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The Dangers of Technological Solutions

Maybe we won't pass cap-and-trade. Maybe we can't cut carbon emissions. Maybe we won't retrofit our buildings or switch to plug-in hybrids or start eating less meat. And maybe we won't need to. Climate change is the unanticipated byproduct of technological advance. And some hope that technological advance will also be the solution.

Rather than cutting emissions or taxing carbon, we'll simply "geoengineer" the planet to counteract the warming of the atmosphere. We'll blast sulfate particles into the sky so they reflect sunlight and cool the earth. We'll enhance the reflectivity of the low-altitude marine stratocumuli clouds that cover a quarter of the world's oceans by sending a fleet of 1,500 ships to spray a fine mist beneath them. We'll do something.

I'm skeptical of our ability to seriously curb carbon emissions in the necessary timeframe. So I've been sympathetic to these sorts of cockamamie plans. But they're dangerous, too. The Washington Post ran an article on Sunday detailing the unintended consequences of another supposed savior: hydrofluorocarbons, the miracle chemicals which were introduced in the 1990s as replacements for the chlorofluorocarbons that were punching a hole through the ozone.

The HFCs, to their credit, worked. The ozone rebounded. Yay technology! But it turns out there's a problem: the hydrofluorocarbons can leak into the atmosphere and act as a super-greenhouse gas "with a heat-trapping power that can be 4,470 times that of carbon dioxide." Nasty stuff. But a good reminder that we're already operating beyond our levels of knowledge. A massive technological intervention that looks like it could be of use in the fight against global warming could prove dangerous in all sorts of unanticipated ways. Which argues for a certain level of modesty here: It's better to do the stuff we know how to do -- ratcheting back carbon emissions, say -- then the stuff we've just concocted. This is, after all, our only planet. If we muck it up, we don't get another one.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 20, 2009; 10:16 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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we understand very little.
i can only relate that when i was a little girl, the children's shoe stores had x-ray machines where you could put in a penny, and see the bones in your feet.
no-one ever considered this to be harmful. my friends and i would jump on and off of the machine, putting pennies in to see the bones in our feet.
the lovely ceilings in the tract house units of the seventies have spackled ceilings filled with asbestos fiber.
on occupation day, the neighborhood dentist would put little puddles of mercury on our desks, so we could play with them, just as he filled our teeth with it.
we know so little.
sometimes, i wonder about technology, altogether.
sitting on a freeway, and looking out into a thick, metallic haze...knowing that our cilia are supposed to be filtering that crap out of our precious, spongy lungs and diaphragm...i wonder what we have done to this precious and beautiful world.
a few years ago, i went out to some abandoned indian ruins in arizona.....there were no people, no houses....just ghosts from the past....but as i looked up in the sky, there were huge, fresh contrails overhead.....and a distant roar in what was a place of exquisite silence.

there is nowhere left to escape the inventions and "improvements" of technology.
sometimes, in our extreme hubris, i think we are playing tricks just on ourselves.

Posted by: jkaren | July 20, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

This is what I call the "old lady who swallowed a fly" approach to problem-solving.

Posted by: theorajones1 | July 20, 2009 11:18 AM | Report abuse

When you say you are skeptical of our ability to contain carbon emission, you are more near to truth than other things.

Couple of points here - have you read answers to Australian Sen. Feidling's 3 questions? That is Wong Feilding controversy. 3 Australian scientists rebuke original government answers. Are we saying it is not worth anything?

Secondly, with Hillary's rejection by an Indian minister, how do you think anything can be achieved unless West is ready to account for their past emissions? That will not be easy meaning many countries (China, India, etc.) will not adhere to any emission control. In that context how to reduce the carbon footprint?

Posted by: umesh409 | July 20, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

No, the thing to do is to try all feasibly paths at once. Not only do we only have one planet, but we only have one crack at solving the problem. If our strategy doesn't work, we don't get to deploy a backup plan.

This disturbed me on Bill Maher this week when Brian Schweitzer and Markos Moulitsos got into an argument over "clean coal." Moulitsos seemed to be arguing for one track and one track only, developing wind and solar power.

I am skeptical of clean coal, but the term means many things. One of the things the governor mentioned was injection of captured carbon into oil and natural gas wells to increase production. That works, and it is far better than water injection, and it will trap the CO2 in the same geological formation that the oil was trapped in. As a short term fix, it is worth trying since it means less CO2 in the atmosphere. But it should be viewed as a short term fix, not a solution, but a postponement of the inevitable while real solutions are developed. This is the idea that Moulitsos seemed to be rejecting, and that is idiotic.

I sometimes don't think that nonscientists realize how catastrophic this problem really is. We aren't "mucking up" the planet. We are sterilizing it. We are rendering it uninhabitable. And from that point of view, *do everything that works!*

Posted by: pj_camp | July 20, 2009 11:57 AM | Report abuse

CO2 injection for enhanced oil recovery has been in use for decades. The side benefit of disposing of excess CO2 just wasn't recognized. I'd like to see us investing a lot more right now in things we already know how to do. Clean coal is vaporware and we're a long way from having the infrastructure needed to make wind a significant contributor. Great ideas for the future, but what about the next 10 years?

Posted by: tl_houston | July 20, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Warming is only one problem from CO2 build up. The oceans are becoming more acidic to the detriment of much marine life. Geoengineering which shades the earth doesn't help this part of the problem.

Posted by: kellgo | July 20, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

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