#19 “Most Comprehensive” Assessment Yet Warns against Geoengineering Risks

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

A comprehensive pair of reports by dozens of researchers convened by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) offered “a damning critique of geoengineering,” according to Tim McDonnell of Mother Jones. Highly controversial, geoengineering refers to technological efforts to counteract global warming by altering the atmosphere’s chemical composition.

The first of the two NAS reports found that most proposals to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—through processes such as fertilizing the ocean with iron to dissolve carbon dioxide—are too expensive to be widely implemented.76 However, as Robinson Meyer reported in Atlantic, a February 2015 University of Oxford study found that reforestation—planting trees—is among the “most promising” short-term responses to climate change.

The Academy’s second report evaluated proposals to seed the atmosphere with particles to reflect sunlight back into space, a process known as albedo modification. According to the NAS study, albedo modification is inexpensive, compared with carbon dixode removal proposals, but involves unknown risks. Implementing technologies to block solar radiation would entail “significant potential for unanticipated, unmanageable, and regrettable consequences in multiple human dimensions . . . including political, social, legal, economic, and ethical dimensions,” according to the authors of the NAS study.

As Jeremy Schulman reported in a subsequent Mother Jones article, one of the climate scientists who first ran models to test potential geoengineering solutions, Ken Caldeira, continues to advocate geoengineering research—but not as an immediate or best response. As Schulman reported, Caldeira would “much rather stave off global warming by drastically cutting carbon emissions.” Caldeira’s stance aligns with the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences: “There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, together with adaptation of human and natural systems to make them more resilient to changing climate.”

The corporate media have covered geoengineering as a potential but divisive silver bullet to climate change. For example, a December 2014 issue of Newsweek featured “Science to the Rescue: Rebooting the Planet” as its cover story and included an article on geoengineering. Both USA Today and the Washington Post ran editorials on the reports, but neither outlet covered them as hard news.80 The New York Times did cover the reports as hard news, but that coverage was neither prominent nor accurate: the Times’ story, titled “Geoengineering Research is Urged before Climate Crisis,” appeared on page five of the February 12, 2015, edition and summarized the National Academy of Sciences as concluding that, “with proper oversight, experiments of climate intervention technologies should pose no significant risk.”

Tim McDonnell, “Scientists Are Pretty Terrified about These Last-Minute Fixes to Global Warming,” Mother Jones, February 10, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/02/scientists-geoengineering-climate-bad-idea.

Robinson Meyer, “The Best Technology for Fighting Climate Change? Trees,” Atlantic, February 9, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/02/the-best-technology-for-fighting-climate-change-trees/385304/.

Jeremy Schulman, “We Could Stop Global Warming With This Fix—But It’s Probably a Terrible Idea,” Mother Jones, March 27, 2015, http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/03/geoengineering-caldeira-climate-change.

Student Researcher: Elora West (Burlington College)

Faculty and Community Evaluators: Rob Williams (Burlington College) and Ian Baldwin (Chelsea Green Publishing)