Let’s talk about geoengineering

My teenage son told me, a few years ago, that his future was dark. He’d seen predictions of what climate change will bring in 15, 20 years time. Flooding, forced migration, spreading disease, biological exterminations. Depressing.

A child makes you focus. I realized that societies, democratic or autocratic, will topple any government that could save them from such calamity. Say an Antarctic ice sheet big enough to raise the oceans 3 feet slides towards open water. A billion people in coastal cities will holler “do something.”

CO2 reductions won’t cut it. Geoengineering will. A single government could pump several tons of tiny particles, maybe sulfur, into the stratosphere. This will reduce global temperatures by 1 or 2 degrees Celsius, 3 or 4 degrees Fahrenheit. They’ll concentrate over Antarctica. The ice cap won’t melt.

As a parent, I felt it important to explain the future probably won’t be calamitous. It’ll always have problems. Stratospheric sulfur will acidify rain, and damage forests. That should be addressed before, not after it happens. More benign particulates could be tested.

But why is there silence about geoengineering? Isn’t communication important?

I think lots of people sort of know it could take place. But almost no one knows how to talk about it.

People worried about global warming, who want systems to change now, are afraid. They believe talking about geoengineering makes people less inclined to change their lifestyles, like driving little electric cars instead of big gas ones.

People worried that global warming activists will make them change their lifestyles prefer to deny climate change is real. They’ll stop driving their F150 when hell freezes over, and they’re pretty sure that ain’t happening.

On one side, those who believe climate action is necessary deny that geoengineering is inevitable. On the other side, climate change deniers believe any solution is a hoax.

Both are wrong. Those who believe geoengineering talk closes people’s minds, base their opinion on intuition. People, they believe, only sacrifice if their backs are against a wall. If they have an escape route, they’ll avoid change.

This is a false premise. When people are backed against a wall, they don’t sacrifice, they fight. In fact, military strategists know they fight to the death. It’s always a challenge to convince new officers of this. Like climate activists, they want to eliminate the opposition. Why give them an escape route?

Because when people fight to the death, they can win. At minimum they take good people with them.

Second, research shows that when geoengineering is part of a climate discussion, people who dispute global warming become less extreme. Those worried about future climate, and those worried about changing behavior, find common ground. This has been demonstrated in multiple countries, many times.

Most climate change deniers, who say global warming is a scientific conspiracy, know they’re on thin ice. Literally, in some places. They need a way to save face. Geoengineering’s inevitability brings discussion down to earth. No one trusts governments messing with the stratosphere. If that’s what’s going to happen, maybe we should do something to minimize it.

Since they’ve denied geoengineering inevitability in the past, climate change activists can actually help their opponents save face. Let the deniers say both sides were wrong. Yes, denying climate change is much worse than denying geoengineering’s future. But turning deniers into accepters is worth the sacrifice.

If you’ve given the other side an escape route, even accidentally, they’ll stop fighting to the death. As Sun Tzu wrote, you can take them prisoner, and eventually incorporate them in your own army.

Activists often complain people don’t take climate change seriously. If geoengineering seems inevitable, that won’t be the case.

We owe it to our children, as well as each other, to recognize this inevitability. It comes with a price. We need research. We need global negotiations. Geoengineering will effect people, and they’ll want to make it less drastic, more distant. It’s time to start talking.

Viewed from a distance, it’s all geoengineering. Rice farmers engineered a warmer climate, as did slash and burn farmers elsewhere. Around 4,000 BCE in Asia, paddy field methane was the first significant antropogenic carbon input, and it can be seen in climate trends. The earth had passed the warmest phase between ice ages several thousand years earlier, and was getting cooler. But farming stopped it.

Europe’s great plague killed so many that forests regrew and the earth cooled. Industrialization is an order of magnitude more, and warms too much. For several thousand years, humans were a source for equilibrium, preventing undo cooling. But that’s changed. We’re now hotter than the warmest point since the last ice age. A prior “inter-ice age” period was warmer than the last. The Eemian, 130,000 years ago, peaked at 2 degrees C above current mean temperatures. They had sea levels 13-20 feet higher than today.

Look, once carbon cycles out of the atmosphere (after 2250?) the earth will get colder. Maybe people will deliberately pump carbon to warm it up. Burying CO2 is great, because we may need it in 250 years. 250 years isn’t a long time, in human history. It’s very long-term, however. As Keynes said, in the long-run we are all dead. People don’t have 250 year horizons. They invest in infrastructure, especially along coastlines. They expect it to remain. The fact that sea level rise threatens it is shattering.

If we want to prevent massive extinction of biological organisms, which are ill-suited for sudden ecological shifts, if we want to prevent terrific loss of economic value, undermining social systems, if we want to preserve farming systems needed for human survival, then we need to geoengineer things the right way.

The more we pump carbon into the sky, the more geoengineering we’ll need. Since everything has unexpected consequences, we shouldn’t do any more than necessary.

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