Can We Geoengineer Our Way Out Of A Natural Disaster?

16:32 minutes

Humans have always altered their landscapes—from simple agriculture used to cultivate specific crops to huge projects like damming rivers to change the flow of entire ecosystems. And many of these human interventions have unintended consequences and have led to major environmental disasters. 

In her book Under A White Sky: The Nature Of The Future, author Elizabeth Kolbert talks to scientists and people working on geoengineering projects and technology to mitigate and avert damage caused by humans in the natural world like climate change. The projects range from electrifying rivers to turning CO2 emissions into rocks. Kolbert discusses if we can solve these natural problems with the tools that created the problems in the first place, and at what cost?

a woman sitting on narrow metal grated platforms over a waterway cutting through rock walls surrounding her
Elizabeth Kolbert at Devils Hole in Death Valley. Courtesy Elizabeth Kolbert
a woman wearing a hard hat and a winter coat holds a packet of paper and stands in front of industrial-looking equipment out on dark gravel, rocky terrain
Kolbert with a carbon dioxide removal unit in Iceland. Courtesy Elizabeth Kolbert

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Segment Guests

Elizabeth Kolbert

Elizabeth Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future (Crown, 2021). She’s based in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Humans have always altered their landscapes from simple agriculture used to cultivate specific crops to huge projects like damming rivers to change the flow of entire ecosystems. And of course, many of these human interventions have unintended consequences and have led to major environmental disasters. And there seems to be a human tendency to try to course correct with, well, more interventions to geoengineer our way out of these human-made natural disasters like climate change.

So can we solve these natural problems with the tools that created the problems in the first place? And at what cost? In her new book, my next guest talked to the scientists and people working on some of these big projects from genetically engineering cane toads to particles in the atmosphere to combat climate change. Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book is called Under a White Sky, The Nature of the Future. She joins us from Williamstown, Massachusetts. Welcome to Science Friday. Thanks so much for being here.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Let’s start with a big idea behind your book. When we try to tinker with the natural world, there are so many unintended consequences. And as you say, we don’t necessarily have the best track record with some of our interventions. It almost seems like your book is written to remind us of this fact.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, definitely, there’s a cautionary tale aspect to it. Let’s put it that way.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to read a passage from your book early on. It says, “If there’s to be an answer to the problem of control, it’s going to be more control. Only now, what’s got to be managed is not a nature that exists or is imagined to exist, apart from the human. Instead, the new effort begins with the planet remade and spirals back on itself, not so much the control of nature as the control of the control of nature. First, you reverse a river. Then, you electrify it.” Now we’re going to come back to the electrification of the river in a second, but I want to ask you, what does it mean for something to be natural today, do you think?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, that’s a really good question, and I discuss that conundrum in the book. We have developed, actually, this very interesting vocabulary around our complicated relationship with nature these days. And one phrase that is only really used in the academic literature, but I think describes, potentially, the whole world is this idea of a coupled human and natural system. Everywhere we go, we are sort of entwined with nature at this point. There’s really nowhere you can go where you don’t find evidence of human activity. And that includes the deepest trenches of the oceans and the middle of the ice sheets.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to talk about some of these projects that you write about in the book. And you start on the Chicago River, a river that’s been changed and rerouted, actually reversed. How is the Chicago River an example of some of these human-made interventions?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Chicago grew up along the banks of the Chicago River. And at the time that the city was founded, it flowed east into Lake Michigan. And Chicago basically used the river as a way to get rid of its waste. That was its human waste, and also, as the stockyards grew up in the city, all of its animal waste. And it was said that the river was so thick with filth, a chicken could walk across it without ever getting her feet wet.

This was, obviously, revolting, but it was also a serious public health hazard because Chicago draws its drinking water from Lake Michigan. So around the turn of the 20th century, it was decided– they were getting constant outbreaks of waterborne disease. So it was decided as a public health measure, something had to be done, and that something was an enormous construction project, perhaps the biggest of its day, which resulted in the construction of, basically, a canal that reversed the flow of the river. So now if you go to the Chicago River, it no longer flows into Lake Michigan. Rather, it flows away from Lake Michigan.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And away from Lake Michigan into a river system that ends up taking this waste, essentially, down to the Mississippi River, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: It pretty much eliminated this public health problem. But in the process, it connected these two great drainage basins, so the Great Lakes drainage basin and the Mississippi drainage basin, which, previously, there had been no way, no aquatic connection between the two.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except for the fact that in this other river system is a particularly nasty invasive species that’s really hard to control. And the people desperately don’t want it to get into Lake Michigan.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Just to say it would be a problem even without this particular invasive species that we’re going to talk about, because both the Mississippi River system and the Great Lakes system are both highly invaded systems. So there are species in both systems that the other one would prefer to keep out because they’re wreaking havoc.

