Ethan Zuckerman: So, when take on issues of the scale of hacking the entire planet, we need a rather extraordinary moderator to take us through the conversation. We are lucky to have just such an extraordinary moderator. We have Stewart Brand, who is a fan of taking on problems of the whole earth, as one of the founders of the Whole Earth Catalogue, and a man who favors the long view with his work on the the Long Now Foundation. So, Stewart.
Stewart Brand: To segue between the previous panel and this one, the things that make people feel that some of this stuff should be forbidden or slowed or encourages suspicions, with the biotech stuff, my fellow environmentalists—I’m an ex-environmentalist at this point because of how far they’ve gone with what they call the the precautionary principle. And the precautionary principle was invoked to the point where if anybody can imagine anything that can go wrong with something that’s sort of new, just don’t do it. Which means that by the way not only don’t do it, don’t do research about, don’t talk about it, because terrible things might happen that would be irreversible.
Ryan [Phelan] mentioned the more recently-applied argument which is called “moral hazard”. Moral hazard has the pretty formal definition “lack of incentive to guard against risk where one is protected from its consequences.” The idea here being that if you talk about, research, or even think about applying geoengineering to climate change issues, you would be treating the symptoms of climate change, as one publication said, and thereby giving people permission to ignore the causes. One climate scientist in Germany said oh, “It’s like a junkie figuring out new ways to steal from his children.” And a very good book on all of this—there’s been now three books on geoengineering—a very good one is Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World.
A few years ago, when I was preparing this book Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary, I asked Al Gore about geoengineering. And he says, “Oh! Right, Stewart, let’s just experiment with the whole planet.” He has zero use so far for geoengineering. That may change. He she used to say the same about nuclear, but he’s come a little way toward nuclear on that.
Our two panelists (which should probably come up here at this point), David Keith and Gernot Wagner are the real substance of this and will be sure to be getting lots of discussion with you guys. David Keith will begin and what I think that David Keith has done that is unique is besides being a climate scientist here at Harvard focusing on these matters, he’s looked for what is a way to be really incremental, pragmatic, reversible, and less overwhelmingly scary. Because the way that geoengineering is often put is it’s a Damocles sword. We’ll do the whole planet and then we’re absolutely addicted to doing that forever. And meanwhile we’ll keep on burning all the coal that’s in the ground.
David’s got a better approach on that. Go ahead.
David Keith: Thank you. Solar geoengineering rests on a simple idea that it is technically possible to make the Earth a little more reflective so that it absorbs a little less sunlight, which would partly counteract some of the risks that come from accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When I say technically possible, it appears that at least doing this in a crude way is actually easy, in the sense that it could be done with commercial off-the-shelf technologies now, and it could be done at a cost that is really trivial, sort of a part in a thousand or a part in ten thousand of global GDP.
More surprisingly, there is real evidence that it could reduce many of the risks that people care about most. So, it’s almost axiomatic. It’s a fact of energy conservation, more or less, that if you warmed up the planet by adding carbon outside, you could bring the global average surface temperature back to something like say, pre-industrial, if that was our choice. That could be done for sure. And that’s not been really doubted. Reports back to the 1960s have talked about solar geoengineering and made it clear that that was possible.
What hasn’t been clear is the extent that it would deal with risks we care about. Extreme events like the big destructive storms that cause some of the most damage, heat waves, rising sea levels. And while we certainly don’t know very well how well it would work; while there are lots of risks that are unexplored partly because we have in a sense collectively decided we prefer ignorance—we have no real research programs; nevertheless in the last especially five years, this has been tackled by the state of the art climate models, by basic theory, by observational analogues. And there’s now a lot of evidence that solar geoengineering could on a region-by-region basis, if used appropriately, reduce many of these risks. Reduce intense storms, reduce peak temperatures, increase the productivity of crops worldwide.
The big question is how we might control it, how we might learn more about it. Now, I’m sure many of you are thinking why wouldn’t we just stop emitting carbon dioxide? So. Suppose we did. Suppose that tomorrow, we stopped. No cars, no airplanes, no power plants. Forget for a second the consequences of that for our civilization. Just suppose we did it. Would it get warmer, or would it get colder? That’s a test. Think about it for a second. I’m not going to ask for a show of hands. But what happens like, in the next few months or years?
It gets warmer. And the reason it gets warmer is that we are putting a lot of aerosols into the atmosphere now, not the carbon dioxide which in the long run is of course warming the planet, but we are putting aerosol pollution in the atmosphere now. Which kills three or six or so million people a year now. You know, it cuts several years off your life if you happen to be unfortunate enough to live in Beijing. But even here you know, I live a little less long because I moved here from Western Canada than I would have had I stayed there.
