Royal Society Scientists Endorse a Major Earth Makeover

By Andrew Moseman | September 3, 2008 4:29 pm

sunsetOver the weekend United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that whichever candidate becomes the next U.S. President this coming January needs to start from day one leading the world on confronting global warming. But that’s not enough for some members of Britain’s esteemed Royal Society, who in a collection of papers published this week called for major steps in geoengineering to fight climate change.

Perhaps you’ve heard of some of the wilder ideas for fighting global warming: seeding the ocean with iron to make it grow phytoplankton which will absorb carbon dioxide, or launching a Greenland-sized, Montgomery Burns-inspired deflector shield (or many trillion tiny ones) to block some of the sun’s rays. Cockamamie schemes or not, the Royal Society scientists say that because governments have done so little to curb greenhouse emissions, any possible method to fight global warming should be on the table because doing something is better than doing nothing.

That said, the most ambitious geoengineering plans are fraught with possible unintended consequences, and some are downright impractical. Take iron seeding, which could have all kinds of unexpected consequences, mostly because we don’t have a full understanding of the complexity of the ocean ecosystem. If you’re going for the impracticality side, look no further than launching trillions of tiny reflective ships, or having boats spray ocean water into the sky continuously to block the sun’s rays.

Even in recent times these have seemed like fringe schemes, and the International Panel on Climate Change dismissed them in December as too far-out and too dangerous. That’s why it came as a surprise to see a body as traditional as the Royal Society get behind the idea of major geoengineering. While drastic steps must be taken against global warming, we have to wonder: Is this talk something of a scare tactic, designed to draw attention to the problem by endorsing extreme proposals? Or are these scientists so sick of being ignored by political leaders that they’re totally serious about pursuing some of the crazier plans to control climate change?

Either way, the Society’s announcement means geoengineering has taken another step, if a small one, into the mainstream. But don’t bet on seeing anything so drastic as a sun shield anytime soon—even if scientists agree that such a step is needed, they’d still have to agree on which one to try.

Image: flickr/law_keven

  • Triss Teh

    Most of these systems that scientists deal with are mind-breakingly complex. Before anything is done an agreement should be reached to what should be done between all the people involved. Since the people involved include the entire human population, politicians could be overwhelmed as well. They have their careers to think about too, well, most of them.

  • Stephen Salter

    If anyone would like to download my paper on hardware for the cloud albedo project they can get it it from then browse to the folder Global warmingPhil Trans freeSalter et al hardware.pdf

    They will then be able to form their own opinions on complexity and practicality.

    I would be most grateful for help in identifying unfavourable side effects.

    Like everyone working in geo-engineering I hope that the work will never be needed but fear that it might be needed with the greatest urgency.

  • Brad Arnold

    Soon vast amounts of permafrost is going to melt and emit very large amounts of methane, completely overwhelming any cuts we make:

    A frozen peat bog in western Siberia the size of France and Germany put together contains about 500 billion tons of carbon. Western Siberia has warmed faster than almost anywhere else on the Earth, with an increase in average temperature of about 3C in the last 40 years.

    Even more Siberian permafrost is under the ocean, an area six times the size of Germany containing about 540 billion tons of carbon. That submarine permafrost is perilously close to thawing. Three to 12 kilometers from the coast the sea sediment is just below freezing. The permafrost has grown porous, there is a loss of rigor in the frozen sea floor, and the surrounding seawater is highly oversaturated with solute methane.

    “If the Siberian (submarine) permafrost-seal thaws completely and all the stored gas escapes, the methane content of the planet’s atmosphere would increase twelve fold. The result would be catastrophic global warming.” –“A Storehouse of Greenhouse Gases Is Opening in Siberia,” Spiegel, 17 April ’08

    There is a very inexpensive simple way to immediately cool the Earth: just put a small amount of aerosol into the air to dim the sun. We won’t be able to stop rapid ecosystem collapse without geoengineering. Soon melting permafrost will overwhelm any cuts we make to our emissions.

    “The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state.” –Dr James Lovelock, August 2008


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