But the species that I believe you’re alluding to, which is actually a collection of species, is referred to collectively as Asian carp. It’s actually four species of carp that were imported to the US purposefully back in the ’60s and ’70s and have since basically taken over the Mississippi River system. And people who live around the Great Lakes really, really don’t want them in the Great Lakes.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And they’ve taken over the river system because they’re very efficient at just eating and crowding out all the other species that are there. And they’re there in part because we didn’t want to put chemicals into the river. Hold it, how’d that happen?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Yeah, it’s one of those sad/comic ironies of our time, is that these fish were imported to the US at an effort, what’s called biocontrol, so using one species to get rid of the problem that another species is causing us. Humans– it’s always done from a human perspective. And so, in this case, one of the species was brought in because it’s a very efficient herbivore. It eats aquatic plants, and there are a lot of invasive weeds that people were trying to get rid of from waterways. So this was said as well. Instead of dumping herbicides in the water, we’ll dump these fish in the water, and they will get rid of our weeds.

Another species was brought in because of the nutrient loading that occurs from sort of insufficiently treated sewage. This was the time of the Clean Water Act. Communities were under a lot of pressure to reduce this nutrient loading. And the idea was these fish, who are very efficient filter feeders, would help do that. They all got loose and basically swam their way all the way up to the very edge of Chicago.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s such a fascinating story because the original notion that we want to solve the problem of a filthy river that’s filled with waste by this enormous project of rerouting it, and then it eventually ends up causing all these other downstream effects. The other way of thinking about it, of course, Elizabeth, is, we could just not dump so much stuff in the river. But that gets to this habit of mind– I mean, how people think about the problem that they’re facing right now. And that’s something that I think you grapple with quite a bit in this book.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: At the heart of the book is this question of, how we deal with these problems, which are increasing in scale. So we’re starting with the Chicago River, which is a, let’s call it a regional problem. And we get all the way up to climate change, which is a planet wide problem, and how are we going to respond to that.

One of the interesting side stories here is, we could separate these two basins again. The Army Corps of Engineers has looked at it. It would be quite expensive to do at this point. But it would also be extremely inconvenient because Chicago has grown up now around this reverse river. So what might be the best thing to do ecologically rarely wins out when people are making those decisions.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Some of the projects that you write about sound really like science fiction. And there’s one that is, I think, scary to an awful lot of people. It gives you the title of this book. It tries to control the effects of the sun basically by almost simulating volcanic ash in the sky. Explain what exactly this project is trying to do.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, what you’re alluding to is this– I don’t even know if it rises to the level of project at this point. It’s an idea, let’s put it this way, a proposal called solar geoengineering or, alternatively, sometimes, solar radiation management. And the idea here is that we’ve dumped a lot of CO2 into the atmosphere that’s warming the planet. That’s climate change, so a subject you’ve spoken about many times.

One of the challenges of dealing with climate change is that carbon dioxide is a very long lived gas in the atmosphere. It just hangs around for a very long time. So even once we stop emitting CO2, which we’re certainly not near doing at this point, we still are going to have this altered climate. If we decide we don’t like that climate for humanitarian reasons, for ecological reasons, it’s very, very hard to do anything about that fast.

And the only theoretical proposal on the table is this idea of, well, we will shoot something into the stratosphere, some chemical compound, sulfur dioxide potentially, calcium carbonate potentially. It’s even been proposed– diamond dust has even been proposed that will reflect sunlight back to space. And that will have a cooling effect. So, in theory, you could counteract the warming with cooling.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But the worry here, of course, is that we could do something like this and assume that this is going to do something that could help us, but it could, as you write about so often in your book, it could go horribly wrong. Are they concerned about the possible consequences of an intervention like this?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, yes, absolutely everyone is very concerned about that. And this gets us to the current state of the debate, which is just even should we allow the first preliminary test? As I say, this technology doesn’t exist. It would require specialized aircraft with the capacity to spray many, many tons of some material in the stratosphere. We’re quite a ways from developing that, although I think everyone thinks that that would not be that difficult. But the question is, should we even allow these first preliminary tests to go forward to see if this theory is viable?

