Feb 17, 2007

Open Source Terraforming

Posted by in categories: engineering, open source, sustainability

Whether we like it or not, geoengineering — a process I’ve taken to calling “(re)terraforming the Earth” — is now on the table as a strategy for dealing with onrushing climate disaster. This isn’t because it’s a particularly good idea; as far as we presently know, the potential negative impacts of geoengineering projects seem to significantly outweigh any benefits. Nonetheless, (re)terraforming has drawn an increasing amount of attention over the past few months. One key reason is that, if it could be made to work, it wouldn’t just moderate climate change — i.e., slow it or stop it — it would actually serve as a climate change remediation method, reversing global warming.

The cynical and the insipid apparently believe that pursuing the geoengineering option would allow us to avoid making any changes in technology or behavior intended to reduce greenhouse gas output. This sort of logic is wrong, utterly wrong. For any plausible geoengineering project to succeed, we’d have to have already stabilized the climate. As it turns out, the brilliant and clearly-needed advances in technology and changes in behavior supported by those of us who proudly wear the label “bright green” will do exactly this, reducing, even eventually eliminating, anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. We need to do this as quickly as possible. As the saying goes, if you want to get out of the hole you’re in, the first thing to do is stop digging.

But none of the bright green solutions — ultra-efficient buildings and vehicles, top-to-bottom urban redesigns, local foods, renewable energy systems, and the like — will do anything to reduce the anthropogenic greenhouse gases that have already been emitted. The best result we get is stabilizing at an already high greenhouse gas level. And because of ocean thermal inertia and other big, slow climate effects, the Earth will continue to warm for a couple of decades even after we stop all greenhouse gas emissions. Transforming our civilization into a bright green wonderland won’t be easy, and under even the most optimistic estimates will take at least a decade; by the time we finally stop putting out additional greenhouse gases, we could well have gone past a point where globally disastrous results are inevitable. In fact, given the complexity of climate feedback systems, we may already have passed such a tipping point, even if we stopped all emissions today.

In other words, while stopping digging is absolutely necessary, it won’t actually refill the hole.

I’m hopeful that eliminating anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions will be enough; if more optimistic scenarios are correct, ceasing to emit additional greenhouse gases in the next decade or two will be sufficient to avoid real disaster. This would be a wonderful outcome, and not just because we would have dodged the global warming bullet. Many of the best steps we can take along these lines are distributed, incremental, collaborative, and quite often make use of open systems and standards: all very good things, with larger social implications than just for climate moderation, and the heart of what my blog Open the Future is all about.

But if we learn that we’ve already passed the climate disaster tipping point, if we want to avoid a civilization-threatening outcome, we’ll have to figure out how to refill the hole — to reduce overall temperature increases, or to remove methane, CO2 or other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. And that means that we’d have to look at geoengineering.

Or, to be more accurate, we’ll have to keep looking at geoengineering. As it happens, the “(re)terraforming to fix global warming” genie is already out of the bottle. It happened just last week.

On February 9, 2007, Virgin Corporation honcho Richard Branson announced that he would give $25 million to the winner of the “Virgin Earth Challenge:”

The Virgin Earth Challenge will award $25 million to the individual or group who are able to demonstrate a commercially viable design which will result in the net removal of anthropogenic, atmospheric greenhouse gases each year for at least ten years without countervailing harmful effects. This removal must have long term effects and contribute materially to the stability of the Earth’s climate.

Reaction in the green blogosphere has been cautiously optimistic, with most responses noting a comparison to the “X-Prize” for private space flight, and some observing that air travel, such as that provided by Virgin Airways, remains a big source of greenhouse gases. Much to my surprise, however, none of the major green blogs noted the most significant aspect of this competition:

This is explicitly a call for geoengineering projects.

