TCS Daily

Why Geoengineering's Time Is Coming

By Pete Geddes - November 26, 2007 12:00 AM

Geoengineering solutions to global warming are receiving ever more attention, and for good reason. Science reported that top U.S. climate scientists gathered at Harvard recently to explore ways geoengineering might lower the global temperature. Mimicking the natural cooling effects of volcanic eruptions by releasing massive amounts of sulfur into the atmosphere is one idea. Another is to increase the planet's reflectivity by spraying seawater on ocean clouds or floating shiny Mylar balloons into low-Earth orbit.

Until recently geoengineering has been largely taboo. Many activists fear that geoengineering will provide policymakers an excuse not to cut carbon emissions. But if you believe, like Al Gore does, that we only have a decade to act before we do irreversible damage to our environment, then it seems irresponsible not to pursue geoengineering.

Due to the physical chemistry of carbon in the atmosphere and the socioeconomic challenges of retooling our energy systems, greenhouse gas emissions can't be cut fast and far enough to make a difference. Geoengineering is a quick fix compared to either emissions restrictions or bringing zero emission nuclear power plants online. It harnesses American traditions of innovation, creativity, and our "can do" spirit.

The Chinese are using geoengineering to seed clouds to relieve severe droughts and water shortages. Chinese officials are considering a similar approach to cool daytime temperature and reduce demand for electricity during the 2010 Olympic games.

I'm curious about environmentalists who dismiss geoengineering as just "another technological fix." Aren't they the same folks calling for an "Apollo Project" approach to dealing with climate change? And wasn't our decade long push to put an American on the moon the mother of all technological efforts?

Perhaps they are resistant because they believe climate change is the lever that will allow them to finally impose their Green vision upon society. Writing on the National Review Online, Jonah Goldberg observes, "... [Al] Gore doesn't want to explore geo-engineering.... Why? Because solving the problem isn't really the point. As Gore makes it clear in his book, Earth in the Balance, he wants to change attitudes more than he wants to solve problems."

For some environmentalists climate change is a crusade demanding sacrifice. Anything that enables us to continue our current lifestyle is anathema.

A fascinating new book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger explores this theme. Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue for a new environmentalism, one based on unleashing the potential of human action rather than on constraining it. They write, "Few things have hampered environmentalism more than it's long standing position that limits to growth are the remedy for ecological crises. ... Think of verbs associated with environmentalism and conservation: 'stop,' 'restrict,' 'reverse,' 'prevent,'
'regulate,' and 'constrain.'"

Regarding climate change, Nordhaus and Shellenberger understand that policies that focus exclusively on reducing carbon emissions are doomed. "... [T]hose nations that have ratified the Kyoto treaty on global warming have made little headway in actually reducing their own emissions. ... [S]ince 2000, the emissions of the forty-one...industrialized members of Kyoto [have] gone more than 4 percent."

Nordhaus and Shellenberger understand that environmental quality is only one of several values responsible societies seek. They make real progress debunking a recurring and fundamental error: most environmental problems are due to modernization and affluence. They argue convincingly that in fact, across time and cultures, technological advances and economic growth have proved the only sure path to a cleaner, safer environment. Only when people can provide the basics for their families (e.g., shelter, food, and security) will they turn their attention to environmental quality.

The tremendous strides in human progress since the Industrial Revolution have been made possible by our ability to harness fossil fuel energy. By replacing animal and human muscle power, we have liberated billions from crushing poverty and short lives characterized by toil.

A sole focus on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases will fail our environmental responsibilities. It is simply too inflexible, expensive, risky, and politically unrealistic. The way forward is not to focus on limits, but rather on our technological prowess. Optimism, not pessimism, is the answer, and geoengineering may be part of the solution.


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