In 1946, Kurt Vonnegut’s brother, renowned atmospheric scientist Bernard Vonnegut, pioneered the use of silver iodide for seeding clouds to produce rain, becoming the first in a long line of scientists intent on tinkering with the weather. However, a spring shower or two isn’t going to mitigate the oncoming freight train of anthropogenic climate change. Rising global temperatures, melting polar ice, and acidifying oceans—they’re no match for a few chemical pellets dispersed by a Cessna.
Enter geoengineering, the latest hope for eradicating the worst effects of climate change. All the treaties and Earth summits in the world haven’t done much to get even one minivan off the road, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to save the planet by curbing greenhouse gas emissions. That leaves finding creative ways to cool the planet. Like dimming the sun by shooting particulates into the upper atmosphere to mimic the effects of a major volcano eruption, which would reflect the sun’s rays and cool the Earth. Sounds . . . dicey.
Edward Teller, that scion of the early atomic age commonly known as “the father of the hydrogen bomb,” was an early commenter on geoengineering, authoring a paper for the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in 1998 called Sunscreen for Planet Earth. In it, he credits Freeman Dyson for being the first scientist to consider blocking the sun’s rays by creating a filter of particles in the atmosphere—a concept Dyson first outlined in 1979, back when Carl Sagan was still talking about a nuclear winter and the coming ice age.
More recently, geoengineering has been a favorite topic in Popular Science. They’ve run pieces on the plan to coat rooftops with reflective paint, the plan to manufacture artificial trees that would capture excess carbon, and the plan to place biofuel algae tanks on rooftops. Then there’s the plan to create a bunch of wind-powered cloud ships to sail the seas and spray enough water into the atmosphere to envelop the planet in puffy white clouds that will reflect sunlight and presumably lead to the collapse of the sunglasses industry. Then there’s a really far out plan to pump desalinated seawater into the Sahara Desert to turn it into a lush oasis.
Of course, one of science’s jobs is to tell us that we’ll all have driverless cars by 2020. Science’s other job is to keep it real. Toward that end, the National Academy of Sciences is collaborating with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA, and the Department of Energy for a 21-month study to evaluate two of the most commonly cited geoengineering techniques: solar radiation management (SRM) and carbon dioxide removal (CDR). The final report will provide a risk-benefit analysis of implementing the techniques, take a stab at projecting their costs, and outline other techniques in development that may prove useful. The final report is due in the fall of 2014, so sit tight.
Meanwhile, several worthwhile books have been written on the ramifications of geoengineering. One of the most highly esteemed is Harvard professor David Keith’s A Case for Climate Engineering. The upshot is this: We’ve known about the dangers of climate change for years and all our expensive efforts to combat it have delivered very slim results. That means that climate engineering technology must be considered at least as a component of the solution, which entails continued research to understand what it can and can’t feasibly do.
Presumably, Keith argues against the type of rogue geoengineering perpetrated by the Haida people, an indigenous group in British Columbia, led by the controversial geoengineer Russ George in 2012. Faced with the disappearance of the salmon that is a mainstay of their diet, the Haida paid George $1 million to disperse 100 tons of iron dust in the ocean in an effort to generate an algal bloom that would soak up excess carbon dioxide in the water and allow their fish to return. What George had really done was violate the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. It’s safe to say that whatever your opinion on geoengineering, taking matters into your own hands—or boat, as the case may be—is almost certainly more dangerous than driving your kids to a soccer game on an ozone action day.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.