Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Climate Change: Part Four—“Smoke and Mirrors”

In an article in, Elizabeth Svoboda endorses an outlandish global warming geotechnical “fix” proposed by UC-Irvine physicist, Gregory Benford: "Global warming demands more than do-gooder actions. It demands "geoengineering" -- like blocking the sun's rays with stratospheric dirt."
“Benford thinks Al Gore's a good guy and all, but he also thinks the star of "An Inconvenient Truth" is a little delusional,” says Svoboda. “Driving a hybrid car, switching your bulbs to compact fluorescents and springing for recycled paper products are all well-meaning strategies in the fight against global warming. But as UC-Irvine physicist Benford sees it, there's a catch. Those do-gooder actions are not going to be effective enough to turn the temperature tide, and even incremental political changes like reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mining alternative fuel sources are not forward-thinking enough.”

"I never believed we were going to be able to thwart global warming through carbon restriction," Benford says. "Carbon restriction requires nations to subvert short- and midterm goals for a long-term goal they've read about online, and that's just not going to work."

Svoboda goes on to describe Benford’s “pie in the sky” (pardon my awful pun) plan: “As an alternative, Benford has cooked up a plan that amounts to a manmade Mount Pinatubo eruption. He has proposed shooting trillions of tiny particles of earth into the stratosphere, where they will remain suspended to help blot out incoming solar rays. Dirt is cheap, chemically unreactive and easily crushable, he argues, making it a simple matter to test this strategy on a small scale over the Arctic before total global deployment. This plan might seem a little too sci-fi to take seriously -- fittingly, Benford moonlights as a Nebula-winning novelist -- but he's far from the only scientist to lobby for a so-called geoengineering fix.”

“Researchers all over the world have begun advocating large-scale climate control strategies that sound like something "The Simpsons'" Mr. Burns might endorse, including erecting sun-blocking mirrors in deep space, spraying tiny droplets of sulfur or ocean water into the atmosphere to deflect sunbeams, and seeding the oceans with iron to spur the growth of CO2-sucking phytoplankton. When a panel of scientists addressed the ethical implications of geoengineering at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in February in Boston, it was a clear sign of how far this seemingly out-there field has advanced toward legitimacy.”

“While no proposed geoengineering fixes have yet been tested on a global scale, all of them have the irresistible lure of immediacy. Once deposited, CO2 can linger in the atmosphere for more than 100 years, meaning it will take decades or centuries for emissions-reduction policies to cool the planet significantly. Geoengineering, on the other hand, could potentially send global temperatures back to preindustrial levels within only a few years, bringing the Arctic melt to a screeching halt and keeping extreme weather patterns and rising sea levels associated with warming in check.”

“Hubristic to the nth degree?” asks Svoboda cheekily. “Riskier than a tightrope ballet? Absolutely. Even geoengineering's proponents concede that,” she adds. The effects of such large scale intervention could be apocalyptic and wind up being far worse than the initial problem. As an ecologist, still learning about the complexities of our environment, I find this sort of hubristic and myopic (I might add) “quick fix” frightening. It smarts of compartmentalization and isolationist thinking. We can’t possibly come up with all the possible consequences to such an intervention. To entertain the hubristic notion that there exists an "easy fix" to a phenomenon that only chaos theory even comes close to describing--and promoting this without being part of a major societal paradigm shift--is not only foolhardy but dangerous. For instance, according to Alan Robock, an environmental scientist at Rutgers University, aerosol clouds blocking out the sun could also produce regional climate change and reduce the Asian monsoon rains. “That would threaten water and food supply for billions of people,” says Robock. Inordinate shade could devastate crops. Spraying too much sulphur into the atmosphere could produce enough acid rain to decimate forests around the world, never mind poisoning lakes and rivers. The list of potential Frankensteinian specters is endless. It’s a harrowing magic show with devastating possibilities.

"The history of intervening in complex systems to correct them is not good," says Ken Caldeira, an ecologist at Stanford University, who has cautiously endorsed future geoengineering research. "You always think you know how the system's going to respond, but we should assume that if we start doing this, there are going to be some ugly surprises."

