Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Engineering the Climate

This week the media got a sneak preview of the most recent 5-year study from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- a United Nations group of more than 500 scientists from around the globe. The report, which will officially be released this Friday, concludes that "humans have already caused so much damage to the atmosphere that the effects of global warming will last for more than 1,000 years." The good news is: we haven't reached the tipping point yet -- there's still time to reverse the damage we've done and avoid the most severe consequences of climate change.

But some scientists have already started to think about the worst case scenario. What if we don't have the political will to break our addiction to fossil fuels and overconsumption before it's too late? In this case, we might want to consider more drastic measures -- like devising a technological fix, as a last ditch effort to save ourselves.

One such idea, soon to be published in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, is to shade the Earth slightly for several decades by creating huge dust clouds in semi-stable orbits near the Moon. The dust could be obtained by deflecting a nearby comet to this region of space and then grinding it up -- but this has the disadvantage of possibly causing the comet to strike the Earth itself and destroy all life as we know it. The other potential source of dust is the Moon. There's plenty of dust there, but we would need to launch it into orbit. This is somewhat easier on the Moon, since the gravity is weaker and there is no atmospheric drag, but it is still a formidable challenge.

To obtain the necessary amount of lunar dust, the author estimates that we would need to launch "about 300 metric tons/s for 10 years" and that "the energy can be derived directly from the Sun". The amount of energy required is about 2% of the current global demand for energy, hundreds of times more solar power capacity than we currently have on Earth -- and we need it on the Moon! If we cannot manufacture solar panels on the Moon, then we would need to launch them from the Earth -- and this would cost about 300 times the current U.S. national debt. This is much more expensive than simply blanketing the Earth with solar panels now -- a technological fix to the climate problem before it gets out of hand.

1 comment:

Travis Metcalfe said...

I just read the following quote in the latest issue of Adbusters magazine, and it strongly resonated:

"Never before have our emerging environmental crises been laid out so clearly before us. Rather than shouting from the fringes, respected economists, scientists, and politicians are sounding the warnings in high-profile journals and the halls of government -- warnings that our oceans are dying, that the ice shelves are melting, and that we are setting ourselves up for the most massive and devastating market failure humanity has ever seen.

So we recycle our garbage. We vote greener. We buy sleek, new hybrid cars and fill our houses with energy-efficient light bulbs. And we put our money and faith in the brave and ingenious technologies that will rescue us from the whirlwind.

But it won't be enough. Because this is not, fundamentally, a technological problem. Nor is it, fundamentally, a political problem. This is a problem of appetites, and of narcissism, and of self-deceit. The planet is breaking, and it is breaking under the weight of our hunger for more. To reform the world, we must first reform ourselves."