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The Doomsday Machine and the Race to Save the World: Geoengineering Emerges as Plan B at the 11th Hour

How close are we to space sunshades, mountaintop painting, 'fertilizing' the oceans with iron, and redirecting hurricanes? Closer than you might imagine.

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While elegantly simple in theory -- the direct introduction of carbon into agricultural soils -- the factor that would give biochar its world-saving quality would be deployment on a massive scale; the biochar lobby proposes planting half a billion hectares of tree plantations, then burning them and tilling the resulting charcoal into the ground.

Even setting aside thorny ethical questions of patenting traditional indigenous knowledge, the scale of application required to have a global impact could lead, immediately, to a massive disruption of populations and livelihoods, quite possibly accompanied by large-scale violations of human rights.

The third category, Solar Radiation Management, evokes classic sci-fi through techniques such as "space sunshades" (trillions of small free-flying spacecraft forming a cloud a million miles above the earth), "space mirrors" (a superfine reflective mesh between the Earth and the sun), "climate ready crops" (some engineered to have a high-gloss, reflective surface), and "mountaintop painting."

Altogether, the grandiose scope of these technologies evokes the scientific hubris of that ancient physicist Archimedes who said: "Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world." A more recent tinkerer in biogeochemistry, John Martin, echoed that phrase in an early description of "ocean fertilization" when he said, "Give me half a tanker of iron, and I'll give you an ice age."

While Martin's comment, made three decades ago, was issued in apparent sarcasm, it belies an attitude, and a technological capacity, worth taking seriously. Indeed, the ETC Group took that particular technology seriously enough that it led the successful effort, beginning at a previous CBD meeting in 2008, to subject ocean fertilization to an international ban.

The Unlikely History of Climate Manipulation

In what seems like one of the little jokes of history, Bernard Vonnegut, the brother of novelist Kurt Vonnegut, was on the ground floor of geoengineering when he discovered in the 1940s that by seeding clouds with silver iodide pellets, you can -- sometimes, under very unpredictable circumstances -- stimulate rainfall. Since then, cloud seeding has enjoyed both agricultural and military uses, most notably in thousands of missions over Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh Trail and, more recently, to ensure good weather during the Beijing Olympics and to fill hydropower reservoirs in California.

The notion of heightening the reflectivity of the earth's surface has been around since at least 1965, when President Johnson's Science Advisory Committee suggested addressing global warming by spreading reflective particles over the oceans.

The notion is currently embraced by counter-culture icon Stewart Brand (founder, in 1968, of Whole Earth Catalog) and his close ally, Dr. Lowell Wood. Wood, the man behind Ronald Reagan's ill-fated Star Wars program, and a protégé of the late Doctor Edward Teller (the real-life Doctor Strangelove and inventor of the hydrogen bomb) initiated another strain of the geoengineering lineage when he gave a provocative talk in 1998 called "Geoengineering and Nuclear Fission as Responses to Global Warming."

Wood's presentation captured the imagination of fellow researcher Ken Caldeira, who, as a 25-year-old activist in 1982 had helped organize one of the largest anti-nuke demonstrations in U.S. history; Caldeira initially tried to disprove Wood's hypothesis, but ended up convinced of its potential for cooling the earth.

Wood and Caldeira are currently conducting joint experiments to mimic the action of a volcanic eruption by releasing sulfate particles into the stratosphere.

"The idea that you can tinker with natural systems to delay climate change seems entirely ludicrous," said Pat Mooney, the Director of ETC Group, last week at the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity. "We began to look at this issue in 2007, and the only reason, frankly, that we took it seriously at all was because there had already been experiments by governments related to ocean fertilization. And what we noticed was that it didn't work, and every time it didn't work there were more experiments saying, let's just make it bigger next time to see if we can make it work then. At the same time, we saw the private sector getting involved with an interest in generating carbon credits. So we took the matter to the U.N."

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