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GeoEngineering in the Anthropocene Era
Jon Lebkowsky, 27 Nov 06
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In his latest Viridian screed, WorldChanging ally Bruce Sterling refers to an article from Wired, "Rebooting the Ecosystem," which acknowledges that we humans have screwed up our planet, and this means we're responsible for repairing the damage, but stopgaps like carbon sequestration just aren't going to cut it.

Luckily, a growing number of scientists are thinking more aggressively, developing incredibly ambitious technical fixes to cool the planet. These efforts to remedy the accidental experiment of climate change with intentional, megascale experimentation are called geoengineering. Thus far, ideas include reflecting sunlight with gazillions of orbiting featherweight mirrors or by saturating the stratosphere with sulfur, or increasing the volume of microbes that eat CO2 by fertilizing the oceans with iron.

Geoengineering has been getting more attention lately because, as the Wired article says, it has serious proponents like Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist who helped explain the process of atmospheric ozone depletion, and who coined the term anthropocene for the most recent period in earth's history, emphasizing the significant human impact since the advent of the Industrial revolution. Says Bruce of Crutzen:

Not a lunatic. Sane European guy. Lives in world run by lunatics; cannot be helped. Note that Crutzen, as a boy, almost starved to death in Holland in the "Hunger Winter" of 1945 until the Swedes dropped food out of the sky. I think his proposal possesses some moral gravity.

He also notes that Crutzen's recent "plan to shoot massive quantities of sulfur into the stratosphere" was, according to its author, proposed as a kind of publicity stunt to startle policy makers into acknowledging the need for Drastic Measures.

If you want to become a serious student of geoengineering, a good start might be Spencer Weart's essay on "Climate Modifications Schemes" (via Realclimate). If you're really serious, you can enroll in the GeoEngineering Program at UC Berkeley, which "focusses on the body of the earth as the medium for our work."

(For more on the subject, check out "The Geoengineering Option" in Futurismic, by WorldChanging co-founder Jamais Cascio. For a differing view, see Why Geo-Engineering is a Bad Fall-Back Strategy.)

Earth image by Bethe Hagens, published under a Creative Commons license.

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Yikes! I find this stuff really scary! What makes anyone (Nobel-prizing winning or not) think we can solve these problems using the same process of techno-scientific THINKING that caused them? Carl Jung said that you "...can't solve a problem from the same level of consciousness that created it", and I think that's very relevant here.
I think the real questions have to be asked from a much deeper place, from a more expanded level of consciousness.
"Geoengineering" assumes humans have sufficient knowledge --and *wisdom*-- to act as global managers. Our present situation suggests scientists, technologists and economists have neither.

Posted by: ainslie on 27 Nov 06

Jamais Cascio wrote about this for WorldChanging some time ago. It's a topic worth revisiting - thank you, Jon. Then, I was viscerally opposed to the idea - but the planet doesn't care how I feel. Based on the evidence, we may very well have geoengineer. But of course doing so won't be enough.

If you haven't seen it already, check out the work by Robert Socolow and Stephen Pacala at Princeton on Climate Stabilization "Wedges". According to the authors, 7 "wedges" are needed to stabilize CO2 emissions below an amount that scientists agree would lead to dangerous climate disruption. The authors offer 15 strategies from which to choose.

Any "wedge" strategy might be opposed due to cost, vested interests, cynicism, etc. If the authors are right, we need to agree on at least 7 strategies and implement them within the decade, carrying through for at least the next 50 years. The likelihood of geoengineering rises as the likelihood of our doing this falls.

One thing's certain: business as usual isn't a viable policy. We need the maturity and sobriety to choose among difficult alternatives, like a patient with a grave, yet perhaps treatable, medical condition. The planet may need to go on dialysis for a while.

Posted by: David Foley on 27 Nov 06

Jamais sent me a link to a post on the subject he made recently at Futurismic. I added it at the end of my post. He mentions the "wedges" work at Princeton.

I suspect we'll be posting more on the subject as it heats up (no pun intended).

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 27 Nov 06

Jon, I overlooked your link to Jamais' essay. which was brilliant as usual. Thanks.

This is a conversation very much worth having among the WorldChanging crew and readers. Such a conversation would be difficult, revealing and illuminating.

Posted by: David Foley on 27 Nov 06

I think Jamais covered Jung's point to a degree when he stressed reversability as an important criterion for any geo-engineering process. Thus, hordes of nano mirrors in orbit is reversible. Sulfur in the stratosphere or genetically tailored methane eating bacteria is less so.

Ironically, in my uneducated manner, I suspect that the Pinatubo eruption of the early nineties masked the overall warming process for the early part of the decade but, as the volcanic sulfur came out of the atmosphere, the warming effect of the CO2 was thrown into greater contrast (ie the temperature gradient was steeper)

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 27 Nov 06

I just read Jamais's article as well, and I think with geoengineering there's a real risk of turning first to what should definitely be a last-ditch solution, because it's less challenging to our mind-set. "Oh, just let the guys in the labcoats fix it." The sudden revival of nuclear power (as a topic of discussion at least) is a similar case. Nuclear power is a hi-tech, complex solution (with dubious net CO2 reduction and of course it's own drastic side effects) but it challenges our own personal behavior less than simple low-tech everyday solutions like insulation or bicycles. That's why it doesn't die. So which solution will get all the press and a zillion dollars in the next badly written bill from Congress--attic insulation or nano space mirrors? Nano space mirrors, of course. Cool! Guess they're handling that global warming thing and I won't have to buy that insulation after all...

Anyway, that's my it the Distracting Silver Bullet Worry.

Posted by: Jeffrey Rusch on 29 Nov 06

Someone above said we don't have the knoweldge or wisdom to become the managers of planet earth.

I'd like to dig deeper into this thought. Wherever we have managed, where can you say that we have done well? If we could suddenly manage the planet, how well would we do? Which animals would live? Which would die? Who gets what? Who dies? Who lives? Who decides? Do we want to be making these decisions? Are these decisions that the planet should be making?

It may be easier for us to think that making decisions for the planet is more comfortable, but it may not be the wisest thing to do. In life, we do not want to make decisions for everyone else because that would amount to a lot of work and give us no time for ourselves. Instead, we want others to be able to make their own decisions. Isn't that what we would want the planet to do? What happens when we disagree with what the planet decides? What happens when we no longer want to cooperate with the planet or to seek a certain compromise? I know that you can't compare the planet to a person, but comparing it to a machine might not be entirely accurate either. Maybe there comes a point when you're living on the mouth of a volcano that you decide compromise no longer suits your taste. At this point it is time to leave the mouth of the volcano. Your other choice is to break the will of the volcano in a quest to gain ultimate control of it. Maybe this is why kids do not stay with their parents forever. Who would want to make that compromise of wills? Maybe the arguemnt isn't that we should be more aware of the planet and its rulebook, but that we should be more aware of what is elsewhere and might offer an alternative to our life on this planet. Maybe living here isn't worth the effort? What are our other choices? Maybe we should really consider people like Zubrin and others who want us off this planet and 'out there'.

Posted by: john on 4 Dec 06

In my previous comment, I said "Maybe we should really consider people like Zubrin.."

I meant "Maybe we should really consider people like Robert Zubrin.."

And, btw, I don't mean a mass exodus. What I'm implying is that maybe its time for us to set our sights 'out there', atleast more often. Space is a big place and there're more places to live than simply on the surface of earth. There're many options. We should be open to them and willing to change.

Posted by: john on 4 Dec 06



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