NewsFebruary 29, 2012

Geoengineering: You Want Crazy, We've Got Crazy!

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Michael D. Lemonick

By Michael D. Lemonick

For people who drool over technology, geoengineering is like a juicy steak (or, for vegetarians, a juicy carrot). Since nobody’s taking serious steps to prevent global warming in the first place — let’s just face it — techno-geeks are giddy with the thought that they’ll be the ones to solve it when it happens. That’s the idea behind geoengineering, a set of grand and crazy-sounding ideas for cooling off a hot planet.

Sure, there could be some unexpected downsides to spewing a substance into the sky that causes acid rain or dousing the ocean with tons upon tons of iron filings to spur the growth of carbon-dioxide-eating algae. But while some folks might prefer to sit around endlessly debating the possible catastrophes that might come along with geoengineering, we at Climate Central are forging ahead with even bolder schemes. Without visionaries like us after all, we’d never have the nuclear-powered rockets that have made our lives so much easier.

With that in mind, here are Climate Central’s Top 5 geoengineering projects you’ve never heard of — and probably never will again.

Project Cremains


The idea of launching human ashes into space probably sounds nutty, but it’s already happening on a small scale. Why not go large? The average cremation produces about 5 pounds of ashes and bone fragments. For the nearly three million Americans who pass away each year alone, that adds up to 15 million pounds of material that could be lofted into the upper atmosphere to shield the planet from some of the Sun’s heat.

Side benefits: it would relieve the shortage of cemetery space in some parts of the country, and you could pay respects to your loved ones just by looking up. Plus deaths from malignant skin cancers caused by too much sun would go down.

Possible downside: the ashes would eventually drift back to earth, so you wouldn’t want to be looking up for too long.

Project Spraycan

As every climate scientist knows, glaciers and ice caps help keep the planet from overheating by deflecting sunlight back into space. It’s a kind of all-natural geoengineering — but the ice is disappearing as the earth warms up, so that safety valve is vanishing. The solution: touch up the Great Plains and the Russian Steppes with the whitest spraypaint we can find. Who needs ice when you can make Kansas sparkle?

Credit: CreateLive

Side benefits: it would boost the American economy by providing jobs for all of those can-wielders, with downstream income to the businesses that will feed and house them — along with the healthcare workers that will ultimately treat the lung diseases from inhaling paint fumes.

Possible downside: See above under “inhaling paint fumes.” Also, all vegetation and wildlife would be destroyed.

Repeal Antipollution Laws

From the 1940’s through the 1960’s the pace of global warming slowed, and even reversed direction a bit before resuming the upward climb that continues today. The consensus among climate scientists is that the slowing/cooling was the result of rapid industrialization during and after World War II. More factories spewing more gunk into the sky meant more light-reflecting particles in the air. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and similar laws elsewhere got rid of the pollution, and the warming resumed.

Credit: Getty Images

In short, pollution back then did the same job that geoengineers are talking about today. So why reinvent the wheel? The factories are still there; if we just get rid of the antipollution laws, the skies will fill with noxious substances and we’ll start cooling off again

Side benefits: We fight global warming without saddling corporations what many consider onerous new regulations. Plus we remove what many consider onerous old regulations.

Possible downside: sharp rise in deaths from respiratory diseases (but that’s good for the ashes-in-space concept!).

Introduce Maalox into Livestock Feed

Carbon dioxide is the worst offender in warming the planet, but other greenhouse gases do their part as well. Among them: methane, which comes from a number of human activities, including the raising of livestock. Cattle and other ruminants belch out a whopping 80 million metric tons of the heat-trapping stuff every year, which adds up to nearly a third of all human-related methane emissions.

The EPA has suggested that could be reduced by “greater efficiency of livestock production,” but that’s just more small thinking. Why not just pour generous amount of Maalox or some other anti-gas medication into cattle and other livestock feed?

Side benefit: cows will feel that they can be in polite company at last.

Possible downside: cows might begin showing up at the opera. 

Total Thermonuclear War

Back in the 1980’s, when a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed like a plausible, if not immediate, possibility, a group of scientists (the late Carl Sagan among them) published a paper in Science arguing that such an atomic war could put so much smoke and dust into the air that the Earth could be plunged into a devastating year-round nuclear winter that would devastate agriculture and the natural food chain all at once. Maybe they thought the prospect of having every major city in the U.S. burned to a crisp wasn’t scary enough.

While some scientists later argued that the effects would be more like a nuclear autumn, it was still clear that there would be significant and disruptive cooling — not just for an all-out exchange but even for a more limited atomic war between, say India and Pakistan.

The problem with all of these studies is that they treat nuclear winter (or autumn or whatever) as a bug. We call it a feature! Let’s have a round-robin: England to nuke France; France to nuke the U.S. and the U.S. to nuke England. The resulting conflagration would easily counteract global warming, maybe even for a couple of decades. Then, when the dust settled . . . do it again! Sometimes you’ve got to destroy the world in order to save it.

Possible side benefits: nobody would worry about meltdowns at nuclear power plants anymore, plus real estate in London, Paris and New York would become dirt-cheap.

Possible downside: honestly, we can’t think of a one.