Is it time to talk about geoengineering our way out of climate change?

Gil Johnson of Portland, Oregon. Gil describes himself as a "part-time chicken farmer and full-time martial arts instructor, and a former political hack." Previously, he contributed "How I'd reform the capital gains tax".

You've seen that map of the United States depicting how 2012 was the hottest year on record. You may have been shocked at the pervasive palette of reds sprawling over most of the map, denoting average temperatures higher than normal. And you may have been bummed, as I was, by the thin sliver of ice blue that covered the Pacific Northwest, which meant that last year, we experienced below average temperatures.

Yup, here we are shivering in Oregon while the rest of the country bakes. Actually, the rest of the world. Have you heard it got so hot in Australia that gas evaporated as it came out of the nozzle? We in Oregon have relatively tiny carbon footprints. We ride bikes, walk and take public transit. We grow our own food, recycle and compost. We put on sweaters instead of turning up the heat, and all of our light comes from CFLs or LEDs.

Who knew that such efforts to reduce global warming would work so quickly? Or so locally?

OK, go ahead and scoff at my scientific ignorance (or lame attempt at humor). Now I'll get serious and make this assertion: when it comes to climate change, we're all delusional. Certainly, we know those who deny the fact of global warming are ignoring virtually every valid scientific study of the subject. But progressives and environmentalists are almost as oblivious when they extol the environmental virtues of bicycling, eating vegan or installing solar panels as means of saving the planet. Even something big, like stopping the Keystone pipeline, isn't nearly enough (though, of course, it should be stopped).

You know that about 99 percent of all climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and hat it is caused by human activity. You may not know that a growing consensus of scientists thinks it's too late to avoid cataclysmic climate shifts by reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

In 2007, after two decades of study, the International Panel on Climate Change issued a report that earned it a share of the Nobel Peace Prize (along with Al Gore). The report exhaustively detailed what was happening to the world and what would happen in the future if nothing was done. It called for mitigation policies aimed at reducing use of fossil fuels.

"If there's no action before 2012, that's too late, there is not time," said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the IPCC. "What we do in the next 2-3 years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."

It's now 2013. How confident are you that we've made enough changes to save the world?

Yet global warming can be stopped quickly, even reversed, possibly within a few years. Maybe even before all that methane trapped in the Arctic emerges and all hell breaks lose.

It can be done by releasing particles of sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, which would reflect sunlight and heat back into space. Scientists in Britain have run computer models—similar to the computer models that predict global warming—that show this would work. There are a couple of problems, however. It may work too well, overcooling parts of the planet and changing wind and rainfall patterns that would lead to floods and droughts. Secondly, the sulfur dioxide will become sulfuric acid, which destroys the ozone layer and also would aggravate the problem of oceanic acidification.

Smearing the skies with sulfur dioxide is probably the easiest and cheapest geoengineering solution to climate change. Many other ideas have been proposed, but most of the others are highly expensive or just plain weird. One scientist suggest creating giant mechanized straws to stir the oceans, which will suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Others have suggested sending parasols or mirrors into space. Some of the ideas, such as painting all rooftops white, wouldn't do enough good.

British scientists designed a small experiment to demonstrate how sulfur dioxide would be dispersed, but using water instead of sulfur. Though innocuous, the project drew the opposition of 50 environmental organizations and the British government withdrew its permit. The rationale behind the environmental protest was that even considering geoengineering would take the pressure off politicians to seek ways of reducing use of fossil fuels.

So let's take a look at how feasible it would be to get along without fossil fuels. It takes the equivalent of a trillion gallons of gasoline to meet the world's energy needs for a year—and though most of that power does not come from gasoline, it does come from fossil fuels. To replace that power with a source that does not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is not feasible in the few years we have to spare. For example, to offset a third of fossil fuel consumption with nuclear power would require building a new nuke plant every week for 50 years. Going to wind power would mean erecting thousands of wind turbines every month for the same 50 years.

Energy conservation and efficiency have cut per capita use of fossil fuels in many Western countries as well as parts of the U.S., but those measures have been overwhelmed by population growth and rising affluence in Asia, Africa and Latin America. China, which is putting a new coal plan online every week, now consumes more energy than the U.S. (and choking on all the exhaust, Beijing air pollution having reached emergency levels). Even if everyone in America traded in their cars for bicycles, the CO2 savings would be wiped out by the burgeoning economies of China, India and the rest of Asia.

Weaning the entire world off of fossil fuels may be possible in the future, but only if we have a future. Geoengineering won't solve global warming, only buy us some time. I know true green environmentalists hate the idea of tinkering with Mother Nature. They would rather that everyone in the world adopt their low-carbon lifestyle, with walkable cities, urban farms, handmade goods and everything repurposed. I would, too. Spewing sulfuric junk around the atmosphere to remedy a century of environmental neglect seems god-awfully profligate. It's like the slob who has pigged out on fast food burgers and super-sized soft drinks all his life, has blimped up so much that walking is virtually impossible, diabetes is about to claim his feet and a heart attack is due any moment. Instead of taking the hard, arduous process back to health through proper diet and exercise, he opts for liposuction and drugs.

Yeah, that's just wrong. And will he ever learn?

The fact is, some people have to start with liposuction, stomach stapling and all that just to get down to a level they you can exercise safely. Once that's done, the long term hard work can be done to get back into shape. And that's exactly where the world is at this point. We need to take the easy way out not to avoid a global heart attack. That doesn't preclude a long term effort to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. For one thing, their consumption causes a host of other problems, such as air and water pollution. Further, the human race can't afford to run out of petroleum; we'll need plastics, lubricants and oil for certain forms of transportation for a long time to come.

Rather than using an obesity analogy, some scientists who are studying geoengineering equate it with chemotherapy for cancer patients. It's something you don't want to use unless there is no other option. But shouldn't we be at least looking seriously at this option? Shouldn't we be encouraging scientific research, rather than blocking it? Wouldn't it be better to test out some materials, perhaps even create some materials, that would be less harmful that sulfur dioxide? And maybe we should be testing the dispersal of some kind of reflective substance a little at a time, instead of waiting until the Arctic ice totally melts, equatorial regions catch on fire and a billion coastal residents have to flee their homes, and then in desperation fire up a massive dose of sun block with absolutely no idea about what kind of havoc that would wreak.

When the Maldives go under, a lot of other coastal nations are going to get very anxious. The government of Singapore, which has the wealth and means, could decide to take action unilaterally. Or it could be a cabal of wacky billionaires living in Key West. The cost of filling the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide crystals has been estimated at $50 billion. Bill Gates could fund that by himself.

Progressives and environmentalists should embrace research into geoengineering, if for no other reason than to assure that it is done right. There's another reason: at some point conservatives, or at least their corporate supporters, will wake up to the fact that big money can be made in geoengineering and suddenly change their tune. Really big government contract money. Do we really want to turn over the fate of the world to Halliburton, BP or the folks who brought us the X-51A Waverider?


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