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Geoengineering: Risky to Do, Riskier to Ignore

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COMMENTARY
By Michael D. Lemonick

I’ve got to admit I’m not the world’s biggest fan of geoengineering, and I’ve said so quite publicly. The idea is that if we fail to cut back greenhouse gas emissions and the planet’s temperature soars to potentially dangerous levels, we’ll have to do something.

I’ve got to admit I’m not the world’s biggest fan of geoengineering, and I’ve said so quite publicly. The idea is that if we fail to cut back greenhouse gas emissions and the planet’s temperature soars to potentially dangerous levels, we’ll have to do something.ding” clouds with a fine spray of seawater to make them whiter, or even, in one of the more farfetched schemes I’ve heard about, by sending little mirrors into space.

Or, since CO2 stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years after it’s emitted, the something could be a new technology, like “artificial trees,” which would suck that most important greenhouse gas back out of the air.

There’s a long list of geoengineering ideas, but they all make me think of Edward Tenner’s classic work: Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. Technological breakthroughs that solve one environmental problem all too often lead to new problems that are even worse (my favorite example is the advent of the automobile, which solved the great Horse Manure Crisis of the late 1800s). Nobody really knows what unexpected disasters could arise from geoengineering, and it could be very, very unpleasant to find out.

That’s one legitimate rap against geoengineering. Another is that focusing too much attention on solving the climate problem after the fact can divert us from trying to prevent the climate problem from happening in the first place. It’s somewhat analogous to maladies like coronary artery disease. The best way to reduce your risk as you get older is to eat right and get plenty of exercise when you’re younger.

But guess what? Lots of people aren’t willing to do those things. You might argue that we should ban coronary bypass surgery and stents and cholesterol-lowering drugs on the theory that they let people get away with bad behavior — and they have plenty of pretty unpleasant side effects, just as geoengineering might have.

You wouldn’t get very far with that argument though: sure, it’s better to practice healthy habits in the first place, but it would be reckless not to have a plan B, just in case. And given that no meaningful action has yet been taken to cut greenhouse gas emissions despite a decade and a half of good intentions (the International Energy Agency just reported that emissions for 2011 were the highest on record), it would be even crazier to ignore geoengineering than it would be to embrace it.

That doesn’t mean rushing into full-scale experiments. It means proceeding really, really carefully, and creating a set of rules to govern how those experiments play out. In fact, a group of scientists began hammering out those rules at a conference in 2010.

But there are all sorts of other issues besides the riskiness of rushing into large-scale geoengineering experiments. One of them has to do with intellectual property.  A preliminary test of technology that could send reflective particles into the air (the test itself would have sent up only water droplets) was cancelled recently when it turned out two of the scientists had submitted patents for the process without telling the others.

Another issue is who gets to decide whether a project actually goes forward. There’s nothing to prevent a nation from launching a geoengineering scheme tomorrow — not just an experiment, but a full-fledged project — all on its own, without any evidence that it’s safe.

So there are plenty of reasons why the world needs to proceed with extreme caution on geoengineering. But there are also plenty of reasons why the world can’t afford to ignore it. 

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Comments

By Paul Klinkman (Providence/RI/02906)
on June 20th, 2012

Inventors are the firefighters of climate change.

One secret story of the wildfires is that there are only a pitiful number of air tankers in the United States available for duty.  The government never saw fit to update the few remaining old tankers still flying.  As a result, we’re likely to have an entire summer of smoke in the air and carbon dioxide exiting what used to be forests.  Firefighters get better results with proper training and equipment, and firing all the firefighters for austerity would be an unmitigated disaster. 

The goal of climate change invention and development is to leave the fossil fuel in the ground by driving down the cost of solar (wind, other).  The sun rising is more dependable over the next 50 years than the oil supply.  It’s also local job oriented, as opposed to a foreign cartel such as OPEC setting our price, and solar won’t cook the planet, making millions of species extinct. 

So, how many climate change inventors have we trained in the U.S.?  None.  Where is the four year curriculum?  Nowhere.  They all start from scratch.  Can an inventor expect a prosperous and comfortable career stopping planetary disaster?  He or she will probably never see a dime, ever.  A small minority of inventors hit it big.  The rest toil on in loneliness, and with a heartsickness for the planet and for the nation that no non-inventor can imagine. 

Occasionally we may see a 40 watt bulb amidst the general gloom.  The Rocky Mountain Institute has a few inventors collaborating, not to mention eating and living indoors.  That’s about it.  Our pro-oil government is all too willing to lavishly fund rich people’s energy projects (Vogtle stands out as a particularly rich, brainless and crooked example), but honestly, that’s all the government does from where I see it.

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