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Eli Kintisch - Is Planet-Hacking Inevitable?
Posted: 09 April 2010 10:05 AM   [ Ignore ]
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For two decades now, we’ve failed to seriously address climate change. So the planet just keeps warming—and it could get very bad. Picture major droughts, calving of gigantic ice sheets, increasingly dramatic sea level rise, and much more.

Against this backdrop, the idea of a technological fix to solve the problem—like seeding the stratosphere with reflective sulfur particles, so as to reduce sunlight—starts to sound pretty attractive. Interest in so-called “geoengineering” is growing, and so is media attention to the idea. There are even conspiracy theorists who think a secret government plan to geoengineer the planet is already afoot.

Leading scientists, meanwhile, have begun to seriously study our geoengineering options—not necessarily because they want to, but because they fear there may be no other choice.

This week’s Point of Inquiry guest, Eli Kintisch, has followed these scientists’ endeavors—and their ethical quandaries—like perhaps no other journalist. He has broken stories about Bill Gates’ funding of geoengineering research, DARPA’s exploration of the idea, and recently attended the historic scientific meeting in Asilomar, California, where researchers gathered to discuss how to establish guidelines for geoengineering research.

And now, the full story is related in Kintisch’s new book Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe.

Eli Kintisch is a staff writer for Science magazine, and has also written for Slate, Discover, Technology Review, and The New Republic. He has worked as a Washington correspondent for the Forward and a science reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. In 2005 he won the Space Journalism prize for a series of articles on private spaceflight. He lives in Washington, D.C.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/eli_kintisch_is_planet-hacking_inevitable/

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Posted: 10 April 2010 06:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I listened to the podcast yesterday. I was prepared to jump on Kintisch for ignoring the underlying problem while proposing a “feel-good” solution. I’ll have to listen to the podcast again and take notes to get the quotes right, but fairly early in he said geoengineering to remove greenhouse gases would address the cause of the problem. I slapped my head at this point and said to myself “He doesn’t get it. Emissions are not the cause, using fossil fuels is the cause.” Then later on Kintisch said we should never consider geoengineering unless we reduce our dependence of fossil fuels first.

Yes! He gets it.

Very fine podcast. Balanced and informative. Thanks Chris.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 09:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Well done interview.
Chris Mooney has a lot more info and links on his blog; here using the tag eli-kintisch
http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/intersection/tag/eli-kintisch/
I’ll put a separate link to the Wired article {with “hacked” in the title it’s a natural..}
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/03/hack-the-planet-excerpt/#more-19685
Or a 2009 article in Atlantic
http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/07/re-engineering-the-earth/7552/


Thanks again the enormous amount of pre-work you have put into this to pull the topic into something coherent and understandable.

Here are some ideas that came to me while listening:
1. Chris starts off the interview asking about the most promising approaches—does Kintisch rank these in his book—it seems like there are multiple criteria and some tradeoffs (like cost, immediate impact, “risk”, ability to reverse if necessary, etc.).  For example the first item was plant-more-trees—what are the downsides of this compared to other approaches.  Is the “Pinatubo” option one which is attractive because the effect falls off gradually unless we keep putting particles up in the stratosphere, so it is not risky compared to something we can’t stop.
2. We’ve discussed on the forums that global warming is really a by-product of the human population going from 1-2-4-8+ billion people—of population, “pollution”, and “geo-engineerig”,  do we have to do something in all areas, especially if we can only slow population and pollution and not reverse them.
3.  It was interesting to hear the conspiracy theories relating to geoengineering. This conspiracy stuff adds so much noise to the discussion that when there IS a conspiracy we can’t be sure…  .This is a good example of the generalization of [ Poe’s Law]
4. Thanks to Mooney & Kintisch for bringing up the topic of [ “Superfreakonomics authors wrong on geo-engineering”]—- I had missed this discussion, got the book for Xmas presents, but hadn’t read it myself.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Hi folks:

Thanks for the interesting in geoengineering and my book, which Chris M, Wired, Bill McKibben, Elizabeth Kolbert and Eric Roston have all praised (see http://hacktheplanetbook.com/reviews/ )

I’ll be answering questions first from this thread:

“Let’s talk about geoengineering”  http://www.centerforinquiry.net/forums/viewthread/7415/

and then any others which arise between now and tuesday.

