Thursday, November 5, 2009

Geoengineering the Climate

Over the past couple years scientists have expressed renewed interest in geoengineering solutions to climate change, the idea that there is a technological solution to global warming that doesn't require people to modify their actions. So, for example, you dump a bunch of iron into the ocean in order to create an algal bloom which will soak up carbon from the atmosphere. Or, more imaginatively, you mimic the action of volcanos by pumping large quantities of reflective sulphur dust into the Earth's stratosphere through a patented 18-mile-long hose held up by helium balloons.

Most people start to laugh when they hear this stuff. And, indeed, these ideas were largely discarded by the scientific establishment years ago when they were first proposed. A number of them are described in Bill McKibbon's book The End of Nature first published in 1989. The recognized problem is that they have massive unintended consequences. Thus, for example, all that sulphur pumped into the stratosphere ultimately ends up in the ocean and transforms the oceans chemistry (and not in a good way). But, the scientists feel they are being forced to return to these ideas because the scientific evidence concerning climate change has become both stronger and more alarming while political consensus on effective international action has become weaker. In short, they are giving up on the political apparatus and social changes and starting to contemplate the need for immediate technical action because in order to avoid a tipping point in the climate.

As this article in The Guardian shows, these ideas are gaining popular attention. Equally as significant, in my view, is the fact that China is taking these ideas seriously. As they showed during the Olympics, the Chinese are capable of acting on a massive and concerted scale to accomplish environmental goals (e.g., clean air in Beijing during the Olympics) if they so desire. Even more significantly, geoengineering solutions are relatively cheap. This leads Gwen Dyer to speculate in Climate Wars about the possibility that certain nations particularly threatened by the consequences of climate change (for example, Small Island Developing States) might go rogue and intervene in the biosphere on a massive scale in order to prevent sea level rise, even if there were little international support for such schemes.

Wikipedia provides an interesting overview of some of the schemes.

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