Those aerosols are cooling the planet. Now, they’re offsetting part of the warming tendency that’s there from the carbon dioxide; masking it. So if we just stopped now, it would get warmer, and it might get warmer for more than a century. We don’t know how much climate feedback there is. We don’t know how much the warming would trigger more carbon dioxide emissions over the century.
Solar geoengineering provides a thing that is different, that is complementary, to emissions reductions. In the long run, if we want a stable climate we must bring emissions to zero. Solar geoengineering doesn’t get us out of the need to bring emissions to zero, but it does a different thing. It partially, imperfectly, deals with the risks of the CO2 we have admitted in history. So unless you’ve got a time machine as an alternative, you need a way to deal with those emissions. And geoengineering is a way to do that. And so in that sense it is a compliment to cutting emissions. The two things can work together to provide much more ability to reduce climate risks than can be done with cutting emissions alone.
So there certainly are aspects of this that raise these questions about future behavior. And questions about whether we should tie our hands somehow to the mast with respect to future behavior. And there are questions about messing with nature.
Now, I want to end there. How should we think about whether this is somehow an outrageous manipulation of the natural world? There’s no simple answers, but let me just pose a question. Because you can look at this as somehow increasing the weight of human action on nature, the way we’re pushing the natural world, or decreasing it. So the case for increasing it is that obviously some global extra system we’ve added to try and deliberately control the planet is adding somehow to the complexity of the system, the complexity of the interactions between humans and their environment, and in some ways makes the whole world more of an artifact.
But it’s also true that one of the most basic measures of how much we are messing with the climate is what we in the climate science world call the radiative forcing, the measure of the kind of total force by which our accumulated greenhouse gases and the other things we’ve done to the climate are changing it.
And the fact is for any given amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, in say 2050, that atmosphere with also a little bit of solar geoengineering has less radiative forcing. And so in some basic measure, we’re actually doing less to alter the climate than we would have done if we hadn’t done solar geoengineering.
And I think that really is the core question about how to think about the tradeoff between how we mess with nature. There’s no way that we can avoid the fact we are doing it. The question is whether we do it deliberately, with intention, in a way that is democratic and open.
Brand: David, would you introduce your colleague Gernot?
Keith: I’d love to. Gernot Wagner has joined our effort at Harvard to build a really significant geoengineering research program that would be covering things from science and technology right through to public policy. He spent six or eight years rising as one of the young stars in environmental defense, and has come here to help build a new program with what we hope will be global reach. And [inaudible] say, he’s an economist.
Gernot Wagner: I am an economist—
Keith: You can still listen to him.
Wagner: Thanks David and Stewart. So, science is one thing, and it’s amazing. Now, so often of course, this is going to stand or fall not just by virtue of the science but of the social science. Social context, governance, everything around it. And as an environmentalist who carries around the reusable water bottle (I would never touch the other one here)— Full disclosure, I’m a vegetarian, all the rest of that. But of course first of all, none of that makes a difference. Of course we know that. And we do know that we must cut emissions. Yes, we do, right?
But then there is this thing out they are called moral hazard. What if thinking, talking, about solar geoengineering gives us license to pollute? That would be bad. Now, forget about climate for a moment. Think about statins. Lipitor. If you’re a man of a certain age, certain girth, you’re supposed to pop a pill of Lipitor everyday. Now, here’s the problem. If you’re a physician, and you have someone walk into your office with high cholesterol, you know that person needs to diet and exercise. That’s a given. Chance is pretty good he hasn’t been dieting or exercising, otherwise he wouldn’t be there. So, what does the introduction of that pill do to that person?
Well, one story is, rationally ([points at self] homo economicus; economist) rationally we should all be exercising let’s say thirty minutes a day. Now you get the pill. Rationally, now you should be exercising twenty-nine and a half minutes a day. Turns out no one is actually all that rational, right? So, people—you know, the nut cases, that exercise ninety minutes a day. [waits for show of hands] Or zero, plus/minus ten minutes. [waits for show of hands]
So, the ones who do ninety, presumably you’ll keep exercising. It floats your boat. Maybe literally if you’re sailing out there for exercise. The ones who do zero, well, if you tell them now about Lipitor, one reaction is moral hazard. Which is to say right, “I was exercising zero plus/minus ten, now I’m doing even less. I’m eating the doughnut and the bacon and whatever else,” right. Another reaction is to say, “Holy shit, I need to take a pill to stay alive? Maybe I should be taking the stairs more often.
Back to climate. Very early evidence—I’ve now been with David for six months—so very very early evidence on this, and actually not from us. Someone else who just published a study month or so ago. When you tell people about solar geoengineering, are they more or less likely now to vote for what is actually necessary to cut emissions? Carbon tax, price on carbon. If it’s moral hazard, less likely. If it’s “anti”-moral hazard, more likely. Turns out what happens to dominate is the, “Holy shit. Serious people are talking about what? Maybe there’s something to this climate problem after all.”
Brand: So let me you ask you guys about sort of the current state of play. When I did this book back in 2009. Ken Caldeira said there’s been no public funding for this at all. Everybody’s doing it kind of as a hobby on their own time in their own backyard, and that was that. And earlier than that, I remember Jesse Ausubel came out with the a paper around 2000 talking about adaptation. And he was punished severely for talking about adaptation when everybody knows what you’ve got to do is eliminate these greenhouse gases, and if you even talk about adaptation that people will relax and that’s terrible. And he got a professional hit, just for saying out loud that you could think about that, and do that, and do research on it.
But here we are, 2016. We’re over what, 450 parts per million. It’s moving right along. Are we moving right along? Is there money for researching geoengineering now?
Keith: It is stunning. In a nation that [has] in many ways led the world in open scientific research, we have really nothing in the way of organized research. And that’s despite the fact that the National Academy discussed and recommended some research in its 1982 report. Also formally in detail in a report on solar geoengineering last year, even saying that—actually, now it’s the year before last—even saying that field experiments might make sense.
I personally got involved in this first around ’89 or something, when I was a grad student here at MIT. I think I first got to speak to an academy committee sometime in the late 90s on a very hot day in DC. And people never really argue back. I mean well, some do. But in general, the kind of elite opinion is, “Oh yes, it would make sense to know more about this, but somehow we just can’t.” And incredibly, that’s still true.
So at this point there is a formal Chinese research program. There are several research programs in Europe. Now, there’s lots of people in North America doing research. We are and others by diverting money, or by philanthropic money. But we need a serious, open, international, no-nonsense research program, and we don’t have one. And that is in my view a kind of political cowardice.
Brand: So, are we talking about— What kind of research— You know, are the Chinese and others doing? Are they scurrying around with climate models, or what?
Keith: So far, almost all climate models. There’s talk about doing field experiments, but almost nothing is happening. Our group and a few others at University of Washington and a few other places have sort of been leading in thinking about how we could do very small outdoor experiments. Not terms that would alter the climate. Experiments that would help us understand some of the key processes, so we’d better be able to judge the risks and efficacy.
But at this point I’d say it’s almost all climate modeling, or actually social science. So, in this case, because this is such a polarizing topic— (With good reason.) In fact, there’s evidence that there’s been more social science and governance papers published by some margin than there has been science. And we go to meetings and we mostly talk about whether it’s okay to talk about it not actually talking about it.
Brand: Gernot, are there economic models being explored in relation to all this?
Wagner: Oh, in some sense too many. There’s too much of that going on. But just maybe two quick points. One, just to be clear when we say small-scale experiment. Sort of the most ambitious experiments in a sense, are talking about emitting as much sulfates as one commercial airline does in one minute of flight. And there’s what, thirty thousand up there right now? These are tiny, tiny experiments. Yes, they are outdoor, but still, they are not going to do anything to the plant.
Now, a second bit is actually—and this is now over the last year, too, a very recent development. It is in fact a couple major environmental groups. So, EDF, where I was until six months ago. NRDC, the Natural Resource Defense Counsel, are the two most prominent ones that have in fact come out in favor of small-scale, careful, outdoor research on the topic.
Brand: Is that a flip for them? Did they used to forbid it?
Wagner: Not a flip— I mean, it’s the first time they’re coming out, right. It was always sort of EDF’s position on nuclear, for example, doesn’t exist; that there is none. Price CO2 and get out of the way, right. On solar geoengineering, very similar. In some sense, there was no formal position at all. But now in fact they are coming out in favor.
Brand: So, David describe the kind experiment you’d like to see done on the whole planet.
Keith: Well, in the short term, no experiments on the whole planet. But I think what we’d like to do, what we’re trying to drive, is a real research effort that you know, within a decade or so delivers in an open way, to some level to the world, really deep knowledge about how this might be done in a technical sense. How you’d monitor it. What are the most likely failure modes? How you would test those failure modes. And some ideas about how we govern this thing.
So in terms of individual experiments we’re thinking about? So, we’ve worked mostly into the technical work on stratospheric aerosols. There are plenty of other ideas, but that’s the one we work on. And the main idea forever has been the idea you could put sulfuric acid in the stratosphere because we know volcanoes do it, and we know that it cools the planet. It doesn’t have huge side-effects. But there’s lots of ideas for things beyond sulfates. We’ve been thinking actually about bases; calcium carbonate, limestone. Which actually turns out to be better optical properties than sulfates. And it also looks like it would restore the ozone layer. So actually, instead of damaging the ozone layer further, it would actually slightly restore it, counteracting some of the destruction of the ozone layer that comes from chlorofluorocarbons, chlorine compounds that we admitted over over the industrial era.
Brand: So instead of sulfate particles, it’s what that you want—
Keith: We’ve looked at calcium carbonate. We also looked at diamond and so on. But to give you a sense of what these experiments would be, they’d be be below—
Wagner: Diamond dust.
