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Scientists weigh risks of climate 'techno-fixes'

Schemes from space mirrors to vast algal blooms have sparked debate over the ethics of geoengineering.

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Faced with the specter of a warming planet and frustrated by the lack of progress on this time-sensitive issue, some scientists have begun researching backup plans. They seek a way to give humanity direct control over Earth's thermostat.

Proposals run the gamut from space mirrors deflecting a portion of the sun's energy to promoting vast marine algal blooms to suck carbon out of the atmosphere. The schemes have sparked a debate over the ethics of climate manipulation, especially when the uncertainties are vast and the stakes so high. For many scientists, the technology is less an issue than the decisionmaking process that may lead to its implementation.

Environmental policy driven purely by cost-benefit analyses cannot, they say, effectively point the way on large issues like climate change. But even as many scientists caution against unintended, even catastrophic consequences of tinkering with climate, they concede that the more tools humankind has to confront a serious problem, the better.

Others wonder if the mere hint of a quick-fix solution will only provide a false sense of security and hamper efforts to address the root problem: carbon emissions from a fossil fuel-based economy. And then there's the trillion-dollar question: In a politically fractured world, how will technologies that affect everyone be implemented by the few, the rich, and the tech-savvy?

When scientists talk about geoengineering, they generally mean subtracting a fraction of the sun's energy from the earth equal to that trapped by human-emitted greenhouse gases. It is not a new idea, but only recently has it moved toward the scientific mainstream. In 2006, Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, published a paper on injecting particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect incoming sunlight and cool the earth. Climate scientists have since run scenarios on climate models and first reports found that it might work. In November last year, NASA cohosted a conference on the topic.

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