The smartest people in the world are most likely to kill us.
When are we going to realize we can’t engineer our way out of the impending environmental apocalypse? As oil spews merrily into the Gulf of Mexico, science writer Eli Kintisch sounds the alarm about the evil genius plans for cooling the planet being explored by actual scientists.
These ideas sound like something out of a James Bond movie: One involves layering the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to replicate the effects of the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which blocked the sun’s rays and lowered the global temperature by 1 degree Fahrenheit
A writer for Science magazine, Kintisch is the author of the cautionary new book, Hack the Planet: Science’s Best Hope — or Worst Nightmare –For Averting Climate Catastrophe. His subject is something called “geoengineering” — which he calls “a bad idea whose time has come” in this NPR profile.
Stating what should be obvious, Kintisch tells NPR’s Guy Raz that cooling the planet with something like “the Pinatubo Option” (it already has its own brand!) would not only fail to address underlying causes but could have disastrous unintended consequences.
“You might actually damage the ability of solar panels to take in energy, because you are blocking direct sunlight that those panels need to create energy,” Kintisch warns. “So by doing geoengineering and removing direct sunlight from the planet’s system, you’re actually undermining the alternative energy we need to get off our fossil fuel addiction.”
Some other mad scientist schemes: Encouraging massive algae blooms in the ocean to soak up carbon dioxide. Placing a giant lens between the earth and the sun to screen us from solar radiation. Spraying a fine mist over the entire Middle East.
These ideas are not the work of fringe lunatics, but serious mainstream scientists, supported by he American Geophysical Union, the Royal Society in London, and the National Academy of Sciences.
And it’s not just talk. German oceanographer Victor Smetacek dumped six tons of iron into the ocean near Antarctica last year, hoping to foster a carbon-chomping algae bloom. He did get algae to grow — but it was the wrong kind.
“In the case of fertilizing the ocean,” Kintisch explains, “you might create areas that are deprived of oxygen. You might alter ecosystems in ways you don’t understand. You might actually create organisms in your algae patch that put up greenhouse gasses more potent than the carbon dioxide, like methane.”
It’s human nature, I suppose. No one means to ruin the planet, but we don’t want to give up our cars, our gadgets and the cheap energy that runs them. So we’re betting science can come up with an easy-peasy fix. But it doesn’t work that way. Alternative energy and conservation, our only real hope, is so boring compared to, say, satellites beaming electricity to the ground.
It’s time we stopped putting all our faith in technicians and lent an ear to our prophets. Everyone — especially scientists and engineers — are hereby assigned to read (or reread) these classic examinations of scientific hubris: Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley; R.U.R., by Karel Kopek; and (especially) Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut.
These are the three titles to leap to my mind, but I invite you to suggest a few– I’d like to get a reading list of at least 10. Meanwhile, the science heads out there: feel free to explain (please talk slow), how I’m wrong.