A few years ago the concept of geoengineering (modifying the entire surface or atmosphere of the Earth) was firmly in the realm of science fiction. Though it was described in expert fictional detail by the author Kim Stanley Robinson in his 1990’s “Mars” trilogy, nobody expected it to be applied to our home planet. The average person laughs and snorts if you talk about tinkering with terra firma; heck, mention draining one swamp and a posse of ecological activists will pelt you like sheets of rain in monsoon season.

And yet, three years ago the Royal Society, long a bastion of serious and staid scientific research, published a landmark and influential study on geoengineering, bringing it out of the closet and into the veldt. Rather than tiptoe around the subject, they straightaway recommended that taking carbon out of the atmosphere be considered among other efforts to mitigate climate change.

Tinkering with the planet is more than a geek dream; it is a serious consideration for economists, governments, and even private entrepreneurs. (We recently saw the first successful private space flight (by Space X), an activity that for the last half-century was thought to be the domain of large rich countries like the US or the USSR.) As the recent New Yorker article by Michael Specter  points out, “Most estimates suggest that it could cost a few billion dollars a year to scatter enough sulfur particles in the atmosphere to change the weather patterns of the planet. At that price, any country, most groups, and even some individuals could afford to do it.”

Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist, is quoted in the article, “What would happen, for example, if one country decided to embark on such a program without the agreement of other countries? Or if industrialized nations agreed to inject sulfur particles into the stratosphere and accidentally set off a climate emergency that caused drought in China, India, or Africa?…Where do we go to discuss that? We have no mechanism to settle that dispute.”

Unfortunately, the US is still in the state described elsewhere by Specter: “when an entire segment of society, often struggling with the trauma of change, turns away from reality in favor of a more comfortable lie.” The comfortable lie is that climate change isn’t happening; or if it is, won’t have significant effects (in our lifetime); or isn’t caused by human activity; or even if it is real and caused by the trillions of pounds of carbon that we pour into the atmosphere every year, then at the very least there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Although Specter’s article in The New Yorker is well balanced, it does make a couple of missteps. Along with other writers he notes the jaw-dropping fact that China is firing up a new coal plant every week – yet he later cites the staggering size of dealing with carbon capture to illustrate how daunting it is. If China can start a new power plant every week, why couldn’t a consortium of governments manage an equivalent level of activity? The answer is that they could, and with an effect upon the national economy no greater than a yearly adjustment to military spending, or the Bush tax cuts.

The other is the omission of solar power as a component of any future mix. Right now that’s hard to see, because solar amounts to only 1% of the world’s energy use. But as Ray Kurzweil points out at Big Think, solar installations have been doubling for the past 20 years, and that exponential curve, if it continues, would meet the world’s energy needs in 16 years (a mere 8 doublings). We’re at the beginning of this particular curve, so it still looks flat, impossible, invisible – but look again in five years, and the prospect of solar will be very different.

The real climate/carbon future will be complex, and will involve all the factors: fossil fuels, solar, carbon capture, radiation management (shielding the Earth), nuclear, and more esoteric science such as nanomaterials, piezoelectricity, smart materials, and maybe even radical approaches like managing the arctic ice sheet (described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel, “2312”). The most sensible way to handle it today is the wedge approach, first put forth in a 2004 article by Rob Soccolow and Stephen Pacala. The wedge should be a bridge to give breathing space for the planet until we can master effective and safe geoengineering techniques.

As with many singularity topics that were long relegated to the dusty pulpy shelves of used book stores, geoengineering is now written up in formal papers and published by staid scientific societies. Perhaps the most important lesson here is to free our minds from preconceptions about what is possible. The science in science fiction is itself on an exponential curve. After describing a pilot project for carbon capture, Peter Eisenberger says “What is fascinating for me is the way the innovation process has changed… In the past, somebody would make a discovery in a laboratory and say, ‘What can I do with this?’ And now we ask, ‘What do we want to design?,’ because we believe there is powerful enough knowledge to do it.”

In other words, knowledge is the true force for change – and that too (the production, availability, synthesis, recombination, application of knowledge) is on an exponential curve. Welcome to the (non)-fictional future…

Reference: The New Yorker

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