What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering?

A student wrote me and asked, “I am doing a biography speech about you for my speech class, and I was wondering if you could answer just a couple of questions for me, if possible. What inspired you to get into the field of Geoengineering? Did something happen in your life that made you realize this is what was important to you?”  This is what I wrote her in response:

Most things in life happen as an unpredictable consequence of personal preparation and random opportunities.

I had studied and worked as a climate scientist for over a decade before I started to consider geoengineering.

In 1998, I co-organized a meeting on energy system transitions towards an energy system that did not use the sky as a waste dump. We, or more specifically, my mentor, Marty Hoffert, invited Lowell Wood to speak about geoengineering. He had been working on geoengineering concepts, working with Edward Teller at Lawrence Liverrmore National Laboratory.

Lowell claimed, without much evidence, that putting particles in the stratosphere could return Earth’s surface environment closer to what it was before the dawn of the industrial revolution. David Keith and I and a few others in the audience said something to the effect of “Even if you could return globally averaged temperatures back to what they were, there would still be large changes in regional and seasonal climate.”

At that time, I too worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, but it was a 7000-person workplace and I had never met Lowell Wood. However, next door to my office there was a guy named Govindasamy Bala and he ran atmospheric climate models. My initial goal was to show that solar geoengineering wouldn’t work and there would be large regional and seasonal mismatches. We had no money to do this, so I told Bala that if he ran the climate model simulations, he could be first author on the resulting paper.

We did the simulations and lo and behold the model predicted that the solar geoengineering would work quite well, and do a good job of offsetting regional and seasonal climate changes. This result was largely due to the strong influence of sea ice on the climate system. If you can restore sea ice back to what it was, then much of the rest of the climate system is also restored. Ours was the first three-dimensional climate model simulation of solar geoengineering.

So, this has been much of my history in this field: We try to poke holes in the idea, because emotionally I don’t like the idea of intentionally manipulating Earth’s climate system, but each time we do a computer model simulation, the results suggest that solar geoengineering could offset most climate change for most people most of the time.

Over the past decade, many more people have entered this area. As a scientist, I try to be the first to do something in a research area and then move on to something else. So, now I am spending perhaps 10% of my time on this research area.

For example, the 1998 paper that came out of that meeting in Aspen, was the first peer-reviewed paper ever to compute how much carbon-emission-free energy we would need to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels while providing enough energy to sustain economic growth. Of course, now, many people are doing such calculations.

I just got back from 2 months in the Great Barrier Reef, where we for the first time ever put a plume of CO2-enriched seawater across a natural unconfined patch of coral reef, and we measured how the CO2 caused the reef to grow more slowly. We will not repeat this work, but try to move on to the next creative idea.