Trump Is Giving Geoengineering Another Moment

New concerns over whether Trump will use geoengineering for evil are almost entirely unfounded.

Apr 7 2017, 11:00am

Geoengineering could be a powerful force one day—things like reflecting sunlight before it reaches Earth, capturing carbon, or, in the most sci-fi of scenarios, controlling the weather. And because of that, some are wondering whether President Trump will back these endeavors.

"Will geoengineering plans get a boost from the Trump administration?" CleanTechnica asked. "Donald Trump may back dangerous 'wall in the sky' plan to fight climate change, warns watchdog," the Independent wrote.

According to them, Trump, who has long been a stalwart climate change denier, may see geoengineering as a cheaper, easier way to fight global warming while keeping corporations happy.

Could Trump hack the planet to avoid having to save it? Will this be his capitalism-friendly fix for climate change? The possibilities are endless, speculative, and tantalizingly dystopian.

But the boring truth is, despite our best guesses, there's no way of really knowing. At least for now.

Last month, a group of geoengineering scientists met in Washington, DC for a conference called the "Forum on US Solar Geoengineering Research." Harvard University physicist David Keith announced that he would be launching a suite of atmospheric experiments in the real world. These tests would involve misting the stratosphere with benign amounts of tiny particles like sulfur dioxide and alumina.

Keith's intention is to study how reflective these materials are, which is the crux of his solar engineering research. It will be the world's largest experiment of its kind, and marks the first time a test of this magnitude has been conducted outside of the lab.

The broad consensus among these experts is that geoengineering can't be a replacement for mitigation strategies. Think: prescriptive versus preventative.

"My feeling on geoengineering is that it could be a temporary band-aid until we clean up the atmosphere, but it's not a solution because of the longevity—hundreds of thousands of years—of climate impacts from CO2 release," David Archer, a professor of geophysical sciences at Chicago University, told me.

Recently, an op-ed was published in The Guardian, alleging that Keith's project "may get a dangerous boost from Donald Trump," despite no evidence of that happening. What little proof we do have is tangential—relying on old quotes from people close to the president.

For instance, Rex Tillerson, Trump's pick for Secretary of State, said of climate solutions while CEO of ExxonMobil: "It's an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions."

Skeptics of geoengineering believe that fossil fuel companies might endorse these techniques as a way to dodge accountability. Why stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere when we can adjust it to our needs? ExxonMobil was actually a pioneer in one type of geoengineering theory, which involved sequestering carbon in oceans by flooding them with quicklime—a derivative of limestone. The corporation's engineer, Haroon Kheshgi, published literature on this method in 1997.

Then, in 2008, Newt Gingrich, who has been an outspoken advocate of the Trump administration, remarked that "geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming concerns for just a few billion dollars a year." Gingrich has become infamous for espousing techno-libertarian ideas, but still hasn't accepted that climate change is real.

And the real "smoking gun" for Trump geoengineering truthers is the fact that David Schnare, who was part of Trump's Environmental Protection Agency transition team, once called geoengineering "a means to put off the most catastrophic potential effects of global warming, at least for a few decades." The former White House official boasts deep ties to the energy industry, having once consulted for Arch Coal.

But there's nothing to suggest that Schnare has urged Trump to do anything with regard geoengineering. As far as we know, the president is unaware this technology even exists. The closest analog to geoengineering that Trump has supported is "clean-coal," which he touts as a way to decrease emissions at no risk to the coal industry. Nothing indicates that clean-coal is real, however, or will become real in the long-term future.

I chatted with Keith about the current climate of geoengineering. He acknowledged the argument that Republicans may be amenable to these methods, because they "cut the need to cut emissions." But, he noted, this would be a fatal misunderstanding of how geoengineering should fit in among climate mitigation strategies. "One fear is that they will embrace it for that reason," he admitted.

Right now, scientists in all fields are primarily concerned with Trump's attacks on research funding and scientific integrity. Some environmentalists are discouraging geoengineering experts from accepting public funding. Since government money and, potentially, influence could pose ethical concerns for research agendas.

But for now, geoengineering remains what it has always been: a tantalizing but still far from certain future. Trump is certainly not continuing Obama's policies on climate change, but there's nothing to indicate he's picking geoengineering as an alternate solution either.