There are efforts worldwide to control the release of harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to stop global warming. Some experts are now considering the idea of saving the planet through so-called "geoengineering." The controversial idea is the subject of a new book called How to Cool the Planet.
Jeff Goodell thinks geoengineering is a somewhat crazy idea. But he writes in his book that after the failure of last year's Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, the technological approach may end up being the world's only option.
He argues there are two ways geoengineering might solve the global warming problem: One would be to use technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere; the other would be to block sunlight. Goodell says the latter idea offers the most promise. It would basically involve technologies that mimic what large volcanic eruptions do, put into the stratosphere particles that reflect sunlight back into space.
Most environmentalists are appalled by such proposals to play with nature, but Goodell says humankind is already manipulating the climate, but not in a rational or beneficial manner.
"We are already pushing the earth's climate around in a very powerful way by dumping billions of tons of greenhouse gases into it every year, and the real question here is not whether we mess around with the system, but whether we can learn to do it more intelligently," said Goodell. "There are technologies out there that might help us reduce the risk of dramatic climate change."
In How to Cool the Planet, Goodell examines some of the ideas proposed by scientists who are researching geoengineering. He says it is only a matter of time before someone tries to do it.
"Ideally, this would be done in a rational way, where we would have all the nations of the world or representatives from the nations of the world building a consensus and making a decision about how we would do this," he explained. "But in realistic terms, the real issue is individual nations because putting particles into the stratosphere to cool down the planet is relatively cheap. It can be done by not only an individual nation, a wealthy individual nation, but also a collection of nations or even a wealthy individual, a billionaire."
But what worries many experts, and Goodell as well, is that some nation or individual might try to solve the global warming problem with a technology that only makes matters worse.
"How do you keep a rogue nation from launching a nuclear weapon? How do you keep a rogue nation or even a rogue individual or a collection of nations from deciding that it is in their interest to try to cool down the planet?" he asked.
Goodell says scientists exploring technological solutions to global warming have, for the most part, done so quietly, for fear of drawing criticism from environmentalists opposed to the idea. Many of them are also worried about the risks involved. But Goodell says the time has come for an open discussion with other scientists, environmentalists, human rights groups and governments to at least promote the study of more options.
"All the thoughtful scientists that I wrote about in my book completely agree that the way we need to deal with global warming is to cut emissions," he said. "But, like me, they see that that is not happening, and so they really want to stimulate some dialogue on this so we can have a better understanding of this world we are moving into."
Goodell says the cost of a massive geoengineering project will be of little concern once the world fully recognizes the crisis brought on by climate change. Even if the idea is treated as a last resort, Jeff Goodell says a well-designed geoengineering research program would not only provide more information about the possible costs and risks of various proposals, it could also serve pure science by deepening the world's understanding of how the planet works.