Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

Patrick assesses the future of world order, state sovereignty, and multilateral cooperation.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Re-Engineering the Earth’s Climate: No Longer Science Fiction

by Stewart M. Patrick
June 10, 2014

geoengineering climate change sulfates A portrait of global aerosols is seen in this undated NASA handout released November 14, 2012. In the image, dust (red) is lifted from the surface, sea salt (blue) swirls inside cyclones, smoke (green) rises from fires, and sulfate particles (white) stream from volcanoes and fossil fuel emissions (William Putman/NASA/Goddard courtesy Reuters)


By continuing to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, humanity is conducting the largest uncontrolled scientific experiment in the Earth’s 4.5 billion year history. The most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change paints a dire portrait. Under a “business as usual” scenario, average global temperatures are predicted to rise by between 4.5 degrees and 14 degrees Fahrenheit—and temperatures at the earth’s poles are predicted to rise by as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit over several decades. Even under the most optimistic scenario, which presumes unprecedented mitigation efforts, average global temperatures will almost certainly rise above the 2 degrees Celsius. The catastrophic implications will include melting polar icecaps, dramatic sea rise, mass extinction events, more extreme weather events, and the death of the world’s coral reefs from ocean acidification. Unfortunately for humanity, in the words of UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, “There is No Planet B.”

There may, however, be a Plan B. (And no, it does not involved colonizing Mars.) It involves geoengineering, or the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract human-induced climate change. Once relegated to the realm of science fiction, geoengineering has recently gained greater plausibility and credibility as a last-ditch option to combat warming—thanks to technological advances and  growing frustration with the failure of the world’s leaders to strike the diplomatic bargains and take the political risks required to address the greatest collective-action challenge the world has ever faced.

Geoengineering can be divided into two basic approaches. The first, carbon dioxide removal (CDR), involves drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere through a variety of processes, ranging from fertilizing oceans (to promote plankton growth, which in turn convert CO2 to oxygen) to creating machines to capture greenhouse gases and store them underground. The second, is solar radiation management (SRM), which entails making the earth more reflective of the sun’s rays. By dispersing aerosols into the stratosphere, for instance, one could produce a cooling effect similar to the (temporary) effect provided by gases released in the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991. Given current technologies, most scientists consider SRM to be more promising and less expensive than CDR.

Until recently, geoengineering was a third rail for both governments and environmentalists. Governments worried about its unintended consequences; environmentalists worried that it would encourage surrender in global mitigation efforts. In 2010, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity, meeting in Japan, endorsed a near total restriction on geoengineering activities.

More recently, the tide has begun to turn. Scientists have led the way in calling for systematic research on potential geoengineering options. Their reasoning is compelling. To begin with, new technologies have made it possible to envision large-scale human interventions into the earth’s climate system at a relatively cheap price. Simultaneously, as grave consequences of global warming become more apparent, there is a growing risk that states and nonstate actors alike will be tempted to take matters into their own hands.

Such freelancing is hardly far-fetched. Might not the Bangladeshi government, facing the prospect of “going under” given dramatically rising sea levels, decide to charter a few jumbo jets to disperse aerosols in the upper atmosphere? As for nonstate initiatives, they’ve already begun. Perhaps the most prominent example occurred in July 2012, when an American scientist, acting on behalf of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate off the coast of British Columbia, allegedly creating a massive phytoplankton bloom.

Such uncoordinated national actions and freelancing by superempowered groups or individuals could have disastrous consequences, particularly if they have not been properly tested or if there is inadequate scientific understanding of their potential impact, both locally and globally.

More concerning, there are no international or domestic rules of the road to govern geoengineering—or even geoengineering research. To be sure, a handful of international conventions touch on aspects of the problem, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), and the Convention on Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution. But neither national authorities nor the multilateral system has agreed on even basic issues, including: the definition of what qualifies as geoengineering; what risks it might pose; standards of transparency for experimentation, or legal constraints on research.

As in other areas, technological innovation is outpacing efforts by policymakers and regulators to set parameters about what is permissible and what is prohibited. The world is flying blind, with little understanding of the feasibility, risks, and effectiveness of potential technologies.

As the world’s leading reservoir of scientific expertise, the United States has an obligation to help fill this governance gap. To date, discussion of the pros and cons of geoengineering has largely been confined to discussion between scientists and civil society groups. That needs to change. At home, the U.S. government should work with leading national laboratories and universities to establish, at minimum, a code of principles to govern geoengineering research and experiments. The U.S. Congress should also hold hearings on regulations to govern the actual deployment of geoengineering technologies, with a focus on the potential benefits and risks of various technologies.

In parallel with these national efforts, the U.S. government should foster multilateral dialogue among countries that are major repositories of scientific and technological expertise on geoengineering. One option would be to encourage national academies of science in these nations to convene, discuss, and ultimately hammer out a common code of conduct. Such a “mini-lateral” approach is likely to be more productive than attempting—particularly at this early state—to negotiate a grand multilateral convention through the 193-member United Nations. Better to start with a smaller cohort of able, willing, and interested parties that can establish common norms and standards to govern research, which can later be expanded to encompass other countries.

Post a Comment 22 Comments

  • Posted by Tom Lalley

    There’s a good chance that geoengineering will be used given the lifespan of CO2 in the atmosphere and the growth rate of emissions. Here is an excellent description of the situation and geoengineering from NASA.

    It’s worth nothing that the CEO of Exxon has called climate change “an engineering problem.”

