Can we fix it? A serious look at where geoengineering stands

Sillouhette of airplane flying overhead with a red plume behind it.

It’s been an exceptionally long and harsh winter in North America and it has Jacquelyn thinking about what is and isn’t in our control. On the topic of climate, such thoughts can lead to the controversial topic of geoengineering.

Jacquelyn and Ramesh have a fascinating chat with Dr. Jane Flegal, Program Officer for Environment at The Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust, about the current state of geoengineering.

Also, in unexpected science, Ramesh talks about new research involving cycles of CO2 levels in the ocean and coral reefs.

Here’s Dr. Flegal’s geoengineering reading list:

Jack Stilgoe’s book, Experiment Earth:…ing/dp/0415732379

Oliver Morton’s book, The Planet Remade:

Stilgoe et al. on geoengineering and responsible innovation:…48733313000930

Flegal and Gupta on arguments for and geoengineering that depend on invoking the global poor as a rationale:…10784–017–9377–6

NAS reports on geoengineering or climate intervention:…ervention-reports/

Jon Symons’s critique of the Oxford Principles:…neering-justice

The Oxford Principles:…10584–012–0675–2

Clare Heyward and Steve Rayner on asymmetrical critique (often by social scientists) of geoengineering interventions vs. conventional climate interventions:…y.pdf

Code of conduct for geoengineering by Prof. Anna-Maria Hubert:…h-2017-hubert.pdf

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Transcript - by Joe Stormer

Eric Mack: Hi, everyone, this is Eric Mack (one of the producers for Warm Regards) and just a quick note before we get started to let you know that this show was recorded earlier. You’ll hear some references in the present tense to the federal government shut-down, and that is all over by now — or at least we hope so. Okay, on with the show!

[Instrumental theme music]

Jacquelyn Gill: Welcome to Warm Regards — conversations from the front lines of climate change. I’m Jacquelyn Gill, assistant professor at the University of Maine. Joining me this week is my co-host, Ramesh Laungani, associate professor of biology from Doane University in frozen, icy Nebraska. Today’s show will be all about the topic of geoengineering and some of the challenges that are faced in that field, both scientifically and especially politically. We will be speaking with Dr Jane Flegal, who I had the privilege of seeing totally take down some myths about solar geoengineering at last summer’s Breakthrough Dialogues. And we’ll be wrapping up with our new segment on the unexpected science of climate change with some research on fish behavior. So how’s it going remain?

Ramesh Laungani: It’s going well. It’s the start of the semester. So, a lot of confused students trying to page through a syllabus, trying to figure out exactly where they need to put their effort. So, and I’m trying to remain focused on being a clear communicator of those policies on the classroom, all with sort of the sort of background chaos of the government shutdown. So trying to keep those two worlds a little bit separate.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, I also had my first class of the semester today and we arrived in our classroom to find that there was another class scheduled in the same room, at the same time. And so hopefully it’s like the rough dress rehearsal leads to a good performance because I don’t know if I could take a whole semester of chaos like this, especially when it’s just seems like it’s coming from all sides. As you say the shut-down is something that’s different since our last episode. And you know it’s one of those things that you keep. I don’t know about you, but I just keep running into ways in which it’s affecting me in unexpected ways. I mean, I have a close family members — my brother, my sister and her husband — their families have now missed a couple of paychecks because they work for the federal government. But even as a scientist, we have a permit that we need to put into a National Park to be able to conduct some research this summer and I need to apply for import permits to be able to bring in samples as part of another student’s project and just even just feeling the delays for those for those particular projects is challenging because it might seem like it’s not that big a deal and it isn’t in the grand scheme of things like some are having a hard time feeding their families and, we can’t apply for a permit, but in this case, it does have an impact because these are my grad student only has so many years of funding and if his research gets pushed back for a year, that could impact his ability to feed himself in a few years and so, I dunno, it’s just a mess. I’m tired of it.

Ramesh: Yeah, I think everyone is tired of it, and I think it’s sort of this unfolding, a slow motion crisis. Every day there’s some new angle, some new aspect of the shutdown that is some unexpected angle of the shut down that is impacting the world and science. One of the more well I know one that’s gotten quite a bit of press is sort of the buildup of trash in National Parks. Joshua Tree National Parks has gotten quite a bit of press about some something going on there.

Jacquelyn: It’s like on top of the government being shut down, we are just taking a giant dump on some of our most important places and that it’s like we can’t have nice things. Thanks, guys.

Ramesh: Right, right. But there are some stories of resilience and there’s some stories of people coming together. I think there are a number of people trying to clean up the National Parks to whatever extent that they can. But it’s unfortunate that we even have to have those stories of resilience even occur this time. And I know that recently there was a conference of the American Meteorological Society, but a lot of government scientists who normally attend that meeting couldn’t go. And so that obviously has an impact on not only the exchange of scientific ideas and collaborations, but it also has an economic impact on the city. I believe it was in Phoenix this year. It’s going to have an economic impact on the city of Phoenix. So, I think there’s just so many different angles to this.

Jacquelyn: People who aren’t booking hotel rooms, who aren’t eating at restaurants, who aren’t taking taxi cabs. Again, things you don’t necessarily think about in terms of how at least science in particular is tied into our economy in so many different ways. Let alone all the other public servants who are having a hard time right now.

