Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Among the topics that get lost in the debate about climate change and the measures that we must take to curb greenhouse gases (GHG) are 1) adaptation strategies and 2) the prospects that innovative technologies may be developed to a) cool the planet or b) scrub GHG from the atmosphere. Those innovative technologies are often collectively referred to as geoengineering, and I believe they will be equally important in helping us avert a planetary crisis. In no way do I mean to imply that we should not develop and deploy energy and transportation technologies that produce fewer GHG emissions, but I prefer to work the other side of the equation at the same time.

With respect to global warming, speakers often paraphrase Eugene Kleiner, cofounder of venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, who said "There is a time when panic is the appropriate response." I'm sorry, but this is not true. It is never true. Respond with urgency, of course. But panic clouds one's thinking. It diminishes one's ability to accurately assess the nature of the situation and develop rational responses. It was a lack of foresight and reason that created the problem. Responding similarly is unlikely to solve it. Moreover, I take exception to those who imply that global warming is humanity's only, or even most pressing, problem (we have enough to fill up a blog).

Fortunately, there appear to be a number of researchers seeking to develop active geoengineering solutions in addition to the more passive strategy of simply reducing emissions. On July 13, the British newspaper The Guardian reported on the Manchester International Festival's search for Twenty Ideas That Could Save the World. Now, the top 20 were not all geoengineering solutions -- they included the often cited carbon-free renewable electrical generation technologies such as concentrated solar power and geothermal energy. But, they also included new methods to capture and sequester carbon such as biochar, creating algal blooms in the oceans to increase CO2 uptake, and schemes to increase the earth's reflectivity to cool the planet.

And, while it is certainly better to take prudent measures now to avert a calamity in the future, we should also begin a serious investigation of the more active approaches to mitigating climate change and its first cousin, acidification of the oceans, now. Otherwise, those technologies may not be suitably developed if and when we need them. And, given the Law of Unintended Consequences we need to discover what deleterious effects there may be before rolling them out on a grand scale.

So, invest in carbon-free energy technologies and energy efficiency, absolutely. But, let's look seriously at strategies to actively reduce GHG concentrations and mitigate their effects.

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