Fiddling With The Earth’s




Scientists, including Obama’s science advisor, get tied in knots over geoengineering.

Oil and gas are so deliciously tempting that humans are having no success in slowing down global warming the way scientists agree we should, by going easy at the fossil fuel buffet.

So like surgeons who use liposuction to deal with obesity, scientists are considering ways to deal with the consequences of our unhealthy carbon diet. They are thinking about blowing soot into the stratosphere, hanging sunshades in space and sprinkling the oceans with fertilizer to create blooms of carbon-sucking phytoplankton.

These approaches are aimed at cooling the earth by either allowing less sunlight in or letting more heat bounce back to space by removing heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. The big idea–fighting or reversing atmospheric changes with large-scale tinkering of the earth–is called geoengineering, and it’s tying scientists in knots.

President Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, got twisted up himself last week. In his first interview since he was appointed, he mentioned to the Associated Press that he and the administration had discussed geoengineering approaches. Holdren later had to write an e-mail clarifying his position in response to fears that he and the administration were considering planning something specific. They aren’t.

“I said that the approaches that have been surfaced so far seem problematic in terms of both efficacy and side effects, but we have to look at the possibilities and understand them because if we get desperate enough it will be considered,” Holdren wrote.

This highlights why geoengineering is such an extraordinarily touchy scientific subject and why there is such deep ambivalence in the scientific community about it. Almost no one thinks that humans should be trying to change the atmosphere on a global scale. But then again, aren’t we already doing that by removing carbon from the ground in the form of fossil fuels and depositing it in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide on a massive scale? And what if we don’t solve the problem in time?



What complicates things is that the scientists who are most concerned with the pace of global warming and the destruction that might ensue are the ones who are forcing themselves to think about radical solutions. It terrifies them because they know better than anyone that the climate is massively complex and that unintended consequences lurk everywhere.

Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, best known for his work on ozone depletion, has advanced the idea of injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight away from earth. James Lovelock, a hero to early environmentalists who proposed the Gaia hypothesis, has advocated placing long, vertical wave-driven pipes in the ocean that would pump nutrient-rich water to the surface to fertilize algae that would consume carbon dioxide.

Sourced and published by Henry Sapiecha 16th April 2009

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