Geoengineering Our Climate Future

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By Chris Mooney

On July 22nd, the U.S. Congress failed, yet again, to pass legislation to cut our carbon emissions. Meanwhile, on July 28th scientists around the planet agreed – yet again – that “global warming is undeniable,” and declared the first decade of the 21st century the warmest on record.

Already, “glaciers and sea ice are melting, heavy rainfall is intensifying, and heat waves are becoming more common and more intense,” said a group of scientists from 48 nations in the annual State of the Climate report, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration document.

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The upshot? In the absence of U.S. leadership, it now seems inevitable to all but the most rabid climate change deniers that we, and our children, are in for a hot, potentially catastrophic century. That is, unless we find an alternate plan to deal with climate change.

But what plan?

Many scientists are proposing just such an alternative. They call it “geoengineering,” a catchall label for a variety of proposals to deliberately meddle with the planet’s climate system to counter the worst of global warming’s looming impacts.

Unfortunately, you’ve probably never heard of “geoengineering.” Less than one percent of Americans currently know what it is, according to a recent poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change.

Current geoengineering schemes include injecting mega-doses of sulfur into the atmosphere, or the deployment of vast fleets of ships to spray a seawater mist into the sky to whiten clouds – techniques that would reflect sunlight back into space and cool the planet down. Another approach would seed the seas with huge amounts of iron to stimulate microscopic phytoplankton growth, which would suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

Needless to say, such extreme “treatments” could have unintended side effects. The sulfur cure, for instance, might damage the ozone layer. And iron fertilization could damage ocean ecosystems. Possibly, anyway. We don’t really know, which is the scary thing.

The utter lack of public awareness sharply contrasts with what’s happening in the expert arena, where talk of geoengineering the planet has become common. Top scientific organizations like the British Royal Society and the American Meteorological Society have suggested that scientists should at least study the possibility of interfering with the climate system, while Soviet scientists have begun small-scale geoengineering field trials.

That’s right – this thing you’ve never heard of could soon be on a fast track to happening.

Understand, geoengineering isn’t the first choice of scientists. They understand better than anyone that we absolutely must deal with the root cause of climate change and cut emissions to avoid planetary catastrophe. The problem is, they don’t see that happening. So, they argue that geoengineering, if studied now and implemented only when necessary, could act as a backup plan or global insurance policy. It would give us one more lever to throw that might steer the Earth back to a climate safe zone.

Understand too that geoengineering isn’t at all attractive to scientists. It’s simply more attractive than the worst-case scenario alternative: a world where massively higher seas and disastrous storms could force us to abandon many of our coastal cities.

Thought about in that way, geoengineering appears less appalling, more utilitarian. The highly nuanced, cautious position that has emerged among scientists is that we should actively study geoengineering, but with strict ethical guidelines, and only employ it in the case of a planetary emergency.

Thanks to the failure of governments to cut emissions, we are left with a stark reality: global warming is real, increasingly difficult to halt, and could run away on us, creating a dangerously different Earth from the one our species now inhabits. Under such a horrific threat, we shouldn’t take any potential solution off the table.

Which is why everyone needs to get informed about geoengineering. If you care about your future and want to know all the options, read two recent books by science writers popularizing geoningineering – Eli Kintisch’s Hack The Planet and Jeff Goodell’s How to Cool the Planet.

Meanwhile, if the Obama administration wants to innovate in its approach to global warming, it can begin to educate the public on geoengineering possibilities – and fund the needed studies that will allow us to safely implement those options if it comes to pass that we have to make that terrible choice – if things turn really hot and ugly.

Chris Mooney hosts the popular science podcast Point of Inquiry (www.pointofinquiry.org) and has authored numerous books including Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future (with Sheril Kirshenbaum). He lives in Washington, D.C. To comment on this column go to www.blueridgepress.com


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