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Can Geoengineering Save The World?

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But that hasn't stopped conspiracy theorists from believing that the government is secretly tinkering with the weather. Type the word "chemtrails" into Google and you'll get about 814,000 hits, most of them linked to the Web sites of people who insist that the New World Order began spraying the atmosphere with particles years ago in a massive campaign to mask the devastating effects of global warming. Evidence of this stealth campaign, they say, can be seen in the contrails of jets – which are actually "chemtrails" dumping polymer aerosols into the sky to reflect sunlight and cool the planet. According to chemmie conspiracists, millions of people are being poisoned from the barium and aluminum in these aerosols as they invisibly rain down on our heads.

When I ask Wood about this, he looks deeply amused. "A secret government conspiracy? One of the remarkable things I've learned about working with the government is that there are no secrets. It's all out there. You just have to know where to look."

"No secrets?" I ask.

"Well," he admits, "maybe five or six."

You might think the Bush administration would love the kind of geoengineering advocated by Wood, if for no other reason than it might enable the world to keep guzzling fossil fuels for another generation. But in fact, geoengineering has received little support from the Bushies. The administration first explored the idea in September 2001 during a high-level meeting of a dozen scientists, with Wood participating by speakerphone. "It was a frank discussion of geoengineering options and the need for research funding," recalls physicist David Keith. A draft paper was written up, but it went nowhere. Then, in 2003, several high-level administration officials attended a conference at the Aspen Global Change Institute, where Wood gave a presentation about the practicality of geoengineering. Again, nothing happened. Nor has Wood received much back-channel support from the administration. "To talk openly about geoengineering, you would first have to admit there is a problem," Wood says. "And right now, no one is willing to do that in Washington. The issue is completely polarized."

Without official support, geoengineers have been forced to pursue their theories with all the zeal of a dad fixing up an old car on the weekend. Some dream of launching a flotilla of cloudmaking machines in the ocean; others want to build machines that will turn carbon dioxide into rocks - in effect speeding the natural process by which CO2 is turned into limestone. In comparison to such wild-eyed schemes, the notion of spraying aerosols into the stratosphere seems downright pedestrian. "The technological complexity of this is near zero," Wood says. In addition to cooling the planet, he argues, injecting particles into the stratosphere would also boost crop yields, reduce harmful UV radiation that causes 60,000 deaths each year from skin cancer and even generate more colorful sunsets. "Who doesn't like pretty sunsets?" Wood quips.

But most important, according to Wood, is the price. He calculates that the cost of a global aerosol program – about $1 billion a year – works out to the equivalent of about a penny per ton of carbon reduced. In contrast, the cost of reducing a ton of carbon under the Kyoto treaty, which is set to begin in 2008, is expected to be at least fifteen dollars. And as Wood points out, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the 1992 agreement on which Kyoto is based, mandates that countries choose the least expensive way to avoid dangerous climate change.

But many leading scientists note that such cost estimates don't take into account the possible side effects of geoengineering. Michael Oppenheimer, a geosciences professor at Princeton University, says that Wood's particles could boost stratospheric levels of chlorine, the chemical most damaging to the ozone layer. "The chemistry of the Earth's atmosphere is exceedingly complex," Oppenheimer says. "You're trading one destructive environmental problem for another – not a good idea, either in the short run or the long run."

Even worse, scientists say, injecting particles into the atmosphere could destroy the world's oceans by allowing carbon dioxide to continue to rise. When that additional CO2 dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid-which, in turn, is absorbed by the oceans. For years, climate scientists assumed that the Earth's natural buffering capacity would prevent the seas from growing too acidic. But in 2003, Caldeira and a colleague, Michael Wickett, calculated that higher CO2 levels could make the oceans more acidic than they have been for 50 million years – dissolving coral reefs and threatening plankton that form the foundation of the oceanic food chain.

That, of course, is the fundamental problem with geoengineering – it doesn't even attempt to address the root source of global warming. Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, offers a simple analogy to illustrate the point. "Think of the climate as a small boat on a rather choppy ocean," Schmidt wrote recently. "Under normal circumstances the boat will rock to and fro, and there is a finite risk that the boat could be overturned by a rogue wave. But now one of the passengers has decided to stand up and is deliberately rocking the boat ever more violently. Someone suggests that this is likely to increase the chances of the boat capsizing. Another passenger then proposes that with his knowledge of chaotic dynamics he can counterbalance the first passenger and, indeed, counter the natural rocking caused by the waves. But to do so he needs a huge array of sensors and enormous computational resources to be ready to react efficiently but still wouldn't be able to guarantee absolute stability, and indeed, since the system is untested, it might make things worse.

"So," Schmidt concluded, "is the answer to a known and increasing human influence on climate an ever more elaborate system to control the climate? Or should the person rocking the boat just sit down?"

Last June, Wood and Caldeira were discussing the problem of melting polar ice with their friend Gregory Benford, a noted science-fiction writer and physics professor at the University of California at Irvine. Benford, himself an outspoken advocate of geoengineering, had an idea. "Why don't you do an experiment?" he suggested.

A real-life experiment in the Arctic was, of course, out of the question. But after some discussion, Caldeira and Wood decided to run some computer modeling to see if shooting particles into the stratosphere over the North Pole could help stabilize the region. How much sunlight, they wondered, would you have to reflect to stop the ice from melting? What effect would it have on the rest of the Earth's climate?

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