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Jeff Goodell Gets Real About Climate Change

Lauren Foliart |
February 12, 2013 | 1:50 p.m. PST

Senior Staff Reporter

Jeff Goodell (jeff-goodell.com)
Jeff Goodell (jeff-goodell.com)
President Obama guided the U.S. into an era of clean energy and carbon regulation, but it's time to widen the scope on environmental policy - we need to control the changing climate.

Last year was among the top 10 hottest years in recent history, according to a report released by NASA, and the evidence continues to pile up.  

"Now I don't think people can talk about [climate change] as a theoretical, far-off thing," said author and environmental reporter Jeff Goodell.  

"I think that now [Obama] can have this conversation about what's happening to us now, in real time, that there are massive droughts in 60 percent of the country, problems with drinking water supplies in the west, wild fires - all these things." 

Goodell, author of "How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate and Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future," wrote about the president's role in tackling climate change in a recent issue of Rolling Stone.

Goodell has researched environmental issues for more than 10 years. Speaking to everyone from world-class physicists to global warming activists, he has developed a practical view about the direction climate change is headed.

Geoengineering is defined as a deliberate manipulation of Earth's climate to counteract global warming. Scientists hypothesize a range of methods for intervention but most commonly discussed are solar radiation management (SRM) technologies that inject aerosols into the atmosphere and carbon-capture projects that use prototypes like imitation trees

In an interview with Neon Tommy, Goodell elaborated his points on what the president should do to address climate change and the status of geoengineering as a possible solution.  

In your opinion, what does Obama need to do in his second term that he may or may not have done in his first term?

JG: What's next now is hard to say. He's going to have to deal with the Republican House which is not going to be open to sweeping climate legislation or anything like that, so he's got to do what he can with his executive authority. A couple big things that are coming down the line: one being that he talk frequently, openly and frankly about the risk of climate change and really put some political muscle behind that. He says he wants to have a conversation with the country about this - well, let's see. Talking is really important because it prepares people, helps them really understand the issue and it's the only way to build support for large initiatives - you could say the same thing about gun control now. 

The second thing is the Keystone Pipeline decision; it's going to be a really big deal. Activists have really stepped that up as a sort of litmus test to see how serious he is about climate and there's a lot of pressure on him to approve the pipeline. That's going to be a really big indicator for his second term and he's likely to make this decision in the next few months. The final big thing he can do is do the same thing for existing coal plants as he did for vehicles, which is to establish an efficiency stand or greenhouse gas standard that basically says all coal plants or all power plants have to meet the emissions of a natural gas plant, which is about half the carbon of a coal plant. How hard he pushes that and where he goes with that will be the biggest indicator of his legacy in his second term.  

Would you say he has the country's attention, now, more than he did in the first term?

Yeah, I think the dynamic has changed. Four to six years ago, climate change was still an abstraction to a lot of people. With all this extreme weather we've been having, people are starting to see with their own eyes and asking questions about what's going on. That's changing the dynamic of the conversation in a big way. Plus, you're getting things like Hurricane Sandy, which was $70 billion worth of damage, and insurance companies are starting to raise their voices about this. Everybody knows this is real, this is happening, and even the polling is suggesting that the belief humans are having an impact on the earth's climate are higher than they were years ago.  

Going back to Obama speaking to the public, what does the public need to do to stimulate and support this conversation?

Environmental groups have been trying to connect the dots on [climate] issues for a long time and there has been a divide in the environmental groups. People are starting to see climate change impacting their own lives and you need to get politically involved and take this seriously and deal with it in a forthright way. It needs political support and those who care about it need to speak out about it. The thing with climate change is that it's a slow-motion crisis. The hard thing for Obama is that there's not a big political upside coming down hard on climate other than the democrats establishing themselves as pro-reality. With something like immigration or guns, there's a political upside dealing with it. But there isn't a lot of political upside dealing with climate change, which is always the problem.  

ALSO SEE: 3 Things Obama Needs To Do About Climate Change

You acknowledge in your book that you understand geoengineering is a dangerous issue but the arguments against it aren't compelling enough for you to dismiss it entirely. Can you elaborate on this?  What about geoengineering needs to be a part of a global conversation?

No one is doing this stuff yet. We don't even know for sure that geoengineering will work. We have a good indication from how volcanos have effected the earth's climate that you can certainly use sulfate aerosols to reflect away sunlight and that will lower the temperature of the earth - it happened with Mount Pinatubo. But how we would do that in a man-made way is not exactly clear yet. We've thought of a lot of ideas and theories but we don't know that we can do it. The point of saying this is that there's a lot of hysteria about nothing yet.

Secondly, we might need this to cool things down if they get out of hand. Even if we don't need it in a rational way, we might use it in an irrational way. For example, in China they have a huge program with jets and rockets to produce rain that essentially doesn't work. We know that you can't shoot silver iodine into the atmosphere, into clouds, to produce rain - it doesn't work that way. But they do it anyway because it looks good politically; it makes the farmers happy when there's a drought because it looks like their government is up there trying to do something about it. I think the big question right now with geoengineering is: do we fund and allow research into this? I believe that we should because if it's done in a responsible way, by responsible scientists, we'll learn a lot about whether it is possible to do this or not, and we'll learn a lot about the real risks and the real benefits.  

What is current funding like for geoengineering?

There are a few foundations but mostly scientists are doing it on their own time as a kind of hobby. Bill Gates has given some money personally, along with some others, but there's nothing of real substance in the U.S. With $100 million, or even $20 million, in research funds from the Department of Energy or somewhere else, we could learn a lot about how this might work and what the practical risks are. Opponents argue that this is a slippery slope and once you start doing the research and you start gaining momentum, we'll be manipulating the earth's climate and causing the climate disaster ourselves. It's sort of a similar argument the National Rifle Association uses that you can't take away assault weapons because next thing you know, no one will have weapons and we'll be taken over by tyrants and we'll be defenseless. It's a very specious argument.

Do you think funding will come in the future or is this something with a longer timeline?

I don't want to make any predictions but there's an inevitability to funding this. There has been a serious uptake of this within establishment science and policy circles and a lot of people in the Obama administration understand this is well worth researching. I'm not predicting there will be money in the next two years or something but there's a broad inevitability about geoengineering on every level.

I can see the argument that geoengineering is just a quick fix, like a diet pill for a country that just needs to go to the gym more. Do you think our culture has changed enough to bring geoengineering into discussion?  

That's a really good question and that's why I think geoengineering needs to be discussed openly and researched openly. I think one nightmare scenario for geoengineering is it's taken up by companies like Exxon Mobile and Peabody Energy - big coal burners that acknowledge global warming as a problem but also understand fossil fuels build our economy and lift people out of poverty. Those companies supporting geoengineering as a way of buying time and taking the edge off of climate change to the degree that it could become a kind of tool for them to continue on their merry way is a nightmare scenario and really dangerous and something that worries a lot of people. I had a conversation with Al Gore about geoengineering the other day and he's worried about that exact scenario. But that doesn't mean we should stick our head in the sand and pretend we can't do this. There are a lot of people outside the U.S. that are very interested in geoengineering and we can't stop development or the deployment of this ourselves. The more we engage with this, both on research and policy stuff, the better we'll be able to control and shape how people use this, and understand the risks.

In your opinion, what do you think will be the first geoengineering success story?  And when will we see it?

I think we're already doing geoengineering but the question is: are we going to get better at it? It's hard to see where it will go next. I think we're going to see some small-scale field tests and research putting some type of particles into the stratosphere and seeing what effect that might have. We're a long way off from any kind of global deployment. People have talked about using various devices to help make low-level clouds over the ocean to help reflect sunlight but that could also have the effect of increasing rainfall in crop-stricken areas. We might see things like that where we can just tailor the climate a little bit. I just don't really know. The next phase of the whole global warming thing is about adaptation; about cities becoming more resilient and about farmers changing the way they grow crops in order to deal with the rapidly changing climate. And in a broad way, geoengineering might be a part of that adaptation process. One thing that's pretty clear is that we're not going to stop global warming - it's happening - climate change is happening. It's going to happen at an increasing rate and we're beginning a really wild ride.  

Reach Senior Staff Reporter Lauren Foliart here.


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