Ramesh: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jacquelyn: Fingers crossed that by the next time we record this will be over. But in the meantime, if you are listener particularly interested in learning about the ways in which the shut down is affecting science, there’s a hashtag on Twitter called #ScienceShutdown and we’ll post some links on our show notes on Medium. So unseasonably cold temperatures, icy conditions and high winds have turned my home into the Ice Age landscapes I study, which as it turns out is not as fun as it sounds. I’ve been dealing with some health issues that have kept me indoors more than I’d like this winter and lately it feels like the only time that I get outside is when I rapidly penguin-waddle from my car to the office or to my house, and my body is not as strong as I’d like these days. And I’ve had this thing where I’m finding myself unreasonably anxious about walking on the ice. What if I slip and fall? I mean, I’ve been on blood thinners since a close encounter with deep vein thrombosis and some pulmonary embolisms left me in a Siberian hospital last September and, you know, we’ll talk more about that in a future episode. And I’ve had this anxiety that I’ll slip and fall. I’ll hit my head and I’ll either freeze or die of a brain bleed, whatever happens first. I know that this fear is silly. I’m a scientist and I know that the odds of any of these things happening are incredibly small. I know that this is my anxiety talking, but I still find myself asking my husband to walk me to the car, or I’ll even text him to let him know that I’m home in case I accidentally park my car, slip on the ice, and he’s just waiting inside at the dinner table and I never make it in. It’s this kind of existential angst that just doesn’t make sense because of the sheer statistical improbability of any of these fears coming true. But having a near-death experience has a way of shaking up your sense of security. Something happened to me that is beyond my control and my particular response to that is to start focusing on what is actually in my power. We not have a dry erase board in our kitchen and everyone in the house has to write their schedules on it each week. And meal planning for the week every Sunday has become a matter of great comfort, just somehow choosing and knowing what our dinner options for the week just makes me feel like I’m able to exert some sense of control over my life when everything else just seems like it’s being decided without me. I can see the attraction of wanting to impose a sense of stability when you just don’t know what the future holds. And it’s given me a new appreciation for how how a lot of people seem to be reacting to the existential dread of the climate crisis. Some people become like an ostrich — you bury your head in the sand and you just pretend like it’s not happening, while other people take a different tack. They basically turn into beavers or some kind of other ecosystem engineer to try to change and mold the landscape around them to ensure their survival when things get tough. So given that, I can see the appeal of an approach like, say, geoengineering. It seems like such an attractive solution, to be able to exert control over an otherwise uncertain world. But that appeal just comes with so many assumptions about our planet and the people who live on it. Our guest today is going to help us make sense of all of this — what geoengineering is and why it may not be the silver bullet so many of us want it to be. Dr Jane Flegal is the Program Officer for Environment at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer Charitable Trust. She previously worked as a senior policy analyst at the Energy Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center (boy, we could use a little bit of that) and received her PhD from UC Berkeley where she examined contemporary challenges in energy and climate policy through the analytic lenses of political science and public policy. Welcome to the show, Jane.

Jane Flegal: Thanks so much for having me.

Jacquelyn: I just want to get right into this because I’m really hoping that will have some, some fun and a little controversy in today’s episode. So, okay, let’s just say I’m a billionaire playboy and I want to save the world and I’ve hired you to be my consultant. And I tell you I want to use solar geoengineering. I have billions of dollars to spend on this. Money is no object. What should I do? What could I do right now? And would it work?

Jane: Well, first of all, I might suggest that you relax a little bit. [Laughter] The world does not suffer from a lack of well-intentioned billionaires. But I would say in classic fashion — this may be considered a slight punch, but I think your question raises a really interesting set of questions around solar geoengineering and how we think about coming to know and govern it. So first of all, there’s this question that you’re raising about what is the role of private funding in solar geoengineering, which we can certainly talk about. And then the second part of your question is around sort of what do we know or what do we think that we know about solar geoengineering now. And the third question might be who the hell is “we”? Which also raises a whole host of questions. And on the first question around what’s the role of private funding? Maybe I should pause for a minute and just say what solar geoengineering is super big end. So solar geoengineering (I am a broken record on this point) does not exist today. So it is a set of mostly ideas around how we might intentionally intervene in Earth’s climate to moderate the effects of global warming or climate change, and solar geoengineering in particular aims to reflect some portion of incoming energy from the Sun to cool the planet. And people often think about volcanic analogs for this idea. So this notion that historically when large volcanoes have erupted, including Mount Pinatubo, the sulfate that was injected into the atmosphere cools the planet significantly. I mean, it created a whole host of other problems, but sort of basic physics suggests that a layer of reflective aerosols in the stratosphere will have a cooling effect. So beyond sort of these rough natural analogs of volcanic eruptions in the past, very very little research on solar geoengineering has been conducted to date. The Harvard Geoengineering Research Project put out a blog post a few months ago where they tried to sort of track spending in terms of research dollars globally on the topic and I think at its height in 2016, was something like eight million dollars a year, which is really almost negligible. And the vast majority of that money has gone to some form of social scientific research and/or climate modeling. So what’s interesting about geoengineering as a term is that there’s remarkably little engineering engineering to date. And so in the wake of this kind of absence of robust public funding for the topic, there’s been some conversation about what the role of private money might be, including well-meaning or nefarious. But I think this kind of Greenfinger idea that you’ve described

Jacquelyn: I’m meaning in the scenario, but probably a bit arrogant and very ignorant.

