A Future Tense Event: Geoengineering

The Horrifying Idea Whose Time has Come?

Welcome: Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN)

Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN), chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology, provided the opening remarks, and context, for Geoengineering: The Horrifying Idea Whose Time has Come?  Rep. Gordon, who is retiring this year after serving thirteen consecutive terms in the House, described the many ways in which Washington is already very much aware of, and interested in geoengineering.  He noted that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was about to release its first ever technology assessment, done in the style of the regrettably defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), and that it would be on geoengineering.  The report would offer both an evaluation of the social, political, and environmental implications of geoengineering, as well as an in-depth investigation of the state of the science underlying the various schemes proposed for engineering the climate.  He, along with Jeff Goodell and several other participants, advised the use of the term “climate engineering”, in place of the politically and emotionally fraught “geoengineering”, as it is more accurate in describing what the various schemes aim to do, whereas geoengineering refers to a much broader class of activities that would include projects like the Panama Canal.  Rep. Gordon had two essential refrains, the first of which was that a multi-lateral, global approach was necessary, and noted that ongoing cooperation with both the UK and the EU parliaments was a promising sign in this regard.  His second refrain was the need for absolute transparency as we move forward, in order to avoid some of the social, political, and public relations pitfalls that plagued the development of nuclear energy and genetically modified crops.  Finally, when asked if there was anyone in the House waiting to replace him, who had his same dedication to, and enthusiasm for, getting geoengineering right, he said that there was not, but that he was still hopeful, because the staff on the committee was as committed, and even more knowledgeable, than he was.

The Elusive Quest to Define Geoengineering

On September 27, David Keith, the director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at the Environment and Economy University of Calgary, began the full day Future Tense geoengineering conference by attempting to define for the audience the field of geoengineering.   He began by noting that there are two quite distinct branches of technical ideas within geoengineering: Solar Radiation Management and Carbon Cycle Engineering.  Solar Radiation Management aims to alter the amount of solar radiation that the earth absorbs and the amount it radiates and is a fairly fast, cheap, and imperfect solution to climate change.  Carbon Cycle Engineering, on the other hand, works to remove carbon from the air and is a much slower and more expensive approach.  Mr. Keith went on to explain that despite the differences between these two branches of geoengineering, that which they share is global scale and the goal of changing the environment with countervailing actions—balancing a warming of the planet with a cooling.  Mr. Keith clarified that geoengineering should not be thought of as a substitute for mitigating global warming and cutting emissions, but rather one part of the solution.  He demonstrated that geoengineering, particularly Solar Radiation Management, has much potential because small amounts of input will be able to produce a huge output.

Panel I:  The Quest to Fix the Earth's Climate

Following Mr. Keith’s opening definition of geoengineering, Jason Blackstock from the Centre for International Governance Innovation, Bruce Rittman, director of the Center for Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute, and Brad Allenby, Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University, spoke about the quest to fix the earth’s climate on a panel moderated by Jeff Goodell.  Jason Blackstock began by explaining that the type of geoengineering research that one does and the type of governance system necessary is dictated by the type of problem that one is trying to solve.  It is essential that we find a way to promote public interest and regulate individual actors for while understanding geoengineering requires advanced science it is dangerously easy to implement. Bruce Rittman continued the conversation by focusing in on Carbon Cycle Engineering research.  He asserted that the goal is to stop atmospheric carbon dioxide from continuing to rise by finding better, more renewable ways of generating energy.  For instance, Mr. Rittman is working on using photosynthetic organisms, instead of fossil fuels, to generate energy.  Brad Allenby then returned the conversation to the problem of defining geoengineering.  He asserted that, currently, scientists think of geoengineering in far too narrow of terms.  Mr. Allenby argued that geoengineering should not be thought of as many single purpose technologies designed to fix individual problems but rather as technologies that will fundamentally change the world.  Climate change is not a unique phenomenon but rather a part of a sweep of issues and many complex systems. All three panelists warned that geoengineering should not be thought of as a silver bullet solution to climate change.

