Meet a man out to manipulate our climate
David Keith is a leading figure in the world of geo-engineering — proposals to manipulate the Earth’s atmosphere to counteract global warming. Some think his ideas are crazy, but he argues we’d be crazy to ignore them CAMBRIDGE, MASS.— Close your eyes and imagine this: airplanes, equipped to disperse sulphuric acid, are flying in the lower stratosphere.
When released, the sulphur combines with water vapour to form minute sulphate aerosols. Once spread across the globe, the aerosols will reflect roughly 1 per cent of the sunlight back into space, thus cooling the planet a smidge. This isn’t science fiction; it’s David Keith’s plan. Keith is a Canadian environmental scientist and one of the world’s leading figures in the field of solar geo-engineering. Since the 1990s, he has also been one of the very few to study how it could work.
A professor at Harvard University, Keith, 51, divides his time between the school of engineering and the Kennedy School of Government.
In addition to teaching and writing, Keith is the best-known advocate for research into geo-engineering. Despite death threats and hate mail, he isn’t scared to talk about it at symposiums, on The Colbert Report, in TED talks or in the privacy of his office.
Geo-engineering — the intentional largescale manipulation of Earth’s climate — is highly controversial. Ideas include seeding the atmosphere with reflective particles, fertilizing the ocean with iron to stimulate growth of carbon-absorbing plankton, and even sending giant mirrors to orbit the Earth and reflect sunlight. Sounds crazy? Chicago geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert has called solar geo-engineering “barking mad.” Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki has rejected it as “insane.” Former U.S. vice-president Al Gore has called the ideas “delusional in the extreme.”
Jim Thomas, of the Montreal-based nonprofit technology watchdog ETC Group, says these ideas are not just crazy; “they are dangerous.”
It’s easy to understand why most climate scientists are wary.
Fertilizing our oceans would almost certainly kill fish. Launching a sunscreen would stall plant growth. Spraying sulphates into the stratosphere would damage the ozone layer, which shields us from the sun’s cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation.
Geo-engineering would allow politicians to avoid reducing greenhouse gas emissions, says Thomas, by giving them a technological out. His greatest concern is who will control the thermostat if the technology is ever deployed.
It could spark conflicts between countries, he says.
But, Thomas concedes, Keith is not crazy. He is smart, innovative and his credentials are impeccable: undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto; a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; teaching gigs at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the University of Calgary and, since 2011, Harvard, his hiring seen as a coup for the university. He was named Hero of the Environment in 2009 by Time magazine and he is an adviser to Bill Gates. He was awarded a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fellowship and is the author of dozens of papers.
His first, “A Serious Look at Geoengineering,” was published in 1992 and tackled stratospheric sulphur. It went largely unnoticed. In 2013, his book A Case for Climate Engineering detailed how the technology would work.
“David Keith is a very good climate scientist and very good at technical work,” says Thomas.
But Keith, he argues, isn’t the right person to be “making calls about the impacts on global justice, policy impacts . . . David is playing many roles in this topic.”
Keith, a tall and wiry man who smiles often and big, is sitting in his sparse office a few paces from Harvard Square. He is perched on the edge of his chair, leaning forward and talking fast. Blasts of sentences. Engaging. Candid.
He recognizes the potential for abuse of geo-engineering. A rogue nation could hijack it and wreak havoc. Or it could be used as an excuse to dither on cutting emissions.
The problem remains that despite international pledges of deep cuts, emissions keep rising.
“I don’t necessarily believe we should do it (solar geo-engineering),” says Keith. “There are very legit arguments that we shouldn’t. But I think fundamentally, at this point, I’m an advocate for taking it seriously and doing serious research . . . because it potentially has large benefits. That’s not crazy.”
If Keith and colleague James Anderson, a prominent atmospheric chemist at Harvard, receive funding, they plan to conduct field experiments to assess risks.
Most climate scientists and environmentalists agree that cutting emissions is the solution to our warming world. What few people will talk about is that the warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases is irreversible. So even if we completely halt emissions today, the elevated concentrations of gases in the atmosphere will stay for decades and warming will continue for hundreds of years.
Fixing this with solar geo-engineering may or may not work but an outdoor experiment “could teach us something useful. The experiment may also fail,” says Keith.
Thomas, of the ETC group, says such ex-
periments will give politicians options other than cutting emissions and will lead to deployment of those technologies. “It won’t stop there,” he says.
Michael E. Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University’s Earth System Science Centre, says research by Alan Robock of Rutgers University in New Jersey has shown there are unintended consequences of solar geo-engineering: less rainfall in some places, rapid warming in some regions and cooling in others. Solar geo-engineering, Mann says, would nothing to slow the catastrophic acidification of our oceans.
Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist at Texas Tech University, equates reliance on geo-engineering with “relying on an experimental drug whose side-effects may be just as bad or worse than the problem it’s trying to fix.”
Keith understands the critics and their concerns — and at no point does he look like a man under siege.
He argues that research and experiments into geo-engineering are imperative, as is “an open global discussion about how it could work.”
He draws a scenario in which a country, say India, suffers a heat wave that cuts crop yield and triggers a famine. “Let’s say the Indian government has a bit of research (into geo-engineering) and at that point, it may say, let’s try this.”
This is where Keith sees potential for “bad outcomes” — when people make decisions under extreme stress. And how would that end? Keith isn’t sure.
David Keith recognizes the potential for abuse of geo-engineering. A rogue nation could hijack it and wreak havoc. Or it could be an excuse to dither on cutting emissions. But, he argues, “Researching doesn’t necessarily lead to doing it. It means...
It is generally agreed that cutting greenhouse gas emissions is the solution to global warming and its attendant dangers — from melting
Canadian scientist and Harvard professor David Keith has received death threats for his views on geo-engineering, but he remains one of the field’s most outspoken advocates. He acknowledges the risks, but says the technology deserves further study and...
g sea ice to extreme weather. But the warming caused by the buildup of gases to this point is already irreversible.