Brand: That sounds like an expensive program.
Keith: Well, you can— Before we published that paper, I actually took the time to go to a deep source, alibaba.com, and you can actually get LPCVBD, low-pressure chemical vapor deposition bulk diamonds, or silicon carbide for about a hundred bucks or so a kilo. And actually do the math, that turns out to be affordable, even at that price, for solar geo. But if you talk a little bit to the vendors, I don’t think there’s anything that hard about making them at that scale. Making big gem-quality diamonds is hard. But making half-micron diamonds is not that hard.
Brand: So say more about basically the chemistry that’s supposed to happen in the stratosphere between the carbonate, the sulfate, and the diamond.
Keith: So, it turns out— Well no, I think those are different ideas. But what we’ve started to do is think a lot about the ways that the existing ideas have weaknesses. Which are many. So, what’s bad about sulfates? Well, sulfates are bad because they absorb light, and they warm the lower stratosphere, and that house all sorts of problems. Actually letting more water vapor in, which counteracts the effect and has other bad implications.
Brand: And this is what Pinatubo and other volcanoes do normally. They put up tens of tons of sulfate into the stratosphere and do what they do.
Keith: So that’s what we know nature does. So, a big volcano will put millions of tons of sulfur compounds in the stratosphere. They last for a couple years. And we’ve seen the cooling. We know that it will cool the planet. But we also know that it can damage the ozone layer, actually, by making the chlorine we put their more active. And so we’ve been thinking about ways that we could counteract that.
But in the end, all of this is talk until we do a real experiments. So we are, are our lab, we actually have now a lab experiment looking at some of the key chemical interactions. Because computer models are great, but the computer models depend on actual knowledge of chemistry we don’t have well enough. But to give you a sense of what the flight experiments we’d like to do would be, these would be very much like what our group has done before as normal science. They be be small balloon-board field experiments would be up in the stratosphere for a day or two, with a balloon and a bunch of scientific instruments, and you’d release sort of that much [indicates his fist] of some compound, and then look at what it did in a little puff or cloud in the stratosphere.
So, what I think we need is a whole set of those, as well as development of a broad set of engineering technologies, in a kind of systems engineering sense, to build up the capacity to do this and to monitor and verify it. That really is the kind of capacity we need to, I think, deliver to the world. Which doesn’t say it should be done. It says there’s enough evidence that this might be useful that we need to seriously develop the knowledge of how to do it, so we can better make good informed decisions.
Brand: When you talk about the system engineering, you’re engineering a system that is not fully understood in terms of its complexity and all the rest of it. Is that the responsible thing to do?
Keith: Well, we are committed to that. So, with what we’re doing with carbon dioxide and the existing aerosols, we are manipulating a system we don’t fully understand. There’s no way out of that, save the time machine.
I think the question is how we go about doing that. How we do it in a way that couples human governance with some level of planetary management. But I don’t really see there is an alternative where we’re not altering the system.
Wagner: Just to add a little bit of economics to this, right. So, in many ways it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. And of course if it’s a question of when, then it’s a question of how intelligently are we going to do this. Now, what I mean when I say this is, the most expensive thing of course is not mitigating climate change, right. That costs us trillions of dollars. Mitigating climate change, cutting CO2, is much much cheaper than not acting. But of course, it’s in fact expensive. It’s also in the trillion dollar category.
Keith: Per year.
Wagner: Per year, yes. Now, we’re talking about research now, which of course is right in the tens of millions of dollars. But even at full-scale deployment, solar geoengineering would be around single-digit billions of dollars per year. Now, that’s not—
Brand: To accomplish what level of cooling?
Keith: To stop the warming. And I think the concern is that this isn’t people— You may think this is a thing that big countries like the US do. But as Oliver Morton’s book and others play at, the people most affected by climate change are many of the tropical countries that feel the heat the most. And any of those countries or a coalition have the technical capability and money to do this. And the pressure to do it will be large. And the moral pressure to actually protect real humans whose lives are in danger will and should be large. And so, part of what you could look at— what I think not just our group but the larger research community is doing is giving people more knowledge.
Brand: Well, it sounds like part of the moral hazard here is that for a billion dollars, a couple billion dollars per year, we can offset what is costing hundreds of billions of dollars to do in the world’s economy in terms of mitigation of greenhouse gases. Well, that’s a pretty easy economic decision to make, right?
Keith: Well… But, you can’t get out of the moral hazard. You define moral hazard (which is the right definition) as if you don’t feel the risk consequences of your actions. So, that’s exactly the problem with CO2 emissions. Because CO2 emissions build up very slowly over time, that the moral hazard is absolutely central to this, but it’s actually about CO2 emissions.
