How to Cool the Planet
I GREW UP in California, where human ingenuity is a force of nature.
Computers, the Internet, Hollywood, blue jeans, the Beach Boys they are all inventions of my home state. The economic and cultural power of these things is obvious. What's less obvious is how they transformed the place that gave birth to them. Until the early 1970s, my hometown of Silicon Valley was mostly orchards and Victorian ranch houses, with rows of cherry and apricot trees that marked the coming of spring with delicate white and pink blossoms. During the PC revolution, I watched those orchards fall to make room for glassy high tech office buildings. The hillside where I saw the footprint of a mountain lion in the 1970s is now cluttered with houses. Silicon Valley is still a beautiful place, but the blossoms are mostly gone, the sky is hazy, and the beaches are crowded. This is happening everywhere, of course it's the story of modern life. And there are many upsides to this transformation, including the fact that the ideas and technologies born in California have been a great boon to humanity. But you have to be pretty obtuse to grow up in a place like Silicon Valley and not be aware that progress sometimes comes at a price.
left the Valley in my midtwenties and moved to New York City to begin a career as a journalist. My connection to the Valley served me well. I spent the next decade or so writing about the business and culture of my hometown for publications such as Rolling Stone and the New York Times Magazine. But my perspective changed after I became the father of three kids. The future of digital culture was suddenly much less interesting to me than the survival of the human race. I spent a lot of time with climate scientists while I was reporting my previous book, which was about the coal industry. It was a sobering experience. I think of myself as an optimistic person, but the deeper you probe into the climate crisis, the darker the story gets. It's hard not to read it as a parable about the dangers of living in a high tech society. (No matter how hard they tried, a world of hunter gatherers could not cook the planet.) And it's harder still not to wonder whether the smartest, most technologically sophisticated creatures that ever existed on earth will figure out a solution for this looming catastrophe. My friends in Silicon Valley are sure we can. They believe we are one big idea Thin film solar! Cellulosic ethanol! High altitude wind power! away from solving this crisis. I used to think that, too.
early 2006, a friend emailed me an essay by Paul Crutzen that was about to be published pandora beads 2014 in an academic journal. Crutzen is a Dutch atmospheric chemist who won the Nobel Prize for his pioneering research on the ozone hole in the atmosphere. In his note, my friend a successful entrepreneur in cheap pandora jewelry bracelets the solar power industry wrote: this. We are in deep trouble. We're going to geoengineer the damn planet now! may have heard the word once or twice before, but I knew next to nothing about it, other than the fact that it generally referred to people with outlandish ideas about how to counteract global warming. I had a vague memory of reading an article about a handful of scientists I imagined them toiling in a lab buried deep in a mountain somewhere in New Mexico who wanted to launch mirrors into space or dump iron into the ocean in a desperate attempt to cool the earth. The title of Crutzen's essay certainly amused me: Enhancement by Stratospheric Sulfur Injections: A Contribution to Resolve a Policy Dilemma? The phrase enhancement sounded like a procedure a surgeon might perform on a lonely middle aged man.
I started to read, however, I was captivated. The basic facts were familiar: carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the earth's atmosphere are rising to concentrations not seen in twenty million years, with no end in sight. Meanwhile, the earth's climate is warming even faster than scientists had predicted just a few years ago. What was new in Crutzen's paper new to me, anyway was the view that some of this accelerated warming was driven not only by high levels of CO2 but also by the progress we have made in the fight against smog and other traditional pollutants. The tiny particles that cause some kinds of air pollution act like mirrors in the sky, reflecting sunlight away from the earth, which cools the planet. As we eliminate pollution, the particles vanish, letting us all breathe easier but also letting more sunlight in, which heats up the earth ever faster. As Crutzen pointed out, by trying to save kids from asthma, we were inadvertently making the climate crisis worse.
