Visiting professor discusses issues with geoengineering

Increasing cloudiness by cloud seeding is one of the many ways people have proposed and attempted to maniupulate Earth’s climate system throughout history. (credit: Daniel Tkacik/SciTech Editor) Increasing cloudiness by cloud seeding is one of the many ways people have proposed and attempted to maniupulate Earth’s climate system throughout history. (credit: Daniel Tkacik/SciTech Editor)

Carnegie Mellon’s recent history of research on geoengineering provided an interesting backdrop for visiting professor James Fleming’s lecture, titled “Fixing the Sky,” this past Thursday. Fleming touched on various geoengineering issues discussed in his book, Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control.

Fleming, professor and director of Science, Technology, and History at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, spoke to a public audience in Porter Hall about climate geoengineering’s past, status quo, and possible future. Climate geoengineering, the deliberate modification of the Earth system in an attempt to counter the effects of climate change, has been heavily researched as part of Carnegie Mellon’s NSF-funded Climate Decision Making Center (CDMC), which collaborates with a number of other universities around the world.

“Both because we may need it in an emergency, and because geoengineering is something a nation might start doing unilaterally, the time has come to undertake a transparent and globally coordinated program of research,” Granger Morgan, head of the department of engineering and public policy and director of the CDMC, said in a 2009 university press release.

Fleming began the lecture by stating his own definition of scientific research as “the cutting edge of ignorance.” After a short pause and a few chuckles from the audience, he explained that he believes that some scientists may let their overbearing enthusiasm affect their logical, big-picture way of thinking about their research. “Quite a few people fall into the category that I call ‘sincere but deluded scientists’ — that is, they are pathologically enthusiastic about their research, but not able to really rein in their enthusiasm,” Fleming said.

Social, historical, humanistic, and ethical concerns with geoengineering were not widely considered until very recently, Fleming told the audience, as he reviewed the history of climate geoengineering and how people have been discussing and attempting to modify the Earth’s atmosphere for quite a long time.

One of the many examples of historical climate engineering Fleming discussed was the idea of injecting sulfate particles into the stratosphere in order to increase the reflection of sunlight back into outer space and cool the Earth. The proposal of such an act, he explained, was highly motivated by the global cooling that resulted after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991, which sent ash and other particles high into the stratosphere.

However, Fleming warned that such a “man-made volcano” may have adverse side effects, such as stopping the Indian monsoon or causing severe drought in Africa, both of which also occurred after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. Given all of the geoengineering ideas proposed throughout history, Fleming argued, “You’re changing the way people relate with nature, and you’re doing it by a small group in power imposing this idea on the world. How do you gain consensus like that?”

What the geoengineering field needed to be, Fleming said, was what he referred to as “the Three ‘I’s: international, interdisciplinary, intergenerational.” The people discussing these ideas need to be from a diverse group in order to provide a more balanced look into the future.

Fleming’s lecture sparked curious discussion within the audience. “I think Fleming reminds us that recent talk about geoengineering as a way to avoid a climate disaster is not the first time that it has been proposed or tried,” said Kevin Brown, a Ph.D. student in the history department. “In those earlier endeavors, the hubris of the scientists, and anti-democratic means in which these projects were developed and implemented, I believe, should give us serious pause before we consider attempting them on an even greater scale.”