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Without cap-and-trade, here's what's needed

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, October 17, 2010

There is a hole in the Democrats' plan to fight global warming. A .270-caliber hole, to be specific.

"I'll take dead aim at the cap-and-trade bill, because it's bad for West Virginia," Gov. Joe Manchin, the Democratic candidate for Senate, says in an ad put out last week. To demonstrate, he pops what appears to be a .270 cartridge in his Remington 700, then shoots a bull's-eye through a piece of paper reading "Senate of the United States" and "Cap and Trade Bill."

If you look closely, you can see that the bullet tears through the word "jobs" in the sentence "to create clean energy jobs."

This was unsporting of Manchin. The bill was dead before he shot it. If it couldn't pass with 60 Democrats in the Senate, it surely isn't going to pass in the next two years.

But Manchin's shot should ring in his fellow Democrats' ears, warning them that it is time to come up with an alternative to regulating carbon, a Plan B for climate change. I suggest they try smoke and mirrors -- literally.

Scientists are already pondering the use of smoke (sulfur dioxide injected into the stratosphere) and mirrors (installing reflectors made of metal or lunar glass a million miles from Earth) to cool the planet. It's time for policymakers to get serious about these and other "geoengineering" proposals to cool the Earth and remove excess carbon.

None of this means giving up on carbon reduction, which remains the only sure way to prevent man-made climate change. But as the failure in Congress to reach consensus slows progress toward an international agreement, the wasted time could be used to create a fallback plan.

This would prevent other nations from gaining a lead in geoengineering technologies (while perhaps providing some focus to our aimless space program) and at the same time put some cap-and-trade foes on the spot. Those who profess to care about global warming but balk at putting a price on carbon would have no justification for opposing geoengineering.

Makings of a cross-ideological coalition have emerged. At the conservative American Enterprise Institute, Samuel Thernstrom wrote this year that "ignoring geoengineering is potentially dangerous and irresponsible." At the liberal Center for American Progress, Andrew Light tells me that because "research is already starting in some parts of the world, we would be foolhardy not to be looking into it."

Retiring Rep. Bart Gordon, chairman of the House science committee, wrote in Slate a couple of weeks ago that the United States should begin spending on geoengineering research. The British government has already begun.

The ideas range from simple to sci-fi. To remove carbon from the atmosphere, we could bury wood and agricultural waste, or burn them into biochar. We could "weather" soil by mixing in carbon-devouring minerals, or make oceans more alkaline by adding lime. Chemical solutions could capture carbon dioxide from the air; "fertilizing" the ocean with nitrogen or iron could promote carbon-consuming algae; or high-carbon water from the ocean surface could be pumped to the depths.

To keep the Earth from absorbing warmth, we could paint roofs, roads and pavement white. We could plant lighter, more reflective grasses, or cover the deserts with reflective aluminum. Boats or planes could spray ocean clouds with sea salt to make them whiter; pumping tiny particles into the atmosphere could mimic the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions.

Then come the gee-whiz ideas. Sun reflectors could be put into orbit, or a ring of dust, like Saturn's, could be built around the equator using satellites. Metallic "sunshades" could be placed between the Earth and sun, or, as Britain's Royal Society described it, 10 trillion refracting disks could be "launched into space in stacks of a million, one stack every minute for about 30 years."

Some of these ideas could bring unwanted side effects, including catastrophic droughts, famine and the destruction of ocean life -- all the more reason to spend time and money on researching the alternatives before we reach a tipping point that requires us to try one.

Some environmentalists think geoengineering will give opponents an excuse not to pursue carbon regulations, but since when has the opposition been in need of an excuse? The strategy also sidesteps conservatives' paranoia about international climate talks. There should eventually be multilateral cooperation on geoengineering, but even a unilateralist can't object to some all-American research.

Geoengineering isn't a magic bullet. But at a time when a Democratic Senate candidate is firing live ammo at the cap-and-trade bill, it's worth a shot.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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