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Geoengineering Faces Dilemma: Experiment or Not?

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In May, a team of British scientists abruptly canceled an experiment they had been planning for nearly two years. The Stratospheric Particle Experiment for Climate Engineering, or SPICE, was intended to test ways of injecting tiny particles of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, with the eventual goal of filtering out sunlight to cool the Earth in the face of global warming. The main reason given for the cancellation was a potential patent dispute over some of the technology involved.

But a second reason, according to the project’s lead investigator, Matthew Watson, of the University of Bristol, was the fact that there’s no international agreement on whether, and under what circumstances, such experiments should happen. That being the case, he told Nature, it would be “somewhat premature” to go forward.

Credit: Climate Central

In fact, the entire field of geoengineering — a set of technologies that is aimed to try and combat rising temperatures by artificially cooling the planet, among other things — is highly controversial. That applies especially strongly to so-called solar radiation management, or SRM, the sun-shielding technique most scientists, including the SPICE team, have been talking about. (It’s also known as the Pinatubo Option: when Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it spewed particles of natural sulfur dioxide that lowered global temperatures slightly for months.)

One argument against geoengineering is that it does nothing to address the greenhouse-gas emissions that cause warming in the first place, and that the existence of such a backup plan would suck the energy out of efforts to control those emissions. Another is the law of unintended consequences, which dictates that the best-intentioned ideas can sometimes backfire.

The potential issues are so great, in fact, that scientists met in 2010 to discuss voluntary guidelines for geoengineering experiments, while policymakers have called on the U.N. to issue regulations.

The scientists haven’t gotten anywhere on their guidelines however, and with no international agreement on the horizon, geoengineering experts are divided on how to proceed.

It’s impossible to understand how geoengineering will play out without some sort of field testing, but scientists disagree on whether those tests should even take place. 

Rutgers University’s Alan Robock, for example, thinks that field tests in the absence of regulation are a bad idea. “Outdoor geoengineering research . . . ” he wrote in a 2012 paper, “. . . is not ethical unless subject to governance that protects society from potential environmental dangers.” 

According to Robock, the only tests that should be happening now are within the electronic confines of computer models — something that’s currently going on in Robock’s own Geoengineering Model Intercomparison Project, which looks at how geoengineering plays out in different climate simulations.

One effect that seems to emerge from the climate models is that shading the Sun could disrupt global rainfall patterns. Another is that particles in the stratosphere can lead to ozone loss.

But other scientists argue that simulations can only provide so much information. “Theory breeds extremism,” said Harvard’s David Keith in a phone interview, “and at the moment, geoengineering is all theory.”

Volcanic ash and gas rising above Mount Pinatubo, Philippines, on June 12, 1991. 
Credit: USGS

Keith said it’s likely that the experiments won’t work as well as their advocates claim, and won’t be as damaging as their opponents fear. “Doing a few responsible experiments will help clarify things,” he said.

Of course, Keith is in the pro-testing camp and, in fact, is in the early stages of planning just such an experiment, along with his Harvard colleague, Jim Anderson. It will look not at the effects of sun-dimming particles themselves, but at the combined effects of water vapor and natural sulfur dioxide on stratospheric ozone — a potential danger that has only recently emerged.

The experiment will also test methods that can be used to deliver sulfur dioxide directly to the atmosphere, however, so it falls squarely within the zone of controversy.

Keith insists he and his colleagues wouldn’t just go out and do the test without oversight. “Some reports have implied that we’d be doing this with funding from Bill Gates,” Keith said, “but if we go ahead, we’ll be mostly publicly funded.”

Keith said he believes that will help ensure that the project is done responsibly. “Let’s say we did it through NASA, or the National Science Foundation,” he said. “We’d have to convince them it was safe to do. We might also have to go through EPA.”

The actual risks of his proposed experiment are “objectively zero,” Keith said, “and any normal scientist would agree. But I believe that independent authorities should make that judgment.”

Of course, not every country has a NASA or an EPA, raising concerns that a country such as China or India might go ahead in a less responsible way — not just with experiments, but with a full-blown attempt to regulate the planet’s temperature.

