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January 12, 2009

Could Geo-Engineering Become Plan B to Fight Global Warming?


A few years ago, if you’d asked a climate scientist whether to physically monkey with the atmosphere to mitigate global warming, he’d probably have looked at you as if you were a lunatic. The suggestions weren’t entirely science fiction. For as long as the climate debate has raged, there have been suggestions that we simply could pump stuff into the atmosphere to reflect more of the sun’s radiation. It’s just that no one took it very seriously.


It appears that the idea is beginning to gain a little traction, but not for reasons of optimism. The Independent of London surveyed climate scientists and remarkably found a handful who say that a Plan B, geo-engineering, is something we need to have in place. According to the Independent’s story, it’s not that they like it, but that there is a sense of gloom falling on the scientific community that the world not will react quickly enough and strongly enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions.


Part of that you can probably blame on the Chinese, who appear ambivalent about their growing greenhouse gas emissions. The good news is that, in 2008, China’s greenhouse gas emissions actually fell. The bad news is that the reason for that is the lousy American economy.


Up until recently, China had sung the same song as George W. Bush’s Administration – it would take no action without the other major economies on board. Their counter-argument to their growing emissions was that they still had a smaller per capita footprint than the industrialized West. It was the ultimate game of chicken, with the United States, India and China glaring each other down, waiting for someone else to make the fatal mistake of taking global warming too seriously.


Barack Obama goes to Washington with climate and energy as one of his top priorities, and has made appointments signaling that he plans to do something about them. This came coincidentally at about the same time that China showed signs it was willing to blink.


That all changed late last week when China announced that it planned to increase its coal production by 30 percent by 2015 to meet its energy needs. In doing so, the Chinese stressed their familiar “per capita” argument.


There are signs that the Chinese know that this isn’t a real argument, that the real issue is tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Plans for new coal-fired coal plants include space for technology to scrub smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide, and most people believe that the Obama presidency will have a ripe opportunity to craft important international agreements that include China.


But ramping up coal production 30 percent by 2015 would render much of that meaningless. The Chinese can plan space for clean coal technology, but none of what is currently available has been widely tested.


Above all, there are questions of how to lock the released carbon back up underground. Currently, there is only one major carbon sequestration operation in the world, up in Norway, where carbon dioxide is pumped down into the seabed. Every other technology is either theoretical or not tested in a way that suggests that it is ready for widespread usage.


This march sideways, which is really what it is, has started to leave the climate science community edgy. Last year, NASA climate scientist James Hansen said that drastic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions were needed in a year.


Since those don’t appear to be coming, what is left are perhaps some of the wilder ideas about how to mitigate global warming – geo-engineering. A few years ago, these ideas – such as pumping particulate matter into the air to reflect more sun – were laughed off the stage. These days, absent something not straight out of a science fiction novel, what was once insane may become Plan B.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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