When the French philosopher Voltaire wanted to push back against his clerical critics, who longed for the days when the church ruled behind the crown, he deconstructed their ideal state. “The Holy Roman Empire,” he observed, “was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”

In a series of events in the second half of February, Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science and chair of a special committee convened by the National Research Council, used a similar strategy to dull the gleam of “geoengineering,” even as she and her colleagues recommended that research go forward on “carbon dioxide removal” and “albedo modification.”

“We decided to abandon the term, ‘geoengineering,’” she said in a February web press conference hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. “We are not talking about ‘geo,’ we’re talking about ‘climate.’ We also felt that ‘engineering’ implied a level of control that is illusory. ‘Intervention’ is an action that is meant to improve, and that is what we are talking about.”


But Science appeared to be alone in using “climate intervention” (CI for short) in headlining the news about the release of the paired reports. Most publications defaulted to “geoengineering”; others used “climate engineering,” some formulation of “hacking,” or “climate geoengineering.”

Nevertheless, this already struggling effort to change the terminology is instructive. It’s a reminder that humans are still trying to find the words to define the new epoch they are creating for themselves, the Anthropocene.

The Climate Intervention Reports

In their “Report in Brief,” the National Research Council authors offer a straightforward summary of Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration and Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth.

That summary starts, in bold capital letters, with a clear warning: “CLIMATE INTERVENTION IS NO SUBSTITUTE for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and adaptation efforts….” Not surprisingly then the committee recommends, first, that “efforts to address climate change should continue to focus most heavily on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions in combination with adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

In their summary of the first volume, however, the authors approve of natural removal (afforestation and other forms of biological storage) and artificial removal (chemical separation) of carbon dioxide from the air (or flue gases) and support “research and development investment to improve methods of carbon dioxide removal” and to lower their costs.

The summary of the second report, on albedo modification strategies, is much more circumspect: For the foreseeable future, no attempt should be made to alter the climate through these technologies. But research on these technologies, on the means to measure their effects, and on equitable and transparent ways of governing their use should go forward.

Media Coverage and Commentary

As noted, news stories about the release of the CI reports reverted to the use of “geoengineering” or “climate engineering.” And of these there were many. At the Climate Engineering blog hosted by the Kiel Earth Institute, one can find a list of over 100 news stories, op-eds,and blog posts about the reports. The Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment, a project of the DC Geoconsortium, in Washington, D.C., has posted a shorter but more detailed list of responses.

These lists include pieces from several national newspapers — The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post — but of the major national news networks, only NPR actually broadcast a story about the reports. NBC posted a short news item on its website; CBS, ABC, and CNN completely ignored them.

One environmental website noted that Fox News also had not covered the reports. More surprising, however, was the virtual silence of the conservative print media and their online equivalents. National Review, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, and The Weekly Standard did not cover the reports; only Townhall.com noted their release — by carrying science reporter Seth Borenstein’s piece for the Associated Press.

Stranger still, over the two weeks that the National Academy of Sciences publicized the reports through a succession of press conferences, conference sessions, and webinars, conservative commentators for these venues published at least 15 op-ed pieces debunking what they variously called climate “alarmists,” “jihad[ists],” and “con”-men. But none addressed the two CI reports. The Heartland Institute, which blurbed 18 studies in its late February issues of Climate Change Weekly, also never mentioned the reports.

Yale Climate Connections searches for conservative responses have, through early March, turned up just one American Thinker piece, by S. Fred Singer, and a Watts Up With That post by Anthony Watts. Singer argued that research on geoengineering should be aimed at preventing the next ice age; Watts interpreted the reports as a National Academy demand for “equal access to the climate trough for geoengineering.”

Political Attitudes Toward Science

A study released at the same time as the CI reports might help explain, at least in part, this benign neglect by conservatives. When Dan M. Kahan, professor of psychology at Yale Law School, and his co-researchers added information about geoengineering to a survey about climate change, they found that the gap between conservative and liberal responses narrowed. Conservatives, predisposed to think favorably about engineering, were less skeptical of climate science, and liberals were less confident about their climate concerns.

But in a recent post for Skeptical Science, retired geophysical consultant Andy Skuce criticized the Kahan study for what he says is the overoptimistic way it describes the geoengineering option in its survey. One might also question whether the limited positive change would withstand normative challenges by others in the respondents’ social networks. So although compatible with the observed conservative silence on the CI reports, whether Kahan’s statistically significant findings will prove politically significant remains to be seen.

Rather than the cultural world views used by Kahan and his colleagues, sociologists Riley Dunlap and Aaron McCright draw a distinction between the production science favored by conservatives (research that makes or does things) and the impact science favored by liberals (research that explains connections and consequences). Dunlap told Yale Climate Connections by e-mail that he’s not sure conservatives would view geoengineering as an example of production science. But even if it could serve as a bridge between different ideological groups, he added, “it is still a lousy and dangerous idea that deflects attention from efforts to reduce carbon emissions. If this is what it takes to gain support from conservatives, then I see nothing gained.”

McCright, however, saw some positives in this approach: “I’m actually in the early stages in some experimental work on [this] . . . My guess is that the science of geoengineering will seem more like production science (than impact science) to [conservatives/Republicans]. So, yes, the hypothesis is that hearing about a geoengineering “techno-fix” . . . might lead [them] to be more willing to accept the reality and seriousness of climate change.”

