The Task Force on Climate Remediation Research is wrong, and here’s why

It’s hard to argue against funding scientific research. But let me try.

This past week 18 experts assembled as the Task Force on Climate Remediation Research released the product of its collective wisdom. A creation of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which the New York TimesCornelia Dean describes as “a research organization based in Washington founded by four senators — Democrats and Republicans — to offer policy advice to the government,” the task force concluded that the U.S. should be spending unspecified sums on research into what is colloquially known as climate hacking. Most everyone knows it as geoengineering, but the policy center wonks decided “climate remediation” is a less scary term.

Joe Romm weighs in, and talks with former and current members of the task force (including one who quit out of frustation with where the group was headed), at Climate Progress. I share his problems with the report, but want to delve more deeply into the speciific, as I suspect this issues is going to be a big deal for the foreseeble future.

First, let’s deal with the semantic sophistry:

Geoengineering is controversial–indeed, the term itself is controversial because it is both broad and imprecise. The task force avoids using the term “geoengineering” in the body of this report. We prefer the term “climate remediation,” which describes technologies that are intentionally designed to counteract the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.

In other words, climate remediation = geoengineering. Misleading euphemisms we do not need. We’re talking about strategies to engineer the earth’s climate. So what’s the justification for rejecting the most accurate language? In an endnote, the panel writes that

it should be noted that the term “geoengineering” is used in other disciplines to describe any engineering applied to a geological problem or in a geological setting, including in water resources management; extraction of minerals, oil, and natural gas; environmental restoration; and earthquake diagnostics, just to name a few areas.

This is just a matter of scale. There is no reason not to apply the term to planet-wide schemes.

It’s a bad way to start, but then things get better. They also state right up front that:

This task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e. Reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e. Enhancing the resilience of man-made and natural systems to climate changes).


This task force has not recommended deployment of climate remediation technologies, because far more research is needed to understand the potential impacts, risks, and costs associated with specific technologies. The purpose of this report, rather, is to describe how the task force believes the U.S. government should go about improving its understanding of climate remediation options and how it should work with other countries to foster procedures for research based on that understanding.

In fact, the vast majority of the report consists of eminently reasonable summaries of the problems facing civilization as the climate warms and the consequences of pursuing various geogineering options, which are divided into carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management (SRM)

For example, spewing sulfur particulates in the higher altitudes of the atmosphere (SRM) is anything but a safe bet:

…the destruction of ozone by halogens can take place in the presence of sulfur particles, as was observed following the eruption of Mount Pinatubo. This occurrence suggests that ozone destruction could be exacerbated by the climate
remediation methods that involve injecting sulfur into the stratosphere as a way to reflect solar radiation. impacts on ozone are a major issue for climate remediation research, particularly for those options that involve sulfate aerosols.

And when it comes to trying to amp up the ocean’s ability to suck up carbon dioxide (CDR):

ocean fertilization would involve seeding large marine areas with iron or other nutrients to foster the growth of plankton blooms. The plankton would draw
significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere and incorporate CO2 into organic matter or carbonate shells, which–if they sink deep into the ocean or to the ocean floor–would remove this carbon from the atmosphere for centuries. The risk, though, is that such interventions presumably could have big effects on ocean ecosystems.

Then there’s the problem that SRM options are basically forever options:

Absent efforts to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere through mitigation or CDR, SRM (assuming it was a safe and effective technique) would have to be used continuously for centuries to stave off further climate change.

Of course, the key problem with every SRM option:

Although SRM may be able to mask some impacts of greenhouse gases on the climate system, it would do nothing to deal with the chemical consequences
of increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, including ocean acidification–a phenomenon that poses significant risks, particularly for marine life.

Significant risks is another weak term for dire consequences. We are talking about massive disruption to the entire marine food web. Of course, acidification has happened before, but never this fast, and there is no guarantee that the resulting new equilibrium will be conducive to exploitation by the billions of humans who rely on the oceans for their primary source of protein.

Perhaps more important from a politician’s point of view is how any of these options, all of which come with global effects, will be managed by the world’s 200-plus natton states

…deployment of SRM could raise particularly difficult national security questions and could create challenges for international policy coordination because it could help some regions while harming others. The crudest of SRM techniques could be
deployed relatively easily and by a country with modest financial or technical capabilities. Those attributes of SRM technology raise the specter of possible unilateral decisions by countries to deploy such systems, thereby exposing other nations to side effects and to the burden of long-term management of SRM systems that cannot be stopped without creating harmful, sudden increases in global temperature.

