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Can The World Engineer A Cooler Climate?


Draft report from the intergovernmental panel on climate change was leaked to the media this week. The scientists will report to the U.N. that it is nearly certain that human activity has caused most of the earth's climate change over the last 50 years. Now, this leak is certain to rekindle debates about how best to contend with events like increasing temperatures and rising sea levels, and it might make some people take a new look at what's called geoengineering.

Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and he wrote the book, "How to Cool the Planet," which one a Grantham Prize for environmental reporting. Mr. Goodell joins us from the studios of WAMC in Albany. Thanks very much for being with us.

JEFF GOODELL: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: So what is geoengineering?

GOODELL: Well, simply put, geoengineering is the sort of large-scale manipulation of the earth's climate to offset global warming. It sounds very sci-fi and far out and it sort of is, but it's something that people are now beginning to take seriously.

SIMON: Well, give us one or two ideas if you could.

GOODELL: One is building machines that would suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, essentially artificial trees. This is very kind of straightforward idea, not controversial, not much danger. It's purely a question of economics and whether you could do this on a scale that would be meaningful, it's something that really is not much concern.

What is of concern and of interest really is the idea of reflecting sunlight away from the earth, and one way to do that is to build what are essentially artificial volcanoes. We know that, you know, large-scale eruptions like Mount Pinatubo have had an effect on the global temperature of the earth's climate by injecting little sulfate particles high up into the stratosphere, which act as little mirrors, kind of reflecting away the sunlight.

And one of the ideas is that we would do a similar thing by using perhaps high altitude aircraft or something to put tiny particles essentially high up in the stratosphere that would reflect away a little bit of the sunlight and essentially and immediately cool the planet. It's really important to say this is not a replacement for reducing greenhouse gases. This is not a kind of simple quick-fix solution. There's lots of risk associated with this.

SIMON: Let me get you to talk about some of the risks.

GOODELL: Well, there's a number of them. One risk is by putting particles into the stratosphere you're changing the heat dynamics in the atmosphere and that could have an effect on monsoons and shifting the monsoons, which could have a big impact on food production. Another question is what impact these particles might have on the ozone. Will they make the ozone hole and the ozone problem worse or not?

There are questions about drought, what they will do to drought. And there's questions about, you know, the health effects. Would they have much, if any, impact on people as they sort of fall out of the sky.

SIMON: And something occurs to me. I mean, if you had, let's say the United States and Canada undertake a project like this and to put stuff up in the air that might be, we would think, perfectly good on this continent, but what if the cost of that is to cause a monsoon in Bangladesh?

GOODELL: Exactly. And so it becomes, you know, a question of whose hand is on the thermostat? Who gets to decide what the earth's climate temperature is going to be? And so, you know, it brings up a lot of the old kind of Cold War questions, of the sort of lone actor and what impact they might have, you know, the sort of, you know, crazy man with his finger on the nuclear trigger could now be updated to the crazy man or the crazy nation with their geoengineering scheme.

It's not an exact analogy but there's a lot to that.

SIMON: Jeff Goodell is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. He wrote the book, "How to Cool the Planet." Thanks very much for being with us.

GOODELL: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.