January 26, 2008
With climate change threatening us with extinction, many of the best minds going are working on methods to save usfrom oblivion. Here they are, and how they propose to save us from ourselves:
James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia concept and perhaps the world’s most prominent environmentalist, expounds 200-metre-deep ocean pipes in an attempt to change the course of mankind. In 2006, he announced that “billions of us will die and the few breeding pairs of people that survive will be in the Arctic where the climate remains tolerable.” By late 2007, although his prognosis for Planet Earth was not quite so dire, he and colleague Chris Raply, head of the Science Museum, had published their survival plan in the journal Nature.
“We propose a way to stimulate the Earth’s capacity to cure itself, as an emergency treatment for the pathology of global warming,” they wrote hopefully. “Measurements of the climate system show that the Earth is fast becoming a hotter planet than anything yet experienced by humans.”
Their pipe dream would see enormous volumes of deep-sea life forms pumped up to “fertilize algae in the surface waters and encourage them to bloom,” in the process taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. After the surface life forms die, they theorize, the carbon-rich life forms would fall to the ocean floor as “ocean snow.” They also note that their scheme could fail, leading to ocean acidification, harming corals, molluscs and crustaceans. Other scientists note that their scheme could also endanger whales and porpoises.
Vying with James Lovelock as an environmental icon and environmental saviour is Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who predicted the ozone hole. To prevent the Sun’s harmful rays from warming the Earth, Crutzen wants to emulate the effects of Pinatubo, the volcano that in 1991 spewed an estimated 10 million tonnes of sulphur into the stratosphere, lowering global temperatures by an estimated 0.6 degrees Celsius. To outdo Pinatubo, Crutzen proposes blasting one million tonnes of sulphur into the stratosphere, via hundreds of rockets. That much sulphur should suffice to create a cooling blanket, he says, although he grants the possibility of his scheme not working, or even backfiring. The potential consequences of this scheme to fight carbon dioxide pollution with sulphurous pollution, though largely unknown, are thought to include acid rain and, ironically, the loss of ozone. Crutzen is willing to take that risk. “I am prepared to lose some bit of ozone if we can prevent major increases of temperature, say beyond two degrees or three degrees,” he declares.
An alternative scheme to keep the Sun’s harmful rays from reaching Earth comes from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where physicist Lowell Wood proposes putting vast arrays of mirrors into orbit – 600,000 square miles of them. The mirrors, actually a mesh of aluminum threads a millionth of an inch in diameter, would resemble a window screen of exceedingly fine metal wire, partly blocking sunlight and filtering infra-red radiation. The environmental effects of this scheme are thought to be minimal, the cost is expected to be maximal, the likelihood of success is thought to be small. And the benefit?: a 1% cut in solar radiation.
An alternative ocean scheme to promote the growth of sea life also exists – this one would fertilize the oceans with iron, again stimulating the growth of surface life forms. Much of the ocean is void of iron, scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution note, presenting an opportunity to right this failure in Nature. Trials are already underway, with entrepreneurs seeing opportunities to make some green by going green, albeit with a threat to marine life.
Land-based schemes are also flourishing, among them the creation of synthetic trees that would sequester carbon. “It looks like a goal post with Venetian blinds,” said its inventor, Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, who explains that his synthetic tree works just like real trees, only better.
“You can be a thousand times better than a living tree,” he says, since one synthetic tree would remove 90,000 tonnes of CO2 in a year, the emissions equivalent of 15,000 cars. Environmentally conscious families could plant a synthetic tree anywhere. A small one could sit like a TV on the lawn, to offset the carbon footprint of the family car, he suggests, although bigger trees would be better. When the tree has become mature, it can be harvested, just like real trees, only it would be delivered to an abandoned mine for deep disposal rather than to some residential subdivision, and receive a government bounty for sustainable carbon sequestration. To the Earth Institute’s delight, entrepreneurs have seized on his idea. Prototypes have already been built, and a nascent 21st-century industry stands at the ready.
These schemes on land, air and water are part of a growing scientific-industrial discipline called geo-engineering, endorsed by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and soon, most of the world’s governments. To save the Earth from climate change, the UN and the geo-engineers are telling us, we may need to change the world as we know it.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and author of The Deniers.