Will Climate Engineering Really Save Us? Do Me a Favour

Yves here. It’s a breath of fresh air to see a simple dismissal of risky, untested geo-engineering schemes as a way to pretend we don’t need to make wide-spread changes to how we run our lives to forestall the worst climate outcomes. Remember, our tech touts haven’t even been able to make retail store self-scanners increase productivity.

Having said that, there is one geo-engineering measure I favor…because it is actually built environment engineering. Paint/coat every feasible flat surface possible with sun-reflective materials, like titanium dioxide. The loss of ice white polar expanses and their replacement with better-heat-absorbing ground or sea surfaces has been a serious accelerant of global warming. We can reverse some of that with pretty cheap and not difficult-to-implement measures….assuming political will, a capacity sorely in absence.

And speaking of how power outages are affecting Oregon (mentioned below), a friend in Eugene reports that residents in neighboring Springfield are either boiling water or have decamped to hotels in areas not subject to the “boil water” warning. The friend has power but still no Internet, and the lack of connectivity is wreaking havoc for local businesses. He says Comcast says it has no idea why the Internet is not working, which is not a good sign.

By Chrissy Stroop, ex-evangelical writer, speaker and advocate, and co-editor of the essay anthology ‘Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church’. A senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, her work has also appeared in Dame Magazine, Foreign Policy, The Boston Globe, Playboy, Political Research Associates and other outlets, including peer-reviewed academic journals. Originally published at openDemocracy

Extreme storms hit much of the United States at the weekend, leaving more than 350,000 Americans without power. According to poweroutage.us, as of Monday morning over 30,000 residents remained without power in my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon. To add insult to injury, we were hit with disinformation about when and how we could expect power to be fully restored.

To deal with the crisis, our county, Multnomah, declared a state of emergency and opened shelters, but at least two people appear to have died of hypothermia. During the storm, which initially left 15% of Portland without power during sub-zero temperatures, a massive fir tree broke near the base of its trunk across the street from where I live, causing damage to a local business.

Portland, which is known for its generally cool, rainy, mild climate, rarely sees temperatures this low. Oddly enough, it was while the snowstorm raged outside my windows that I first read the news that 2023 has been officially confirmedthe hottest year on record (and fifth hottest in the US). Of course, as climate change raises the global average temperature, we are going to continue seeing more extreme and catastrophic weather events of all kinds.

Americans dealt with no fewer than 28 natural disasters doing $1bn of damage or more in 2023 (the previous record for billion-dollar disasters, established in 2020, was 22). They include the wildfire that devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui, tornadoes, floods, drought, cyclones, and hail and racked up a total of $92.9bn in damages, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While the economic impact may be tallied up, I suppose, the horrific human costs extracted by the worst disasters are clearly incalculable.

So, naturally, The New York Times has chosen the start of 2024 to run a cheery 5,000-word report on the heroic potential of ‘geoengineering’, or ‘climate engineering’, to solve the world’s climate woes. Climate despair, after all, is bad for business. And if good old-fashioned human ingenuity, “disruption,” and capitalism got us into this mess, then surely they can get us out, right?

For those unfamiliar with the term, the report defines geoengineering as “human interventions in Earth’s natural systems in order to reap societal benefits even in the face of unclear risks.”

That might sound benign enough. We could probably even argue that any attempt to stop the continuous rise of global average temperature qualifies as geoengineering under such a broad definition. But cutting carbon emissions, which seems to me like the only realistic way forward, is clearly not what proponents of geoengineering have in mind when they use the term. They are, instead, hoping “to reduce the impacts of climate change and to buy us more time as we transition to a zero-carbon world,” often with grandiose projects that, even if feasible, might have serious unintended consequences.

The Times’s reporting focuses on a proposal by British glaciologist John Moore and his colleague Michael Wolovick to construct a massive underwater barrier in Greenland’s Disko Bay, deflecting a warm water current away from the Jakobshavn Glacier and thereby, perhaps, staving off some of the sea ice loss that is a key factor in the acceleration of global warming. Moore believes it could be done for a cost of about $500m and hopes to try the same approach in Antarctica, where he reckons, about $50bn could save a critical glacier called Thwaites.

