Friday, December 10, 2010

Bring on Geoengineering!

The hubris of science fiction has always been that we are in charge. People have the capability to exert control over their surroundings and reorder the world into something more suited to our needs. But it also is marked by the kind of idealism and sense of possibility that we all need a little bit more of these days. I certainly know I do.

As the possibility of any real settlement coming from the climate negotiations in Cancun ebbs away, perhaps it is time to take another look at geoengineering. Geoengineering is a kind of science fiction. It is the systematic attempt to either reduce the amount of energy coming into the earth-atmosphere system or scrub the atmosphere of excess CO2. While some of the ideas associated with Geoengineering are outlandish and seem more science fiction than realistic possibilities, the idea of intentionally scrubbing the atmosphere of excess CO2 is behind some of the existing proposals being debated.

REDD+ is an acronym that stands for reducing emissions from deforestation, degradation plus the positive effects of reforestation or afforestation. It is an intentional means of increasing the carbon sequestration in vegetation and biomass at the surface instead of the atmosphere. In its intention, REDD+ is a form of geoengineering.

Other types of geoengineering are a little bit more strange. Floating mirrors or reflective fabrics in the upper atmosphere or on the surface of the ocean to increase reflectivity and decrease heat buildup, fertilizing the oceans with iron to encourage the growth of algae that would in turn uptake more CO2, or blasting sulfur aerosols into the stratosphere in order to essentially mimic the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions.

One element of geoengineering that causes many people, including myself, to be very leery of deliberately trying to implement any of these quick fixes is that it is highly likely that anything we do along these lines will generate unanticipated negative side-effects on other environmental systems. Put simply, messing with one part of the system is likely to cause problems somewhere else. As one proponent of geoengineering put it, because of this it should be considered a "tool of last resort".

Putting mirrors in space is beginning to sound more and more reasonable.

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