David Keith joins University of Chicago to lead Climate Systems Engineering initiative

Renowned scientist David Keith has joined the University of Chicago as a professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences to explore climate systems engineering.

Keith has worked at the interface of climate science, technology and public policy for over three decades, and is at the forefront of efforts to advance the science and policy analysis of solar geoengineering.

As nations work to begin transitioning away from fossil fuels, experts say that even the rapid elimination of carbon emissions cannot address the climate risks posed by the carbon already in the atmosphere. To head off the effects of rapid climate change, some have suggested using human technological intervention to blunt the effects of climate change.

At UChicago, Keith will lead a new Climate Systems Engineering initiative, which will explore multiple such strategies, including methods to reflect sunlight away from Earth—ranging from injecting particles into the stratosphere, to using ocean salt crystals to brighten low-lying clouds. Other strategies could include ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and more localized interventions, such as protecting glaciers.

However, because interventions can have global impacts, these technologies create moral, social, and political challenges that require deep and wide-ranging thought and discourse.

New faculty will be hired through the Climate Systems Engineering initiative. The aim of the initiative is to support new faculty with diverse expertise as well as current scholars at UChicago and beyond who are working to understand the interwoven technical and social challenges posed by solar geoengineering and carbon removal.

“Climate engineering technologies may allow humans to protect themselves and the environment in ways that cannot be achieved by emissions cuts alone. Yet these technologies bring environmental risks and pose deep challenges for governance. No one should be confident about embracing or abandoning these methods,” said Keith. “My only confident assertion about climate engineering is that open collaborative research today is vital to inform decisions our children must make tomorrow. I’m thrilled to join the University of Chicago with its commitment to open debate and its legacy of tackling society’s greatest tests.”

Keith previously served as the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and as Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He led the development of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program.

His work has ranged from the climatic impacts of large-scale wind power to elicitation of expert judgments about climate. Keith’s hardware engineering projects include the first interferometer for atoms, a high-accuracy infrared spectrometer for NASA’s ER-2 and the development of a stratospheric propelled balloon experiment for solar geoengineering. He is also the founder of Carbon Engineering, a company developing technology to capture CO2 from ambient air and the author of A Case for Climate Engineering (MIT Press, 2013).

UChicago’s new Climate Systems Engineering initiative will bring systems engineering tools and climate systems science together to study these emerging technologies. It joins growing areas of research on related topics as diverse as energy storage, climate science, economics, environmental policy, sustainability, human behavior, history and environmental science already underway at the University of Chicago. It will draw on the expertise in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences, across atmospheric and climate science, computational modeling and simulation, and geophysical dynamics, as well as other departments and divisions across campus. 

“I have learned so much from David Keith over the years and am humbled to now have him as a colleague,” said Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. “The University of Chicago has long been unafraid to foster understanding in areas that have a direct bearing on human well-being. I’m confident that the Climate Systems Engineering Initiative will help the world better manage the global climate and energy challenge that all societies are currently contending with and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

“As atmospheric CO2 barrels past a 350-ppm safety limit, we need to think about how to keep a lid on things, like permafrost, ice sheets and rain forests,” said David Archer, professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences. “We need to prevent irreversible changes to the Earth system, while our descendants work for the decades it will take to clean up our CO2 mess.” 

“Geoengineering is a controversial new tool in our toolbox for not only better understanding the science of climate change, including the impact of aerosols on clouds, winds and rainfall, but also potentially for mitigating the worst impacts of the climate crisis,” said Tiffany Shaw, associate professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences.

The initiative will convene experts from throughout the University to explore geoengineering challenges surrounding human behavior and values, political, governance and legal structures, equity impacts, and more.

One of the primary goals is risk analysis—to be able to quantify how uncertain we are about the risks and rewards of solar geoengineering.

The initiative will require novel materials, high-powered computing, and trailblazing chemical and engineering strategies. Keith plans to partner with researchers at Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory affiliated with UChicago with deep expertise in engineering, climate science, and computational modeling, as well as supercomputing facilities such as the upcoming Aurora supercomputer.

Because any climate systems engineering effort would have worldwide effects, Keith said UChicago’s initiative also will seek partnerships around the globe because “human decisions that may alter the Earth’s future cannot be confined to any one nation.”

“I am thrilled to join our faculty in welcoming David Keith to the University of Chicago,” said President Paul Alivisatos. “He brings with him deep expertise and an innovative spirit, which will prove to be invaluable to our efforts to better understand and surface solutions for challenges related to the inextricably linked systems underpinning human energy, technology and the environment. With his arrival, we look forward to new horizons of discovery and impact in the emerging field of climate systems engineering.”