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The Most Important Technology Nobody’s Ever Heard Of
Chris Mooney   Aug 6, 2010   Techonomy  

There’s a dangerous gap between the importance of geoengineering as a possibility on the one hand, and the complete lack of public awareness about it on the other.


This is a guest article from Chris Mooney, who blogs regularly at Techonomy and The Intersection.


In a breakout session here at the Techonomy conference, David Keith of the University of Calgary and Margaret Leinen of the Climate Response Fund led a discussion of the prospect of geoengineering the climate-in other words, engaging in some type of deliberate intervention to alter the planet and thereby counteract global warming.

The reason scientists and policymakers are increasingly thinking about geoengineering is clear: Major climate change now looks increasingly unstoppable. As Leinen put it, even if the proposals on the table at Copenhagen had been adopted, we’d still end the century with an atmospheric carbon dioxide of 700 parts per million-more than enough to cause climate upheaval, raise seas dramatically, and so forth.

imageSo it seems clear that if we can’t cut emissions, at some point we’ll be forced to consider a more radical alternative, at least if we want to preserve a planet anything like the one our species evolved on.

And as it happens, geoengineering does indeed appear to be on offer. According to Keith, the most popular and prominent idea for doing it-injecting sulfur particles into the stratosphere that would reflect sunlight away from the Earth, thereby causing a global cooling-could be begun almost immediately. “You could do this with current technology now,” Keith said, and he estimates that moreover, you could do so for about $ 1 billion a year. “Venice could pay to do it based solely on real estate prices,” said Keith.

Geoengineering would also kick in quickly-though you’d have to keep putting the stuff up there if you wanted to keep having the climate payoff. It wouldn’t, Keith emphasizes, solve all the problems of climate change. For instance, a planetary cooling would not do anything to counteract the ongoing ocean acidification that is being driven by our carbon emissions. Geoengineering doesn’t make those emissions go away, it just makes the planet chill down a little.

Most of all, we don’t really know the full range of possible side effects-the unintended consequences. And we won’t before we use it. But if we’re in a climate corner, we might just go ahead anyway. We might think geoengineering is the best of our bad options.

The presentations by Leinen and Keith launched a broad ranging discussion, but sitting in the room, there was a fundamental theme I couldn’t stop thinking of-the incredible gap between the importance of geoengineering as a possibility on the one hand, and the complete lack of public awareness that it’s even on the table on the other.

On the first front, Keith put it like this: “Geoengineering is like nuclear weapons in forcing us to totally rethink the relationship between nations and governments. It is that big of a game changer.” Indeed, unilateral geoengineering attempts could conceivably spark wars between countries.

And yet recent polling data suggests that only about 1 percent of Americans currently know what geoengineering even is. It is, Keith emphasized, a “dangerous moment”-a radical idea is on the table and getting serious attention from scientists, but the public is nowhere in the discussion. That’s a situation that needs to change, and hopefully before some type of climate crisis comes along and forces the issue.




COMMENTS

Geoengineering simply put scares me and this is coming from a died in the wool transhumanist.  Our knowledge of climate and the interaction between the abiotic and biotic factors in ecosystems is still woefully inadequate for us to start messing with the Earth’s system.  Now yes, messing with the Earth is exactly what has got us into this mess in the first place but it’s hard to imagine that more meddling is the answer. 

In addition (as the article states,) geoengineering projects won’t prevent all the negative consequences of global warming and won’t solve the underlying causes of it.  They may by us more time but even if they don’t produce unintended consequences who’s to say there success won’t lull the public into complacency.  “We don’t need to change the way we operate, we’ll just throw some sulfur into the air every now and again.”

Ultimately though those concerns are secondary to my first: unintended consequences.  The Earth is a massive system of interconnected variables and changing one of those variables will, by design, alter the others.  Can anyone say that we really know enough about the system to think our actions won’t result in something even worse?

At this point I think that adapting to a changing climate is the lesser of two evils here.  Either way we still need to take a long, hard look at how our society functions.

We will do ourselves a lot of good if we consider deployment of any technology without thoroughly understanding its effects to be unscientific.

Perhaps in the worst case scenario, we should be discussing the possibility of moving most of the population underground (I know, lots of drilling required). Even just a few metres below the environment is much more easily controlled and while most people would stay safe below teams of scientists could go up-top and keep researching in an effort to undo the damage, for centuries if need be. Would also be useful in the event of ice ages, asteroid strikes and other unpleasantnesses (even an epidemic if we moved fast enough). And we would learn how to live inside other planets, saving us the trouble of terraforming immediately (or could wait for it underground say on Mars). We could live inside asteroids eventually, saving the trouble of manufacturing space colonies. In time the insides of tunnels could be made quite pleasant and we would learn to mimic sunlight and other features underground. If most of the population ws living in VR anyway they wouldn’t care. Oi, who shouted ‘Morlocks rule’? Sweet and sour Eloi, anyone?

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