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Saving Nature by Ending It: Geoengineering and the Moral Case for Conservation [Video]

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Climate change is a foregone conclusion. The amount of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere from two centuries-worth of fossil fuel burning (and, apparently, with decades more worth to come, given the glacial pace of efforts to slow said emissions) is enough to substantially warm global average temperatures. And that leaves so-called geoengineering—the deliberate, large-scale manipulation of planetary processes, in the words of the Royal Society—as the leading candidate for a techno-fix of the global warming problem, a fix the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will begin to explore in Lima, Peru this week.

"The Arctic is melting much faster than people expected," noted physicist David Keith of the University of Calgary, during a talk outlining why "nature" should be preserved at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, during the Equinox Summit in early June. "My generation utterly failed" to restrain greenhouse gas emissions, he remarked. "The next generation will have to do it."

Keith is one of the world’s leading proponents of geoengineering research as well as an advisor on climate and energy to one of the world’s leading philanthropists (and richest men), Bill Gates. As a maker of machines, including the first atomic-scale interferometer, Keith doesn’t think we’re running out of techno-fixes or even beginning to approach any limits on resources, technological progress or even the Earth’s ability to support an expanding human population. "It is true that we will run out of easy oil in the Middle East with profound geopolitical impacts, but that’s very different than running out of oil," he said. "We have an absurd amount of hydrocarbons in the world and a growing technological ability to get them out at prices we can afford."

In other words, peak oil (or coal or natural gas) won’t save us from climate change. What might, according to Keith? Government regulations, which are what has allowed progress on remedying environmental problems from air pollution to eliminating toxic heavy metals from the soil.

So what then is the impetus for such regulations? A popular position, taken by both environmental groups and big business, is that nature offers economic value. So-called ecosystem services—such as clean water or pollination of crops—contribute billions to the global economy.

But if that’s the only reason to save the natural world, Keith argues, then once someone like Keith builds a machine that can, say, deliver the same atmospheric benefits as the Amazon rainforest, there is no longer any compelling reason to save the "lungs of the Earth," as the Amazon is sometimes described. And that is exactly what geoengineering might lead to, "making the world safe for SUVs," in Keith’s words.

Instead, Keith argued that there is a moral case to be made for saving nature, particularly as it serves, in his conception,  as a "psychological and moral" anchor for humanity, thanks to the biophilia identified by Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson. "If we can protect that anchor for a few percent of [global gross domestic product], we would be insane not to pass on to our grandkids the option to have that natural world," he said.

Of course, to do so means a heavier (human) hand on the formerly natural planetary systems, such as the cycling of CO2 from atmosphere to biosphere to lithosphere and back again. "This is about accelerating the end of nature," Keith said, and putting humans in charge of what were formerly natural events and processes, such as the weather. Many people might disagree that humans can ultimately achieve such control, but Keith may have a point when he paraphrased Harvard ecologist William Clark: "We need to decide whether to be sloppy gardeners or good gardeners, and whether we want a wild garden."





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  1. 1. jtdwyer 3:06 pm 06/21/2011

    I disagree that "This is about accelerating the end of nature" – I think this is about accelerating the end of humanity. We cannot even manage ourselves, much less the rest of nature – global warming is merely one consequence of our inability to live within the limitations of the Earth’s resources. We think we know so much…

    Link to this
  2. 2. frish 3:41 pm 06/21/2011

    "Glacial pace", a term on it’s way to extinction!

    First, there won’t be many glaciers, and second, the pace is going to pick up significantly, when the buffering effects of ocean to absorb extra CO2 end.

    Geoengineering IS PRECISELY WHAT WE’VE BEEN DOING FOR 5000+ YEARS…AND, HERE WE ARE.

    Just because technology allowed us to be the biggest invader species on the planet, doesn’t mean that more of it will save us from ourselves!

    Let’s assume that we have unlimited energy some how.
    Let’s assume that all bad pollution practices go away.
    Let’s assume all people become vegan, and eat locally.

    We’ll simply continue to reproduce until there are no shreds of grass left.

    Something basic in our collective psyches needs to change.

    But, it hasn’t yet, and it almost certainly won’t change in time to stave off a Planet Wide population cull, both of humans and of all the plants animals and microbes we continue to eliminate from the Earth.

    http://www.vhemt.org
    I’m a volunteer, I’m vehement, hope you are too!

    Link to this
  3. 3. dpath2o 4:54 pm 06/21/2011

    Geo-engineering, interesting. However, frankly, I’m more in-line with the first two comments, though funding for geo-engineering should continue. Please remember that engineering is not science, and engineering solutions to questions that science doesn’t adequately understand is a most dangerous proposition.

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  4. 4. SkepticalKen 5:18 pm 06/21/2011

    Geoengineering is WAY scarier than global warming. Have we learned nothing from unintended consequences of the recent past? "Oh no! We’ve messed with nature and caused a problem (because we’re not really as smart as we think we are), let’s mess with nature some more and FIX it!"
    Did anybody see the recent article right here on SciAm about the ozone hole? Good news! The global cooling "crazies" of the 70′s were right (sort of)…our efforts are repairing the hole in the ozone layer…but, oh, by the way…that oversized ozone hole may have been slowing the Antarctic ice cap melt.
    Oh, yeah, and all the particulate matter we started regulating out of the air back in the 70′s, another success of the early ecologists? Well, some of these geoengineering idiots want to counteract global warming by pumping craploads of particulate matter into the atmosphere!!!
    Global warming will not be the end of humanity. Billions may die, and THAT will reduce our carbon footprint by a LOT, and the survivors MAY even learn a thing or three about sustainability. But geoengineering? That could end us all. We could set something in motion that we could not reverse and actually end life on this planet.
    I’m not saying we should do nothing, by all means we should change our habits as much as we can. But Mr. Keith’s "moral" objections fall terribly short of the horrifying truth that geoengineering is infinately harder to analyze in terms of unintended consequences than the already controversial global warming itself, and many, if not all, proposals for geoengineering would be completely impossible to reverse once deployed.
    Why don’t we just have a global thermonuclear war and let the nuclear winter balance out the global warming?
    We need to look for ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that won’t crush the entire world economy, and, more importantly, we need to study ways of mitigating the fact that we waited too long.

