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Playing God: Would climate engineering cross boundaries?

Froma Harrop, syndicated columnist

As climate technology advances, the incredible is becoming creditable. Someday, a guy sitting in a bunker may be able to alter the planet’s temperature by fiddling with a cosmic thermostat. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

There are basically two approaches to climate engineering. One is to capture greenhouse gas emissions and bury them. The other, more controversial idea, is to reflect the energy from sunlight back into space. This could be done through ginormous mirrors or by spraying aerosols into the atmosphere to make the Earth shinier (and, therefore, more reflective).

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine has just launched a study of strategies to reflect sunlight. It finished a study on carbon removal last fall.

Environmentalists tend to speak of climate engineering in low voices. They worry that the prospect of containing or preventing the entry of planet-warming gases could hamper current efforts to curb emissions. Big producers of fossil fuels obviously like such ideas as building giant fans to suck air into devices that remove the carbon.

Scientists, however, share the environmentalists’ concern. They warn that these engineering feats, if doable, are many years away from being operative on a massive scale.

“The number one thing is you stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” Dr. Simon Nicholson, an expert on carbon technologies, told me.

Nicholson, who directs the Forum for Climate Engineering Assessment at American University, says the most sensible way to think about a climate response is to consider all the options, including adaptation to what’s happening.

However, some amount of carbon dioxide will eventually have to be drawn out of the atmosphere. Only that will prevent us from hitting the 1.5-degree Celsius rise in temperature, at which point global devastation would be inevitable. We’re already 1 degree hotter.

There are also conventional means of carbon capture. Trees do it. (Devices that capture carbon basically operate like artificial trees.) Plowing the soil releases carbon, but planting cover crops keeps it in the ground.

The long-term carbon cycle sends carbon back into rocks. Scientists are looking for ways to speed that up. And there’s some talk of “marine cloud brightening.” Whiter clouds over the oceans reflect more solar energy.

Climate engineering unleashes a galaxy of controversies. A massive interference with nature, it makes some environmentalists, as well as people of faith, queasy. An Alaska native, upon being told of the possibilities, responded, “This is God’s stuff we’re messing with.”

And who decides what the temperature should be? Avocado growers and ski resort operators have very different ideas of what constitutes the ideal climate. Suppose the countries — Russia and Mexico, for example — don’t agree on the optimal temperature.

Solar engineering technology could also conceivably be weaponized. A hostile government could use it to burn or freeze an enemy. And what about a James Bond-type villain holed up in his mountain redoubt threatening to unleash a climate cataclysm if his demands aren’t met?

As for the presumed good guy in the bunker adjusting the planet’s temperature to meet the needs of the moment, is that a real possibility?

“Yup,” Nicholson said. “That’s basically what the computer models do.” Ideally, this would be a technocratic enterprise with some artificial intelligence thrown in.

The United States, you may have noticed, has no real climate policy. There’s hope that under new management in Washington, climate change will be treated as the crisis it is.

Meanwhile, we must ask: Does climate engineering amount to messing with God stuff? Perhaps, but humans are already screwing up the Creation by belching greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Humans may be able to fix the climate change mess they’ve gotten their planet into — but they’d better be careful.

Editor’s note: Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.