Oct. 10, 2007 – A Crisis Papers reader recently sent us an essay in which he proposed that the global climate crisis might be mitigated by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the ocean. This thoughtful, well-informed and articulate essay prompted a stimulating e-mail exchange between the author and myself, which (with his permission) we may soon publish in The Crisis Papers.
I was reminded of that exchange this week as I read Johann Hari’s column“The Last Green Taboo: Engineering the Planet.” which originated in The Independent (UK). “Geo-engineers,” Hari explains, “believe man should consciously change the planet’s environment, using technology, to counter the effects of global warming.” For example, some scientists propose seeding the ocean with nutrients that would cause organisms such as plankton to absorb atmospheric carbon, which would then fall to the ocean floor, out of harm’s way. Other schemes might cool the earth by reflecting solar energy back into space. We will review these, and other proposals, near the end of this essay.
Hari is skeptical, as he writes “It is far smarter to try to stay close to the carefully balanced ecosystem that has evolved over millions of years than to cack-handedly engineer our own, with the extremely limited knowledge we have.”
While I understand and sympathize with Hari’s reluctance to fiddle with the planetary life-support system, I suspect that we might not have a choice in the matter. For, in plain fact, mankind has, since the onset of the industrial revolution, “change[d] the planet’s environment, using technology…” (Indeed, homo sapiens and its predecessor hominids have altered planetary ecosystems over the past million years, following the invention of fire-making and stone weapons). We have already significantly “engineered the planet,” through urbanization, industrialized agriculture (i.e., use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and monocultures), GMOs, and the consumption of fossil fuels, all of which have resulted in pollution, accelerating extinction, and, of course, climate change.
Accordingly, Hari’s “carefully balanced [global] ecosystem”is no longer with us. If the global climate is at, or still worse past, the tipping point, heading for catastrophic warming and sea-level rise, no amount of hybrid cars or fluorescent light-bulbs will stem that rising tide. Drastic action may be required to deliberately stitch-up what mankind has carelessly unraveled in the past two centuries of industrialization and energy abundance.
If remedial “global engineering” is imperative, it must nonetheless be approached with extreme caution. For, when tampering with the global ecosystem, “Garrett Hardin’s Law” reigns supreme: “You can not do merely one thing.” This follows in turn from Barry Commoner’s "First Law of Ecology:” “Everything is connected to everything else.” For example: dams are built to provide hydroelectric power, whereupon they disrupt fish migration and release methane from inundated organic matter. Chlorofluorocarbons, artificial compounds that serve well as refrigerants and aerosol propellants, erode the atmospheric ozone layer, increasing ultraviolet radiation and hence skin cancer. DDT kills insect pests and thus increases agricultural yields, and then, through “biological magnification” decimate the population of birds of prey. And of course, fossil fuels, a cheap and abundant energy source, have significantly increased the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, so that mankind is now facing the horrendous consequences of global warming. Etcetera, without end.
Reflect upon these cases for awhile, and you will likely concur with what I immodestly call“Partridge’s Corollary to Hardin’s Law:” “Today’s anthropogenic environmental problems are the result of yesterday’s solutions.” (By "anthropogenic" I mean to exclude environmental problems of natural origin such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, etc.) Population explosion? The result of medical solutions to disease and trauma. Pollution of river, lakes and wetlands? Caused by industrialized agriculture, which solved the economic necessity of employing most of the population in food production. And once again, global warming? Brought about by the solution to the need to transport vast quantities of resources and products and by the desire of individuals to move about freely. Problems arising from prior solutions? The examples are endless.
And so, it is quite possible that attempted “global engineering” solutions to climate change might bring about unintended consequences that are more grave than global warming itself. Prominent among these is “the sorcerer’s apprentice problem;” once the remedial process has been set in motion, can it be stopped when its job is done? For example, suppose we release carbon-capturing and sequestering GMOs into the ocean, can they be “retired” when atmospheric carbon dioxide is reduced to pre-industrial levels? If not, then as the process continues unchecked, atmospheric carbon will be depleted, terrestrial flora will be starved, leading to a collapse of agriculture and mass starvation.
On the other hand, significant alteration of the chemistry of the ocean might drastically reduce the phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic ecosystem, which produces almost half of the atmospheric oxygen. If so, then suffocation rather than starvation might be our fate.
