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Geo-Engineering Could Save the Planet … and in the Process Sacrifice the World

Having unintentionally warmed the planet, we may have little choice but to intentionally cool it back down. But at what cost?

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The second line of thought entails reducing the sunlight that strikes the planet. In a global version of pulling down the shades, this would cool temperatures and at least ameliorate the greenhouse effect. Roger Angel, a professor at the University of Arizona, imagines launching a trillion mirrors into a stable orbit between Earth and the sun, creating a kind of space-based umbrella. Or we could build a fleet of 1,500 computer-directed boats that will splash seawater into the clouds to make them whiter. John Latham of the National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts that increasing the reflective power of the clouds by three percent could offset humanity's contribution to global warming. Another method of cooling the planet involves spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere as a way to deflect sunlight.

Until recently, such outlandish ideas weren't discussed in polite company, for fear that loose talk about geo-engineering would distract from the goal of doing everything possible to halt greenhouse gas emissions. Now, a significant number of influential people are taking the idea seriously.

The US National Academy of Science held a one-day conference in June to discuss the idea. Last fall, the British Royal Academy of Sciences launched a study to examine geo-engineering options and their risks. NASA is looking at ways of managing how solar radiation hits the planet. Some environmentalists are also interested. In an essay published last year in Orion, Mike Tidwell, a veteran climate activist, wrote: "Human beings must quickly figure out some sort of mechanical or chemical means of reflecting a portion of the sun's light away from our planet … Like it or not, we are where we are."

An indicator of the force of the idea -- and the touchy politics surrounding the subject -- came in April, when John Holdren, head of President Obama's Office of Science and Technology Policy, said in an interview with the Associated Press that he had mentioned geo-engineering in White House discussions. After the account came out, Holdren rushed to clarify his statements, saying that geo-engineering, though it warrants study, isn't an alternative to curbing emissions. Holdren's defensiveness is revealing. His carefully parsed statements show that few scientists are enthusiastic about the notion of engineering Earth. Even those who are curious about the possibilities are anxious over the prospect of actual deployment.

"It's not anything that anybody should look on with any sort of glee," Ken Caldeira, a fellow at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford, told me recently. "It's the kind of thing that you hope you don't need. But I don't see anything in our current policies that makes me think we will reduce emissions in time."

"When you are talking about global modification of the environment, that's scary, because it would be the most ambitious -- and some would say arrogant and dangerous -- experiment in human history," Samuel Thernstrom, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a vocal proponent of increased geo-engineering research, says. "Geo-engineering is neither a perfect solution nor a permanent one. You'd have to be crazy to consider this a first, best option."

The mixed emotions surrounding geo-engineering hint at a dark mood. Among those who understand the climate science best, there is a creeping resignation that we won't make the hard choices necessary to halt catastrophic global warming. This is, it seems to me, a staggering admission just at a time when, to avert disaster, we need a buoyant sense of potential. If mitigation (reducing emissions) is the hope of the idealist, and adaptation (preparing for rising waters) is the consolation of the realist, then geo-engineering (call it circumvention) has become the refuge of the cynic. Geo-engineering assumes that although we may be able to alter how the planet works, we are incapable of changing the way we run the world.

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