Reviewed 4/17/2010

How To Cool the Planet, by Jeff Goodell

Access to this book courtesy of the
San Jose, CA Public Library
Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate
Jeff Goodell
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2010




ISBN-13 978-0-618-99061-0
ISBN-10 0-618-99061-5 272p. HC/BWI $26.00

Now that evidence for global warming is widely accepted, the attention of the world's climatologists and political leaders is turning to mitigation: how to deal with the problem of warming. There are many things that look like they might work. The problem with that is our poor understanding of most of those things. Such methods fall under the general heading of "geoengineering." We might, for example, inject sulfuric acid high into the stratosphere. There, it would form sulfate particles that would reflect a portion of the sun's heat away from Earth. However, such particles would only stay aloft for about a year, so they'd have to be continually replenished. And we don't know what that much sulfur would do when it came down. Meanwhile, the buildup of CO2 would continue.

"Wally Broecker, a pioneering climatologist at Columbia University, has famously compared the earth's climate to a dragon: you poke it, and you're never sure how it is going to react. We could get lucky and be living in a climate system that is more tolerant than we think. But we could also be living in a system that is far more sensitive to being poked than we currently understand. By pushing the system so hard, we are, in effect, playing Russian roulette with the operating system of civilized life."

– Page 11

So it is with geoengineering in general. We have already poked the dragon once — with CO2. It seems to be responding more strongly than the best scientists predicted. Should we compound the risk by poking it again in a new way? Jeff Goodell thinks we should not — at least, not until we know more. He has good reasons to urge restraint. The ones he discusses are the notorious rainmakers of the Dust Bowl years and the near-disaster of Project Chariot (see sidebar). Many more could be found. Goodell's view is wise; the most of climate scientists agree with it. Certainly, small-scale experiments need to be done; without them, how will we learn what works and what doesn't? But history teaches that funding for those experiments may well be withheld in the name of responsible fiscal policy, until the crunch comes and a crash program of sulfate-spraying or iron-seeding or something else is launched out of desperate expediency.

Hence this book. Jeff Goodell spent three years researching the subject of geoengineering, interviewing top climate scientists like Broeckner, like James Hansen and Stephen Schneider and Paul Crutzen, as well as the entrepreneurs who jumped into the fray with ideas harebrained or otherwise. Like all of Goodell's books, it's well written and backed by thorough research. However, I marked it down one notch because, despite its title, it isn't really a survey of geoengineering methods that may prove useful against global warming. Goodell omits promising candidates. His principal omission is mirrors in space; he mentions it, but only to dismiss the idea. This is a mistake in my opinion. Certainly it would be expensive; but consider that solar-sail demonstration missions, which involve similar technology, have already been attempted. They are not well known because their launchers failed, or because the mirrors did not deploy properly — but also because they were not expensive, as space launches go. If a sunshade appears prohibitively difficult or costly, that may be just because it has not been tried.2

A native of the Santa Clara Valley before it became Silicon Valley, Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He and his family live in upstate New York.

Another approach that Goodell finds unworkable is called carbon capture and storage. This can be done by separating CO2 from the exhaust of power plants, where it is most concentrated, or by pulling it out of the air with hundreds or thousands of chemical scrubbers. The problems common to both methods are, first, enormous expense in the aggregate, and second, where to put the captured gas. Expense can be subsidized, and would probably have to be. For storage, abandoned salt mines or old oil wells are being considered. Much work will be required to certify each of these as safe enough in the long term.3

I also got the impression that Goodell completely dismisses nuclear power — a puzzling rejection since he spends a good portion of the book on James Lovelock, who advocates it. In a 2004 essay, Lovelock wrote, "we have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilization is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear—the one safe, available energy source—now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet."5 I think Goodell is too pessimistic about nuclear, as he is about CCS. But he is correct that neither is a near-term solution; much development work needs to be done on both, in finding CO2 reservoirs and evaluating their long-term safety, and in prototyping the various designs for "Gen-3" and "Gen-4" reactors to verify their potential as solutions. I wouldn't expect large-scale use of either before 2025.

To sum up, then, I find this book to be a good read and a worthy addition to anyone's library. It only falls short of my top rating because it is not a comprehensive survey of geoengineering concepts, unfairly dismissing some and ignoring others. It's quite proper for Goodell to be skeptical of these new ideas, but I feel his skepticism needs some fine-tuning. I also feel he spends too much time on the careers of individuals like Lovelock, fascinating as these accounts are. All this dilutes the urgency of Goodell's message, which is unfortunate since he understands the urgency of getting study of mitigation options under way and clearly conveys that urgency.

"For the past ten thousand years, we could be excused for behaving like locusts, unaware of the larger consequences of our all-consuming appetites. But that excuse is gone now—at least for all of us here in the land of iPhones and air conditioning. Our current greed and recklessness are starting to look a lot like a suicidal impulse."

– Page 16

Another thing he gets right is the attitude of the scientists concerned: the tension between their knowledge of the urgency of appeals for study funding and the danger of appearing to overhype the urgency, triggering a backlash from the Right. In short, Goodell gets things mostly right in this book, and I recommend it.

1 An entrepreneurial idea can be harebrained in several ways. It might be intrinsically unworkable. It might be tricky to pull off properly, like Project Chariot (a "Plowshare" project which fortunately was never attempted.) Or it might simply be economically unfeasible, as were many of the schemes concocted in the "dot-com boom."
2 Planetary sunshades have been studied since the 1960s. One current plan contemplates using large numbers of disks to diffuse about 2% of the sunlight that would otherwise reach Earth, counteracting much or all of the projected warming. Conventional launchers make this prohibitively expensive (in the $5 trillion ballpark) but innovations in launch methods or in the devices themselves may bring that cost down.
3 The main reason I think CCS should not be ruled out are that it is already being done. Norway's Statoil since 1996 has been pumping a million tonnes a year of captured CO2 into a deep saline aquifer, saving hundreds of millions of euros in carbon taxes into the bargain. A project running since 2000 uses 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 yearly to recover more petroleum from an oil field in Saskatchewan. The gas comes via pipeline from a synfuel plant in North Dakota. And there are several other projects either operating or being planned.
Also, a number of entrepreneurial groups are working on getting the cost and power usage of chemical scrubbers down, and their capture efficiency up, and progress is being made. Finally, nothing but lack of incentive prevents the expansion of biological storage: planting trees.
4 "Chariot" was designed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in the late 1950s. An internal memo estimated its release at 1.5 billion curies: more than 17 times the highest estimate for Chernobyl.
5 This is quoted on page 106. It comes from "Nuclear Power is the Only Green Solution," an op-ed published in the British newspaper The Independent.
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