Geoengineering. For some it’s a prudent insurance policy to protect against what-if scenarios if societies’ efforts to combat excessive global warming fails to manage what modern societies themselves have created. For many others, it’s a last-resort, pull-out-all-the-stops Hail Mary pass fraught with its own problems and unknowns.

This month’s climate bookshelf feature is again compiled by bibliophile Michael Svoboda of George Washington University, a former bookstore owner and regular contributor. Descriptions are drawn from the publishers’ copy.

How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate, by Jeff Goodell (Mariner Books, 2010; 276 pages, $14.95 paperback)

Climate discussions often focus on potential impacts over a long period of time – several decades, a century even. But change could also happen much more suddenly. What if we had a real climate emergency – how could we cool the planet in a hurry? This question has led a group of scientists to pursue extreme solutions: huge contraptions that would suck CO2 from the air, machines that brighten clouds and deflect sunlight away from the earth, even artificial volcanoes that spray heat-reflecting particles into the atmosphere. This is the radical and controversial world of geoengineering. In How to Cool the Planet, Jeff Goodell explores the scientific, political, and moral aspects of geoengineering. . . . There are certainly risks, but Goodell persuades us that geoengineering may be our last best hope, a Plan B for the environment.

Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope – or Worst Nightmare – for Averting Climate Catastrophe, by Eli Kintisch (Wiley, 2010; 280 pages, $25.95)

Scientists are developing geoengineering techniques for worst-case scenarios. . . . [In Hack the Planet, Science magazine reporter] Kintisch outlines four: collapsing ice sheets, megadroughts, a catastrophic methane release, and slowing of the global ocean conveyor belt. As incredible and outlandish as many [geoengineering] plans may seem, could they soon become our only hope for avoiding calamity? Or will the plans of brilliant and well-intentioned scientists cause unforeseeable disasters? And does the advent of geoengineering mean that humanity has failed in its role as steward of the planet – or taken on a new responsibility? Kintisch’s investigation of the [possibilities and dangers of geoengineering] is required reading as the debate over global warming shifts to whether humanity should Hack the Planet.

Geo-Engineering Climate Change: Environmental Necessity or Pandora’s Box?, Edited by Brian Launder and J. Michael T. Thompson
(Cambridge University Press, 2010; 332 pages, $69.60 (at Amazon))

This book is the first to present a detailed and critical appraisal of the geo-scale engineering interventions that have been proposed as potential measures to counter the devastation of run-away global warming. Early chapters set the scene with a discussion of projections of future CO2 emissions and techniques for predicting climate tipping points. Subsequent chapters then review proposals to limit CO2 concentrations through improved energy technologies, removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, and stimulated uptake by the oceans. Schemes for solar radiation management involving the reflection of sunlight back into space and using artificially brightened clouds and stratospheric aerosols are also assessed. Pros and cons of the various schemes are thoroughly examined – throwing light on the passionate public debate about their safety.

Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control, by James Rodger Fleming (Columbia University Press, 2010; 344 pages, $24.95 paperback)

As alarm over global warming spreads, a radical idea is gaining momentum. Forget cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, some scientists argue. Instead, bounce sunlight back into space by pumping reflective nanoparticles into the atmosphere. Launch mirrors into orbit around the Earth. Make clouds thicker and brighter to create a “planetary thermostat.” . . . For more than a century, scientists, soldiers, and charlatans have tried to manipulate weather and climate, and like them, today’s climate engineers wildly exaggerate what is possible. Scarcely considering the political, military, and ethical implications of managing the world’s climate, these individuals hatch schemes with potential consequences that far outweigh anything their predecessors might have faced. [In Fixing the Sky], James Rodger Fleming traces the tragicomic history of the rainmakers, rain fakers, weather warriors, and climate engineers who have been both full of ideas and full of themselves. . . . [He] speaks to anyone who has a stake in sustaining the planet.

