Climate Engineering

Can we alter the climate? Man on bike in the smog in Harbin, China (LA Times)

We’ve heard all the reasons not to engineer Earth’s climate. Of these I think my favorite is the idea that man simply does not have what it takes to change things significantly. When I hear or read this excuse for not addressing climate change directly, I chuckle. It is also probably the single most common admission that a person is failing to pay attention to their surroundings. And, ultimately, it makes anyone foolish enough to let words like “that’s just mankind’s hubris” or “we could never embark on a project that large” appear at once poorly informed and lacking imagination.

SPOILER ALERT: While writing Counterfeit Horizon, my first novel-length science fiction book, I’ve been researching a variety of technological solutions that the backscatter emergent intelligence might be able to deploy on its own accord in an effort to control humanity’s headlong nose dive into rapid climate change. In the book, people are too concerned with all the little details of out day-to-day lives to see the big picture. And humanity’s failure to cope with the impacts of its incremental changes must be dealt with by an improbable protagonist who requires the continued existence of the third chimp for its own well being.

Injecting sulfer dioxide into the upper stratosphere “is a brutally ugly technical fix” (Keith, 2013) that gets used liberally in the book. The emergent intelligence conscripts a fleet of autonomous drones and unsuspecting markets to rein in climate change, but here in the real world there is no such magical intercession for keeping oceanic clathrates intact or containing the millions of years of preserved organic gasses frozen in permafrost.

Wikipedia defines climate engineering as  the “deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic system”. Take a look around: we’ve already developed this infrastructure, folks. Every time you flip on a light or turn over your car’s ignition you are engineering the climate.

Just as it has been possible to heat the planet by injecting two-hundred and fifty years of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, it is possible for us to change things back in our favor.

“It is possible to cool the planet by injecting reflective particles of sulfuric acid into the upper atmosphere where they would scatter a tiny fraction of incoming sunlight back to space, creating a thing sunshade for the ground beneath. To say that it’s “possible” understates the case: it is cheap and technically easy. The specialized aircraft and dispersal systems required to get started could be deployed in a few years for the price of a Hollywood blockbuster.

“I don’t advocate such a quick-and-dirty start to climate engineering, nor do I expect any such sudden action, but the underlying science is sound and the technological developments are real. This single technology could increase the productivity of ecosystems across the planet and stop global warming; it could increase crop yields, particularly those in the hottest and poorest parts of the world. It is hyperbolic but inaccurate to call it a cheap tool that could green the world.

“Solar geoengineering is a set of emerging technologies to manipulate the climate. These technologies could partially counteract climate change caused by the gradual accumulation of carbon dioxide. Deliberately adding one pollutant to temporarily counter another is a brutally ugly technical fix, yet that is the essence of the suggestion that sulfur be injected into the stratosphere to limit the damage caused by the carbon we’ve pumped into the air.”

A Case for Climate Engineering”, David Keith, MIT Press Books, 2013 ISBN 9780262-019828

But it is my firm belief that there is no need for such a dirty compromise. Climate engineering up to this point has been a large scale byproduct of collective behavior. Change the direction of the behavior and our climate changing will also shift.


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