So, part of a way to think about the reason that we’re not cutting CO2 emissions is that unlike local air pollution, where we actually have made lots of progress— The US Clean Air Act will add about a year and a half to the life of average Americans, and it cost close to 1% of GDP at peak. So, we have made progress cutting local pollution, and that’s because the generation, the people, who spent the money to cut pollution got the benefits. But for CO2 emissions, most of the risks are far in the future, and that’s the moral hazard, is the simple thing to do is just keep putting CO2 in the air.
Brand: So you’ve also got a slow versus fast thing, in the sense that if you start doing solar radiation management using something the stratosphere, you can get a pretty immediate response. And all this mitigation stuff has huge delays of actually getting it to happen, and the CO2 is still up there being a problem. This isn’t just money we’re talking about, this is political time.
Wagner: Solar geoengineering works on political cycles. You can actually see the benefit if you pull the trigger now, before you need to get reelected, right? You see effects. Which you don’t do with CO2 emissions.
Brand: “We fixed climate change on our watch!” Yeah, I can see this right now.
Wagner: New RNC platform, right?
Keith: I think the key question is how the two things are coupled.
Brand: Good. Say more.
Keith: And I think central political challenge is how to couple efforts to cut CO2 emissions, which after all are still pretty weak, with control of what’s done about solar geoengineering. And there are lots of ideas about this. Ideas that range from formal coalitions of states in a kind of club system where the states that are making decisions about solar geo, to get access to that “club,” you have to agree to be doing something about cutting emissions. There are more distributed ideas. But I think the interaction those two things is the key.
But what I would urge, and it picks up directly on what Gernot said, this evidence about people’s reaction to Lipitor, what I would urge is us not to assume that that natural answer is that the presence of the possibility of solar geoengineering means we do less to cut CO2 emissions. That is by no means clear. There are versions of the world that go both ways. And what we need to do is to do the best we can to tip it to a world where the presence of solar geo means that we both get the benefits of reduced risk from solar geo, and do more to cut CO2 emissions.
Brand: So, is this still a hobby? Are people still doing this out of money in their back pocket? Is this a sideline for you guys?
Keith: For us, no. I mean, I had done this on and off. When I say I did it back to the late eighties, that was a hobby. But, in the last few years, I have, and it’s part of what brought Gernot here, we’re a big group of us at Harvard, very much not just me.
Brand: How big?
Keith: Eight or ten professors. We’ve now got fundraisers to pay attention to us, and we’re trying to raise philanthropic money. They’ve built a real significant center. So that’s my entire effort. I Kind of put all my chips in the middle of the table to do that.
Brand: So there’s couple of tens of millions that have come into this kind of research?
Keith: No, that’s where we want to get to.
Brand: A couple of millions that’ve come into this research so far. From what kind of sources?
Keith: So, for us Bill Gates has been a supporter for a long time, but he’s very clear that he doesn’t want the perception or reality of a single person controlling that much. So he’ll match a significant amount of money, but most of the money needs to come from other donors. We’ve got some other prominent environmental donors now to step up. And I think there’s reason to believe we’re going to get there. But we’re not…we’re not there yet.
Brand: How about China? Is that a government program?
Brand: Say more about what you know about that.
Keith: We know actually quite a lot. The guy who runs the program, which is visiting us— We’re in the middle of a two-week residency where we bring a bunch of people in. Young researchers and more experienced ones on on solar geoengineering to our program at Harvard. So, John Moore, who’s not a Chinese national but he’s lived there eight years or so, and he’s married and sort of established in China, he runs the program. I think it’s pretty open. He said there was very little pushback when he sort of finally got through the Chinese Academy of Sciences process. It’s a program that looks broadly at the using climate models to understand the effectiveness and risks of solar geoengineering with a special focus on ice sheets, on whether or not it could be used successfully to reduce sea level rise.
Brand: We’ll go to questions from the room pretty shortly. So far we’ve just talked about one whole vector of geoengineering, which is solar radiation management. But then there’s also good old carbon dioxide, the removal or reduction. What’s going on in that? Because that seems to be sort of, well great, it means you get the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere; air capture or whatever the hell. Grow more forests. Everybody loves that, right? Or is there some forbiddenness about carbon reduction?
Keith: For both of them, there’s a moral hazard. So, you talked… Sorry, your wonderful spouse talked about the fact that the “extinction is forever” mantra is really important in the environmental community. It’s a way to motivate environmental action. And so there are concerns about changing the reality on the ground, if we admit that extinction isn’t forever. And the same way, the efforts to cut CO2 emissions have been significantly built around the idea of what’s often called “committed warming,” the idea that it’s a one-way valve when we put CO2 in the air. And so, both carbon removal technologies and solar geoengineering are ways that we partly break that one-way valve. They imperfectly allow us to go back in time. And I think you get some of the precise same concern.