“If you could do geoengineering,” Robock said, “how much cooling should you do? And whose hand is on the thermostat?”

Worse, what if a mega-billionaire decided, all on his or her own, that the planet needed saving and that solar radiation management would be the way to do it? Without international oversight, who could stop it?

That’s the wrong question, according to Nathan Myhrvold, a physicist, former Microsoft executive and barbecue champion. The concept behind lofting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere is simple, but the execution isn’t necessarily.

“No part of the developed world is making any serious effort to do this at this point,” Myhrvold said in an interview, “and no developing country is either.” 

It would take years to ramp up such efforts, even for an eccentric billionaire, giving other nations plenty of time to apply moral and economic pressure to make it stop.

Pressure, say Myhrvold and others, that would be just as effective as finger-wagging from the U.N.

“So yeah,” Keith said, “we’re really not likely to see some goofy Goldfinger scenario.” 

What Keith would like to see is some unity among responsible governments on how to move forward. “Short of a full-fledged treaty,” he said, “one could manage the concerns by having small group of major nations — the G20, for example —articulate the fundamental right to do experiments, but say at the same time that they won’t do it without approval from some responsible bodies.”

Keith thinks statements like that would make it clear what’s internationally acceptable, and would also take immediate implementation of geoengineering off the table, making it OK for small-scale experiments to move forward. 

“My concern is in the other direction,” said Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford. “I’m less worried about rogue experiments than I am that useful experiments won’t happen.” 

At the moment, Caldeira said he’s counseling his colleagues not to move forward because it’s politically unwise. “It’s unnecessarily provocative, and could lead to irrational overreaction.” 

But without any experiments at all, the world could find itself in a very difficult place a few decades down the road.

“I continue to think geoengineering is not only a possible option,” Myhrvold said, “but that every day that goes by makes it more likely. I haven’t seen any progress on reducing emissions. If you’re doing nothing about the problem, you’re going to have to live with the impact, take it on the chin. Geoengineering is how you might avoid that.

Related coverage
Geoengineering: Risky to Do, Riskier to Ignore
Geoengineering: You Want Crazy, We've Got Crazy!
Geoengineered Sky: Bye-Bye Blue, Hello White
Bill Gates Backs Scientists Lobbying for Geoengineering


By Steven L. Jones (Vancouver,BC,V5N2A3)
on September 12th, 2012

Unlike Mt. Pinatubo geoengineering is not a one off. Year after year the atmosphere will have to maintain a consistent evenly distributed amount of sulfur dioxide.  How do you keep the stratospheric winds from moving the particles from where you want?  How much new sulfur is to be added each year to maintain cooling?  How much acid rain year after will result from geoengineering and how much can the soil absorb before crops and forests die?  How will this speed up the oceans demise from acidity?  Who pays the bill for unforeseen results?  And with such a solution will attempts to limit carbon dioxide simply be forgotten?

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on September 12th, 2012

Geoengineering is another one of those scary climate problems and I think Lisa Speer’s views (as above) in this make a lot of sense and deserve careful consideration.

I would argue that some of the other considerations discussed here are naïve and underline the issue that there really are unknown and possibly severe global risks to such experiments. In fact, this area is filled with unknowns and potential dangers. I also cannot imagine that there would actually be no single rogue nation or other entity that would not attempt a grand global geoengineering project in this context if it had the resources and imagined a rewarding payoff.

I think that one clear lesson of climate change science is that earths climate is an enormously complicated, multi-parameter and non linear system. That is an important and commonly accepted fact. In view of this, some of the grander geoengineering ideas I have heard of reek of intellectual arrogance laced with insanity. Sure, perhaps some geoengineering ideas, such as changing the colour of black-top road surfaces, or covering the surfaces of glaciers with reflective blankets are reasonable. After all, you can always repaint the roads or retrieve the ”˜blankets’.  But with other schemes such as the sulphur dioxide idea, once released, you cannot go back and retrieve all the molecules of gas and unwind complex atmospheric chemical changes if things go wrong.  The same reasoning can be applied to schemes to add huge quantities of iron to the oceans to promote carbon sequestration.

