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.
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.)
Many scientists share that concern, some even contending that geoengineering research should be shelved entirely to maximize public urgency for emissions reductions. But proponents believe the emergence of their proposals into the public consciousness might actually serve to heighten the perceived seriousness of climate change and inspire more aggressive carbon-cutting.
"If we're going to say that we shouldn't have a tool like geoengineering in our toolbox, that runs a risk of fueling public skepticism," said Pete Geddes of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE). "People might say, 'You've got this tool that could stop the problem, but you're not going to use it. Then is the problem really that serious?'"
The arguments over geoengineering run much deeper than concerns over public perceptions. DARPA's recent foray into the field triggered a rash of commentary throughout the science blogosphere of the dangers of military involvement in geoengineering research. A broad consensus outlined the need for some responsible global framework to oversee research, development, and possible future deployment. Even among the strongest advocates for expanding the field, there is worry that some government might pull the trigger unilaterally on strategies that could alter the atmosphere dramatically.
The scenario of a developing nation choosing to employ geoengineering rather than stifle industry with greenhouse-gas cuts is not difficult to conceive. In fact, even a wealthy individual could afford to unleash many of the relatively inexpensive ideas with potential for globally harmful repercussions.
Of course, all the consternation and debate over such issues is moot if the planet never warms to the dangerously high levels many geoengineering advocates fear. No sulfur dioxide or any other designer particle will ever be squirted into the earth's stratosphere except in response to a climate catastrophe.
In that vein, some prominent global warming skeptics like former Margaret Thatcher cabinet member Nigel Lawson prefer research into geoengineering approaches over costly carbon-cutting initiatives. Put plainly, if the problem of manmade warming is simply imagined or grossly overstated, then a cheap insurance policy is vastly superior to expensive prevention.
Theological questions are also on the table. Cal Beisner, director of the Cornwall Alliance, an evangelical environmental stewardship group, doubts whether geoengineering strategies will ever be needed, since he considers the scientific case for manmade global warming dubious. But he does not object to the notion of people altering the atmosphere's chemistry should global events call for it: "One of the nice things about the geoengineering approach is that most of the ideas do not entail enormous upfront costs that have year after year repercussions."
Other Christians are not so sanguine. Philip Foster, a retired minister with a degree in natural science from Cambridge University, argues that weather and climate are outside the scope of human dominion and better left alone. In his book While the Earth Endures (St. Matthew Publishing Ltd., 2008), Foster attempts to make a biblical case against geoengineering: "When God gave Adam dominion over the earth he made no reference to the weather being in man's dominion. God, if I might put it this way, reserves the control of weather for himself."
Foster considers the debate over humanity's role in impacting climate to be one that turns on worldview. For Christians, he says, there is great assurance that God will sustain the planet and universe according to divine prerogative. Geoengineering, then, is unnecessary, if not dangerous: "As with anything not understood very well, the chances are that there will be many unintended consequences back on the ground."
Curiously, perhaps, some strains of radical environmentalism share Foster's mistrust of geoengineering-albeit for very different reasons. True green believers view the approach as undermining an anti-industry agenda.
Geddes of FREE says the geoengineering debate carries the potential of separating out such environmental extremists from those solely interested in avoiding climate-change harms: "Let's say we came up with a way to scrub carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere that works and is cheap. That would mean we could go on emitting carbon. The environmentalists' reaction, I think, would be, 'No, that's unacceptable, because what we really have to be doing is reducing our fossil fuels and use of energy.' That's just ridiculous. People would lose all sorts of faith in environmentalism."
Indeed, if geoengineering can produce plausible and tested ideas for cooling climate in the coming years, politicians still bent on capping emission alone may face a similar credibility crisis.
Lord Christopher Monckton, former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, has set himself apart as one of the few voices in Europe disagreeing with the need for climate-change policy. He insists, in fact, that climate-change policies, like President Obama's proposed cap-and-trade system, deeply hurt economies.
Cap-and-trade, a system used in Europe, requires businesses to pay for carbon emissions over a certain predetermined level. Utility companies and coal industries would incur significant new costs, inevitably passing on higher energy costs to their customers, but pro-ponents of the system say those higher costs will drive companies to more emissions-conscious innovations. Critics say it penalizes industrial parts of the United States-especially the Midwest-and raises basic costs of living at a time when wallets are already pinched.
Monckton came to testify before a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, urging lawmakers to avoid climate-change legislation of any kind, which he said was a costly mistake for Europe. After his testimony, which caused eye-rolling among some Democrats, he spoke to WORLD.
WORLD: What's the problem here?
MONCKTON: The private sector is imploding under the waste and cost of regulatory intrusiveness of government. Climate change, if you believe in it, on any view is not going to cause economic recovery. If it's all true, then it's going to be terrible and we're going to get storms and plagues of locusts and boils and pustules and all the other 10 plagues of Egypt.
There is a sort of apocalypticism on the left in politics worldwide at the moment, where they like to say, like some sort of itinerant preacher of old, oh it's all going to be terrible, fire and brimstone raining down upon you. Um, it isn't.
WORLD: But the administration has said it's going to do something about climate change?
MONCKTON: If you are worried about carbon emissions, then the one thing you do not do is cap-and-trade in the United States-thereby transferring jobs and industries to China, where the carbon emissions per unit of production are sometimes three or four or even five times higher than they are here. You want to keep as many jobs as possible in this country, where methods of production, methods of energy generation are so much more efficient than they are in say China or India.
WORLD: You've seen that happen in Europe?
MONCKTON: We've seen factories shipping out-one major steel company shipped out from Europe and came to Ohio because of cap-and-trade in Europe. Even a relatively small premium on the electricity price is enough to drive them overseas. So yes, your industries will one by one drain away if you go for cap-and-trade.
It's a way of trying to persuade the people to endure a substantial extra taxation. You lose not just some jobs, you lose a catastrophic number of jobs.
WORLD: What's a good alternative?
MONCKTON: Nuclear energy is inherently the safest form of electricity generation that has yet been devised by man, and that's an objective calculation-you can just look at how many people it's killed over the years, per kilowatt hour generated. If you want to have an economy in which we have lights on, you're going to need nuclear.