Sunday, December 4, 2011

Engineering Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt

Leave it to environmentalists to be beacons of "progress."

With another round of UN climate conferencing underway in Durban, South Africa, when the environment news isn't talking about how Harper and his cronies are trying to sabotage efforts to replace the soon-to-expire Kyoto Accord, issues such as geoengineering are bubbling to the surface. It's something I've written about before - the use of technological means to modify the planetary environment, specifically in a manner that mitigates or negates the effect of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Among my series of predictions for this decade that I posted on December 31, 2009 was that "at least one major geoengineering project will be active by 2019," and I still stand by that... although I did also predict that the Conservatives would lose power and that the Greens wouldn't pick up a House of Commons seat.

Still, there's a lot of talk about geoengineering, and I really believe it's something vital we need to pursue - whether it be by brightening clouds or painting roofs white to increase the planetary albedo, thereby reflecting more sunlight and decreasing the degree to which the planet is heated, injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere to mimic the effects of a volcanic eruption (and, incidentally, increase the incidence of acid rain), or something else entirely. On Friday, the Toronto Star covered a report made to the Durban conference that, theoretically, increasing the planet's albedo "would have an immediate and dramatic effect" and that in a matter of years, "global temperatures would return to levels of 250 years ago."

Are you kidding? This sort of research needs to be supported immediately - it's the sort of thing every government should be able to get behind, from the ones who want action because sea level rises would wipe them from the map to the ones that don't want action because it would cut into Alberta's short-term oil profits. Sure, rising temperatures don't represent the only threatening aspect for climate change - ocean acidification will continue as long as we keep emitting huge quantities of carbon dioxide - but it gives us breathing room, more of a chance to figure out how to solve these problems.

But where problems are complicated, so are the solutions. Earth is a complex, chaotic system, and we don't understand nearly enough about it as we think we do. I recognize it's highly possible that a major geoengineering campaign could have side effects that, right now, we can't predict. For me, I'd take that as reason to start off small with pilot projects, and to invest in geoengineering methods that can easily be turned off if need be. I'll be the first to admit that managing planetary environments is difficult work - I learned that back in the 1990s, with SimEarth on the Super Nintendo.

Industrial civilization getting you down? Carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere up to 10%? With just a few adjustments here and there, you can freeze the planet over or make the oceans boil away! SimEarth for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is ©1990/1992 Maxis & Will Wright and ©1992 FCI Inc.

Yet here come the environmentalists. Specifically the Star quotes Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group, an organization which describes itself as "dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights," as stating that geoengineering is as bad as nuclear weapons. If you're keeping to the Ford embargo of the Star, here's the quote in all its cockeyed glory.

"Solar radiation management technologies are high-risk and extremely dangerous and they should be treated under international law like nuclear weapons — except, unlike nuclear weapons, we have an opportunity to ban their testing and their proliferation before the technology is fully developed, rather than trying to prevent their proliferation after the fact," she said.

Yes, how excellent! How forward-thinking! Rather than consider the possibility that certain flavors of geoengineering, if managed carefully, could mitigate the effects of climate change, we should just ban it all right now and close that door forever! Banning geoengineering won't put it in a box any more than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty put nukes in a box - it certainly didn't keep India, Israel, North Korea, or Pakistan from getting their nukes. Honestly, in a future where geoengineering was banned, I would expect it to be far more likely for environment modification to be used as a weapon, because if it's banned, why else is anyone going to be investigating it?

What people tend to forget is that we are already geoengineering - or, if you'd rather, call it de-terraforming like Randy McDonald does. Those hundreds of billions of tons of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere every year don't just zilch out into nothingness. They're up there and they're having an effect, and to dismiss an entire spectrum of possibilities with which to deal with it because you're scared of what might happen is pure irresponsibility.

We need at least to do the research on geoengineering, to figure out what options are open to us. At this point, unless you expect Stephen Harper and all his pro-emitting buddies to be visited by the Ghosts of Environment Past, Present, and Future, it's probably one of our best hopes. Sure, it's difficult work, but it's difficult work we may need to do.

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