Eli Kintisch Op-Ed in LA Times

By Chris Mooney | April 18, 2010 5:01 pm

Today in the LA Times Op-Ed  section, our recent Point of Inquiry guest has a pretty unexpected take on air pollution: Namely, he describes it  as useful for blocking sunlight. (The paper edition closed too early to add info about the recent Icelandic volcano, but  for those wondering, Kintisch informs me that the amount of gunk it has spewed out is far too little to have a major climatic effect.) Here’s an excerpt from the op-ed:

You’re likely to hear a chorus of dire warnings as we approach Earth Day, but there’s a serious shortage few pundits are talking about: air pollution. That’s right, the world is running short on air pollution, and if we continue to cut back on smoke pouring forth from industrial smokestacks, the increase in global warming could be profound.

Cleaner air, one of the signature achievements of the U.S. environmental movement, is certainly worth celebrating. Scientists estimate that the U.S. Clean Air Act has cut a major air pollutant called sulfate aerosols, for example, by 30% to 50% since the 1980s, helping greatly reduce cases of asthma and other respiratory problems.

But even as industrialized and developing nations alike steadily reduce aerosol pollution — caused primarily by burning coal — climate scientists are beginning to understand just how much these tiny particles have helped keep the planet cool. A silent benefit of sulfates, in fact, is that they’ve been helpfully blocking sunlight from striking the Earth for many decades, by brightening clouds and expanding their coverage. Emerging science suggests that their underappreciated impact has been incredible.

Incidentally, for those in the area, Kintisch will be speaking on Thursday in New Haven about this topic and his book Hack the Planet. And once again, you can catch my interview with him on Point of Inquiry here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: geoengineering, point of inquiry

Comments (7)

  1. No good deed ever goes unpunished….

  2. The underappreciated impact of smog? Will have to read, but will be hard to convince me…

  3. Dark Tent

    Kintisch is hardly the first to note the cooling effect of aerosols.

    And I’ll pass on listening to him.

    Too much hype and not enough science, in my opinion.

  4. JMW

    Like anything else, there are pros and cons…

    …so we get to choose between global warming or an increased incidence of deaths by lung cancer, emphysema and the like.

    I sometimes think that the equilibrium of Earth’s climate and biosphere is both more complicated, and in some ways more resilient, than we suppose. When something gets of out whack, something else comes along to correct the balance.

    I hasten to stress that I don’t see this as some kind of deterministic process; it is merely life on earth, responding to new opportunities and new niches to evolve into.

    Where we humans have changed things is how we’re able to respond intelligently to newly evolved threats to us; and so we can respond to things like Ebola, potential flu pandemics, etc.

  5. ChH

    Rather than sulfate aerosols, I have a plan:
    We should have facilities that pour hydrogen hydroxide aerosols into the atmosphere. That stuff is seriously reflective. It does require heat energy to produce the aerosol, but relatively low-value heat can be used, so waste heat from industrial and thermal power-generation facilities could be harnessed for this task.

  6. When the annual, pay it today economic cost of air pollution in just CA is over $28 Billion, then it is very difficult to even consider the potential of it’s good effects. Of all the justifications for status quo thinking that I have seen, this is one of the worst.

    This includes $6 Billion in the relatively rural San Joaquin Valley where those most affected have almost no political power to effect changes.

  7. Marion Delgado

    I realize it’s complicated, but at least some thought should have been given by Kintisch to the difference between cutting emissions, which he’s de facto attempting to downplay, and having more useable energy reach the Earth and a muddy smog where you’re trapping useless heat energy (and acidifying the oceans), but, hey, at least you’re also blocking out useful sunlight to a degree.

    People pushing geoengineering may have their own reasons, rationale, and agenda, but if they refuse to see that they’re aiding and abetting the delay campaign – the next phase of the denial campaign – then they shouldn’t, at least, get any press they didn’t have to pay for.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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