The Earth’s climate is a complex web of systems: ocean temperature and current, sea and glacier ice, air, wind, sun, and more. Strands of that web are being plucked by the variety of things which are causing our climate to change: pollution, extra carbon dioxide, soot, cow farts, and maybe even sunspots. Superpower countries are vying for control of the Northern Passage and energy moguls are making record profits while doing serious damage. We’re letting them do it; it’s convenient to drive and shop and waste and live the lives we were taught we’d have. Me, too. Just as guilty as the next person. Heck, I ordered an ipad the first day I could. I, too, want the newest stuff.
One way out? Undo the damage and apply the principles of engineering to the systems that run the earth. In other words, come full circle, and like Adam and Eve, have dominion over all the plants and animals. Do things like design cities around wildlife corridors, weed the parks, manage the courses of rivers, manage the population of wild animals, and control the weather. Engineer the Earth.
I picked this topic for a few reasons. The simple one is that I had a panel at a convention on the topic, so it’s reasonable to do research once and use it twice. But I asked to be on the panel in the first place because I’m truly afraid that we’ll try the things I’m going to talk about here. Worse, I’m afraid we’ll need to try them.
There are a number of geo-engineering ideas that are widely discussed. I’ll touch on three of them here:
- On the low-tech and probably low risk side is a topic called cool roofs. The idea is to color large flat sun-facing surfaces white to reflect sunlight rather than the usual dark colors that actual absorb it. A number of tests have shown that cool roofs work in hot summers, and work is ongoing to decide when and where they work the best. The idea is popular enough that there is a nice New York Times piece on cool roofing.
- In the medium-risk category, there have actually already been reported illegal experiments that involve dumping iron into the ocean in order to encourage algal blooms. It turns out that algae does a great job of capturing carbon and taking it down to the bottom of the sea. One of the recently identified potential downsides is that some of the kinds of phytoplankton that like to eat rust also produce some nasty neurotoxins.
- In a slightly higher risk category, there are plans afoot to add sulphur to the atmosphere to create a haze that would act like a cooling blanket across the earth, reflecting light and heat way. This is actually pretty cheap on the scale of geo-engineering projects, which makes it a fairly attractive option. There are a lot of articles that say it’s being done already, largely as a means of local weather control. Examples include both of the most recent Olympic games. Beside the fact that this activity might turn blue skies white, the health risks to us aren’t known, the larger scale risks to the environment are also unknown, and if we start we may never be able to stop.
Who are the players?
Well, for one, the man with more power than many small governments is investing in geo-engineering ideas. This, of course, is Bill Gates. An January Discover blog details Gate’s investments in this area fairly well. Gates is an engineer at heart, and I think this is largely his philanthropic side wanting to make the world better, and that he sees a link between climate and the projects which the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are funding to stop disease and climate change.
Just this month, the bipartisan policy center in the United States created a task force on geoengineering. This is a little less immediate than Gates’s work since Gates is more likely to be able to get things done than the United States government. Still, a quick web search returns hundreds or results that repeat a White House comment that we must remain “Open to geoengineering.”
China is geoengineering on a big scale, and proud of it. Remember those Olympic games? There’s more. China has apparently decided its okay to try to mitigate fairly usual events like hailstorms. It makes me wonder a bit if we’ll be moving from cyberwars into weather wars.
To way oversimplify things, we got to be the top predators on the food chain because we got clever with tools. So it would be more unusual for us to leave things be than to try to tinker with the earth.
From the man-made islands in Dubai to the recent Chinese effort to relieve drought through managing the contents of the skies, geoengineering is already happening.
I expect to see a world with treaties that attempt to limit geoengineering, but for countries or even individuals with more science and money than actual knowledge to try to save their own bit of the world. Some of the things that get tried will have more negative consequences than positive. Maybe – hopefully – we’ll get scared enough to go slow on geoengineering and speeding up changes in our energy habits.
The next thirty years feels like one of those risky species-defining times when we could pretty easily wipe ourselves out. There are a few ways that could happen, but a geoengineering disaster is near the top of my personal list of things to fear.
Science Fiction and Geo-engineering
If you want to learn a bit of the science around all of this, there are two sets of Kim Stanley Robinson books waiting for you. His Mars books, starting with Red Mars, explore taking a largely barren planet and making it habitable, which I have to admit I hope we never have to do here. His climate change books start with Forty Days of Rain, and include actual geo-engineering feats, an escaped zoo, a frozen city, frisbee golf, and a few actual heroes.
Some links for further perusal:
- A fairly hilarious video about geoengineering
- Wall Street Journal article promoting geoengineering
- An Atlantic article on geo-engineering, complete with Zeppelins in the illustration
- Indymedia article warning that the current geoengineering efforts are unfair and unreasoned
Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!