Geoengineering: Two Worlds for the Price of One

The challenge of climate change that now confronts mankind has one of two possible outcomes: we will either take a large step up or we will fall down. Humanity's dominion over the earth will end and this ending may well prove definitive or, on the other hand, we may develop a bold, new science that straddles the traditional boundaries of oceanography, meteorology, biology, geology and chemistry.

This new study --some call it geoengineering -- will have as its first object practical climate control and atmospheric management on a planetary level. These are the real stakes and the real terms of 'global warming'. A vivid article called "Re-engineering the Earth" in The Atlantic this month, reduces the themes of this new science to bite-sized chunks for novices like me.

Atlantic readers walk away from Graeme Wood's article knowing it is now financially possible for a single very rich man (or multinational corporation) to alter the meteorological character of our entire planet. All that's required is money and arrogance. In 2009, only money is in short supply.

A variety of experimental techniques -- some poisonous and silly, others alarmingly sensible -- have been invented to reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching our planet's surface. I favor the cheap and cheerful option of seeding the oceans' clouds since freshwater will be in short supply in the coming century. In any case, our ability to cool the planet is quickly becoming a vital issue due to the disappearance of polar ice and the acceleration of climate changes.

At the same Wood emphasizes the importance of feasible tricks like artificial trees to vacuum the carbon dioxide out of our atmosphere so that we can restore earth's fecundity in the hope that our grandchildren won't need massive geoengineering projects. I do hope he's right.

What he doesn't mention is that Pandora is already out of her box and the age of geoengineering is upon us. If we resort to global projects to rescue ourselves from the carbon summer, planetary engineering and its companion, ecopoesis, (the introduction of life to lifeless environments) will be part of the human toolbox as we fulfill our goal in the coming decade of reaching Mars with a manned flight. We will find it irresistible to view the barren landscape of Mars as an empty canvas onto which we paint cyanobacteria that will modify its atmosphere and make it more suitable for us.

So we are going to play God again in areas where we should tread very lightly. The promise, of course, is that we will end up with two worlds: our current garbage dump made hospitable after an extensive 'reno,' and a new one to which our children's children might escape if we ever got careless again.