Jane: No, I can’t imagine! But this question has come up sort of if there is kind of a vacuum in terms of public funding for this topic, ought private funding step in to fill the gap. And it could be a philanthropist; it could be private money (i.e. money from sort of a private institution like a privately-funded university). And of the arguments for more public funding to the topic, some folks find this one kind of compelling because they’re quite worried that if Jacqueline Greenfinger of the United States thinks that it’s in the world’s best interest for to start kind of spraying stuff into the sky, there aren’t obvious democratic mechanisms for governing that effort.

Jacquelyn: Even before we get to the governance part, can just logistically can someone stop me? Could I actually do this?

Jane: Well, there’s a whole debate about this. Arguably one could (if one had the resources) fly some aircraft and spray a bunch of shit in the sky — surprise to no one, that is feasible. The more complicated question is when most scientists who are interested in researching this topic talk about it, they’re often talking about more optimized deployments of geoengineering where it’s not just Looney Tune spraying stuff. If you define geoengineering as a system capable of delivering geoengineering outcomes, there’s a whole host of things you would want, including much more robust mechanisms for monitoring stratospheric chemistry and a whole bunch of monitoring systems that we don’t currently have and maybe different kinds of engineering approaches for figuring out how to tweak deployment as we learn over time, et cetera. So I would say first of all, there’s a big disconnect between most of the mainstream scientific conversation about geoengineering, which has kind of a social model that I think is a little screwy. And then the second question is the feasibility of spraying stuff in the sky is not the same thing really as a conversation about delivering geoengineering outcomes; it’s just spraying stuff in the sky and I think some people have argued that it will be quite cheap and easy to spray stuff in the sky. The question of whether that has the effects that people care about I think is much more complicated. And then there’s like a whole body of literature that I’m less engaged in around using kind of game theory to figure out like could you have counter geoengineering where one person spray stuff and some other country tries to do something to cool the planet more rapidly. It gets very complicated.

Ramesh: So Jane, I have to plead total ignorance on solar geoengineering. So I was doing some research before the show. I was digging through your Twitter feed.

Jane: Oh god.

Ramesh: No, no, no, no, no. I was just trying to figure out what this field was about as a plant ecologist. Is one of the challenges to solar geoengineering — is it not necessarily that we do know what to put into the sky, but we just don’t have an efficient way of keeping it there.

Jane: I think that both of those things are true. I actually think that the big takeaway is that the state of research is so early. I mean this is basically the twinkle in the eye of a handful of scientists and I think that that is a really important perspective to keep in mind because there’s a whole host of research questions that one might want answered in order to like do this well that haven’t yet been addressed, including like people have ideas about particle design. Could you have like self levitating particles? People have talked about using diamond dust. I mean there’s a whole host of ideas, but the truth of the matter is that the vast majority of natural or physical science on this has just been climate modeling.

Ramesh: Do you think if we use diamond dust, the plane that would deploy it would have to be named Lucy? It’s just a question.

Jane: I mean, no question! No question. I think that’s unavoidable.

Jacquelyn: So what amazes me — there’s so many things that amazed me about this conversation — but starting with when I saw you speak last summer at Breakthrough and then some of the things you said just now about how it doesn’t exist, and there are so many things that we need to know. And yet I just a couple of weeks ago was getting into a big ol’ argument on Twitter (again, it’s always Twitter) with people who act like we have to do this and we know that we have to. I mean, these are smart people who are are mostly activists. I don’t know a whole lot of science scientists that are advocating strongly for this. And the point that I made in this discussion was — there’s a reason why you typically see the solar geoengineering advocates coming out of economics or they’re not often physical scientists. They’re never ecologists, and the ecologists can always come up with really good reasons why some of these proposed ideas are silly. But what amazes me is that you have people who are saying, “This is the only thing that can save us, and we have to do it.” And they act as though there’s no uncertainty at all about this process.

Jane: Yeah, in fact I have had been very lengthy debates with folks about the question of uncertainty when it comes to this topic, because this is just such a great example of kind of the results of epistemic narrowness. I think in part because the field is so small and because a lot of the people who study at tend to be physicists or economists, although there are a lot of social scientists who’ve been engaging, at least in the last ten years. But the way that some people think about uncertainty in the climate system is very narrow. So the argument that you’ll often hear from advocates of geoengineering is, “Not all uncertainties are additive.” And in fact, if you think of uncertainty as a spread and model agreement, as you move further away from the current climate, the spread gets bigger — like we know less. And if you add geo engineering — and this is again why treating geoengineering as a noun or as a thing we know is so problematic because if you quote add geoengineering in a model, their argument is it that drives you back linearly, so the uncertainty narrows. Do see what I mean?

Jacquelyn: So the idea being that because uncertainty is like a cone getting wider into the future if solar geoengineering is (according to some of these folks) like rewinding the clock into that area of the narrower part of the cone.

Jane: I think that’s essentially right. But (as you know better than I do), that’s like a pretty narrow way to think about uncertainty. I mean, there are all sorts of nonlinear complexities in the climate system. There are kind of non-climate issues associated with geoengineering. I mean, one of the things that I’ve been pretty shocked by as someone who’s not natural or physical scientists is how little we actually know about the stratosphere. I mean, our baseline understanding of the stratosphere — to my understanding anyway — could be a lot better.

