Climate discussions often focus on potential impacts over a long period of time—several decades, a century even. But change could also happen much more suddenly. What if we had a real climate emergency—how could we cool the planet in a hurry? This question has led a group of scientists to pursue extreme solutions: huge contraptions that would suck CO2 from the air, machines that brighten clouds and deflect sunlight away from the earth, even artificial volcanoes that spray heat-reflecting particles into the atmosphere. This is the radical and controversial world of geoengineering. How to Cool the Planet, Jeff Goodell explores the scientific, political, and moral aspects of geoengineering. How are we going to change the temperature of whole regions if we can’t even predict next week’s weather? What about wars waged with climate control as the primary weapon? There are certainly risks, but Goodell persuades us that geoengineering may be our last best hope, a Plan B for the environment. And if it is, we need to know enough to get it right.
When Jeff Goodell first encountered the term "geoengineering," he had a vague sense that it involved outlandish schemes to counteract global warming. As a journalist, he was deeply skeptical. But he was also intrigued. The planet was in trouble. Could geoengineers help?
Climate change may well be the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced. Temperatures in some regions of the world could increase by as much as fifteen degrees by the end of the century, causing rising sea levels and severe droughts. But change could also happen much more suddenly. What if we had a real climate emergency, the ecological equivalent of the subprime mortgage meltdown--how could we cool the planet in a hurry?
As Goodell shows in this bracing book, even if we could muster the political will for it, cutting greenhouse gas emissions alone may not be enough to reduce the risk of climate catastrophe. This has led some scientists to pursue extreme solutions: huge contraptions that would suck CO2 from the air, machines that would brighten clouds and deflect sunlight away from the earth, even artificial volcanoes that would spray heat-reflecting particles into the atmosphere.
In How to Cool the Planet
, Goodell explores the scientific, political, financial, and moral aspects of geoengineering. How are we to change the temperature of whole regions if we can't even predict next week's weather? What if a wealthy entrepreneur shots particles into the stratosphere on his own? What about wars waged with climate control as the primary weapon? What happens to our relationship with nature when, as Goodell puts it, we all find ourselves living in a giant terrarium?
And our options are dwindling. Maybe, Goodell suggests, we need to start taking geoengineering seriously. Maybe it's Plan B for the planet. And if it is, we need to know enough to get it right.
Thoroughly reported and convincingly argued, How to Cool the Planet
is a compelling tale of scientific hubris and technical daring. But it is also a thoughtful, even-handed look at a deeply complex and controversial issue. It's a book that will surely jump-start the next big debate about the future of life on earth.
A Q&A with Jeff Goodell, Author of How to Cool the Planet Q:
What is geoengineering? A:
It's the idea of manipulating the earth's climate as a way to reduce the risks from global warming. If that sounds dangerous and scary and downright crazy, it is. But I argue in my book that we're likely to end up doing it anyway--in part because the effort to reduce emissions has been such a failure, in part because we love quick fixes, and in part because the survival of civilization may eventually depend on it. The real question is, how soon will we begin, and will we do it well or do it badly? Q:
What inspired you to write this book? A:
Two things, really. After I completed my previous book, Big Coal, which was about the costs and consequences of burning coal for energy, it became clear to me that we are not going to reduce our emissions anywhere near fast enough to avoid the risks of a climate catastrophe. What will we do if someday we have the climatic equivalent of the subprime mortgage meltdown?
Shortly after I began thinking about this, I met a few highly respected scientists who were quietly exploring ideas for how we might cool the planet in an emergency. I was intrigued. I grew up in Silicon Valley, after all--I'm a big believer in exploring new technology to help solve human problems. In addition, the idea of deliberately taking charge of the earth's climate brings up a lot of interesting questions about our relationship with nature. But I think I was most interested in the human side of the story. I wanted to know: Were the scientists who were exploring these ideas crazy or not? Q:
So, are these geoengineering scientists mad? A:
Well, some of them clearly are nuts. But not all of them. In fact, the narrative of the book is really about getting to know these scientists as human beings. I mean, we are talking about messing around with the climate system of the entire planet here! You've got to have a big ego and a healthy dose of hubris even to consider it. Besides trying to understand the technological, political, economic, and moral complexities of all this, I also wanted to know, on a basic human level, whether we could trust these people. And as it turned out, I met some pretty fascinating characters. Q:
Who are some of the leading scientists in the field? A:
One of them, David Keith, is a Canadian physicist who has started a company to design and build machines that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. David is an ardent environmentalist--among other things, he spends a lot of time hiking and skiing in the high Arctic. One of the reasons he's involved in geoengineering is that he believes it may be the only way to save the Arctic from a complete meltdown.
Another character I was intrigued by is Stephen Salter, a cranky but brilliant Scottish engineer who seems to have stepped out of a Jules Verne novel. Salter has designed boats that would spray billions of tiny droplets of seawater into the clouds to brighten them, so they will reflect more sunlight away from the earth.
Finally, there's Lowell Wood, a protégé of Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb. On one level, Wood is the embodiment of Big Science gone awry. But he's also a very smart and entertaining guy who challenged many of my easy assumptions about geoengineering.
(Photo © Eric Etheridge)
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