When you consider all these irrefutable facts —and the reality that “A world cooled by managing sunlight will not be the same as a world cooled by lowering emissions” — it’s hard not to reach two very simple conclusions. First, geogineering is going to be at least as difficult to manage and afford as finding a way get stop burning fossil fuels. Second, while most CDR options, with the exception of ocean fertilization, have few serious risks, all SRM options carry enormous known risks and untold unknown risks, neither of which we are prepared to handle.

(The report hints at unspecified risks from CDR, but as panel member Ken Caldeira told the New York Times, they are “generally uncontroversial and don’t introduce new global risks.”)

So why then does the task force end up recommending pouring scarce resources into both CDR (research into which is already underway on several front) and SRM? The answer evokes Dr. Strangelove’s specter of a mine shaft gap:

Governments and private entities in Germany, India, Russia, and the United Kingdom are exploring or moving ahead with their own climate remediation research efforts…

We note that significant research related to some CDR techniques is already underway but that work on SRM, especially, is still in its infancy. Because time is of the essence in
establishing a thoughtful research program–especially in SRM where a sustained research effort is overdue–we urge the federal government to draw on existing financial and institutional resources to jumpstart the effort.

That line of reasoning will appeal to certain folks, although I suspect many of that ilk will be the same ones who balk at the notion of devoting what little resources are available in these troubled economic times to what are easily derided as outlandish research schemes. And the task force is sincere in arguing that the number of unknowns means we should be doing the research, if for no other reason that to rule out some options. But reading the report, it’s seems clear to me that we already do know enough about most of the options to make a decision on they make any sense. And when it comes to SRM options, the answer is that the potentials risks will invariably exceed the possible benefits.

So if I had been writing the report, my recommendations would be: full steam ahead on the CDR (except ocean fertilization) but don’t waste what few research dollars we will be able to squeeze out of Congress on SRM.

29 Replies to “The Task Force on Climate Remediation Research is wrong, and here’s why”

  1. The person who quit the panel is the ethicist, Stephen Gardiner, who have have tremendous admiration for. I use his papers in my grad classes, as he’s one of the few people who really understands the inter-generational ethical challenges of climate change. I highly recommend his paper “A Perfect Moral Storm” for anyone who hasn’t read it:

    Having Gardiner quit the panel is a huge red flag for me.

    However, having seen a number of modelling experts talk about geoengineering (every one of whom is clearly strongly against SRM), I’d say we have to do more model studies, because we don’t yet have a clear enough picture on the risks to dissuade people from trying it. For example, Mark Lawrence from Max-Planck points out that some model results give you nice clear reductions in global average temperature when you run them to test the effects of SRM, which look very attractive. But then when you look at regional variations, it’s a disaster – they’re all over the map (no pun intended). So the global average (which is what policymakers tend to focus on) is repaired, but pretty much every part of the world ends up with huge changes in climate anyway. We have to have more of this type of analysis to share with policymakers to make sure that nobody tries it.

  2. Clearly put. CDR is worth a look, but SRM is just crazy.

    Thanks for the counterpoint to a recent David Brin (good sci-fi guy; google “Contary Brin”) post favoring Ocean Fertilization. Hey, you kids, don’t throw that in the water!

  3. Thank you for skyping with us yesterday. My name is Tillman and I am a pupil of our Writing Workshop class. Just clearing something up. Would leaving your car plugged in keep draining and draining electricity? Also, why do you think that Carbon tax is inevitable? My last question is, Why do you think Al Gore is the right man? Are you the right guy? You seem very knowledgable.

    Thank you,
    Tillman Chesnutt

  4. Steve E: Good point. But my complaint is that with so little money available for research on just about anything these days, does it make sense to divert scarce resources to something that we know for (almost) certain we don’t want to do, just to help dissuade others of pursuing that line of thinking? I say, the less money wasted on SRM, the more available for CDR.

