A specter is haunting Al Gore and friends. No, it’s not global warming with its scary tornados, sea level rises, and species extinctions. It is the possibility that global warming can be prevented with- out doing a thing about fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions.
The point is simple. If the earth is warming and you don’t want it to, there are ways, relatively cheap ways, to cool the earth. All you have to do is reflect a tiny fraction of the sun’s energy back into space. The evidence that this works comes from our experience with volcanoes: when Krakatoa exploded in 1883, the particles it spewed into the upper atmosphere reflected enough sunlight to lower temperatures by over 2 degrees Fahrenheit for several years. The same effect was noted after Pinatubo, the Philippines volcano which erupted in 1991. This effect could be duplicated by high-flying airplanes spraying fine, reflective particles into the upper atmosphere.
Another approach is to increase the cloud cover. Since clouds are white, they reflect the sun’s energy back into space. Stationary ships could generate these clouds by pumping up seawater and spraying it into the atmosphere in a fine mist. Another way to increase the earth’s reflectivity is to develop “mirror farms,” arrays of reflective mate- rial spread out on deserts and other wasteland. A related tactic would be to make the urban landscape more reflective: make street surfaces white instead of black, and make the roofs of buildings reflective. This approach gives scope to individual participation. You want to think globally and act locally? Paint the roof of your house white.
As a way of combating global warming, geoengineering has three obvious advantages over the approach of try- ing to limit carbon dioxide emissions. First, it appears to be much cheaper. Seeding, misting, or mirror farms would cost only billions, a tiny fraction of the trillions it would cost to wrench the carbon heart out of our economy.
Second, geoengineering directly addresses the problem. With geoengineering, you don’t care what is causing global warming. It could be a dozen things, from sunspots to hair spray, but that doesn’t matter. You are directly lowering the earth’s temperature. And with geoengineering, you don’t need the cooperation of China, India, Brazil, and so on. Indeed, the United States could carry out the temperature-lowering scheme all by itself. By contrast, controlling global warming by trying to restrict CO2 emissions is uncertain and cumbersome. You have to assume that the carbon dioxide theory is correct (and it is only a theory, with no direct confirmation), you have to assume that no other factor plays a major role in global warming, and you also have to hope that all the major countries of the world will join the campaign to severely restrict CO2 emissions.
Third, the geoengineering approach is fast. You get cooling effects the day you start. Following the carbon restriction route, we have to make huge economic sacrifices for decades to hope for a possible temperature reduction effect half a century later. And if it turns out the earth isn’t warming, with geoengineering you can turn the effort off immediately. With the carbon approach, you’ve locked in cooling for generations (assuming the CO2 theory is right). If this cooling is added to cooling from some unexpected source, the result will be a manmade catastrophe.
Why are environmentalists mum about geoengineering? Why does the Obama administration ignore it? The $787 billion stimulus bill, so laden with baubles for “green energy,” does not contain a penny for research into climate control through geoengineering.
The answer, it is becoming increasingly clear, is that environmentalism of the Al Gore variety is not a rational, responsible policy position. It is a religion, and like a religion, it is firmly anchored in prejudice, in the hates and hysterias of bygone days. We see this in the campaign against nuclear power. One episode — Three-Mile Island, an accident that did not injure anyone — was misreported and exaggerated to create a wave of hysteria that blocked the development of nuclear power for generations. Even today, when nuclear energy is the answer to prayers for a non-carbon source of power, environmentalists continue their campaign against it — as evidenced by the opposition to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.
In the same fashion, the opposition to fossil fuels is an emotionally-based aversion. Environmentalists learned to hate oil and coal in a bygone era — when these energy sources perhaps deserved opprobrium. Automobiles used to create smog; coal-burning power plants used to belch sulfur and soot. Long after they have been essentially cleaned up, environmentalists still hate them, swayed by the memory trace of an earlier time. When the global warming-CO2 connection was proposed, the prejudices clicked into place. Now the mistrusted fossil fuels could be blamed for unimaginable future catastrophes.
Environmentalists are not really interested in prevent- ing global warming. They want to make war on fossil fuels and everyone connected with them, from oil company executives to SUV-driving soccer moms. The realization that this war might be misguided and unnecessary would cause more consternation in their ranks than any number of melting ice sheets.
If you don’t believe me, tell the environmentalists in your neighborhood about the promise of climate geoengineering. See if they say, “Gee, that’s exciting! Why if that worked, we could burn all the coal and oil we wanted.”