(Editor’s Note:  This piece was slightly edited on May 6, 2009, to correct the reference to the author of the MIT Knight Science Journalism Tracker posting.) 

Geoengineering – intentionally manipulating the climate to counteract the unplanned manipulation of manmade warming – has always been a controversial idea.

Sometimes called climate engineering, it includes concepts for reducing sunlight, like shooting sulfur particles into the atmosphere and creating seawater sprays. Other methods, like seeding oceans with iron and erecting structures called “artificial trees,” would aim at removing carbon from the air.

Concerns about unintended and unwanted consequences, along with fears that geoengineering might be substituted for emission reductions, help account for its being controversial.

It recently became obvious just how sensitive an issue geoengineering is during what was probably its most prominent moment to date in the public eye.

Tracking A Timeline
of Growing Interest

That episode began with an Associated Press interview in early April with the new White House science adviser, John Holdren, head of the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Holdren’s first interview since he was confirmed by the Senate led to a piece focusing largely on his views of, and administration discussions about, engineering the climate as a weapon against climate change resulting from greenhouse emissions.

Holdren’s AP Interview Prompts a Verbal Kerfuffle

John Holdren
Office of Science and Technology Policy

Next came Holdren’s speedy release of a statement declaring that his comments had not been properly reported by the AP.

Finally, the predictable coverage of, and commentary upon, the AP article and Holdren’s response.

This flurry of media and blog attention occurred amid indications of growing support in the scientific community for federally funded research on geoengineering – even among scientists with strong misgivings about ever actually using such techniques.

A report recommending a national research program on geoengineering had been prepared by the Department of Energy in 2001, but the Bush administration never released that report.

Accordingly, as concerns have grown about climate change and the possible inadequacy of humanity’s emissions-reducing response, scientists and others with an interest in the issue have been eager to learn what the Obama administration’s position on research funding would be.

This was especially true because the new President has pledged to respect science and because Holdren had included a nuanced statement [pdf] on the subject in a 2006 article for the MIT Press journal Innovations, in which he backed geoengineering research.

‘High costs … Low Leverage … Side Effects Too’?

In that article, Holdren wrote that trying “to change other climate-relevant characteristics of the environment to offset (greenhouse gases’) warming influences” is “worthy of further study, but the ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appear to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.”

That was some of the historical context, then, when Seth Borenstein, a respected and veteran AP science writer based in Washington, secured the first interview with Holdren after he began a leave of absence from his position as a Harvard professor and joined President Barack Obama’s White House staff.

The lead on the interview story, which was dated April 8: “Tinkering with Earth’s climate to chill runaway global warming – a radical idea once dismissed out of hand – is being discussed by the White House as a potential emergency option, the president’s new science adviser said Wednesday.” The AP’s headline: “Obama looking at cooling air to fight warming.”

Paraphrasing Holdren’s comments in each of the following cases, Borenstein reported that Holdren had said geoengineering was “only being thought of as a last resort”; that the possible need to employ it was “a personal view”; that he had “raised it in administration discussions”; that it could have “grave side effects”; and that he “emphasized [geoengineering measures] are not something to rely on.”

Immediately following that last passage was this direct quote from the science adviser: “It would be preferable by far to solve this problem by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.”

The AP Interview Story on Rebound

In a message, which The New York Times reported was emailed “to a variety of scientists and other correspondents” on the night of April 8, Holdren said that “the AP account gives a serious misimpression about what I actually said.”

He wrote in the e-mail that when he was asked if he had “mentioned geo-engineering in White House discussions,” he responded that he had, but added: “This is of course NOT the same thing as saying the White House is giving serious consideration to geo-engineering – which it isn’t – and I am dismayed that the headline and the text of the article suggest otherwise, as well as dismayed that the entire AP story focused on this minor point in the interview.”

Discussing the AP story and quoting Holdren’s statement, Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin touched directly on the issue of geoengineering research in an April 9 post on his DotEarth blog. Revkin wrote that Holdren “told me he felt personally that geo-engineering should be a focus of any smart research menu on climate, as a hedge, but in no way obviated the need for curbing heat-trapping emissions.”

On the night of April 8, Eli Kintisch reported on the ScienceInsider blog of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (where Holdren was board chairman in 2007-08) that Holdren spokesman Rick Weiss had sent an e-mail asserting that nothing Holdren had told the AP suggested the administration was “actively pursuing or even currently envisioning a geo-engineering approach.”

Kintisch’s post included this background:

It’s worth stressing that no U.S. government agency has proposed actually doing geoengineering, and Holdren’s not the first scientist within the government to consider studying the idea. Recently, we reported that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has considered funding research in this controversial area, and the Department of Energy considered the issue last year, discussing it with National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone, a climate scientist who has called for such research in the past. The Environmental Protection Agency also hosted geochemist Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science last year for a talk on the issue. [Caldeira is a prominent proponent of considering geoengineering.]

