Lawrence Solomon: Tinkering with climate

(September 23, 2011) Global warming and global cooling arguments have this in common — the scientific quest to dominate nature.

Man has always wanted to control the weather and master nature. In ancient lore, Odysseus kept four winds in a bag to speed his travels, witches summoned storms to destroy enemies, and high priests, sometimes with the aid of human sacrifice, brought rains to make fields fertile.

In the modern era, scientists took over the task from high priests. The Soviet Union’s scientists wanted to make Siberia bloom by damming the Bering Straits, melting the Arctic, and changing rainfall patterns. Big-thinking U.S. scientists led by Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, proposed infusing the atmosphere with metallic “scatterers” to inexpensively control how much solar energy reached Earth — these would be “quite practical methods to reduce or eliminate all climate failures,” their 1997 study explained.

The Teller group feared the coming of an ice age, which they viewed as a certainty. But they also dealt with global warming, recognizing that the growing public alarm would act to spur politicians to fund the climate-control research they relished.

The politics over climate change unfolded precisely as Teller might have expected. Global warming fears soared in the following decade, along with unprecedented funding and respectability for the types of sun screening schemes these geoengineers recommended. Scientists who espouse like views on controlling nature now hold positions of political power — climate-control proponent John Holdren, U.S. President Barack Obama’s director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, for example — and we are closer than ever to tinkering with the atmosphere, or boldly reformulating it, to advance man’s dominance over nature.

Next month, in preparation for what is being billed as the world’s first major geoengineering field test, British scientists will send a helium balloon one kilometre above a disused airfield in eastern England in a project called SPICE — short for Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering. This preparatory step — which involves spraying nothing more alarming than water — will assess the engineering feasibility of spraying other, riskier materials into the atmosphere.

Next year, SPICE plans to follow up on a much larger scale. A helium balloon with a diameter the size of one to two football fields will lift and then disgorge several hundred tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere.

The pollutants, which will then blanket much of the globe over a period expected to take several months, are likely to involve sulphate particulates — the stuff of volcanic emissions — to simulate the cooling effects of natural eruptions. After the 1991 eruption at Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, the planet’s temperature dropped by 0.5C for two years.

But the brew to be spewed by SPICE and the various other geoengineering schemes now underway may change as scientists learn more about how their interventions affect the weather. Scientists believe that they may be able to come up with more efficient particulates — and maybe cheaper ones for humans to deliver, too — than those emitted from volcanoes. Other particulates under consideration involve aluminum, barium, selenium and radioactive metals such as thorium.

Naysayers do exist. Science doesn’t know how these emissions could be “turned off” if the experiment doesn’t work out as planned, these critics point out. And just because nature can effortlessly handle large but rare bursts of particulates from volcanoes, that doesn’t mean she will fare as well with the continual injection of particulates that Spice and other scientists have planned for us. Or with entirely new recipes for the atmosphere should a host of metals be employed in making for us a new and improved atmosphere.

The list of things that scientists say could go wrong? The pollutants may not disperse evenly, causing unanticipated and unknown regional effects, not just in temperature swings but also in rainfall, disrupting plant life on earth. The ozone layer that protects us from ultraviolet rays could be harmed. Monsoon failures in Asia and Africa, and droughts elsewhere, could result. A humidification of the stratosphere could occur. And there would also be cosmetic effects: a tarnishing of the skies, altered cloud formations, and altered sunsets.

Yes, all true, the scientists promoting a geoengineered atmosphere acknowledge. But what is the alternative, given the need to save the planet from global warming?

Or from global cooling, they might add some time down the road, should governments continue to grow leery of the global-warming dogmas, and scientists then need fresh arguments to continue their quest to dominate nature.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and author of The Deniers.

To read the gung-ho Edward Teller study, click here.

This article first appeared in the Financial Post.

About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
This entry was posted in Climate Change, Costs, Benefits and Risks, Energy Probe News, The Deniers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Lawrence Solomon: Tinkering with climate

  1. B Falby says:

    You should be charged with spreading false information. At least three hundred thousand deaths this year have been attributed to climate change. It is estimated that there will be 25 million climate refugees seeking asylum in Canada in the next 10 years. Our prime minister suffers from asthma, which is on the rise. Read Alanna Mitchell’s book, Seasick, for a more accurate picture of what is happening to the oceans – increasing acidity, anoxia, etc. Read The Global Forest, by Diana Beresford-Kroeger for an accurate picture of what is happening to our forests. Before you make such outlandish statements, read the evidence, or perhaps you are too dim to understand the science.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s