The trajectories for emissions of carbon dioxide as the world’s industrial and industrializing countries boost coal burning are clearly going to be tough to turn around, whether through caps on emissions or efforts to improve non-polluting energy technologies. And big hurdles remain before there will be any large-scale capturing of carbon dioxide to pump it underground or elsewhere for safekeeping.
That’s why a growing number of scientists, including Nobel Prize winners and Ralph J. Cicerone, the president of the National Academy of
Sciences, have pushed for intensified study of ways to artificially nudge the planet’s thermostat downward — at the very least as a “Plan C” should warming kick into high gear.
Now an enterprising crew of young filmmakers has done an educational video in a goofy retro style and posted it on YouTube. It’s well worth a look, if only to provide a chuckle in a realm that is chockablock with unfunny rhetoric ranging from “woe is me” to “shame on you.”
We’ve touched on such technologies for years, including a story in our Energy Challenge series by William J. Broad in 2006 exploring the growing support for examining earth-cooling options ranging from mirrors in space to adding a sulfate veil to the atmosphere. But will they ever come to pass?
Word of the YouTube video came from a comment posted by Alvia Gaskill on the rapidly growing, and ever busier, GoogleGroups e-mail chain on geo-engineering, as this kind of climate intervention has generally been called.
One interesting theme batted around by that group of late concerns the name of this climate-altering enterprise. Kenneth Caldeira, a Carnegie Institution scientist long focused on carbon flows (including the flow into the oceans that is lowering the pH of seawater in potentially harmful ways), said any term should convey four ideas:
- It should allude to climate, of course.
- It should convey intentionality.
- It should speak of counteracting another force (our emissions of greenhouse gases).
- And it should be clear that it implies actions other than reducing the emissions (that is a different realm).
As for his own preferences, Dr. Caldeira wrote recently: “My first choice is now ‘climate control,’ with ‘climate engineering’ coming in second.”
(For a more serious video look at geo-engineering, or climate control, or whatever, you can watch Dr. Caldeira deliver a talk at Google’s offices, also on YouTube.)
What would you call it (whether you like the idea or not)? I’ll be posting some of the other names pitched by those in the geo-engineering list here later.
A question for climate skeptics: I presume you agree there’s at least a chance you could be wrong, just as you assert those pointing to a clearcut climate apocalypse have little basis for their claims. On that front, I’d be curious to know what you’d propose as a backup plan if the climate’s sensitivity to CO2 turns out to be higher than you think?
A question for climate campaigners opposed to geo-engineering (by any name): Why not at least explore (and test on reasonable scales) such options. If you take the threats of global warming as seriously as you say, why not at least pursue some work on this kind of backstop even as work on mitigating emissions continues?
Keep in mind that I personally foresee a huge barrier to this ever being done in the real world outside of some absolutely cataclysmic disruption of climate — the barrier being the likely diplomatic standoff over who gets to set the thermostat. As I’ve written before, I imagine Russia, Maldives, Australia, and Ohio would have completely divergent views of the optimal planetary temperature.
An addendum. When Alex Steffen of Worldchanging.com posted a thoughtful critique of geo-engineering there recently, I added the following comment:
As you know, I admire your forward-thinking positive approach and, like you, reject “woe is me, shame on you” rhetoric on climate and energy.
But there’s a potential problem with the rejection of any work on climate engineering above.
We are already engineering the Earth at planet scale, and have been for a century or more. We just didn’t fully realize it until the last decade or so, and still haven’t really integrated the idea that Earth, from here on in, is increasingly what we choose to make it (including the bioscape and atmosphere/climate).
The dilemmas predicted above already exist.
The big impediment right now to global action to limit emissions of CO2 is the same as the huge roadblock (rightly mentioned above) to coming up with some mutually-agreed upper limit on the global thermostat — the variegated status and interests of different states worldwide.
Those with heaps of coal (led by the U.S. and China) want to use it. Those with big vulnerabilities to climate or coastal risks, and little history of emitting (Maldives, e.g.), want the rich emitters to protect and compensate them, and limit the risk imposed by rising temperatures or seas.
In the meantime, the rich emitters have insulated themselves from risk with their wealth and technology (for decades to come, at least, according to IPCC AR4), as we reported last year in the “Climate Divide” series.
So, presuming one accepts the I.P.C.C. findings (which all the world’s nations — ostensibly at least — say they do) we’re already in the climate management (or conscious mismanagement) game.
Who gets to choose how fast to cut the 27-billion-tons-a-year-and-rising CO2 flow: Europe with its 2-degree-C threshold? China and the U.S. in their “You first” Alphonse & Gaston routine? Malawi?
For the moment, Alphonse & Gaston are winning, it seems. That’s why a lot of scientists see the need for cobbling together a long-term insurance policy (or at least explore whether one is even available.)