Is hacking the planet a good idea, or is it ‘a bad idea whose time has come'?

Fringe approach to climate change gains traction

WASHINGTON, D.C. - To know or not to know, that is the question.

At least when it comes to climate change.

No, I am not talking about so-called “science deniers” who dismiss climate change as a conjectural conspiracy. 

There is a far more rational and interesting debate among the 99 per cent of scientists and policy scholars who stopped questioning the reality of human-made climate change ages ago. The argument is over climate intervention, otherwise known as geoengineering or hacking the planet.  

More science fiction than science funding has been devoted to the idea of actively intervening with the climate to mitigate global warming by, for example, removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or artificially blocking some of the sun’s rays. The question is whether we need to step on the gas and accelerate the research.

Both camps are Chicken Littles; they believe the sky metaphorically is falling.

But one camp believes we need to understand the potential and potential of hazards of geoengineering in case all efforts to reduce pollution fail and the planet nears catastrophe.

The other side vehemently believes that would grease a slippery slope and give the world a rational excuse to further ignore climate change and further spew carbon emissions into the heavens.

The pro-research side received an important boost this month from the National Academy of Sciences. 

The NAS issued a two-volume report. The first part examined approaches to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; possible methods range from natural – planting more trees and fertilizing certain ocean plants – to ultra high tech – literally sucking CO2 from the air. The report saw possibilities, although skeptical.

The second volume looked at artificial ways to reflect sunlight away from the earth and was downright dubious and worried, concerned that unintended consequences could be disastrous.

The report’s main recommendation was for more and better research.

“There is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, together with adaptation of human and natural systems to make them more resilient to changing climate,” the NAS report said. “However, if society ultimately decides to intervene in Earth’s climate, the Committee most strongly recommends any such actions be informed by a far more substantive body of scientific research encompassing climate science and economic, political, ethical, and other dimensions—than is available at present.”

In short, climate intervention is “a bad idea whose time has come,” to quote Eli Kintisch, the author of “Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope — or Worst Nightmare — for Averting Climate Catastrophe.”

But others worry that sanctioning research on geoengineering will just give the world another reason to do nothing

“The report is balanced in its assessment of the science, Clive Hamilton, author of “Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering,” wrote in The New York Times. “Yet by bringing geoengineering from the fringes of the climate debate into the mainstream, it legitimizes a dangerous approach.”

So, to know or not to know is indeed the question. It seems unlikely the scientific and technological worlds can resist knowing.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Compromise is a dirty word but a core value]

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