Press Release

Intellectual Ventures’ Answers About Geoengineering

October 23, 2009 BELLEVUE, Wash.

Because these are controversial areas of exploration, we are often misunderstood. We hope these clear statements will help us steer towards more scientific discussion.

Our Answers about Geoengineering

Because these are controversial areas of exploration, we are often misunderstood. We hope these clear statements will help us steer towards more scientific discussion.

1. What is geoengineering?

“Geoengineering” describes how the earth’s systems can be influenced by engineering solutions. There are many historic examples of how humans have used technology to change geological systems. From using fire to drive game to building irrigation for agriculture, seeding clouds during droughts, reversing the Chicago River to building the Hoover dam, the term can encompass all sorts of ideas. Today, options discussed often include large-scale engineering of the environment in order to combat or counteract the adverse effects of human-induced changes in the atmosphere and climate.

2. Why is Intellectual Ventures researching geoengineering technologies?

Intellectual Ventures looks at hard problems facing the world and brainstorms ideas and technologies that can lead to better solutions. Global warming is a very significant problem, but it won’t be solved with old ideas and old technology alone. We believe that the solution to this crisis will involve new ideas and new technologies.

Intellectual Ventures recognizes that the process of bringing new global warming ideas to the surface can be challenging and controversial. But as an invention company, we believe research needs to be done now, rather than after the full complications of global warming are upon us.

3. What makes Intellectual Ventures’ approach to climate change different from the research that is already being done elsewhere?

Some people think that global warming can be solved purely by policy means: taxes, renewable requirements, or cap-and-trade systems. While such moves may be helpful, we are not convinced that they are sufficient for several reasons.

The first is that current climate science cannot say with certainty what level of CO2 can be tolerated by the climate system without severe consequences. Some scientists believe that even the current level of CO2 is dangerously high, while others are relatively comfortable with far higher levels. This matters because the more sensitive the climate is to CO2, the quicker and deeper cuts in emissions must be in order to avoid harmful environmental changes. We may be lucky, and the climate system may be relatively tolerant, or we may be unlucky and find that the necessary cuts must be deeper, or occur quicker, than the world can manage to do.

Second, there has been more talk than action. The world has made little progress in curbing large scale emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. In order to make meaningful cuts in CO2 emissions there would need to be comprehensive and effective international agreements in place. So far, these have proven elusive.

Third, the task of retooling our energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels is a massive task, which is going to take a long time to accomplish. Indeed most of the world has not even made a meaningful start. New technology will speed the transition to a carbon-free energy infrastructure, but it is hard to estimate or have confidence in that can be accomplished quickly.

Fourth, and perhaps the most important, by the time if we should discover that the factors above are not favorable – and serious environmental harm starts to occur, it will be too late for conventional approaches to work. Once there is too much CO2 in the atmosphere, even if you stop emissions entirely, you will have problems for many decades to come. It is possible that this unhappy situation will not occur, either because the climate can tolerate a lot more CO2, or because the world achieves very significant emission reductions. However, if we do find ourselves in a bad scenario, geoengineering is one of the few alternatives for reducing harm to both human society and the environment.

4. Aren’t there other solutions to global warming already in the mix?

Yes, there are political and technological answers to climate change that are being considered right now. Policy solutions requiring international agreements continue to evolve. New technological answers emerge every day, at Intellectual Ventures and throughout the world. Our work is deeply involved in new energy system inventions, including invention in energy conservation technologies – better batteries, hybrid engines, and electrical transmission systems for renewable power – plus a new type of nuclear reactor designed by the team at TerraPower.

5. Could we use geoenginnering technologies now, in place of cutting emissions?

Geoengineering is not a substitute for reducing our CO2 emissions. There are many good reasons for working hard to reduce CO2 emissions, so we do not endorse geoengineering simply to allow further emissions. We believe that geoengineering should be viewed as a last resort to prevent irreparable harm to the environment and human society. However, we can’t wait to develop that last resort until we need it – we must begin the research work to understand it now. Research and better understanding must precede any decision to deploy geoengineering.

6. Why is global warming such a threat?

Global warming has characteristics that make it extremely challenging for the world’s political and policy framework. Indeed, it is about the worst possible case. The easiest threats to solve are localized, quick and predictable. Global warming, however, is the opposite. It’s not local; it’s global, so the whole world needs to cooperate in order to solve it. The resulting environmental problems may have broad impacts and occur slowly without a clear cause and effect. The onset of symptoms is slow, so it is easy to doubt. The solutions on the table so far involve financial pain today, in exchange for a benefit decades away – longer than most people plan, and much longer than most politician’s terms. Each of these properties make it hard for human nature to deal with global warming decisively. It also is difficult for our policy making and governance institutions. As a society, we are not good at making very long term tradeoffs of this sort.

7. Won’t geoengineering detract from renewable and green energy solutions?

Some people worry that geoengineering will be used as an excuse to continue emitting CO2. That is a valid concern, but it is not a reason to stop research and development efforts.

Given the size of the potential harm, the uncertainty in how much harm for how much CO2, and the political risk that governments and individuals will not do enough, it is hard to feel good about our current course and speed. We think it is only prudent to start now on the research that could offer a way to “buy time.” If the global warming threat is serious – and we believe that it is – all options must remain on the table, and we must invest in pursuing them.

8. What is the greatest potential benefit you see from geoengineering? What about possible harms?

Realistically, geoengineering could offer us a way to buy time by preventing the worst effects of global warming while society gets its act together on a carbon-emission free energy infrastructure. We are continuing to work with experts in the climate sciences to further advance the technology. If we are effective in cutting emissions, and lucky in how much CO2 the climate system can tolerate, then it may not be needed at all.

Other people worry that geoengineering may not work, or that it could provide a false hope. That is an argument for more research and development, not less. At the present time there is almost no research and development funding for geoengineering, which seems foolish given what is at stake.

Another concern is that there might be unforeseen consequences of geoengineering. This is also a topic which research can address. Geoengineering is only under consideration to combat the vastly more harmful effects that are predicted from severe climate change.

9. Will Intellectual Ventures make money from geoengineering?

Intellectual Ventures invents new technology as its main business, but we do not expect or intend that our climate technology inventions will make money. Rather, they are part of our work applying the brain power and creativity of our inventors to the serious problems confronting society. Other efforts like this include active programs in eliminating malaria, delivering vaccine to remote areas without refrigeration and purifying food and water to prevent illness in the developing world.

10. When will your inventions be built?

We say geoengineering “might” offer a solution, because we advocate only research and development on geoengineering and not deployment at this time. None of the approaches that we are familiar with, such as our ocean cooling or stratospheric shield approaches, are ready for prime time yet. They need to get much more attention and funding to experiment with them and prove them out. That’s why, as part of our climate change strategy, R&D in geoengineering has its place.


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