Wagner: Just to be clear, CO2 removal very much looks and feels still like mitigation, right. It’s about CO2. And of course we have to cut CO2. But of course what that also means is it’s also as expensive. Maybe even more expensive than putting a solar panel on your roof. So in other words, the… (economist) the free rider effects led us into this problem in the first place. It is and no one’s self-interest to be doing enough to decrease, nor could we even if we wanted to.
Well, for solar geoengineering, not for carbon geoengineering. For solar geoengineering, it’s the free driver effect, right. It’s so cheap that one country could in fact go ahead.
Keith: I should say markets play in fundamentally different ways. I actually founded a start up, Carbon Engineering, that’s involved in developing direct capture of CO2 from air. And for a tiny, crazy startup that’s gone pretty well. We sort of go to $30 million or so of committed spending. We built real hardware. But in that case, it’s much less controversial because we’re just trying to make ultra low carbon fuels from solar power, and there are markets in the sense of like the California low carbon fuel standard market.
So it looks much more like, from the point of view of us in that company (I’m right sort of 20% time in that company), we’re not trying to engineer the planet, we’re trying to find better ways to cut emissions that we compete with biofuels and electric vehicles.
Brand: And do you have competition?
Keith: Yeah. There’s a company in Switzerland called Climeworks that is sort of similar scale to us. We’ve both done kind of ton-a-day prototypes. We’ve both got kinda twenty engineers.
Brand: So these are commercial operations that will get paid basically for the valuable CO2 that you provide, or the valuable reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that you provide.
Keith: Yup. So, Climeworks has been focusing on greenhouse markets first of all, because you have to take the CO2 out of the air to do greenhouses. We’ve been focusing on what’s called air-to-fuels, the idea that solar power’s got really cheap, but solar power doesn’t make airplanes go. And so one of the pathways is you take solar power to make hydrogen. You go CO2 from the air. Hydrogen plus CO2 to fuels that you could make as hydrocarbons that were truly carbon-neutral without a big land footprint, say for aircraft.
So we’re not actually, in the net, taking carbon out of the air. We’re just competing with biofuels. We use less land.
Brand: How valuable is CO2 for greenhouse gases and putting in your soda and stuff like that?
Keith: Trucking CO2 is about a hundred and fifty bucks a ton most places.
Brand: And is sequestering CO2 geologically or in other modes looking realistic or not?
Keith: It’s certainly realistic. About fifty million tons a year of CO2 has been underground for enhanced oil recovery, and a very high fraction of that, maybe 99.99% of it stays for thousand-year time scales. So that’s certainly technically possible. There have been some big CO2 disposal efforts, and none of them have had any real problems.
But it’s that clear that people don’t like it much. And it’s also clear that in electric power, where a lot of that was focused, the dynamics of solar power getting cheaper have really changed it. So it doesn’t look as important as it did before that the big drop in the price of solar PV.
Brand: How about the natural processes of fixing carbon. Forests, and the stuff that goes on in the oceans, and all of that. What’s the sort of state of play of understanding and potential encouragement of those processes?
Keith: Complicated, but I’d say there’s a way in which those fundamentally don’t do the same job. So, at some level the climate problem is caused by moving carbon from the geosphere where it’s been for tens of millions of years into the active biosphere, where then the carbon can move back and forth between atmosphere and land and ocean. And if what we do to deal with a carbon problem is take carbon out of the air and build it up in the land, in forests, or wood, that’s a bit like building a big stock of wood that could burn. And doing it in a place (I’m trying to get the analogy right) where there’s fires.
And that’s kind of literally true. So, if we actually manipulate the land biosphere to get that much new carbon in it, we don’t deal with the kind of millennial-scale climate problem. Because carbon moves in and out of the biosphere often on scales of well, in a forest fire, hours. And naturally typically decades. And so if you build up all that carbon, and then you have a warming world, the carbon wants to come out. So, I think those things can be useful, but in some sense it’s a different category of thing.
Brand: How about the oceans? There’s talk about adding iron dust to the oceans and being able to fix that, and it goes down the abyssal plain and stays there forever. How about that?
Keith: Short answer is no. And actually known for a long time. So, ocean geochemical modeling back to the early 90s showed pretty clearly that even if you remove the iron limitation on the entire ocean, which would mean manipulating the entire ocean biosphere, you maybe get one gigaton, or a half gigaton carbon a year of export to the deep? Which is like 10% of current emissions. And at some basic level, why would anybody think that to cut emissions by 10% net, you manipulate the whole whole ocean. It’s just not…serious.
Brand: Okay. First question here.
Audience 1: So, we talked a lot about temperature, and we’re talking about climate change. It’s kind of a nice single number that we can point out and talk about. And it seems like the geoengineering is largely, like a lot of the rhetoric around it is focused on reducing the temperature. I’m wondering how well we know that there’s kind of a causal relationship that reducing temperature will kind of undo some of the effects of climate change that we care about, or whether it’s kind of like an easy to measure proxy.