  5. TIllman

    1. Leaving cars plugged in after they are fully charged is not an issue. There is negligible drain after they are full. Also, if we have a better electrical grid, we could actually use the power stored in millions of cars (left over from the day’s commute) to run back into the grid and supply electricity elsewhere for the evening, then charge them back up after midnight.

    2. Carbon tax or something equivalent is inevitable because utilities are demanding certainty, and there is no other practical way to convince people to stop burning oil and coal.

    3. Al Gore probably isn’t the ideal man to lead the movement. But he has way more money and political connections than I do.

  6. Reading the report sort of reminds me of this story.

    and what the CNN commentator said about it (I can’t find the quote), something to the effect that if you are trying to kill us, you are fair game for us to kill you.

    Tillman, the only way the “free market” can properly price things is if there are no “free” externalities that actually cost something. Otherwise you get a “tragedy of the commons” as the “free” resource is exploited until it is depleted. That is what the “free” resource of using the atmosphere as a sink for CO2 is. A “free” resource that has now been depleted. But those who have depleted it don’t want to acknowledge that it has been depleted, or to pay what their depletion has actually cost and will cost future generations.

  7. Douche boy!! Did you lose yet another biology job? Or are you making a little extra douche effort to save us mortals from plant food?


  8. I think we are seeing a kneejerk “it not nice to mess with mother nature” reaction here. SRM isn’t all bad. Not all schemes aim to directly mess with the atmosphere. Some SRM negative forcing can be obtained via albedo management. Today, man’s geo-engineering (anything that changes the surface is geo-engineering), is strictly accidental wrt. earth albedo, and global radiation budgets. The colors we choose for our roofing, the sorts of vegetation we plant, when we choose to plow land etc., these decisions are all haphazardly made, or are made for strictly local reasons, but all affect global albedo, and global temperature. Some SRM is already being done to ameliorate the urban heat island. The main benefits of this are more livable cities that require less energy to cool, and less water for the vegetation. We might be able to partially mitigate AGW, by for instance promoting lighter colors of crops and landscaping vegetation. A few dollars spent on early plant breeding could pay off greatly in the future. Research dollars are not fully fungible, nor is the net societal benefit of a dollar of research fixed. In general, small amounts of early seed money can have a disproportionate effect on a field years and decades later. Being reflexively against any SRM research, reduces the overall efectiveness of our response to AGW.

    None, of this means that I think CO2 plus SRM, is better than no CO2. But, that is not the choice we, or our descendents will face. They will be stuck with a high CO2 world. Having some SRM techniques researched/developed at low initial cost will give our descendants a few options to reduce the overall impact (which still will be large).

  9. All agreed until you consider costs and side benefits. CDM has none while SRM may do, e.g. the military is probably interested as we speak. And if somebody like that is interested, money is no concern anymore and you will see SRM, research as well as implementation, go ahead regardless.

  10. Mr. Hrynyshyn,
    I’m Jack. I was in that class that you skyped with the other day. It was very kind of you and I thank you for doing it. I just have one question that we didn’t have time to ask. Towards the end of the skype session, someone asked about carbon taxes and when they will come into play. You answered saying that maybe in 2016 but it won’t happen before that because the Republicans control the Senate. What did you mean by that? Were you just suggesting to a bunch of children that it’s the republicans fault that we don’t have a carbon tax yet? I would like to remind you that we have a highly Democratic president and he’s persuasive enough to be able to get a carbon tax within the year. Thank you for skyping with us.
    Thank you,

  11. “Were you just suggesting to a bunch of children that it’s the republicans fault that we don’t have a carbon tax yet?”

    Since you claim you were there, are you suggesting you’re a child?

  12. Jack,
    Republicans today are almost uniformly opposed not only to carbon taxes, but also to the idea that humans are warming the planet, in other words they reject the science. They have most of the seats in the House of Representatives, and enough seats in the Senate to stall legislation there, too. So it really doesn’t matter what the president does, as the GOP are not interested in passing anything tom do with climate concerns.

    US politics rarely accomplishes anything unless both the Congress and the President agree, so it’s really not just a matter of what the president wants. (look up “checks and balances”)

    There also several Democrats in both houses who do not support Obama’s climate policy position. That makes it even harder to pass useful legislation.

