How to Cool the Planet

Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate

How to Cool the Planet

Product details

Product name: How to Cool the Planet: Geoengineering and the Audacious Quest to Fix Earth’s Climate

Reviewer: Kate Arneman

Author: Jeff Goodell

Publisher: Scribe

Price: $35

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A 2009 report released by the British Royal Society defined geoengineering as “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system, to moderate global warming.” It’s a term that encompasses a number of technologies as diverse as they are audaciously ambitious.

Broadly speaking, there are two main approaches. First, carbon engineering. Problem: too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Solution: suck enough CO2 out of the sky to restore the planet to its pre-industrial conditions. Mechanically extracting greenhouse gases from air is one proposed method, another is dumping iron sulphate into the oceans to encourage rapid algal growth. The anticipated effect would be marine carbon sequestration, just as planting trees draws carbon out of the air and stores it.

The second approach, albedo engineering, is about altering the albedo (or reflectivity) of the Earth’s surface to lower temperature. Proponents suggest painting roofs white, shooting sulphate particles into the stratosphere to create a reflective shield against the sun’s rays or seeding clouds with water droplets to achieve the same effect.

You might be scratching your head at this point, wondering if this review is an elaborate hoax. And that’s before I mention the scheme to dump millions of tonnes of Special K into the sea...

Five years ago, writes author Jeff Goodell, the perceived wackiness and quackery quotient of such theories made geoengineering “the scientific equivalent of a porn habit, something you thought about and explored in the privacy of your own lab but did not discuss in polite company, lest you be considered a pervert.”

The very fact that a respected scientific body such as the Royal Society went anywhere near the topic indicates how perceptions have shifted and, as several scientific and environmental commentators have suggested, how dire the threat posed by climate change, and our inaction, has become.

In How to Cool the Planet, which is a fitting counterpoint to his last book, Big Coal, US journalist Goodell is the average concerned citizen and parent of “three budding carbon emitters” trying to work out whether geoengineering is a feasible and/or desirable Plan B to roll out should we fail to make drastic emissions cuts in the required timeframe.

The most likely strategy to be deployed, on account of its low cost and simplicity, is the injection of particles into the stratosphere. That doing so would rapidly lower the Earth’s temperature is not controversial, but the potential flow-on effects to ozone chemistry and weather patterns are.

The nub of the debate about geoengineering, according to Goodell, is the ethics of human intervention in the biosphere on such a massive scale. Do we have a right to interfere? Or is there a moral obligation to fix the damage we have done? Who gets to make the decisions about the risks, whether we do it, how we do it, and when?

A further risk, and another reason why geoengineering is considered a dirty word in some circles, is that the appeal of a quick fix may encourage a ‘business as usual’ approach to carbon emissions. If we can counter the effects with technology, why take a risk with our economy? As Goodell revealed in an interview with Mother Nature Network, shortly before the release of this book he was approached by a big fossil fuel company who offered to sponsor a speaking tour.

Although acutely aware of the risks of fiddling with the Earth’s thermostat, and adamant that humanity must make the transition to more sustainable way of life for long-term survival, Goodell argues that the most responsible course of action is to invest time and money into further research into geoengineering as a last ditch plan to buy us more time. If we don’t, he writes, it will likely still happen, but in a far less transparent and considered way – one that could have terrifying consequences.

Displaying the flair and humour you would expect from a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, Goodell draws the reader into a technical and complex topic. He skillfully employs a cast of characters including James Lovelock, octogenerian inventor of the Gaia theory, the late 19th/early 20th century professional rainmakers of the US Midwest, a socially awkward entrepreneur with a dream of making the oceans bloom and a renegade, red-bearded ex-Cold War scientist.

Crucially, Goodell’s scientists and inventors are not lab-coated boffins but people with pasts, passions and family obligations. People just like him, and just like us, all sharing an equal interest in a habitable Earth for generations to come.

Printed on paper made from wood grown in sustainable regrowth forests.

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