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Shall We Geo-Engineer? April 19, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, geo-engineering, society, taxes.
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A few days ago, Fresh Air hosted Jeff Goodell about geo-engineering solutions to the climate crisis. You might be thinking “another NPR-inspired post?” No, no. This post is inspired by this NYTimes article about the same topic.

I don’t know how much you know about geo-engineering, but it encompasses a relatively wide swath of ideas for cooling the planet that don’t involve the only real long term solution—reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. Some examples? Sending giant “umbrellas” into low orbit to reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the atmosphere. Blasting soot particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight. Covering glaciers with reflective thermal shields. Dumping powdered iron into the ocean to spur the growth of carbon-capturing algea. Ordering all drivers to with the windows open and the A/C on high. And so forth and so on. Many of these approaches sound loony. Many of them reek of  unintended consequences. But all share two important characteristics. First, they would likely succeed in cooling the earth to one degree or another. (Ha!) Second, they are eminently feasible from both technology and financial standpoints, rendering their “political feasibility”—my least favorite term, perhaps of all time—essentially moot. Some rogue well-intentioned country or even individual billionaire—Bill? Warren? Sergey? Sir Richard? J.K.? Tiger?—could under-write one or more of these single-handedly! Should they?

Definitely maybe. It would behoove (I promise this is the last time Bluejay will use that word) the US and other governments to undertake detailed feasibility and impacts analyses of the most readily “reversible” or “undoable” of these proposals. Dumping iron into the ocean would be pretty hard to undo. And if it turns out that the resulting algea also de-oxygenate the ocean and kill all other life in it—not that this isn’t going to happen anyway because of acidification and the great pacific garbage “patch”—then we would be adding injury to already serious injury. Similarly for using ballistics to shoot soot particle bombs into the atmosphere. But what about putting giant reflectors into orbit above glaciers, Greenland, the Arctic and precarious ice shelves of Antarctica to keep these in perpetual shade? Is this not worth a try? Or at least very serious study? What’s the worst that can happen? We find that changes in temperature gradients are changing precipitation patterns around the world in bad and unpredictable ways—meaning in ways worse and more unpredictable than they are changing already? Well, then we take the shields down with the added knowledge of the effects of “spot cooling.”

Here is the problem. Regardless of how much we cut back going forward—and sadly, as a world, we don’t seem to be serious about cutting back at all, on anything—we are already “locked in” to a certain level of future warming. This by virtue of the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere and oceans and by the hands of vicious feedback loops we discover on an almost weekly basis. No one knows for certain, but without additional measures, this locked in warming may mean the loss of some serious “assets” like Arctic summer ice, the Greenland ice sheet, various large glaciers, etc. Unlike fictitious Wall Street assets which can be created just as quickly as they can be destroyed, these assets, once lost, will take millenia to regenerate. The Greenland ice sheet is over a mile thick. If it slides into the ocean, it will take quite some time before another mile-thick ice sheet forms on Greenland, if one ever does.

The only real long term solution is to first halt and then reverse the growth of our collective carbon footprint. But even that might be too little too late to save us from a planet with a significantly different climate—perhaps better in some places but probably worse overall—than the one we have today. To avert or at least delay real disaster, we might need more extreme measures. In an effort to buy a little time—time we shouldn’t need because we have known about this problem for 40 years and have literally done nothing about it—we may have to call on the lunatic fringe of science to save us. Do something, Walter!

P.S. Philly councilman Darrell Clark must be an avid Bluejay reader, having introduced a bill to tax non-cigarette tobacco products including pipe, loose leaf, and chewing. This vice tax is estimated to bring in $6 million annually. The city of Philadelphia is fast running out of both money and potential vices to tax. Even if the tobacco tax passes, closing the remaining $144 million budget hole would require taxing vices like spitting, cursing, nose-picking, line-jumping, excessive body odor, excessive tweeting, and excessive blogging. Oh no!

P.P.S. The bonfire of the vanities continues. Which bank is going to emerge from the meltdown of October 2008 untainted? Even my daughter’s piggy bank had some toxic sub-prime nickels in it!

P.P.P.S. Kevin, I promised someone you would drop a 50 in this series. Don’t disappoint me.

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