x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Atmospheric pressures: the attractions of geoengineering

The field has long provided a home for those on the fringes of the scientific community but a new book shows its ideas may not be so far-fetched.

The eruption from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokul.
The eruption from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokul.

The field of geoengineering has long provided a home for those on the fringes of the scientific community but, writes Graeme Wood, a new book shows its ideas may not be so far-fetched. Climate scientists agree: the planet is sick, and what ails it is an excess of carbon in the air. The accepted cure is to stop putting so much carbon in the air. This sounds like the unfunny joke about the patient who goes to the doctor and says, "It hurts when I do this" - to which the doctor replies, "So don't do that." In this case, "doing that" means living the blessed life of modern industrialised man - driving cars, flying in planes, eating meat - and the reaction of most of us modern industrialised men is to keep on doing that anyway.

Jeff Goodell's How to Cool the Planet explores the environmental equivalent of a pharmaceutical lab, where climate scientists and engineers are busy inventing cures and palliatives that do not involve simply emitting less carbon. These technologies, when contemplated on a planetary scale, go by the name geoengineering, and it is difficult not to be impressed with their ingenuity. One leading proposal involves using fleets of cargo planes to inject sulphur dioxide continuously into the upper atmosphere, effectively creating a thin haze that shades the planet from the sun. Another calls for an armada of specially equipped remote-control boats that spray microscopic particles of salt water into the clouds, making them whiter and fluffier and therefore more effective at bouncing sunshine back into space. Still others would not only cool the planet but rid it of the carbon dioxide menace altogether, by capturing it from the air and sequestering it in underground geological structures, or at the bottom of the ocean. Goodell, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone, has insinuated himself into the laboratories and homes of several key players in the geoengineering community, and is here to tell us the bounties and dangers that await.

None of the ideas are especially expensive: the estimates vary widely, but on the low end they come in at a few billion dollars per year, a paltry sum compared to the amount it would cost to replace fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives. Nor are these geoengineering proposals particularly new. (Their ancestors appear in US government reports dating back to the 1960s, when the consequences of carbon emissions were only just beginning to be understood.) What is new is the rapt attention scientists and regulators are lavishing on them, and the sophistication of the early-stage plans for their possible implementation. Very few scientists want to field-test the ideas today, but if they did, they could probably halt global warming within a couple years with sulphur injections. All we'd need would be a lot of sulphur dioxide and several cargo planes, or perhaps a miles-long Kevlar hose that extended up from the ground to a blimp permanently floating at high altitude. The sulphur dioxide would eventually rain out of the sky, mostly harmlessly.

The intellectual lineage of geoengineering, Goodell acknowledges, is a disreputable one. Geoengineering has become the "scientific equivalent of a porn habit," because it is tied up unfairly with various frauds and mountebanks of yore. He singles out rainmakers in the early part of the last century. But he may as well have mentioned the contemporary European and American farmers who use cannons to make loud noises that they say shatter hail in the skies and keep it from ruining their crops - or, thinking bigger, the late tenured nutjob Alexander Abian, who proposed destroying the moon with nuclear weapons and using chunks of it to realign the Earth's rotational axis and create a worldwide condition of "eternal springtime". If the geoengineers are mad scientists, then their predecessors, from whom they strain to disassociate themselves, are simply crazy.

So the big surprise in geoengineering is that this most fantastic of applied sciences has so few Dr Frankensteins in its ranks, and so many stark-raving-sane professors urging the cautious and measured application of geoengineering technology. The scientists behind modern geoengineering are deeply sober, and not so much dismissive of efforts to reduce carbon emissions as they are worried that if the world does not soon adopt such sensible measures, it may need a drastic alternative before long, and perhaps even try to gas the atmosphere in a moment of dangerous haste. The most likely deployment of a geoengineering project would be to buy time, if ever climate change accelerated at a calamitous and unexpected rate - if the thawing of the permafrost, for example, caused a massive burping up of methane gas that sped up global warming beyond all manageable levels. In such a scenario, the geoengineers could be ready to lower temperatures to allow the permafrost to refreeze until they found a permanent solution.

If geoengineering is at best a last line of defence against catastrophic climate change, why does it have such enduring interest for lay readers? Two books this season consider the geoengineering dimension of climate change (Eli Kintisch's Hack the Planet is the other), and the books that examine the problem of carbon emissions from more conventional angles are, to be frank, generally snoozes. Why are these ones so appealing? Goodell scrupulously avoids giving the impression that geoengineering solutions would be easy, or that they would absolve us of our duty to husband the Earth's resources, so the appeal to outsiders cannot be pure decadence, or a desire to drive a Hummer with a clean conscience.

We like geoengineering, Goodell says, in part because of the shift in attitude it represents: from a view of Nature as humanity's cruel master to a view of Nature as humanity's much-abused slave. Over time we have subdued the earth, the oceans, the animals, and the plants; only weather remains. When he visits David Keith, a professor in Alberta oil country who is building structures to capture carbon dioxide, Goodell looks at the farmland outside his aeroplane window and imagines that the whole planet would, in a geoengineered world, be under a sort of managed cultivation, and subject to the whims of man. This is a daydream of dominance.

To this vision compare the schoolmarmish reprimands of Al Gore, or even of David Keith, who urges stricter emissions standards even as he builds his carbon scrubbers. The cutting back of emissions is at its base a call for austerity and restraint - both virtues of continence, which is to say of servility. Geoengineering, by contrast, is one of the few approaches to the problem of climate change that wholly resists the tendency to retreat. It seduces the imagination so readily because we long for the Promethean moment when a scientist can crack his whip and make the skies obey. It is the same appeal at work in John McPhee's Control of Nature, which examined past projects that have the same appeal, by making rivers flow uphill and lava flows halt at a time and place of man's choosing.

How to Cool the Planet does contain doomsday predictions (including one from a hysterical-sounding James Hansen, the Nasa scientist and environmental campaigner, who in conversation predicts a four-metre rise in sea levels). But in the light of the Promethean instinct I take the book as a whole to be a hopeful one, for reasons perhaps unintended by the author. If the only solution to climate change lies in getting billions of people to live in a carbon-frugal way, then the problem really does look intractable. But if there is a solution that relies on ingenuity, and a flat refusal to accept the logic that says our lives must become a little worse, that we must make do with a little less wealth than we once had, then I think the odds of beating climate change suddenly look much brighter. Frugality takes the discipline of a monastic order to instil on the scale of a society. But humans are quite skilled at thinking up answers to hard questions, when the answers make them richer and happier.

Geoengineering has shown itself to be a deeply alluring subject for many who think the doctor's advice - "don't do that" - is unsatisfactory. Great minds such as Calgary's David Keith and Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric science savant at the Carnegie Institution, are proof that the ideas are seductive enough to have attracted geniuses, and many more geniuses, motivated by a desire not to accept the servile solution, will join them. Whether they will succeed in beating climate change, of course, remains an open question.

Graeme Wood is a correspondent for The Atlantic Online