If this sounds like it might be a bad idea to you, you’re not alone, though you have to read more than half of the piece before learning many glaciologists find this proposal “technically and ethically problematic,” with the potential to do serious ecological damage to, for example, nearby fisheries. The possible timelines to even attempt interventions of this nature would also run to at least a decade in the case of Greenland, and longer for Antarctica.

At the risk of channelling my inner Greta Thunberg, I don’t think we have that kind of time – particularly when we know we could make a more immediate difference by cutting CO2 emissions. Let’s imagine the kind of funding Moore and Wolovick need for their half-baked plan was available. Wouldn’t it be better to spend it on replacing polluting energy infrastructure with proven greener technology?

Infrastructure improvements may seem unsexy and unheroic, but to my mind, tech-utopian hero worship is one of the social scourges of our time. A reinvigoration of collective solidarity and a commitment to making major infrastructural improvements seems much more likely to lead us to a better future.

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  1. ambrit

    My money is on The Jackpot ushering in a long term solution. World temperature rise is “baked in” at this point. Right now, we would be best served by mitigation and adaptation strategies. After all, this is not the first time the Earth’s climate has warmed this much potentially higher than the Pre-Industrial Age baseline.
    Climate warming is an unintended byproduct of the Terran human species tendency to view itself as being “in control” of all it surveys.
    Terran humans may not do so well but the Earth will carry on, just as it has done for the last few billion years.
    My favourite perspective on all this is the evangelical idea that Global Warming is Ye Adversary’s plan for Infernofying the Earth’s surface.
    The past three million years: https://oz4caster.wordpress.com/2014/12/07/three-million-years-of-climate-change/

    1. The Rev Kev

      Fully agree that world temperature rise is “baked in” at this point and maybe the last real point in time where we could have done something about it was in the Carter admin. But people did not want to hear that message so here we are 47 years later and this climate-change can that we have been kicking down the road is now at the end of a cul de sac. So all these Larry Lightbulb ideas of building massive underwater barriers are beyond our technology and just cannot be done. We do not even understand our planet enough to know what the effects of building one of these things would even be. It would be better to build gigantic electric fans at the north pole to try to keep that region cool. I’m sure that there would be a Bezos or a Musk willing to do so for a fee just like that the billionaire CEO in the film “Don’t Look Up” – and with similar results.


    2. digi_owl

      Beyond predating personal computing devices, i dear say Soylent Green the movie looks more and more prophetic every day.

  2. Joe Well

    Re: power outages in Oregon, it is striking how often the power goes out in suburban areas here in Boston (several times a year), and how rarely it does in denser areas, often years without a major outage. For the early days of the Jackpot, I’d rather be in a city.

    1. jackiebss63

      I live in upstate NY. We have one or two power outages on average every year. They usually las two to three hours. NYSEG our power company does a great job keeping the power on.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Its mostly down to density of circuits. In urban area, there are multiple individual circuits to fall back on in the event of failure – in rural areas there is an inevitable lower number for settlements and individual houses.

      I don’t know US standards, but in the US the general standard is that for a population area of 80,000 and above, there should be three separate circuits (usually 110KV) serving the area – this assumes that at any one time one will be under maintenance, so there is scope for one line going down without power cuts.

    1. BrooklinBridge

      He who Controls The Weather Will Control The World

      Given the amount of hot air coming out of each and every politician’s mouth in the US, 24*365, that is a remarkably accurate statement.

    2. clarky90

      It is The Sun (our star) that is the single largest factor in Earth’s weather. That is why it is cooler at night, warmer during the day. Usually cooler in winter, warmer during summer. Factor in the sun spot cycles. (solar maximum/minimum). The earth, sun, planets, moon orbits are all unstable (they have wobbles).

      The sun periodically ejects energy blasts in our direction causing cataclysmic die-offs.