to do? Clean air is obviously a good thing: air pollution kills people. The simplest solution would be to cut greenhouse gas emissions. If anyone should have been confident that we could pandora charms online cheap take bold action to address this problem, it should have been Crutzen. After all, he was in part responsible for the fact that the leading nations of the world had come together in the late 1980s to confront another global threat, the ozone hole. In that case, once the risk of ozone damage was clear, action was swift: an international treaty, the Montreal Protocol, was negotiated and signed in 1987, banning ozone depleting substances. It was an inspiring example of political leaders from around the world coming together to confront a grave threat in a rational and decisive way. But when it came to dealing with greenhouse gases, Crutzen was not so sanguine that a political solution could be found. He understood that the problem of reducing greenhouse gases is far deeper and more complex than eliminating chlorofluorocarbons from refrigerators and air conditioners, in part because greenhouse gas emissions are, in some ways, a proxy for economic health and prosperity. In fact, Crutzen called the notion that industrialized nations would join together and significantly reduce emissions pious wish. Crutzen offered a radical proposal: rather than focusing entirely on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, maybe it was time to think about addressing the potentially catastrophic consequences of global warming in a different way. If the problem is too much heat, an obvious solution would be to find a way to reduce that heat. One method to do that would be to increase the earth's reflectivity in ways that would not cause asthma attacks and kill people. As Crutzen knew as well as anyone, about 30 percent of the energy from sunlight that hits the earth is immediately reflected back into space, while the other 70 percent is trapped here by CO2 and other greenhouse gases, warming the planet. If we could reflect just 1 or 2 percent more sunlight away from the earth's surface, it would be like popping up an umbrella on the beach on a hot summer day. Crutzen called it albedo enhancement ( is just another word for reflectivity).
are lots of ideas about how one might deflect sunlight away from the planet, from launching mirrors into space to painting roofs white. But as Crutzen pointed out in his paper, the simplest way to do it might be to add a relatively small number of sulfate particles you can think of them as dust to the upper atmosphere. The dust would remain in the stratosphere for only a year or so before raining out so any serious geoengineering scheme would require continuous injection. But unlike pollution in the lower atmosphere, which is where the nasty stuff we breathe resides, pumping a modest amount of particles into the upper atmosphere would pose little danger to human health. The effect they might have on the chemistry of the stratosphere, especially the ozone layer that protects the earth from the sun's ultraviolet light, was, Crutzen admitted, unclear. However, his preliminary calculations suggested that the risks were low.
it work? On a scientific level, there is nothing complicated about it. Light colors reflect sunlight; dark colors absorb it. That's why asphalt is hot on your bare feet and white clothes are popular in the summer. The same basic idea holds true for the planet. Anything that reflects sunlight (ice, white roofs, certain kinds of clouds and air pollution) contributes to cooling; anything that absorbs sunlight (open water, evergreen forests in northern latitudes, asphalt parking lots) contributes to heating.
his paper, Crutzen talked specifically about the cooling effect of volcanoes. For years, scientists have known that the sulfate particles that volcanoes spew into the air are remarkably effective at scattering sunlight. If the eruption is large enough, they can have a global impact on temperatures. One of the most recent examples is Mount Pinatubo, a volcano in the Philippines that erupted in 1991, lowering the earth's temperature by a degree or so for several years. A more extreme example of the phenomenon is the so called nuclear winter a theory that was much debated in the 1980s, suggesting that a nuclear war could inject enough soot and particles into the atmosphere to block out the sun and send temperatures plummeting.
didn't say how we might go about mimicking volcanoes to offset global warming, except to suggest that there are lots of ways to inject particles into the stratosphere, including spraying them out of high altitude aircraft, pushing them up a long hose tethered to a stratospheric balloon, or even shooting them up into the sky with artillery. As far as engineering challenges go, it wouldn't be too difficult. And even more important, it would be cheap. In Crutzen's estimation, we could engineer the earth's climate for less than 1 percent of the annual global military budget.