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  5. 5. SkepticalKen 5:21 pm 06/21/2011

    Eh? Funding should continue for this most dangerous proposition? Just say NO to geoengineering.

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  6. 6. patriceayme 6:08 pm 06/21/2011

    Instead of engineering the earth, on an ever larger scale, we should engineer ourselves. It’s more realistic, more feasible, and more ethical.
    http://patriceayme.wordpress.com/

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  7. 7. Ym Eman 11:07 am 06/23/2011

    All I know is that we are the only animal on the planet that destroys the environment that its life depends on…

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  8. 8. Dr. Strangelove 11:05 pm 06/23/2011

    "making the world safe for SUVs" is wrong headed. I prefer making the world free from SUVs. Energy conservation is an obvious solution to reducing CO2 and global warming. Do you really need a 300 hp SUV in city driving? A 30 hp electric car will do.

    A very simple geoengineering solution is to paint all roofs and roads white. That will increase earth’s albedo and mitigate global warming bec. white color reflects 7x more light radiation than other colors.

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  9. 9. jgrosay 8:02 am 06/24/2011

    The idea of diverting part of the Obi river flow by passing it under the Ural mountains, to add water to the basin draining in the Caspian sea, that is in a desertification process, has repeatedly come into my mind. Some Russia based reader, or somebody with enough simulation capacity to see if this is a reasonable and positive action giving an opinion?

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  10. 10. Bill Crofut 4:15 pm 06/24/2011

    Re: "The next generation will have to do it." Here’s another perspective:

    “IT WILL NOT BE THE END OF THE WORLD. AND IT IS NOT JUST about the polar bears on their lonely icebergs.
    Those thoughts kept going through my head during our recent town hall meeting about climate change, which took place at Yale University this past January (see page 38). Popular coverage of global warming tends toward the broad and apocalyptic, or the narrow and remote. Both extremes miss the point. Our planet has survived many climate swings in the past, and it will survive this one too. And while it is true enough that many species may struggle in a warmer world, the one whose fate we should really worry about is Homo sapiens.
    When temperature and precipitation patterns shift, the organisms hit hardest are the ones with the deepest roots. Unfortunately for us, we humans have a lot of permanent infrastructure. Costal cities cannot move inland to get away from rising sea levels. Farmers cannot simply relocate their fields to the new optimal locations for agriculture. Adaptation is possible–in fact, it is inevitable–but it will not be easy, cheap, or painless.
    Unlike other species, though, we can anticipate the environmental challenges that lie ahead and blunt their impact. That is why DISCOVER is teaming up with NBC and the National Science Foundation for two more town hall events exploring how we can best respond to climate change. We are talking not just to scientists but also to the business leaders and policymakers who will put ideas into action. Check back with us again in the September and December issues for more results from those ongoing conversations.
    Being smarter about how we use our resources, investing in cleaner types of energy, and studying the adaptation process now will not "save the planet," as some activists so breezily say; the planet is not in peril. What it will do is save ourselves from a lot of future hurt.”

    [Corey S. Powell, EDITOR IN CHIEF. 2011. The World is not ending. DISCOVER, June, p. 6]

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  11. 11. Anonymous 2:57 pm 05/15/2014

    Panama position, his oceanogenic power, HTS lines, offshore platforms, and cryogenic technology, allows the first feasible geoengineering project.
    Not only is feasible, but profitable, because lets bring energy, fuel and drinking water anywhere in the world.
    Humans can modulate and maintain the magnetic field of the earth with only one new, to seven actual: equatorial power lines.
    Maximum intensity of Earth’s magnetic field: 65 microtesla.
    Minimum relative permeability of pure iron (molten): 10.000.
    Radius of the Earth: 6000 kms.
    Frequencies involved: less than 3hz.
    Magnetic field of a current loop: the half of the multiplication of magnetic permeability with the electric current, divided by the radius of the loop.
    A little over 50,000 amps: capacity a cable 1 meter in diameter constructed with HTS material.
    I find nothing that contradicts this too much.
    Meanwhile, we have time to be protagonists of save the planet with Geoengineering with Panamá Oceanogenic Power, and USA HTS cables.
    Delete, or dismiss this because my English is worse than your Spanish, is immoral and unscientific.

    Link to this
  12. 12. Anonymous 3:40 pm 05/15/2014

    About the overpopulation: please innovate.

    We are smarter than bees and other animals who have overcome this. And yet these animals have no idea of the size of the universe.

    We must decide: either our intellectual capacity is only enough for a group, country, continent, or planet; implying that, sooner or later we must fight for limited resources, and also conform with 80 years of life. Or, get up eyes from the ground, or rather of seeing the navel, we recognize the infinite resources in the universe, we cooperate to populate it intelligently, and most likely, we are confident that we can make it forever.

    I can not believe that Bill Gates is considered as the one who can benefit humanity with its capacity. Okay as elitist marketing technique, but scientifically it is not true.
    In addition, bees, chickens, cows, dogs and cats are not the ones who buy Windows.

    Link to this

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