Human hubris is a powerful force. Even TIME magazine, which is usually very responsible and enlightened on environmental and global warming issues, made a major blooper this week, featuring geoengineering as one of its "10 Ideas That Are Changing The World." Geoengineering is the idea that instead of solving global warming by kicking our addiction to carbon, and protecting and restoring the biological processes that sequester carbon naturally and safely -- forests, grasslands, and oceans -- we can engineer the earth's climate back to stability by such techniques as "releasing vast amounts of sulfurous debris into the atmosphere to create a haze that would keep the planet cool" or "using orbital mirrors to bounce sunlight back into space." TIME concedes that "Worsening air pollution is a risk. We'd have to keep geoengineering indefinitely to balance out continued greenhouse-gas emissions, and the motivation to decarbonize might disappear if we believed we had an insurance policy. And those are just the consequences we know about," but still suggests that we might have to resort to such a "Hail Mary pass."
It's hard even to list all the things that are wrong with this concept. As Sierra Club Director Bernie Zaleha put it, do we really think we can save ourselves by making our planet more like Venus? Putting more sulfur into the air would exacerbate the problem of oceanic acidity and would even further destabilize world rainfall patterns, which would devastate agriculture ... but an even longer listing is not really the point. The one thing the climate skeptics are right about is that our current atmospheric models can't tell us enough about the changes we already are inflicting on the climate -- much less what would happen if we simply tossed more variables into the equation in the hope that they would somehow cancel things out.
It's too bad TIME fell for this, especially in an issue that opened with a really wonderful first idea, by Jeffrey Sachs, that we need to start thinking about wealth as something the whole globe shares.
One point from the geoengineering article is worth repeating, however: We need to do big things, and fast. Some modest forms of geoengineering, such as white, reflective roofs that actually help reduce demand for fossil fuels, do make sense. And big ideas to solve global warming by working with natural cycles (rather than undermining them) don't necessarily come with a daunting price tag, as TIME and others would have us believe.
Take buildings. They account for about 40 percent of our economy's CO2, mostly in the form of heat leaked and wasted into the great outdoors. There are about 100 million residences, and 5 million commercial buildings, in the U.S. Every year we retrofit only 3 percent of these, so even if the retrofits were all low-carbon and energy-optimal, (which they aren't), it would take us 33 years to stop squandering the hundreds of billions of dollars each year on coal, oil, and natural gas that we wouldn't need if our buildings didn't leak.
Rather than watch as our economy heads for the bottom, we could jump-start it, reduce our trade deficit, and start solving global warming fast. We simply need to double or triple the rate at which we retrofit. If we tripled our pace, we could turn our entire building stock into high-performance, low-carbon winners in just 11 years. And these retrofits are very good investments, paying for themselves much faster than most investment opportunities out there and then turning an automatic profit in lowered utility bills year after year. Even better, for every homeowner in danger of foreclosure because their mortgage is going up $150 or $200 a month, there are probably five or six at risk because their utility bills are going up at least that much.
Impossibly bold? Look at Toronto. The city has already established a goal of retrofitting all of its buildings. Nationally, Jack Layton, head of Canada's New Democratic Party, has gotten his party to adopt this goal as part of its platform.
So let TIME know how much you appreciate their overall wonderful coverage of global warming -- but chide them gently for being fooled into thinking that more geoengineering might be the right solution to global warming -- a problem created by too much geoengineering already.