Modern Luddites

December 31, 2011

A friend of yours

Suppose a friend of yours believes that the world is facing a dire future because of too much CO2 in the atmosphere.  The problem seems clear to him, he says, and so does the best course of action.  The fossil fuel powering of the world must come to an end.

He knows that bringing that end about is very difficult, but he perseveres.  It will be very expensive.   Many of the worlds assets will be consumed replacing a thriving fossil fuel based economy with a new “cleaner” economy.

The entire world must be convinced to cooperate, so he cajoles and he scolds.  The standard of living of the wealthy nations must be reduced.  The rest who are embracing the benefits of an energy rich society for the first time will have to wait.

Huge administrative changes will be needed, so he manuevers for control.  Great swathes of the planets landscape will have to be altered to accommodate some combination of wind power, solar power and biofuel production.

But he also has faith that the hardships of his solution will be offset by other (perhaps vague) benefits beyond the reduction of CO2.

A new idea

Now suppose along comes somebody who has another idea to solve the problem: an idea that might not result in a huge disruption of the economy. It’s an idea that might not result in all the hardships.  It is only an idea, in its infancy.  He would like your friend to take a look at it.

What does your friend say?  Does he say “Let’s see this new idea, look at the pros and cons.  Let’s run some simple tests.”  Or does he say “Go away!” and stick his fingers in his ears and say “NANANANANA – I can’t hear you – NANANANANA.”

Would you doubt your friends sincerity, or even his sanity, if he chose the latter response?

Suppose the idea was this…

The Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) study, which considers the possibility spraying sulphur particles into the stratosphere, like a volcano, to force global cooling.  This is a big idea and it would be no simple feat to accomplish. What are the advantages and disadvantages?  Who knows?

The stratosphere is 20 km above the surface of the Earth.  The amount of material that would be required is enormous.  The idea is that huge balloons would pull hoses up into the stratosphere and particulate material would be pumped up from the ground.   

It is worth at least thinking about.  A small-scale project to test of the concept was planned in the UK for this fall.  A balloon would hoist a hose only one kilometer and water would be pumped into the atmosphere. 

Image is from "Good governance for geoengineering," Nature, 479, November 2011

Modern Luddites

Alas, this experiment may never take place because a lot of people like your friend may have killed it.  In effect, they said “Go away!” and stuck their fingers in their ears and chanted “NANANANANA – I can’t hear you – NANANANANA.”

According to Nature  (the journal where every environmentalist is a saint),

“the EPSRC [UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council], one of the study’s main funders… received a letter and open petition, also sent to UK energy and climate-change secretary Chris Huhne and signed by more than 50 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil-society organizations, demanding that the project be cancelled.”

The source of the letter and petition?  An organization called “Hands Off Mother Earth.”  The 75 or so signatory organizations to the petition include the following organizations: Amigos da Terra Brasil, Earthpeoples, Gaia Foundation, and my favorite, the Gender Climate Caucus.

Their letter states…

We believe the experiment planned to test equipment for injecting particles into the stratosphere with the aim of counteracting global warming through solar radiation management (SRM) should be cancelled…We believe that such research is a dangerous distraction from the real need: immediate and deep emissions cuts.

In other words, they do not want a simple test of an alternative idea.  I believe that makes them anti-science and anti-reason, modern luddites.

One comment

  1. Nice idea, and clearly appealing to any scientist wishing to spend his time working on it. But it’s a classic case of trying to get out of a hole by developing new, more advanced digging tools.

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