Oliver Morton on the ‘abiding romance’ of geoengineering

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 02/03/2016 09:23 AM EST

In Paris last year, nations agreed on a new climate change accord to limit warming in 2100 to below 2 degrees Celsius. But it will be difficult to achieve that target without either rapidly weaning the world off fossil fuels, beginning immediately, or developing technologies to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere after 2050, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Both options seem out of reach at the moment. But there might be a third way forward: geoengineering. Some scientists have said that deliberately altering the environment using technology is the best way to stave off some future impacts of global warming.

Oliver Morton
Science writer Oliver Morton, author of “The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World.” | Photo courtesy of Oliver Morton.

The proposals range from surreal to awe-inspiring. One idea involves placing mirrors in space. Another calls for spreading tiny particles in the stratosphere — the uppermost reaches, much above the domain of airplanes — to reflect the sun’s rays back into space. These sunlight methods would cool the planet.


There are also carbon-reduction methods, where giant machines could grab carbon dioxide right out of the air. The Swiss company Climeworks AG began operating a prototype last year to learn how much this would cost. Present estimates are astronomical, at between $100 and $1,000 per ton of CO2.

Nature, too, has orchestrated her own experiments in the form of volcanic eruptions. Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed millions of tons of tiny sulfate particles into the stratosphere in 1991 and cooled the planet for the next two years. Scientists soon realized they had a new tool in their climate arsenal (ClimateWire, July 9, 2015).

Over the past six years, Oliver Morton, a briefings editor at The Economist, has pondered the field’s science and consequences, and why people are inherently resistant to geoengineering. His new book, "The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World," argues geoengineering should be part of the arsenal for addressing global warming.

Morton sat down with ClimateWire recently to speak about his views. Here are excerpts from that interview:

ClimateWire: As a fan of science fiction, which technology most captures your imagination?

Morton: I think the one that captures my imagination is the aerosols in the stratosphere. There’s an abiding romance to the technology of flight, maybe it is a 20th-century thing. Being up at 22 kilometers rather than at 11 kilometers, where you are on a normal jet plane, the sky looks different, it behaves differently.

One effect of putting aerosols into the stratosphere is that you change the sunset. I remember sitting here in Washington, D.C., after the Mount Pinotubo eruption [in 1991], sitting in that roof bar on top of the Hotel Washington and looking at the sunset and knowing that was being done by changes to the stratosphere. It was a very rich orange, and coming quite high up the sky. We were actually seeing some of the sunsets beyond the horizon getting reflected back down from the stratosphere. One of the most famous artistic representations of this is Edvard Munch’s "The Scream," which was painted after the Krakatoa eruption in 1883. Munch sees the sky as red and purple and famously makes it the personification of anxiety in the face of nature.

There’s a danger that geoengineering becomes very abstract and technocratic. For good or ill, the idea that people would be able to see the effects of geoengineering in sunsets is probably a helpful thing.

CW: The problem with climate action is that it is difficult to wean off fossil fuels. But in recent months, studies have found that wind and solar could power most of the United States by 2030, without raising electricity prices (ClimateWire, Jan. 26). Does this make you hopeful that geoengineering may not be needed?

Morton: I think those renewable energy targets are spectacularly ambitious. That requires really spectacular levels of storage, and to make these changes require levels of regulation and legislative action that I don’t think are likely.

I think you can do much better with renewables, but the idea that you can completely decarbonize the American system given the realities of American politics, given the realities of how the economy works, seems to be unlikely in that time scale. I’d love to be wrong, and if I’m wrong, cool.

CW: You wrote in your book about the idea of divorcing the planet from the human world and making it an object to be protected. As an example, you mentioned the image Earthrise, a photo of our planet from the moon that launched the environmental movement and is often used by Al Gore in his talks. Why is that problematic?

Morton: I worry that the talking about the planet as the object to be saved blinds you to the fact that people are the ones in danger. There is a way in the media in which you say climate change is about saving the planet, as though the planet is going to go away or something. There is also a sense that people are shocked and fascinated by the idea of human power on a scale that changes planets. If you are going to be amazed by human power, then you should rethink how to use that power rather than just saying, ‘Oh, God, aren’t we terrible.’ It is disempowering when the planet becomes an emblem, like a big polar bear.

CW: Are you criticizing Al Gore?

Morton: To the extent that Al Gore seeks to focus activity on the planet rather than the people, I suppose I am. It is certainly true that Al Gore has been a critic of even thinking and talking about geoengineering, saying it is basically foolish, and I definitely don’t agree with that.

CW: Why isn’t there more buy-in from environmentalists on geoengineering?

Morton: If you come from an environmentalist perspective, you start off thinking that what you want to do is restore a status quo. And focusing entirely on stopping carbon dioxide as a pollutant fits in comfortably with that.

I suppose people worry that talk about geoengineering will weaken commitment on mitigation. And it might. But even as it weakens commitment, it might also offer you other tools.

CW:You attended the climate change accord talks in Paris. Were policymakers aware that their decision means they have to achieve negative emissions?

Morton: I had the pleasure of talking to John Holdren, assistant to President Obama on science and technology, in Paris, and he was saying that if this goes through, then we do have to have a very serious research program into negative emissions going forward.

The IPCC made this very clear in the fifth assessment report in 2013 that if you are talking about 1.5- or 2-degree C limits with a reasonable chance of success, then you have to do some form of negative emissions in the second half of the century.

CW: Is the Obama administration supportive of scientists who want to study geoengineering?

Morton: Other countries with smaller scientific and academic establishments have done more. Britain had two focused multidisciplinary, multimillion-dollar-budget programs in geoengineering. Germany has had the most expenditure in such programs. I don’t think America has particularly distinguished itself in this.

CW: Is it more important at present to develop a system to govern geoengineering or to study the technology?

Morton: To talk about governance without understanding the technologies is going to lead to excessively cautious governance. At the same time, moving ahead with technologies without thinking about how they can be governed is, I think, bad practice in all walks of life.

Recently, people have started to explore no-fault insurance [payouts regardless of who is at fault] as part of geoengineering. Think about it, if nations that did geoengineering had to pay for anything bad that happens to local, distant climates as a result, that has implications for what technologies they might use.

CW: The problem is, the world does not have much time to figure out governance.

Morton: We do have governance of the climate, it’s called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, and it is slow. But climate change is also kind of slow. At the same time, sunshine reflection methods are potentially quite fast. When a volcano goes off, the world cools down the next year. Do we have time? I don’t know, but I know that if we don’t talk about these things, we lose.

CW: Do you worry about politicization of geoengineering, given there will be winners and losers when people start changing weather?

Morton: There are some model simulations showing that with low amounts of geoengineering, no one may necessarily end up worse off. However, even if no one ends up absolutely worse off, some people may benefit more than others. Since a lot of international politics is about relative, not absolute gains, this can cause political issues.

But then, there are different gains and losses from existing climate policy. There is no way that climate change is going to remove my father’s native country of Wales from the map. That makes Wales different from some low-lying island states that will be wiped out by 7 meters of sea-level rise.