Few Options for Keeping the Earth Cool

By David L. Brown

Those who have read my novel The Star Phoenix know that it is set in a future world devastated by climate change, social upheaval, plagues and other unfortunate events. Only a few humans survive and a small group wanted to leave the Solar System in search of another place to live. I won’t give away the plot line, but the subject of planetary engineering or “terraforming” played a crucial role.

Now this excerpt from the October 6 edition of The Economist draws attention to the possibility that a similar plight may await the Earth. The opening graf of an article titled “A Changing Climate of Opinion” talks of the science fiction concept of planetary engineering as it might be applied to Mars or Venus in order to make them habitable by human beings. The next paragraph follows:

It is an intriguing idea. It may even come to pass, though probably not in the lifetime of anyone now reading such stories. But what is more worrying—and more real—is the idea that such planetary engineering may be needed to make the Earth itself habitable by humanity, and that it may be needed in the near future. Reality has a way of trumping art, and human-induced climate change is very real indeed. So real that some people are asking whether science fiction should now be converted into science fact.

These are grim words coming from The Economist. You don’t even have to read between the lines to parse out the core message: The Earth may SOON become UNINHABITABLE.

We have written plenty over the past couple of years about the many aspects of climate change and other significant threats to the future of civilization and perhaps even the continued existence of humanity. Many voices have spoken out in warning, and despite the continued drumbeat of denial there seems to be every reason to be afraid, very afraid.

The article in The Economist (subscription required) goes on for several pages to discuss the possibilities of planetary engineering applied to the Earth. The source is a series of papers produced by The Royal Society, Britain’s oldest scientific academy, “outlining some of the options, and suggesting a few experiments to test whether they would work.” Unfortunately, it is thin beer indeed. In fact, it is rather pathetically free of any truly innovative ideas. The article admits that “[T]inkering with the atmosphere or the oceans on the scale required to do this would be highly risky and extraordinarily complex.”

A great deal of wordage is spent examining the idea of priming the oceans with particles of iron to increase the growth of plankton, thus drawing greenhouse gas (GHG) out of the atmosphere. That idea is unproven and has obvious problems. For one thing, it would likely increase the acidity of the ocean with possibly dire results. Never mind Texas, it REALLY doesn’t pay to mess with Mother Nature. The brilliant idea of introducing rabbits into Australia is mentioned as an example of unanticipated effects that so often result when we meddle in Her realm.

Another idea: Plant more trees. Umm, sure, let’s do that … but just where are we going to plant them? In the Sahara Desert? And, oh, what about the fact that we are already cutting down rain forests everywhere? Is that a mistake then? How many trees do we have to plant to balance the amount of GHG produced by burning fossil fuels that took hundreds of millions of years for natural process to sequester in the Earth? Far too many, I fear, plus we need all the arable land to grow food for the nearly seven billion mouths we have to feed.

Next the article considers the possibility of blocking the Sun’s rays by increasing the amount of pollution in the air. It is noted that after 9/11 when airliners were grounded, the air became clear enough to cause unusual warming over America. The inverse, putting even more pollution into the air, could reverse the effect. The article even describes the ways in which airliners could be ordered to burn fuel containing up to 100 times more sulfur in order to weave patterns of Sun-blocking clouds of pollution around the globe.

Umm, didn’t we just spend the last half century or so trying to get rid of all that pollution? And, if I recall correctly, doesn’t sulfur in the air cause something called “acid rain,” which, er, kills trees (see above). Killing a bunch of trees wouldn’t seem to be a good idea if they are good for the climate, especially if we have just spent a lot of treasure trying to plant more of them.

[As an aside, a couple of years ago I privately and only partly in jest suggested legislation requiring everyone to burn their trash in the back yard, thus increasing air pollution and cooling the planet. That would also eliminate the cost and environmental impact of trash pickup, recycling, and landfill operations. A truly win-win situation. Ironically, that idea makes about as much sense as the above, and would be a lot cheaper.]

Another idea: Spray clouds with salt water to make them more reflective, thus mirroring more solar rays back into space. Stephen Salter, a marine engineer at the University of Edinburgh is known for the concept of “Salter’s duck,” a device for turning ocean waves into electricity. He has also looked into how to cool the planet, and came up with the idea of spraying seawater into the air. He has proposed launching a fleet of 1500 ships, each displacing 300 tons and equipped to operate on windpower, that would suck up seawater and spray it into the air. Well, OK, this sounds like a techno-fantasy, but might be the closest thing to a practical idea to come out of the Royal Society reports. (I have to wonder, though, if this “Salter” guy isn’t just playing games with his name?)

The article goes on to posit the usual disclaimers, in essence the “don’t mess with Mother Nature” factor that I mentioned above. It also discusses the very real possibility that as long as scientists are giving any consideration to such projects, governments, industry, and individuals might decide to do nothing to rein in the use of fossil fuels that lies at the heart of the problem. Knowing human nature, that is not unlikely.

It is encouraging to see publications such as The Economist beginning to take global warming and climate change seriously. But now, will we see follow-on commitments to real change? I personally doubt that anything truly substantial will be done for some time, and in the end it is probably going to be up to Mother Nature, like the proverbial Little Red Hen, to take care of the problem herself. She will do so by going to the heart of the problem, human proliferation, and in the process could well cause the planet to become uninhabitable. High tragedy indeed.

This entry was posted in Climate Change, Essays and Opinion, Extinction, Melting Planet. Bookmark the permalink.