The Virgin Earth Challenge isn’t simply looking for better ways to reduce or eliminate new greenhouse gas emissions, it’s looking for ways to remove existing CO2 and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere — that’s what “net removal” means. This competition seeks ways to make an active, substantial change to the Earth’s geophysical systems. Richard Branson is underwriting terraforming, and given that the consensus new mainstream environmentalist position is to be solidly anti-geoengineering, the lack of reaction to what is essentially the “Terraforming Challenge” is a bit surprising.

But if we’re already looking at geoengineering, and may potentially need to consider it as a necessary path to survival, how can we do it in a way that has the best chance to avoid making matters worse?

I’ve already given away the answer in the title: open up the process.

I’ve long argued that openness is the best way to ensure the safe development and deployment of transformative technologies like molecular nanotechnology, general machine intelligence, and radical human bioenhancements. Geoengineering technologies should be added to this list. The reasons are clear: the more people who can examine and evaluate the geotechnological proposals, the greater the likelihood of finding subtle flaws or dangers, and the greater the pool of knowledge that can offer solutions.

As I put it in my 2003 essay for the final Whole Earth magazine (and the source of my blog’s name), “Open the Future,”

Opening the books on emerging technologies, making the information about how they work widely available and easily accessible, in turn creates the possibility of a global defense against accidents or the inevitable depredations of a few. Openness speaks to our long traditions of democracy, free expression, and the scientific method, even as it harnesses one of the newest and best forces in our culture: the power of networks and the distributed-collaboration tools they evolve.Broad access to… [transformative] tools and knowledge would help millions of people examine and analyze emerging information, nano- and biotechnologies [and geotechnologies], looking for errors and flaws that could lead to dangerous or unintended results. This concept has precedent: it already works in the world of software, with the “free software” or “open source” movement. A multitude of developers, each interested in making sure the software is as reliable and secure as possible, do a demonstrably better job at making hard-to-attack software than an office park’s worth of programmers whose main concerns are market share, liability, and maintaining trade secrets.

[…]The more people participate, even in small ways, the better we get at building up our knowledge and defenses. And this openness has another, not insubstantial, benefit: transparency. It is far more difficult to obscure the implications of new technologies (or, conversely, to oversell their possibilities) when people around the world can read the plans.

The idea of opening transformative technologies is controversial. One argument often leveled against it is that it puts dangerous “knowledge-enabled” technologies into the hands of people who would abuse them. Fortunately, such a charge isn’t likely to apply in any significant way to discussions of geotechnology, largely because the industrial capacity required to take advantage of these technologies is well beyond most countries, let alone super-empowered individuals and small groups. Another criticism of the open approach attacks it for undermining the market. But concerns about proprietary information and profit potential are hard to fathom with terraforming — there would be no plausible way to limit access to climate change remediation only to those who pay for it. Ultimately, the downsides of making potential geoengineering methods open are tiny, while the benefits are massive.

It’s not entirely clear if an open source approach for terraforming technology would be allowed within the Virgin Earth Challenge rules. The “terms and conditions” appear to require secrecy during the development process, but leave open the possibility of a variety of licensing conditions afterwards. Presumably, this would include open source/free access licenses. This is better than nothing, but the secrecy-during-development requirements should have an exception for open source competitors. The value of the “many eyes” approach is enhanced if it isn’t limited to after-the-fact analysis. Discovery of a flaw requiring a redesign is less costly — and less likely to be ignored — if it happens early in the development process.

Let me be clear: I am not calling for geoengineering as the solution to global warming. We know nowhere near enough to make (re)terraforming a plausible or safe option. Our best pathway to avoiding climate disaster remains the rapid reduction and elimination of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. But I am calling for us to learn more about geotechnologies. Like it or not, we’ve entered the era of intentional geoengineering. The people who believe that (re)terraforming is a bad idea need to be part of the discussion about specific proposals, not simply sources of blanket condemnations. We need their insights and intelligence. The best way to make that happen, the best way to make sure that any terraforming effort leads to a global benefit, not harm, is to open the process of studying and developing geotechnological tools.

It may well be the best example yet seen of the importance of opening the future.


