Where few men dare to go

Second Opinion, by Gazette columnist Jim Holtz (Feb. 18)

The scientific community, which lately has won worldwide support for its unified stance on global warming, has finally shaken off the bonds of reality and ventured where few men dare to go.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has decided that it is time to take the wraps off an old idea of lowering global temperatures by releasing clouds of gases designed to block the sun’s rays, thereby lowering temperatures.

In a nuanced, two-volume report, the NAS said that the concept should not be acted upon immediately because it is too risky, but it should be studied and perhaps tested outdoors in small projects.

It could be a relatively cheap, effective and quick way to cool the planet by mimicking the natural effects on climate of large volcanic eruptions, but scientists concede there could be dramatic and dangerous side effects that they don’t know about.

Panel chairwoman Marcia McNutt, editor of the journal Science and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, said in an interview that the public should read this report “and say, ‘This is downright scary.’ And they should say, ‘If this is our Hail Mary, what a scary, scary place we are in.'” For its part the NAS has said that government oversight would bee required. That might be the scariest part of all, a bunch of parliamentary yes men going along with whoever is currently in power.

“This creates a bit of what we call a moral hazard,” said Waleed Abdalati, a University of Colorado ice scientist and former NASA chief scientist who co-authored the report. “There will likely come a time we’re going to want to know the ramifications of that kind of action. … You’re talking about potentially changing weather and climate. You don’t want to do that without as good an understanding as you can possibly have.”

And the committee scientists said once you start this type of tinkering, it would be difficult to stop because warming would come back with such a force. So a decision to spray particles into the air would have to continue for more than 1,000 years.

An interesting sidebar is that the report was requested by the U.S. intelligence agencies. If that doesn’t make one feel confident, I’m not sure what will.

The panel did favour technology to suck carbon dioxide from the air and bury it underground. But unlike the artificial cloud concept, it would be costly and take decades to cool the planet.

The final word goes to Texas A and M professor Andrew Dessler. While the artificial cloud idea is a much worse option that carbon dioxide removal, Dessler said, it is more attractive to some people because “we could probably do it right now. There’s really very little that’s technologically standing in our way.”

Oh, brave new world!