Scientists Tinker With the Fate of the World

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In the race to save the world from global warming, prominent scientists are pushing plans to modify the atmosphere to cool the planet. These plans, known as “geoengineering,” take a number of different forms, some of which I wrote about in the September-October 2007 issue of Utne Reader. Two of the most prominent ideas involve blocking some of the sun’s radiation from reaching earth using either sulfate aerosols injected into the stratosphere or trillions of tiny mirrored satellites launched into space. 

All of the geoengineering plans carry huge risks. Writing for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (pdf), Alan Robock calls out 20 of the most serious “political, ethical, and moral issues raised” by geoengineering. Robock writes that the schemes could have a potentially disastrous effect on the environment, since they could raise the levels of acid in the atmosphere, and they also leave the earth vulnerable to both human error and unexpected consequences. Even if all goes well, the geonengineering could still have destructive results as political, military, and commercial entities would likely struggle for control over the environment.

Many of Robock’s 20 potential problems could mean disaster for the planet. But the problems are almost as theoretical as the ideas they address. Writing in the same issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, philosophy professor Martin Bunzl writes that people should at least study the effects that geoengineering would have on humankind. Acknowledging the serious issues at play, Bunzl writes that scientists should quantitatively assess the possibilities of all of Robock’s issues, rather than simply throwing out the ideas wholesale. “Once we have those answers in hand,” Bunzl writes, “then we can engage in serious ethical consideration over whether or not to act.”

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