Wired magazine spoke with Science writer and Hack the Planet author Eli Kintisch about the moral and scientific dilemmas of considering global interventions to solve climate change. On reading the interview, I’m terrified to learn how many companies are itching to get into the geoengineering business, by marketing sun-absorbing aerosols to disperse in clouds or patenting new types of algae that munch up carbon in the oceans.

Kintisch makes the analogy between nuclear weapons and geoengineering as two horrific projects that scientists research, all the while hoping they will never be used. If that analogy is justified, then we should no sooner entrust private enterprise with saving the planet than we should put them in charge of building and deploying atomic bombs.

Wired.com: Early in your book, you split the people working on geoengineering into two basic camps: the red team and the blue team. Who are these teams and how are they different?

Kintisch: First, I don’t think anyone really wants to do geoengineering right now. Maybe a handful of people think we are at that stage or think it would be a good idea to “take control.” But the [blue team] scientists who are starting to spend more of their time studying geoengineering are generally engineering types, the kinds of scientists who like to think up new solutions and create new ideas and synthesize existing ones. The red team scientists have more of the temperament of skeptics. They are better at shooting holes in proposals and identifying problems. For any field, you usually have these two types….

Wired.com: It seems like the toughest issue is having some sort of global governance structure in place. But if we got that in place, wouldn’t we be most of the way toward a meaningful way to keep carbon in the ground?

Kintisch: That’s an interesting point. If we can’t get our act together to reduce by a relatively modest percent, this very dangerous trace gas that we’re spitting into the atmosphere, it does suggest that we’re going to have a lot of trouble regulating geoengineering.

One problem with geoengineering research that scientist Ken Caldeira has pointed out to me is that there are a lot of private companies who are involved in this research, who are out to do research but also to create a business around selling carbon credits. Is this a field that should be dominated by private enterprises?

….We’re looking for good investments for our geoengineering buck, so it doesn’t surprise that you’d have [private companies] Climos and Planktos interested in the very lucrative leverage involved in iron fertilization. And Nathan Myhrvold, inventor and close confidante of Bill Gates, interested in the stratospheric aerosols.

Wired.com: But is this an area where the work should be done just with national sponsorship?

Kintisch: Unlike most branches of Earth sciences, geoengineering is this kind of radically multidisciplinary idea. You take a supposed understanding of a basic system and develop an engineering method of altering or radically changing it. Generally, when it comes to developing real-world products, scientists come up with the kernel of the idea and companies have proven to be the best at turning the kernel into a working technology. In a way, I can see the allure of letting companies develop geoengineering ideas because they are set up to try different things and the allure of profits can drive new ideas.

That said, it is a really worrisome proposition that for-profit companies would be entrusted in developing techniques that might be deployed and have such far-reaching environmental or ecological consequences. That’s why openness and transparency and scientific integrity is so important in this field….

Wired.com: The biggest argument against geoengineering research raised by critics is that it causes delays in going after carbon emissions directly, and quite possibly will kneecap those efforts by providing political cover for big emitters. Do you think that’s a strong enough argument to pull geoengineering off the table?

Kintisch: I don’t think so. All the time we deal with moral hazard. We deal with it when it comes to insurance or people wearing seatbelts. As a society, we should be able to deal with the moral hazard of people understanding that geoengieering is a dangerous concept that has to be studied and should be kept as an absolute worst-case scenario, but that requires vigorous and public debate.


Related articles from Wired:

Excerpt from Kintisch’s book:


A story on the Asilomar summit:


6 Ways We’re Already Geoengineering Earth:


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