Public Opinion and Perceptions

Two other articles released while the National Academy of Sciences was publicizing the CI reports provide additional perspective.

A WIRES Climate Change review of “climate engineering research literature” found “no dominant recommendation as to deployment.” But the authors did find many examples of “dual high stakes framing” — the high risk of not-acting versus the high risk of acting, when that risk is not offset by any benefits apart from avoiding catastrophe — which makes climate engineering seem more questionable than other emerging technologies.

One can see this in “Exploring Public Perceptions of Stratospheric Sulfate Injection,” a Climatic Change article from a Kiel Institute research team lead by Christine Merk. Their survey of German respondents approved laboratory research, were more skeptical of field research, and largely rejected deployment. In addition to broadly shared concerns about unintended consequences, a significant majority thought “humans should not be manipulating nature in this way and that using the technology to counteract climate change” would be to “shirk one’s responsibility.”

These results are in line with previous studies conducted in the UK by social psychologist Nicholas Pidgeon and his colleagues. Knowledge of climate engineering is low, and there is a general aversion to “messing with nature.” Nevertheless, public engagement can produce some support for field research, as with The SPICE Project proposed but ultimately rejected in 2010.

In e-mail exchanges, Pidgeon expressed doubt that choice of term alone is influential. “What we do know is that when properly explained to them, people become quite ambivalent about [geoengineering] — in the UK at least.”

Who Is Concerned about Climate Engineering?

From these studies one may infer that the impetus for geoengineering is not coming from the public. Further evidence of this can be seen in graphs created with Google Trends, which tallies Google searches for the term(s) one enters.

Google Trends report on “geoengineering” (blue), “climate engineering” (red), and “climate intervention” (gold). The final peak in the blue line (A) corresponds with The Guardian’s 11 Feb 2015 article on the CI reports, “Is Geoengineering a Bad Idea?”

For one quick measure of the impact of the CI reports, “geoengineering,” “climate engineering,” and “climate intervention” were entered into Google Trends. This graph above shows that “geoengineering” predominates but also that “climate intervention” has a modest history.

Google Trends report for the terms related to geoengineering compared with searches for “climate change”.

But the second graph shows that public interest in geoengineering, under any name, is negligible compared with the concern for “climate change,” which communicators should remember still ranks next-to-last on Americans’ list of public policy priorities. In addition, the numbers for geoengineering are likely inflated by a conspiracy theory. Searches for events that might explain the highest peak in the first graph turned up notices for the release of a documentary on chemtrails. In the other words, in the very limited public debate about “geoengineering” some believe it is already happening.

The rest of the argument — as dualing op-eds by Raymond T. Pierrehumbert, Ken Caldeira, and Clive Hamilton and others indicate — is still largely an in-house debate among climate scientists and activists and left-leaning columnists. The side effects of the debate — Does it increase or decrease polarization or concern about climate change? — may be more important than the debate itself.

‘The Cultivation of the Sky’?

Two other climate researchers were consulted for this report: geographer Mike Hulme and climate scientist Mike MacCracken. Although they come at the problem from very different disciplines and perspectives, they agree on some key points. Both agree with the NRC authors’ foremost message: climate intervention is no substitute for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions and adaptation efforts. They agree also that effective action on climate change will require a mix of short- and long-term practices.

For MacCracken, “climate intervention would be a policy approach of last resort and not a Plan B.” As he explained in an exchange of e-mails, “the NRC report looked at doing albedo modification alone rather than as a [short-term] counter to the very severe impacts lying ahead” (emphasis added). Aggressive implementation of some long-term practices, like reducing CO2 emissions from dirty fossil fuels like coal, may actually reduce Earth’s albedo. Thus, “a climate engineering approach to replacing the sulfate cooling offset needs to be sought.” Similarly, the amplified warming of the Arctic could trigger changes that accelerate global developments; small, short-term, regional interventions might interrupt this process. Because staying below the 3.6 degree Fahrenheit global threshold may require such short-term, last-resort, and/or regional interventions, research on climate engineering should move forward MacCracken says.

A slide from one of MacCracken’s recent presentations: “Note that [this] is conceptual and approximate. It’s intended mainly to give a sense of how one would work down from [a] possible scenario . . . to meet an objective.”

In his recent book on geoengineering, Can Science Fix Climate Change?, Hulme rejects the framework of CO2 and temperature targets in favor of “climate pragmatism”: How do we establish and maintain a sustainable relationship with Earth’s atmosphere? Answering that question may require new language for understanding that relationship. In a forthcoming essay, Hulme experiments with “the cultivation of the sky,” which implies that humans must engage, long-term, in practices that maintain its vitality. Hulme rejects geoengineering, specifically the use of stratospheric aerosols, as a “Plan B” for dealing with climate change. But his new analogy seems to allow for some short-term practices; even organic farmers might resort to special measures when confronted with an infestation of aphids.

So will “intervention” cultivate a healthier relationship with climate than “engineering”? Only if all remember that it’s the alcoholic who most needs the intervention and not the alcohol.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since 2005. Before completing his interdisciplinary...