Meet a man out to ma­nip­u­late our cli­mate

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - RAVEENA AU­LAKH EN­VI­RON­MENT RE­PORTER

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...

JOHN MC­CONNICO/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

It is gen­er­ally agreed that cut­ting green­house gas emis­sions is the so­lu­tion to global warm­ing and its at­ten­dant dan­gers — from melt­ing

WEBB CHAP­PELL PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION

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...

RAVEENA AU­LAKH/TORONTO STAR

MU­NIR UZ ZA­MAN/AFP/GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

g sea ice to ex­treme weather. But the warm­ing caused by the buildup of gases to this point is al­ready ir­re­versible.

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