Ideas: Energy & Environment July/August 2009

Re-Engineering the Earth

As the threat of global warming grows more urgent, a few scientists are considering radical—and possibly extremely dangerous—schemes for reengineering the climate by brute force. Their ideas are technologically plausible and quite cheap. So cheap, in fact, that a rich and committed environmentalist could act on them tomorrow. And that’s the scariest part.

Even if Richard Branson behaves, a single rogue nation could have the resources to change the climate. Most of Bangladesh’s population lives in low-elevation coastal zones that would wash away if sea levels rose. For a fraction of its GDP, Bangladesh could refreeze the ice caps using sulfur aerosols (though, in a typical trade-off, this might affect its monsoons). If refreezing them would save the lives of millions of Bangladeshis, who could blame their government for acting? Such a scenario is unlikely; most countries would hesitate to violate international law and become a pariah. But it illustrates the political and regulatory complications that large-scale climate-changing schemes would trigger.

Michaelson—along with many others—has called for public research on some possible legal responses to geo-engineering. “It would be a classic situation where the problem should be handled in an official capacity,” he says. In practice, that would likely mean industrialized governments’ regulating geo-engineering directly, in a way that lets them monopolize the technology and prevent others from deploying it, through diplomatic and military means, or perhaps by just bribing Bangladesh not to puff out its own aerosols. Such a system might resemble the way the International Atomic Energy Agency now regulates nuclear technology.

And since geo-engineering—like nuclear weapons—would most likely be deployed during a moment of duress, legal experts like Victor have urged establishing preliminary regulations well in advance. “Suppose the U.S. or Brazil decided it needed some combination of emissions-cutting and geo-engineering in a sudden catastrophe,” Victor says. “How would the rest of us respond? There’s been no serious research on the topic. It has to be done right now, and not in a crisis situation.” An outright ban on geo-engineering could lead other countries to try out dangerous ideas on their own, just as a ban on cloning in the United States has sent research to Korea and Singapore; it would constrain all but the least responsible countries.

Victor doesn’t believe geo-engineering will solve anything by itself, but he expects that ultimately we will have a cocktail of solutions. Perhaps we could start with a few puffs of sulfur in the atmosphere to buy time, then forests of plankton in the ocean, and then genetically engineered carbon-hungry trees. What isn’t an option, Victor says, is refusing to fund more research, in the hope that geo-engineering won’t be needed.

Thomas Schelling, who won his Nobel Prize for using game theory to explain nuclear strategy and the behavior of states in arms races, shares Victor’s frustration about the way geo-engineering has been ignored. Multinational agreements to cut emissions amount to a game of chicken that tends to end unhappily in Schelling’s models. The ideal outcome would be a technology that changes the game. “We just have to consider that we may need this kind of project, and might need it in a hurry,” he says. “If the president has to go by boat from the White House to the Capitol, we should be ready scientifically—but also diplomatically—to do something about it.”

We should keep such images in mind. And they should remind us that, one way or another, a prolonged love affair with carbon dioxide will end disastrously. A pessimist might judge geo-engineering so risky that the cure would be worse than the disease. But a sober optimist might see it as the biggest and most terrifying insurance policy humanity might buy—one that pays out so meagerly, and in such foul currency, that we’d better ensure we never need it. In other words, we should keep investigating geo-engineering solutions, but make quite clear to the public that most of them are so dreadful that they should scare the living daylights out of even a Greenfinger. In this way, the colossal dangers inherent in geo-engineering could become its chief advantage. A premonition of a future that looks like Blade Runner, with skies dominated by a ruddy smog that’s our only defense against mass flooding and famine, with sunshades in space and a frothy bloom of plankton wreathing the Antarctic, could finally horrify the public into greener living. Perhaps a Prius doesn’t sound so bad, when a zeppelin is the alternative.

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Graeme Wood is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. His personal site is gcaw.net.

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