Books on geoengineering: 'How to Cool the Planet' and 'Hacking the Planet'

By Bill Gifford
Sunday, June 13, 2010


Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate

By Jeff Goodell

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 262 pp. $26


Science's Best Hope -- or Worst Nightmare -- for Averting Climate Catastrophe

By Eli Kintisch

Wiley. 279 pp. $25.95

Eighteen years ago, Washington enjoyed that rarest of seasons: a pleasant summer. I still remember it fondly. You could go jogging in July without risk of heat stroke. You could sit outside without your shirt plastering itself to your armpits. It was, by the city's swampy standards, a wonderful time.

The summer of 1992 was the Summer of Pinatubo, after the huge volcano that had erupted in the Philippines the previous fall, spewing millions of tons of ash into the stratosphere. There the ash dispersed into a thin layer that not only improved sunsets from Martha's Vineyard to Malibu, but also reflected some of the sun's rays out into space, lowering global temperatures by about half a degree Celsius, on average -- apparently enough to make a D.C. summer bearable.

The Pinatubo Effect was so dramatic that it kick-started the science of "geoengineering," which basically means manipulating the Earth's climate. We're already doing that unintentionally, but the idea here is to somehow undo, or at least mitigate, man-made climate change. As the prospect of drastic warming evolves from worst-case scenario to virtual certainty, the notion of some kind of technological quick fix is more and more appealing. It's still in the speculative stages, but it has already produced two highly unsettling books.

Among the ideas that have been broached is dumping various odd substances into the sea, such as iron filings (to promote growth of CO2-consuming plankton) and -- no kidding -- Special K cereal, which would supposedly increase the sea's reflectivity, thus keeping it cooler. One of the least crazy possible methods is the Pinatubo Option, in which we would somehow cloak the Earth's atmosphere in a layer of reflective particles, which would block the sun and cool the planet just enough to maintain some kind of climatic equilibrium.

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