Climatic Engineering

Climatic Engineering

Mini Teaser: Using science to shape our stratosphere: The solutions to global warming may be found not just on the ground but in the skies.

by Author(s): Fred C. IkleLowell Wood

THE POLITICS of global warming is heating up. Activists are often taking sharply opposing sides on nearly every one of the warming issues. Trite and ad hoc political arguments intrude unapologetically upon the science of climatology. But thoughtful people prefer to have science to show the way. After all, climate change is not a political fashion. It is about observable alterations in the natural environment of our planet regarding which scientists seek to understand the causes and thus forecast future trends and eventual outcomes.

Unfortunately, among all the issues governments have to deal with, none is as scientifically complex as climate change. Disparate causes, natural and man-made, alter the climate through innately complicated and incompletely understood mechanisms and quite insufficiently measured networks of interaction. And they do so over timescales which are generally quite long compared to those on which we humans have made precise measurements-or on which we make decisions. Climate, after all, is simply weather averaged over decades to millennia. This intricacy of climate change makes forecasts about global warming seem unreliable. And the seeming unreliability offers a wide berth for endless political disagreements. It makes it easy to disparage as "alarmist" those who warn us of rising sea levels and other compelling consequences of warming.

Yet, the climate change skeptics cannot offer convincing proof as to why we should accept their assertion that global warming is harmless. Their core concern may not be the idea that warming won't hurt us, but rather the growing clamor for costly laws and burdensome regulations meant to curtail greenhouse gas emissions sharply. That such measures are likely to impair economic growth and suppress freedom of action is what troubles the skeptics. China and India adamantly assert that they must expand the use of fossil fuels so that their countries can benefit from economic growth. And in the wealthier democracies, parliamentarians refuse to vote for effective curbs on emissions of greenhouse gases lest they antagonize powerful business lobbies or are blamed for raising the price of gasoline and other transport fuels. As Paul J. Saunders and Vaughan C. Turekian observe, multilateral cooperation to impose negotiated limits on greenhouse gas emissions is unattractive: "Absent new technologies, it cannot but limit economic growth."1

To reduce these concerns about damaging economic growth, "carbon (emissions) trading" has been invented. In theory, it would authorize businesses that can rather inexpensively reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to sell allowances that license expanding businesses to increase their emissions. In practice, carbon trading involves the creation of the equivalent of "fiat money", new scrip to pay for carbon emissions permits which can easily offer opportunities for fraud and corruption. Moreover, "carbon offsets" can be created that purportedly do something equivalent to reduce greenhouse warming but don't actually reduce carbon emissions. In any event, unless the rules of such trading are uniform and universal, such practices will merely drive carbon-emissions-rich activities to de facto less burdensome jurisdictions.

The European system for carbon trading provides a lesson. Washington Post columnist and author Sebastian Mallaby reports that the European system was captured by lobbies:

Permits were given away rather than auctioned, which was a windfall for incumbent polluters. . . .Equally, the Clean Development Mechanism, set up to allow the purchase of pollution credits from poor countries, has turned out to be farcical. Chinese factories are being engineered to maximize greenhouse emissions, and then reengineered to generate pollution credits by reducing the emissions.2

When considering all of this, keep in mind some economic fundamentals: Carbon emissions trading will have to become an international, hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars-per-year business in order for it to make a significant contribution to the slowing of emissions-based global warming.3 It has been suggested that the United Nations should monitor this fractional trillion-dollar-per-year business, which brings to mind the bribery and malfeasance of the UN oil-for-food program for Saddam Hussein's Iraq.


THAT CARBON dioxide in the atmosphere may cause global warming is a scientific hypothesis dating back to the 19th century. As Spencer Weart explains in his book, The Discovery of Global Warming, the British scientist John Tyndall conducted experiments in 1859 with coal gas, an early product of the Industrial Revolution. He discovered that this gas (primarily methane) reflects heat rays. And when Tyndall tested CO2 he found that it also reflects heat rays. These thermal-infrared opaque gases, if present in the atmosphere, could cause warming of our planet, Tyndall concluded. Evidently, he had understood the principle of the greenhouse effect.

