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.

We might also store carbon dioxide in the oceans. Already, on the oceans’ surface, clouds of blooming plankton ingest amounts of carbon dioxide comparable to those taken in by trees. Climos, a geo-engineering start-up based in San Francisco, is trying to cultivate ever-bigger plankton blooms that would suck in huge supplies of carbon. When the plankton died, the carbon would end up on the sea floor. Climos began with the observation that plankton bloom in the ocean only when they have adequate supplies of iron. In the 1980s, the oceanographer John Martin hypothesized that large amounts of oceanic iron may have produced giant plankton blooms in the past, and therefore chilled the atmosphere by removing carbon dioxide. Spread powdered iron over the surface of the ocean, and in very little time a massive bloom of plankton will grow, he predicted. “Give me half a tanker of iron,” Martin said, “and I’ll give you the next Ice Age.” If Martin’s ideas are sound, Climos could in effect become the world’s gardener by seeding Antarctic waters with iron and creating vast, rapidly growing offshore forests to replace the ones that no longer exist on land. But this solution, too, could have terrible downsides. Alan Robock, an environmental scientist at Rutgers, notes that when the dead algae degrades, it could emit methane—a greenhouse gas 20 times stronger than carbon dioxide.

Just a decade ago, every one of these schemes was considered outlandish. Some still seem that way. But what sounded crankish only 10 years ago is now becoming mainstream thinking. Although using geo-engineering to combat climate change was first considered (and dismissed) by President Johnson’s administration, sustained political interest began on the business-friendly right, which remains excited about any solution that doesn’t get in the way of the oil companies. The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank historically inimical to emission-reduction measures, has sponsored panels on the sulfur-aerosol plan.

By now, even staunch environmentalists and eminent scientists with long records of climate-change concern are discussing geo-engineering openly. Paul Crutzen, who earned his Nobel Prize by figuring out how human activity punched a hole in the ozone layer, has for years urged research on sulfur-aerosol solutions, bringing vast credibility to geo-engineering as a result.

With that growing acceptance, however, come some grave dangers. If geo-engineering is publicly considered a “solution” to climate change, governments may reduce their efforts to restrict the carbon emissions that caused global warming in the first place. If you promise that in a future emergency you can chill the Earth in a matter of months, cutting emissions today will seem far less urgent. “Geo-engineering needs some government funding, but the most disastrous thing that could happen would be for Barack Obama to stand up tomorrow and announce the creation of a geo-engineering task force with hundreds of millions in funds,” says David Keith.

Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institution for Science, thinks we ought to test the technology gradually. He suggests that we imagine the suite of geo-engineering projects like a knob that we can turn. “You can turn it gently or violently. The more gently it gets turned, the less disruptive the changes will be. Environmentally, the least risky thing to do is to slowly scale up small field experiments,” he says. “But politically that’s the riskiest thing to do.”

Such small-scale experimentation, however, could be the first step on a very slippery slope. Raymond Pierrehumbert likens geo-engineering to building strategic nuclear weapons. “It’s like the dilemma faced by scientists in the Manhattan Project, who had to decide whether that work was necessary or reprehensible,” he says. “Geo-engineering makes the problem of ballistic-missile defense look easy. It has to work the first time, and just right. People quite rightly see it as a scary thing.”

T he scariest thing about geo-engineering, as it happens, is also the thing that makes it such a game-changer in the global-warming debate: it’s incredibly cheap. Many scientists, in fact, prefer not to mention just how cheap it is. Nearly everyone I spoke to agreed that the worst-case scenario would be the rise of what David Victor, a Stanford law professor, calls a “Greenfinger”—a rich madman, as obsessed with the environment as James Bond’s nemesis Auric Goldfinger was with gold. There are now 38 people in the world with $10 billion or more in private assets, according to the latest Forbes list; theoretically, one of these people could reverse climate change all alone. “I don’t think we really want to empower the Richard Bransons of the world to try solutions like this,” says Jay Michaelson, an environmental-law expert, who predicted many of these debates 10 years ago.

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.

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

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