Not surprisingly, permutations of the AP account sometimes departed from its wording and emphasis. One example: Where the AP’s own headline had said that the president is “looking at cooling air to fight global warming,” the policy examination conveyed by “looking” morphed into something seemingly more definitive in the much-read Huffington Post, which placed this headline atop its publication of the AP story: “Obama global warming plan involves cooling air.”

A Discover magazine blogger observed that Holdren had “caused a ruckus” with the interview and then attempted “to backtrack.” Similarly, the headline on a New Scientist blog post noted that the “media frenzy” over the AP interview had prompted a “White House clarification.”

Climate and science bloggers weighed in with their assessments of who might have been at fault in the matter.

The University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Jr., for instance, wrote a post on the Prometheus site headlined “John Holdren’s minor geoengineering gaffe.” Pielke expressed surprise that “Borenstein was so quickly blamed by Holdren for somehow misrepresenting his comments” and then added this observation:

Any reasonable person would come to the conclusion that if the science advisor, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet level officials from agencies including NASA and EPA are talking about geoengineering, then it would be perfectly fair to say that the Obama Administration is considering geoengineering.

On MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker site, a post by “head tracker” Charles Petit, himself a respected science writer, found no fault with the AP article itselffound no fault with the AP article itself:

Other than the misleading headline on the AP’s story, The Tracker cannot see a great deal of difference between what Borenstein said Holdren said, and what Holdren later said he actually was talking about …. Borenstein zeroed in on one brief part of the interview as most interesting to him. That’s what reporters do. The news judgment looks okay from here. But others may see things differently.

People Easily Scared by Geoengineering ‘Loose Talk’

One who did have a different – and negative – reaction to the AP article was Samuel Thernstrom, co-director of the conservative American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering Project, which is promoting the study and discussion of geoengineering as a possible policy option. Thernstrom was communications director at the White House Council on Environmental Quality from 2001-03 in the Bush Administration.

In a Los Angeles Times column last year, he called for “a serious investment” in research to assess the risks and benefits of geoengineering, arguing that it might prove to be “a complement to, rather than a substitute for, a long-term program to transition to a zero-emissions economy,” which could “buy us time to make that transition while protecting us from the worst potential effects of warming.”

Thernstrom told The Yale Forum that he regarded the AP’s account as “distorted hyping” of Holdren’s comments, which was “quite unfortunate, since (they) were perfectly reasonable and reflected, I think, the fact that leading scientists and policy makers are beginning to take this issue very seriously, when only a few years ago people were reluctant to even talk openly about the idea.”

The AP report “could easily give readers the impression that the Obama administration is seriously considering deployment of a geoengineering system in the near future,” which, if true, “would indeed be an alarming scenario,” he said.

“Unfortunately, it is easy to scare people with loose talk about geoengineering,” Thernstrom said. He added that he hopes the AP story “does not dissuade Holdren and his colleagues in the Obama Administration from continuing to think carefully about the need for the federal government to pursue research on the potential benefits – and dangers – of different geoengineering techniques.”

Jay Gulledge, senior scientist and program manager for science and impacts at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, offered no opinion about the AP story and its potential impact, but observed that he believes “the Obama administration is more inclined to let the scientific community set its own priorities,” and that community “now seems inclined to get some serious research underway on the basics of climate engineering.”

Two to three decades of “intense research” would be needed “before we’d know enough about the efficacy and potential consequences of various climate engineering schemes to implement any of them at full scale,” Gulledge told The Yale Forum. He added that “sunshade approaches in particular are very risky and would require a slow and cautious approach.” Such methods include sulfur particles to mimic the effects of volcanic ash and power-plant emissions and seawater sprays to increase clouds’ reflectivity.

In an interview before the AP story’s publication, Gulledge said he thinks coverage of geoengineering (or climate engineering – the term he prefers) has been generally good, especially in its portrayal of the scientific community’s coalescing view that a research program is needed – not so geoengineering can replace emissions cuts, but in case “it’s needed as kind of Plan B in case mitigation is not sufficient or timely enough.”

Reporting on Geoengineering in Context

The biggest weakness in journalists’ treatment of the issue has been an inadequate explanation “that climate engineering can be a number of really different types of approaches, with a lot to a little risk, with immediate or long term effects,” he said.

Propelling scientists’ desire to examine such questions are recent findings showing that the impact of climate change “is a lot worse than we thought it would be by now,” coupled with concern that “we may not be able to do enough (in reducing emissions), that we may need a Plan B as a hedge against the worst unfolding,” he said.

“I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone say there should be no research,” he added, “but there is a lot of skepticism.”

Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based environmental group, reacted in a graphically skeptical way to the AP interview with Holdren. In a blog post on the organization’s website, O’Donnell directed readers to the “fascinating piece” and reproduced a short excerpt, highlighting Holdren’s mention of possible geoengineering options including one that reporter Borenstein described as “artificial ‘trees’ – giant towers that suck carbon dioxide out of the air and store it.”

