If you’re a regular reader, then you know that we here at Spinach HQ are big fans of the New Yorker. And specifically of the magazine’s environment and energy coverage.
This week, the venerable weekly tackles geo-engineering. Can blasting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere help guard us from the biggest threats of climate change? What about churning the oceans to lock more carbon deep under water?
The short answer here is yes, it’s possible. The longer answer is, yes, it’s possible, but most countries won’t allow any research to be conducted because even entertaining the question of engineering our way out of environmental challenges essentially concedes that we can’t solve them the old-fashioned way—that is, by reducing fossil fuel use and drastically ramp down greenhouse gas emissions.
But there’s reason to think that, despite international politics over climate change, now is the time to think about geo-engineering. Why? Because no matter how aggressive a policy the world’s leaders might one day – hypothetically – agree upon, we’re still in big trouble.
Read this excerpt:
During the 1974 Mideast oil crisis, the American engineer Hewitt Crane, then working at S.R.I. International, realized that standard measurements for sources of energy—barrels of oil, tons of coal, gallons of gas, British thermal units—were nearly impossible to compare. At a time when these commodities were being rationed, Crane wondered how people could conserve resources if they couldn’t even measure them. The world was burning through twenty-three thousand gallons of oil every second. It was an astonishing figure, but one that Crane had trouble placing into any useful context.
Crane devised a new measure of energy consumption: a three-dimensional unit he called a cubic mile of oil. One cubic mile of oil would fill a pool that was a mile long, a mile wide, and a mile deep. Today, it takes three cubic miles’ worth of fossil fuels to power the world for a year. That’s a trillion gallons of gas. To replace just one of those cubic miles with a source of energy that will not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere—nuclear power, for instance—would require the construction of a new atomic plant every week for fifty years; to switch to wind power would mean erecting thousands of windmills each month. It is hard to conceive of a way to replace that much energy with less dramatic alternatives. It is also impossible to talk seriously about climate change without talking about economic development. Climate experts have argued that we ought to stop emitting greenhouse gases within fifty years, but by then the demand for energy could easily be three times what it is today: nine cubic miles of oil.
That’s right. As we try to use less oil, we’re actually poised to use LOTS more oil. And realistically speaking, no matter how much we push a transition to renewable energy, we’re still emitting gasses for decades more. Fixating on renewable energy as our only salvation from a fossil fuel world will leave us flatfooted as climate challenges continue to mount.
Michael Specter’s story in the New Yorker is an excellent place to start the discussion about geo-engineering. We should be talking lots more about it.