Let’s not forget the frying pan and the fire. What disquiets me about these sorts of “easy” fixes is that they release us from the hard work and the personal responsibility in the phenomenon that we all have contributed to. Faced with a wall of work, we turn to the technology and the experts who tell us that this new thing will fix it all and we can go on as before. That is the whole point: we can’t and shouldn’t go on as before. We need to change.

We live in a fast-paced world where technology is God and quick fixes are so ingrained in our North American culture that it is stunting our ability to be imaginative in ways that involve the strengths of our very humanity. We are far too ready to give up on ourselves and the hard work necessary to turn everything around for life on the planet.

We lack faith in ourselves. We’d rather sit back and believe in magic.

Pete Geddes, executive vice president of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, all too readily rights us off: “I know of no realistic person who thinks carbon dioxide emissions are going to do anything but grow.” Geddes, like so many others, is fully prepared to concede that any well-intentioned emissions-control measure or other eco-healthy initiative will ultimately fail. Many of us clearly idolize technology at the expense of humanity.

It’s about time we started to believe in ourselves. In our goodness. In our integrity. In our ability to work hard for something that is important and vital to us: our beloved planet Earth and our children who will make a home on it. It’s all we’ve got. Let’s not screw it up with “Smoke and Mirrors”.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I agree; these 'minor' things like bulb changing are hardly going to save the planet. What it really needs is something on a grander scale, where the major polluters like China are checked.

sfgirl said...

While I agree with you about needing our individual efforts to translate into a grander scale (like countries)I wouldn't want to diminish the importance of doing the "little" things. It's at the "little" thing scale that an entire culture is founded. And it is US who have to change in the end. Technology alone will not save the world. Only WE can. By changing how we do things, one bulb at a time...

dan said...

SF Girl
I agree. We need to believe in ourselves. Very good point.


I think we are the last generation on Earth to find ourselves in this
quaqmire -- born before humans ever really quite understood what their
impact was having on the Earth's mighty system, and living now as
adults fully aware that we might be on a speeding locomotive headed
for a real bad head-banger crash!

The next generation will know better. Not us. We were born in the Age
of Innocence. The kids today will be born in the Age of Consequences.

I am just grateful to be alive in this amazing world and try to
appreciate every passing moment.

A friend wrote to me the other day: "Well, in all honesty, whatever
happens in the future in regard to
climate change and global warming, even if it means the end of
civilization, and maybe, even, one fervently hopes not, the end of the
human species on Earth, egad, we should all also take some time out to
remember that we are ALIVE, against all odds, NOW, at this date in
time, the progeny of one among millions of sperm courtesy of our
fathers, and the egg of our mom, and millions more courtesy of our two
grandfathers, and
trillions trillions of sperm and egg from all our forefathers and
foremothers all the way back millions and billions of years to the
first PARAMECIUM, and here we are, all of us, LUCKY BASTARDS ALL,
against all those odds of not being here, and we are SUPREMELY
PRIVILEGED to get a passing glimpse of a pretty awesome universe, and
we should not waste even one more minute wondering what we should do
in terms of fighting climate change and global warming... let the
battle be joined!"

Life will go
on. 30 more generations. But the lights might go out after that. I
think Dr Lovelock is right. But we need hope, too.

Is hope still "that thing with wings" ?

I think Emily Dickinson wrote that.....

sfgirl said...

Ah, yes, Dan... excellent points... and yes...Hope, that thing with wings...
"Hope" is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.

And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest Sea
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb of Me.
—Emily Dickinson

D Schnare said...

the path to hell is paved with good intentions. You have good hope. The rest of us will use good engineering and save you before your hope puts you somewhere you don't really want to be.

sfgirl said...

Well, I thank you for your thoughts, D Schnare... But, it takes more than just "good engineering" to save the world. Good engineering must be accompanied by a major paradigm shift in how we think and act as a species and how we respect and interact with our planet. Hope must drive "change" or that change is meaningless. I don't care how good your engineering is.

sfgirl said...

p.s. While I'm ranting (hmmm... I am, aren't I?)... here's a quote for you: "technology without hope is an empty promise."