George Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and global warming author who combines pugilistic defenses of climate science with Monty Pythonesque levity, is struck by a paradox at the heart of the attempt to achieve action here in Copenhagen. For, as he put it to a full room last night at a panel hosted by the Danish science magazine FORSKERForum, "In the past year, there has been a massive upsurge in climate change denial in the United States, even as the science gets stronger."
Opinion polls certainly support Monbiot’s contention. According to results released in October by the Pew Research Center, considerably fewer Americans now believe the Earth is warming (the decline has been from 71 percent to 57 percent over the space of a year and a half). And as for agreement with scientists about the cause of global warming—human activities, human emissions—that too has sloped downwards, to just 36 percent today.
You won't find geoengineering on the official agenda at the climate summit in Copenhagen. But for anyone watching the trajectory of the climate change debate, the controversial notion of intentionally modifying the planet or its climate system to counteract the effects of global warming is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Attracting almost no attention, Russia may have already conducted the first-ever geoengineering field trial. And if the climate talks at Copenhagen fail, it could give geoengineering advocates the lucky break they've been waiting for.
While it hasn't been featured in the formal negotiations, geoengineering has been a significant sub-theme in Copenhagen—the subject of numerous side events (pdf), protests, and a documentary film screening. Robert Greene's Owning the Weather, which aired here Sunday night in a venue off the spectacularly lit City Hall Square, paints the longstanding history of human attempts to control and modify the weather—through anything ranging from rain dances to quack cloud seeding efforts and hail cannon fusillades. The film ends with the observation that we are moving ever closer to making this ancient dream (or nightmare, if you prefer) a reality.
Indeed, scientists say there is little doubt that we could bring about an artificial planetary cooling by, say, seeding the Earth's stratosphere with reflective particles, called sulfate aerosols, that would act as an artificial global parasol and cool us down. Such an act would amount to mimicking the climatic effects of a large volcanic eruption, such as the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991—whose 22 mile high stream of ash, subsequently dispersed across the globe, resulted in half a degree Celsius of global cooling over the course of the following year.
Granted, the unintended consequences of such an action (such as decreased global precipitation) might be significant. But, goes the thinking among some scientists, if we're facing a climate catastrophe—if we're really going to bake; if Greenland is really going to go—then wouldn't a few side effects be worth it to maintain our fundamental way of life? And the less that is achieved in Copenhagen—the more agreements fall short of absolutely ruling out climate catastrophe by, say, returning global carbon dioxide concentrations to something like 350 parts per million—the more attractive geoengineering sounds, at least as a last resort.
As the rhetoric from the campaign trail demonstrates (remember the ad with John McCain at the wind-turbine factory?), nobody is against renewable energy. But no amount of green talk can change the fact that our economy is dangerously fossil-fuel based and foreign-energy dependent. The reasons are numerous, and in some cases notorious. Congress is hamstrung by pork-barrel politics and regional interests (e.g. West Virginia coal). We still don't have a federal equivalent to the laws in more than half the states mandating a minimum level of renewable energy. Perverse incentives abound: Utilities, for example, make more money the more electricity they sell, so (with few exceptions—see "Your Electric Bill at Work") they have little reason to promote conservation. Plus, energy issues are complex and technical, which makes it hard to figure out what our best options are—solar, nuclear, clean coal? Hydrogen fuel cells or plug-in hybrids?
If the Bush administration had consciously plotted to leave office with one last jab at American scientists, it could hardly have done better than the North Atlantic right whale incident. This fish tale has everything: attacks on science, appeasement of special interests, delays in government action—even a cameo by Moby Dick Cheney.
North Atlantic right whales can grow to 55 feet in length and weigh 70 tons, but that hardly makes them invincible. Because they have a habit of calving amid shipping lanes off the Atlantic coast, the whales sometimes perish in collisions—no small matter when there are fewer than 400 of them left in existence. Accordingly, in 2006 the National Marine Fisheries Service (nmfs) sought to protect these endangered cetaceans by requiring speed limits for ships passing through critical areas at key times of year—in essence setting up the marine equivalent of school crossing zones.
Feb 6, 2001: ExxonMobil lobbyist Randy Randol faxes the just-arrived administration a memo calling for a number of top climate scientists to be "removed from their positions of influence"—especially the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chair Robert Watson (described as having been "hand picked by Al Gore"). A year later, the administration campaigns against Watson's reelection to the international post.
June 5, 2002: President Bush disses a study from his own government that emphasizes that climate change is human caused and will have serious impacts on the United States. Bush calls it a "report put out by the bureaucracy."