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

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