  • Posted by Kelly

    Hi, we have been investigating the “chem trails” for a while now….. My mind is almost convinced that we ( the people) are living a “puppet life” under a huge ” puppeteer”.
    We’re lead to “believe” we have choices, voices….. But in reality…… We are like “drones”……it makes me SICK to say the least!!!
    I hope/ wish sometime soon people could come together and revolt!!! It’s NOT impossible!!!!
    ” V for Vandetta”. ( spelling??).
    So sick of the lies from the institutions we grew up respecting!
    Very heart wrenching

  • Posted by Peter Fry

    So how do you stop the cows farting?
    Yea, laugh…..but its a FACT cows farting is one of the biggest causes of emmissions , we need an engineer to develop a cow nappy FAST!

  • Posted by Wanda

    It is certainly time for the masses to wake up and realize that this has been going on for decades and in truth are destroying our very life forces.
    Geoengineering traps heat and does not allow the natural cooling to occur.To think that man can control the weather has been one of the biggest travesties that scientists and the military have ever come up with. Their egos and peoples refusal to see what is so glaringly obvious will be the downfall of this earth.

  • Posted by Michael ONeill

    all these chemicals washing into water ways the food chain there sraying over uk as well and over the world whos really causeing the instinction ? some oenes allowed it into air space those are those in power and it proven to be many heavy metals disperserd that is depremenatal to all life ? thats silent war fair

  • Posted by jerry leonard

    they are already geoengineering on a large scale through chemtrails, which i have extensively documented with time-lapse photography over charlotte, nc.

    this article is a retroactive justification, engineering consent piece.

  • Posted by frank

    This article is total bs. The government has already admitted they have huge geoengineering programs underway. However, the details are classified! How convenient. All you have to do is look up and you’ll see them spraying almost everyday.

  • Posted by Anonymous

    Hust how far will these globalist control-freaks go? They are using the environment as a pre-text to further condition us and our children into accepting their phony threat of “global warming”. It’s all about inventory-and-control over the people by the Rockefeller’s, the Rothschild’s, and the central bank shareholders.

  • Posted by Jasper
  • Posted by bowlan

    these morons. its not greenhouse gasses it called geo- engineering. they are spraying daily to change the weather and the sheep out there called liberals all claim its greenhouse gasses doing it. wake up.

  • Posted by Kp24

    I saw the first ever chem trails over Hawaii this week….1 straight lime and 2 others forming an X

  • Posted by Richard

    I’ve read more than once in more than a few places that one of the biggest producers of methane gas are termites, and most of us have at least a pedestrian knowledge of how pervasive they are and how hard they are to get rid of. Cow gas, termite gas, gas seeping form the unbelievable depths of the oceans, ozone from rotting vegetation in the forests, seems nature is against it’s self, or just doing what comes naturally. And just one other question about a rather large and obvious contributor (one that seems to elude much smarter people than me) how is it, why is it, do you just suppose that, maybe just maybe the sun has more to do with all of this than some real smart people know, or are willing to admit? I mean after all when the sun sets and stays out of sight for you know like over night 8/10/12 hours or so, the temperature drops like you know 20 / 30 / 50 degrees. HHmmm…. I wonder…….. nnnnaaaaaahh, I mean that would be too obvious and besides I’m not sure they great and powerful “THEY” figured a way to tax the sun yet so ……nnnnaaah can’t be that.

  • Posted by Steve

    Sir, as you can see by some of the comments already posted, we’re well aware that “solar radiation management” through spraying the skies with aerosols has already been going on for years now. I think it’s utter foolishness just like almost every idea modern decision makers come up with for just about everything.

  • Posted by James William Chastain

    We should learn to do a better job of taking care of our Earth . We should make Eco relevant abide by them and if we don’t then the Irritated Earth will some how do it thing to try and fix it self by doing what nature does and then the people on Earth will suffer from what they have done . Earn is having an Allergic reaction and we are going to suffer from the symptoms .

  • Posted by bobby

    Is it the standard policy of the CFR to run a global program for years, decades in fact, and then announce to the public that they are thinking about doing it. And dumping toxic population destroying chemicals on us? The same exact chemicals that Monsanto GMO poison non-food is resistant to? It makes absolutely no sense unless A: You are completely insane, sociopathic and unable to fathom in a compassionate, thoughtful, rational manner the dire and apocalyptic consequences of messing with the Planetary weather. Or B: a massive comet or other life-ending event is inevitable and this is the humane thing to do. I thank you if the latter is the case.

  • Posted by Frank Hopson

    The CFR is just floating this out there to prime the pump for…
    “Welll, actually, we’ve been doing large scale operations for awhile now, and hey(!), isn’t this great…?!?…

  • Posted by Juan Garcia

    I presume this was an April Fools Joke released on the wrong day. I just can’t wait for a heroic world leader to take the ‘political risk necessary” to force us fools to do the RIGHT thing(s).

  • Posted by John C Laumer

    Here is an entirely different way to cnceptualize geoengineering projects.

  • Posted by Marg Dela Cruz

    I wouldn’t be surprised if geoengineering will be the word of the year 2014. We need core comprehensive studies in this field. We don’t want to watch our globe melting while we do nothing. It’s time to study and use tools and technology to help us save our Mother Earth.

  • Posted by Jay

    The current administration’s “science Czar” has admitted that we are currently “geo-engineering” (can you spell Chem-trails???) Aerosoled aluminum particals are being sprayed everyday and all over the USA and other countries…

  • Posted by Brian Hicks

    Rather than take the steps necessary to prevent a problem, here we are again planning the costly, and vastly unpredictable, steps to try to fix it, which we will do without, of course, understanding all the impacts.

    Having accidentally altered the very atmosphere of the planet, we are now worrying about how to intentionally alter it back. It was fine the way it was.

    This is tragic. And the predictable outcome of hubris. We humans think we are so smart.

  • Posted by Anna-Maria

    You might be interested in our recent working paper on this topic: ‘An Exploration of a Code of Conduct for Responsible Scientific Research Involving Geoengineering,’ which was recently published by the IASS in collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS).

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required