Pressing the case for geo-engineering
Appeared in Green Inc. Blog New York Times, June 22, 2009
David G. Victor got a spirited reaction to his article about geoengineering in Foreign Affairs a few months ago. "I fielded a lot of hate mail," he said.
Mr. Victor, the director of Stanford University's Energy and Sustainable Development Program, is a leading voice in the effort to get governments and policymakers to start thinking seriously about the possibility of technological tinkering with the atmosphere, as a weapon of last resort in the battle against global warming.
In the March/April edition of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Victor was the lead author of an article that candidly acknowledged the challenge. "Fiddling with the climate to fix the climate strikes most people as a shockingly bad idea," he wrote.
I watched Mr. Victor make his case before a small group of mainly government policymakers from nine nations at a private gathering north of San Francisco earlier this month, organized by the Institute for Large Scale Innovation, a nonprofit group. He is an engaging, even cheerful bearer of bad news.
In his analysis, there are three ways of coping with climate change: controlling emissions, adapting to the altered climate and geoengineering, which he concedes, is the most drastic, even desperate. "It is Dr. Strangelove, but it is entirely doable," said Mr. Victor, who is also a law professor at Stanford.
Geoengineering, he said, needs to be brought in from the mad-scientist fringe. Governments, he said, should finance research, weigh policy options and discuss geoengineering in international climate-change organizations. "It may be we never use this option, but is needs to be ready," he said.
John Holdren, the chief science adviser in the Obama administration and an environmental policy specialist, recently suggested that geoengineering has to be taken seriously. "It's got to be looked at," he told The Associated Press in April. "We don't have the luxury of taking anything off the table." Mr. Holdren later clarified that the White House was not strongly considering pursuing geoengineering as a policy.
At the California meeting, Mr. Victor's pitch was greeted with polite skepticism, as he reviewed ideas like spraying tiny reflective particles into the upper atmosphere to help block the sun's rays and cool the planet.
Francelino Grando, a senior government official from Brazil, worried that geoengineering might be seen as a solution instead of a stop-gap. "It may give people the impression that we don't have to worry about climate change because we can solve it through engineering," he said. "But the only real answer is that we have to fundamentally change the pattern of energy use."
For his part, Mr. Victor declared himself optimistic that technologies to curb emissions - from alternative fuels to carbon capture - will be the long-term answer. But he worries about making it to the long term without environmental disaster, especially during transition years, he said, from 2050 to 2070 or so. "So I think we'll need to have the geoengineering option," he said.