Thursday, October 1, 2009

Return of climate engineering

An old post referred to this but Graeme Wood updates us:

Roger Angel, an astronomy and optics professor at the University of Arizona, would block the sun by building a giant visor in space. He proposes constructing 20 electromagnetic guns, each more than a mile long and positioned at high altitudes, that would shoot Frisbee-size ceramic disks. Each gun would launch 800,000 disks every five minutes—day and night, weekends and holidays—for 10 years. The guns would aim at the gravitational midpoint between the Earth and the sun, so that the disks would hang in space, providing a huge array of sunshades that would block and scatter sunlight and put the Earth in a permanent state of annular eclipse. Angel’s scheme relies on launch technology that doesn’t yet exist (no one has ever wanted to shoot Frisbees at the sun before), and would cost several trillion dollars. “I know it sounds like mad science,” he says. “But unfortunately we have a mad planet.”

Of all the ideas circulating for blocking solar heat, however, sulfur-aerosol injection—the Blade Runner scenario—may actually be the least mad. And it provides an illustrative example of the trade-offs that all geo-engineering projects of its scale must confront. The approach is already known to work. When Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia in 1815 and spewed sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, farmers in New England recorded a summer so chilly that their fields frosted over in July. The Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines in 1991 cooled global temperatures by about half a degree Celsius for the next few years. A sulfur-aerosol project could produce a Pinatubo of sulfur dioxide every four years.

The aerosol plan is also cheap—so cheap that it completely overturns conventional analysis of how to mitigate climate change. Thomas C. Schelling, who won the 2005 Nobel Prize in economics, has pointed out how difficult it is to get vast international agreements—such as the Kyoto Protocol—to stick. But a geo-engineering strategy like sulfur aerosol “changes everything,” he says. Suddenly, instead of a situation where any one country can foil efforts to curb global warming, any one country can curb global warming all on its own. Pumping sulfur into the atmosphere is a lot easier than trying to orchestrate the actions of 200 countries—or, for that matter, 7 billion individuals—each of whom has strong incentives to cheat. ...

The scariest thing about geo-engineering, as it happens, is also the thing that makes it such a game-changer in the global-warming debate: it’s incredibly cheap. Many scientists, in fact, prefer not to mention just how cheap it is. ... a single rogue nation could have the resources to change the climate. Most of Bangladesh’s population lives in low-elevation coastal zones that would wash away if sea levels rose. For a fraction of its GDP, Bangladesh could refreeze the ice caps using sulfur aerosols (though, in a typical trade-off, this might affect its monsoons). If refreezing them would save the lives of millions of Bangladeshis, who could blame their government for acting? Such a scenario is unlikely; most countries would hesitate to violate international law and become a pariah. But it illustrates the political and regulatory complications that large-scale climate-changing schemes would trigger.

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