Cutting back on greenhouse gases isn’t enough anymore to stop global warming, says Jamais Cascio in the Wall Street Journal. He believes the only solution is to “think about cooling the planet” by using geoengineering.
[W]hat geoengineering can do is slow the increase in temperatures, delay potentially catastrophic “tipping point” events—such as a disastrous melting of the Arctic permafrost—and give us time to make the changes to our economies and our societies necessary to end the climate disaster. [emphasis added]
Remember the infamous 1975 Newsweek story on the trend toward global cooling? One of the geoengineering solutions proposed (though with reservations) was the very problem that we want to avoid now:
Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve. [emphasis added]
Upon reflection, the lesson most people have taken away from the Newsweek story is that we should be careful about making radical changes to a complex system like the earth’s climate. Apparently, the lesson Cascio took from the article is to be upfront about the damage you are proposing to cause. His favorite geoengineering solutions would also—he admits—create problems far greater than those they solve. For example, he proposes a sulfate-injection plan that would act like a massive volcanic eruption:
To trigger a drop in global temperatures, we’d need to loft between two million and 10 million tons of sulfur dioxide (which combines with oxygen to form sulfate particles) into the lower stratosphere, or at about 33,000 feet. The tiny particles suspended in the atmosphere act like a haze, reflecting a significant amount of sunlight—though not enough to notice at ground level (except for some superb sunsets).
The result says Cascio, “will likely damage the ozone layer (as happened after Mount Pinatubo erupted), potentially resulting in more skin cancer and damage to plants and animals. In addition, the scattering of sunlight will reduce the efficiency of some kinds of solar power, and some studies have suggested that it could disrupt monsoonal rain cycles.”
His other plan, “could also have at least as powerful an effect on rainfall patterns as sulfate injection, increasing downpours in one area or contributing to unexpected droughts in others.”
Yet Casico thinks these measures are necessary, otherwise we may suffer the deleterious effects of global warming . . . effects such as damage to the ozone layer, skin cancer, damage to plants and animals, disrupted rain cycles, and unexpected droughts.
Here’s a radical idea: Why not look for solutions that don’t cause the very same problems we’re trying to avoid?