Keith: Which effect are you particular thinking about?
Audience 1: I guess a lot of the…like, the rising sea levels, weather, extreme weather events. I don’t know.
Keith: So, the answer is we don’t just think about temperature. Part of what I said in the intro is that in fact global temperature is too easy. It’s sort of irrelevant. So, it’s certain— in a sense geoengineering is perfect for global temperature, but that’s a trick. So the question is exactly what you said. How well it actually works for extreme precipitation events, extreme temperature events. The things that actually drive a lot of the human impact. Crops, and sea level. And because there isn’t a serious research program, we don’t know as well as we should.
But the early evidence is actually pretty promising. So it looks like in fact for extreme precipitation events, it’s relatively more effective (small amounts of solar geoengineering) than it is for temperature, in a way. And in fact there’s a recent article we’re trying to get a New York Times op-ed in that pointed out that hurricanes are being suppressed now because of the aerosol pollution, because they’re particularly sensitive to that. And so that’s an example of an extreme event. So, short answer is you’re asking the right question.
For ice sheets, the uncertainty is deep. So if you go down to the West Antarctic— And indeed, those pictures up weren’t just stock photos. One of them was taken for me in a kayak in the West Antarctic. And the question is, will we trigger the West Antarctic ice sheet collapse, or have we already done that, which is actually in the realm of possibility. And the question of the extent to which solar geoengineering could counter that, I think is a research question. We just don’t know very well.
Brand: This [dimming?] question is pretty interesting to me, because presumably China is in the process of cleaning up its air enough so that people can breathe in Beijing and so on. And the numbers I got a while back [were] that basically coal burning and whatnot is putting up about a hundred million tons of the stuff into the lower atmosphere, which is keeping the planet maybe two or three degrees Celsius cooler. And if that keeps clearing— I mean, this… Paul Crutzen started talking seriously about geoengineering when he looked at that very issue back in 2006. So, how severe is that change, and how rapidly is it coming? And should we stop cleaning up the air because of all these problems that will come with it?
Keith: So, in that— [to Wagner:] Why don’t you go for it?
Wagner: No, we should not stop doing it.
Brand: Oh, okay. [writing in notebook] “No…”
Wagner: Europe, 70s, right? Acid rain, enormous problems from sulfates in the troposphere, the lower atmosphere, started cleaning up in a serious way, as did the US right around then. And in the 1990s with the Clean Air Act amendments and cap and trade for sulfur dioxide. Now for Europe itself, just Europe alone, decreasing tropospheric aerosol pollution has likely increased temperatures in the Arctic by half a degree Centigrade. Almost a degree Fahrenheit. So that’s the real tradeoff, right. So, should we in fact be… Should we not stop killing people? Well, of course we should— Sorry, that’s a double negative. Should we stop killing people? Yes, we should do that.
But, then there is the tradeoff, right? Tropospheric aerosol versus stratospheric aerosol injection, where latest calculations are a fiftieth of the amount that is necessary—
Keith: Yeah. It’s actually really fifty times twenty-six. It’s an even bigger number, because for every ton of sulfur we put in the lower atmosphere, putting a ton of sulfur in the stratosphere is about twenty-six times less health impact. And you need fifty times less sulfur to get the same radiative effect.
Brand: So change is clearly underway anyway and what we’re trying about is how we’re responding to these changes that are occurring. I think there’s a question over here.
Audience 2: So, in the last panel there was lot of talk in kind of the ethics of deploying these sciences in the actual field and like, getting consent from people and how do you go about getting that consent. So I’m wondering, in this case, where you have a full-scale global deployment where it’s no longer an island of a hundred people. It’s literally everyone in the entirety of nature. How do you go about getting consent to actually go about one of these things if you want to, and if something went wrong who would be at fault here? Who would you blame?
Keith: So, I think it’s…that that’s the big question. I think it’s both harder and easier. Let me first say why it is easier, because there are some ways in which there’s… Wonderful to have both panels back to back, and we actually had a geoengineering governance meeting at Asilomar deliberately echoing the old Asilomar meeting on recombinant DNA.
Brand: With way much less productivity—
Keith: Yeah yeah, no kidding. But there’s one way that they’re really different. And this is a bit of a glib phrase, but I like to say it. Sulfur doesn’t have sex. So, if you do a tiny thing like an experiment, a field experiment, or you did a tiny test deployment of sulfur in the stratosphere, it is certain that if you stop putting sulfur in the stratosphere, after year or two you’re back where you started. That’s really different. We can argue about how much, but there is at least some risk that laboratory or tiny field experiments with genetically-modified organisms could have global implications. I’d say there’s no equivalent risk for solar geo. There’s no way, because none of these things self-reproduce. They don’t have sex. There’s no way that some tiny little laboratory thing has a global implication—
Well, except one, I suppose, which is the idea. So, except for this moral hazard, the fact that the very idea that it’s possible might change behavior. Yes, that’s true. But then so is speech.
