Geoengineering the Planet: the possibilities and the pitfalls (audio)

Interfering with the Earth’s climate system to counteract global warming is a controversial concept. But in an interview with Yale Environment 360, climate scientist Ken Caldeira talks about why he believes the world needs to better understand which geoengineering schemes might work and which are fantasy — or worse.

Atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira first became known for his groundbreaking work on ocean acidification, a phrase originally coined as a headline for one of his papers. Of late, however, Caldeira’s research has led him into the controversial area of geoengineering — the large-scale, deliberate manipulation of the Earth’s climate system.

Many scientists have shied away from the subject because they feel it is a wrongheaded and dangerous path to pursue. But Caldeira — who heads a research lab at the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University — has not been so dismissive, in part because his climate modeling has demonstrated that some geoengineering schemes may indeed help reduce the risk of climate change. In fact, few scientists have thought harder about the moral, political, and environmental implications of geoengineering.

Caldeira has become a focal point recently in the controversy surrounding the publication of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s SuperFreakonomics, the follow-up to their previous best-seller, Freakonomics. A chapter of the book that deals with geoengineering and quoted Caldeira was circulated on the Internet prior to the book’s publication and was widely criticized for its poor understanding of climate science and its cynical, contrarian perspective.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, conducted by author Jeff Goodell, who is working on a book about geoengineering, Caldeira spoke about how his work was misrepresented in SuperFreakonomics, as well as the prospects — and pitfalls — of plans to engineer the planet’s climate system. He views geoengineering as a last resort, one fraught with risks and unintended consequences. What if, for example, industrialized nations decide to inject heat-reflecting dust into the stratosphere and set off a climate reaction that causes drought and famine in India and China? For this and many other reasons, Caldeira argues that sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions is by far the most prudent course.

Jeff Goodell, Yale University News, 21 October 2009. Full article and audio.

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