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Hack the Planet?

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If the climate and energy debates were a house, what would be the elephant in the living room? In family therapy, this phrase refers to a lumbering presence that's almost too dangerous to discuss.

What would play the role of the elephant? Is it the hope, often unspoken, that technology will save us? That if our globe is warming, some miraculous technique (perhaps not yet even known) will be developed and deployed just in time? That thanks to the promise of ingenuity, we don't have to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases produced by enormously useful and omnipresent fossil fuels? And that we can continue (at least as soon as the economy revives) with business as usual?

This hope must serve as at least part of the reason we haven't panicked. It lies deep in the American psyche that, when we have exhausted all other alternatives, we will be saved by a "machine from the gods" (to reverse a phrase from ancient drama) or rather by a technique from scientists and engineers.

This kind of last-minute salvation happened, for example, during our harrowing fight against the Axis. We needed to know where German subs were, and thanks to a genius named Alan Turing our side broke the enemy's naval code. Allies needed warning when hostile planes were approaching, and radar was invented. After a vicious fight across the Pacific, we needed to defeat Japan without an invasion of the home islands, and by then the Manhattan Project had produced a couple of deliverable atomic bombs.

Why reduce greenhouse gases if a technique will almost surely (or probably, or perhaps possibly) be developed that makes it unnecessary? For decades, scientists and others have floated various ideas for cooling the atmosphere. Together they are called "geoengineering" or, as science reporter Eli Kintisch says in the title of a brilliant and far-ranging new book, "hack[ing] the planet."

Geoengineering proposals take several forms: for example, you can try to reduce the solar radiation that reaches (or stays on) the earth. Proponents urge us to "brighten" clouds by spraying up droplets of sea water, as scientists are now trying to do with a little help from Bill Gates. Or let's simulate a volcano by seeding the stratosphere with sulfur particles (or some other chemical). Let's increase the reflectivity of some large surface by blanketing it with silicon balls. Let's, I don't know, let's deliver a cloud of mirrors into space between the earth and the sun.

Or you can try to increase the absorption of carbon dioxide, to get more of this troublesome gas out of the atmosphere. Make and bury "biochar" from plant materials, as in the Amazon of old. Dump iron powder in the seas and create algal blooms. Develop artificial trees or improve the existing ones by bioengineering. Or as Craig Venter proposes, bioengineer not trees but microorganisms to gobble CO2.

Or you can try to prevent CO2 from ever reaching the atmosphere by "sequestering" it, thus rendering coal combustion "clean," a wonderful challenge considering the cost and difficulty of capturing and pumping all the stuff and storing it securely. If practical, this technique would make a major difference: dirty as it is, coal generates more than half of our electricity and an even higher fraction in China.

A scientist may be drawn to a technique that seems "sweet" or "elegant"; an entrepreneur, to one that offers profit, perhaps from creating "offsets"; and a policy maker, to a technique that facilitates business as usual, causing no alarm to economic interests that contribute to campaigns and then surround him or her with lobbyists. And if the technique appeals to all three types of people, as some geoengineering project do, what's to stop it?

Well, experimentation on these methods hasn't got very far, perhaps because of the obvious danger of unintended consequences. What stands out in Kintisch's first-hand survey of the techniques is pervasive uncertainty. Science may know the planet is warming, but we don't know what to do about it, except reduce emissions globally or hope that our efforts to hack the planet aren't disastrous

On one half-page of Kintisch's book the following phrases appear:

"the United Nations couldn't say...
"scientists don't know...
"certainty is rare...
"it's unclear... [three times]
"we don't quite know...
"this chain of uncertainty ... restricts the ability of scientists to predict accurately...
"it's not an exact science..."

In other words, it's as if we're trying to find our way in an unfamiliar thicket of birch saplings in heavy fog. The white of uncertain menace hasn't looked so threatening since Melville's whale.

Nonetheless, we hesitate to insist on the reduction of emissions in the hope that a technique can prevent or undo the ghastly effects of climate change. What effects? Without considering all the ramifications, just think of a devastating reallocation of water, bringing drought to some regions, including fields that now yield food, and floods to other places not prepared for so much water, as in Kentucky or, a little earlier, New Orleans.

Kintisch writes his book as a well-informed, open-minded reporter, dutifully covering both the hopes of the proponents of hacking the planet, whom he calls the blue team, and the stoplight warnings of critics, the red team. (Actually, as his narrative makes clear, some of the "blue" players are nagged by questions, and some of the "red" ones, knowing the situation, hope that something will work.)

In Kintisch's view, a particularly troubling danger is that the sparkling promise of cheap geoengineering might function as a distraction from the serious, long-term work of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. Another danger is that geoengineering experiments and possible deployment would be done in buccaneering style, without adequate oversight, exploiting for commercial motives the commons of the atmosphere and the seas.

In the last pages, Kintisch reveals his personal conclusion: "being forced to geoengineer would be a dismal fate" and "succumbing to the illusion of control" would mean replacing the burden of overhauling the world's energy system "with the much more risky burden of revolutionizing our relationship with the sky itself." Risky, dismal: when we discovered the less than obvious side effects, it might be too late.