Jacquelyn: And we’re constantly cutting funding for the satellites that are monitoring some of those conditions and we’re not improving our understanding through time. Well, I mean, we could be doing better basically.

Ramesh: So Jane, when sort of discussing this idea sort of advocates minimizing uncertainty, it’s striking me that a lot of solar geoengineering advocates are really trying to think about this tool that (as you said) doesn’t necessarily exist right now as sort of a magic bullet/single pill fix for climate change. So I guess a) do you feel like advocates are casting solar geoengineering in that role of sort of magic bullet? Do you feel that way and like that they’re being cast there? Or do you feel like they are, those advocates are saying, “Yes, this is one of many tools.”

Jane: So I would be remiss if I didn’t clarify that; I will get yelled at by all of my friends and colleagues, which is to say that there are actually very few. I actually can’t think of anyone off the top of my head who was an advocate of deploying geoengineering, but there are a lot of advocates of doing more research into it — including the loudest ones who we all probably know. So they might say we need a lot more research maybe because it will tell us what the show stoppers are. Right? There are very few people who were advocates of doing it now. So that’s number one. And number two, I think there actually have been — so in the world of scientists trying to get this thing on the public agenda and kind of mainstream it into the climate conversation, they’re really doing their damnedest to say, “This is not a substitute for mitigation or adaptation,” although I actually that the adaptation stuff is more complicated. But they really are doing their best to say this is part of a portfolio approach to climate. The truth of the matter is it is the case when it comes to kind of the effective management of climate risk, even getting emissions to zero yesterday only solves part of the problem, right? We’re locked into some warming. And so what makes geoengineering and attractive idea is that you could kind of sever that link, right? That geoengineering could be used; they offer it of as a sort of peak shaving or kind of risk minimization and the context of a world with sharply reduced emissions. And I would hope increased at adaptive capacity.

Jacquelyn: So what’s interesting to me about this — I’m a paleoecologist right? And so I look to the natural experiments of the past and the closest to the things that we care about in the future. And when we talk about solar geoengineering, people often cite (as you said) volcanoes as a good example. And when I hear other people talk about this, they often say, “Oh, it’s a low risk, high reward opportunity because it’s so controllable. If it turns out that it’s not working, we can just stop it.” And these particles that we could put up in the atmosphere in theory have a low residence time. And so it’s not something that would persist for a really long time, or the effects would not persist for a long time in the earth system if we were to turn it off; it’s like if you flip the switch on, and if everything goes haywire you can just shut it down and everything will be fine. But then I think of of our analogs in terms of volcanoes and I grew up in New England and (if you grew up in New England like me) you would know of about “The Year Without a Summer”. Right? Which is this famous kind of climate events, 1816. It’s also been called the poverty year, which should tell you where we’re going here. Eighteen hundred froze to death because of these really intense climate abnormalities — that we saw decreases in global temperatures of as much as 1.3°F or 0.7°C. And here in New England it caused this massive depopulation event because people could no longer farm their farms. It snowed every every month calendar year. Farms failed; crops failed, and people picked up and moved to the Midwest. There’s a street in my town called Ohio Street because during The Year Without a Summer, everyone was just like, “Screw this,” and they packed up and they went to Ohio. And that was the street leading out of town west, right? And so when I think of events like that and that event is attributed attributed to the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. It’s like at least a year’s worth of impact from one release event, if you will, that caused a lot of widespread famine and huge economic impacts and migrations and probably people died. I mean, I just think that to say that this is just an easy fix and that if it doesn’t work then we can just stop, it makes me think, well, who is it that is most likely to be at risk and are we having conversations with those people? Do we have a good sense from the models of which countries are most likely to be affected by, say, changes in precipitation patterns that we might not be able to predict? And so I guess this is my very long winded and roundabout way of asking you about the governance side of things, right? You touched on this in the beginning — this idea that if I (the billionaire playboy) or maybe the federal government or whatever in the United States were to release some sort of substance to help cool the planet, that could have trickle down effects in other countries that may not have bought into that process. And so do we get everyone to agree? Can we even get everyone to agree? Tell me more about the politics side of it.