      “Global temperature variation during the geological periods. During the last 500 million years the earth’s climate has alternated between a frigid “Ice House” and a steaming “Hot House”, like the world of dinosaurs. Line 1: source [29]; Line 2: source [30]”.


      The idea of geo-engineering is delusional. How can you stifle volcanos and earthquakes? Influence the sun and the stars? Foolish, foolish, puny humans…..? “Legends” in our own minds….


      1. clarky90

        “When at the summit of his power, King Cnut (Canute) ordered a seat to be placed for him on the sea-shore when the tide was coming in; thus seated, he shouted to the flowing sea, “Thou, too, art subject to my command, as the land on which I am seated is mine; and no one has ever resisted my commands with impunity. I command you, then, not to flow over my land, nor presume to wet ihe feet and the robe of your lord.” The tide, however, continuing to rise as usual, dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leaped backwards, saying: “Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, (aka…Oligarchs) for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.”

  3. rick shapiro

    Don’t forget that climate chaos is more than merely net global temperature rise. Even if painting structure surfaces could balance polar albedo change (not even remotely feasible), the result would be weakening of temperature difference between high and low latitudes. The consequent disruption to the polar vortex and the gulf stream would be a major disruption to agriculture and to weather.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    This discussion can get quite annoying due to an absence of definitions with regard to climate engineering. It encapsulates a very wide range of technologies, from cloud/sea seeding to direct CO2 extraction to tree planting to old fashioned engineering (especially with regard to the proposals to prevent glacier collapse).

    There are plenty of climate engineering proposals that are relatively low risk – such as using biochar and olivine in soil amelioration, and also possibly some (limited) sea seeding. And an obvious one is simply encouraging natural afforestation. Others are potentially enormously expensive and risky, although arguably not as risky as doing nothing.

    The problem is that climate engineering is inevitable, because there is very little to stop individual countries from doing it if they see its in their interest – China has already invested a lot in regional level schemes such as cloud seeding in the Himalaya to try to increase snow/ice cover. But what is in an individual countries interest is not necessarily in global interest.

    1. thousand points of green

      Natural wetland restoration would also be good in that regard. Every wetland that was ever drained for agriculture should be reflooded and either allowed to regrow-to, or deliberately planted-to, carbon sucking swamp and marsh vegetation. Such vegetation would sink beneath the water as it dies, taking its carbon with it and out of the atmosphere in the immediate short-term.

      This of course includes peatland re-wetting and restoration.

  5. JonnyJames

    It seems that in most of Europe, the electrical lines have been put underground and the electrical infrastructure better maintained. When I lived in the Netherlands, I don’t recall ever having a power outage, and they have some windy, stormy weather.

    The US has an infamously deteriorated electrical infrastructure. I would say this is another indicator of institutional corruption and long-term rot.

    Climate engineering? My sarcastic, twisted joke is that we should start up a full-scale nuclear war with Russia and China. We can “win” the war by a massive first strike, and then Nuclear Winter will ameliorate Global Warming. It’s a win-win for the West: we can get rid of the evil Rooskies, and Commie Red China, while solving the climate change problem at the same time.

    As digi_owl commented above: then we can start a Soylent Green commodity market, get in on the ground floor, and make a KILLING! It’s a perfect solution

    1. thousand points of green

      All joking aside, I await the day when the ChinaGov has had enough waiting around, and decides to wrap the planet in a lower-stratosphere level layer of reflective sulfate particles.

        1. podcastkid

          It’s a joke, right? Main thing that would go wrong: radiation.

          Even if you put them in bunker busters, it wouldn’t focus the energy downwards that much I’m thinking. And I have doubts simply the mechanical energy released would match the energy of normal earth/fault movements that set off volcanoes.

  6. Boshko

    re: painting with titanium dioxide

    One [geo] engineering tool I’ve always wondered about is the solar shingle. What if every new construction or new roof was required to have solar shingles? What would the energy production look like? Would it be meaningful, or would we run into grid and/or storage limitations in actually harnessing the energy?

