Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Get out your sulfur pumps: Geo-engineering is going mainstream

If the Obama administration’s steadfastness in putting geo-engineering on the table as a valid solution to combat global warming and DARPA’s diving into it are not disconcerting enough, the once far-fetched theory has now received a nod from the American Meteorological Society, which is endorsing research in the area. In addition to working toward reducing emissions, and adapting to climate change, the organization is promoting studies that would look into ways of “manipulating physical, chemical, or biological aspects of the Earth system.”

Geo-engineering has, of course, remained a marginal theory among some environmental experts for decades. But the concept has increasingly crept into the conversation in recent months as a real solution warranting debate and discussion. I certainly do like the idea of scientifically credible entities exploring all possible options as opposed to radical individuals spouting their viewpoints, but the evidence available for this concept as a valid answer is less than encouraging.

This article in the Atlantic is one of the most comprehensive ones I’ve read to date on the subject. Graeme Wood examines close to every geo-engineering strategy so far proffered – from pumping sulfate aerosols which would absorb and reflect sunlight back to space, to growing more CO2-consuming plankton in the sea.

Volcanoes are known to cause noticeable cooling of the earth by spewing sulfur dioxide, why can’t we? Valid point. Except that excessive sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere has the potential to cause acid rain upon reaction with other substances in the sky. The terrifying effects of acid rain formed by too much sulfur in the air are easy enough to comprehend. But what could possibly happen by growing too much plankton? A lot. The dead algae could generate methane, a gas much more harmful than carbon dioxide.

There are more moderate ideas like infusing clouds with seawater to induce them to reflect more sunlight (this, according to Stephen Salter, a Scottish engineer, would entail 1,500 ships spraying seawater into clouds with the help of wind currents), and even constructing a gigantic visor (electromagnetic guns would shoot ceramic disks into the air using a hitherto unknown technology), which would block out the sun. Less drastic methods, like Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s recent suggestion to paint roofs white – or spraying seawater into clouds are both insufficient and economically unfeasible, according to Ken Caldeira, a scientist at the Carnegie Institute of Washington, who recently co-published a study finding that geo-engineering options would merely cause acidification of the ocean without any real reduction in CO2 levels.

Besides the problems of sulfur potentially coming down as acid rain and huge plankton blooms emitting too much methane, geo-engineering would also cause uneven distribution of its effects on different parts of the world; perhaps, Africa might get much warmer and more arid than before, and India would suffer from severely reduced rainfall.

I’m no environmental expert, but that seems like common sense. Reversing the effects of mankind’s engineering of the earth by further engineering not only seems counterproductive but also has the potential to go horribly wrong. But maybe that is all the more reason why any discussion is good, especially if it is based on scientific experimentation and analysis. As Chris Mooney points out, the fact that geo-engineering can have grave consequences if the technology were to reach the wrong hands is important enough to warrant a discussion.

Many of the geo-engineering solutions – especially the sulfur-pumping strategy - are incredibly cheap compared to the money and resource investment needed for regulations that curb global warming at its source. The advantage is that these methods would not involve hundreds of nations getting together to decide on a common law. The disadvantage is that these methods would not involve hundreds of nations getting together to decide on a common law.

Sure, they might go perfectly well, but the effects of such changes are not predictable to any reasonable degree because nothing of the sort has ever been implemented before. And we wouldn’t know until we are actually suffering the consequences of it. Ezra Klein offers a good analogy. A decade ago we thought using hydrofluorocarbons instead of chloroflurocarbons would save the ozone layer. And we were right, but we later found out that HFCs in the atmosphere can act as a super-greenhouse gas, with heat-warming effects over 4000 times that of CO2.

Reliance on an emergency geo-engineering solution, of course, has other consequences. Governments, not to mention big businesses, will have further excuses to do nothing about global warming. As Greame writes, "If you promise that in a future emergency you can chill the Earth in a matter of months, cutting emissions today will seem far less urgent."

Many environmental experts do agree that all the strategies so far suggested to merely reduce global warming may be too little too late. So, possibly a multidimensional plan that would tap into a variety of these methods to offset climate change in addition to a reasonable level of curbing emissions would probably be the best approach.

Or we could all follow James Lovelock's advice and move to the poles because according to him, humankind simply cannot combat global warming at the pace it is happening at. Lovelock writes in the The Vanishing Face of Gaia:

"Simply cutting back fossil-fuel burning, energy use, and the destruction of natural forests will not be a sufficient answer to global heating, not least because it seems that climate change can happen faster than we can respond to it. . . . Because of the rapidity of the Earth's change, we will need to respond more like the inhabitants of a city threatened by a flood. When they see the unstoppable rise of water, their only option is to escape to higher ground."

Apparently, this isn’t outlandish anymore either.