It is fitting that this first explanation of the atmospheric gas-driven greenhouse effect was offered as the Industrial Revolution had just begun to transform our civilization-and our planet. A century and a half later, this transformation has increased the world population sixfold and the world's economic output about thirtyfold. It is plausible that such an enormous expansion of human activity on our planet might change the world's climate, and, indeed, global warming has ascended to a prominent spot on the political agenda of the developed world. Many glaciers have shrunk noticeably, some have disappeared entirely, the permanent Arctic Ocean ice sheet has shriveled, and large regions of permafrost have begun to thaw. Thus, anthropogenic global warming morphed from a possibility recognized by a few scientists into a driver. Humanity began to engineer the Earth in a new way, as its agriculture and urbanization have changed the Earth in ages past. This time, the atmosphere is being altered, rather than land surfaces and watercourses; but the basic principle was identical: The purposeful, large-scale alteration of the physical environment for human ends.

To develop effective policies on climate change we need to recognize that global warming is part and parcel of mankind's historic development. It is now deeply woven into the fabric of economic growth. Breeding stronger horses and building better windmills did not bring about the thirtyfold increase in mankind's economic production since the advent of the Industrial Revolution. It was the steady increase in the burning of coal, oil and natural gas that caused it. Fossil fuel-fired engines have been the sinews of the fabulous economic growth of the developed world.

But as John Tyndall and many scientists since him have explained, by burning fossil fuels we gradually enhance the existing greenhouse effect of the atmosphere-although, if the atmosphere conferred no greenhouse effect, the Earth would be covered almost completely by ice and snow. The inconvenient fact of a growing greenhouse effect has enticed environmental radicals to impute guilt to people who drive gas-guzzling SUVs, politicians who oppose imposition of carbon taxes and promoters of coal-fired power plants. But banging the drums of guilt is fatuous. It impairs our comprehension of climate change and distracts us from useful remedial measures. Restricting the burning of fossil fuels is not the only way to halt global warming, and by itself is unlikely to be sufficient.

As if meant to confuse us further, the "guilt" of burning too much fossil fuel has a politically charged corollary totally unrelated to climate change. We currently need to import oil from Middle Eastern and other countries to slake the thirst for liquid hydrocarbon fuels. Yet to protect our arrangements with some of these countries we deploy military forces at great cost and risk. Most irritatingly, what we have to pay for oil imports enriches countries that often tilt against us in our struggle with terrorism. That importing fossil fuels evokes this political corollary further confuses the debate about global warming. Listen to speeches in Congress. The rhetoric veers from measures to curtail our carbon dioxide emissions to demands that we reduce our current energy dependence on imported oil.


SINCE CLIMATE change ignores national borders, many governments, as well as the United Nations, have tried to establish a worldwide framework for enforceable, national policies. The result has been a cavalcade of international conferences-meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1988, the Earth Summit in 1992 that resulted in the Rio Framework Convention, the 1997 Kyoto conference and follow-up meetings without end.

Every one of these conferences focused on man-made emissions of greenhouse gases as the current cause of global warming, yet, none of them reached agreement on truly binding targets for reducing these emissions. Decades since the politics of global warming began to heat up, we neither have internationally agreed limits on future greenhouse gas emissions nor the administrative capabilities to implement such limits. A large majority of the nations that agreed to lower emission levels called for by the Kyoto Protocol have failed to stop the increase of their emissions, let alone reduce them to the agreed lower levels. Indeed, at the time of this writing, the global warming conference in Bali has not achieved better results.

Moreover, climate scientists now warn us we cannot be sure that the envisaged future emission controls would stabilize the climate anywhere close to its present state. Instead, we are told that substantially more warming is "locked in" by what has already transpired. We clearly need to find more promising ways to address the whole global warming issue.

Essay Types: Essay