Comments — comments are now closed.

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  2. Phillip Huggan says:

    Then the most logical course of action is for Lifeboat Foundation staff to become acquainted with the existing Global Warming Earth Sciences projects already implemented or on the table (and the associated organizations and personnel). There are billions of dollars being spent on Earth Sciences within the world’s government funded scientific community. No sense duplicating efforts.

    Another strategy would be to learn the biochemistry of failed Iron Fertilization algae bloom experiments to date to see if they can somehow be improved.

    Or, rank the most dangerous mitigation startegies; rule out the ones that cannot be reversed easily. I want real scientists dealing with these issues not the average Joe.

  3. Phillip Huggan says:

    If the average Joe would like to advance the science of Global Warming, he/she can download Distributed Computing climate modelling software. Perhaps Lifeboat Foundation could post a link to the download site?

  4. Phillip Huggan says:

    Just another constructive suggestion: I don’t believe anyone has classified various geoengineering proposals based upon how easily they can be “undone” or even reverse their own effects.

    For example, high-altitude or space dust dispersion proposals cannot be reversed. But hollow metals spheres at GEO or a Lagrange Point intented to block some solar output can be moved to actually increase solar output to the Earth’s surface.

    Global Warming is going to melt vast permafrost methane stores in Russia and Canada. Perhaps an existing plant species or a novel gentically engineered plant species could be introduced into the tundra/tiaga to sequester ground carbon (assuming it would otherwise be released into the atmosphere in three or four decades time, IDK)…
    If I were researching such proposals, I’d first do a Google scholar search of any existing or past research and/or proposals. Then I’d familiarize myself with as much of the science/engineering of the proposal as easily possible (e-mailing the paper’s authors with intelligent questions garners a response 1/3–1/2 of the time). Then I’d see if any existing government (internationally) Climate Change programs or Agriculture programs are in a position to address this. If not, *then* I’d form my own proposals and seek my own funding sources.
    Physorg just did a story about an all-plastic (not really I can see wires in the photo) tiny wind turbine. If Branson were to give the $25 million to scale-up this technology (strange the authors have engineered a save-the-world-technology without making the paper a freebie pre-print), it would effect real world change, rather than being a self-serving publicity stunt.

    What we really need is a low-footprint battery storage technology, ie) A hydorgen economy. There are many ways cash can advance this field, though the primary roadblock is wealthy embedded *market* participants. The market is shit for performing basic R + D, which is what is being discussed here.

  5. I’m really tired of everybody talking global warming. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that nobody is providing reasonable solutions to this matter.

    And I’m still unconvinced this is solely humanities fault (as volcano’s and ocean plants put out a lot more CO2, if not as much as humans).

    So, whether or not Global warming is natural or artificial, until somebody starts providing solutions I think I am going to tune out the entire crowd as the “chicken little hysteria” is not really all that inspiring.

  6. Darnell, if you’re not seeing people offering reasonable solutions, you’re not really paying attention. Scan through the last few thousand posts at to see some examples. You may not find all of them meeting your definition of “reasonable,” but you’re certain to see that solutions are diverse and abundant.

  7. Phillip Huggan says:

    One mitigation strategy I’m just starting to implement today is to change my home page and the search engine I use (when I don’t need a really powerful google search) to:
    They donate about 2 cents to your charity for every search. So far of about 15 searches, only one really tough one I would have preferred google for (it found this website no problem). I figure I’ll be giving a couple hundred dollars annually to a charity which my analysis reveals will compound that total more than 10X over the course of a decade. I’ll also soon be lobbying very aggresively, every business and institution in Canada I can, to use as their default home page and IBRA (based in the UK) as the chosen charity.

    I’ve selected my charity as IBRA (International Bee Research Association) because their research will increase agriculture yields over time, perhaps our weakest underbelly in the fight to mitigate Global Warming.

    Australia has just announced they will ban the incandescent light bulb. You might want to e-mail your government representatives to do the same.