    1. Felix_47

      I put on very light colored reflective shingles on two years ago. This was in Southern CA inland where it gets really hot. It is impressive in how it decreased use of the AC. The biggest effect was evening’s and nights because it kept the attic cool. In the late afternoon that hot attic radiates down.

    2. Paul Art

      The utility parasites have already scuppered Solar. Witness the decimation of the Solar industry in California of all places recently. I think Senior Citizens particularly the rich ones will strenuously object since I suspect many of them invest in their local utility companies to make nice above average returns with zero risk. I have long wondered why there is never any outrage about the high electricity rates until one of my colleagues during a discussion of investment opportunities recommended, “look up investing in utilities, you should be able to get 5-6% easy” and I went AHA!”

  7. ISL

    “cutting carbon emissions, which seems to me like the only realistic way forward…” Well yes, but it presumes an economic system that prioritizes the reasonable, which we do not have.

    In its absence, while awaiting enough damage from natural disasters to persuade the Illuminati class to allow the incentives to be changed in the economic system, geo-engineering provides a little of the one non-renewable resource – time – to grow up* as a species.

    *Realistically, its unlikely – but one can hope for the Star Trek future, not the Blade Runnery future

    1. Doug

      In which we are saved by an alien species when we develop warp speed capability?
      Yeah, that’s pretty much looking like our only hope now, as clearly we can’t save ourselves.

  8. Jackman

    Actually, in the US we started a very effective geo-engineering program for climate change three years ago with the arrival of Covid 19, which met neo-liberal health care and government indifference at the perfect moment to insure a steady ongoing reduction in longevity and health in the one country with the highest carbon footprint. As far as I can see, it now appears to be fully accepted by the public, and is working very well. Perhaps it’s a little slow, but I suspect the population-wide massive build-up in immune dysregulation could bring some periodic flourishing. I find myself now much more optimistic about the future….

    1. steppenwolf fetchit

      The immune disregulation will also make other disease-waves more mass-lethality effective. Including cancer over the next few decades.

      The social scene will become so dystopian that America’s young people will lie flatter than China’s young people and boycott reproduction even more than the young people of China.

      All part of the Long Cull plan.

  9. NYMutza

    Painting everything white is not a good idea due to the intense reflections it would cause. Has anyone studied the impact of intense sunlight reflection on wildlife as well as humans? Will humans be suffering cataracts in their 30s instead of their 70s? LED streetlights are very intense and do disturb wildlife as well as humans out at night.

  10. barefoot charley

    Seventy percent of carbon emissions come from 100 corporations, some private like ExxonMobil, some state-owned, some in the squishy middle like PEMEX. If we were serious, those corporations would have to dispose of their own garbage. This won’t start until someone starts it. Yes, carbon capture is ridiculously expensive and unproven at scale–like the geo-engineering schemes. Yes, the costs could ruin some of our worst polluters. Aren’t they supposed to go out of business anyway? If only.

    1. jefemt

      I was out shoveling snow on Monday MLK Jr. day–sort of a Holiday. … have two 150 foot x 20′ roadways, plus two big parking areas. 1.75 hours of work. I counted 13 private jets headed east- I assume to Boston, Chicago, NYC, or Miami… minus 15 degrees f… pretty interesting noise from the craft. One blasting off every ten minutes or so.
      I am the only one not using a snow blower in our part of town. A few have electric blowers, most use gasoline. I call my shovel Gym.

      I am on the east flight path- I assume that few headed west to the Bay area, that I did not see. I did NOT notice any of them conspicuously spewing contrail chemicals to build clouds. We see a lot of that from the jets out of Malmstrom AFB. They fly in a grid, and it shows!
      This just one rocky mountain town with a jet port in bumphuc— I imagine there were many more in Davos, Aspen, Jackson, yada bo bada. No body seems to think or care about their daily , in the moment, actions.

