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Taming the geoengineering genie

Olive Heffernan

Over on NRCC today, Mason Inman reviews two books on geoengineering – two of the first, in fact, to cover this field for a popular audience. The first is Hack the Planet by Eli Kintisch, a reporter for Science magazine, and the second is How to Cool the Planet by Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor and reporter to Rolling Stone magazine and author of Big Coal.

Kintisch cover.jpgThe release of these books, both out this month, has been timed well, given that the geoengineering genie is now out of the bottle, as climate modeler Raymond Pierrehumbert puts it in Kintisch’s Hack the Planet. Just last month, experts met for the first time – at the Asilomar conference centre in Monterey, California – to consider how the field can be regulated. Meanwhile, governments are holding parliamentary hearings on the subject and venture capitalists are looking to it as an investment opportunity. It’s a far cry from the state of play just two or three years ago, when climate intervention was still considered by most to be an outlandish idea.

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While the idea of doing trials to test the various proposed methods for climate control is now more mainstream, it’s still contentious for two reasons: the potential side-effects, and also the fear that it will turn our attention away from the urgency of mitigation. So for the most part, geoengineering is still an armchair activity, as Kintisch puts it, and as a result the pool of people involved in still relatively small. Despite that fact, however, Kintisch and Goodell cover the subject from decidedly different perspectives, according to Inman. He writes:

“Both books cover a lot of the same ideas and quote many of the same sources, and both have in-depth chapters about two particular options: fertilizing the oceans with iron, and ships spewing cloud-brightening particles. Kintisch’s book, though, offers up more examples of geoengineering…Kintisch also digs deeper than Goodell into explaining the details of how geoengineering might work — and why it would be so difficult to do well. A reporter for the journal Science who regularly covers geoengineering for the journal’s ScienceInsider blog, Kintisch likewise takes an insider’s view in Hack the Planet. That’s not to say Kintisch argues in favour of geoengineering, but that he writes from firmly within the world of science, and for an audience who’s comfortable with science, too. He never explains the term ‘hack’ in the title, for example, which is borrowed from computer hacking and reflects the idea that geoengineering involves interfering with fundamental aspects of the climate to change how the whole system works. For this reason, scientists and other science-literate readers — especially those who already have some familiarity with geoengineering — will probably prefer Kintisch’s book over Goodell’s.

In contrast, Goodell’s book takes a step back, presenting an outsider’s view —unsurprising, as he is a regular reporter for Rolling Stone, the music and politics magazine. This perspective allows Goodell to be a guide to those who might reject the whole idea of geoengineering as far-fetched or crazy. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in physics to understand the basic insanity of this undertaking,” Goodell writes, while emphasizing that the outlook for the planet is so bad that we have to think about these options anyway. Of the two authors, Goodell does a better job of taking the reader on a journey. Most chapters in How to Cool the Planet feature a central character, from geoengineer David Keith tinkering in his lab at the University of Calgary to environmentalist and scientist James Lovelock strolling the countryside around his quaint English home. By digging into their stories, Goodell portrays geoengineering as a human endeavour, carrying hefty doses of uncertainty, doubt and fear."

The full review is freely available here.

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