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    The powerful coalition that wants to engineer the world's climate


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    The powerful coalition that wants to engineer the world's climate

    Post  Studeo on Thu Sep 23, 2010 6:18 am

    The powerful coalition that wants to engineer the world's climate

    Businessmen, scientists and right-wing thinktanks are joining forces to promote 'geo-engineering' ideas to cool the planet's climate, writes Clive Hamilton

    Sunlight Some people geo-engineering techniques, such as filling the sky with shiny dust to reflect sunlight, could curb such temperature rises without the need to restrict greenhouse gas emissions

    In August 1883 the painter Edvard Munch witnessed an unusual blood-red sunset over Oslo. Shaken up by it, he wrote in his diary that he "felt a great, unending scream piercing through nature". The incident inspired him to create his most famous work, The Scream.

    The sunset he saw that evening followed the eruption of Krakatoa off the coast of Java. The explosion, one of the most violent in recorded history, sent a massive plume of ash into the stratosphere, turning sunsets red around the globe. The gases emitted also caused the Earth to cool by more than one degree and disrupted weather patterns for several years.

    The cooling effect of large volcanic eruptions has been known for some time. A haze forms from the sulphur dioxide spewed into the upper atmosphere reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth. It's estimated that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 — the largest since Krakatoa — cooled the Earth by around 0.5°C for a year or more.

    Now, a powerful coalition of forces is quietly constellating around the idea of transforming the Earth's atmosphere by simulating volcanic eruptions to counter the warming effects of carbon pollution. Engineering the planet's climate system is attracting the attention of scientists, scientific societies, venture capitalists and conservative think tanks. Despite the enormity of what is being proposed — nothing less than taking control of Earth's climate system — the public has been almost entirely excluded from the planning.

    The Royal Society defines geoengineering as "the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change" and divides methods into two types: carbon dioxide removal from the atmosphere, and solar radiation management aimed at reducing heat coming in or reflecting more of it out.

    Techniques ranging from the intriguing to the wacky have been proposed to remove carbon from the atmosphere, including fertilising the oceans with iron filings to promote the growth of tiny marine plants that absorb carbon dioxide, installing in the ocean a vast number of floating funnels that draw nutrient-rich cold water from the deep to encourage algal blooms that suck carbon dioxide from the air, and construction of thousands of 'sodium trees' that extract carbon dioxide directly from the air and turn it into sodium bicarbonate.

    Some of the ideas put forward to block the Sun's heat would be far-fetched even in a science fiction novel. One is to send billions of reflective discs to a point in space known as L1 and located between the Earth and the Sun. Another is to launch hundreds of special unmanned ships that plough the oceans sending up plumes of water vapour that increase cloud cover. Or dark-coloured forests could be converted into light-coloured grasslands that reflect more sunlight.

    Enhanced dimming
    But the option that is taken most seriously is altogether grander in conception and scale. The scheme proposes nothing less than the transformation of the chemical composition of the Earth's atmosphere so that humans can regulate the temperature of the planet as desired. Like volcanic eruptions, it involves injecting sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere to blanket the Earth with tiny particles that reflect solar radiation.

    Various schemes have been proposed, with the most promising being adaptation of high-flying aircraft fitted with extra tanks and nozzles to spray the chemicals. A fleet of 747s could do the job. To have the desired effect we would need the equivalent of one Mount Pinatubo eruption every three or four years. The emissions from the eruption in April of Iceland's 'Mount Unpronounceable' were less than a hundredth of those from Pinatubo, so to engineer the climate we'd need the equivalent of one of those every week, every year for decades.

    More cautious scientists recognise that attempting to regulate the Earth's climate by enhancing global dimming is fraught with dangers. Most worryingly, the oceans are absorbing around a third of the extra carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere by humans, which is raising their acidity, dissolving corals and inhibiting shell-formation by marine organisms. Turning down the dimmer switch may reduce incoming solar radiation but would do nothing to slow ocean acidification. The climate system is hugely complicated and tinkering with it might be akin to introducing cane toads to control sugarcane beetles.

    Moral hazards
    Although ideas for climate engineering have been around for at least twenty years, until recently public discussion has been discouraged by the scientific community. Environmentalists and governments have been reluctant to talk about it too. The reason is simple: apart from its unknown side-effects, geoengineering would weaken resolve to reduce carbon emissions.

    Economically it is an extremely attractive substitute because its cost is estimated to be "trivial" compared to those of cutting carbon pollution. While the international community has found it difficult to agree on strong collective measures to reduce carbon emissions, climate engineering is cheap, immediately effective and, most importantly, available to a single nation.

    Among the feasible contenders for unilateral intervention, one expert names China, the USA, the European Union, Russia, India, Japan and Australia. Could they agree? It's like seven people living together in a centrally heated house, each with their own thermostat and each with a different ideal temperature. China will be severely affected by warming, but Russia might prefer the globe to be a couple of degrees warmer.

    If there is no international agreement an impatient nation suffering the effects of climate disruption may decide to act alone. It is not out of the question that in three decades the climate of the Earth could be determined by a handful of Communist Party officials in Beijing. Or the government of an Australia crippled by permanent drought, collapsing agriculture and ferocious bushfires could risk the wrath of the world by embarking on a climate control project.

    To date, governments have shunned geoengineering for fear of being accused of wanting to avoid their responsibilities with science fiction solutions. The topic is not mentioned in the Stern report and receives only one page in Australia's Garnaut report (see Section 2.4.2). As a sign of its continuing political sensitivity, when in April 2009 it was reported that President Obama's new science adviser John Holdren had said that geoengineering is being vigorously discussed as an emergency option in the White House, he immediately felt the need to issue a "clarification" claiming that he was only expressing his personal views.

    Holdren is one of the sharpest minds in the business and would not be entertaining what is now known as 'Plan B'— engineering the planet to head off catastrophic warming — unless he was fairly sure Plan A would fail.

    Fiddling with the dimmer switch may prove an almost irresistible political fix for governments. It gets powerful lobbies off their backs, gives the green light to burn more coal, avoids the need to raise petrol taxes, allows unrestrained growth and is no threat to consumer lifestyles.

    In short, compared to cutting greenhouse gas emissions, geoengineering gets everyone off the hook. No government is yet willing to lend official support to geoengineering. However, the pressure is building and the day when the government of a major nation like the United States, Russia or China publicly backs Plan B cannot be far off. Then the floodgates will open.

    Even now, beneath the radar, Russia has already begun testing. Yuri Izrael, a Russian scientist who is both a global-warming sceptic and a senior adviser to Prime Minister Putin, has tested the effects of aerosol spraying from a helicopter on solar radiation reaching the ground. He now plans a full-scale trial.

    Strangelove and son
    Two of the earliest and most aggressive advocates of planetary engineering were Edward Teller and Lowell Wood. Teller, who died in 2003, was the co-founder and director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco, described by US author Jeff Goodell as having a "near-mythological status as the dark heart of weapons research". Teller is often described as the "father of the hydrogen bomb" and was the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove, the wheelchair-bound mad scientist prone to Nazi salutes in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film of that name.

    Once we start manipulating the atmosphere we could be trapped, forever dependent on a program of sulphur injections into the stratosphere. In that case, human beings would never see a blue sky again.....

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