Jane: We’re getting into some of the thorniest issues associated with all of this stuff. I mean, I’ve sort of taken the view actually that because I’m trained in sort of the understanding the social and political implications of emerging technologies, we think a lot about kind of steering technological development early. But there’s been in geoengineering I think way too much attention to speculation about deployment scenarios relative to attention around who’s funding the science and how — because some of these issues come up even outside of the deployment question, right? Say some scientist wants to do a small scale outdoor experiment on solar geoengineering where they like spray even water vapor up into the air somewhere. So there actually was an experiment of the UK called the Spice Experiment that was funded in 2011 and then subsequently canceled. But it was basically like spraying a bathtubs’s worth of water into the sky with a balloon and a hose. It was actually remarkably inelegant in some ways. But it ended up being canceled for a whole host of complicated questions. But when you ask folks (as we did in 2013 at a workshop with a scientist and environmental practitioners outside of the US) if they feel like they have a stake in a decision to fund a very small scale experiment that will have no physical effects on their climate, they often say yes; and that is complicated, right? Because what does that imply for how we think about governing research? Is intent what makes geoengineering a matter of concern or is it the physical consequences or physical effects associated with experimentation. And if its intent, how do you think about governing that? It’s super complicated. On the deployment question that you raised about the effects of volcanic eruptions on precipitation around the world. I mean there actually have been a whole host of climate models that try to look at regional effects of quote-unquote geoengineering. But again, representation of geoengineering in climate models often tends to be quite crude. So like, turn down the Sun essentially or in more sophisticated models just imagine that things exist like covered the whole ocean and bubbles or imagine a uniform layer of aerosols or imagine that aerosols are sprayed in these optimized ways. There’s just not a great proxy for the real world for a whole host of reasons. But early studies of regional effects of deployment did things like quadruple CO2 and then put a bunch of stuff turned down the sun such that you were basically negating the warming effects of that CO2. So that’s a lot of geoengineering to negate for CO2. And what those studies found was all sorts of screwed up things at the level of regional climate in terms of precipitation and temperature. More recently I think the scientists who are interested in this have said, “Well, that’s not really quote-unquote realistic. Nobody would deploy that way. So what we should really be modeling are more optimized scenarios of deployment. We should really be looking at a different set of climate impact variables that are more meaningful to people.” And I think all of that is sort of in good faith but, again, this gets to this question of what is geoengineering and if what you’re modeling is a highly optimized rational deployment scenario, what does that tell you about the real context? Those studies tend to find a better findings for regional climates. But if you really back up and think about — I mean I often have to like unstick myself from these frameworks because if you imagine the world we’re currently operating in, if someone found out that a philanthropist or the US government had deployed geoengineering, I’m not sure it would matter at all whether you could say with any degree of certainty that some weird weather elsewhere in the world be readable to that deployment or not. You know what I mean?

Ramesh: But on the flip side, you could also falsely attributed it, right? And then that causes a whole host of complexities, right?

Jacquelyn: Like, “Hi, I’m Pakistan and this severe drought — how do I know you didn’t screw this up?” Right? And then I can use that as leverage for some other political agenda or maybe because of the uncertainty it’s entirely possible that it could be attributable, but we just don’t know. And so, how do we even have — I mean just thinking about something like the Paris Agreement or some other sort of international agreements. What would even be the framework for getting people on board? Are people working on that side of things or is it mostly argument about, “Can we do it? What will it do?”

Jane: 29:11 No, people are trying to do this. I mean, I have to say as a social scientist, I’ve taken the kind of controversial position at this stage that there really isn’t that much more useful social science to do on this at this point and part of the reason (for me anyway) I feel that way is because we are basically at a research impasse. So little science is being done that like there are actually real methodological challenges as a social scientist for speculating about a thing that doesn’t really exist. That’s a very difficult thing to get your hands around and even you’re serving members of the general public (which that has been done quite a bit), a) nobody knows what the hell it is. So if you ask for the general public, do you think we should be doing geoengineering research? Their answer is almost entirely dependent on how you frame the question. Like if you’re surveying someone who cares a lot about climate change and you say, “Should we be researching this thing which we think might save the planet?” The thing itself could be flying unicorns and everyone would be “yes”. So there are these challenges associated with it. But in terms of your question around the governance frameworks, there have been a lot of people who have taken pretty conventional approaches to this and at the Conventional on Biological Diversity, geoengineering was actually raised in 2010. There was some conversation about whether that’s the right institutional venue for kind of a ban on geoengineering deployment when it comes to carbon removal. There actually is. There are kind of a host of international laws are national laws and regulations that would oversee them. The atmosphere is just much more complicated because it’s much less well-governed. But I would say like, we tend to think about this in terms of like the US doing it or China doing it or something. But there actually was a really interesting and provocative piece by John Simons in the Breakthrough journal, which sort of made this argument that basically the way we’re thinking about geoengineering from a political — from an international perspective — is really narrow and that in fact, because it could be cheap and easy, it could be a high leverage intervention for Small Island States or countries in emerging and developing economies who want to say, “If you don’t reduce emissions, we’re just going to do this,” which could take up the politics around climate and really interesting and potentially more productive ways. So I think we just know so little about the ways this may play out. So I sort of shared John’s skepticism about kind of universalizing frameworks for geoengineering because the ethical terrain around climate policy is already so uneven that it’s hard to — this can play out in so many different ways.

Ramesh: One of the interesting things I think always comes up when you talk about the Paris Agreement is its voluntary nature and I think one of the goals is obviously like individual countries putting less carbon into the atmosphere, right? Or sucking carbon out of the atmosphere But this idea of — I don’t know how a voluntary framework would operate when you’re actually potentially putting stuff into the atmosphere that could theoretically spread around the globe. Right? So if country X decides (I’m just making up numbers here because I have no idea what I’m talking about) five pounds of unicorn diamond dust into the air, that doesn’t guarantee that unicorn diamond dust doesn’t show up over country Y, who didn’t want to put five pounds? I feel like that voluntary framework doesn’t quite fit here.

