Playing God with Planet Earth
(CBC — November 2010)
“Can scientists roll back the effects of global warming? Geoengineering schemes—like pumping carbon dioxide down deep boreholes, like creating artificial clouds or spraying sulphuric acid in the stratosphere to block out the sun—may rehabilitate the climate. Or they could cause planetary disaster…”
This was the logline (the blurb for the TV listings) that went with a documentary I worked on a few years ago which to some extent updated Phantom of the Ocean. Instead of trying to save the salmon, however, reluctant researchers were now discussing ways to save the entire planet from what Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter called “thermageddon.”
I found the pubescent field of geoengineering both fascinating and worrisome. Most of the scientists I met at a cloistered, semi-confidential (almost paranoid) gathering at Asilomar, California in 2010, were quick to say they hoped we would never need to tinker with the climate. But more than a few believed some kind of intervention was inevitable given that the captains of industry and the world’s political leaders can’t see their way clear to end the carbon fuel cycle.
The conference headline could have been: “If politicians won’t do the right thing, scientists will have to.” Sooner or later.
In other words, there may come a time when desperate prime ministers and presidents beg disgusted (“we told you so…”) scientists to throw a Hail Mary pass—to muck about with the atmosphere and save us from thermal chaos. Wild and scary as this sounds, it’s not science fiction. Preliminary work has already begun at think tanks and in university and government laboratories around the world. There have even been a handful of small-scale tests in the atmosphere and one experiment (one we know about for sure; there may have been others) in the North Pacific Ocean.
The gathering at Asilomar dealt with proposals so controversial the researchers seriously considered locking the doors to the press. Let’s keep this business under the radar, some argued, at least until we know what we’re dealing with and come up with a viable Plan B. But wiser heads prevailed, warning that anything less than full disclosure would result in breathless speculation and accusations of a cover-up—another secret hangar at Roswell.
Not surprisingly, there are folks who’ve already convinced themselves the U.S. government is covertly “salting” the sky with chemicals concealed in commercial jet fuel. Those puffy white vapour trails you see?—they’re actually an acid smog designed to block the sun. So, believe it or not, like it or not, the Roswell aspect of geoengineering is already “out there.”