Monday, August 3, 2009

Geoengineering -- Too Risky? Too Late?

Our planet reminds us daily that we're just tenants -- and fairly messy ones at that. The American environmental movement hasn't put as big a dent in the problem as it would like, primarily due to special interest groups, government inaction, budget limitations and public apathy. Nevertheless, there's an ongoing debate that's getting loud enough for the general public to hear. The basic point of contention is: should we geoengineer the Earth's environment on a large scale to make sure that humans can continue to live here? The answers aren't easy.

Those in favor argue that we've already damaged the planet so badly, we should -- by design -- make an effort to restructure the shambles we've made of the only home we have. Among their many reasons for pursuing geoengineering, they point out that anthropogenic warming and increases in CO2 concentration present a twofold threat -- from climate changes and from elevated acidity in the oceans. Critics of geoengineering say that tampering with the natural order is too risky -- we might cause more damage than we already have --
and efforts to engineer our way out of today's adverse climate conditions are likely to distract from the hard work of cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. They say geoengineering could, among other catastrophes, slow down the global water cycle. So, is geoengineering irresponsible? Are the risks too great to pursue the potential  benefits? Exactly what kinds of engineering projects would we undertake?

Earth absorbs about 70 percent of incoming sunlight and reflects the rest into space. If we could increase the amount of reflected light even the slightest bit, we could ameliorate the problems that result when gases trap heat and warm the planet. Most of the schemes for doing this have raised eyebrows but little interest. Edward Teller, the primary brain behind the hydrogen bomb, suggested that we put sunlight-scattering particles into the stratosphere to reflect more light. Others suggested that we put trillions of small lenses into Earth orbit to bend sunlight away from us. Yet another idea called for engineers to salt the seas with iron, generating plant life in such abundance that it would drink in tons of carbon dioxide and, as the plants died, drag the carbon with them to the ocean floor.

It's easy to see why geoengineering hasn't gotten much traction in the engineering community. But as environmental conditions worsen, respected minds are giving the idea new and reasonable consideration.

Michael MacCracken, Chief Scientist for Climate Change Programs at the Climate Institute in Washington, DC, has revived debate about geoengineering. One thing seems to resonate with those on each side of the issue: If, indeed, geoengineering represents the most efficient and effective first step towards a solution of the global climate-change problem, the first task is to analyze how such a geoengineering effort might best be organized. The University of Michigan's Dimitrios Zekkos, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, is working with the University's geotechnical group as they develop an Industry Collaboration Program with leading private firms in the field of geoengineering. Analysis of proposed plans will be one of the main items on their agenda. The University's Student Council on Climate Change sent an appeal and supporting articles to President Barack Obama, hoping to put the issue on his radar. The 2008 death of Ralph Peck, one of the most influential engineers of the 20th Century and a pioneer in geoengineering, reenergized the movement.

People are talking -- their topics range from the identification of practical engineering solutions, to costs, legal hurdles, worldwide collaboration and who would undertake the projects -- nations or private industry. But while people talk, conditions deteriorate. Some say there's still time to act; pessimists disagree. And in a country that can't establish national healthcare or agree that its president is a natural-born citizen, it's unlikely we'll lead OR follow in an undertaking as complex as geoengineering.

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