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Hacking the Planet: What Could Go Wrong?

You remember this science fiction story, right? Faced with the threat of extinction on a warming planet, an advanced race flies gigantic mirrors into the stratosphere to create a giant “space umbrella” that will bounce the sun’s rays back into the cosmos. But it doesn’t work. Undeterred, the race devises a huge artificial volcano to spew ash into the atmosphere, in order to create a permanent fog in the sky that will dampen the damage from the rays. That doesn’t work either. Desperately, the stricken race pours millions of tons of iron filings into the sea, hoping that it will stimulate phytoplankton to suck the warming gases out of the atmosphere….

You remember that? No, me either. That’s because it wasn’t sci-fi–the above is actually a selection of serious proposals being made to “geo-engineer” our way out of global warming. These proposals are gaining increasing political ground and regularly discussed at symposiums such as the 2014 Berlin Climate Engineering Conference. The bizarre-sounding ideas being discussed include creating giant mechanical honeycombs or seaweed farms to fertilize the oceans (through a process of carbon dioxide reduction, or CDR), and more grandiose projects such as building cloud-spewing ocean drones and space mirrors (through solar radiation management, or SRM—like a dimmer switch for the sun).

The planet hackers are getting busy. Start-ups and patents already abound–as do their creators. Nathan Myhrvold, founder of “Intellectual Ventures,” proposes a “garden hose to the sky,” which aims to fight pollution with more pollution by spewing sulfur into the stratosphere. Russ George is the guerrilla geo-engineer who thoughtfully dumped 100 tons of iron sulfate into the sea in 2012 to try and save the oceans. Lowell Wood’s previous atmospheric tinkering credits include the Star Wars program. But the idea on the SRM side currently gaining most traction seems to be that of a “Giant Sunshade,” which would simulate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption like Pinatubo back in in 1991 by giving the stratosphere a sulfur injection to bounce back warming rays. In other words, it’s like a giant volcano in the sky. What could possibly go wrong?

Er…how about everything? A project like this risks causing vast droughts and food shortages for billions of people (mostly suffered in the developing world of course), as climatologist Alan Robock found when he made a computer model of the sulfur injections of such a “volcano on tap” in 2008. Once begun, the sulfur-spewing would have to be continuous, since cutting off the supply would cause sudden and lethal re-warming. In other words, it would be akin to putting the planet on permanent life-support. Moreover, the sky might be left forever hazy, which would of course–oh, the irony–diminish solar power.

Besides the physical risks involved, there’s also the moral hazard to consider. Just as the implied promise of a financial bailout encouraged recklessness from the banks, the idea that centuries of environmental abuse can be reversed by a few clever tweaks, a sticking-plaster for Big Oil, suggests that the party can go on forever. This line of thinking would certainly explain all the fossil fuel dollars flowing into geo-engineering. One of the first formal gatherings for the movement was convened in 2008 by BP’s chief scientist Steve Koonin, while CDR start-up Carbon Engineering has backing from the Canadian tar sands business. And think tank American Enterprise Initiative, generously funded by the oil sector, launched a department in 2008 called the Geoengineering Project. Ever the entrepreneur, Nathan Myhrvold had the bright idea of using the yellow sulfur waste from tar sand extraction to shield the sun so we can go on polluting forever. Party on!

This is magical thinking par excellence: wreck the planet for everybody, and then turn up the global air-con. The planet hacking men (and they are mostly men) represent techno-evangelism raised to unprecedented new levels–a macho belief in humanity’s right and ability to tame nature, rather than our responsibility to learn to live within our natural limits. Talk is already moving from “if” to “how,” from discussing testing to discussing governance, and GE may supersede GM as the next bogey of the environmental Left. Frankencrops will seem like small fry compared to a Frankenplanet, one where glacial melt may be lessened by SRM, but where acidification, deforestation, and species obliteration will march merrily on.

But then, do the wealthy elites supporting these schemes really care, when, as Naomi Klein points out in This Changes Everything, they’re already talking of abandoning Earth altogether? That is, of course, the logical conclusion of geo-tinkering–planet hacking awaits its cosmic Ark, an escape pod for the lucky few, just in the same way that the body hackers hope for immortality. In this comforting salvation narrative, the oil tycoons and airline moguls can watch the planet they polluted disappear from a porthole window as they sail away forever–leaving those on the ground to fend for themselves beneath, as Klein puts it, “a milky, geo-engineered ceiling gazing down on a dying, acidified sea.”

Alternatively, we could try something less gee-whizz: rather than turning down the sun for everybody on earth, we could force the fossil fuel industry to comply with emissions targets. But perhaps regulating big oil–unlike space mirrors or volcanoes in the sky–just sounds too much like science fiction.