      Started another Weisman Book- Countdown, Alan Weisman pub 2013… opening scene in a tired worn out dewatered and polluted Israel and Gaza, in the midst of appropriation wars. The main tool deployed by Palestinians, and devout Hassidics as countermeaures, is The Womb. Overwhelm the enemy with population! Hungry mouths needing food, water, shelter. I have not heard the 10/7 attack, and the subsequent reaction and extirpation, framed in those terms in the MSM.
      And it is happening all over the world.

      No harm it white paint, but it does appear to me it is game over. Read The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, gain some equanimity, and prepare to watch many many suffer over the coming decades. That suffering may well drool right into our laps.

  11. GC54

    The En-ROADS climate/energy simulator has been used to assess the impact of COP28 aspirations. Needless to say, more is required than those to get below +2 C let alone to +1.5

    Anyway, a potentially useful, well documented tool to fiddle with albeit without an explicit geoengineering adjuster.

  12. Craig Dempsey

    Two big problems affecting our response to global warming (or, as climatologist Katharine Hayhoe calls it, Global Weirding) are green washing and what I would call green trashing. Green washing covers many dodgy practices from carbon capture to “clean” coal to most geo-engineering proposals. Green trashing is my name for deep resistance to doing all things that could help stop CO2 emissions while often saving money as well. Of course lighter colored roofs save money and help the environment. The last time I replaced my roof I asked for the lightest color the roofer had in his book, which got me an off-white shingle with just a little brown for that “architectural” look. Why are new houses still built almost never paying attention to details like that, simple ones, like which way is the sun shining on the house? Why are our bike paths, sidewalks, and mass transit still so poor and chaotically built? I too now live in Portland, and it is better on these things than metro Kansas City, Missouri, where I was before, but not by enough. Take a look at Not Just Bikes. Then again, America cannot even do reproductive justice right, and that is also a key to limiting population and saving the environment. Are people blind to the danger of Jackpot, or are they just so suicidally depressed that they just want to hurry up and get it over with? I especially wonder that about the builder of a new neighborhood I saw a while back near Lincoln, Nebraska that had entirely black shingles on every house. It was depressing just to look at!

  13. WillD

    Geo-engineering? Of course, what a clever idea. Let’s not bother changing any of our polluting habits and play God by just blocking the sunlight from the planet for a few hours every day to let it cool down a bit.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  14. MFB

    We’ve been engineering the planet for ten thousand years. Global warming is geoengineering. Oddly enough, its implications were not noticed until it was too late to stop it. Gosh, I wonder whether the same might happen with other forms of geoengineering such as increasing global reflectivity? Nah, we’ve learned our lesson. Haven’t we?

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Sorry, you do not get to redefine terms. This is the definition of geoengineering:

      The deliberate large-scale manipulation of an environmental process that affects the earth’s climate, in an attempt to counteract the effects of global warming.

      Global warming was never an intended outcome. It is an accidental by-product.

      Concern trolling also earns you demerits. Please read and respect our site Policies if you intend to remain in good standing.

  15. podcastkid

    What was that piece where Baxter Black was writing about corruption? To do mitigation I think it’ll have to be one sector at a time. Agriculture has people participation (small farm advocates), but industry and energy production might as well be completely controlled by crooks. Change food production quickly, and maybe industry [+ voters & PMC] will get the idea.

    I was just enlarging the pages of the little book here https://navdanyainternational.org/publications/regeneration-is-life/

  16. jansen

    climate change has two components; greenhouse gases and aerosols. while greenhouse emissions warm the earth in the short and long term, aerosols which are also produced by burning fossil fuels cool the earth in the short term thus offsetting the warming effect at least in some portion. aerosols are sulfurous particles and primary cause of air pollution. any improvement in the air quality also cause the aerosol count in the atmosphere to drop which lessens their cooling effect. this is the weird result of facts cited above, if you use less fossil fuels and more renewable energy or even use ‘cleaner’ types of coal or petrol, you’ll cause the earth to warm significantly faster. the exact cooling force of the aerosols are unknown and poorly researched.

    Global Warming Acceleration: Causes and Consequences : https://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2024/AnnualT2023.2024.01.12.pdf

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