Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rolling the Dice - Geo-Engineering the Planet

Game On!  Quietly acknowledging we haven't got much hope of getting greenhouse gas emissions under control in time to prevent catastrophic as in runaway global warming, UN scientists will begin preparing an analysis of geo-engineering options to be presented at next year's UN climate summit.  From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Later this year IPCC ''expert groups'' will meet in Peru to discuss geo-engineering. Options include putting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight or covering Greenland in a massive ''blanket'' so it does not melt.

Sprinkling iron filings in the ocean ''fertilizes'' algae, which absorbs CO2 and ''seeding clouds'' means that sunlight is blocked. Other options include artificial ''trees'' that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, painting roofs white to reflect sunlight, and human-made volcanoes that spray sulphate particles high in the atmosphere to scatter the sun's rays back into space.

Okay, we're getting ready to roll the dice.   These are uncharted waters.  No one really knows if any of these things will work but that's not the main problem.  What's also unknown, perhaps unknowable before they're implemented, is whether they'll blow up in our faces producing side effects no one could contemplate.  Figuring out what something might do is a fairly direct problem.  Assuring yourself about everything it won't do is an order of magnitude more complex.  In other words, it's desperation time, the Hail Mary play.

What is or perhaps should be the greatest concern about geo-engineering solutions is that they increase our focus on global warming in isolation of the several other, potentially existential challenges facing mankind this century.  Geo-engineering solutions to stop warming won't resolve desertification, deforestation, air/soil/water contamination, ocean acidification, overpopulation, species extinction, resource depletion and exhaustion, the freshwater crisis that is already rapidly setting in, nuclear proliferation, terrorism or any other global security threat.

Geo-engineering global warming solutions may actually make these other threats even more intractable.  Geo-engineering will relieve us of having to address the fundamental flaws and imbalances in global economics, industrialism and geo-politics, the very toxic influences that underlie all the other threats that continue to imperil mankind.  Know that adage about being unable to see the forest for the trees?  Well, this is it.


Oemissions said...

scary stuff
when i first heard of it, i thought how the wealthy will buy some for a special function: such as a summer wedding for a son or daughter
the CBCshow :Playing God with Planet Earth was excellent.There were thoughtful scientists but the gungho ones were scary with their aggressive attitudes

Anonymous said...

All this does is make those of us who know Global warming to be true, shake our heads in dis-belief.

The Mound of Sound said...

What makes geo-engineering worrisome for me is that it will come down to a political decision. As I have lamented so often in this blog, modern political decision-making has shed the ethical element that we once understood was essential. By this I mean posterity.

Because posterity doesn't vote, today's politicians aren't forward looking. Their focus is pretty much limited by the current electoral cycle and the one following. That, in turn, sees them give undue consideration to factors that may not be helpful in the long run or may even be inconsistent with or contradictory to long-term needs.

The decision-making may be swayed by budgeting and trade issues, for example, or specific regional considerations that favour the strongest and wealthiest regions over the others. It may easily overwhelm the global or biospheric perspective we'll need in the long run.

Given three or four options, the modern political decision is likely to favour the best immediate conditions at the expense of future generations.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I have not seen the calibre of political decision making we'll be needing to tackle something as potentially dangerous as geo-engineering.