I am convinced by the science: our planet is warming up. This appears to be part of a natural cycle that has flowed through the planet’s history. But it also seems very clear to me that human activity on the planet – especially in relation to generating and consuming energy – is exacerbating the issue. It also seems clear that even a few degrees of change in average temperatures will have significant (and sometimes devastating) consequences for life on earth. I am therefore also convinced that “something must be done” – we cannot just keep doing what we’re doing and hope for the best.

This is a complex issue, though. Complex: not because it is difficult, but rather because it involves an integrated mesh of interconnected elements, and has no obvious starting point or critical lever. It’s like a water balloon that you’re trying to squeeze into a smaller shape. Every time you squeeze one part, another part pops out. Trying to reduce your carbon footprint is like that. For example, buy local fruit and vegetables only, and you destroy industries in developing countries and reduce trade, forcing them to become less sustainable.

The solutions will need to be as systemic as the problem is. We may even need solutions that create lesser problems.

The authors is Superfreakonomics recently wrote in a Spectator special edition about geo-engineering. I think their viewpoint is worth reading. Read it here, or an extract below.

A solution that dare not speak its name

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt
5 December 2009

The authors of Superfreakonomics, Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, say that geoengineering offers a cheap and effective way of fighting global warming

Imagine for a moment that a terrible, unforeseen threat to humankind had suddenly arisen, one so grave that it endangered the very future of the planet. Two teams of respected scientists immediately set to work, trying to find a way to prevent the impending disaster.

The first set of scientists returned with a potential solution, but it had some shortcomings. It was expensive, with a price tag in the trillions of dollars. It also required nearly every human being on the planet to change his or her behaviour in fundamental ways. And even if the scientists’ scheme worked, it would take decades for the benefits to be felt.

The second set of scientists returned with a very different answer. Their solution cost less than one thousandth as much to implement and did not require anyone to change his behaviour. The scientists could get their solution up and running in roughly a year, with the benefits to be felt immediately. And if the simple fix did not work as expected, it was quickly and easily reversible.

Faced with these two options, most people would aggressively explore the latter solution (while possibly also investing in the first if the threat were deadly enough).

Unless, of course, the threat we were talking about was global warming. On that issue, a lethal combination of political correctness and entrenched special interests has convinced the chattering classes that the costly, slow and difficult path is the only option, stifling any discussion of cheap, easy and reversible solutions that might be available.

All the fossil fuels we burn to heat and cool and feed and transport and entertain ourselves have apparently turned our tender planet into a greenhouse, increasing the surface temperature in a potentially dangerous trend. It would seem logical, therefore, that the right way to counteract global warming is to reduce carbon emissions. Though that might work, it’s expensive: economists estimate that drastically reducing our reliance on fossil fuels will cost more than $1 trillion each year, and the process will punish the poorest nations. Nor is reducing carbon emissions so easy, as it requires global co-operation and substantial lifestyle changes. The benefits, meanwhile, would be slow to accrue — primarily because the half-life of atmospheric carbon dioxide is roughly 100 years.

So even if humankind immediately stopped burning all fossil fuel, the existing carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for generations. While there might be other good reasons to reduce fossil-fuel use — oil wars spring to mind, as does ocean acidification — is reducing carbon emissions really the best way to cool the earth should the need arise?

A group of scientists based close to Seattle, working at a company called Intellectual Ventures, believe they have an alternative solution. It was inspired by a massive volcanic eruption in 1991 at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines.

Such huge eruptions shoot millions of tons of sulphur dioxide high into the stratosphere. At that altitude, it mixes with water vapour and quickly blankets the earth, creating a sort of hazy shield — in essence, a layer of sunscreen. In the two years after Pinatubo, the earth cooled by an average of nearly 1°F, or 0.5°C. Which is to say that a single volcanic eruption temporarily reversed the cumulative global warming of the previous century.

Intellectual Ventures’ solution is to mimic the effects of Pinatubo by building a ‘Stratoshield’, a pump-and-hose system that would inject sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to cool the earth’s surface, at a cost of a few hundred million dollars. The effect would be quickly felt, and the pumps could be adjusted or turned off as needed — if, for instance, the earth began to cool on its own.

Why, then, are so few people willing to talk about such ‘geoengineering’ solutions? There could be a fear of unintended environmental consequences, although the lack of significant side effects from Pinatubo is encouraging. It might be that this solution just seems too good to be true. Could it really be so simple and cheap?

Modern society is in love with costly, complicated solutions (governments in particular seem to like them). But we tend to forget how many hard problems in the past were solved simply. Instead of the long-feared mass starvation, the worldwide population has instead charged forward to nearly seven billion people, thanks in large part to the simple breakthrough of high-yielding crops. Polio and many other horrible diseases were essentially wiped out by simple vaccines. The automobile seat belt — a simple strap of nylon! — has saved roughly 250,000 lives in the USA alone since 1975.

As for the Stratoshield, we can’t judge its efficacy and safety for sure until it is put through extensive research. But the science behind it is solid, as judged by no less an environmental authority than Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his research on ozone depletion.

Devoted environmentalists, meanwhile, as well as some members of the tight-knit climate-science community, find this sort of idea repugnant. Using sulphur dioxide to solve an environmental problem? It just doesn’t feel right to them. Of course, the idea that the earth revolves around the sun didn’t initially feel right either. Nor did the assertion that the earth might in fact be round and not flat.

If we truly care about the earth’s future, proponents of geoengineering solutions deserve a seat at the table in the global-warming discussion. Otherwise, we run the risk of sailing humankind’s ship right off the edge of this planet.

Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt are the authors of Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance.

Source: The Spectator

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