The Gadfly Bytes --
October 9, 2007
GLOBAL ENGINEERING AND CLIMATE CHANGE
A Crisis Papers reader recently sent us an
essay in which he proposed that the global climate crisis might be
mitigated by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the
release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the ocean. This
thoughtful, well-informed and articulate essay prompted a stimulating
e-mail exchange between the author and myself, which (with his
permission) we may soon publish in The Crisis Papers.
I was reminded of that exchange this week as I read Johann Hari’s column
Green Taboo: Engineering the Planet.” which originated in The
Independent (UK). “Geo-engineers,” Hari explains, “believe man should
consciously change the planet’s environment, using technology, to
counter the effects of global warming.” For example, some scientists
propose seeding the ocean with nutrients that would cause organisms such
as plankton to absorb atmospheric carbon, which would then fall to the
ocean floor, out of harm’s way. Other schemes might cool the earth by
reflecting solar energy back into space. We will review these, and other
proposals, near the end of this essay.
Hari is skeptical, as he writes “It is far smarter to try to stay close
to the carefully balanced ecosystem that has evolved over millions of
years than to cack-handedly engineer our own, with the extremely limited
knowledge we have.”
While I understand and sympathize with Hari’s reluctance to fiddle with
the planetary life-support system, I suspect that we might not have a
choice in the matter. For, in plain fact, mankind has, since the onset
of the industrial revolution, “change[d] the planet’s environment, using
technology...” (Indeed, homo sapiens and its predecessor hominids
have altered planetary ecosystems over the past million years, following
the invention of fire-making and stone weapons). We have already
significantly “engineered the planet,” through urbanization,
industrialized agriculture (i.e., use of pesticides, chemical
fertilizers and monocultures), GMOs, and the consumption of fossil
fuels, all of which have resulted in pollution, accelerating extinction,
and, of course, climate change.
Accordingly, Hari’s “carefully balanced [global] ecosystem”
longer with us. If the global climate is at, or still worse
past, the tipping point, heading for catastrophic warming and sea-level
rise, no amount of hybrid cars or fluorescent light-bulbs will stem that
rising tide. Drastic action may be required to deliberately stitch-up
what mankind has carelessly unraveled in the past two centuries of
industrialization and energy abundance.
If remedial “global engineering” is imperative, it must nonetheless be
approached with extreme caution. For, when tampering with the global
ecosystem, “Garrett Hardin’s Law” reigns supreme: “You can not do
merely one thing.” This follows in turn from Barry Commoner’s
"First Law of Ecology:” “Everything is connected to everything else.”
For example: dams are built to provide hydroelectric power, whereupon
they disrupt fish migration and release methane from inundated organic
matter. Chlorofluorocarbons, artificial compounds that serve well as
refrigerants and aerosol propellants, erode the atmospheric ozone layer,
increasing ultraviolet radiation and hence skin cancer. DDT kills insect
pests and thus increases agricultural yields, and then, through
“biological magnification” decimate the population of birds of prey. And
of course, fossil fuels, a cheap and abundant energy source, have
significantly increased the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, so
that mankind is now facing the horrendous consequences of global
warming. Etcetera, without end.
Reflect upon these cases for awhile, and you will likely concur with
what I immodestly call
“Partridge’s Corollary to Hardin’s Law:”
anthropogenic environmental problems are the result of yesterday’s
solutions.” (By "anthropogenic" I mean to exclude environmental
problems of natural origin such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis,
etc.) Population explosion? The result of medical solutions to
disease and trauma. Pollution of river, lakes and wetlands?
Caused by industrialized agriculture, which solved the economic
necessity of employing most of the population in food production. And
once again, global warming? Brought about by the solution to the
need to transport vast quantities of resources and products and by the
desire of individuals to move about freely. Problems arising from prior
solutions? The examples are endless.
And so, it is quite possible that attempted “global engineering”
solutions to climate change might bring about unintended consequences
that are more grave than global warming itself. Prominent among these is
“the sorcerer’s apprentice problem;” once the remedial process has been
set in motion, can it be stopped when its job is done? For example,
suppose we release carbon-capturing and sequestering GMOs into the
ocean, can they be “retired” when atmospheric carbon dioxide is reduced
to pre-industrial levels? If not, then as the process continues
unchecked, atmospheric carbon will be depleted, terrestrial flora will
be starved, leading to a collapse of agriculture and mass starvation.
