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'Plan B' for saving the planet: geoengineering

By Juliet Eilperin

People are beginning to talk about whether we'll need to engineer the climate to avert dangerous climate change. But that doesn't mean they know exactly how to do it.

Some of the world's experts debated the question at an event Monday hosted by Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate magazine in an event titled, "Geoengineering: The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come?"

No one could offer a simple answer on how humans could manipulate the world's weather in order to counteract the greenhouse gases we emit into the atmosphere each year. But they did offer some ideas on how to go about it: namely, by doing some basic research.

House Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who spoke at the conference's outset, calls geoengineering the "Plan B" the world may need if it can't curb its industrial emissions. But Thomas Schelling, distinguished professor of economics at the University of Maryland, said the world should make a concerted effort to figure out quickly whether that sort of back-up plan is even viable.

"If solar radiation management is a bad idea, the sooner we discover that the better," Schelling said.

The discussion included plenty of interesting back-of-the envelope calculations, none of which have been tested in the real world. Jason Blakstock, a fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and Research, cited one estimate that 10 howitzers firing a shell a minute year round would be enough to counteract the impact of our current greenhouse gas emissions.

But David Keith, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy and the University of Calgary, said that estimate could be off by a factor of five. He countered that 200 major jets flying regular missions to release aerosols into the air could help counter the doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, at a cost of a few billion dollars a year.

"A tiny amount of money could have a tremendous impact on altering the world's climate," Keith said.

Everyone in the room, including Keith and Brad Allenby, ASU Lincoln Professor of Engineering and Ethics, warned that any attempts at geoengineering must be exercised with extreme caution.

"They are not just climate change technologies. They are profound changes to earth systems,: Allenby said, adding that if geonengineering technologies take off, people need to realize "we're in a complex system where total control is not likely possible."

By Washington Post Editors  | September 27, 2010; 12:32 PM ET
 
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