  13. Mr. H,
    If the Republicans are mostly opposed to a carbon tax and even some Democrats are opposed to it, maybe that is just proof that its an unjust policy. I have many connections to Republican presidents and Republicans running for president in 2012, and I could certainly ask them to say their views on it. I know that only provides one side of the carbon tax debate, but it is a valid side and if i also had connections to Democrats I would provide there side as well, but I don’t so that side will just need to be provided by someone else.

  14. “maybe that is just proof that its an unjust policy”


    It’s an unpopular one.

    But given that in the USA, 73% of respondents wanted more done to stop AGW, it’s only unpopular amongst those the politicians are listening to.

    PS: that’s rather different than your first complaint. Why the about-face?

  15. Jack, keep in mind that there are three different possibilities as to why one would oppose carbon taxes: 1) You don’t believe in anthropogenic (human caused) climate change, so there’s absolutely no reason at all for a carbon tax. 2) You do believe in ACC, but don’t think a carbon tax is the right way to tackle the problem. 3) You believe that a carbon tax might be necessary to combat ACC but your electorate does not and you want to stay in office.

  16. The biggest reason for NOT geoengineering is that it gives oil company executives the false impression that they can continue making billions off of their product. They have to know with certainty that they are going down with the Titanic if they steer us wrong.
    Incidentally, gas refineries already add metal particles to jet fuel under the guise of reducing static electric spark risk. If they add a little too much of this fuel additive, happy day, they’re already geoengineering. Didn’t you wonder why the contrails get so big and last all day?

  17. Mr. Meyer, I would add one more reason to oppose carbon tax – its another TAX!, and one that would be extremely difficult, no, IMPOSSIBLE, to fairly levy around the world. It would amount to another crippling cost to American business and therefore another boost to competitors like Chinese manufacturers, who will not comply because they don’t have to, regardless of who owns them (American capitalists or Chinese communists). Speaking of which, such regulations, combined with other taxes and such things as govt subsidies make ‘Free Trade’ an idealistic economic theory, not a ground reality. The sooner that is acknowledged the better.
    And who will spend the carbon tax? Governments and militaries who already do GeoEngineering at 35,000′ without any accountability? Don’t give them any more chance to waste more money!
    A complete solution cannot be identified till the results of decades of GeoEngineering experimentation (how long do ‘experiments’ last?)are presented publicly and honestly in a public forum. Unfortunately, that will never happen, considering who has control of the data, how much it can be twisted, misleading ‘semantic sophistry’, the billions of dollars in contracts which ‘guides’ the ethics of such technology, and the easy weaponization of weather modification.
    The next best thing, at least in America, is for individual States to have control of what happens in their own air space and on their own land. Although ‘no State is an island’ (Hawaii not withstanding!), and all weather and water are planetarily interconnected, it is the best and most practical solution to move things forward at this point. Increased State sovereignty has the potential to solve a lot of issues – speaking as an Independent!
    This website is a good reference:

  18. “It would amount to another crippling cost to American business”

    Got any proof of that?

    Or is it merely Evident Truth?

    PS surely it won’t cost american business, since they’ll just hive the cost off on to the consumer, right?

  19. Well done, Wow. I think you have answered my query in another thread…

    ANY cost above that of production and marketing is a crippling cost, in that it reduces the competitiveness of a product. To give a very, very simplified example: a widget has production costs $x, and marketing costs of $y. All companies have those costs, which (allowing for regional variabilities) means that the end-price of this widget should be reasonably uniform. However, if Company A has to pay more in taxation than Company B, then Company B then has the choice of:
    a) selling the widget at the same mark-up as Company A, which means that it is cheaper than Company A’s widget, thus selling more than Company A, and so reducing the market share of Company A; or,
    b) increasing the mark-up, and selling the widget at the same price as Company A, thus making a bigger profit.

    Whichever way is chosen, Company A is going to be pretty much crippled.

    PS surely it won’t cost american [sic] business, since they’ll just hive the cost off on to the consumer, right?

    And you, being the good little American, will happily pay more for the same product just because it is “Made in America”? Perhaps you would be even happier, knowing that the extra cost was your contribution to the elimination of carbon.

  20. “ANY cost above that of production and marketing is a crippling cost, in that it reduces the competitiveness of a product.”

    Though I’d add that marketing is not a valid cost in a hypothetically perfect free market: customers are informed, no need to “market” the idea. Indeed for madated medical car, marketing is not needed at all in this real world.

    “Whichever way is chosen, Company A is going to be pretty much crippled.”

    Except that these widgets are NOT sold at the marginal price but at a price that maximises revenue. This is why antipiracy attempts, even if they’d worked, do not reduce the cost of goods sold.

    “And you, being the good little American, will happily pay more for the same product just because it is “Made in America””

    I’m not american.

    That said, yes. Mr Ford knew that if you don’t spend your money on your workers then the workers cannot afford your products.

    “Perhaps you would be even happier, knowing that the extra cost was your contribution to the elimination of carbon.”

    Yes. Why not? Clean-room production of food costs more but I’d rather not have an unhealthy and unsanitary product to eat.

    And, please, explain what method by which you know that reducing carbon producting will cause things to COST MORE??? It appears only as a given, as if it were a matter of faith.

  21. I was using a very simplified model as an example; there are costs in production (such as clean-room food production), and marketing costs would include advertising the clean-room food production (if you’ve forked out for it, it makes sense to let the customer know that you’ve helped him to reduce the risk of getting food poisoning, thereby making your product more appealing), as well as transport to the retailer, etc. – but let’s not get it too complicated.

    I am not sure if you are aware, but a TAX is an additional cost to the manufacturer and, ultimately, the consumer; therefore, that system of “reducing carbon producting” will “cause things to COST MORE”! Unless, of course, you know of taxes which are negative?

  22. Yes, a model so simplified it was worthless.

    I’m not sure if you’re aware, but carbon reduction isn’t taxing and the deaths from ill health produced by industrial pollution is a tax that you don’t see except in the need to raise taxes to pay for healthcare and in reduced effectiveness of the workforce.

    You have no clue as to whether mitigation will cost american industry. You merely assert it because you’re a simpleton and therefore see only the simple conclusions.

  23. I made it so simple in a desperate attempt to get you to understand it.

    Industrial pollution is a sad reality, but was considerably worse in the past. Much of it was a result of ignorance, as well as the desire to make money, no matter what the cost. However, much has been learned, and most of industry accepts that control of pollution can pay dividends. Yes, I know many have “outsourced” to developing countries to avoid some of the more stringent controls but, even so, the overall level of pollution is reducing.

    You seem to be a simpleton, in that you believe that anything modern governments impose on us is to our benefit – tax WILL cost American industry.

  24. “I made it so simple in a desperate attempt to get you to understand it.”

    Unfortunately for you, I understand it far better than you do. It’s a worthless model.

    “Industrial pollution is a sad reality, but was considerably worse in the past”

    And therefore the taxes “ruined the american industry”, right? Oh, no, it didn’t.

    Seems like you DO know but since the conclusion is that your libertarian faith is incorrect, you deny, deny, deny.

  25. …your libertarian faith… Aha! Displaying your beliefs rather than exposing mine. I take it you believe that The State knows all; only The State can provide us with the answers; all we have to do is bow to The State, proffer all our money, and They (the mythical “They”!) will solve all our problems, the same problems that the wicked, wicked industrialists have driven us into.

    Actually, a lot of American industry is pretty much on its uppers – have you been to Detroit recently? Only those that have “outsourced” to less-stringent tax regimes (i.e. those countries where taxes are considerably lower, as well as offering cheaper labour) have managed to survive.

  26. “I take it you believe that The State knows all”

    Yes, the libertarian always considers this the only option for someone outside their faith.

    “Actually, a lot of American industry is pretty much on its uppers – have you been to Detroit recently?”

    Have you investigated what happened to the investement for businesses? Went offshore.

    That’s those non-state actors you love and worship.

    Funny how you don’t seem to mind the destruction of the american industry when it’s done at the hands of the Holy CEO.

  27. And why did they move offshore? To avoid the crippling taxes!

    …non-state actors you love and worship. ???!!!!??? What on Earth are you talking about??? I shall not wait for an answer, as I am pretty sure you have no idea yourself.

    Okay, Wow. I give up. I am beating my head against a particularly thick wall, here. I should have listened to those who advised: “You can’t argue with a fool – they will always win on experience.”

  28. “And why did they move offshore? To avoid the crippling taxes!”

    Nope, not that.

    Bush Jr cut the taxes. What happened to the money? Invested abroad.

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