Panel 2:  The Consequences (Intended or Not) of Taking Control of the Earth's Thermostat

Panel 2, moderated by Foreign Policy Contributing Editor and Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow Christina Larson, covered the social and political implications of geoengineering.  Dan Bodansky, Lincoln Professor of Law, Ethics, and Sustainability at Arizona State University, began by discussing the paucity of international law and international norms that pertain to the geoengineering For him, multilateralism becomes important when imagining and addressing possible future scenarios: (1) Premature rejection of geoengineering  research, (2) inadequate research, (3) private actors going ahead with geoengineering while creating global impact, and (4) countries engaging in unilateral action.  M. Sanjayang, lead scientist of the Nature Conservatory, dynamically framed the issue through stories of personal contacts with Eskimos and other groups who are affected by climate change. Mr. Sanjayang noted that key issues to consider are the degree of reversibility in certain geoengineering experiments, the risk of failure, and equity. He gave the example that shorter experiments might be better than longer experiments because if unintended consequences happen, the shorter experiments will end sooner and limit the period of harm. Thomas Schelling, Nobel-prize winning economist and Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Maryland, returned to the issue of multilateralism through his thoughts on field research.  The way in which field experiments take place will have powerful influence over the actual deployment of geoengineering. Collaboration on the evaluation of results will increase the level of legitimacy and trust in the study. By the time implementation has occurred, an ethos of collaboration and credence will have already been established from the research period.  Finally, Jane C. Long, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s Associate Director for Energy and Environment, concluded the panel by communicating the need for enhanced dialogue public dialogue surrounding technology policy and scientific She especially stresses importance of engaging  public and the science community to agree to goals both groups will value when moving forward with geoengineering research.  

Lunch Keynote: Stewart Brand and David Keith, Moderated by Joel Garreau

The lunch keynote presentation was designed to be a discussion about geoengineering between Stewart Brand, the father of the environmental movement, and David Keith, one of the more prominent researchers actually working to design and build technologies for carbon dioxide removal.  In the course of the far ranging discussion, the two agreed on the delicacy of the situation surrounding geoengineering, in so far as it is all too easy for the technology to be permanently sidelined by reactionary forces, ignored by political parties who do not wish to admit the reality of global warming, or mistaken as a replacement for carbon dioxide emissions reduction.  Keith noted a conversation he had with Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic, wherein Keith explained how sulfur dioxide droplets in the stratosphere could work as a refractory defense against global warming, by increasing the Earth’s albedo.  Sir Branson responded to Keith with the sadly comical (and probably tongue firmly in cheek), “So, all I have to do is go back to dirty fuel in all my airplanes to save the planet?”  Keith said the answer to which, of course, is no.  It was agreed that the parsing of geoengineering into two categories of strategy—solar radiation management and carbon dioxide extraction—was not only accurate, but also practical in the sense that it made clearer the difference between the two.  SRM is an emergency intervention, while CDE is part of a longer-term management plan.  The discussion then focused on the earlier presentation by Dr. Bruce Rittmann from Arizona State University, whose lab is producing genetically modified algae and bacteria that can be produced in large quantities in reactors, and then converted to clean alternative fuels.  Keith was concerned that such organisms could “out-compete” natural organisms if they escaped into the environment, while Brand, the biologist, assured him that this was impossible, as the interlopers would quickly be consumed by existing biota, despite their photosynthetic superiority.


8:30 AM to 9:00 AM - Registration

9:00 AM - Welcome

David Plotz
Editor, Slate

Congressman Bart Gordon (D-TN)
Chairman, House Committee on Science and Technology

9:30 AM - The Elusive Quest to Define Geoengineering

David Keith
Director, Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy
University of Calgary

9:45 AM to 11:00 AM - Panel I:  The Quest to Fix the Earth's Climate

Jason Blackstock
Centre for International Governance Innovation
Fellow and Research Scholar, Risk and Vulnerability Program
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis

Bruce Rittman
Director, Center for Environmental Biotechnology in the Biodesign Institute
Arizona State University

Brad Allenby
Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics
Arizona State University

Jeff Goodell
Author, How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate

11:00 AM - Coffee Break

11:15 AM to 12:30 PM - Panel 2:  The Consequences (Intended or Not) of Taking Control of the Earth's Thermostat

Dan Bodansky
Lincoln Professor of Law, Ethics and Sustainability
Arizona State University

Jane C. Long
Associate Director Energy and Environment Directorate
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA

M. Sanjayan
Lead Scientist
The Nature Conservancy

Thomas Schelling
Distinguished Professor of Economics
University of Maryland

Christina Larson
Senior Editor, Foreign Policy Magazine
Fellow, New America Foundation

12:45 PM to 1:30 PM - Keynote Conversation and Lunch

Stewart Brand
Author, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto
Co-founder and President, The Long Now Foundation

David Keith
Director, Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy
University of Calgary

Event Time and Location

Monday, September 27, 2010 - 8:30am - 2:00pm
New America Foundation
1899 L Street NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20036

Event Photos

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Video Clips

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Video of Panel 1
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Video of Panel 2
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Video of 2nd Keynote Discussion