Brand: Gernot, what do you got on this?
Keith: But. Just one—
Keith: On the other side, how we actually make a global decision like this is in some ways unprecedented, and I think the answer is we’re making it up as we go along. It’s a deep question.
Brand: Gernot, how do you handle the global consensus question?
Wagner: So, one way it has been handled in a different realm, where frankly there is no global government, right. We know that, for none of these global problems. For oceans, there’s the World Ocean Commission. Ex-politicians, fifteen or so wise men and women. Now, they don’t have any—this is not the world government here. They don’t have any power. It’s a talking shop, if you will. But it is a place to give guidance. I mean frankly, step one in some sense is if it comes to deciding where to set the knob, take that decision away from the scientists.
Wagner: So, the science can provide the technology. It’s everybody else—literally everybody else—who needs to be there when the decision is being made where it to turn the knob. And just to be completely clear about what we are trying to do, we’re not trying to deploy this. We’re to research it. We are trying to find a way to figure out if the benefits to cost—since the benefits to costs turn out to be sort of in the realm of vaccinations, sort of a thousand to one. Well, maybe we should be looking at this. Maybe there are real benefits there, given that what we know at the moment there are real benefits there, well maybe we should be looking [at] even eventually deploying this kind of technology if the benefits outweigh the costs to the tune of a thousand to one.
Brand: Is there a reason to think that the sort of major greenhouse gas emitters; Europe, North America, China, and South Asia, might themselves come to, among themselves, some agreement that they are the major causes, they have major responsibility, and that agreement among them—which you’ve already got pieces of in relation to climate diplomacy already, that they could in cahoots basically set something like this going at scale? With the full knowledge and compliance of others, but that they’re taking the responsibly of making it happen.
Keith: Certainly it could happen. I think the conventional view is that it’s the big countries that drive it. And at some level, if the big countries really don’t want something to happen, they have ways to do that. But I think this is in all technology, because there’s nothing actually technically that hard about it. Because it’s cheap, it’s really unclear where the leadership in deployment might come from. And it might well be countries that see the biggest risk.
So, in our group and other groups, we’ve begun to engage. So we had a wonderful student who works now at Harvard’s Center for International Development who around the Philippines talking to both lay people and professionals in the Philippians, giving them a pretty negative, actually, initial video about solar geoengineering and asking them what they want to do. And the result is, they’re so eager to engage they may end up paying us money to engage. So it really is different.
And likewise, somebody in the last day was telling a story about interacting with people in the Sahel region, who have such concerns about climate variability, if they hear there are ways to manage that, they are deeply interested. So it’s very unclear what shapes the politics of this. And it may not be what you expect.
Brand: So, is it…hm. There used to be great fears that there would be unilateral geoengineering. So, China suddenly decides to geoengineer, and those of us living downwind across the Pacific decide that’s an act of war, and bad things happen. What’s the state of worry about unilateral geoengineering?
Keith: I think it’s still there. I think there is an underlying ability and tendency to unilateralism. But on the flipside, this is a world where power is diffusing. States in many respects have less power they did have a century ago. And I think real out and out unilateral action seems to me an unlikely thing. I think more of coalitions, and don’t forget the role of of civil society. States are not the only actor here. There are lots of ways in which non-governmental organizations, or things like a global ocean commission, which is partly established by NGOs, can shape what happens. We’re not living in the 50s anymore. It’s not all simply what states do.
Brand: So, can some of the research with the actual atmospheric experiments be done unilaterally? Can you guys go up basically—
Brand: —over North America with planes, put stuff in the stratosphere and see what happens?
Keith: Yup, for sure.
Wagner: So, it’s just not planes, right. It’s balloons, to draw a line between real line between deployment and—
Keith: And I mean, a flipside is if we get really extreme restrictions on research, which haven’t happened but might happen, will you see kind of civil disobedience? So, there are wonderful videos all over the Internet of sometimes just parents and children who’ve got a look with their own technology and hands and money, at the blackness of space, and the curve arc of sky. This amazing thing that most of us never see. And you can do with a weather balloon and an iPhone. And it’s really small technology.
So it’s not that expensive to get to the stratosphere. A thousand bucks. And could imagine if there really are restrictions that say no experiments ever, people will do stunts, art stunts, as a way to show how odd a restriction that would be, because it would be restriction on intention, not on action.
Brand: There you go. We are at the end of this hour. Thank you very much. Thanks for fixing the climate for us. This is going to be a great relief in this century, to solve climate change. But it’ll take a century, won’t it?
Keith: Thanks for leading the way in thinking about it.
Brand: Alright. Thank you.
Session liveblog by Willow Brugh et al.