Monday, October 5, 2009

Extreme Solutions to Climate Change

Since I am very interested in climate change mitigation, unemployed, and completely in love with the internet, when I stumbled on a link to a talk on TED by David Keith on climate engineering, you can bet I took the time out of my incredibly busy day (hah) to watch it. If you haven't used TED before, it's a great resource for...everything. Basically, TED is a repository for videos of experts giving brief (15 minutes, usually), informative talks on random subjects, from art and design to science and technology to history and current events. It's a great way to feel productive without actually doing anything.

Anyway, David Keith is a climate scientist talking about some of the ways that we could possibly alter our planet to mitigate the effects of global climate change. While virtually all of the ideas that policymakers talk about to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent levels focus on reducing emissions through cap and trade and zero-emissions energy resources, Keith offers a more radical suggestion - that we put a bunch of ash into the atmosphere.

Keith explains that a bunch of ash (fine sulfate particles) in the stratosphere, where they will reflect away sunlight, lowers Earth's temperature. We know this works because it's what happens when a large volcano erupts. The ash cloud technique would be fast and cheap compared to most other options, though not without its side effects. However, the possible side effects are not what I want to focus on.

Although we've been aware of climate change for over fifty years, the discussion on climate engineering has been tabled, even though many of the first publications on climate change focused on it as a more feasible solution than emissions reductions. After fifty years of discussion and treaties that haven't accomplished much (the ice caps are melting and emissions are increasing at rates faster than some models predicted), climate engineering seems like a more attractive option, though certainly not without some careful thought, obviously.

But talking about geoengineering constitutes a "moral hazard." Basically, if everyone believes that most of the negative side effects of and political issues surrounding geoengineering can be overcome, there is no reason to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, since we have a fix that is much quicker and cheaper. But if the negative side effects of geoengineering aren't overcome, then we're much worse off than we are now. Geoengineering is a dangerous idea, because it's not a guaranteed solution and it may distract us from other ways to stop global warming that we understand better.

I hate the idea of an idea being too dangerous to talk about for fear of being misinterpreted or distracting or offensive. Thank Al Gore for the internet! With the internet's democratization of media, there's somewhere to talk about everything - especially dangerous ideas.