Jane: Yeah, I think it’s really hard hard to say. Some people have argued that the way forward here is to kind of do a sort of club of nations who are both willing and have the capacity to start setting norms for international research on this topic to start to lead with research and not think about this as a deployment governance challenge at this stage. But this is a difficult challenge and the research questions by the way are not at all straightforward. Well the other thing that’s interesting is about what’s happened in this conversation. If you think about other emerging technologies outside of climate — things like CRISPR gene editing or autonomous vehicles or driverless cars or whatever — those are areas where research is way out ahead of the societal conversation in a lot of respects. Part of that is because — I mean I have some hypotheses about this, like there is a public demand or public funding and private funding in those areas because there is clear commercial interests that stand to benefit there. It’s often tied up in like a national imaginaries of innovation and competitiveness and we think that’s going to cure diseases and there’s a whole history of the way that we think about medical research and innovation. If you take you engineering out of climate policy discussion, which I like to do because it’s not a noun; it doesn’t yet exist. If you just think about it in the frame of emerging technologies, a whole different set of questions might come up. A lot of the stuff we’re talking about in terms of you can’t quite contain an experiment; what counts as deployment and how do you stop it once it starts? And who should be funding it? And those things ought to apply it at the very least to genetic engineering or gene drives. And yet a lot of that stuff is moving forward. So one of the things that makes geoengineering so interesting as an emerging technology to study, is the fact that the scientists advocating for research on this had been really unsuccessful to date anyway at conjuring demand for the science, and that’s interesting. And or those people who think that geoengineering could potentially be a really important tool or at the very least that we should know if it is an important tool or not, that research past is a problem to be corrected. For others who think that we should just shouldn’t be researching this for whatever reason they have, they feel like that might reflect a legitimate decision to not fund this stuff.

Jacquelyn: So like the sort of lack of bottom up demand, it’s like a proxy for a poll. Or if people aren’t clamoring for this research then therefore there’s a lack of general support for the methodology?

Jane: Yeah. Or it’s not even like a bottom up thing. Like, look, research funding decisions get made all the time by companies and by public funding bodies, right? Like NSF or NASA or NOAA or whatever. People have been trying to advocate to get money for this stuff for a long time and the agencies seem really reluctant to fund anything beyond climate modeling and even that is pretty small. So how you interpret the absence of that demand will depend a lot on your values.

Jacquelyn: Well, do you think that that opens us up more to the billionaire playboy model of the Wild West? I think about an analog, for example, of things like de-extinction, right? Duke sanctioned research with cloning wooly mammoths. I mean, people are often telling me they’re concerned that money’s being spent on this versus conservation of living elephants and things like that. And I always tell them that the people who are cloning wooly mammoths are working on it. It’s all private funding, right? They’re not getting NSF funding for this work necessarily. And the people who are interested in cloning wooly mammoths are not necessarily interested in elephant conservation. They want the moon landing for biology, right? They’re thinking Mars landings. They are thinking of the big, big shot ideas, right. You talked a little bit about innovation and one thing that really strikes me about this idea of solar geoengineering is it feels to me almost like a cop-out. And I know I’m criticizing the idea and not necessarily the science, but this idea that, “Oh, we can just technologically save ourselves from these problems.” That some innovation or invention or something will come along and we will be saved. And this sort of growing discussions around climate adaptation sort of shifts away from a mitigation. I just keep thinking of how even among, say, the narrative around skepticism about climate change — first, it’s not us or it’s not happening; then, it’s happening but it’s natural; and then, okay it’s us, but there’s nothing we can do about it. And now I feel like even that conversation is shifting into “It’s us and we can innovate our way out of it and that will create all these great opportunities for business. And, I don’t know, that whole framework frustrates me and I can’t completely put my finger on exactly why, but I think maybe it’s just because, I dunno, I’m trying to think of an example of where this has actually worked.

Jane: Well, I have complicated views about this before because I actually do think that technology can be a super high-leverage intervention and can do good. I mean, the whole point of kind the social scientific study of innovation and technology is to say, you know, “Technology aren’t inherently good or bad.” They can be steered towards where society wants them to go; we govern science all the time. We have some control over this and the ceding of that control to some kind of like invisible hand of “this is the future we’re destined for”, that is the scariest thing to me. And not just for geoengineering but with all kinds of technologies. So when it comes to the climate problem, I think one of the things — Steve Rainer, who’s this brilliant anthropologist at Oxford has this great quote where he says, “Climate change is like a Christmas tree.” And what he means is that it can be anything to anyone. So you could just hang whatever issue you want on it; it’s just so flexible in that way. So for a lot of people, climate change is principally about a capitalist system that’s failing to produce sufficient equality or something. Or for a lot of people it’s a failure of technology. I think that given how complex the problem itself is, you kind of need a little bit of everything. We do need some people who think a lot about technology as a way to deal with the problem. You do need people who think about a broader kind of social change as a way to address the problem. And I think with something like geoengineering, which is just so inchoate, it’s sort of yet to be determined. It’s neither as scary as people think it is, nor the savior of people think it is simply because it doesn’t exist yet. But you’re kind of yucky feeling about it is something that people experience all the time and totally valid.

Jacquelyn: Yeah, and I liked what you said about meeting a diversity of approaches. And so I think maybe what I’m really responding to is this idea that any one particular approach lets us off the hook, right? We don’t have to worry about emissions because technology will save us. Or we don’t need to worry about whatever because we’ll have this one magic bullet. And I think problems are more complex than that and the solutions will have to kind of be equally complex.

