Two Books on Geoengineering Climate

YOU’VE HEARD plenty of bad news on the climate lately. And there’s more to come.

Might geoengineering be good news? Geoengineering is the term for the deliberate intervention into climate processes in order to lower the planet’s temperature. If you haven’t heard of it, you will. Geoengineering ideas range from the relatively benign, such as reflecting more sunlight back to space by painting roofs white, to the truly monumental, such as fertilizing the ocean with iron to increase the growth of carbon-dioxide-sucking plankton. These ideas are not being promulgated by the insane, and geoengineering is, in the view of many, myself included, the endeavor that will either ensure a longer survival for our species or hasten our downfall.

Jeff Goodell’s How to Cool the Planet and Eli Kintisch’s Hack the Planet are important first books in this field and are required reading for anyone who understands the awful magnitude of the mess we are now in. Both books cover the personalities, science, politics, and ethics surrounding how — and whether — humans should launch global projects to calm a carbon-agitated climate. The University of Calgary’s David Keith and Stanford University’s Ken Caldeira emerge as leading lights — and thoughtful evaluators — of geoengineering. Keith is a lover of the Arctic, where he has spent considerable time, and the builder of a prototype artificial tree. Caldeira is a climate modeler doing pioneering studies of the most doable, inexpensive, and daunting geoengineering scheme of all, what Kintisch calls “the Pinatubo option” — regularly loading tons of sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect more sunlight back to space. A single nation or even a very wealthy individual (and Bill Gates is funding geoengineering research) could undertake such a project, but the political and ethical considerations are many and fraught.

Both authors give the general reader the basics of geoengineering, enough that one can emerge from either book well acquainted with the field. However, Goodell’s may appeal more to Orion readers, given its personable voice, clear prose, and frequent moments of lyricism and dark humor. Discussing the post-2007 IPCC predictions for ocean-level rise, Goodell says of his native Silicon Valley, “If my grandchildren want to visit my hometown, they’ll have to put on diving gear.” When he brings his inquisitive son along during his interview with iconoclastic Scottish inventor and engineer Stephen Salter, it becomes a fetching and illuminating scene. Goodell’s visit to Keith’s prototype CO2 air-capture machine also shows his good eye for detail. How to Cool the Planet is, I think, the most important book of environmental reporting at least since The End of Nature, possibly since Silent Spring. Yes, geoengineering is that big a deal, and Goodell is a thoughtful and likable guide.

Kintisch’s book is the more journalistic of the two, and Kintisch, a reporter for Science, has a reporter’s penchant for inventing catchphrases. Geoengineering becomes planethacking — an interesting term, though Kintisch doesn’t unpack the connotations as he might have. The leaders of geoengineering are the Geoclique. There’s a Red Team and a Blue Team, and I had to keep flipping back to remind myself which color was the pro-planethacking group and which was not. Distracting as this can be, Kintisch is especially strong on the stories of scientists gathering to grapple with geoengineering ideas and ramifications (such as the effects of geoengineering on regional precipitation) and on the right wing’s interest in climate intervention as a substitute for the hard but achievable work of deeply reducing emissions. He notes insightfully that “strategies that involve blocking the Sun turn a pollution problem — there’s too much carbon dioxide in the air — into a temperature problem — it’s too hot. That fits with a longtime argument among climate denialists that global temperatures rise primarily from solar activity or natural cycles, and not carbon dioxide.”

Both books should be read. And at least two more books on geoengineering and/or weather modification are forthcoming: James Rodger Fleming’s Fixing the Sky, and a title from the respected British science writer Oliver Morton. With all of this work available, environmentalists have no reason to be blindsided by or ill informed about geoengineering.

Christopher Cokinos is an American poet and writer of nonfiction on nature and the environment. He is the winner of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award, the Fine-Line Prize for Lyric Prose (from Mid-American Review), and the Glasgow Prize for an Emerging Writing of Nonfiction. His essays, poems and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Iowa Review, Ecotone, Orion, Poetry, Western Humanities Review, and Science, among many other venues. Cokinos publications include Killing Season (poetry), Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds (nonfiction), and The Fallen Sky: An Intimate History of Shooting Stars (nonfiction).