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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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The Most Important Technology Nobody’s Ever Heard Of

Chris Mooney


August 06, 2010

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.


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