The closer a person or a society comes to the end of its life, the more attractive magical thinking becomes. Clearly this is not going well, the thought process goes, but I can avoid the inevitable outcome if I 1) pray real hard, or 2) pay enough money to the shaman/priest/doctor, or 3) take lots and lots of Vitamin X while bathed in a strong electromagnetic field, or 4) sacrifice plenty of virgins to a volcano. The more hopeless the situation becomes, the more attractive becomes the idea of a magical, easy solution, and the lust to find one often intensifies until death intervenes. Thus now, in the dotage of our society, we are hearing a rising, insistent chant from the shamans of technology, a promise of an easy fix for the climate that is turning against us: “geoengineer it, geoengineer it.”
Geoengineering is an offer — from the industrial wizards who have virtually destroyed the ability of the planet to support human life — to complete the job. Spewing billions of tons of carbon dioxide (from burning fossil fuels) into the atmosphere has worked really well if you disregard the fact that it is slowly bringing the world to a boil. To counter that downside, the supergeeks are now — I am not making this up — proposing to spew millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to create aerosols that would reflect sunlight and presumably turn the burner down. And then what will happen to the toxic, nasty-smelling gas that is a precursor to sulfuric acid? We’ll figure that out when we get there.
Another brilliant idea from a self-styled geoengineer named David Keith is to substitute 200 million tons of aluminum particles for the sulfur dioxide, thus avoiding the smell and the acidity, but unfortunately coating the world in toxic aluminum when the particles, as they eventually must, fall back to earth.
No one in their right mind would actually support doing such things, which is why they are gathering increasing support around the world. The din has prompted the National Academy of Sciences to weigh in, just last week, with an authoritative opinion that said, after due consideration, the proposals have been found to be dangerous to the point of utter madness and we ought to continue to consider them, at government expense.
Another category of geoengineering, which the NAS studied separately, is less dangerous and could work if done on a large enough scale. It’s called carbon sequestration, which involves preventing the carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere in the first place. Although it would work, is extremely expensive, and you have to pay the costs up front in order to get the benefits later. The other schemes probably wouldn’t work, and probably have hideous downstream expenses, but it doesn’t cost very much up front. So we like it better.
(What about the Third Way, did I hear someone ask? What about simply refusing to emit any more pollution? Or at least drastically reducing emissions? Would that not solve the problem? Well, sure, but it’s a non-starter.)
The NAS panel’s disdain for the whole subject of geoengineering is palpable, and begins with its refusal to call it “engineering” at all, substituting the world “intervention.” A spokesperson explained, “we felt ‘engineering’ implied a level of control that is illusory. The word ‘intervention’ makes it clearer that the precise outcome could not be known in advance.” Whoa. You’re tinkering with the whole planet, and the precise outcome is unknown.
So why then, given its unconcealed contempt for the whole idea, did the NAS study recommend more research into atmospheric reflection projects? Well, there will be a lot of grant money for a lot of scientists willing to shake the medicine rattle and chant “geoengineer it.”
Having stated that we would be nuts to pursue “albedo management,” then saying that we should, just for the sake of knowledge, the NAS study says emphatically and in conclusion: “There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change.”
Whoops, sorry, that wasn’t actually the conclusion. They also felt they had to say: geoengineering “could contribute to a broader portfolio of climate change responses with further research and development.”
Looks like we had better start recruiting virgins.