The first geo-engineers

03 Feb 2010

The idea of planetary-scale projects to tinker with Earth’s climate sounds crazy. As writer Jeff Goodell puts it in his upcoming book, “You don’t need a PhD in physics to understand the basic insanity of this undertaking.”

(I’ll have a review of Goodell’s book, How to Cool the Planet in Nature Reports Climate Change in April. Stay tuned.)

But, under the name of geoengineering, ideas for artificial volcanoes, cloud-creating ships, vast tree plantations across the Sahara, and more have been catching on as ways we might actually want to think about cooling the planet.

It turns out that the idea of geoengineering is nothing new. Even our ability to do it isn’t new. The basic technologies behind some of the methods are surprisingly simple—like shooting artillery into the sky release clouds of sulfates, which would form tiny droplets that reflect sunlight back into space.

With artillery being talked about as an actual approach—even if it’s not the best one (see this paper by atmospheric scientist Alan Robock and colleagues for details), it’s kind of an eerie echo of the earliest geoengineering proposal I’ve ever heard of.

Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole (a.k.a. Topsy-Turvy) covers what may be the first geoengineering proposal of ever made. The basic idea in the story was wildly impractical, as historian James Fleming describes:

For two cents per acre, a group of American investors gains rights to the vast and incredibly lucrative coal and mineral deposits un der the North Pole. To mine the region, they propose to melt the polar ice. Initially the project captures the public imagination, as the backers promise that their scheme will improve the climate everywhere by reducing extremes of cold and heat, making the earth a terrestrial heaven. But when it is revealed that the investors are retired Civil War artillerymen who intend to change the inclination of the earth’s axis by building and firing the world’s largest cannon, public enthusiasm gives way to fears that tidal waves generated by the explosion will kill millions. In secrecy and haste, the protagonists proceed with their plan, building the cannon on Mount Kilimanjaro. The plot fails only when an error in calculation renders the massive shot ineffective. Verne concludes, “The world’s inhabitants could thus sleep in peace.”

It was a cautionary tale. But as Fleming says, “Perhaps he spoke too soon.”

It doesn’t seem we could actually change the rotation of the Earth’s axis. But clearly we we’re able to melt the Arctic ice.

As prescient as Verne was, he apparently didn’t foresee that the greenhouse effect would melt the Arctic. (Or maybe he did. The basic physics of how CO2 absorbs heat had been known for a long time, and the term “greenhouse effect” was coined in the early 1800s. But maybe Verne decided that telling the story of a century of coal and oil burning wouldn’t make a very compelling plot line.)

In any case, the earliest instance of geoengineering, along the lines of what seems possible, comes from the same guy who figured out that people’s CO2 emissions would likely heat up Earth—a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrenhius. As Goodell describes:

Arrhenius, who often admitted that he was tired of the long, cold Swedish winters, saw coal—the dominant fossil fuel of his time—as a tool for manipulating the earth’s climate. As he wrote in 1906, by burning coal we might create a planet with ‘more equitable and better climates, especially as regards the colder regions of the earth,’ and this warmer climate would improve food production ‘for the benefit of rapidly propagating mankind.’ Arrhenius’s friend and fellow researcher Nils Eckholm agreed, but argued that the process of heating up the earth by burning coal for industrial uses was taking too long. He recommended just setting fire to shallow coal seams, which would release more CO2 into the atmosphere and turn the planet into a palm tree paradise.

What’s really interesting to me is that Arrhenius did laborious pencil-and-paper calculations that took a couple of years, essentially doing the first climate simulation by hand. He estimated how much the planet would heat up if we doubled the amount of CO2 in the air—and the answer he got was surprisingly close to the best guess that researchers have today. And if you take into account that researchers still aren’t sure how sensitive the climate is to these greenhouse gases, it could still turn out that Arrhenius was right!

But what he and Eckholm didn’t foresee was how fast people would change the planet—even though Eckholm called our species “rapidly propagating mankind,” and apparently thought that was a really good thing.

So I wonder whether the climate simulations we have today might, in the same way, be right about the physics, but entirely wrong about humanity. How much time do we actually have before things get unbearably hot?


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »