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Can We 'Cool The Planet' Through Geoengineering?

Apr 15, 2010 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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For years, environmental and energy researchers have been working on solutions to stop or slow down the effects of global warming. One approach that has recently gained popularity is what scientists call geoengineering — the idea that Earth can essentially be retrofitted with technology to reduce global warming. The field includes proposals to cool the Earth by capturing carbon dioxide emissions, changing the reflectivity of the sun or even redirecting sunlight away from the Earth.

The idea that geoengineering can combat global warming is a controversial one, fraught with scientific uncertainties and ethical issues. In his new book, How to Cool the Planet, Jeff Goodell explains that there are certainly some good reasons to be reluctant to tinker with the Earth's climate — but there are also some very good reasons to take the idea seriously.

"So far, we've shown absolutely no political will to actually cut carbon dioxide emissions," Goodell says. "You know, we've been talking about global warming in a serious way for some 30 years, and by the only measure that matters — which is the amount of carbon dioxide that's going into the atmosphere — we're not doing anything. We have a lot of talk about clean energy, about green energy, people trying to do their part and change their lives in small ways, but in fact, we're really not doing anything."

Because of increasing evidence of planetary warming, scientists who previously thought the field was full of what Goodell calls "crackpot ideas" are exploring geoengineering as a serious endeavor. One idea that is being explored by engineers is whether it would be feasible to launch sulfur particles high into the stratosphere in order to lower the Earth's temperature and control the polar melting in the Arctic.

"The impacts of this [on both the atmosphere and the Arctic] are being explored by a number of climate modelers," Goodell says. "One of the concerns right now is that we know that the warming on the planet is happening most quickly in the Arctic and at the poles, so there's a question of, well, if we saw that the Arctic was starting to melt even more quickly than it was now, what could we do to stop it? Is there a way that we could stop the melt of the Arctic?"

Though a high-altitude, sulfur-spraying hose anchored in the stratosphere to a high-altitude balloon sounds implausible, it's doable from a physics perspective, Goodell says.

"The amount of particles you'd have to put up into the stratosphere is quite small," he explains. "But there are, of course, many issues about holding this thing aloft and actually working out the technical bits of it. There are even people at the National Academy of Sciences [who], when they looked into this, even talked about put[ting] this stuff up with artillery. Using artillery shells to shoot this stuff into the stratosphere — that's sort of a low-tech way of doing it, but it is possible."

Goodell notes that geoengineering raises all sorts of geopolitical questions: Who controls the Earth's thermostat? Would countries act unilaterally or collectively? And what kind of climate do we actually want to live in?

"It's often compared with nuclear arms: One nation could undertake this, one billionaire could fund this and do this, and so how do you restrain that person?," he says. "If India or China or the United States decides that it's in their political interest to try to do something like this, how do you restrain them? What does it mean to stop them? Is it seen as an act of aggression? If it starts to shift the rainfall patterns in other parts of the world — if we put rainfall particles into the stratosphere and it causes a drought in China — what are the consequences of that?"

Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine. He also is the author of Big Coal, a book about the coal industry.

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