Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Hack The Climate

The Guardian published one of those stories last Monday that just makes you sit back and go “huh?” According to the article, the hot (no pun intended) new idea to fight global warming is to basically hack the world's climate system, or what its backers call “geoengineering”. The basic idea is that instead of reducing the amount of greenhouse gases – those gases blamed for warming the globe – released into the atmosphere, you just hack the atmosphere so that it can carry more GHGs without heating up. Voila, problem solved.

The concept is based on a natural phenomenon related to volcanic eruptions: when large amounts of sulfur dioxide are released into the upper atmosphere, the resulting haze has the effect of reflecting some of the solar radiation (a.k.a. sunlight) back into space; the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines for example reduced global temperatures by half a degree Celsius for more than a year thanks to the sulfur dioxide it spewed into the upper atmosphere. To put that in perspective, some small island nations around the globe are saying the difference in current GHG reduction goals that would result in a temperature rise of 2C opposed to 1.5C would be the difference between their nations being swallowed by the sea or not.

The geoengineers propose releasing huge amounts of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere on purpose to reflect a portion of the sun's output back into space, permanently; thus counteracting the effect of GHGs on the atmosphere. Simple. The Guardian reports though that once started, the sulfur dioxide spraying would have to continue, permanently. If sulfur levels dropped and the full effect of the sun hit the atmosphere, global temperatures (thanks to the GHG-laden air) would spike up suddenly and dramatically. They go on to say that: “a more disturbing effect of enhanced dimming would be the permanent whitening of day-time skies. A washed-out sky would become the norm.” If you want to see a dramatic portrayal of this in action, watch the movie The Matrix, where Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus explains how humans “scortched the sky” in their fight against the robots, and we know how well that turned out... (that example reminded me of this story from last year about scientists at McGill University who were attempting to reverse-engineer a dinosaur from a chicken's egg – a good rule of thumb should be that if it went awry in a sci-fi movie it's probably not a good idea to try in real life.).

Among the backers of geoengineering, according to The Guardian, are several prominent US-based conservatives, along with the influential right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Their rationale is that geoengineering would allow mankind to fight global warming (which they are suddenly buying into) without forcing business to adopt costly carbon-reduction technologies or buy carbon credits on emissions exchange markets. Lowell Wood, the man who helped to design President Ronald Reagan's “Star Wars” space weapons program is a vocal critic of current GHG reduction schemes, calling them “the bureaucratic suppression of CO2” though it's worth noting that just last week, the current GHG reduction framework was credited with halting the construction of a new coal-fired power plant in Poland after the project was deemed uneconomic when its carbon-reduction costs were factored in. Geoengineering advocates also include billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson, both well-known for their humble, sanguine views of the world...

It might be a good idea to look at the blue sky while you still can.
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