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Drastic Measures for Cooling the Planet
Sarah Rich, 27 Jun 06

de5.jpgI believe it was in An Inconvenient Truth where I recently saw, in an effort to bring some levity to a grave situation, the facetious suggestion for solving global warming by depositing giant ice cubes in the middle of the ocean (a doubly ironic choice given that chunks of glacier falling loose from the poles are only making our problems worse).

The New York Times points out today, however, that solutions on a scale nearly as large and nearly as outlandish have been proposed by scientists over the years without a shred of irony. Orbiting galactic umbrellas and light-reflecting clouds or ocean covers are just a few they mention as examples of schemes that once seemed preposterous, but are apparently starting to look a little different now that global warming no longer warrants scientific dispute.

We've talked many times about large-scale engineering of the earth's systems -- what the NY Times article called "geoengineering," and we have frequently also referred to as "terraforming earth." The approach raises serious ethical questions: what is the right way -- if there is one -- to massively alter or impose upon the natural world, with the guiding principles being averting climate disaster and saving the earth?

The Times article gives no conclusive answer; rather, it focuses on the internal debate among scientists over which ideas to take seriously and which to dismiss as too risky or difficult. What it does lead us to, however, is the ever more widely accepted understanding that this crisis is real, it's massive, and it is indeed time to be thinking up solutions on a scale appropriate to the challenge:

Geoengineering's advocates say humankind is already vastly altering the global environment and simply needs to do so more intelligently. Dr. Angel, the University of Arizona astronomer, told members of the science academy of his idea for an orbital sunshade, calling the proposal less important than the goal of encouraging bold thought.
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Don't underestimate the Giant Space Mirrors :) - a few thousand tons of mylar positioned appropriately could screen out enough sun to compensate for our CO2 problems, and furthermore is *fully reversible* because the mirrors can be pulled out of orbit by, say, radio-controlled rockets attached to them at deployment.

If we did something like that, and could continue to have abundant energy for hundreds more years using, say, clean coal? Might be a massive net benefit to the whole human race, and the planet as a whole.

Of course, one you start tinkering like that, it may become hard or impossible to stop: I'm not in favor of these schemes (yet!) but I do think they deserve a fair examination. One of them might just work!

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 27 Jun 06

It's called Kyoto. You can put your signature under it, here:

Americans keep missing the ball: either they "don't do science" or they come up with sci-fi concepts that don't matter.

Kyoto > sign. Thx.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 27 Jun 06

not a new idea ... the artificial darkening is one of the easiest approaches, if you think about the problematics.

already there ... the so called "global dimming" is happening already and taking away a certain amount of energy from the lower atmosphäre and cooling down thereby the surface.

not a longterm solution ... simple solutions for fixing complex systems are often not very effective in the long run : would you want to have for example every third week in the year no sun and a 50% darker day? what countries will be having day and what others will be having night? can you buy daylight? i'm not relating only to human beings. our fauna (botanics - plants) is often regulated to some minutes/day and if you start changing the ammount of daylight/day things can go wrong quite easily. you could be responsible for extincting lots of species by the process to inhibit the heat-up of the atmosphäre by too simple approaches.

clean coal is not using coal at all. if you want to burn something, please take freshly grown biomass sideproducts from agriculture. fossil energy will be used up anyway and at this time i cannot imagine the effects on socio-economics globally... but one thing is sure... that the regions that depend the least on fossil energy for maintaining their systems will be affected least.

let me finish with the words of Diogenes, when Alexander the great asked him for a wish: Go out of the sun!

Posted by: Damir Perisa on 27 Jun 06

Speaking of 'inconvenient truths', there is an interesting expose on Kyoto in this week's New Scientist. Still, it's the best of a bad bunch.

Definitely like the sunshade idea, for the reasons Vinay mentioned (although I don't believe anything that induces changes on the required scale could be fully reversible).

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Jun 06

I really don't see how we can avoid taking the risks of geoengineering. No one seems willing to give up cars, plastics or electricity so how can we avoid this? I don't think we can.

It we sit and dither, we know more damage to the planet will happen. It's a darn shame that we don't have more time to consider these decisions but we are already in a crisis. Sometimes you have to tear down a few houses to stop a fire from spreading.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 27 Jun 06

Everything we do involves risk.
The trick is in seeking to minimise the risk.
Acting in a blind panic just because we are in a crisis is unlikely to achieve this.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Jun 06

These techno-fixes seem to spring from the same mindset that got us into the problem of global overheating: engineering solutions will fix all.

