Ed Driscoll

Plan B from Outer Space Returns Yet Again

Titled, “Tweaking the climate to save it: Who decides?,” the latest piece of pro-global warming propaganda* by AP breathlessly begins, “To the quiet green solitude of an English country estate they retreated, to think the unthinkable.”

Besides sounding much like Wolcott Gibbs’ legendary “backward ran the sentences” parody of the early Time magazine syntax, it’s certainly not that unthinkable. I read the first draft of this article in 2007; as I noted at the time, it sounded like an update of concepts first explored by Arthur C. Clarke at least a quarter of a century ago in Profiles of the Future.

In 2009, Tim Blair described that year’s version of this article as “Plan B from Outer Space;” the following year, Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post:

“It is time to come up with an alternative to regulating carbon, a Plan B for climate change.”

But let’s move on to this year’s Return of the Son of the Creature from Plan B:

“There’s the `slippery slope’ view that as soon as you start to do this research, you say it’s OK to think about things you shouldn’t be thinking about,” said Steve Rayner, co-director of Oxford University’s geoengineering program. Many geoengineering techniques they have thought about look either impractical or ineffective.

Painting rooftops white to reflect the sun’s heat is a feeble gesture. Blanketing deserts with a reflective material is logistically challenging and a likely environmental threat. Launching giant mirrors into space orbit is exorbitantly expensive.

On the other hand, fertilizing the ocean with iron to grow CO2-eating plankton has shown some workability, and Massachusetts’ prestigious Woods Hole research center is planning the biggest such experiment. Marine clouds are another route: Scientists at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado are designing a test of brightening ocean clouds with sea-salt particles to reflect the sun.

Those techniques are necessarily limited in scale, however, and unable to alter planet-wide warming. Only one idea has emerged with that potential.

“By most accounts, the leading contender is stratospheric aerosol particles,” said climatologist John Shepherd of Britain’s Southampton University.

The particles would be sun-reflecting sulfates spewed into the lower stratosphere from aircraft, balloons or other devices — much like the sulfur dioxide emitted by the eruption of the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo in 1991, estimated to have cooled the world by 0.5 degrees C (0.9 degrees F) for a year or so.

Engineers from the University of Bristol, England, plan to test the feasibility of feeding sulfates into the atmosphere via a kilometers-long (miles-long)** hose attached to a tethered balloon.

Shepherd and others stressed that any sun-blocking “SRM” technique — for solar radiation management — would have to be accompanied by sharp reductions in carbon dioxide emissions on the ground and some form of carbon dioxide removal, preferably via a chemical-mechanical process not yet perfected, to suck the gas out of the air and neutralize it.

Otherwise, they point out, the stratospheric sulfate layer would have to be built up indefinitely, to counter the growing greenhouse effect of accumulating carbon dioxide. And if that SRM operation shut down for any reason, temperatures on Earth would shoot upward.

The technique has other downsides: The sulfates would likely damage the ozone layer shielding Earth from damaging ultraviolet rays; they don’t stop atmospheric carbon dioxide from acidifying the oceans; and sudden cooling of the Earth would itself alter climate patterns in unknown ways.

“These scenarios create winners and losers,” said Shepherd, lead author of a pivotal 2009 Royal Society study of geoengineering. “Who is going to decide?”

I know somebody who’d love to. AP sat by non-plussed in 2009, when, still in the peak flush of early Hopenchange, when all things except reality seemed possible, and John Holdren, Obama’s in-house Dr. Strangelove made a similar proposal, as I mentioned in this edition of Silicon Graffiti from back then. It also discusses some of the other “unthinkable” methods mentioned above:

* Editor & Publisher surely approves. And possibly Politico does as well.

** “Kilometers-long (miles-long)?” Thanks for the subtitles there to make those calculations much easier for us Yanks.