Can Geoengineering Save The World?

The Pentagon's top weaponeer says he has a radical solution that would stop global warming now.

October 4, 2011 2:05 PM ET
washington dc lowell wood scientist geoengineer
Lowell Wood, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Senior Scientist, listens to questions during a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Last summer, an elite group of scientists, economists and government officials gathered at Snowmass ski resort near Aspen, Colorado, to contemplate the end of the world. The weeklong "workshop, held in the shadow of 14,000-foot-high peaks at the Top of the Village lodge, was organised by the Energy Modeling Forum, a group of academics and industry leaders affiliated with Stanford University. A few months earlier, Stanford professor John Weyant, the director of the group, had asked participants to consider a nightmare scenario: It's 2010, and global warming is not only happening, it's accelerating. The Greenland and western Antarctic ice sheets are melting at an exponential rate, leading to predictions of a twenty-foot rise in sea levels by 2070. In this scenario, southern Florida vanishes, New York City becomes an aquarium, London looks like Venice. In Bangladesh alone, 40 million people are displaced by the rising waters. Droughts cripple food production, leading to widespread famine. If you need to put a "sudden stop" on emissions of carbon dioxide, Weyant asked, how – short of shutting down the global economy – would you do it?

Spinning out blue-sky scenarios is nothing new for this crowd. But there was extra urgency in this exercise because it wasn't all blue-sky. In the Arctic, things are already getting freaky. Temperatures have warmed three times faster than the global average. Last year, scientists found that an area of polar ice twice the size of Texas had melted since NASA started compiling satellite data twenty-seven years ago. Some studies suggest that the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free by the end of the century. The giant ice sheets that cover Greenland – which were projected to grow for another century – are also behaving strangely. "It turns out we had it wrong," says Richard Alley, a noted paleoclimatologist at Penn State. "The ice sheets are shrinking, and they're doing it almost a hundred years ahead of schedule."

At the Snowmass workshop, it was clear that putting a "sudden stop" to climate-warming emissions would require something more than investing in wind turbines. In one presentation, Jae Edmonds, chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, suggested that the only way you could radically cut emissions without shutting down the economy would be to replace coal and oil with genetically engineered biofuels, which would not only cut pollution but would suck up carbon dioxide as they grow. But making such a switch would require a massive expansion of agriculture, sweeping changes to the world's energy infrastructure, bold political leadership and trillions of dollars.

Then Lowell Wood approached the podium. At sixty-five, Wood is a big, rumpled guy, tall and broad as a missile silo, with a full red beard and pale blue eyes that burn with a thermonuclear glow. In scientific circles, Wood is a dark star, the protégé of Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the Reagan-era Star Wars missile-defense system. As a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California for more than four decades, Wood has long been one of the Pentagon's top weaponeers, the agency's go-to guru for threat assessment and weapons development. Wood is infamous for championing fringe science, from X-ray lasers to cold-fusion nuclear reactors, as well as for his long affiliation with the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank on the Stanford campus. Everyone at Snowmass knew Wood's reputation. To some, he was a brilliant outside-the-box thinker; to others, he was the embodiment of Big Science gone awry.

Wood hooked up his laptop, threw his first slide onto the screen and got down to business: What if all the conventional thinking about how to deal with global warming was wrong? What if you could do an end run around carbon-trading schemes and international treaties and political gridlock and actually solve the problem? And what if the cost to get started was not trillions of dollars but $100 million a year – less than the cost of a good-size wind farm?

Wood's proposal was not technologically complex. It's based on the idea, well-proven by atmospheric scientists, that volcano eruptions alter the climate for months by loading the skies with tiny particles that act as mini-reflectors, shading out sunlight and cooling the Earth. Why not apply the same principles to saving the Arctic? Getting the particles into the stratosphere wouldn't be a problem – you could generate them easily enough by burning sulfur, then dumping the particles out of high-flying 747s, spraying them into the sky with long hoses or even shooting them up there with naval artillery. They'd be invisible to the naked eye, Wood argued, and harmless to the environment. Depending on the number of particles you injected, you could not only stabilize Greenland's polar ice – you could actually grow it. Results would be quick: If you started spraying particles into the stratosphere tomorrow, you'd see changes in the ice within a few months. And if it worked over the Arctic, it would be simple enough to expand the program to encompass the rest of the planet. In effect, you could create a global thermostat, one that people could dial up or down to suit their needs (or the needs of polar bears).

Reaction to Wood's proposal was fast and furious. Some scientists in the room, including Richard Tol, a climate modeler with the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin, Ireland, found Wood's ideas worthy of further research. Others, however, were outraged by the unscientific, speculative, downright arrogant proposal of this... this weaponeer. The Earth's climate, one scientist argued, is a chaotic system – shooting particles into the stratosphere could have unforeseen consequences, such as enlarging the ozone hole, that we might only discover after the damage was done. What if the particles had an effect on cloud formation, leading to unexpected droughts over northern Europe? Bill Nordhaus, a Yale economist, worried about political implications: Wasn't this simply a way of enabling more fossil-fuel use, like giving methadone to a heroin addict? If people believe there is a solution to global warming that does not require hard choices, how can we ever make the case that they need to change their lives and cut emissions?

Weyant, surprised by the "emotional and religious" debate over Wood's proposal, cut off discussion before it turned into a shouting match. But Wood was delighted by the ruckus. "Yes, there was some spirited discussion," he boasted to me a few days later. "But a surprising number of people said to me, 'Why haven't we heard about this before? Why aren't we doing this?'"

Then Wood flashed a devilish grin. "I think a few of them were ready to cross over to the dark side."

Global warming, as Al Gore put it recently, "is the only crisis we've ever faced that has the capacity to end civilization." The ultimate solution is no mystery: Among climate scientists, a consensus has developed that we must cut projected global emissions at least in half by the year 2050. But a few leading scientists have begun to suggest that reducing pollution simply can't be done fast enough to prevent a planetwide meltdown. "This is not a goal that can be achieved with current energy technology," says Marty Hoffert, a physicist at New York University. "I think we need to admit that and start thinking bigger."

According to Hoffert, the 850 coal-fired plants projected to be built worldwide in the next decade or so will emit five times more carbon dioxide than will be reduced under the Kyoto treaty on global warming. Add in 100 million newly rich Chinese road-tripping in their SUVs, and you can see why a growing number of scientists believe we are approaching a climate catastrophe faster than we think. Paul Crutzen, a respected atmospheric chemist who won a Nobel Prize for his pioneering work on ozone depletion, recently suggested that it is time to consider "last resort" options – including the idea championed by Wood and others to shoot sulfate particles into the stratosphere.

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