we are no where near leaving this planet let alone the solar system. The entire GDP of the most powerful country on earth couldn’t keep a single human alive in near earth orbit for the entirety of his/her life, let alone deal with a base on our own moon. We can’t even defecate properly in zero G.

    We rarely visit the depths of our oceans and as a species can’t even mobilize the small resources required to cloth and feed our populations which speaks volumes.

    We will burn out right here on this orb. There is no escape.

    • georgesdelatour says:

      You’re confusing questions of technological know-how, GDP size and resource allocation. It’s like saying “the entire GDP of the British Empire in 1900 wasn’t enough to build Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first powered aeroplane of 1903”; or, “the entire GDP of the former USSR wasn’t enough to build a single iPod”.

      In terms of space travel, what we knew how to do on October 3 1957 was much less than we knew by July 20 1969. There was the political will to know more, quickly. So we did.

      • @georgedelatour, I beg to differ. It’s a simple question of dollar effort/pound for transit to some level of orbit and the application of medical science to maintain a human, no small feat. Floating for a hundred yards over the green is not comparable.

        Near earth orbit is the cheapest option and we can’t do that!