  8. Hey Jamais,

    Thanks for the link. Unfortunately that site is a perfect example of what I mean. It’s seems more of a discussion about the problem instead of solutions towards the problem.

    Thus far, I’ve only seen two solutions proposed, and a third possible one that will work, although it will produce nasty side effects.

    The first solution involves putting some type of “huge sunshade lens” that would tint the suns rays just dark enough to relieve our planet from some of its heat.

    Unfortunately, this is not only too expensive (as it would drain the entire world’s economy putting tens of thousands of these in orbit) but would take too long with our current technology to be of any use.

    The second is scattering moon dust to help shade the Earth. The idea is brilliant, but the dust tends to love gravity, and it would either end of floating away or collecting near an Lagrange point, thus heating the Earth and shading it every so often.

    The last result is a nuclear war, which would certainly cool down our planet. Although if that was the only solution, I would rather burn to death slowly than freeze my wazoo off within a week from others mistakes.

    So those are the only solutions that I’ve heard thus far. Has anyone else heard anything better?

  9. Phillip Huggan says:

    “And I’m still unconvinced this is solely humanities fault (as volcano’s and ocean plants put out a lot more CO2, if not as much as humans).”

    You’re right. Your pet definition of global warming traces its cause to the big bang. All respectable scientists define Global Warming as the temperature spike that has occured in lock-step with the Industrial Revolution. We use satellites and nearby human observers and airplanes to confirm volcanic eruptions and their effects (for the big ones) on global temperatures are traceable as temperature declines and agriculture yield drops (and most likely the ends of some civiliazations potentially including our own). Oceans *absorb* about 1/2 the extra CO2 we add to the atmosphere presently along with the breakeven add-substract CO2 recycling process oceans naturally facilitate; they are net CO2 sinks not contributors.

    For the record (not in response to any comment on this blog), suggesting land surface temperatures are unaffected by solar output variations is to say their is no difference in surface temps between day and night. Oceans do act as heat sinks and moderate the world’s weather/climate by releasing this heat. It is the reason Continental climates are so extremely cold and hot in the winter and summer, and why port cities always have little temperature variation.
    Whenever I see Global Warming questioned in any forum, I immediately lose a little respect for that forum; whatever “reality filters” should be in place (such as the composition political, educational, or otherwise, of one’s audience), aren’t. It wastes people’s time.

    H+ interests and existential risk analysts should ditch the Neocons rather than affiliate closer with them, else doing more harm than good.

  10. Phillip Huggan says:

    Re: my “reality filter” comment above, I think it is primarily for two reasons.

    1) Futurists are predisposed to invent physics for works of fiction. This is fine in itself (I’m sure many great engineers were motivated by reading Tom Swift and Asimov stories), but too often the fiction context is taken out of context.

    2) People who reject existing government and societal solutions are predisposed to be at least middle-class. This is rational from a personal finances standpoint: government keep your hands off my moolah I earned/lucked-out-being-born-Western. But it also means one will not acknowledge simple statist solutions to problems like Global Warming, solutions such as increasing gasoline taxes (much cheaper and safer than Terraforming) or cutting big-oil tax-breaks.
    I don’t expect people to change their own belief systems right away (and it isn’t necessary unless you are a politician or billionaire or former World Bank president)and it takes time to learn stuff, but if there is not that progressive improvement, why even pretend to be altruistic if your own actions directly bolster neocapitalism?

  11. Phillip, at a certain point, it just becomes easier to disengage from the people trying to perpetuate a dead debate. WorldChanging may not be a person’s favorite site, but to characterize it as focusing on problems and ignoring solutions is to so misread it that either the gentleman didn’t actually look at the site (and lied about it), or has such a fundamentally different worldview that little mutual understanding would be possible. It’s like saying Lifeboat doesn’t have any real discussion of how to deal with planetary disasters, because it doesn’t talk about beaming up to a comet in purple running shoes.

