Climate

Geoengineering Gone Wild: Newsweek Touts Turning Humans Into Hobbits To Save Climate

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Matamata, New Zealand - "Hobbiton," site created for filming Hollywood blockbusters The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

Newsweek has an entire cover story devoted to raising the question, “Can Geoengineering Save the Earth?” After reading it, though, you may not realize the answer is a resounding “no.” In part that’s because Newsweek manages to avoid quoting even one of the countless general critics of geoengineering in its 2700-word (!) piece.

20141205cover600-x-800Geoengineering is not a well-defined term, but at its broadest, it is the large-scale manipulation of the Earth and its biosphere to counteract the effects of human-caused global warming. Global warming itself is geo-engineering — originally unintentional, but now, after decades of scientific warnings, not so much.

I have likened geoengineering to a dangerous, never tested, course of chemotherapy prescribed to treat a condition curable through diet and exercise — or, in this case, greenhouse gas emissions reduction. If your actual doctor were to prescribe such a treatment, you would get another doctor.

The media likes geoengineering stories because they are clickbait involving all sorts of eye-popping science fiction (non)solutions to climate change that don’t actually require anything of their readers (or humanity) except infinite credulousness. And so Newsweek informs us that adorable ants might solve the problem or maybe phytoplankton can if given Popeye-like superstrength with a diet of iron or, as we’ll see, maybe we humans can, if we allow ourselves to be turned into hobbit-like creatures. The only thing they left out was time-travel.

The author does talk to an unusually sober expert supporter of geoengineering, climatologist Ken Caldeira. Caldeira knows that of all the proposed geoengineering strategies, only one makes even the tiniest bit of sense — and he knows even that one doesn’t make much sense. That would be the idea of spewing vast amounts of tiny particulates (sulfate aerosols) into the atmosphere to block sunlight, mimicking the global temperature drops that follow volcanic eruptions. But they note the caveat: “that said, Caldeira doesn’t believe any method of geoengineering is really a good solution to fighting climate change — we can’t test them on a large scale, and implementing them blindly could be dangerous.”

Actually, it’s worse than that. As Caldeira told me in 2009, “If we keep emitting greenhouse gases with the intent of offsetting the global warming with ever increasing loadings of particles in the stratosphere, we will be heading to a planet with extremely high greenhouse gases and a thick stratospheric haze that we would need to maintain more-or-less indefinitely. This seems to be a dystopic world out of a science fiction story.”

And the scientific literature has repeatedly explained that the aerosol-cooling strategy — or indeed any large-scale effort to manipulate sunlight — is very dangerous. Just last month, the UK Guardian reported that the aerosol strategy “risks ‘terrifying’ consequences including droughts and conflicts,” according to recent studies.

“Billions of people would suffer worse floods and droughts if technology was used to block warming sunlight, the research found.”

And remember, this dystopic world where billions suffer is the best geoengineering strategy out there. And it still does nothing to stop the catastrophic acidification of the ocean.

There simply is no rational or moral substitute for aggressive greenhouse gas cuts. But Newsweek quickly dispenses with that supposedly “seismic shift in what has become a global value system” so it can move on to its absurdist “reimagining of what it means to be human”:

In a paper released in 2012, S. Matthew Liao, a philosopher and ethicist at New York University, and some colleagues proposed a series of human-engineering projects that could make our very existence less damaging to the Earth. Among the proposals were a patch you can put on your skin that would make you averse to the flavor of meat (cattle farms are a notorious producer of the greenhouse gas methane), genetic engineering in utero to make humans grow shorter (smaller people means fewer resources used), technological reengineering of our eyeballs to make us better at seeing at night (better night vision means lower energy consumption)….

Yes, let’s turn humans into hobbits (who are “about 3 feet tall” and “their night vision is excellent“). Anyone can see that could easily be done for billions of people in the timeframe needed to matter. Who could imagine any political or practical objection?

Now you may be thinking that Newsweek can’t possibly be serious devoting ink to such nonsense. But if not, how did the last two paragraphs of the article make it to print:

Geoengineering, Liao argues, doesn’t address the root cause. Remaking the planet simply attempts to counteract the damage that’s been done, but it does nothing to stop the burden humans put on the planet. “Human engineering is more of an upstream solution,” says Liao. “You get right to the source. If we’re smaller on average, then we can have a smaller footprint on the planet. You’re looking at the source of the problem.”

It might be uncomfortable for humans to imagine intentionally getting smaller over generations or changing their physiology to become averse to meat, but why should seeding the sky with aerosols be any more acceptable? In the end, these are all actions we would enact only in worst-case scenarios. And when we’re facing the possible devastation of all mankind, perhaps a little humanity-wide night vision won’t seem so dramatic.

Memo to Newsweek: We are already facing the devastation of all mankind. And science has already provided the means of our “rescue,” the means of reducing “the burden humans put on the planet” — the myriad carbon-free energy technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps LED lighting would make a slightly more practical strategy than reengineering our eyeballs, though perhaps not one dramatic enough to inspire one of your cover stories.

As Caldeira himself has said elsewhere of geoengineering, “I think that 99% of our effort to avoid climate change should be put on emissions reduction, and 1% of our effort should be looking into these options.” So perhaps Newsweek will consider 99 articles on the real solutions before returning to the magical thinking of Middle Earth.