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By M Tucker
on September 12th, 2012

With folks like James Hansen, Bill Mckibben, Joe Romm and Al Gore (to name but a few) I doubt anyone is likely to forget about limits to CO2 or fossil fuel burning. But what if a country like Russia (but it could be China or India or Pakistan or N Korea or any of the nuclear weapons nations with the power to back up their threats) decides horrific flooding or droughts or blizzards they claim have resulted from such experiments or programs have caused numerous deaths and serious economic destruction to their country? What if they say it is an act of war? What if they demand that the offending nations suffer in kind?

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By Max Mogren (Jackson)
on September 12th, 2012

People around the world have documented Geoengineers “experimenting”, (aka modifying the weather for power and profit) around much of the world for over a decade.  Anyone who wants the straight info on Geoengineering minus all the MSM (mainsteam media) BS needs to watch the new documentary film “Why In The World Are They Spraying?”

Weather Modification technology has come a long way in the last century and current capabilites go far beyond mere cloud seeding.  Weather can now be used as a weapon of covert war, and assuming that the same governments and big businesses that wage overt wars around the world aren’t using every tool at their disposal is extremely naive.  See for yourself, look up!

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By Lewis Cleverdon
on September 12th, 2012

Micheal ”“
I have to differ with your characterization of Geo-E as being simply SRM (aka solar radiation management; aka Albedo Restoration). According to Caldiera, whose authority on the issue is second to none, the practice of Carbon Recovery with the purpose of cleansing the atmosphere is just as much Geo-E as Albedo Restoration. Given the terminal impact on the biosphere of the loss of the marine ecology to uncontrolled ocean acidification, Carbon Recovery is at least as relevant as Albedo Restoration, for all it will take much longer to achieve. Given the fact that is could be done extremely badly (e.g. corporations clearing forests and small farmers for profitable GMO monoculture afforestation) Carbon Recovery requires near identical UN supervision of its objectives, techniques, trials and deployment.

Comments above overlook both the question of the critical need for both forms of Geo-E, as well as the fact that high altitude aerosols [HAAs] are neither the only option nor the best for Albedo Restoration. In terms of controllability, ‘space mirrors’ would set an irretrievable sunshade around the planet; the HAAs parasol would take two years to rain out after our output stopped; while ‘cloud brightening’ would rain out in just nine days. In terms of targetting, HAAs only function at a global level, while cloud brightening could be focussed locally or regionally for best effect (e.g. over the Arctic Ocean). In terms of pollution, HAAs have a range of possible chemicals, some very nasty but cheap, while cloud brightening uses only seawater and the natural salt therein to achieve its objective. In short, the well justified critiques of HAAs using sulphate aerosols are simply not applicable to Albedo Restoration as a whole.

To my mind the whole question of Geo-E turns around the issue of the need. At present, a few candid scientists are admitting that cutting emissions cannot be done quickly enough to avoid passing the (very complacent) 2.0C threshold of dangerous warming and climate destabilization. What is not yet being acknowledged is that we passed that point quite a while back. This is easily demonstrated by summing the warming to which we are committed.

We have around 0.6C of warming ‘in the pipeline’ (due to ocean thermal inertia) to add to the 0.8C realized, giving 1.4C. With success in agreeing a stringent climate treaty to end our GHG outputs by 2050, we should certainly add another 50 to 60ppm of CO2 to the atmosphere, adding another 0.7C, giving 2.1C. Yet in ending fossil fuel emissions, we also end our output of fossil sulphates and thus our maintenance of the cooling ”˜sulphate parasol’, which Hansen et al report will unveil an additional 80% to 140% of realized warming. Taking the median of that range, 110%, on top of 2.1C gives 4.41C of warming realized about 30 years after the end of GHG emissions due the timelag. Thus anthropogenic warming would stabilize by about 2080 at around 4.4C, if we agree and fulfil a stringent treaty to the letter.

Given the impacts of climate destabilization on global food production from just 0.8C of warming, some might well say that a 4.4C outcome of our best efforts at emissions control demands the R&D of both forms of Geo-E just ASAP. (to be ready for deployment when the treaty is agreed). Yet that 4.4C in 2080 excludes the critical danger of the interactive mega-feedbacks, of which at least six out of seven are observed to be already accelerating under just 0.8C, and several have the potential to dwarf anthro-emissions. Our best efforts would provide them with around seven decades (to 2080) of intensifying anthropogenic warming, let alone their own interactive warming effects during that period. Only Geo-E can halt their acceleration beyond the possibility of control.

From this perspective I’d call on the IPCC to acknowledge, and to formally advise the UNFCCC, that the latter’s formal mandate “of preventing dangerous climate change” can no longer be met by a treaty solely of emissions control, but that it must include the necessary and sufficient complements of both forms of Geo-E (to be developed under stringent UN supervision) to provide a response commensurate with the problem and thereby to meet the UNFCCC’s formal objective.

If anyone has any better suggestions for resolving the predicament we face, I’d be very glad to hear them.



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By SoCal SkyWatch (San Diego, CA 92101)
on September 13th, 2012

VIDEO” Scientist Alan Robock, Rutgers University, meets with protesters before his scheduled session, “Can Geoengineering Save Us from Global Warming? “. Protesters claim geoengineering is already taking place with chemical spraying (via persistant jet trails also known as “chemtrails”) while Mr. Robock argues they are confused with normal contrails that produce cirrus clouds.

Alan Robock is funded by the US National Science Foundation, to evaluate “the efficacy and possible consequences of proposals to reduce incoming solar radiation to counteract global warming by injecting aerosol particles into the stratosphere.” Recent papers describe climate model simulations and the benefits, risks, and costs of stratospheric geoengineering.

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on September 13th, 2012


I read your entire post.  I respectfully agree that our committed global warming (CGW) is probably in the region of 1.5C about now.  I also suspect that 1.5C is indeed probably as dangerous as more than 2 C was originally thought to be 20 years ago. I also agree that at 450 ppm CO2 the median of predictions ”“ at least that I have seen - suggests a CGW of 2C, and at the current rate of increase we’ll almost certainly get there in 20 years or so and probably sail right on by. I also agree that if the world magically ceases sulphur pollution etc, that more global warming will be unmasked ”“ although whether or not that will actually happen is somewhat less certain. So, sure. Overall, things look bad. 

However I cannot go along with your assertion that when things look as bad as they do now it is necessary to consider all measures. There has to be a sanity filter. The question then is just who among us can provide that filter and I cannot think of anyone. To my mind, when taken seriously, some of the geoengineering schemes ”“ not all but certainly the sulphur dioxide ”˜option’ as described in the article - reek of desperation. This is because in order to determine the true validity an experiment would have to be conducted on a sufficiently large and possibly global scale. First time experiments often fail. The downside risks are uncharacterized because there is no data.  Hence logically, in this example, proceeding with the sulphur gas G-E idea could potentially make a bad situation worse whoever was overseeing it.  BTW: I am also pretty sure that the fossil fuel industry and probably a lot of politicians view G-E ideas as a potential way of instead avoiding CO2 emissions reductions.But that’s another aspect to debate.

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By Gary Ong (colorado springs, co 80901)
on September 13th, 2012

The proposals that inject substances into sectors of the geosphere without confinment , without limited
durations are a type of approach that seems to be the geoengineering form.
Other proposals not intended to alter composition to atmosphere/geosphere matter would be another
format.  Field simulations of phenomena , common phenomena ,  control oriented experience go to another
status not that of geoengineering ?

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By Lewis Cleverdon
on September 13th, 2012

Dave - thanks for your response. To my mind the present time of consequences of our decadent conduct as a global society is exactly the time to consider all measures - and reject all but the best (which should warrant urgent research and evaluation) - and also to demand more options.

If, for instance, both afforestation for charcoal sequestration and cloud brightening should somehow prove to be non-starters, we’d be left with nothing at all palatable for either mode of Geo-E.

But the demand for more options should not be limited to Geo-E - on the contrary, we’ll need every scrap of innovation we can find across the board. One such example is cutting the lifespan of sustainable energy technology patents down to fifteen years - if the owner hasn’t got it into profitable market share in that time, and someone else thinks they can, they should be free to use that technology.

And I’d well agree that the effective governance of Geo-E as a protocol within the global climate treaty is the starting point for its rational deployment.



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By Brad Arnold (Mpls/MN/55416)
on September 14th, 2012

“Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them.”—Dr James Lovelock’s lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. ‘07

“The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.”—Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

BTW, mankind will be cutting their GHG emissions dramatically soon to save money big-time with the following clean and very cheap energy technology called LENR:

“A volume about the size of a #2 pencil eraser of water provides as much energy as two 48-gallon drums of gasoline. That is 355,000 times the amount of energy per volume ”“ five orders of magnitude.” ( ).

This phenomenon (LENR) has been confirmed in hundreds of published scientific papers:

“Over 2 decades with over 100 experiments worldwide indicate LENR is real, much greater than chemical…”—Dennis M. Bushnell, Chief Scientist, NASA Langley Research Center

“Total replacement of fossil fuels for everything but synthetic organic chemistry.”—Dr. Joseph M. Zawodny, NASA

By the way, here is a survey of all the companies that are bringing LENR to commercialization:

For those who still aren’t convinced, here is a paper I wrote that contains some pretty convincing evidence:

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By Dave (Basking Ridge, NJ 07920)
on September 14th, 2012

Indeed Lewis:  I guess we pretty much agree up to the nuanced concept of what we each mean by the word “consider”.  “Consider”ing in discussion is one thing. I’m all for that ”“ but it really doesn’t solve anything. In my world, “to consider” means that you actually explore a concept via an R&D project with the objective of developing data and an understanding sufficient to evaluate the feasibility of the objective.  With Geo-E and in the SO2 idea context that means putting together projects like SPICE as discussed in the article.  In that case, and to my point, the project leader himself, and to his credit, decided not to proceed:

“But a second reason, according to the project’s lead investigator, Matthew Watson, of the University of Bristol, was the fact that there’s no international agreement on whether, and under what circumstances, such experiments should happen. That being the case, he told Nature, it would be “somewhat premature” to go forward.”

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that fast acting Geo-E is potentially dangerous to even “consider” in this context.  When the scale of the objective of any research project extends to planetary engineering, then you have no moral alternative but to back off and call a time out as Wilson did. As one nice result of that, we are discussing this coolly and in the open instead of not knowing or worrying about the possible damage to the ozone layer or some other unintended and uncontrollable bad consequence. In this case and according to the above account, Wilson (at least partially) self-filtered his project. To me that speaks volumes. Thanks and take care.

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By Dane wigington (bella Vista Ca 96008)
on September 14th, 2012

All available data indicates that global geoengineering has been going on covertly for as much as 50 years. For any that choose to investigate, this fact should be clear. The global spraying would appear to be a horrific curse, not a cure. Decimated ozone layer, greatly diminished global rainfall, poisoned air, soils, and waters. No, geoengineering is not going to save us but is likely pushing us over the edge. More info can be found on “” or on the film “Why In The World Are They Spraying”

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By Richard Seyman (95616)
on September 15th, 2012

The geo-engineering needed is the “engineering of” a much more rational geo-politics, which has to start with politics WITHIN nations—especially the most powerful nations.  THAT is the THE HORSE.  Everything else is the “just” the cart.  If scientists don’t wake up to that reality and put THAT on their personal front burners, the probability of implementing ANY set of potentially effective engineered solutions to global climate change will remain VERY SMALL compared to the probability of failure, which will have a thousand powerful allies—from profit motives (e.g the patent dispute mentioned in the article was a tiny example) to religious fanatics to simple human error, indifference, and on and on.  No one can readily “engineer” politics.  And that is my point.  But even scientists and engineers CAN publicly participate in the work and struggle it takes to change politics and to give science and reality a stronger base within politics.  The very act of scientists and engineers stepping up and taking the personal risks of doing so has real potential to create a sea change in the political environment.  That is not a guarantee of success.  But without that the prospects for failure loom VERY large.

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By Susan (Santa Clara, CA 95050)
on September 24th, 2012

Unless the public is made aware of this in every community and discussed in depth, this would be a very extreme dangerous undertaking.  The masses must know the very real dangers of playing with our atmosphere, for doing this could cause catastrophic and irreversible damage to our planet.  Other things need to be investigated, for example, what are David Keith’s connections to the derivatives markets and big banks?  He went to Harvard, and he full well knows the Wall Street games that are played by manipulating our climate, for better or worse around the world.  No stones should be left unturned.  Already, we have noticed chem trails in our skies, confirmed by our weather man, and confirmed by air traffic controller friends.  These are different than the contrails we see from airliners.  Who is doing that?  This is alarming, and David Keith knows all about this.  So, everything should be investigated.  Power given to a few “mad scientists” could be disastrous in the end.  Damaging our soil, the water, and the air we breathe would be irreversible, if particulates are put into our atmosphere, especially the most dangerous of all, aluminum oxide.  This mustn’t be allowed.

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By Julia
on October 9th, 2012

Mustn’t be allowed? it is happening continually all over the world, causing heatwave, drought and flooding in various parts of the world, there are no more blue skies.  In West Yorkshire yesterday just before sunset the spray was so thick it was like fog, some of the trails were actually dark grey and so thick were making shadows on clouds below. A lot of this is about money and power, most people don’t know that gambling on the weather is a lucrative business, billions can be made by crops failing, when small farmers fail because their yield is low then big corporations offer to buy them out for a pittance, or they sell their land off for wind turbines (another white elephant).  People who cannot see what is happening before their eyes just don’t want to see, they want to trust that their government cares, well look what Western governments are doing in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Afghanistan, Libiya etc., and ask yourselves, who are the terrorists? No pilots are needed to do this, ever heard of drones.

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By Zach (New York)
on October 25th, 2012

This question shouldn’t pose a dilemma. I don’t see why these geoengineering schemes are even perceived as rational solutions. Geoengineering reflects a juvenile, magic-bullet, reductionist, gee-whiz mindset that is divorced from the reality of cause and effect. It offers what would most probably be ineffective, band-aid responses causing more harm than good. It does nothing to address the root causes of the crises the earth faces and is convenient for industry because it promises so-called solutions that allow mindless extraction, production, and consumption to go on as usual. Also, who decides geoengineering schemes get carried out? Shouldn’t ordinary citizens have a say in whether these enormous gambles should occur? We will surely all reap the negative effects of their unintended consequences.

The single largest producer of greenhouse gases is industrial agriculture. This, not to mention all of the other serious problems inherent in it, is reason to give its transformation high priority. We can sequester massive amounts of atmospheric carbon with carbon farming while also.
realizing multiple ecological and food security benefits. Our solutions are simple and easily attainable with current, proven technologies, but we also require an parallel end to things like gratuitous consumption and waste, and planned obsolescence.

We need a complete restructuring of the way we live on earth and a shift in our consciousness. Presently, we’ve been conditioned to take for granted our insane, suicidal culture. What good is some sun shield while we still create nuclear waste and toxic chemicals? It is our behavior, not lack of technological solutions that is the problem. We need to rework our economic system so that it reflects an accurate understanding of its relationship with the physical world. Science and technology must have an ethical framework that guides what is or isn’t appropriate to make or do. We need to stop mindless consumption and increase energy efficiency. We should look at low-tech, design-based, and biological (not biotech) solutions first. We have had the technology for many years to live ecologically and successfully on this planet. Let’s be honest, industry and consumer capitalism is what is destroying the world, technology having played a large role in this. Mindless techno-fixes won’t be our way out. Our crises are complex and require honest, wise and courageous responses. The real solutions necessary may seem daunting but perhaps we can apply that can-do attitude advanced in techno-optimism/utopianism and apply it to endeavors that make sense and are actually desperately needed. Let’s see science/tech geek out in understanding natural systems and processes, ecological/regenerative design, life cycle analysis, appropriate technology, ethics, etc. rather than be exploited in profit/industry driven schemes and rackets that do not address the common good.

In summary, geoengineering is akin to saying, “I will surgically attach an umbrella to my cranium so the sun doesn’t bother me when I smoke crack.” The problem is not the sun, it’s the crack.

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