Superfreaky: The Wild World of Geoengineering

Ever since Prometheus stole fire from the gods, harnessing the forces of nature has been a human obsession. Is geoengineering the chance to finally fulfill our destiny?
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Our ancestors imagined the gods as beings who controlled the forces of nature. Zeus hurled the thunderbolts. Aeolus ruled the winds. Even Yahweh launched his career as a volcano god. They used their powers to keep human beings in line, and didn't hesitate to wipe us out when we didn't behave.

No wonder we have always dreamed of turning the tables. Ever since Prometheus stole fire from the gods, harnessing the forces of nature has been a human obsession.

Is geoengineering the chance to finally fulfill our destiny?

At a recent breakfast hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund, EDF Chief Scientist Steve Hamburg's amiable bearing and reassuringly calm voice tended to moderate the effect of what sounded like the plot lines for a sci-fi flick. As a certain gleam in his eye began to betray his enthusiasm, Dr. Hamburg shared various schemes concocted by scientists who believe that we can engineer the climate to reverse global warming. For example, we could pour iron particles into the ocean in the hopes of growing plankton that sucks up carbon. Or we could put gigantic reflectors in the sky to bounce the sun's rays away from Earth. A plan to blast sulfur particles into the clouds to turn down the global thermostat won several nods of approval.

The presentation swept me back to the early 80s, the heady days of daytime soap General Hospital's "Ice Princess" storyline, when would-be world dominator Mikkos Cassadine uses weather control technology to blackmail global leaders into accepting his new world order. Thankfully, the mesmerizing Luke Spencer foiled the plot. But the show tapped into a potent collective fear that we could be undone by an enemy bent on ecoterrorism. In the days of the Cold War, rumors circulated of a Russian weather machine that could conjure catastrophic storms.

The Cold War is over, but the use of climate technology for nefarious purposes has resurfaced in the effort to save the planet from ourselves.

Geoengineering schemes are highly seductive. Somewhere inside, we know how badly we have effed up the climate. We know this, but we don't fancy cutting into our lifestyles in order to save our beloved blue marble. Dr. Hamburg described geoengineering plans as an innocuous-sounding "bridge" to help us slow climate change that was accelerating beyond our means to cope. That didn't prevent a number of nasty what ifs from swirling through my mind.

What if something went wrong?
What if whoever turned down the temp decided to stop?
What if murderous minds turned to climate warfare?
What kinds of laws, treaties, or global systems have a prayer at monitoring these activities?
What if human beings have lost their minds?

Geoengineering technologies appeal most of all to our hubris. We are capitalists, damnit. Surely we can innovate and technologize our way out of this mess. Reigning in the rapacity of our consumption and managing the magnitude of our reproduction do not speak to our desire to master the universe. Putting giant mirrors into space does.

Unfortunately, as is the case for nuclear technology, there is no room for error. A tiny screw-up could destroy Life as We Know It. When asked about that little concern, Dr. Hamburg replied good-naturedly. "These are important questions. We're just at the beginning stages. We don't pretend to know the answers yet."

Gee, that's comforting. I have a sinking feeling that geoengineering will follow what I call Murphy's Law of Unintended Consequences: Whatever can go wrong, will, and it's probably something you didn't think of. Beyond the obvious potential for deliberate misuse, we have no way of knowing what delicate ecological systems could be sent out of balance by our well-intended tinkering.

But savvy business speculators aren't worried about all that. They are sensing a bonanza. And politicians delight in schemes that protect them from telling constituents anything they don't want to hear, like, 'take the bus.'

The desire to minimize the damage to Earth that our human activities have caused troubles our hearts. We don't know whether we should mitigate that damage, adapt to the change, or just wring our hands and wait for Doomsday. But geoengineering may unleash a Pandora's box of potential problems even scarier that what it's supposed to solve. I suspect that we underestimate the complexity of nature and overestimate our ability to predict the consequences of our actions.

Which is partly what got us into this mess in the first place.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

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