Geoengineering: 'A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come' Driving a Prius and putting up solar panels aren't the only options for cooling the earth's climate. More radical ideas include brightening clouds, creating giant algae blooms in the ocean and launching spacecraft to deploy giant sunshades. It might sound a bit far-fetched, but scientists are considering ideas like these — known as geoengineering — to alter the climate.
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Geoengineering: 'A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come'

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Geoengineering: 'A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come'

Geoengineering: 'A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come'

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GUY RAZ, host:

One day, scientists might add to that collection of space junk in the form of a giant orbiting lens. It's an idea that was written about a few years ago as a way to deflect sunlight away from the Earth to fight global warming.

And that plan is among the dozens profiled in a new book on geoengineering. It's called "Hack the Planet."

Author Eli Kintisch spent three years following the men and women who believe that the fight against climate change might require a little more than just cutting down on pollution. In fact, in some cases, they believe we may have to increase pollution.

Eli Kintisch joins me in the studio. Welcome.

Mr. ELI KINTISCH (Author, "Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - Or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe): Thanks for having me.

RAZ: So I suspect that the common fiction on our website will light up with all kinds of accusations against you. So let's just sort of lay down a marker here.

Geoengineering is not necessarily the answer to climate change. But if it works, it might be necessary in addition to doing all the other things? Is that essentially what these scientists say?

Mr. KINTISCH: These scientists view geoengineering as a worst-case scenario response. We might face emergencies in the future which driving a Prius or putting up a windmill or putting a solar panel, not answer. If the ice sheets are melting at a catastrophic rate, if we're finding decade-long droughts are happening that we don't expect, we have to have some sort of emergency response program in place to understand what to do.

RAZ: They look at it as an insurance policy, in a sense.

Mr. KINTISCH: Exactly. You wouldn't build a house without buying insurance.

RAZ: There's something called the Pinatubo Option. And you actually met an atmospheric scientist who dismissed it as basically junk science initially. Today, you write about how he has become a believer. He's actually working on a project to prepare to deploy the Pinatubo Option if it becomes necessary. What is that project and who is he?

Mr. KINTISCH: So in 1991, Mount Pinatubo erupted spewing 10 million tons of sulfur up into the stratosphere above the weather. It's about 5,000 times more powerful than the volcano which went off in Iceland recently. So this super volcano, its biggest effect was to cool the planet by a degree Fahrenheit.

RAZ: And it did this by shielding the Earth from the sun's rays?

Mr. KINTISCH: Right. A certain small percentage of the sun's rays were reflected away from the Earth (unintelligible).

RAZ: Because of all these particles in the stratosphere.

Mr. KINTISCH: Right. And one of the problems with geoengineering is the source of the problem with global warming is our greenhouse gases. And to cool the planet with something like the Pinatubo Option is not getting at the real cause of the problem. And so, as a result, there might be these side-effects.

RAZ: Now, while the Pinatubo Option might seem out there, there are some really out there proposals you talked about in the book. One of them is to launch a spacecraft into lower Earth orbit and kind of deploy a giant sunshade, a parasol?

Mr. KINTISCH: The scientists in the '50s and '60s in the Soviet Union had some wild ideas. I mean they really saw themselves as completely transforming the Earth. And, you know, you find a pamphlet, which I had to go to the Library of Congress to look at. And this pamphlet shows this sort of Saturn rings above the planet warming certain areas, altering rainfall in others. They really viewed the planet as something that could be reshaped and reformed.

RAZ: And did people take the idea seriously, that you could have these giant, you know, umbrellas floating around in space shielding the Earth from the sun?

Mr. KINTISCH: Well, that's a kind of wild idea and subsequent scientists thought of building such a shield on the Moon and then letting it go and it would sort of go into orbit around the Earth. But only a couple of years ago, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper by a scientist who suggested putting a giant lens between the Earth and the sun some million miles away. And that lens would send a certain small fraction of the sun's rays away from the Earth.

RAZ: Is that possible? I mean, do we have the technology to do that?

Mr. KINTISCH: That's a possibly multi-trillion project.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Okay.

Mr. KINTISCH: It would probably be the largest physical thing that anyone had built on Earth...

RAZ: Ever.

Mr. KINTISCH: ...by a factor of a thousand.

RAZ: Eli, there are several experiments that have been tried and several that are being tried. And I want to ask you about one of them. Now, you met a scientist who dumps iron dust into the ocean. He wants to figure out if it will boost the level of plankton; I guess the idea being that more plankton would absorb more CO2. Can you tell me about him?

Mr. KINTISCH: Right. So there are sections of the ocean that have lots of nutrients but weirdly no life in them. And Victor Smetacek, who's a German oceanographer, he believes that they're missing a key nutrient; iron. And so his idea is that you could add a little of this iron and grow giant algae blooms.

Now, oceanographers have tried this method in a lot of small experiments. But last year, Smetacek led a 10-week experiment with German and Indian scientists to try doing this on a much larger scale. And part of the reason for that experiment was to understand if maybe adding iron to a section of the Southern Ocean, which rings Antarctica, might offer a way to grow, as he puts it, a garden in the Southern Ocean.

RAZ: So what did they do? They just dumped iron particles into the ocean?

Mr. KINTISCH: They dissolved iron in water and they send this boat around in a big sort of pinwheel going in larger and larger circles, and they create what's known as a patch of iron. And within this patch, they examine what microorganisms grow.

RAZ: And did it work?

Mr. KINTISCH: In this case, it turned out that they grew the wrong kind of algae.

RAZ: Ah.

Mr. KINTISCH: The scientists know that adding iron might grow algae. They don't know how it will work as a geoengineering option.

RAZ: Eli, what about the unintended consequences? I mean, for example, you know, dumping iron dust into the ocean might sound like a good idea, but do some of these experiments actually create pollution and environmental problems?

Mr. KINTISCH: In the case of fertilizing the ocean to grow giant algae blooms, you might create areas that are deprived of oxygen. You might alter ecosystems in ways you don't understand. You might actually create organisms in your algae patch that put up greenhouse gasses more potent than the carbon dioxide like methane.

In the case of the Pinatubo Option, which is mimicking the cooling effects of volcanoes, you might damage ozone. And you might actually damage the ability of solar panels to take in energy because you're blocking direct sunlight that those solar panels need to create energy.

So by doing geoengineering and removing direct sunlight from the planet system, you're actually undermining the kind of alternative energy we need to get off our fossil fuel addiction.

RAZ: What conclusion did you reach about the viability of all this research? I mean did you come away with it thinking this is possible?

Mr. KINTISCH: Well, we certainly know from nature that volcanic eruptions cool the planet. If you can mimic them effectively, you could cool the planet, at least at first. We know that algae growing in the ocean cool the planet by sucking in carbon dioxide. So there are these natural analogs. What we don't know is how it would work on a mass scale if we try to mimic them year after year after year.

Essentially, we don't know how dangerous geoengineering would be. And the question is, are we going to kill each other trying to find out?

RAZ: Hmm. That's Eli Kintisch. He's a reporter for Science magazine and the author of the book, "Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - Or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe."

Eli, thank you so much.

Mr. KINTISCH: Thanks for having me.

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