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Geoengineering report baffles reporters

Cross-posted from Geoff Brumfiel on The Great Beyond

Yesterday the Royal Society, Britain’s premier scientific body, delivered its official view on geoengineering. Scientists analyzed a dozen different approaches and weighed their pros and cons. Then, being scientists, they plotted their results in a bizarre phase space that nobody could understand. Many a reporter, myself included, were scratching our heads when co-author Ken Caldeira popped this little gem up onto the screen:

Geoengineering Corrected.JPG

(Note: error bars are purely symbolic. Huh?)

Now I want to be fair, the Royal Society report is actually very well written and it contains a lot of good information about the geoengineering proposals out there. But it’s a nuanced take on a complex issue. So it’s not surprising that you saw a range of headlines. The most inaccurate enthusiastic one by far, came from those lovely folks at the Register:

Boffins: Give up on CO2 cuts, only geoengineering can work

The Financial Times landed on the other end of the spectrum:

Hopes dashed for geo-engineering solutions

And in between came everybody else:

Study says ‘geoengineering’ to flight climate likely, but risky (USA Today)

Royal Society warns climate engineering ‘could cause disaster’ (the Times)

World must plan for climate emergency-report (Reuters)

Investment in geo-engineering needed immediately, says Royal Society (the Guardian)

These headlines make the report look like a Kurosawa film, but most of the actual stories are pretty accurate in my opinion. The bottom line is that the Royal Society felt that the only sure way to save the planet is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But in the event of a global climate emergency, we should at least know the consequences of geoengineering.

You can read our coverage here.

Update: The Register headline was referring to an article in Physics World that came out the same day.

Update: I’ve included the updated diagram off the Royal Society website.

Geoff Brumfiel


  1. Report this comment

    Lewis Page said:

    The Reg piece is about Cox and Jeffery’s Physics World article, not the Royal society report. The headline is perfectly accurate. As you’d know if you’d read any further.

  2. Report this comment

    Steve Bloom said:

    The chart is useful, although I think a technical feasibility metric would have been informative (regarding CCS e.g.). Also, the label in the upper right is wrong (both should be high).

  3. Report this comment

    Gareth Jones said:

    The Register report claims to be based on the Cox and Jeffery article in Physics world. I did read the article but no-where do the authors suggest that CO2 emissions should not be cut or that the only solution is geoengineering.

  4. Report this comment

    BCC said:

    Why do 3 of the 4 corners say “low affordability?”

    Proofreading is a lost art.

  5. Report this comment

    Richard C said:

    It’s a cost/benefit diagram, hardly rocket science.

    Judging by the placement of the space reflector it only addresses temperature, not atmospheric CO2 or ocean acidity.

  6. Report this comment

    Milan said:

    The fundamental problem with all geoengineering schemes (from sulfite injections to plankton tubes to giant mirrors) is that they risk creating unexpected and negative side-effects. That said, it does seem intelligent to investigate them as a last resort. Nobody knows at what point critical physical and biological systems might tip into a cycle of self-reinforcing warming. Plausible examples include permafrost melting in the Arctic, releasing methane that heats the atmosphere still more, or the large-scale burning of tropical rainforests, both producing emissions and reducing the capacity of carbon sinks. If physical or biological systems became net emitters of greenhouse gasses, cutting human emissions to zero would not be sufficient to stop warming; it would simply continue until the planet reached a new equilibrium.

    Given linear projections of climate change damages, we would probably be wisest to heed the Stern Review and spend adequately on mitigation. Given the danger of strong positive feedbacks, it makes sense to develop some fallback options for use in desperate times. It seems to me that various forms of geoengineering should be among them. Let us hope they never need to be used.