Those who don’t get out much probably don’t know that outside the USA (and the boardrooms of certain multinational corporations), global climate change is pretty much accepted as inevitable. So, while politicians in Washington pander to their respective constituencies and talking heads on television blather at length about things they don’t comprehend, worldwide a lot of smart and committed people are at work on solutions. Some of their ideas, philosophies and stories are summarized in Jeff Goodell’s How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth's Climate.
For most of us, “geoengineering” calls to mind science fiction tales of terraforming Mars or converting a colony planet into Utopia. Goodell’s narrative, on the other hand, depicts concepts a great deal less ambitious, though (per Goodell’s subtitle) no less audacious. In a series of thoughtful and often amusing interviews, the author introduces readers to a small group of scientists with big ideas. They have to have big ideas: global warming is a big challenge.
This small cadre of scientists has been working pretty much unnoticed for a generation, until their ideas began lapping at the edge of so-called mainstream science in about 2007. Most of those ideas have not yet reached the public consciousness, and some of them may never do so. All are make-do, jerry-rigged partial solutions: geoengineering is a stopgap measure its proponents hope will slow or halt the buildup of heat trapped by greenhouse gases while societies figure out how to stop emitting those gases.
The geoengineering schemes Goodell depicts fall into two groups. The first is carbon sequestration, removal of existing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. The second is schemes to reduce the heat Earth absorbs from the sun by reflecting a portion of the solar radiation back into space. Some methods are passive, but most are active – and therein lie geoengineering’s biggest problems.
Sequestration scheme number one: gigantic silos to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere. Scientists have built working prototypes of this device, which sprays microscopic droplets of lye into the interior of the tube, where they bind with CO2 to form particles of sodium carbonate. The sodium carbonate is then heated to generate a pure stream of CO2 (which can be sequestered underground) and quicklime. The quicklime is converted to lye, which is then re-used. It takes lots of infrastructure for the tower and the sequestration well(s), plus power to run the kilns and the sprayers.
Sequestration scheme number two: dump iron particles into barren areas of the ocean, causing massive algal blooms. The algae use CO2 dissolved in seawater to build body parts, effectively sequestering the carbon on the ocean floor after the beasties die. Not much infrastructure needed, just some ships and a boatload (literally) of iron particles.
Reflection scheme number one: dump gazillions of tiny particles into the stratosphere. The particles reflect sunlight back into space, which is expected to lower the local temperature – such as over the Arctic region with its potential for a melting ice cap. Takes either a lot of planes or fields of super-long carbon-fiber hoses anchored at the top by dirigibles; also requires continuous discharge of super-small particles that would continue to rain down on the area.
Reflection scheme number two: cloud-brightening. The theory is that adding miscroscopic water droplets to the tops of clouds makes them lighter so they’ll reflect more sunlight. The problems are many, including cloud scientists’ woeful lack of understanding of the internal dynamics of clouds – not to mention the fact that clouds appear where clouds want to appear, not where men want them to.
The problems with such schemes are manifest. In the first place, they’re almost entirely theoretical – sure, some pretty enthusiastic scientists will talk about their pet projects for hours, but (with the exception of a handful of tiny-scale experiments) their theories are based on mathematical models of systems that are so huge and poorly understood as to be tragicomic. Second, who would pay for geoengineering and – even more to the point – who would do it? The atmosphere and ocean know no international boundaries, so would brightening clouds in the Arctic change the rainy-season patterns in India? Without much, much better knowledge of global climate dynamics, Goodell muses, these questions are almost impossible to answer – and may remain so until it’s too late to act.
In a world which the vast majority of scientists believe is either in trouble or soon will be, goofy-sounding schemes like dumping iron in the ocean and painting all the roofs in the world white to reflect more sunlight (look up “albedo”) may hold a key to keeping global warming at bay. Jeff Goodell’s account of climate geeks already at work on a solution manages to be both thoughtful and at times amusing. Readers meet not only the men and women on the leading edge of geoengineering but also learn the long history of the concept. Given Edward Teller’s plan (supported by the U.S. Government) to use nuclear weapons to create a new harbor in Alaska or dig a second canal across Panama, it’s small wonder that these pie-in-the-sky ideas met with skepticism until just recently. The overwhelming message, however, is that mankind had better get to work. Soon.
Jeff Goodell’s most recent book is Big Coal. He’s a contributing editor to Rolling Stone and a freelancer whose work is frequently published in the New York Times Magazine. How to Cool the Planet is his overview of the science (and pseudoscience) of geoengineering; science writing presented in plain English.