Monday, June 23, 2008

Geo-Engineering -- Pay Attention & Be Skeptical

Today's Los Angeles Times features an op-ed by Samuel Thernstrom on the idea that geo-engineering -- basically resetting the earth's thermostat -- is an idea that is being overlooked but can have major benefits in the fight to combat global warming. In concept, this is an interesting idea, until you look at Thernstrom's reasons for thinking this is such a great idea. First of all, Thernstrom is co-director of an American Enterprise Institute project to study the policy implications of geo-engineering. The AEI is a notoriously conservative think tank. Anything coming out of this "august" body would have to be immediately suspicious and smack of political manipulation. Secondly, check out his webpage at AEI. Thernstrom is no scientist. He has a B.A. in Social Studies (OK, Harvard, but still) and his entire relationship to environmental studies has been from the public policy perspective. Thirdly, since 1996 he has not even been involved in those studies, but has been in the P.R. business, including speechwriter for former New York Governor Pataki. In other words, he is just another political hack with an agenda.

Finally, he apparently feels entirely comfortable with perpetrating half-truths such as this:
Rapidly rising emissions in the developing world will swamp whatever reductions the United States, Europe and Japan may make. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will continue to rise for decades to come, and warming will
continue well into the next century.
I won't deny that the steps China and India are taking to ramp up and become major economic players -- which includes ignoring emissions of greenhouse gases -- will have a major impact on the efforts of those going the other way. But think about how much worse it would be if the US, Japan, and Europe -- huge polluters all -- did nothing to reduce their contributions to the problem.

If you need a political allusion to this issue, think about how bad things have gotten in this country since Bush/Cheney, largely unchecked since 9/11, took office. Can you imagine what might have happened had we had a more powerful Democratic Congress? There might never have been an authorization to go to war in Iraq, no military tribunals, no torture debates, no warrantless eavesdropping, and FISA might have remained the obscure law that it was for nearly 30 years. But, I digress.

Thernstrom poses three examples of what could be done in the area of geo-engineering:
A small amount of ultra-fine sulfur particles injected into the upper atmosphere could deflect 1% or 2% of incoming sunlight -- almost unnoticeable, but enough to cancel out the warming expected to occur this century. Or a fleet of ships spraying seawater into the air might achieve the same general effect by increasing the density of (and thereby the reflectivity of) low-altitude marine clouds. Even painting the roofs of buildings white would be a low-tech way of reflecting a little sunlight.
These are such mind-numbingly simplistic ideas that, if this is the best he's got, it would be a good idea to invite him to your next poker game. Even on superficial grounds, they make no sense. There could never be a fleet of airplanes, or a fleet of ships, big enough to inject sulfur or seawater at a scale large enough to make a difference. And if there were such fleets, the amount of fossil fuels that they would consume undertaking these endeavors would undermine any benefits that these endeavors might create. As for painting roofs white -- c'mon, now. As if a few million square miles of white roofs would beat back solar radiation in any measurable way. For heaven's sake, not even something as immense as the Amazon rain forest can churn out enough carbon dioxide to stop the march of global warming.

The idea of geo-engineering, as proposed by Thernstrom, has the effect of creating confusion in the minds of concerned citizens about just what the right approach is to tackling a very complicated problem. Perhaps that's just what Thernstrom wants to do. Sometimes, when we're thoroughly confused, our immediate response is to throw up our hands and do nothing.

Nice try, Mr. Thernstrom. I'll stick to real science to answer my questions.

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