Geoengineering – intentionally altering the climate, often discussed as a means of countering the already-in-process warming from greenhouse gases – has long been a favorite topic of mine. In the past few years I’ve been treated to new books out on the topic. One, Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe, made it onto my summer reading list this year, and I’m glad it did. Published last year by Eli Kintisch, now at MIT and an experienced reporter for Science and many other sources, I have a strong feeling that it will remain a must-read for years into the future as governments are forced to contend with their lack of action to date to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Hack the Planet provides the history behind modern thinking about climate change, including the involvement of world-renowned scientists, the U.S. nuclear labs, the Air Force, and others. It also provides several different angles for the reader to consider in observing where the debate stands today, including in-depth reporting on the status of several major geoengineering-related experiments, different schools of thought in the science and environmental communities, and the political tensions involved. Kintisch even presents the thoughts of a prominent ethicist on the moral considerations of intentional, global-scale climate manipulation.
The book, a very well written and fast read, also introduces many of the field’s most important thought leaders – both those in favor of geoengineering experimentation and those against it. Given that it walks through time and provides a well-rounded view of the issues we all need to be thinking about – including the international relations and security considerations – even as a reader with pre-conceived notions about geoengineering, I found myself carefully considering the pros and cons and the best policy courses.
Another point I was happy to see: early in the book Kintisch explains the role of computer modeling in climate projections – and the role it would play in planning any geoengineering schemes:
While models have answered some of the big questions about global warming, they use various fudge factors that stand in for a portion of the real physics representing the wild behavior of the climate systems. They’re only recently including rough approximations of Earth’s carbon cycle…The models also lack a realistic treatment of aerosols…And the models don’t reflect the recently discovered phenomenon…We need to know what’s coming, and deficient climate models make it more likely we’ll be caught by surprise.
This deficiency – especially if the world decides it needs to begin geoengineering experimentation – makes it all the more important that we invest in filling these gaps in the science. Our recent report on America’s declining earth monitoring capabilities hits on one aspect of how we can work to correct these deficiencies; recall that the Glory satellite that suffered a launch failure earlier this year was to focus on collecting data on aerosols.
I could go on and on with important points that the book raises, but I’ll just close in recommending it for your reading lists, whether you’re interested in climate change, transnational issues generally, or global governance of the commons. I’ll leave you with these smart words from the author:
Maybe the planet will turn out to be less sensitive to the carbon onslaught we have commenced, and things won’t spiral into the oblivion that the worst-case scenarios entail. One day, then, a book about geoengineering such as this will be considered a quaint historical relic, a cultural artifact of a pessimistic and frightening time in which some of the best scientists in the world thought the unthinkable. I hope so. But it’s foolish to wish for that…The worst may well come.