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Geo-Engineering: Laying Foundations

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Geo-Engineering has been a fringe science since the Sixties (when it first became popular to believe that Technology could fix anything), and it seems to be finally coming into vogue after being brought to back to public attention by mainstream Media sources such as the New York Times .

Before drilling down too deep though, let’s start by sharpening some of our bits of terminology first.

Unlike BIO-Engineering, which seeks to apply pure Science via Technological processes to produce engineered results in Biological fields (from GM’d corn, to the materials of Orthpaedic hip-joint replacement hardware), GEO-Engineering seeks to take the same approach to the entire Earth in order to effect positive changes to our environment. Regrettably, the term Geo-Engineering seems to have been misappropriated and popularized as a description of Ecological or Environmental engineering applications on a global scale, even though the terms Enviro, Global, or ECO-Engineering would likely have been a more appropriate descriptors. Unfortunately for the real Geo-Engineers out there (who’ve been working long and hard on true Geological Engineering), the term GEO has already been co-opted by Environmentalists, adopted by the Media, and is now popularized to represent a much more narrow scope of applied technological solutions to our most pressing issues around Climate Change. So Geo-Engineering has effectively come to mean something else entirely to all of us (relatively ignorant) non-engineers.

So….Geo-Engineering (as we currently accept the poorly defined definition) is a notably complex endeavor that requires the collection, collation and application of knowledge from three VERY large areas of study:

* Scientific disciplines including Climatology, Biochemistry, Ecology, Meteorology and several subsets of Biology and Physics
* Engineering disciplines including aeronautical, naval, architectural, ballistics, propulsion, and materials Engineering.
* Regulatory/Management and other control disciplines such as business process and risk management, and realtime operational research…and of course an insanely complex and interdependent maze of International Politics, Regulations, Diplomacy, and Trade.

Before delving into these ridiculously broad categories of study, first, let’s just put away any indignant or ignorant self-righteousness about “playing God” with the environment. Insteaed, let’s simply admit that we’ve already been toying with our Ecology, and changing the Earths environment in countless ways for a long time now already.

Whether it’s by altering watersheds and aquifers, re-engineering entire drainage systems for irrigation or hydro power, or by clearcutting the heat and CO2 consuming capacity of entire forests, and let’s not forget the ongoing and always contentious issues behind enormous volumes of CO2 (and other more potent greenhouse gases) escaping into the atmosphere, as Humans we are already very deeply ensnared in the tricky game of Geo-Engineering. Thus the dire scenarios described as AGW, or “Anthropogenic” (man-made) Global Warming are directly attributed to Human activities, which nobody questions as being capable of changing an entire planet.

So since we’ve already been behaving like foolish Gods (or rather like some lesser being that has self-provisioned itself with Godlike dominion over nature according to some self-distorting Judeao-Christian fallacy) let’s then look at the risks of Geo-Engineering more realistically.

By presuming that the the man-made component of natural CO2 emissions is indeed at the root of the current cycle of Climate Change, let’s just adopt the pretext of Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) as the indisputable truism that it appears to be, and skip straight ahead to finding some possible solutions to Climate Change ( as caused by AGW, or otherwise), through whatever extraordinarily global-scale means necessary.

Why Geo-Engineering ?

What are our options when it comes to effecting positive changes to the global climate?

Of course we all know that there’s just no way that we could bring our economies to a screeching halt by denying the use of fossil fuels, and thus plunging the world (or at least the parts that comply to Environmental laws) into some modern version of the Dark Ages.

Instead of putting all of our resources into developing alternative energy sources, we could just continue to ascribe faith in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) methods and pray that such an incredibly expensive gamble proves to actually have some impact on the course of Climate Change. This is an especially risky gambit, because current technologies in CCS would likely double the cost of our electricity, and deeply impact our economies and life as we know it, while we wait to see if they even have any appreciable impact on the climate after all.

Of course, this is indeed a huge gamble to consider

We could also simply stop burning down forests for the sake of Agriculture, and help at least slow the destruction of the Planets living lungs. However it is already quite clear that we’re quite willing to drive up the cost of food by shifting agriculture into Ethanol producing crops, while continuing to grow and support markets for immensely energy intensive feedstocks, and the destructively wasteful and inefficient agricultural practices behind industrial scale poultry, cattle, pork, and dairy production.

We will likely continue to condone (at the cash register) the burning of forests in exchange for cheap sugar cane and cheeseburgers. We’re already well entrenched in the type of energy intensive and increasingly Bio-Engineered farming that’s required to continue feeding corporate greed and industrial might with the large scale results of petroleum-based methods and fertilizers. Without a complete revolution in modern agriculture, nobody should be holding their breath for an ecologically-based solution to global warming….not anytime soon anyhow.

Short of making radical changes to our lifestyles and drastically crippling our current economies, the next big possibility still seems to be Geo-Engineering. In the process, we can only hope that any successful Geo projects wouldn’t actually have the negative effect of reducing the political and social pressures for emissions controls, as a result!

Stewart Brand is a highly regarded Environmentalist and feels that Geo-Engineering is still a taboo subject for most Government bodies, but proclaims in his speech on “Environmental Heresies”, that Geo-Engineering will be our next greatest challenge to International Diplomacy as we contend with the very problematic “downstream” implications to global scale Geo-engineering projects.

When it comes to addressing global warming as the key issue within general Climate Change, Geo-Engineering presents us with a variety of far-fetched possibilities.

On the other side of the equation, we already have all the Conspiracy Theorists lining up to save us from the dire repercussions of this endeavor

Aside from bankrupting future generations with the enormous folly of setting up gigantic solar shades or reflectors in space, the most realistic possibilities for Geo-Engineered solutions rely on either reflecting solar energy in the atmosphere to negate the greenhouse effect, or in figuring out how to capture more CO2 right down on the surface.

Since Carbon Capture deserves it’s very own category of investigation, let’s start our ongoing examination of Geo-Engineering on what can be done way up in the atmosphere.

“Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get” -Robert Heinlein

The most popular approach seems to be in creating ‘sunscreen’ protection by altering the “albedo” (no, not “libido'”) of the atmosphere to reflect more light back into space before it strikes the surface and converts into heat. Although altering “libido” might itself also serve some of the scary Eugenic approaches to limiting Climate Change via population control, if we cannot in fact change consumption and energy production patterns otherwise.

One of the first ground sightings of noctilucent clouds over Budapest, Hungary on June 15, 2007. Credit: Veres Viktor

Early Signs

Later today (15/09/09) NASA will be hoping to launch a rocket to carry it’s “Charged Aerosol Release Experiment” (CARE) into the outermost reaches of the atmosphere in order to try and seed artificial clouds. Since the weather for this experiment must be ideal for not only the launch site, but the multiple optical observation sites (on Atlantic coast and Bermuda), the launch will only proceed under perfect conditions. Since it remains to be seen if man-made Carbon Dioxide is indeed the big bogeyman of Climate Change, we should all be very interested in what sort of PLANS B (C, D, etc) are being considered now, if the monumentally costly and risky presumptions of CO2 reductions don’t yield the results we’re told to expect in order to (at least) slow global warming. Seeing as the fate of the Climate may very well rest in the hands of alternate plans, we’re very interested in how the CARE project turns out, and a followup story on this groundbreaking attempt to create clouds for the purpose of Geo-Engineering will certainly be forthcoming as the results start to come in.

Until then, keep your feet on the ground, and click here to launch your head up into the clouds…


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