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A big chill for global warming

A techno-fix to quickly cool the planet needs research in light of new data that climate change is coming fast.

December 12, 2007



Al Gore warned this week that climate change is "imminent," an "emergency," and could soon cause a planetary hothouse, or "carbon summer." The new evidence? Sea levels and carbon gases are rising faster than expected. And Arctic summer ice may melt within a generation.

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With recent, more dire trends on global warming, can the world really afford to wait for the post-Kyoto UN negotiations, which are finishing up in Bali this week, to reduce greenhouse gases fast enough?

Not really, say many experts on climate and oceans. Not even the parallel track of adapting to the effects of global warming may be feasible in time. These scientists are now asking for government-backed research into emergency ways to cool the Earth quickly in case global temperatures reach a tipping point.

Up to now, this notion of reversing atmosphere warming with a speedy techno-fix has been discussed only on the margins of climate-change forums. The range of methods, such as forcing giant plankton blooms in oceans to suck up carbon dioxide or reflecting sunlight with sulfate crystals, are uncertain, risky, and to many, "acting like God." And the mere talk of using them might deflect the world's focus away from the long-term need to reduce effluents of coal and petroleum.

But with the pace of climate change faster than estimated just a couple years ago – and with the slow pace to curb emissions under the Kyoto treaty and its possible successor – the world needs to start research on hip-pocket ways to "geoengineer" the Earth in a pinch.

Last month, dozens of scientists discussed the options for geoengineering at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. They noted how scant research money is available for such ideas. The federal government now spends about $2 billion on climate-change science, but almost all of it goes to produce "clean" energy sources.

During the cold war, the US spent millions on weather modification as a possible weapon against enemies (it was later outlawed in a treaty), piggy backing on decades of research into rain making. But that money has dried up. Any research now into planet cooling would be aimed in two areas: blocking solar rays (with mirrors, for example) and quickly reducing the carbon dioxide already in the air.

But as Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the 2,000-scientist UN network on climate change, warns: "If human beings ... carry out something as massive and drastic as this, we need to be absolutely sure there are no side effects." Earth, for instance, should not be plunged into an ice age by, say, emitting too many sulfates to re-create the cooling effects of volcanic eruptions.

For now, only research is needed. And a global consensus is needed to prevent private projects that might do more damage than good. At least one commercial firm, Planktos, Inc., is already testing iron-seeding of the ocean to produce algae blooms that may reduce carbon dioxide. It hopes to make money from the market in the trading of "carbon offset" credits.

Geoengineering may not be needed if individuals and governments act faster to curb greenhouse gases. But what is needed is knowing a global fire extinguisher can be used in case of emergency.