posted Aug 23, 2009
in Bloviation

This story about climate engineering reminded me:

I strongly support climate engineering if properly analyzed, but I think that proper analysis is unlikely to be possible with most approaches. I strongly favor the development of space mirrors, because they are one of the few techniques that are both highly controllable and they also swing both ways. If it turns out some intervention is not working as we expect, we can actually stop intervening. If the global climate doesn't work the way we expect and suddenly we need to start warming the globe, we can do that by changing the orbit and reflecting sunlight that would have otherwise have shot out into space back onto Earth. Space mirrors have a flexibility and precision almost all other techniques lack, and give us the opportunity to learn how the climate works with direct experimentation and rough engineering consensus.

On the other hand, our focus on atmospheric makeup and our climate industry's insistence that solar output is irrelevant (despite significant evidence to the contrary and, frankly, simple physics) is causing some people to contemplate atmospheric modification, and that is insane, in my opinion. (OK, "irrelevant" may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much.) The propaganda fight over global warming (as directly opposed to the truth of global warming) has made people forget that Earth is actually an ice planet. The normal state of the Earth in the Holocene era is "in an Ice Age". Global warming is a civilizational inconvenience; it may kill millions and may cost the world economy billions or trillions, but Civilization will go on. An ice age is the end of Civilization. Full stop. Another 50 or 100 years of technological development and maybe that won't be true, but it is true for the foreseeable future. Atmospheric modification is not reversible, and if somebody miscalculates, or heck, is just flat-out wrong about a highly chaotic system and the globe cools too much, or even quite possibly kicks us into an ice age, there would be little we could do to correct the problem without even more extreme and dangerous inputs.

I think that anyone actually serious about the threat of global warming should be equally serious about climate engineering. After all, in the end, that's exactly what "cutting our carbon" is anyhow; it is no more and no less than an attempt at climate engineering, so it's not even a new thing. But it should be done carefully, and, for that matter, any standard you wish to apply to whether climate engineering is a good idea should also be applied to the question of whether we should be focusing on cutting carbon emissions; skepticism about engineering translates directly into skepticism about the effectively of carbon emission control. But not all climate-control schemes are created equal; some are controls are simple things that we can come to understand and use and some delicacy, and some approaches are haphazard methods based on complex and unproven models that, once deployed, will permit no modification or changes in direction. There's a range of things in between, too, but personally, it doesn't take much irreversibility before I start freaking out.


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