all sounded interesting and provocative. It took me a while, however, to grasp just how mind bending Crutzen's proposal really was. Here was one of the world's top atmospheric scientists suggesting that the climate crisis was so urgent and potentially catastrophic that the only way to save ourselves might be by filling the stratosphere with man made pollution from artificial volcanoes. Had it really come to this?
the media world at least the part of the media world that takes science seriously Crutzen's essay raised a ruckus. For one thing, the whole idea of changing the reflectivity of the planet as a way to offset global warming sounded downright wacky, even coming from a serious guy like Crutzen. As for injecting particles into the stratosphere wasn't the goal to clear the air, not further pollute it? Geoengineering seemed like an idea ripped out of the pages of a sci fi novel, conjuring up associations with Dr. Evil and crazy Cold War physicists and the hubris of the techno elite. Perhaps worst of all, Crutzen's argument implied that the whole strategy of relying on an international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions was misguided or at least grossly insufficient.
was not a message the world was ready to hear. An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore's documentary about global warming, had been released the same summer, waking millions of people up to the compelling scientific evidence behind the climate crisis. Progressive politicians around the world were beginning pandora bracelet store a major push to reduce emissions, trying, at least in public, to give the appearance that they were eager to fulfill their commitment to the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions signed in 1997. In Europe, the first market for greenhouse gas emissions trading was just taking off. Financial analysts predicted that the market would someday become the largest in the world, with hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of emissions credits being swapped every year, creating a powerful incentive for power companies to cut pollution and reap the rewards.
this context, Crutzen was a turncoat, a man who dared to betray the growing movement to fight global warming just at the moment when it was gaining momentum. sounds to me like a miracle fix cooked up by Big Oil to keep the masses fat, dumb and happy, one blogger commented. keep driving and we'll get some smart scientists to air condition the planet! Crutzen's logic was not easy to dismiss. If there was one thing I had learned from the four years I'd spent researching and writing about coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, it was that the world was not going to stop burning black rocks anytime soon. Coal fired power plants generate half the electricity in America. In the developing world, the percentage is even higher India and China both get about 70 percent of their electricity from coal. The Chinese consume almost three times as much coal as we do in the United States nearly three billion tons a year (although per capita, they consume far less).
is the engine that is lifting people in the developing world out of poverty, not only giving them the power to light their homes and cook their food but also transforming them, for better or worse, into Western style consumers. Unfortunately, coal is also the most carbon intensive of fossil fuels, generating more than a third of the world's CO2 pollution. Everyone wants to be hopeful about the possibilities of the renewable energy revolution, but the truth is, getting off coal in the near future or, equally unlikely, figuring out a cheap and efficient way to burn coal without releasing CO2 into the atmosphere is a monumentally difficult challenge. And if we can't get off coal, it doesn't matter if every SUV driver rides a skateboard to work and Al Gore takes over as chairman of ExxonMobil we won't have a hope in hell of staving off dangerous climate change.
sobering were the encounters I had with climate scientists during my research. By 2006, the major scientific uncertainties about whether or not the planet was warming and why it was warming had long been settled. (I won't bother rehashing the evidence. If you still think global warming is a myth or unrelated to human activity, you're reading the wrong book.) But real questions remained, especially about the rate at which that warming would occur and what the impacts would be. A draft of the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations group comprising several hundred top scientists, was already circulating at the time Crutzen's essay appeared. The report predicted that the planet would warm by 3 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century and forecast a future of melting glaciers, rising seas, epic droughts, disease, and famine.
the time, the report was touted as the first unequivocal statement from the scientific community about the cause and consequences of global warming. Off the record, however, many scientists were uncomfortable about how conservative the report was. There is good reason, of course, not to overstate scientific consensus or overhype impacts. But many felt it was equally dangerous and even immoral, given the stakes to underplay them.