1. does he think geoengineering is inevitable in the long run—even if not needed in the 21st century.
2. Does he think terraforming of Mars or Venus is practical—does he think this is inevitable as well

Inevitable?

Well, one of the big fears is that some of the climate tipping points that I talk about in the book might come faster than we expect, or they happen and we didn’t realize that they started happening, and so at the last minute we try a crash program in geoengineering as politicians panic.

So I don’t think that geoengineering is inevitable, but the worse things get in terms of the climate, the more likely it is that someone is going to try to remove carbon on a mass scale or block sunlight. Obviously, the fear is that unless we know about the repercussions, the more likely it is that we would do something stupid.

Terraforming?
From science which is like science fiction to real science fiction!

Who knows if this is practical, after all, we know far less about the atmosphere of these planets that we do our own, and we have _many_ questions about our own planet’s. So I don’t think it is inevitable. But obviously the worse things get this century on Earth, the more talk there would be about trying to leave. But things would have been really really bad on earth to consider trying to live on planets that are so desolate.

The frightening thing is that human beings don’t like change, and we love our comfortable way of life here in the West. So it could be a combination of tragedy and mere inconvenience that might influence people the future to try something rash like geoengineering before we understand it.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Darron said:
We cannot solve pollution, habitat loss, mass extinctions, rainforest destruction and resource depletion through geoengineering.

The IPCC does a pretty solid job of explaining how global warming exacerbates clean-air, biodiversity, surprisingly sensitive rainforests, and water quality. I’m not saying that geoengineering would fix any problems you mentioned, but limiting temperature change by either sucking up carbon or actually blocking the sun may in fact prevent incredible disasters – we don’t know what the side effects would be.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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VYAZMA:
What is the definition of geoengineering in relation to what humankind has already been doing for a few thousand or so years?(especially the last 2-3 centuries)

We did this on the podcast – the difference between making a mess and trying to clean up the mess. That’s not saying we’re going to succeed at cleaning up, Or that it won’t make other problems.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Dougsmith
(1) Is it really feasible in a reasonable timeframe compared with simply abating greenhouse gases themselves?

We have no idea. We’ve done almost no research on geoengineering. We do know that carbon dioxide lasts for many centuries in the atmosphere and that the system has a built-in storable momentum as the oceans warm. Think about the damage of the Arctic right now – if we stopped emitting all greenhouse gases the warming might continue possibly another degree Fahrenheit. That would add to the effects we’ve already seen on the poles and on many ecosystems around the world.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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More from Dougsmith:
(2) Will it really abate enough of the ill effects of greenhouse gases to make it worthwhile?

Again, I don’t know.

(3) How do the all-in costs compare with the costs of simply reducing greenhouse gases?

That’s a great question. Using the so-called Pinatubo option could be very very cheap in the short run to implement each year. But since we don’t know how extensive the side effects would be, we cant do a full analysis.

(4) What side effects, if any, would such technology have?
We know that mimicking the cooling effect of sulfate emissions of volcanoes to cool the stratosphere could damage the ozone and lower precipitation around the world. Growing algae blooms could disrupt natural ecosystems, remove oxygen from large swaths of ocean, or actually produce greenhouse gases that would reduce the climate benefit of growing carbonaceous algae blooms.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Jr. Member:
forget geoengineering and start behaving like grown-ups. Sorry, not buying the book

well, I wish we could forget geoengineering. But what if the Chinese do it – I think it’s good for us to know what effects it might have. And if you borrow my book from the library, you’ll see that I definitely agree with you that grown-up behavior would be the best way to deal with this problem.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:29 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Jackson:
What is the role of commercial companies in geo-engineering solutions? What does he think is the likely way that geo-engineering solutions would be implemented—are there analogies or precedents to point to?

