Is Geo-Engineering Our Only Hope?

This week’s New Scientist has the kind of cover story that makes me wonder if warnings about the effects of global warming have gone over the top.

Don’t get me wrong. I think global warming may have dire consequences if we don’t act–and quickly. But this cover is sure to have the heel-draggers screaming “ALARMIST!” and I’m not sure whether I could effectively counter that claim. In large red letters against a black background on the upper third of the cover are the words “Earth 2099”.

Below that, in the middle third against a background of storm clouds is this list of worst-case scenarios presented as likely:
Population crashes
Mass migration
Vast new deserts
Cities abandoned

The bottom third, in large white letters against a reddish terrain(?), has this
How to survive the century.”

Now I don’t deny that continued lack of action and increasing use of fossil fuels could possibly lead to such catastrophes in a few centuries. But I don’t think humanity is quite that stupid. Rather, we are more likely to move too slowly and cross a threshold where sea levels will rise rapidly and weather patterns change enough to disrupt normal agriculture and local or regional ecologies.

That’s scary enough, thank you! And that is why I continue to call for prompt political action and international cooperation. I am, however, hopeful that the Obama administration will put American ingenuity on course to developing sustainable energy and will provide leadership so that other countries will join us.

In other words, let’s look at scenarios based not on business-as-usual but business-as-conceivable.

What I found most disturbing about the article itself was this description of a meeting in the U.K. where politicians were “grilling” climate scientists about geoengineering:

…the mood is changing. In the face of potentially catastrophic climate change, the politicians and scientists all agreed that since cuts to carbon emissions will likely fall short we need to be exploring “Plan B”. Climatologists have hit a “social tipping point” says Tim Lenton of the University of East Anglia, UK….

Previously, the idea of tweaking the climate in this way was anathema to most scientists. Apart from the technical challenges and environmental risks, many argued that endorsing the concept might scupper international negotiations for a post-Kyoto protocol to reduce global emissions. But it’s becoming clear that moves to cut global carbon emissions are too little and too late for us avoid the worst effects of climate change. “There is a worrying sense that negotiations won’t lead anywhere or lead to enough,” says Lenton. “We can’t change the world that fast,” says Peter Liss, who is scientific adviser to the UK parliamentary committee investigating geoengineering. Extraordinary measures may now be the only way of saving vulnerable ecosystems such as Arctic sea ice.

INSERT ADDED NOV 30, 2010
See my blog entry about what Venus may be telling us about adding sulfur dioxide to our atmosphere
END INSERT

I hope Lenton and Liss are wrong about not being able to make changes in policy and energy usage fast enough. Because the solution, adding a technological fix rather than changing the way we do business, is like a physician saying: “Eat all the bacon and eggs you want now that you are taking Lipitor.”

I guess I can’t argue that we need to research multiple Plans B just in case we can’t change our behavior fast enough, but implementing any one of them is bound to have unintended consequences. I don’t think we should try to act as a twenty-first century Prometheus. We would be over-reaching our knowledge in a very dangerous way. We would be bringing back the classic “mad scientist” image–that well-intentioned genius whose creation lurches out of control.

In fact, there’s a nineteenth-century book that warns about that. Its subtitle is The Modern Prometheus and its author is Mary Shelley.

The title, if you haven’t guessed, is Frankenstein.

If we reach the point that our only alternative is a massive re-engineering of our planet, abandoned or submerged cities may turn out to be the least of our problems.

Fred Bortz
Children’s Science Books
and
Science Book Reviews