Big Ideas for Saving the Earth: Accelerating Climate Change May Leave Us Few Options for Saving the Planet and Ourselves. but Even Desperate Measures Must Be Taken with Deliberation and Concern for Their Consequences, Argues a Futures Strategist

By Olson, Bob | The Futurist, July-August 2009 | Go to article overview

Big Ideas for Saving the Earth: Accelerating Climate Change May Leave Us Few Options for Saving the Planet and Ourselves. but Even Desperate Measures Must Be Taken with Deliberation and Concern for Their Consequences, Argues a Futures Strategist


Olson, Bob, The Futurist


Some of the most thoughtful work on the topic of climate change appears in Jamais Cascio's new e-book, Hacking the Earth. Cascio is a Bay Area futurist who worked with Global Business Network during the 1990s and is currently a research affiliate at the Institute for the Future, a global futures strategist at the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.

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The actual pace of climate change seems likely to be faster than in even the gloomiest scenarios in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 Assessment Report, Cascio notes. Greenhouse gas emissions increased much more quickly than anticipated before they were trimmed back by the global recession. Higher temperatures are now expected to trigger self-amplifying feedback effects that were not taken into account in the 2007 report, such as melting permafrost in the Arctic releasing large amounts of methane, which is 20-25 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Recent research also suggests that the world's oceans have less ability to moderate global warming by soaking up both carbon and heat than previously estimated.

Meanwhile, few political leaders understand the scale of effort needed to prevent dangerous climate change. Accelerating climate change and weak political responses are leading a growing number of people to conclude that we need to seriously consider the possibility of using geoengineering to offset and temporarily delay global warming. Major articles on geoengineering have recently appeared in publications ranging from Nezv Scientist to Foreign Affairs.

While geoengineering technologies are the context for Cascio's book, they are not the focus. For his purposes, all we really need to know is that geoengineering schemes to damp the greenhouse effect range from low-tech to sci-fi, and they all work by either reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface or by sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and storing it in the oceans, plants, soil, or geological formations.

On the lower-tech side are concepts such as reforesting on a massive scale (trees absorb [CO.sub.2]), fertilizing the ocean with iron to stimulate the growth of [CO.sub.2]-eating plankton, and putting ground limestone into the ocean to help it absorb more [CO.sub.2] and counter ocean acidification. At the other extreme are proposals to put large mirrors in orbit to deflect the sun's rays and to genetically engineer trees so they will absorb more carbon than normal trees. In between are ideas like creating clouds to block sunlight by pumping atomized seawater into the lower atmosphere or pumping sulphate particles into the stratosphere to make it more reflective.

Cascio assumes that these and other geoengineering technologies could be developed, and moves on quickly to the really hard questions, such as "Who should be responsible for making decisions about the use of such technologies?" (geopolitics) and "What ethical guidelines should shape the decisions?" (geoethics).

Cascio makes it very clear that he is not enthusiastic about climate geoengineering and completely rejects the idea that it might be a replacement for the economic, social, and technological changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Its only possible purpose, he asserts, is to give us more time to make those changes. It would be far better if geoengineering is never needed, because we still know too little about geophysical systems to be confident that we could engineer changes on a planetary scale without making an already-bad situation even worse. And the politics of geoengineering is a nightmare to be avoided if at all possible.

But, he argues, "we may be running out of alternatives." If it comes down to a choice between a global climate catastrophe and using geo engineering to buy more time to reduce carbon emissions, would we really choose catastrophe? …

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