Two interesting news articles have come out of Harvard this week: firstly an excellent speech by John Holdren (a Professor of Enviromental Policy) hitting back at the global warming skeptics which is well worth reading: “Global warming is a misnomer… It implies something gradual, uniform, and benign. What we’re experiencing is none of these” (Link). Second, I came across this article (in Fox News of all places) discussing research by Harvard geoscientist Professor Kurt House that suggests de-acidifying oceans could combat climate change. Professor House’s approach seems slightly different than the age old suggestions of seeding the oceans with iron to stimulate phytoplankton blooms (thereby using photosynthesis to absorb CO2) – instead envisioning “treatment plants” that intake water from the oceans and remove naturally occuring hydrochloric acid. In theory, this would work: by making th oceans less acidic, it goes some way to reducing the problems of ocean acidification and increases the CO2 absorbing capacities of the ocean sinks. To quote the lead author of the study: “Essentially, our technology dramatically accelerates a cleaning process that nature herself uses for greenhouse gas accumulation.”
Such methods may seem radical, but given the dramatic increases in CO2 emissions as i mentioned in my last post, such approaches may become inevitable. A colleague of mine, Dr Ken Caldeira from the Carnegie Institute, Stanford, recently wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled “How to cool the globe” (link), proposing the seeding of small particles of sulfur into the stratosphere to counteract the effects of global warming. In essence, similar to the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1992, pouring a five-gallon bucket’s worth of sulfate particles per second into the stratosphere may just be enough to stop global warming for 50yrs. A quick browse of the literature suggests that the theory behind such a statement rings true enough (link). The best part of this plan? It is easy to achieve through current technology, relatively cheap, and sulfur particles naturally degrade in the environment over time. Although such geoengineering solutions sound like something from a science-fiction novel (I don’t think that our ever skeptic friend Michael Crichton will include one in his novels soon!) they may not be so far-fetched given the growing risk of catastrophe that appears to face us.
While it would be my preference not to interfere in the atmospheric and geological cycles of the planet, the fact that we are doing it anyway with disastrous results, means that we may have to rethink the ethics and begin to play ‘gardener’ to the planet. It may be our last chance given that we have may have kicked off the types of devastating runaway climate impacts that many climate experts are now talking about. Whether we like it or not, we now have to play earth’s gardener or face a very difficult and different future.