August 11, 2011

Book Review: Hack the Planet

– 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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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:

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.