In chapter 7 of my book I fully delve into this issue. Two for-profit companies, one called Planktos, the other called Climos both received multibillion-dollar investments to try to grow algae blooms at sea. In a way, given that many oceanographers feel these man-made algae blooms might have scientific value, the fact that these were for-profit ventures may have helped doom their chances.

If you google my name and either of these companies’names, you’ll see that I have covered the pretty extensively in the past.

In the future I expect that for-profit companies will play a big role – see Nathan Myrvold’s patent on stratospheric geoengineering schemes – as nations take these wild ideas more seriously.

No analogies I can think of. The scale is just too vast.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Mike from Oz
There are many questions around the technical feasibility of geoengineering, but what are the geopolitical implications if such an endeavour was planned. If a single nation acts unilaterally to “save the planet”, is this a potential flash point for conflict?

Absolutely: see my story on this in Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2217230/

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Posted: 10 April 2010 11:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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thanks for all the questions thus far. Something is, but I probably won’t have time to answer more questions till Wednesday—but if you send them to me after listening to the podcast, I promise I will do so by the middle of next week.

ps—
follow me on twitter @elikint
or the book at facebook.com/pages/Hack-the-Planet/332021854818?ref=ts


Cheers, Eli

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Posted: 10 April 2010 01:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Thanks very much for all the answers, Eli. FWIW, the color blue is actually reserved for Mod/Admin commentary, but in this case I think I’ll just go ahead and leave it as is.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 04:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Thank you Eli for these good answers.

Your very informative PoI interview along with the Slate article you linked to: The Politics of Climate Hacking do a great job of bringing this issue up to date for those of us who dismissed it long ago and have ignored it since. 

I myself have the gut feeling that large scale bioengineering would only initiate yet another cascade of unanticipated destructive side-effects.  Your information has reinforced those notions, but it’s good to know where the issue stands these days.

Thank you for all your efforts to inform us.

Peter m

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Posted: 10 April 2010 08:50 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Eli Kintisch - 10 April 2010 11:16 AM

Darron said:
We cannot solve pollution, habitat loss, mass extinctions, rainforest destruction and resource depletion through geoengineering.

The IPCC does a pretty solid job of explaining how global warming exacerbates clean-air, biodiversity, surprisingly sensitive rainforests, and water quality. I’m not saying that geoengineering would fix any problems you mentioned, but limiting temperature change by either sucking up carbon or actually blocking the sun may in fact prevent incredible disasters – we don’t know what the side effects would be.

Eli, you covered my concern in the podcast interview, and your answer here is good too. The one thing that you did not mention and I keep hammering is that nothing we do will make a bit of difference if we do not address our overpopulation problem. We cannot sustain our population, and if we do not bring down our numbers voluntarily resource depletion will do so forcibly. We can educate people about the problen, discuss how to manage the population drawdown and implement sustainable solutions, or we can do nothing and watch our population diminish tragically. The time to begin was 30 years ago, so we had better get serious about this issue.

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Posted: 10 April 2010 10:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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DarronS - 10 April 2010 08:50 PM
Eli Kintisch - 10 April 2010 11:16 AM

Darron said:
We cannot solve pollution, habitat loss, mass extinctions, rainforest destruction and resource depletion through geoengineering.

The IPCC does a pretty solid job of explaining how global warming exacerbates clean-air, biodiversity, surprisingly sensitive rainforests, and water quality. I’m not saying that geoengineering would fix any problems you mentioned, but limiting temperature change by either sucking up carbon or actually blocking the sun may in fact prevent incredible disasters – we don’t know what the side effects would be.

Eli, you covered my concern in the podcast interview, and your answer here is good too. The one thing that you did not mention and I keep hammering is that nothing we do will make a bit of difference if we do not address our overpopulation problem. We cannot sustain our population, and if we do not bring down our numbers voluntarily resource depletion will do so forcibly. We can educate people about the problen, discuss how to manage the population drawdown and implement sustainable solutions, or we can do nothing and watch our population diminish tragically. The time to begin was 30 years ago, so we had better get serious about this issue.

WOW my father, who was a population activist in the 1970’s, would LOVE your comment! Will forward and invite him to comment!

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