Climate Change Geoengineering: Philosophical Perspectives, Legal Issues, and Governance Frameworks, Edited by Wil C. Burns and Andrew L. Strauss (Cambridge University Press, 2013; 328 pages, $35.99)

The international community is not taking the action necessary to avert dangerous increases in greenhouse gases. Facing a potentially bleak future, the question that confronts humanity is whether the best of bad alternatives may be to counter global warming through human-engineered climate interventions. In this book, eleven prominent authorities on climate change consider the legal, policy, and philosophical issues presented by geoengineering.

Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, by Clive Hamilton (Yale University Press, 2013; 264 pages, $20.00 paperback)

International efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have all failed, and before the end of the century Earth is projected to be warmer than it has been for 15 million years. The question “can the crisis be avoided?” has been superseded by a more frightening one, “what can be done to prevent the devastation of the living world?” . . . [In Earthmasters, Clive Hamilton] lays out the arguments for and against climate engineering, and reveals the extent of vested interests linking researchers, venture capitalists, and corporations. He then examines what it means for human beings to be making plans to control the planet’s atmosphere, probes the uneasiness we feel with the notion of exercising technological mastery over nature, and challenges the ways we think about ourselves and our place in the natural world.

A Case for Climate Engineering, by David Keith (Boston Review Books / The MIT Press, 2013; 112 pages, $16.95)

A leading scientist long concerned about climate change, Keith . . . argues that, after decades during which very little progress has been made in reducing carbon emissions, we must put [climate engineering] on the table and consider it responsibly. That doesn’t mean we will deploy it, and it doesn’t mean that we can abandon efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But we must understand fully what research needs to be done and how the technology might be designed and used. [He] provides a clear and accessible overview of what the costs and risks might be, and how climate engineering might fit into a larger program for managing climate change.

Engineering the Climate: The Ethics of Solar Radiation Management, Edited by Christopher J. Preston (Lexington Books, 2013; 278 pages, $36.99 paperback)

Climate engineering (also known as geoengineering) has recently experienced a surge of interest given the growing likelihood that the global community will fail to limit the temperature increases associated with greenhouse gases to safe levels. . . . One particular form, solar radiation management (SRM), is known to be relatively cheap and capable of bringing down global temperatures very rapidly. However, the complexity of the climate system creates considerable uncertainty about the precise nature of SRM’s effects in different regions. The ethical issues raised by the prospect of SRM are both complex and thorny. . . . A sustained and scholarly treatment of [these issues] is necessary before it will be possible to make fair and just decisions about whether (or how) to proceed. This book, including essays by 13 experts in the ethics of geoengineering, [begins that process].

Geoengineering of the Climate System, Edited by R. M. Harrison et al (Royal Society of Chemistry, 2014; 270 pp. $108.00 (Amazon))

Geoengineering of the Climate System presents an overview of the technologies currently being considered as large scale solutions to climate change, and considers some of the possible benefits and disadvantages of each. [With] invited contributions . . . by many of the leading experts on these technologies, the volume provides a comprehensive overview of both carbon dioxide reduction and solar radiation management methods [and then reviews the] important ethical and governance issues [to which they give rise]. Written with active researchers, postgraduate students and policy-makers in mind, this latest addition to the Issues in Environmental Science & Technology series presents a balanced and informed view of this important field of research and is an essential addition to any environmental science library.

Can Science Fix Climate Change: A Case Against Climate Engineering, by Mike Hulme (Wiley/Polity, 2014; 144 pages, $12.95)

Climate change seems to be an insurmountable problem. Political solutions have so far had little impact. Some scientists are now advocating the so-called “Plan B”, a more direct way of reducing the rate of future warming by reflecting more sunlight back to space, creating a thermostat in the sky. . . . Drawing upon a distinguished career studying the science, politics and ethics of climate change, Mike Hulme shows why using science to fix the global climate is undesirable, ungovern-able and unattainable. Science and technology should instead serve the more pragmatic goals of increasing societal resilience to weather risks, improving regional air quality and driving forward an energy technology transition. Seeking to reset the planet’s thermostat is not the answer.

Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration, by Committee on Geoengineering the Climate (National Academies Press, 2015; 154 pages, $49.95 paper) A PDF for this book can be downloaded for free from this webpage.

As one of a two-book report, Climate Intervention: Carbon Dioxide Removal and Reliable Sequestration introduces possible CDR approaches and then discusses them in depth. Land management practices, such as low-till agriculture, reforestation and afforestation, ocean iron fertilization, and land-and-ocean-based accelerated weathering, could amplify the rates of processes that are already occurring as part of the natural carbon cycle. Other CDR approaches, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and sequestration, direct air capture and sequestration, and traditional carbon capture and sequestration, seek to capture CO2 from the atmosphere and dispose of it by pumping it underground at high pressure. This book looks at the pros and cons of these options and estimates possible rates of removal and total amounts that might be removed.

Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth, by Committee on Geoengineering the Climate (National Academies Press, 2015; 154 pages, $49.95 paper) A PDF for this book can be downloaded for free from this webpage.

As one of a two-book report, this volume discusses albedo modification – changing the fraction of incoming solar radiation that reaches the surface. This approach would deliberately modify the energy budget of Earth to produce a cooling designed to compensate for some of the effects of warming associated with greenhouse gas increases. The prospect of large-scale albedo modifcation raises political and governance issues at national and global levels, as well as ethical concerns. Climate Intervention: Reflecting Sunlight to Cool Earth discusses [these issues and concerns]. In the spirit of transparency [critical for these discussions, this report] was based on peer-reviewed literature and the judgments of the authoring committee; no new research was done as part of this study and all data and information used are from entirely open sources. . . . [Leaders should understand] the consequences of albedo modification approaches before they face a decision whether or not to use them.

Experiment Earth: Responsible Innovation in Geoengineering, by Jack Stilgoe (Routledge/Earthscan, 2015; 222 pages, $145.00)

Experiments in geoengineering – intentionally manipulating the Earth’s climate to reduce global warming – have become the focus of a vital debate about responsible science and innovation. Drawing on three years of sociological research working with scientists on one of the world’s first major geoengineering projects, this book examines the politics of experimentation. Geoengineering provides a test case for rethinking the responsibilities of scientists and asking how science can take better care of the futures that it helps bring about. This book gives students, researchers and the general reader interested in the place of science in contemporary society a compelling framework for future thinking and discussion.

The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World, by Oliver Morton (Princeton University Press, 2015; 440 pages, $29.95)

The Planet Remade explores the history, politics, and cutting-edge science of geoengineering. Morton weighs both the promise and perils of these controversial strategies and puts them in the broadest possible context. The past century’s changes to the planet – to the clouds and the soils, to the winds and the seas, to the great cycles of nitrogen and carbon – have been far more profound than most of us realize. Appreciating those changes clarifies not just the scale of what needs to be done about global warming, but also our relationship to nature. . . . [Morton] addresses the deep fear that comes with seeing humans as a force of nature, and asks what it might mean . . . to try and use that force . . . to meet the challenge of climate change.

Systems Thinking for Geoengineering Policy: How to Reduce the Threat of Dangerous Climate Change by Embracing Uncertainty and Failure, by Robert Chris (Routledge / Earthscan, 2015; 212 pages, $145.00)

Systems Thinking for Geoengineering Policy is the first book to [discuss] geoengineering in terms of complex adaptive systems theory and to argue for the theoretical imperative of adaptive management . . . for confronting the inescapable uncertainty and surprise that characterize potential climate futures. The book illustrates how a shift from the conventional Enlightenment paradigm of linear reductionist thinking, in favor of systems thinking, would promote robust policies [for] the widest range of plausible futures . . . and could also unlock the policy paralysis caused by making [agreement on] long term predictions a prior condition for policy formulation. It also offers some systems-driven reflections on a global governance network for geoengineering.

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...