Monday, March 15, 2010

Engineering Instability

The concept of climate change is not a new thing. The scientific community has been speculating about it for decades and the idea of global warming - generally expressed in terms of sea level rise, since that's the most easily deduced effect - has been going strong for at least twenty years. I remember encountering it in my youth, in school and in popular entertainment that assumed Earth of the future would have a severely, obviously compromised environment.

To listen to the people who are railing about it today, though, you'd think climate change is something a bunch of bored scientists created one morning out of whole cloth. Not only is that idea ridiculous, it's dangerous - unless you're denying that carbon dioxide is a warming agent, which is an entirely different level of willful blindness - and I, personally, am tired of people and corporations that made bank from the time of free-wheeling, uncaring hubris we call "the twentieth century" working to secure that gravy train even as they destabilize the future.

Fortunately, I don't think this will be happening forever. There are two plausible reasons I can think of to explain why climate change skepticism has the strength it does today - because the actions that we would need to take to mitigate our impact on the environment would "negatively" impact current vested interests, in that they would stand to make less money than they do now, and because our effects are not yet patently obvious. There's going to be a tipping point in the public consciousness eventually - the only question is whether or not it'll come before or after the environmental tipping point. Personally, I think photos from orbit of an Arctic without ice may well be what catalyzes that, and at the rate things have been going I expect those pictures to be taken within the next ten years.

Things will change. Attitudes will shift, on both sides.

This chimney is not, so far as I know, emitting sulfur dioxide. But one day ones like it might be.

You may have heard of geoengineering, either on this weblog or elsewhere. To put it bluntly, geoengineering is terraforming Earth - that is, humanity taking an active role in the management of the planetary biosphere. At this point I feel it's necessary, part of our maturation as a species; we're at a stage where we're going to affect the environment no matter what we do, so we might as well invest in our future by keeping it as stable as we can. That having been said, though, geoengineering is not perfect. Throwing new variables into an already complex situation can easily produce chaos.

But when the alternative is watching those billions of tons of methane sequestered in Arctic permafrost be vented into the atmosphere, I'll take the chance of chaos. The most likely method of early geoengineering, because it's comparatively cheap, will probably be stratospheric injection of sulfur dioxide to create a cooling effect - the same sulfur dioxide, incidentally, which helps create acid rain.

Whoops. So there's a ready-made reason for people to oppose that flavor of geoengineering, and perhaps by extension all geoengineering - considering the degree to which environmental groups have, in my opinion, harmed the environmental cause by standing so squarely against nuclear power, I find that a pretty likely outcome. But that doesn't account for everyone. What about the sort of people who are, right now, strenuously objecting to the very concept of climate change, dismissing it as a hoax to line Al Gore's pockets? They're not all going to change their minds.

What I think is possible is that more and more people will come over to the notion that climate change is happening - but where today they deny it, tomorrow they will argue that climate change is a good thing. It's already begun, in fits and starts, and I've heard dubious claims that it would lengthen growing seasons in northern latitudes - somehow, though, I doubt it would magically make that northern soil sufficiently fertile for large-scale agriculture. I can even see governments taking up this notion, and actively working against geoengineering projects - from putting up diplomatic roadblocks in the United Nations or wherever, to actual sabotage of geoengineering installations, because, you know, climate change is somehow in the national interest.

Though it would greatly upset me, it would not surprise me - particularly given its track record in the last ten years - to see the government of Canada leading this charge. It might have been funny when Mordecai Richler joked about it in the 1990s, about selling Prince Edward Island to the Japanese just before it was submerged beneath rising sea levels and building seaside resorts in Inuvik.

Now, though, things are serious, and I'm disturbed at the great number of people who seem to think that everything is just a-OK.

No comments:

Post a Comment