Terraforming the Earth, Now In the Spotlight
Geoengineering -- 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.