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Terraforming the Earth, Now In the Spotlight

globalwarmingfuturama.jpgGeoengineering -- aka planetary engineering, aka (re-)terraforming the Earth -- has once again popped up into the public limelight. The latest issue of Wired has an article about Nobel-prize-winner Paul Crutzen's proposal to spray sulfur particles into the high atmosphere over the arctic, reflecting sunlight and cooling the region, allowing icepack to reform. Coincidentally, the November 16 issue of Rolling Stone (of all places) has a profile of Dr. Lowell Wood, former nuclear weapons designer at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Wood has proposed a sulfur-seeding plan essentially identical to that of Dr. Crutzen. The idea that we may have to engineer the planet to avoid climate change disaster is taking off.

I wrote about geoengineering for my Futurismic column at the beginning of October, and it's a subject I've been following for a few years. The potential methods abound, from orbiting solar shades to bioengineered plants or microbes slurping methane or CO2. They're all big, expensive, and hold the potential to be cures even worse than the sickness. We know so little about the complex interrelationships of our geophysical systems that a clumsy intervention could easily lead to catastrophe.

Unfortunately, global warming is coming on so fast, and the effects have the potential to be so devastating, that we will almost certainly see someone -- a dramatically-affected country, for example, or as Bruce Sterling suggests, a well-heeled tycoon with a rocket fixation -- attempt some measure of geoengineering.

Asserting that it's a bad idea won't stop a desperate effort. If global warming gets as bad as it could (and there's an all-too-great chance that it will), human civilization will not go quietly. We'll try everything we can think of to forestall climate disaster.

Dismissing the notion because it's wrong to conduct a planet-wide experiment in climate engineering neglects the fact that we're already conducting a planetary climate experiment, only we've lost the lab notes, don't have a control, and got massively drunk the night before. We've dumped massive amounts of garbage into the atmosphere with little consideration of the long-term results. Now we get to see what happens.

If a geoengineering attempt is (as I suspect) highly likely in the next decade or two, we damn well should know a bit more about what we're doing. We need to have a major research project already underway to figure out which re-terraforming options are likely to have the best results at the least-disastrous costs. We need to be able to warn people off of the really terrible options by being able to point them to the less-bad (and potentially helpful) alternatives. Fortunately, this will require a great deal more knowledge about geophysical systems, knowledge that will prove beneficial even if we manage to avoid the more desperate solutions.

To paraphrase Stewart Brand, we are as planetary engineers, so we may as well get good at it.


Read the Rolling Stone article and was amazed at the hubris involved. This kind of thinking has the potential to be as disastrous as our current catastrophe in Iraq, the neocon mindset applied to global climate. If that don't send a chill up your spine nothing will.

For what it's worth, the hubris that Lowell Wood personifies goes well beyond any passing Neoconservatism. This is a man who has, for years, embraced power -- not mere political power, but raw, elemental power. I met him in the mid-80s during a few visits to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and he had the same kind of hubris then, except there it was around making x-ray lasers and hydrogen bombs. It's not about destruction, or even about control; it's about capability, and figuring out how to harnass energies and natural processes that would once have been impossible to even consider grasping.

Lowell Wood, on his own, would be dangerous; as part of a larger effort (led by someone like Crutzel), he could be quite useful.

Well, you know what they say about power, and even "raw. elemental power" applies according to my experience.

Was Lowell Wood implicated in the falsifying of test results on the SDI work?

Oh, certainly. I don't mean to sound like I'm defending him. His drive for power has undoubtedly had unfortunate, even tragic consequences. On balance, it's likely that his presence in the geoengineering debate will only muddy the issue, as he'll draw attention away from study of the ideas.

As for his involvement in falsified results, I recall (and have been able to dig up) that he described the potential capabilities of X-Ray lasers well beyond what was possible given what we knew and know. But (IIRC) the serious falsified results problems with SDI have largely concerned the ballistic interceptors, not the nuclear-weapon-powerd Xrasers.

"Dismissing the notion because it's wrong to conduct a planet-wide experiment in climate engineering neglects the fact that we're already conducting a planetary climate experiment..."

Quite the contrary. Many of us who recognize the latter have strong doubts about the former.

“Our inability to centrally plan economies should inspire more humility among the planetary managers who would centrally plan the ecosystem.”
—Herman Daly

A centrally-planned economy or ecosystem is almost certain to fail.

A completely-unmoderated economy or ecosystem is demonstrably prone to abuse.

If we're smart, we'll push for rapid global adoption of renewable energy sources, far higher energy-use-efficiency standards, and an economic & political carrot-and-stick approach to bringing in recalcirant participants.

If we're lucky, that will be enough to avoid the tipping-point ecosystem collapse scenarios.

If we're not smart, or we're not lucky -- or, worse still, both -- we will face a situation where human civilizations face disastrous consequences of past actions. If tools such as geoengineering exist, do you imagine that every single person or organization capable of attempting such procedures would decline to do so?

It's not a case of thinking that geoengineering is a good idea; I've tried to make the point repeatedly that we don't know nearly enough to do it now, and that clumsy or ignorant efforts will inevitably cause more problems than they solve.

It's a case of recognizing that humans in desperate situations will try any possible solution, so if we want the avoid the potential for clumsy or ignorant efforts, we need to figure out which geoengineering approaches, if any, have a realistic chance of success, and what kinds of side-effects they'll trigger.

Jamais, you didn't read as if you were defending Lowell Wood, just giving your impressions. Thanks.

Amory Lovins was on Charlie Rose on November 28 and you can see the interview at http://www.charlierose.com/

Amory was as hopeful as ever, saying that efficiencies and especially systems efficiencies will allow us to quit being fossil fools and abate our global weirding without pain and with much profit. I'd go for that way before any geo-engineering no matter how much of a big swinging dick geo-engineering might make me.

Put together my expanded solar dynamo DC electric system for a trip to Jamaica next week. Should be interesting.

I agree 100%, gmoke.


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