Climate Changers

Can 'geoengineers' save the planet with a quick fix?

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The gloomy outlook on global warming has ecominded Americans buying up hybrid cars and fluorescent light bulbs as if the fate of the world depended on it. A growing number of scientists, however, are brushing off small-scale solutions. Dubbed 'geoengineers,' these increasingly vocal climatologists, physicists, and Nobel laureates say it's time to change the planet, not our lifestyles.

The idea of a technological fix for climate change is certainly alluring. Instead of giving up fossil fuel-guzzling SUVs and factory farms, consumers could just kick back and let innovation solve the problem. According to Green Futures (May/June 2007), plans on the drawing board include launching trillions of tiny 'sunshade' spacecraft into orbit to reflect the sun's radiation; seeding the oceans with iron to boost the population of carbon dioxide-consuming plankton; and covering large swaths of land with a reflective coating that would bounce sunlight back into space. Even Al Gore, the great green hope, recently stumped for airline mogul Richard Branson's $25 million offer to anyone who can figure out how to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Like most quick fixes, though, geoengineering has the potential to cause long-lasting problems. 'Only a small miscalculation could tip the planet into a new ice age,' Green Futures' Mick Hamer reports. 'And high-tech mistakes do happen.'

In fact, mistakes have been happening for some time, writes historian James R. Fleming for the Wilson Quarterly (Spring 2007). The United States has been experimenting with geoengineering techniques since 1842, and many of its forays have been both highly touted and totally ineffective. In the late 1800s, for example, the U.S. Weather Bureau bombarded the atmosphere with gunpowder in an unsuccessful (and rather unscientific) attempt to make rain. Today's geoengineers, Fleming writes, 'are largely oblivious to the history of the charlatans and sincere but deluded scientists and engineers who preceded them.'

The best-known case in point came during the Vietnam War, when the American military tried using 'cloud seeding' technology to flood the Vietnamese countryside. Operation Popeye's results were nominal at best and ultimately deemed unverifiable by the military, though they did kick up a storm of controversy. Eventually, the Soviet Union embarrassed the United States by leveraging public outrage at the program to enact a United Nations ban on using weather modification for military purposes.

That ban could come into play again, Fleming writes, as questions arise over who would control new climate-changing technology. The United States, for example, might have a conception of an ideal climate that differs starkly from its old foe's, since Russia stands to benefit handsomely if global warming melts shipping lanes into the icebound Arctic Circle. Even private companies have flirted with the climate-change market. Science fiction writer and University of California physics professor Gregory Benford has announced plans to 'cut through red tape' and use private investment to fund his sun-shading project, which would launch diatomaceous earth (a substance used in cat litter) into the atmosphere.

For many geoengineering advocates, the drive to such radical measures isn't profit but fear. Global warming, they warn, could become a catastrophe far sooner than people think. Technology Review (Feb. 2007) reports that University of Arizona astronomy professor Roger Angel is promoting his own sun-shading plan as a stopgap 'emergency option.' Ultimately, Angel says, weaning ourselves from nonrenewable energy sources is 'the only permanent solution.'