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.
July 20, 2009; 10:16 AM ET
Categories: Climate Change
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