The story of humanity and global warming and climate change keeps getting more surreal by the moment. The latest development should scare even the most resistant climate change deniers. Soon we may be experimenting with putting the planet on Lipitor.
Though some U.S. states are still passing laws to limit what our kids can be taught about what they see as the great "global warming" hoax, the people who are really in charge of things already know how serious this whole issue has become. The National Academy of Science just published a two volume report commissioned by U.S. intelligence agencies suggesting that we "act now" to start experimenting with creating an artificial sulphur cloud to cool the Earth. It will be the equivalent of imitating major volcanic eruptions (which ironically helped cause one of Earth's previous great extinctions). There is even an acronym for this concept -- SRM (Solar Radiation Management). That we are seriously considering it, should be a veritable siren call for sanity to overcome the planet and its leaders corporate, political and religious.
One of the lead scientists on the report, Waleed Abdalati former Chief Scientist at NASA, admitted "you are talking about changing climate and weather. You don't want to do that without as good an understanding as you possibly can." What an understatement. If the idea of messing with the basic chemistry of weather for the entire planet doesn't scare you, wake up!
Before I delve into why you should be worried about this whole idea, let me tell you why I say the entire planet is about to go on Lipitor. Lipitor, at one time, became the most prescribed drug in the world whose aim is to reduce cholesterol and make your arteries more likely to stay clear. The side effects of taking the drug are significant and thought rare can include liver failure, kidney failure and muscle damage. Even though many researchers have demonstrated that heart disease can be better managed by changing lifestyle, most people would rather pop a bill regardless of the side effects than treat the underlying cause. There are likely times when taking the drug is the only logical choice but that pills are preferred over lifestyle changes shows our penchant for choosing the easier solution to complex problems.
Of course, messing with the weather is fundamentally different than one person taking a little pill. In this case, every human being will be put on the pill even if personally are willing to make the lifestyle changes that others refuse to do. Those countries, businesses and individuals who are reducing their carbon emissions will have to pay the same potential price as those who have not.
One of the scariest elements of the report is that it suggests experimenting with the clouds now before countries go rogue and start trying to implement solutions on their own. In other words, the report grants the possibility that as climate change accelerates and the planet keeps warming, those countries most impacted might unilaterally start messing with potential solutions to change Earth's weather. We are already in an uncontrolled experiment with the very thing that gave us life (a stable period of climate that has prevailed during most of human civilization as we know it) but the idea that individual nations might begin to try to change the planet's weather is madness.
David Keith (a "leading climate engineering scientist") at Harvard has suggested we get started "now" by putting one kilogram of sulphur in the atmosphere and "see what happens." Frankly even the idea that there are leading climate engineering experts worries me. Think about all the early attempts at flying airplanes, sending rockets into space and so on but now image experimenting with the very weather that all species on Earth depend on for life and sustenance. Oops, we made a mistake, don't worry it will fix itself in fifty or a hundred years. When it comes to my body I don't much like the idea of taking a pill and seeing what happens and giving the atmosphere a big dose of sulphur and "see what happens" worries me even more.
The report did recognize that carbon removal (sequestering) was actually a better option but was expensive and would take too long to impact the climate. Get the picture. This is the equivalent of putting a stint in your arteries. Again no real life style change, let's just block it off. But even the stint seems too much for us to do, why have surgery when you get to take a little pill, puff some sulphur in the atmosphere and not have to change our lifestyle at all.
In fairness, I am certain the scientists working on this report are not only well meaning but probably wish the nations, businesses and individuals of the world were willing to make the real changes required for us to solve the problem. Years of inaction following the breakdown of Kyoto show that the world appears unwilling (and Canada perhaps one of the least willing) to actually do the hard work to reduce emissions. In spite of scores of studies showing that making massive investments in green energy would produce an employment boom in many developed countries the myth of it being simply too "expensive" to wean ourselves off fossil fuels has prevailed. The scientists are now just going on to the logical next solution: Since the patient won't change their lifestyle and since the surgical option (remove the carbon may be too expensive and may not work), let's just take the pill. What choice do we have?
Of course what of all the other sustainability challenges we face like over-fishing, dead zones in the ocean from agricultural run-off, species extinction. Can we really think we can engineer ourselves out of the mess we are creating? Create new species. Turn the oceans around from growing acidity with a giant antacid. Years ago now at a dinner party a reasonably intelligent person told me he was not worried about the environment because we would find a technological fix for the problems we create shocking me with how much we humans feel we are in control of the very thing that gave us life.
Please don't consider this a rant against science or progress but rather a plea for all us to wake up and read the tea leaves. Last year was the warmest year on record and this year will likely top that. Ski resorts across the Pacific Coast where I reside are closing in early February because it is simply too warm for snow. The Earth's climate is changing more rapidly than ever and the powers that be are exploring solutions that heretofore we saw as desperate "hail Mary" last resorts.
I trust the scientific community, but not our capacity to manage a complex system like the climate of the Earth. That we think we can engineer our way out of this should frighten all of us. Let's hope I am wrong and some brilliant mind finds the equivalent of Lipitor for the planet's weather woes. Take a million kilograms of sulphur a day (OK I made that number up but you get it) and everything will be fine. But every easy fix comes with a price and the medicine that is meant to save you might just kill you. I'd rather exercise and change my diet any day.
So all the global warming deniers and years of delay have brought us to this moment where we are almost ready to give up on the hard work needed to change course. Medical research like those by Dr. Dean Ornish has shown that "it is almost never too late to change your lifestyle" to reverse heart disease.
Maybe the scientists, like a good physician, are actually hoping that the idea of experimenting with the very weather of the planet might finally jolt us into action. Sadly, I'm betting we will opt for the pill. Let's hope they get it right.