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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Climate Control

Air Date: Week of May 18, 2007

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Bill Gail (Courtesy of Bill Gail)

Reducing our greenhouse gas emissions may not be sufficient to curb global warming, so some scientists are proposing large-scale geo-engineering projects to pick up the slack. Bill Gail writes about nine ways to cool the planet in this month's issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine. He tells host Bruce Gellerman about these ideas and about a new concept called "climate management."


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Mark Twain once famously quipped, "everyone talks about the weather, but no one ever does anything about it."

Well, that may no longer be true. Faced with the potentially dire consequences of climate change, some scientists are now openly discussing the possibility of managing…or geoengineering the climate. The idea is to have a “Plan B” a back up plan just in case reducing greenhouse gases isn’t enough to prevent runaway global warming. Bill Gail has written about some possible “plan B’s” in an article entitled “Climate Control: Nine ways to cool the planet.”

It appears in the latest issue of the IEEE Spectrum magazine. Bill Gail is the Director of Strategic Development at Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. Bill, welcome to Living on Earth.

GAIL: Thank you, Bruce

GELLERMAN: So, it seems to me, Bill, that, ah, you know, since the Industrial Era we’ve been running sort of a giant unintentional global climate experiment. What I hear you say in this article is that we need an intentional intervention, an intentional experiment in the planet’s climate.

GAIL: Well, I think we mistakenly believe that climate change is a one-time problem with a one-time solution. In fact humans have been influencing climate for millennia. And within the last, perhaps, century we’ve acquired the ability to really influence climate on a global basis within the time frame of a human life. So what I’m suggesting is that that ability is going to be with us from now on. And we have a choice. We can either choose to use that inadvertently or blindly or we can choose to manage how that influence occurs.

GELLERMAN: Some of the proposed ideas in your article are not so farfetched actually. You’ve got reforestation, sequestration. But others are really far out, kind of whacky sci-fi stuff like space shields and space dust?

Bill Gail (Courtesy of Bill Gail)

GAIL: Well that’s right there’s really a range of technological approaches to addressing climate change. Some of them are perhaps more accepted, more mature than others. But some are indeed much further out; ideas that are perhaps just early ideas. Just as Jules Verne’s early ideas about space travel ultimately led to the ability to get to the moon.

GELLERMAN: Well, tell me about space dust.

GAIL: Well, it’s an idea for scattering dust in space that would reflect some of the sunlight and reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth. Alternately you could scatter similar dust, perhaps sulfide particles, in the stratosphere. That’s ah, in some ways a more viable approach because it would last longer in the stratosphere and be more effective.

GELLERMAN: And space shields?

GAIL: Space shields, uh, there’s several ways to do that. But the general idea is that you put up some sort of reflective or refractive object in space that scatters sunlight before it reaches the earth.

GELLERMAN: I know that there’s one proposal here that’s more than just a proposal. That’s the one for iron dust. What’s that about?

GAIL: Well, the idea is that plankton growth depends on nutrients in the ocean. Plankton take up carbon dioxide as they grow and once they die those plankton sink to the bottom of the ocean and sequester that carbon dioxide. So the idea is that by adding nutrients to the ocean you enhance the plankton growth and therefore increase the carbon uptake.

GELLERMAN: There’s a group off the coast of Ecuador that’s doing just that right now.

GAIL: That’s right. There’s some groups that see this as a commercial opportunity with need for solutions to climate change. And they’re going after this quite aggressively in terms of testing out the approach, seeing whether it’s economically viable.

GELLERMAN: Well, what happens if there’s an oops? You know, an unexpected consequence and it triggers a catastrophe, they get it wrong?

GAIL: That’s absolutely the biggest concern. Climate change is a huge, huge problem. And our ability to deal with it is going to require that we look at very, very difficult and challenging solutions, many of which have risks associated with them. And as we develop the ability to, um, pursue some of these solutions we’re going to also develop the ability to manage those risks quite carefully.

GELLERMAN: But who decides to take those risks? You know we decide that we need more rainfall in the United States which means there’s drought in Africa.

GAIL: This is an international problem and it affects all countries. Ah, we need to develop the international mechanisms to allow us to answer those questions.

GELLERMAN: But right now don’t we have an international treaty that prevents science from going in and changing the weather? You can’t use weather as a weapon.

GAIL: That’s right, and of course any new technology runs the risk of being used as a weapon. I think that we have to face that and we have to actively pursue the opportunities so that it is used for good rather than bad. If we decide to just do nothing it’s certainly possible that some nation will grasp the opportunity and use that technology for bad.

GELLERMAN: But couldn’t some, you know, climate terrorist group use this technology then?

GAIL: Well, I think refraining from understanding how this technology could be used doesn’t prevent people from using it in the wrong way. They will think to do that whether or not we’re trying to use it for good.

GELLERMAN: So it doesn’t send any trepidation through your spine when you think about climate management or mismanagement?

GAIL: Oh, it sure does. I think we’re into a new realm here. Where we’re exploring some very new things. But I think it’s something that we’ve backed ourselves into where we need to look at all possible solutions. And no solution is going to be easy. No solution is going to be without risk. This is just one more thing that we need to be looking at and we shouldn’t pull it off the table before we understand whether it is a viable solution or not.

GELLERMAN: Well, Bill Gail, thank you very much. I appreciate your time.

GAIL: Thank you Bruce.

GELLERMAN: Bill Gail is Director of Strategic Development at Microsoft’s Virtual Earth & serves on the U.S. National Research Council’s Earth Science Group. His article “Climate Control: Nine ways to cool the planet” appears in the latest issue of the IEEE Spectrum magazine. You can fink a link to the article at loe dot org.

[MUSIC Strike The Colours & Rody Gorman “Message In A Bottle” from ‘Ballads Of The Book’ (Chemikal Underground - 2007)]



"Climate Control" in IEEE Spectrum


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