The New Yorker: A Technological Solution to Global Warming?

The May 14, 2012, issue of The New Yorker is the "innovators" issue, with articles about the rise of drones in the United States, an artificial leaf that mimics the way plants convert solar energy, and a look at the promises and risks of geoengineering our way out of global warming. Plus, a beautiful cover by Bob Staake.

New-YorkerIn "The Climate Fixers" (p. 96), Michael Specter looks at the possible benefits and risks of "geoengineering," the attempt to ameliorate global warming by deliberately altering the climate of the earth. For years, "even to entertain the possibility of human intervention on such a scale . . . has been denounced as hubris," Specter writes. "Predicting long-term climatic behavior by using computer models has proved difficult, and the notion of fiddling with the planet's climate based on the results generated by those models worries even scientists who are fully engaged in the research."

But "at some point we are going to have to take the facts seriously," David Keith, a professor of engineering and public policy at Harvard and a supporter of geoengineering, tells Specter. Specter looks at the two technological fixes for global warming: solar-radiation management, which focusses on reducing the impact of the sun by seeding clouds, spreading giant mirrors in the desert, or injecting sulfates into the stratosphere, an attempt to replicate the effects of volcanic eruptions; and another, "less risky" approach, which involves removing carbon directly from the atmosphere and burying it in vast ocean storage beds or deep inside the earth.

Peter Eisenberger, the president of Global Enterprises, has developed a system that he believes will capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at low heat and potentially low cost. He tells Specter that he has "devised a system that introduces no additional threats into the environment. And the idea of interfering with benign nature is ridiculous. The Bambi view of nature is totally false. Nature is violent, amoral, and nihilistic. If you look at the history of this planet, you will see cycles of creation and destruction that would offend our morality as human beings. But somehow, because it's 'nature,' it's supposed to be fine.''

But the risks of geoengineering are very real: if a program such as sulfur injection should fall apart, Specter writes, "the earth would be subjected to extremely rapid warming, with nothing to stop it. And while such an effort would cool the globe, it might do so in ways that disrupt the behavior of the Asian and African monsoons, which provide the water that billions of people need to drink and to grow their food."

Keith tells Specter that it is "hyperbolic to say this, but no less true: when you start to reflect light away from the planet, you can easily imagine a chain of events that would extinguish life on earth." The odd thing is that "this is a democratizing technology,'' the scientific entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold tells Specter. "Rich, powerful countries might have invented much of it, but it will be there for anyone to use." Countries such as the Maldives, which would be under threat of flooding if oceans were to rise, could say, " 'Fuck you all—we want to stay alive,' " Myhrvold tells Specter. "Would you blame them?" Deliberately modifying the earth's atmosphere "would be a desperate gamble with significant risks. Yet the more likely climate change is to cause devastation, the more attractive even the most perilous attempts to mitigate those changes will become," Specter writes. "The best solution, nearly all scientists agree, would be the simplest: stop burning fossil fuels, which would reduce the amount of carbon we dump into the atmosphere."

The New Yorker: The Climate Fixers — Is there a technological solution to global warming?