Jane: Yeah, totally. I mean, yeah, I think that’s right. I don’t think that’s right. And one thing I would say is that I think, for people, I actually think that the handful of scientists who are kind of the vanguards at this field who are really spending a lot of time trying to advocate for more research on it, have done the field a disservice in a couple of ways. And one of the things is: I think this point I was trying to raise about, when you think about your engineering as compared to other emerging technologies, it’s kind of fail to conjure demand. That’s really frustrating. If you’re a scientist, you legitimately thinks it’s an important thing that could help people and ecosystems. You’re like, “What the hell?” Like, “This is worth it; we’ve the evidence sheet. The evidentiary threshold was that we show that this idea wasn’t in principle totally insane that there might be some merit here that it might help and, at that, what is the evidentiary threshold is for warranting more research?” And they’re super frustrated and I think that there’s a lot of hype, that they engage in a lot of hype because they’re so used to being dismissed as crazy technocratic weirdos and hubristic and now they’re either more dug in because they’re frustrated with people dismissing them and /or their over-claiming, they’re overconfident about what we know about the technology or the idea of the technology because they really are desperate to get it on the agenda.

Jacquelyn: Well, and it’s interesting just thinking from the perspective of how do you get people to — With so many of the other solutions or proposed solutions, you need to get people to change their behavior. But with something like solar geoengineering, you don’t; nobody has to do anything except for the person who flies the unicorn diamond plane. And so it’s interesting that there is so little, I guess, public demand for the research — let alone not necessarily the implementation of the approach, but even just the, “Let’s kind of dip our toes into this and figure out what works faith,” Which it’s interesting that we haven’t crossed that threshold.

Ramesh: So Jane, I guess the question I had is (I’m going to ask you to make an unfair statement here, unfair generalization), if we ended up getting solar geoengineering to quote-unquote work (you can’t see the big air quotes I’m putting in right now), do you think that solar geoengineering would potentially give people like a moral pass emissions reductions? Like, “Oh cool, just need to throw more dust up in the air so we can keep pouring CO2 into the atmosphere will, because we’ll just up the amount of diamond dust.” Do you think these geoengineering could run into that conundrum?

Jane: I mean, again it’s super hard to speculate.

Ramesh: It’s a totally unfairly question.

Jane: Oh, no, I love unfair questions. I’ll give it an uninformed answer. But these people talk about this as the moral hazard problem or of like a distraction. The idea of this will reduce the political will to mitigate or adapt. And I think this is an open question. I mean, what advocates of research will tell you is it will be totally insane to do solar geoengineering and not rapidly reduce emissions, and in fact go carbon negative because as emissions increase you need to do more and more and more and more geoengineering for the same effect. And it just gets super out of hand. And then if you stopped suddenly, and in the meantime you hadn’t been reducing emissions, you could, it could be really, really bad. People talk about it as a termination shock. So there will be strong incentives rooted in science to not do that. Now this gets back to this earlier point about the extent to which we live in a world where science informs rational decision making on these questions. And that’s what I mean about kind of people’s social scientists, kind of social understanding of the social affecting how they think about the science itself. And that I think is really complicated. But I will say I will be remiss if I did not make this point because this is something I find really annoying is that I made this a racist point earlier about, surveying the public about geoengineering. And often if you asked them to rank their familiarity with the topic before you ask them questions, it’s like a one or a two on a 10 point scale. But people often ask about the moral hazard, ask individuals if if their willingness to pay for emissions would go up or down once they know about geoengineering or they run experiments where they try to test that. And in my view that sort of misses the point because nobody is really concerned about Joe Schmo’s willingness to pay, right? It’s a question about political decision making, not the Joe Schmo. So I want to be symmetrical in my critique, not just of the natural and physical science, but the social science too because I think we really need to take a step back in this domain and think about what are the societally irrelevant questions that we want answers to and what are the best tools for answering those questions. And that’s been kind of difficult to do in part because there’s been not a lot of funding. So how do you think about structuring the funding to do that?

Jacquelyn: So I guess to close (to riff a little bit off of what you just said), what do you think is the next step, or what is the question that you would like to know or even what would you like folks to think about or focus on?

Jane: Um, God, that’s complicated. Especially after I just said I don’t feel like there’s much more social science to be on the topic, but I do think broadening the conversation about this outside of the really narrow set of experts circles in which has happening is really important. There really are very few people who know about and talk about this. I mean, I think it’s getting slightly better, but if we want to imagine a future world where if we think it went about thinking about the future as kind of a shared space that’s not yet determined in terms of geoengineering, you really want to engage a range of people including disciplinary perspectives like the experts circles that are studying this as we’ve already discussed are quite narrow. So a broadening of know more inclusion I think would be tremendously helpful and I think in part because I really feel like we really need to stop talking about geoengineering as a noun and we really need to confront some of the uncertainties head-on, and not just uncertainties in terms of intermodel spread. I think we need to be much more honest about this and we need to be honest about the model of science and policy that suggests that more science resolves controversy. I think it really, really needs to be needs to be interrogated. So we need to get really serious about what happens if we do a lot more research on geoengineering and the uncertainties expand rather than contract.

Jacquelyn: Well, now that you’ve said are multi-year international agenda for geoengineering — no, thank you so much. I know we asked you to basically represents all of these perspectives and fields, (we’ve only scratched the surface really), but thank you so much for talking to us about this today.

Jane: Thank you so much for having me; this is really fun. This is really magical diamond dust forever, you know?

Jacquelyn: Yeah, that can be the name of our private consulting for firm. And if nothing else, I’m just really glad that I got to talk to you just because it was really awesome to have someone say that geoengineering is not a thing.

Jane: Anytime you want, I’ll be on call.

Jacquelyn: Awesome, cool. I’ll just get a little, like, clip of you saying that and whenever anyone brings it up, I’m just gonna play that clip — like geoengineering is not a thing.