To be sure, because of unintended consequences, global engineering is hazardous in the extreme. Yet, doing nothing is not an acceptable option. Continuing use of fossil fuels, even at a reduced rate, will aggravate climate change. Accelerating (positive feedback) processes have already been set in motion that can not readily be reversed: methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, is being released from warming arctic tundra, the shrinking arctic ice-cap is reducing the reflectivity (albedo) of solar radiation, atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing the acidity of the ocean, which in turn reduces the capacity of coral, diatoms, and other organisms to convert carbon into sequestering carbonate.
Even if, per impossible, the global economy immediately abandoned the use of fossil fuels and converted entirely to bio-fuels and solar energy, the atmosphere, the oceans, and the global ecosystems would not revert to their pre-industrial condition. Not without remediation.
So what is to be done? This is a question that must be addressed by environmental scientists and engineers, and I am neither. Still, it doesn’t hurt to wonder out loud. First, let’s elaborate on the schemes reported by Johann Hari and briefly mentioned earlier:
The National Academy of Science has proposed the placement of 55,000 mirrors in the upper atmosphere, to reflect solar energy away from the planet. The scheme strikes me as somewhat Rube Goldbergish.
Similarly, Nobelist Paul Crutzen suggests that adding sulphur to the atmosphere would increase cloud cover and thus albedo (reflectivity). But what other effects would result from this alteration of the chemistry of the atmosphere? Of all the scientists now alive, Crutzen is one of the most qualified to answer this question. Still, I wonder.
Researchers have found that sprinkling iron on the ocean surface causes a “bloom” in plankton, which ingest carbon and then, when they die, cause the carbon to fall permanently to the ocean floor.
Similarly, James Lovelock (the author of the “Gaia hypothesis”), proposes lifting nutrients from the bottom of the oceans which would also cause marine microorganisms to absorb carbon and then precipitate it to the ocean depths.
A couple of additional schemes come to my mind.
I understand that sea kelp is among the fastest-growing plant species. Kelp might be cultivated and harvested in vast areas along the continental shelves, and then sequestered (with its component carbon) in abandoned mines and oil wells. Alternatively, it could be anaerobically digested, producing methane (a bio-fuel) and an organic fertilizer. (Fertilizers are now primarily derived from natural gas and petroleum – i.e., fossil fuels). The combustion products of methane are water and carbon dioxide, which seems to amount to no solution to the CO2 problem. However, it is now possible to capture CO2 at the point of combustion.
If rain-making technology advances, it might be possible to increase snow cover in sparsely inhabited northern regions of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. This could compensate for the loss of albedo from the shrinking arctic ice cap.
If and when some geniuses come up with schemes of global engineering that safely and effectively mitigate the climate emergency, they may not be among those listed above. However, in any case, one might suppose that the more the remedial project simulates and/or accelerates natural processes, the better. And a medley of activities would be better than massive investment in one or two projects. As with nature itself, redundancy is the key to stability.
It is just possible that the global community of scientists and technologists have the know-how, not to solve the climate change problem immediately, but to eventually find solutions. But this will require massive investment in research and development, and the international political will to provide these is feeble, at best, and in the United States, virtually absent. Corporate interests, their satellite “think-tank” apologists, and their purchased politicians, are all conspiring to postpone a planetary rescue effort. And time is our enemy.
So while I am an optimist as to possibilities, I am a pessimist as to probabilities.
Barry Commoner: The Closing Circle, Knopf, 1971. p. 33.
Garrett Hardin: Exploring New Ethics for Survival…, Viking, 1972, p 38.
Johann Hari:“The Last Green Taboo: Engineering the Planet,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, via Common Dreams, October 6, 2007.
Ernest Partridge: “"The Perils of Panglossism," Global Dialogue, 4:1, Winter, 2002. Revised and expanded as“Perilous Optimism,” The Online Gadfly,www.igc.org/gadfly/papers/cornuc.htm
Ernest Partridge: “Nature: For Better or Worse,” The Online Gadfly, (in progress) www.igc.org/gadfly/ecology/nature.htm
Copyright© 2007 by Ernest Partridge
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".