David Victor, a fellow at the Program for Energy and Sustainable Development, at Stanford University, put it more starkly in a recent article in Foreign Affairs. “Despite years of speculation and vague talk, peer-reviewed research on geo-engineering is remarkably scarce,” he wrote. “Nearly the entire community of geo-engineering scientists could fit comfortably in a single university seminar room, and the entire scientific literature on the subject could be read during the course of a transatlantic flight.”
There has been a small amount of federally funded research into geo-engineering, but the numbers pale in comparison to the billions being spent on other research and development as part of the federal stimulus package this year ($3.4 billion will be spent on efforts to capture carbon dioxide from power plants and store it underground). From 1998 to 2005, the Department of Energy sponsored research into iron fertilization, spending about $25 million over that period. In the end, the approach proved not to be promising. According to the DOE, only a “very small portion” of the carbon dioxide absorbed by fertilized phytoplankton settled to the bottom of the ocean, where the carbon would have been stored more or less permanently, so the research was abandoned.
A few million dollars more has been spent investigating other schemes, such as ways to increase the amount of carbon dioxide stored in the soil by switchgrass and poplar trees, an approach that could increase natural carbon sequestration by several billion gigatons a year–a large part of carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels. There have been other projects, including those looking at ways to enhance the absorption of carbon dioxide from rocks. But there has been no coordinated effort to sort through different approaches or to fund large-scale tests.
In 2006, Holdren wrote that “the ‘geo-engineering’ approaches considered so far appeared to be afflicted with some combination of high costs, low leverage, and a high likelihood of serious side effects.” These are points that he has reasserted in recent days.
Yet he evidently thinks that these approaches need to be studied seriously, in case global warming pushes governments to put drastic measures on the table. “Climate change is happening faster than anyone previously predicted,” Holdren said at a recent forum at MIT. “If we get sufficiently desperate, we may try to engage in geo-engineering to try to create cooling effects, and we may try to scrub greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere technologically.” In a recent e-mail to the New York Times, he said that if that happens, we need to better understand how these schemes will work.