Repost: Geoengineering is dangerous, irresponsible, and unavoidable

This was originally posted in February of 2016, before I came to Freethoughtblogs. I’m reposting it here because I think it’s worth having around, and because it’s relevant to a post I’m currently working on relating to global dimming

Over the last couple decades, the world’s business and political leaders have gradually come to understand that climate change is something that cannot be ignored. Every year, the immediacy and severity of the problem have become clearer. Sea level rise, seasonal changes, and even evolutionary changes in response to the rise in planetary temperature have all made it clear that the entire planet is changing around us, and that ignoring it could have devastating results.

Living, as we do, in a society that values money so highly, some of the responses have been predictable. In particular, businesspeople like Bill Gates have been pushing the idea of geoengineering as a solution. Geoengineering, in this context, is a catch-all phrase for deliberately tinkering with Earth’s climate and the mechanisms that affect it. The problem with this is that the term is so broad it’s almost useless. It can apply to things like planting more trees, and it can also apply to colossal structures in space to reduce incoming sunlight.The image is a diagram showing a cut-out of a section of Earth's surface, with visual representations and text describing different geoengineering methods. The methods described are: Reflective aerosols, cloud seeding, and space mirrors (all under the heading Solar Radiation Management); forestation, CO2 capture from air plus storage, CO2 capture from fossil fuels plus storage, and ocean iron fertilization (all under the heading

One of the most commonly discussed geoengineering solutions is iron fertilization of the ocean. The basic idea is simple – iron is a limiting nutrient in the ocean, so putting iron particles in the ocean will stimulate the growth of photosynthetic plankton, which will pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. The idea is that when the plankton die, a sizable amount of their mass will sink to the bottom of the ocean taking that carbon with it.

It’s not really clear how well this works in practice. Some studies have indicated that it would work, while others indicate that it might not have much effect, and some people have raised concerns that it might actually result in eutrophication and dead zones.

Newly published research now indicates that because iron is not the only low-availability nutrient in the ocean, the algal bloom from iron fertilization in one part of the ocean might pull other nutrients, like nitrates and phosphates, out of the water, starving plankton farther downstream along the oceanic currents.

It’s tempting to simply wave away geoengineering as a bad idea that we should bury and be done with. There are countless ways that it could go horribly wrong, especially when enacted by billionaires like Gates and his ilk, who have little to no understanding of the ecosystems with which they want to tamper. With the possible exception of planting more trees and creating more wild spaces (which would, without question, work), pretty much every proposal for geoengineering has the potential to have devastating side effects that could make life on Earth much more difficult.

There’s one compelling reason not to throw it away altogether. The reality is that we are already engaged in geoengineering, and there is no question that the path we’re currently on will end badly. Like it or not, humanity has become a force of nature. The size of our population and the scale of our technology mean that we exert a global influence of the chemical makeup of our planet’s oceans, atmosphere, land masses. Currently, we are engaged in the kind of geoengineering that Svante Arrhenius calculated was possible over a century ago – raising the planet’s temperature by increasing greenhouse gas concentrations.

For the sake of our own long-term survival, not to mention the rest of life on Earth, we need to come to terms with the fact that our species exerts a global influence, and we need to take deliberate control of that influence. We are already geoengineers, we’re just not taking responsibility for it. It’s past time to do more than simply work on reducing our fossil fuel use – we need to think about how we manage the surface of the planet we live on, and how we can manage it for the benefit of all life on Earth – ourselves included.

Because right now, we still seem to be pretending that we can just stop having a planetary impact, and with our population headed for 10 billion in just a couple decades, that is the one option that is no longer available to us.

Unfortunately, life costs money, and my income from this blog has yet to meet minimum wage for the time I put into it. If you can afford to, please consider pledging a couple dollars per month or so through my Patreon. This will help me continue creating and improving this blog by keeping a roof over my head, and food in my carnivorous pets so they don’t eat me. Crowdfunding requires a crowd, so if you can pitch in a little, it would help a great deal!


  1. says

    We have been geoengineering. It’s just that we’re doing it horribly wrong. I don’t think (as you say) that we have any idea how to do it right.

  2. says

    The field of climate science, and the climate action movement are both basically an effort to figure out how to do it right before we kill ourselves.

    Simply “not doing it” stopped being an option long, long ago. I don’t think that has to be a bad thing, and I don’t want to go back to some pre-industrial state or anything, it just means that we have to actually take responsibility for what we have created/become, and move to a different stage of civilization. We can’t avoid that move, and I’d like it to be a change that benefits everyone, which is why I keep advocating for climate action that involves radical changes to how we do things in order to make it possible for humanity and the rest of the biosphere to thrive, as much as possible, on a hotter, less predictable world.

  3. says

    I don’t want to go back to some pre-industrial state or anything

    Even pre-industrial civilizations weren’t carbon neutral or sustainable. For example, there were considerable shortages of trees for ships’ masts after the Napoleonic wars, and European cathedral-builders were wasting entire forests of old growth on their stupid temples. If we go back to the last sustainable human civilizations, it’s pre-hellenic Greece. Or, before agriculture.

  4. jenorafeuer says

    Heck, a good chunk of the reason for the ‘gold rush’ to North America was to do with the trees. The sailing ships of the time needed the main mast to be a single large tree, and England didn’t really have any trees left big enough for that well before the Napoleonic wars. For England at the time, losing access to the source of big trees in North America would have meant the end of the empire.

  5. StevoR says

    @ ^ jenorafeuer : Even before that there was the massive deforestation of the Cedars of Lebanon, the renowned tree on their flag, (Cedrus libani) see :

    which was in trouble as far back as the Roman Empire with Hadrian declaring an “imperial forest” of them in order to try to save them perhaps the first or precursor to national parks?

    Incidentally, that iconic tree is still in trouble incl from Global Overheating :

    I also thought I remembered reading somewhere that an ancient civilisation (Indus Valley?) was responsible for massive deforestation that created an Indian-Pakistani desert but a bit of googling ahs failed tyo find any confirmation of this suggesting climate change specifically a mega-drought played more of a role instead if its the case I’m thinking of which I’m not sure.


    Good article and well worth the repost here. BTW Abe Drayton have you read Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters’ book on the geoengineering question? ( )

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