Fighting fire with smog

Posted by Matt

Graeme Wood, one of the best Iraq/Afghanistan on-location correspondents I’ve read, has a review in the July/August Ideas Issue of The Atlantic of some of the more radical and potentially apocalyptic proposals to reverse the effects of global climate change. The most emblematic of these is probably the proposal that calls for tons and tons of sulfur dioxide to be pumped into the atmosphere, effectively blotting out the sun and shielding the earth’s surface from its warming effects. Other plans propose to accomplish this by different means, like a fleet of cloud-seeding ships or a giant visor in space. Still others would attempt to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in chemical compounds, underground, or in the oceans.

It’s not hard to imagine that these plans would have potentially disastrous consequences for local climates, flora, and fauna the world over. The question is whether these consequences are preferable to the consequences of inaction. It sounds like a question that should only be pondered by multinational coalitions. Actions with worldwide consequences should have worldwide consensus. But the danger, Wood points out, is that these “solutions” are cheap enough for a poor state or even a single (very wealthy) individual to implement should they see the need. A lone, well-intentioned crusader fed up with timidity and inaction from the state could take matters into his own hands, inflicting lasting damage on the globe in the process.

The saddest part of such a scenario would be that, despite their radical and far-reaching effects, none of these engineering projects gets to the root of the problem: irresponsible emissions levels and unsustainable lifestyles. Are we willing to accept the environmental costs of these programs simply to cover up a problem that would return if the program broke down?

I hope that these extreme scenarios will be seen as warnings to make healthy changes now rather than blueprints for a bleak future.

I will return to the idea of seeding blooms of phytoplankton to consume carbon dioxide at some point in the future. At first, the proposal seems promising, but it remains unproven and algal blooms can be devastating to oceanic ecosystems.

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