Next time you take a bite of food, consider that all the calories you're eating are -- first- or second-hand -- the product of photosynthesis. Already, humans are consuming some 20 percent of the planet's net primary productivity (Scientific American, 4/05, pdf). In parts of Asia, that fraction ranges as high as 60-80%. The notion that we would place shades in the sky with the purpose of obscuring more net solar input would seem to be self-defeating.

That's especially true if you consider that many of the more fundamental solutions to CO2 pollution involve renewables, from wind to PVs to biomass, which are powered by net solar influx.

Heaving mirrors into orbit reminds me of suggestions that we deal with global overheating by cranking up our air-conditioners with coal-fired electricity. I'll bet we Homo sapiens (sapiens, remember?) can come up with something better.

Posted by: Seth Zuckerman on 27 Jun 06

Space Mirrors are a "for instance." And Kyoto is failing: even if it was ratified and adopted its still too little and too late...

As for Homo Sapiens, *how do we know we'll find something better?* Can we afford not to explore these options while we hope for something else?

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 27 Jun 06

The actual amount of radiation you need to block off to offset the warming from CO2 etc. is actually quite slight.
A sunshade filter can still allow the red and blue portions of the spectrum through to avoid impact on photosynthesis.
But, yes, it is a band aid approach that doesn't solve the problem so much as alleviate the symptoms.
It's main appeal is that it is reversible.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Jun 06

I think that any solution has to attack carbon dioxide directly. The higher concentration of CO2 is causing the surface waters in the world to become more acidic. (Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid. ) So while the orbiting mirrors would reduce the heat input to the earth, we would still have major ecological damage from the chemical itself.

We need to take the CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it in our urban infrastructure. The easiest way to get the CO2 out of the atmosphere is to use plants or algae as the chemical feed stock for most of our stuff. Make sure that your stuff doesn't catch on fire or decompose because your share of the excess carbon in the air weighs tons.

This is the truly American solution to global warming; sell everyone on the planet tons of crap made out of nonflammable non-biodegradable bio-plastic.

Posted by: occam's comic on 27 Jun 06

Reminds me of: Crazy Solar Shield Not 100% Crazy

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 27 Jun 06

A sunshade filter can still allow the red and blue portions of the spectrum through to avoid impact on photosynthesis.

Huh? The green color of plants is REFLECTED light. That means red/blue are absorbed.

Posted by: eric blair on 27 Jun 06

1) Diogenes wish was that Alexander "Get out of my sun," as he was taking a sun bath. But interesting that you mention that Damir, because D's point to Alexander was that instead of taking over the entire world so he can then go retreat to Macedonia and tend to his garden, that he go do the gardening and forget about ruling the world. Cut out the middleman.... and that is very apropo for this discource... it's kinda Quixotic hubris to try and "stop global warming"

and kudos to the NYT for recycling!! As most peeps here know, none of those stories are new, the algae dumpers have wanted to pour iron into the oceans for over a decade (sure it will suffocate most creatures who live there, but hey, it will eat up atmospheric CO2!). I personally dont put much faith in any of these space solutions-- although they sure are funny (did you see the one about robots making floating mirrors for us on the moon? Classic!).

And move over terraforming and geoengineering and Hello pluviforming our climate! Who ever mentioned global dimming moves to the head of the class! only problem there is that we aren't getting the whole story (i know its a tin-foiler, but) Edwin Teller proposed it in a series of meetings in 1987 and it has continued since; the emission of aerosols that reflect sunlight out of the atmosphere before it hits the earth. The Conspy's call 'em Chemtrails, most others think that's nuts (but I bet anyone who doesn't believe in them has never spent even 3 hours observing the spew form planes). Before Teller gave us that gift it was actually predicted in 1977 by SciFi writer Artur Herzog in "Heat" millions of tiny mirrors... sheesh! almost 30 years later and what have we learnt?

Seriously WC peeps, y'all know the drill; CLIMATE CHANGE IS LINKED TO EVOLUTION (especially knowable in Seattle, where the venerable William Calvin lives, world's expert on the link between Cch and evolution) So here's my question... do you think our ancestors evolved into "homo sapien sapien" by fighting the climatic and ecological changes or by adapting? Does anyone here really believe that 10% less than 1990 levels of CO2 are going to do anything at all?

will anything short of getting all that excess CO2 out of the air do anything? what about the Gulf Stream? oceans are slow changing but when they do, it's prime time, baby.

