By now, every human with an intelligence quotient equal to your average armadillo knows that burning oil, coal, and natural gas to power our world will one day make the Earth so hot that civilization will cease to exist. The world will go on wending its lonely way through the trackless realm of time and space, but it will do so without us.
Despite that knowledge, we continue to make the extraction and combustion of oil, coal, and natural gas the central focus of our existence. We continue to believe unlimited growth is the key to happiness and that we must never restrain our acquisitive urges, no matter how dire the situation becomes. We continue to party like there’s no tomorrow, which means that soon enough there won’t be one. What then?
The National Academy of Science has studied the problem and decided that the best way to deal with human ignorance is to interfere with the Earth’s atmosphere to cool the Earth artificially. In effect, that august body, first created by Abraham Lincoln to advise the national government, is admitting we are too stupid to stop committing slow suicide so we better start figuring out how to hack the Earth because it is clear that we are incapable of slowing the juggernaut leading inevitably to our own destruction. The full 300+ page report is available free from NAS.
According to Reuters, the NAS report looks at three possible ways to cool the Earth:
- Spray reflective aerosols into the atmosphere to mimic clouds of volcanic ash.
- Thin high altitude clouds to allow more heat to escape.
- Brightening low altitude marine clouds to reflect additional solar energy.
It recommends adding $40 million a year to the budget for geoengineering research, while providing for “exit ramps” to terminate further study if unacceptable risks are found. “I honestly don’t know whether or not it’s going to make sense,” says Stanford’s Chris Field, who chaired the NAS geoengineering study commission.
The report acknowledges that any geoengineering experiments will need to involve close coordination with other nations and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is still the primary way to avoid overheating the planet to the point where most humans will be unable to survive. “We’re in the midst of a climate crisis. The impacts of climate change are growing, and the challenge in front of us is to limit those impacts,” says Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the committee members involved in the report.
Playing With Fire
“Climate engineering is a really dumb idea, but it might not be as dumb as doing nothing at this point or continuing to do what we’ve been doing,” Lynn Russell, a co-author of the report and an atmospheric chemist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography tells the Associated Press. “It has a lot of risks and those are important to learn as much as we can about.”
The report on solar geoengineering is “an effort to lay the groundwork for more informed decisions about whether or not these approaches should be considered part of the set of tools in our toolkit,” Frumhoff adds. “It’s important to understand the full suite of responses to climate change, given how close we are to catastrophic risks.”
Waleed Abdalati, a former NASA chief scientist who served on a prior geoengineering panel in 2015, tells Reuters, “It is not so much playing with fire as it is researching fire, so that we understand it well enough to deploy, if necessary. Sometimes you have to examine very risky options when the stakes are as high as they are with climate change.”
Raymond Pierrehumbert of Oxford University tells the Miami Herald that he is concerned there is a “moral hazard” involved in using questionable technology instead of doing the hard work of cutting back on carbon pollution. To him, the term “geoengineering” makes it sound like humans have control over the temperature of the Earth in much the same way as they control the warmth of their living rooms with a thermostat. Texas A&M University’s Andrew Dessler sees geoengineering as a safety feature for the planet, much like the airbags in our cars we hope we never need.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
Researchers at Harvard plan a small-scale pilot study with the assistance of the Swedish Space Corporation to see what happens when sulfur dioxide particles are dispersed in a tiny part of the upper atmosphere. But the proposed experiment has drawn the ire of climate activists. The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, Greenpeace Sweden, and Friends of the Earth Sweden have penned a joint letter to Swedish authorities opposing the research.
“We appeal to the Swedish government to oppose the SSC’s involvement with SCoPEx’s proposed tests, as they are fundamentally incompatible with the precautionary principle, in breach of international norms, and inconsistent with Sweden’s own climate policy framework as well as its reputation as an international climate leader. [Geoengineering] is a technology with the potential for extreme consequences, and stands out as dangerous, unpredictable, and unmanageable. There is no justification for testing and experimenting with technology that seems to be too dangerous to ever be used.”
Too dangerous to ever be used? Where have we heard such warnings before? Oh, yeah, the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project thought no one would ever actually use nuclear bombs and they were correct — except in a few rare instances. After one nation did in fact drop nukes on another country, the leaders of the free world came up with the Mutually Assured Destruction plan and gave it a highly appropriate acronym — MAD.
Everything can be a either a tool or a weapon. G. Gordon Liddy, part of the Watergate conspiracy, liked to brag he knew a dozen ways to kill a person with a pencil. If the history of humanity has taught us anything, it is that given a supply of rocks, some people will use them to build houses while others will use them to bash in the skulls of their neighbors in order to gain some temporary advantage.
The problem is, the Earth’s environment is crazily complex. There are upper level winds, lower level winds, counterclockwise winds and clockwise winds. There is also a correlation between the air above and the sea below. Messing with the environment is like planning a shot on a gigantic billiard table filled with billions of balls. There is simply no way of predicting accurately what will happen to ball number 2,235,769,287 once you strike the ball closest to you with the cue ball.
Geoengineering also will depend upon goodwill between the nations of the world. If experiments produce rain in the American Midwest but drought in the nations in the north of Africa, is that a net gain or a net loss? And what do we do about lunatics like Jair Bolsonaro, Kim Il Jong, and Vladimir Putin? Do we simply assume they will play nicely once we have global warming under control? Good luck with that.
We reached out to Professor Mark Jacobson, the director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program at Stanford and tireless advocate for curtailing the use of fossil fuels. Within hours, he got back to us with this comment:
“Geoengineering, such as adding aerosols to the stratosphere or the marine layer to reflect more sunlight, is not a way to solve any problem. All it does is increase air pollution, killing more people in the end, while reducing the sunlight available for food production, biological activity, and vitamin D production for people on Earth. It’s goal is to temporarily mask some increase in global temperatures, but by allowing fossil fuel and bioenergy combustion to continue, it provokes more emissions and more warming than it offsets while killing even more people and creating more mining devastation due to the increase in fossil production in particular. Under no circumstance should we permit geoengineering such as this to be considered as a potential solution to any problem on Earth.”
In the final analysis, geoengineering is like giving an aspirin to a patient with pancreatic cancer. It is treating the symptoms, not the disease. The short answer is we must stop extracting and burning fossil fuels — oil, natural gas, and coal. There is no other solution. Geoengineering, like carbon capture, simply fills us with the false hope that we can continue doing what we have always done without the need to make significant sacrifices. We aren’t going to “science our way” out of the global heating. We have only one option — stop burning fossil fuels. It’s time to get on with it.
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