    I like your idea of Lifeboat posting links to the distributed environmental simulations, btw. I’ll see if I can dig that up and post it myself.

  12. Phillip Huggan says:

    Jamais I wasn’t referencing your site, I think I’ve contributed to your blog in the past.

    My specific concern above is that there appears to be an underlying Homeland Security agenda. This is fine but if it is not explicitly stated, it is confusing to people who assume a news article designed to shed light on potential terrorists plans is actually an existential risk.

    I’m in the process of trying to equate existential risks with regressive world events, and I think I’d much rather see terrorist events regularly befall a world city, than to see regressive economic events such as curbing immigration and ramping up military spending occur. I say let the terrorists into the world’s economy along with the skilled professionals. In my view of things, existential risks are primarily propogated by large economic players, even Osama looks puny by comparison.

  13. Phillip, if you spent half your time responding to these blog posts writing your own blog, you’d probably have a significant amount of traffic and recognition by now. Do you realize that blogs like Jamais’ and mine get 1-3K views/day, no problem?

  14. Phillip Huggan says:

    I am genuinely concerned about seeing humanity survive and prosper. Michael, if the neocons killed JFK before the Cuban Missile Crisis, both our parents would be dead and we wouldn’t be here to argue this point. Be careful your meme-spreading isn’t making it more likely a person like Johnson will administer MNT/AGI, rather than JFK.

    I will likely open up a geocities page to publish the contents of any essay ideas I have, rather than waste time to find references to materials I already know and have memorized. A blog? Why? I just want my views to be Google-able. I know you guys don’t like my political positions, but they represent humanity’s best chance.

  15. Phillip Huggan says:

    …and when I said in another thread “I’m not posting at this blog indefinitely” I don’t mean that as an ultimatum, it’s just that if you are 100% sure MNT will happen in 7–13 years, it doesn’t make sense to study *any* of the other existential risks. But I think a simple analysis of the materials sciences or biochemistry of any specific pathway, will reveal most “soft MNT” targets are impossible and the easiest “diamondoid MNT” pathway, using diamonds mostly/entirely, is 7–13 years away from the basic easiest most mature mechanosynthetic step. Perhaps deflationary computational resources are being comfused for inflationary SPM UHV experiment costs?

    And I don’t see the value of me starting a blog, because if I have something to say, I contact the specific “extinction threat community” in question. Mostly I suspect they ignore my advice… for instance, I’m realizing the importance of cutting edge agriculuture research in mitigating global warming, so two strategies have come to mind so far:
    1) Change my e-mail signature to a charity web browser ( and suggest an apiculture journal (IBRA). Annoy the bee-keepers of the world with a friendly suggestion to do likewise.

    2) A small component of the cancelled CAM (for the ISS) was to characterize plant growth under varying gee conditions, analogous to the surfaces and interiors of all the 0.01g-2g objects in our Solar System. Managing payload is key to Exo-Earth industry; plants save the weight of some chemical processing infrastructures. Now I’m taking a crash course in trying to have CAM deployed before the Space Shuttles retire. BTW the CAM is far more important for H+ research than for agriculture, but I’m concerned about the Wheat Physiology component chiefly.
    In both cases, running blogs doesn’t help me effect real world change, I don’t think.

  16. Don England says:

    I am really glad that someone has taken action to fix our greenhouse gas problem. But I am not sure that $25 million is enough for this challenge. Here is my reasoning, we may have to use our sister planet “the true runway greenhouse effect” Venus to gather the information needed and the means to validate our experiments to accomplish this task.

    The key is to ensure that what we do we don’t jeapordize our future anymore than we have now!

  17. Kate says:

    You know, If people really want to help with greenhouse gas issues, we should support green projects that will help us to build sustainability, and wean ourselves off of the greenhouse gas producing methods.

    Here is a good example

    Its a video clip of a sustanability project where they are using hydroponic farming on the hudson river. Food without the emissions caused by farming equipment, and the chance to educate people. Not to shabby.