August 2009

Geoengineering to the rescue

By Sol Shapiro

I believe man's addition of CO2 to the atmosphere acts like a greenhouse and results in energy imbalance, which is slowly warming the earth.

I believe the nation and the world should have a measured long-term approach toward sustainable energy generation-for stationary sites and mobile use.

I believe the world is not moving fast enough toward this Nirvana of non-fossil energy to prevent major climate disruptions, which if unchecked will result in added deaths and economic loss.

I believe in addition to the long-term approach to changing the world's energy base, which has been the sole thrust of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the environmental community, that we need a short-term "hold" on climate change using geoengineering.

What is geoengineering?

Climate change geoengineering is man's intentional activity, which results in the modification our planet's climate. Our emission of CO2 is one form of unintended geoengineering.

To counter this warming effect, many scientists have suggested approaches, which fall into two general categories. One involves reducing the solar flux absorbed by the planet to compensate for the reduction in energy returned to space because of the CO2 greenhouse effect.

Examples are emulating the blockage of solar radiation resulting from large volcanic eruptions, "painting the earth's surface white" to reflect more sunlight back to space, and increasing the reflectivity of clouds to reflect more sunlight back to space. We can deploy these approaches in less than a decade at an affordable cost.

Other geoengineering approaches involve removing CO2 from the air to reduce the greenhouse effect. Such approaches include increasing the ocean's absorption of CO2 by various methods, increasing the land's absorption of CO2 by modifying farming methodology, and removing CO2 directly from the air. For these approaches to have a measurable effect, it will take many decades.

You may ask, if geoengineering can be implemented in a short time frame and at an affordable cost, why we do not hear more about it, and why we are not studying and implementing these short-term fixes?

The answer as stated by IPCC members and the environmental community is if the public were aware of the ability to put climate change on hold, they would not support the long-term approaches to put the world on a sustainable energy base. Therefore, the IPCC keeps geoengineering on the back burner, and the environmental community will not talk about it.

Fixes, solutions abound

The National Academy of Sciences under Congressional mandate has a program, "America's Climate Choices," which is to report back to Congress with recommendations. Included in the activity of the Academy is a look at geoengineering.

It is my sense the Academy will recommend research to be ready for deployment.

The July G8 Summit, I think, provided a clue. There was a call for limiting temperature change to no more than 2 degrees Celsius. However, no agreement limiting greenhouse gas emissions evolved.

Could this then become a way to finesse geoengineering into the picture-without embarrassing the scientific community or the politicians; and to find a way to do both the short- and the long-term fixes? Energy Secretary Chu did recently speak of painting roofs white.

The biggest energy concern in the U.S. is transportation fuel. The success of battery development is still uncertain. Biofuels will help but have limited capacity.

Therefore, we need to drill responsibly and to use coal-to-liquid technology based on the 80-year-old Fischer-Tropsch process to help bridge the gap while we strongly support battery, biofuels, and more advanced technologies to free us from fossil fuels. With geoengineering in place, we buy the time we need for this future development without destroying the planet.


Sol Shapiro ( has two degrees in electrical engineering. He spent most of his career in weapons development and guidance systems for missiles.