JOHN DANKOSKY: So this is maybe far out in the future. You also write about some technologies that are already being used and that could maybe be scaled up a little bit, some of the carbon capture technologies that are out there. You know, we read about Elon Musk putting out this huge $100 million prize to find the best new carbon capture technology. Before we get into some specifics, do you sense that this is the right way to find the solution, that we’re going to find some technological marvel that’s going to allow us to scrub carbon out of the atmosphere?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, this really gets to the heart of the book in a lot of ways. We have already built in, if you look at the sort of fine print of a lot of these Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, which are sort of the basis for these big global agreements and about how we’re going to keep average global temperatures from increasing more than two degrees C, which has sort of become this threshold which we’ve agreed we do not want to cross, already built into a lot of those projections is this idea that we are going to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere. That’s one of the tools we’re going to need– I guess I use that word– to achieve that goal. Now we don’t have those tools yet. So that is exactly this sort of habit of mine of say, well, let’s assume that’s going to work.

JOHN DANKOSKY: One of the technologies that you saw firsthand is this idea of taking carbon dioxide and turning it essentially into rocks. One of the things I found most interesting and amusing about this concept was that the scientists that were working on this had a whole lot of ideas about how this would work, but didn’t really have an idea of where the rocks were going to go that were created by all of this. Maybe you could explain the technology briefly.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Eventually, and once again, eventually is a long time, most of the CO2 that we are throwing up into the atmosphere would end up turning to stone, to calcium carbonate through a complicated process that goes under the title, sort of benign sounding. And it is very benign of chemical weathering. So that’s the process over long periods of time, hundreds of thousands, millions of years, through which CO2 is removed from the air. And the question is, can we basically mimic that and speed it up a tremendous amount?

So I actually took a trip to visit some of my emissions that I’d paid to have removed from the atmosphere by a machine, a machine that looked kind of like a giant air conditioner. And then it was being pumped deep underground into the volcanic rock beneath Iceland, where it was reacting chemically with that rock to form calcium carbonate. So that is one method that potentially could be used to scrub CO2 out of the atmosphere. The problem is that it requires energy. So that’s an issue. And right now, it’s quite expensive. The cost and the energy costs are both significant factors here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Climate change has been at the heart of so much of your work. It seems, in some ways, like a much bigger and much more complex problem– I suppose that that’s an understatement– than some of the other problems that you write about in the book that humans are trying to solve. Do you sense, Elizabeth, that it is that way, that climate change is of a different scale than anything else that humans have caused that we’re now trying to fix?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, I guess I would argue– and this is sort of at the center of the book– our efforts to grapple with the ecological damage, the biodiversity crisis, extinction crisis, whatever you want to call it, if you’re ranking global disasters, I think that ranks pretty high up there as well. And both of these are– the extinction crisis is being caused by many, many human activities.

Climate change is a big one. Climate change is being caused also by many human activities, all of which have the result of putting CO2 up into the air. So they’re very intertwined crises, and they’re both– it’s very, very difficult to put, as it were, the genie back in the bottle in both cases.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. And we’re talking with Elizabeth Kolbert. She’s the author of the new book Under a White Sky, The Nature of the Future. Has your reporting for this book changed anything about the way you think about climate change and the way that we are dealing with it as humans?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Well, I think that one of the very sobering things about writing the book is realizing that even were we to stop emitting CO2 once again, which we absolutely need to do and which everyone working on all of these technologies would tell you we absolutely need to do, we haven’t solved the problem of climate change. We’re simply no longer making the problem worse. So that’s a pretty big and daunting fact that I think, unfortunately, we’re going to have to grapple with.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Are you more scared or less scared after looking at some of the work that people are doing to try to solve the problems?

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: [LAUGHS] That’s a really good question. If it’s possible to be both simultaneously, I guess, I would say that’s true. And one of the points I would make about the book– and it genuinely reflects sort of my own ambivalence about a lot of these things– is, you can read about some of these technologies. And you can say, yeah, that’s great. I’m enthusiastic about that. You can read about them and say, that’s horrifying. That would be an even bigger disaster. And I think both are very legitimate reactions.

JOHN DANKOSKY: That’s all the time we have. I’d like to thank my guest. Elizabeth Kolbert is author of the new book, Under a White Sky. Elizabeth, thank you so much for the book and for the conversation. I really appreciate it.

ELIZABETH KOLBERT: Thanks for having me.

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About Alexa Lim

Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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