How To Cool The Planet: Geoengineering And The Audacious Quest To Fix Earth's Climate

Photo by Debra Ellis
Photo by Debra Ellis

Right Now,Today

Right now, a group of scientists is working on ways to minimize the catastrophic impact of global warming. But they’re not designing hybrids or fuel cells or wind turbines. They’re trying to lower the temperature of the entire planet. And they’re doing it with huge contraptions that suck CO2 from the air, machines that brighten clouds and deflect sunlight away from the earth, even artificial volcanoes that spray heat-reflecting particles into the atmosphere.

This is the radical and controversial world of geoengineering, which only five years ago was considered to be "fringe." But as Jeff Goodell points out, the economic crisis, combined with global political realities, is making these ideas look sane, even inspired.

Who gets blamed if something goes terribly wrong?

Goodell himself started out as a skeptic, concerned about tinkering with the planet’s thermostat. We can’t even predict next week’s weather, so how are we going to change the temperature of whole regions? What if a wealthy entrepreneur shoots particles into the stratosphere on his own? Who gets blamed if something goes terribly wrong? And perhaps most disturbing, what about wars waged with climate control as the primary weapon? There are certainly risks, but Goodell believes the alternatives could be worse. In the end, he persuades us that geoengineering may just be our last best hope—a Plan B for the environment. His compelling tale of scientific hubris and technical daring is sure to jump-start the next big debate about the future of life on earth.

Grantham Prize Jury Comments on How to Cool the Planet

Jeff Goodell Jeff Goodell's remarkable book, "How to Cool the Planet", is a must-read for anyone concerned about climate change -- policymakers and ordinary citizens alike. Mr. Goodell does not, in fact, provide a detailed prescription for cooling the planet. Instead, he takes us on a fascinating tour of the world of geoengineering. He introduces us, one by one, to the small band of scientists and engineers experimenting with last-ditch ways to avert a climate emergency if, as is entirely possible, our present efforts to stop climate change turn out to be insufficient.

There are a lot of kooky ideas out there; Goodell focuses on those that have attracted serious researchers and, no less important, serious research dollars. The schemes include quickly cooling the Arctic by reflecting sunlight back into space (either by blasting aerosols into the stratosphere or brightening clouds with massive injections of seawater), and increasing marine sequestration of carbon dioxide by fertilizing the oceans at a massive scale. Some of the ideas make more sense than others. Some could have serious unintended consequences. Some even seem plausible.

But the idea of geoengineering in general, Goodell argues, must be taken seriously. His fondest hope, stated passionately, is that we will never have to "launch particles into the atmosphere, dump iron into the oceans, or brighten clouds." His strong preference is that humankind come to its senses and substantially limit its emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thus making geoengineering unnecessary. Yet our repeated domestic and global failures to address climate change suggest that we will have neither the courage nor political will to make the changes needed to produce and use energy while averting catastrophe.

"In the end," he writes, "the rising interest in geoengineering is driven less by mad scientists than by spineless politicians."

Geoengineering cannot be seen as a quick fix, as simply another excuse not to make hard choices; it is not a substitute for cutting emissions. But if those more difficult choices are not made soon, we may find ourselves needing to manipulate the global climate in ways that nature never intended--and that none of us could welcome.

This immensely readable, carefully researched and groundbreaking contribution to the literature on climate change is thoroughly deserving of a Grantham Award of Special Merit.

About Jeff Goodell

Jeff Goodell2011 Jeff Goodell Jeff Goodell was born and raised in Silicon Valley, where his family has lived for four generations. Shortly after graduating from public high school, he took a job at Apple Computer, Inc., where he worked as a technical writer and junior software programmer. He quit to attend the University of California, Berkeley, where he received a BA in English in 1984. He continued his education at Columbia University in New York, graduating from the writing program with a Master’s in Fine Arts in 1987. He taught logic and rhetoric at Columbia college for three years before leaving to pursue a career as a journalist.

In 1989, Goodell began covering crime and politics in New York City for 7 Days, a weekly magazine that won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 1990. Since 1996 he has been a staff writer at Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. He has written hundreds of articles about a wide variety of subjects, from hookers to internet billionaires to climate scientists and venture philanthropists. “Down and Out in Silicon Valley,” a Rolling Stone story chronicling life in homeless shelters in the Valley, was chosen as one of the best business stories of the year by the editors of Business Week.

In 2001 after writing a cover story about the comeback of the U.S. coal industry for The New York Times Magazine, Goodell shifted his focus to energy and environmental issues. He has written about and interviewed most of the major figures in this field, from U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu to climate scientist James Hanson. Our Story (Hyperion, 2002), his account of the nine miners trapped in a Pennsylvania coal mine for 77 hours, was a national bestseller. He followed that up with Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future (Houghton Mifflin, 2006). Goodell spent for years researching and writing about the industry, traveling through the coal fields in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, as well as making several trips to China. To better understand the science of global warming, he spent a month in the North Atlantic with leading climate scientists aboard the RV Knorr, a research vessel operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. When Big Coal was published in 2006, the New York Times described it as “a compelling indictment of one of the country’s biggest, most powerful and most antiquated industries… well-written, timely, and powerful.” His book became the basis for Dirty Business, a feature documentary about the coal industry produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

As a commentator on energy and environmental issues, Goodell has appeared on NPR, MSNBC, CNN, CNBC, ABC, NBA, and Fox News. He is a frequent speaker on college campuses – recent engagements have included Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Texas and the University of Massachusetts. He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife, three children, and three chickens.

This article was first published at The Grantham Prize.