Jane: Please do make t-shirts while you’re at it.

Jacquelyn: Awesome. So now we’re going to transition to a new segment we’ve been experimenting with on the unexpected science of climate change. Our listeners were demanding more science and so this is our attempt to deliver based on our listeners’ feedback. And so Ramesh has found an interesting study about a carbon dioxide in the oceans and coral reef fishes. So, Ramesh, do you want to break this down?

Ramesh: Yeah, sure. So, as a biologist, to me climate change can be seen not only in the atmosphere but it can be seen in the biological world. And so that’s what I pay attention to quite a bit. And so when this really interesting study was looking at — so as we know, there’s CO2 in the atmosphere and that’s acidifying our oceans and what a lot of researchers look at is they are trying to figure out the effect of future levels of CO2 on aquatic life. And so what they’ll do is they’ll run experiments where they will have fish, for example, like reef fish (think about like Nemo and Dory; maybe violated some sort of copyright there). But anyway, Nemo and Dory swimming in a tank where they’ve sort of bubbled in a lot of CO2 and so they’ve lowered the pH. And they’re trying to see what are those fish do in those future conditions? And so they’ve actually found (a lot of research has found) that when you increase the levels of CO2 in the water, the fish has behavior actually change. They’re often more susceptible to predators. But this new research or relatively new research took another angle on things; and it was really interesting. So I didn’t know this. But the ocean (on a daily basis), the co two levels actually goes — it fluctuates. So during the day it’s low and during the night it is higher and that’s because the coral photosynthesize and suck up a lot of that carbon dioxide during the day. And so, um, so you have these sort of fluctuating levels of CO2 that these reef fish are dealing with. And so what they did was they exposed (in the lab) — they exposed reef fish to fluctuating levels of CO2 rather than constant levels of CO2. And they found that with those fluctuations, the behavioral changes that were normally exhibited under a flat CO2 — those behavioral changes were not as severe with fluctuating CO2. And so it was this really interesting idea that these low CO2 pockets, these low CO2 windows during the day actually provide some sort, almost like a climate change refuge for the fish. And so it was just an interesting take on getting a more nuanced understanding of CO2 climate change in the ocean and how it impacts fish behavior.

Jacquelyn: So this, this is really cool because as someone who studies long term environmental change, my study system encompasses in some cases thousands or tens of thousands of years, right? And so within those windows we see a lot of environmental variability. And in contrast, when I go out to do an experiment (which I sometimes do), that experiment my only run for a couple of years and it’s a lot harder to pick up that environmental variability in a shorter time window. And so I think we’ve only recently started to appreciate the importance of a dynamic changing environment and how that environmental variability or that dynamism might actually give us a little bit of a buffer in terms of how species are coping with climate change. So we think about — you mentioned a refuge. Well, these, these refuges (or refugia, as we say in biology), are places that these species might be able to hang out when the surrounding environment is less optimal; and it basically allows that ecosystem to become more resilient because you have basically a safe haven, a place that you can hide out. But the idea of a refuge is that it’s not meant to stand in place of your home. This is not your forever home, right? The idea is that you go back later, right? So you hang out in the refuge while things are crappy at home and then you come back when the conditions get better. And so essentially these refugia buy these species are these ecosystems a little bit more time and might kind of create a little bit of a buffer in terms of the impacts of climate change. And so this is kind of a cool example of that, that the idea is not that these coral reef fish are going to be totes okay (in the next few centuries of warming if we don’t do anything), but rather that we might have a little bit more of a buffer; Or they might even help explain why in some cases we don’t see the immediate impacts of warming and some of these systems — maybe because resilience built in and that’s a good thing.

Ramesh: Right! And so it’s not a physical refuge; it’s a time refuge. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we should — there were some other nuances in there about the limits of how big that refuge can be and whether or not those behavioral shifts occur at certain levels even with variability. So there were some interesting nuances in there as well, but I didn’t know that CO2 in the water could effect — so for example, one of the things that it does is it changes which side of the fish the fish favors almost. Almost its handedness. Like what a weird thing that co two in the water can do to fish behavior. So it was a really interesting study, not only from a purely biological perspective.

Jacquelyn: Wait, “hand”? Wouldn’t it be its “fin-edness”?

Ramesh: I guess it would be its fin-edness; that’s correct. That is correct; it would be its fin-edness. But yeah, so that was, that was the cool little study I stumbled upon recently.

Jacquelyn: Oh, that’s awesome. Well, today’s show I think had a lot of cool themes of resilience and ingenuity and whether those are communities coming together to lift up workers affected by the shutdown; to totally diamonds unicorn dust approaches to solving one of the world’s most persistent problems; to be in a little Nemo and finding a way to live to swim another day. And I think, you know, I think at least I could certainly use a little bit more of that sense of ingenuity and resilience in my day to day life, especially when we’re constantly bombarded by the negativity in the news. So, I hope you enjoyed our show as much as we do. Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell and Eric Mack. Katherine Peinhardt runs our social media and Medium page and Joe Stormer is producing fantastic transcripts of our show. So if you would prefer to read them, we have those up on our Medium page as well. And so for my cohost Ramesh Laungani, I thank you so much for listening; and hang in there.

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A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651

A podcast about life on the warming planet. Hosted by @JacquelynGill and @DrRamBio. Produced by @612to651