April 7, 2010 at 10:25 PM ET
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map charts the thickness of sulfate aerosols, which may have a cooling effect. Click on the image for more on geoengineering.
Should we put more pollutants into the air to keep Earth's temperature down? How about covering polar ice with reflective panels to cut down on melting? Or putting a giant umbrella in space to shade the planet?
"The only thing crazier than geoengineering is what we're doing now to the atmosphere by continuing to dump carbon dioxide into it," he told me.
Kintisch, a staff writer for the journal Science, delves into the flip side of the global climate issue: If we're in the beginning stages of a radical warm-up in global temperatures, caused in part by greenhouse-gas emissions, what can we do about it?
One part of the answer is to reduce those emissions. Scientists, engineers and policymakers are working on strategies to do that. We could see cleaner cars, less carbon-intensive energy sources, and perhaps carbon-curbing legislation as well. But some researchers say that still won't be enough. Some of the less crazy ideas for hacking the planet might still have to be put into effect. That's why Kintisch calls geoengineering "a bad idea whose time has come."
"Scientists are in a similar position to the researchers who went to the Manhattan Project in the 1940s," he said. "They desperately don't want to study these radical ways of altering the planet, but they feel as though they must. And here's why: Even if we stopped all our carbon emissions tomorrow, the planet would continue to heat up, the ocean would continue to heat up, because carbon dioxide lasts for thousands of years in the atmosphere."
University of Calgary physicist David Keith once observed that scientists studying the geoengineering issue tend to join either the "Blue Team" (who are inclined to invent ways to alter the atmosphere) or the "Red Team" (who are generally skeptical of geoengineering and try to find flaws in the Blue Team's work). Right now, the Blues appear to be in the ascendancy, Kintisch said.
"Since I wrote the book, the number of scientific organizations and prominent scientists who have called for research into geoengineering has only broadened," he said. Legislative hearings are being held, in Washington and in London. Task forces are being set up. Conferences are being conducted. And protests are being organized as well.
How to hack the planet
The strategies for hacking the planet generally involve adding something to the landscape ... or the seascape ... or the atmosphere ... or even outer space. Here are just a few of the ideas floating out there:
The space-mirror idea just might make sense "if money wasn't an issue, and money is always an issue," Kintisch said. Not one of these ideas is ready for prime time ... yet ... but some of them are being taken seriously enough to cause a stir.
"There's going to be a big fight coming on field tests for geoengineering," Kintisch predicted. "It may be two years from now. It may be five years from now."
Heading off a future policy battle over bioengineering was the motivation behind a meeting held last month at the Asilomar Conference Center in California. Thirty-five years ago, scientists gathered at Asilomar to work out the guidelines for conducting recombinant DNA research. The 1975 meeting marked a milestone - not only for genetics, but also for the regulation of potentially risky science.
|"Hack the Planet" delves into climate uncertainties and possible remedies.|
Asilomar 2.0 was aimed at setting similar guidelines for geoengineering experiments. Those in attendance generally saw the conference as a good start, but only a start. Nature's Jeff Tollefson noted that the gathering "came up short on their stated goal" of developing research guidelines. Environment360's Jeff Goodell, who is coming out with his own book about geoengineering titled "How to Cool the Planet," said he felt as if he was witnessing the birth of "the conscience of a geoengineer."
Kintisch said Asilomar 2.0 had to address uncertainties that were far murkier than the ones facing Asilomar 1.0. He noted that the earlier meeting was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, "so the government wanted scientists to come up with regulations" for genetic research.
"This is different," Kintisch said. "Here you have scientists coming up with voluntary guidelines for geoengineering research. They know that, in the end, governments will decide what research happens. ... This is scientists way out ahead of governments, and it's unclear what nations are going to want to do about geoengineering tests."
It's also unclear how much the public will permit when it comes to hacking the planet, particularly in light of recent questions raised about the behavior of some climate researchers.
"What some people call 'Climategate' is actually going to be a central problem for scientists studying geoengineering, and for all climate scientists," Kintisch said. "They're doing a very poor job of communicating climate science to the public. ... Since geoengineering is such a radical and controversial idea, that trust deficit could be a major problem."
As crazy as it sounds, figuring out how to hack the planet may turn out to be the easy part. The hard part will be convincing the public that the planet-hackers really know what they're doing.
Check out this interactive graphic on geoengineering, and feel free to weigh in with your comments in the message box below. For a planetary tale that's completely different, check out my book, "The Case for Pluto." The next event on the book-tour schedule is my talk at the National Academy of Sciences' Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington at 6:30 p.m. on April 15. In the meantime, you can join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter