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

By Bill Gifford
Sunday, June 13, 2010; B01


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.

Depending on your point of view, this sort of action is either urgently necessary or the global equivalent of playing Russian roulette. It's probably both. Would we come out on the other side with pleasant summers and mild winters, the seas and the skies in perfect climatic harmony? Or would it end up, as Jeff Goodell writes in "How to Cool the Planet," "like a bad sci-fi novel writ large"? In the disaster movie that could be our future, will Manhattan be crushed by giant icebergs or flooded by a warm tropical tsunami?

Certainly, human history is rife with such experiments gone wrong, in which "solving" one ecological problem created a whole bunch of new ones. Take the cane toad, imported to save Australia's sugar crop from a destructive type of worm. In the absence of natural predators, the poisonous toads quickly spread everywhere, driving out native species. Or of more immediate concern: Some of the chemical dispersants being used on the gulf oil spill are likely to be more toxic and environmentally damaging than the crude oil itself.

Apart from a handful of self-styled rainmakers, whose colorful history Goodell recounts, humans haven't tried to mess much with the climate. Curiously, however, climate research was strong on both sides of the Cold War, as the Soviets tinkered with ways to make Siberia more temperate, while the Americans looked into the implications of "nuclear winter." (Also, Lyndon Johnson spent millions on a secret program to try to make it rain on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.) One of the leading advocates for geoengineering was the late Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, archpriest of the Nuclear Age and clearly a guy who liked to think big.

But the thing about climate and weather is that they are highly unpredictable -- and they never abide by our notions of fairness. If we cool off Washington's summers, will we also disrupt Asia's monsoons, which help supply food for billions of people? For whose benefit would the climate be changed? The scorching European summer of 2003, for example, was terrible for the elderly, thousands of whom perished -- but it was a great year for Bordeaux. And what if countries used climate control as a weapon against their foes?

"Depending on your perspective," Eli Kintisch writes in "Hack the Planet," "the uncertainty surrounding the Pinatubo Option feels like either an ethical deal breaker or a regrettable price for an idea that might save the human race." (Although, according to Kintisch, a Pinatuboized climate would probably be more stable than one in which warming is left unchecked.) We won't know until we try it.

We're still a long way from that point. As the ecological theorist James Lovelock puts it, climate science is as inexact as 19th-century medicine, leeches and all. The closest we've come was a strange but entertaining effort to seed the oceans with iron filings by a now-defunct startup company called Planktos. But as the climate heats up, and if scientists' predictions of scary, sudden changes come true, such options are going to look more attractive. Especially the Pinatubo Option: We could scatter particles into the stratosphere with a fleet of high-altitude planes, for the (relatively) low price of a few billion dollars. Or, as another scientist has suggested, we could seed the stratosphere via miles and miles of hoses, held aloft by blimps and spraying tiny particles into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. Other scientists have looked at methods of "cloud brightening," with much the same goal.

Though they cover similar ground, "How to Cool the Planet" and "Hack the Planet" take somewhat different approaches to the topic. Goodell, also the author of "Big Coal," is more of a storytelling, big-picture guy who hobnobs with the likes of Lovelock and Bill Gates. Kintisch, an editor at Science magazine, is less facile with his prose but delves deeper into the science and the politics behind geoengineering. Goodell hangs with the generals, while Kintisch hunkers in the trenches.

Yet both books leave some big questions unanswered, such as: How would this work in practice? It's still early, and geoengineering remains largely hypothetical. Very little basic research has been done, thanks in part to obstruction by environmentalists, for whom the idea of quick fixes is anathema.

It shouldn't be. Reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere -- or even just slowing the rate of growth -- is going to require drastic cutbacks in our sacrosanct "American way of life." That seems about as likely as weaning China and India off coal -- another prerequisite to cutting CO2. "Our approach to dealing with global warming so far," Goodell writes, "has essentially been to ask everyone on the planet to come together, understand what is at stake, and do the right thing." But human behavior isn't always driven by fear of long-term consequences, as anyone who's ever had a hangover knows. We've been doing as we please for centuries; it's a lot to expect us to change our consuming, polluting ways enough to make a difference.

Both books lead the reader to conclude that, sooner or later, we're going to reach for the quick fix. It could be a well-thought-out, globally agreed-upon plan to stabilize our climate -- or a last-ditch effort to stop Earth from turning into Venus. As both books make clear, in their words but also in their brevity, the science is still very hypothetical. Call it climate-hacking, planet-cooling or geoengineering -- it'd sure be nice if, when the time comes, we knew what we were doing.

Bill Gifford is an editor at large of Men's Journal.

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