On the other hand, significant alteration of the chemistry of the ocean
might drastically reduce the phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic
ecosystem, which produces almost half of the atmospheric oxygen. If so,
then suffocation rather than starvation might be our fate.
To be sure, because of unintended consequences, global engineering is
hazardous in the extreme. Yet, doing nothing is not an acceptable
option. Continuing use of fossil fuels, even at a reduced rate, will
aggravate climate change. Accelerating (positive feedback) processes
have already been set in motion that can not readily be reversed:
methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is being released from warming
arctic tundra, the shrinking arctic ice-cap is reducing the reflectivity
(albedo) of solar radiation, atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing
the acidity of the ocean, which in turn reduces the capacity of coral,
diatoms, and other organisms to convert carbon into sequestering
Even if, per impossible, the global economy immediately abandoned
the use of fossil fuels and converted entirely to bio-fuels and solar
energy, the atmosphere, the oceans, and the global ecosystems would not
revert to their pre-industrial condition. Not without remediation.
So what is to be done? This is a question that must be addressed by
environmental scientists and engineers, and I am neither. Still, it
doesn’t hurt to wonder out loud. First, let’s elaborate on the schemes
reported by Johann Hari and briefly mentioned earlier:
The National Academy of Science has proposed the
placement of 55,000 mirrors in the upper atmosphere, to reflect
solar energy away from the planet. The scheme strikes me as somewhat
Similarly, Nobelist Paul Crutzen suggests that
adding sulfur to the atmosphere would increase cloud cover and thus
albedo (reflectivity). But what other effects would result from this
alteration of the chemistry of the atmosphere? Of all the scientists
now alive, Crutzen is one of the most qualified to answer this
question. Still, I wonder.
Researchers have found that sprinkling iron on the
ocean surface causes a “bloom” in plankton, which ingest carbon and
then, when they die, cause the carbon to fall permanently to the
Similarly, James Lovelock (the author of the “Gaia
hypothesis”), proposes lifting nutrients from the bottom of the
oceans which would also cause marine microorganisms to absorb carbon
and then precipitate it to the ocean depths.
A couple of additional schemes come to my mind.
I understand that sea kelp is among the
fastest-growing plant species. Kelp might be cultivated and
harvested in vast amounts along the continental shelves, and then
sequestered (with its component carbon) in abandoned mines and oil
wells. Alternatively, it could be anaerobically digested, producing
methane (a bio-fuel) and an organic fertilizer. (Fertilizers are now
primarily derived from natural gas and petroleum – i.e., fossil
fuels). The combustion products of methane are water and carbon
dioxide, which seems to amount to no solution to the CO2 problem.
However, it is now possible to capture CO2 at the point of
If rain-making technology advances, it might
be possible to increase snow cover in sparsely inhabited northern
regions of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. This could compensate for
the loss of albedo from the shrinking arctic ice cap.
If and when some geniuses come up with schemes of global
engineering that safely and effectively mitigate the climate emergency,
they may not be among those listed above. However, in any case, one
might suppose that the more the remedial project simulates and/or
accelerates natural processes, the better. And a medley of activities
would be better than massive investment in one or two projects. As with
nature itself, redundancy is the key to stability.
It is just possible that the global community of scientists and
technologists have the know-how, not to solve the climate change problem
immediately, but to eventually find solutions. But this will require
massive investment in research and development, and the international
political will to provide these is feeble, at best, and in the United
States, virtually absent. Corporate interests, their satellite
“think-tank” apologists, and their purchased politicians, are all
conspiring to postpone a planetary rescue effort. And time is our enemy.
So while I am an optimist as to possibilities, I am a pessimist as to
Commoner: The Closing Circle, Knopf, 1971. p. 33.
Exploring New Ethics for Survival..., Viking,
1972, p 38.
Green Taboo: Engineering the Planet,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer,
via Common Dreams, October 6, 2007.
Ernest Partridge: “"The Perils of Panglossism,"
4:1, Winter, 2002. Revised and expanded as
Optimism,” The Online Gadfly.
“Nature: For Better or Worse,”
The Online Gadfly,
Copyright 2007 by Ernest Partridge