it's clear that those scientists were right to be uncomfortable the 2007 IPCC report is already woefully out of date. Global emissions are rising much faster than the report forecasted, and climate impacts are more severe. Credible studies now indicate that temperatures in the United States could increase by as much as 15 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, with dust bowls in the Southwest and in many other heavily populated regions around the world. And instead of a sea level rise of less than a foot, as the IPCC report suggested, a number of respected climate modelers now believe it could be as high as three feet or more. James Hansen, the director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and well known as the godfather of global warming science, goes even further. He told me during a conversation in 2009 that if we don't cut emissions hard and fast, the seas could rise by as much as nine feet by the end of the century. Goodbye, Bangladesh, London, Miami and Silicon Valley. If my grandchildren want to visit my hometown, they'll have to put on diving gear. would be a different planet, Hansen said.
can see the increasing velocity of the changes most clearly in the Arctic, where winter temperatures in recent years have been as much as 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average. Although that might not sound like a lot, a profound transformation of the region is already under way. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the maximum extent of the summer sea ice cover for 2009 was the third lowest on record. The six lowest maximum extents since satellite monitoring began in 1979 all occurred between 2004 and 2009. Extend this trend into the future, and the prognosis is not good. Back in 2006, many scientists were predicting that the Arctic would be ice free in the summer by 2050. Now some scientists believe that it could happen within the next decade. like man is taking the lid off the northern part of the planet, one polar ice expert commented. The loss of summer sea ice may well be a boon for shipping and oil exploration. But it is also likely to have broad impacts on the earth's climate, especially ocean circulation patterns, which, in turn, could disrupt major climate events such as the Asian and African monsoons. Nearly two billion people depend on those rains to grow their food.
of the greatest misapprehensions about the climate crisis is the notion that we can fix all this simply by cutting emissions quickly. We can't. Even if we cut CO2 pollution to zero tomorrow, the amount of CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere will ensure that the climate will remain warm for centuries. To understand why, it's important to realize that CO2 is not like the pollutants that create smog, most of which fall out of the air a few days or weeks after they are emitted. CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for a very long time. Every time you drive to the store for a quart of milk, about 50 percent of the CO2 you dump out of the tailpipe remains in the atmosphere for a decade or so before it is absorbed by the earth's carbon cycle. (The oceans are the single largest carbon
eaters, but plants and trees suck up a lot, too.) It takes a few centuries to absorb the next 30 percent. The final 20 percent lingers in the atmosphere for as long as 100,000 years.
implications of this are profound. climatic impacts of releasing fossil fuel CO2 to the atmosphere will last longer than Stonehenge, oceanographer David Archer wrote in 2008. than time capsules, longer than nuclear waste, far longer than the age of human civilization so far. sucking up carbon, the world's oceans play a big role in the response time of the climate, too. Their waters act like a giant heat sink for the planet. Once the oceans warm up, they will continue to radiate heat for hundreds of years. This thermal inertia, combined with CO2's habit of hanging around in the atmosphere, means we may already be locked into dangerous levels of warming we just don't know it yet.
how much does the climate warm with each additional ton of greenhouse gases we dump into the atmosphere? Scientists can make estimates, based on the heat trapping properties of a CO2 molecule, but the truth is, no one knows for sure. A key uncertainty in this calculation is the operation of feedback loops that is, the mechanisms by which a dynamic system like the earth attempts to maintain equilibrium. Positive feedback loops are common. When ice melts in the Arctic, for example, it exposes more open water, which in turn absorbs more heat, which accelerates the warming, which melts more ice you can see how these feedbacks build on each other.
The question is, as positive feedbacks increase and the world heats up, what other changes might they trigger? One fear is that rapidly rising temperatures in the Arctic will cause the permafrost to thaw. Permafrost is loaded with methane, the byproduct of decomposing plants and microbes. If it melts quickly, it could send a sudden pulse of the gas into the atmosphere (methane is a short lived b.
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