Monday, September 7, 2009

Using Technology to Control Global Temperature

In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, Bjorn Lomborg says a group of climate economists at the University of Venice led by Carlo Carraro looked closely at how people will adapt to climate change they predict a 0.1% increase in GDP in 2100 among wealthy nations and climate change-related losses of 2.9% of GDP in poorer countries. "This remains a significant, negative effect. The real challenge of global warming lies in tackling its impact on the Third World.” There are several economists who believe that some level of global warming will usher in a golden age others do not. The science community has not yet been able to accurately model the earth ecology. The accuracy our current predictive models is unknown, but they do produce conflicting data. Economic modeling which would seem simpler, is apparently no more advanced.

Professor Lomborg goes on to suggest examination of climate engineering to control temperature change. One proposal he mentions would have boats spray seawater droplets into clouds above the sea to make them reflect more sunlight back into space. Since this is just a variation of a natural process, it does not sound dangerous. However, I find the prospect of trying to use technology to control the planet’s temperature frightening. We can not predict the consequences of our actions. In a June Wall Street Journal opinion piece “It’s Time to Cool the Planet” the author, Mr. Cascio, a futurist of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies argues for fast acting geo-engineering like releasing sulfate in huge quantities into the atmospheres using jet-aircraft exhaust. This particular action would be equivalent of several volcanic eruptions each year and while it would probably lower the temperature, what else would it do year after year? It is known that volcanic eruptions damage the ozone layer and plant life. We do not have the knowledge to understand the consequences of direct and quick changes to the plant temperature or carbon content. There is a limit to using technology to try and control the planet’s temperature. Would maintaining the planet's temperature come to consume all the resources of the earth and man? When we stopped, or the technology failed we would have masked a problem and suddenly be faced with a jump in temperature (assuming that the global warming projections are accurate). Sudden changes could be far more catastrophic than any consequence imagined by the long term projections of gradual global warming projected by the climate change establishment. Negative consequences of global warming will spur changes in behavior.

It is difficult for someone of my age and inclinations (having worked for the US EPA in the 1970’s) to think of Climate Change, Global Warming without thinking of other mass environmental movements. For example, Silent Spring and the birth of the environmental movement. Though it is often thought that Carson was calling for the elimination of all pesticides, it was her followers who were the extremists. The movement developed a life of its own. As Eric Hoffer points out in his book, “True Believer” mass movements can never be moderate and rational they attract followers by the prospect of sudden and spectacular change. We are a nation of over reactors. Moderate, responsible action seems impossible for us, but that is the skill we must learn as responsible stewards of this earth and as humane and concerned citizens of the planet.

We must balance concern for the earth, worry about climate change as measured by whatever index suites your world view, with the needs of the lesser developed world to escape poverty and disease. What is the point of saving the earth if not for mankind? We must remember that our knowledge is limited and every action has a reaction. Only arrogance would allow someone to believe mankind could hold the temperature of the earth constant against nature indefinitely. The consensus of opinion is mankind has contributed to climate change, not caused it.

The changes we should consider are not massive interruptions in the natural cycles of nature, but conservation, replanting, control of non-point source contamination, and point source contamination reduction in emerging economies. Maybe if we can restore a watershed, reforest the jungles of the Amazon or the foothill of Mt. Kilimanjaro we could then consider bolder action. There is so much that can be accomplished by conservation and replanting, do that first. Start with replanting. According to the Tree Folks a single mature tree can absorb 48 lbs/ year of carbon dioxide and release enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support 2 human beings. Trees can also reduce air conditioning and heating needs by providing shade and providing a wind shield for winter. Trees also act as natural pollution filters. Their canopies, trunks, roots, and associated soil and other natural elements of the landscape filter polluted particulate matter out of the flow towards the water shed and use nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium which are contributing factors to the decay of water sheds. Trees are pretty.

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