Cover Story
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Weather vain?

The sci-fi world of geoengineering is the new, hot alternative to global warming-but some object on political or religious grounds

Issue: "Geo-gizmos," April 25, 2009

The idea is simple, really: Fill the skies with tiny reflective particles and global temperatures will fall. Sunlight will divert. Shrinking ice shelves will reverse course. Sea levels will drop. And climate-change alarmists will have lots of spare time.

Sound like a crank idea? Most scientists used to think so, too. Not anymore: "You could fly aircraft in the stratosphere and you could have a fire hose that would be squirting out sulfur. And the sulfur dioxide would form particles, the same kind of particles formed in a volcanic eruption," explains New York University physics professor Marty Hoffert. With a Ph.D. in astronautics and numerous publications in respected journals, Hoffert seems the antithesis of a crank as he adds, "Another way to do it is to create boats that spray the ocean water up into the atmosphere and create cloud concentration nuclei. And by changing the reflectivity of the clouds over the ocean, they would be able to reflect more sunlight."

A sulfur-spraying fire hose in the heavens or massive floating ocean fountains smack of science fiction, but these are serious ideas in an emerging field dubbed geoengineering. Things get only stranger from there: shooting mirrors into space; seeding the sea with iron; planting forests of metal, carbon-sucking trees.

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Until recently, such innovative, quick-fix climate-change solutions were widely deemed little more than fantasy, dangerous ideas bent on absolving humanity from taking responsibility for its purported environmental sins. But over the past few years, a growing sense of political gridlock and urgency among global warming believers has pressed discussions of geoengineering into the mainstream of the climate-science community. A recent survey of 80 international climate-science specialists published in England's The Independent found over two-thirds favoring more research in geoengineering.

Such interest leads to two questions: Is the Obama administration, which prides itself on favoring "science" over biblical values when it comes to embryonic stem-cell research, so devoted to environmentalism that it ignores a different frontier of science? And are those planning massive, deliberate climate change acting in opposition to biblical understanding, and perhaps heading to a prideful fall?

Geoengineering "is coming out of the closet, if you will," said John Steinbruner, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "For a long time there was an attitude that this is categorically unwise, therefore let's not talk about it. We cannot take that position anymore."

Much of the impetus for such a change of attitude stems from realities in Washington, where President Barack Obama's climate-policy plans appear stalled in a swirl of scientific uncertainty and economic fear. Many politicians remain unconvinced that human-induced climate change poses enough threat for significant action. Others simply believe that the Obama plan to impose government caps on greenhouse-gas emissions would trigger untenable economic consequences (see below).

Accordingly, a Senate vote March 31 of 89-8 approved a 2010 budget amendment that prohibits any future cap-and-trade initiative from raising electricity rates or gas prices for households and businesses. The vote effectively undercuts the possibility of cap-and-trade, given that the express purpose of such an emissions-trimming scheme is to increase the cost of carbon-producing energy.

What's more, even the passage of cap-and-trade legislation would fall woefully short of producing the kind of dramatic greenhouse-gas emission reductions that the bulk of climate scientists deem necessary to reduce warming. "There is no potential for emissions reductions to start cooling things off this century," said Ken Caldeira, a geoengineering advocate and head of a climatology lab at Stanford University. "When you look at Obama's policies relative to what we actually need to do, they look somewhat disappointing."

So should the federal government jump into geoengineering? The National Academy of Sciences plans to host a geoengineering workshop in June. The Royal Society of the UK is likewise investing resources into the matter, conducting a major study on geoengineering feasibility with results due out this summer. The Council on Foreign Relations has held meetings on the topic, too. And an official advisory group to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) convened a colloquium on the issue at Stanford University last month.

Still, not even within the myriad earmarks of Obama's stimulus plan was a single dollar devoted to funding geoengineering research. And no wonder: Neither Obama's Secretary of Energy Steven Chu nor his science advisor John Holdren are fans of the idea. Hoffert said that Chu and Holdren "don't like geoengineering. . . . They really are afraid that it will distract from the main job of transforming the global energy system to a carbon-neutral system." As the thinking goes, if people start believing that science can deliver a global thermostat, then all incentive for driving hybrid vehicles and using compact fluorescent light bulbs will be lost. (Holdren did tell the Associated Press last week that geoengineering has come up in administration meetings as a possible last resort to runaway warming.)

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