O’Donnell adorned the post with a photo of a neon palm tree. The headline on the post: “Obama science guy: maybe fake trees would help with global warming.”

O’Donnell told The Yale Forum that he has not “really seen or heard a lot about (geoengineering) from the environmental community. I think most people are focused on the action in Congress and the EPA.”

On the question of whether a research program should be launched, he added: “It seems to me that while funding some studies on geoengineering is basically harmless, it’s not going to be anywhere near a substitute for reducing emissions.

“Personally, I’d rather see whatever money is considered for (geoengineering research) go towards something we know can help in the short term – reducing diesel black carbon emissions by putting pollution controls on older diesel engines.”



Tracking a Timeline of Growing Interest
In Research on Geoengineering to Combat Greenhouse Gases

When New Scientist took a look at geoengineering in an article earlier this year, the magazine noted that the once-“heretical” idea had moved “into mainstream scientific and political thought.”

And that report of its mainstreaming was before the Associated Press interview with John Holdren on geoengineering in April brought it to the attention of many in the public who may never have heard of it.

Even though geoengineering has not been as prominent as basic climate and impacts science and possible emissions-reduction measures in discussions and coverage of climate change, it has been gaining prominence over the last few years.

The New York Times‘ William J. Broad wrote in 2006 that geoengineering proposals had been “relegated to the fringes,” but that prominent scientists in “a major reversal” were at the time of his article starting to say the concept deserved examination.

When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, published its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, it discussed [pdf] “apparently promising (geoengineering) techniques.” But the report warned that “these options tend to be speculative and many of their environmental side-effects have yet to be assessed; detailed cost estimates have not been published; and they are without a clear institutional framework for implementation.”

Scientific and policy-related attention to geoengineering increased in 2008 and early this year on a number of fronts. Some examples:

  • Last May, the Council on Foreign Relations held a workshop that focused on “formal, legal strategies as well as informal efforts to create norms that could govern testing and deployment of geoengineering systems and their possible undesirable consequences.”
  • Workshop participants coauthored an article in March/April 2009 issue of the council’s journal Foreign Affairs, with this summary: “Global warming is accelerating, and although engineering the climate strikes most people as a bad idea, it is time to take it seriously.”
  • Last June, the conservative American Enterprise Institute held a one-day event, “Geoengineering: A Revolutionary Approach to Climate Change,” whose participants included prominent climate scientists Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Kerry Emanuel of MIT.
  • In October, the Royal Society, Britain’s national science academy, announced it was launching “a major new study looking at whether planetary scale geoengineering schemes could play a role in preventing the worst effects of climate change.” A report of findings is expected this summer.
  • In December, the 2008 Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco included 17 presentations on geoengineering and related subjects that were filed with that keyword. (Samuel Thernstrom, codirector of the American Enterprise Institute’s Geoengineering Project told The Yale Forum that eight to 10 scientists attending the AGU meeting also held private “side meetings” to discuss a “research agenda” on geoengineering for potential federal funding.)
  • In January 2009 the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution published in its magazine Oceanus a valuable resource exploring fertilizing the ocean with iron to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations, “Should We Fertilize the Ocean to Reduce Greenhouse Gases?”
  • The American Meteorological Society published a possible organization statement [pdf] for member comment in March. Stressing that geoengineering cannot substitute for mitigation or adaptation in response to climate change, the draft calls for research of geoengineering, study of its “historical, ethical, legal, political and societal aspects” and development and analysis of policy options.
  • The National Academy of Sciences established a Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change, which met in January and April and was instructed to consider, among other subjects, “the research needed to better understand the potential efficacy, impacts, and risks of various ‘geo-engineering’ (direct interventions in the climate system).” 

The Christian Science Monitor reported last July that at that time, “a new consensus seems to be forming around the idea of stepping up research,” which included some scientists with “strong reservations” about geoengineering, including Alan Robock of Rutgers University.

Robock had laid out an array of causes for concern and caution about geoengineering in an article [pdf], “20 reasons why geoengineering may be a bad idea,” in the May/June 2008 issue of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (Reason No. 1 on his list – “effects on regional climate.”)

Then, running from May through last August, Robock and other scientists (plus the CEO of a company trying to commercialize one form of geoengineering), engaged in an online debate about geoengineering, which used Robock’s article as a starting point.

One of the debaters was Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, a prominent proponent of considering geoengineering. His scientific work and views have shown up in various forms in the popular media. They included a 2007 column in The New York Times, in which he described geoengineering as “an insurance policy, a backup plan,” and a 2008 profile by Chris Mooney in Wired.

In January, New Scientist named Caldeira one of its “eight scientist heroes of the year” for 2008, and in March, Rolling Stone picked him as one of its “100 people who are changing America.”

Topics: Climate Science