Planetary Engineering For Climate Crisis: What Are The Choices?

Remember Dr. Evil with his 'earth destroying laser'? Well, it seems we now have an actual Nobel Prize winning atmospheric scientist, Dr. Crutzen , who "believes that political attempts to limit man-made greenhouse gases are so pitiful that a radical contingency plan is needed". The good Doctor's idea is to make like a volcano and purposefully inject enough sulfur particles into the stratosphere to reflect back, into space, significant amounts of the sun's energy. "A fleet of high-altitude balloons could be used to scatter the sulfur high overhead, or it could even be fired into the atmosphere using heavy artillery shells, " He does have a good point when he asserts that "If sizeable reductions in greenhouse gas emissions will not happen and temperatures rise rapidly, then climatic engineering, , is the only option available to rapidly reduce temperature rises and counteract other climatic effects, " So, it's a sort of fail-safe "Plan B", along the lines of several other proposed climate interventions, which range from the broken dream to the proven prototype. We'll run through the list for you after the fold.Implementation of a full-scale stratospheric sulfur injection project could best be performed by nations with plenty of equipment and bureaucracies left over from the Cold War. Russia seems comfortable in it's role as one of the world's larger suppliers of natural gas and oil, refusing to implement Kyoto, while the US officially does not admit that humans are a primary cause of climate change (a happy customer). That leaves the EU: a world consensus would be difficult. Obviously, the good Dr. is thinking a planetary-scale emergency will provide the clarity of vision to drive military powers to respond. What if the "Plan B" turned out to be technically insufficient, or that it had too many adverse side effects, or the governments failed to react in a timely manner? We need a backup to the backup plan.

The sulfur injection idea is described by Dr. Crutzen as "climatic engineering." A variety of planetary scale interventions have been described with the catch-all term, "geological engineering" or "geo-engineering", perhaps because we so often hear of the US government's long standing, official promotion of "carbon sequestration" (a true geo-engineering idea). As our recent post on carbon dioxide injection demonstrates, "Plan C" (our term for C02 injection projects) seems to have a low probability of being a cost effective, rapid, and sustainable means of reducing the atmospheric carbon load. It's certainly not useful for "buying time" in emergency response.

There's a more cost effective approach we've long been interested in here at TreeHugger. Iron seeding involves fertilizing marine plankton with iron salts, thereby greatly increasing, for a period of weeks to months, the rate of permanent C02 sequestration. Scale is a function of surface area treated. There's the added benefit of helping prevent collapse of ocean ecosystems from acidificaton. It can be implemented by a small fleet of ships using low tech dispersing technologies that don't have to be government controlled. (This is a key benefit when some of the world's most powerful governments actively deny the existence global warming and are ill prepared to handle natural disasters.) This idea might reasonably be termed "ecological engineering". Lets call it "Plan E".

Summarizing The Alternatives For Climate Change Mitigation.
"Plan A": the Kyoto Convention was a meager starting point for slow, long term climate change mitigation efforts. Recently, Kyoto was halted by industry lobbying of national governments. (You know who you are.) So far, we see no movement toward a "Plan A!" involving the majority of the Kyoto signatories. We are left, it appears, to rely on the private sector, on several brightly greening city-states, a bit of kindergarten-level carbon trading, and the good will of those wacky tree-hugger, green-design types. (You also know who you are.) All long term stuff. Should a true climate emergency develop, and earth's citizens then decided they wanted to buy some more time for a Plan A!, what are the possible emergency interventions to choose from? Here's our analysis.

"Plan B": the atmospheric engineering or "Vulcan solution" of stratospheric sulfur injection, as proposed by Dr. Crutzen, requires full budget approval and project control by a politically unstable, major oil producing nation and/or one of its bigger customers. Right. We'll wait for that to happen and love it when it finally (maybe) does.

"Plan C": carbon dioxide injection deep into the earth's bedrock. Requires cooperation of, and control by, coal fired utility companies, and governments, both of which, for the most part, deny that climate change is even happening. See Plan B summary, last sentence, for reliability discussion.

Plan "E": Iron seeding of marine plankton blooms is cheap and flexible in comparison to A, B, or C,. As a practical matter, "E" can be done by any organization, whether governmentally supported or not, and does not require a 'spear to the chest' level of consciousness raising of an entire industrial sector and the world's governments, by which time severe adverse effects could be well underway. The primary effects of iron seeding are transitory, and secondary ones do not involved falling artillery shells or SO2 formation. It's been tested, by the way, to good effect.

Which sort of climate control engineering would you bet on if the choice had to be made? Thinking of a hierarchy of implementation?

What happened to 'Plan D' you're wondering? Tell us your idea for it and we'll write about it in a future post.

====> Important Update See this LA Times special on ocean acidification.

Graphic credit: Pelee - Hawaiian Goddess of Volcanoes, via Crystalinks.

Sulfur injection concept of Dr. Crutzen, Via: CommnDreams