At this point, i hate to say it but so much more effort ought to be placed in the Adaptation camp. I was told that our species usually takes 50 years to adapt. and thats not adapting to thinking a prius is ok, but food production on a local level (all food local, veggies, "meats") not just replacing our energy needs, but figuring out how to deal with much colder climes... and of course water water water....

hate to sound fatalistic, but once the gulfstream flips it will be too late to actually implement most of these changes because we will be too busy mobilizing climate refugees and scrambling for crumbs.

well i feel better that i got that out. thanks. now how do we leapfrog to adaptation so we can one day be ancestors to a people more highly evolved?

Posted by: lee on 28 Jun 06

This whole idea seems ludicrous to me. Even if controlling the climate could be done, the ethical problems involved would be immense. Who gets to decide what the ideal climate is? North Dakota: "hey we're already freezing up here, give us some sun!" Florida: "glug glug glug." Imagine the issues on a global scale, with those without the ability to influence the decision get farked. This is the same mentality that got us into this mess. "Well we've already screwed up this forest, might as well mow it down for a parking lot."

Posted by: mo on 28 Jun 06

Kyoto is not failing. Kyoto is a conceptual route: nations working together, within a multilateral framework, to fight a global problem.
This requires a certain political culture, a willingness to accept a form of mundial governance and an openness to multilateralism.

Kyoto's targets may be failing, but the route, the concept behind it is the only way forward. If everyone were to ratify Kyoto, an entirely new global paradigm for problem solving would be opened.

Technofixes and commerce-driven pseudo-solutions are not the way forward.

Hence, again, please sign. America, get rid of your historical "exceptionalism" - it is ruining us all.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 28 Jun 06

Indeed, Kyoto is not just a set of limits arbitrary set so low as to be nearly meaningless with regard to climate change, it is a path. It took nearly 45 years to negotiate and ratify the international Law of the Sea, Kyoto took a fraction of that. While that seems like small progress, it is, in fact, a hopeful sign - collectively agreeing to deal with the problem is perhaps the most important aspect of Kyoto. And while the American federal government hasn't signed, local US governments have "signed up".

That said, I do agree with the author - buying a prius and turning off the faucet, while nice, isn't going to solve the massive, civilization altering, oh my god nature of climate change. As others have noted, it is our lack of awareness of our connection of our actions to climate change that is at the root of our current dilemna. Literally and figuratively, Climate Change is over our heads, inaccessible to the hind brain which identifies threats and tells us how to deal with them. So much for current human evolution.

Technology solutions, a favorite of those using an online space (me too!), should not merely address the problem (like sea bottom carbon sequestration techniques), but actually lead to changes in how we relate to our environment, our very white-and-blue ball floating in the middle of nowhere space fragile home. Algea that sucks out CO2 and helps us close the loop - that seems worth pursuing, as does other energy production ideas like small-scale wave action for grid power.

Just riffing here, but Why is it cool, why is it preferred to cut down a forest to build a massive 4,000 sq foot mcMansion? As long as owning an SUV is associated with virulence instead of the opposite, we live in a world of utterly out of wack priorities and disconnects. Ghettos of millions of people without drinking water and next door, a Hilton or a Hyatt with marble and fountains. (from a recent visit to Mumbai)

So, I agree with the central theme of the author and many here - we must find massively new and different approaches. But building nuclear plants or mirrors over the antartic, I hope these are our last resort, for we will have learned NOTHING.

Speaking of those, one that I am surprised not to see here is sea iron fertilization. With this technique, which involves stimulating the ocean sea-plankton growth and then sending them to the bottom, you potentially solve the problem of CO2 concentrations on a global scale. Oh, the downside is killing off lots and lots of marine life - so I'm not really in favor, again except as last resort...i.e. well after Florida is under water please.

If I were to hope for an agenda emerging from such a discussion here and elsewhere, I would hope that we could articulate clearly "please stop dithering on the margins", come up with bold ideas that build on collective action, globally taken, that allow us to evolve on this little speck of warm life in a vast coldness.

Posted by: james on 28 Jun 06

"Literally and figuratively, Climate Change is over our heads,"

its in our lungs too, almost 400ppm...

Posted by: lee on 29 Jun 06

Space Mirrors, Fuck Yeah! Just think of all the Arabian Nights themed resorts that would open if it were eternally night and cool over the Sahara. If we're going extinct, we damn well better go out in style. But how would you project a starfield on a mylar kite in geosync orbit?

Posted by: Jonathon Severdia on 3 Jul 06



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