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(James Brey / iStockPhoto/James Brey / iStockPhoto)
(James Brey / iStockPhoto/James Brey / iStockPhoto)

The radical science of geo-engineering: Maybe it's not so crazy Add to ...

During a year marked by startlingly unsettled weather, the world's leaders - preoccupied as they are by economic storms - have had conspicuously little to say about global warming. Indeed, when the Kyoto Protocol, once touted as the big climate fix, expires next year, will anyone notice?

In the absence of meaningful international progress on a workable emissions-reduction strategy, some climate experts have begun to ponder more radical Plan B solutions designed to prevent a torrid future filled with fierce hurricanes, vanishing glaciers and flooded lowlands.

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These "geo-engineering" technologies (see sidebar), some seemingly plucked from the realm of science fiction, propose techniques to artificially reduce global temperatures and soak up excess carbon as an alternative to traditional fixes, such as green power and energy-efficient buildings. The proposals run the gamut from whitening clouds to capturing airborne carbon and deploying vast quantities of reflective materials into the orbit around Earth to deflect incoming solar rays.

About 60 scientists and international relations experts gathered this week in Lima to contemplate the rapidly growing body of geo-engineering science and, in effect, consider a once-unthinkable question: Should the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which oversees Kyoto (and its eventual successor), seriously consider geo-engineering as part of its arsenal for fighting global warming?

The meeting in Lima is an indication that the science of geo-engineering is gaining a new aura of legitimacy on the world stage, even though few would dispute that it represents a drastic response to arresting climate change. Not only is it rife with complicated legal and ethical questions, there is also the terrifying prospect of what could happen if one of these global-scale interventions fails or has unforeseen consequences.

Indeed, many environmentalists and social justice groups are dead set against costly technical schemes to manipulate global temperatures and the atmosphere.

But the bracing question geo-engineering proponents pose is a valid one: What's the alternative, given the lack of progress with conventional fixes?

Jason Blackstock, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., and a member of the steering committee that organized the meeting in Lima, frames the emerging debate in terms of "risk versus risk." With emissions at record levels and little hope of co-ordinated international mitigation efforts, the perils of inaction are equally troublesome, he says. "I don't think it's reasonable right now to take any option off the table."

This week certainly wasn't the first time experts have gathered to debate these almost unimaginably grandiose proposals, some of which could take decades or even centuries to deliver results. The British Parliament held extensive hearings in 2009 and the signatories of the Convention on Biological Diversity last fall hashed out a toughly worded resolution banning commercial ocean fertilization, a form of geo-engineering meant to sequester carbon by artificially promoting algae growth. Networks of geo-engineering experts have also formed to hash out voluntary research protocols and approaches for regulating these systems.

This week's session was different, however. Hosted by the UN-chartered Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the meeting marked the first time the Nobel Prize-winning organization has turned its scholarly attention to a set of ideas many critics dismiss as fanciful, and possibly destructive.

In response, Montreal-based ETC Group, a social justice non-governmental organization that has focused intensively on geo-engineering, predicted that the IPCC will "squander its credibility" by evaluating technologies that aspire to re-engineer Earth's climate.

And some environmentalists argue that such schemes represent a distraction from the pressing business of emissions reduction. Even geo-engineering experts acknowledge that no one really understands the full ecological impact of large-scale interventions in the global climate system.

A detailed overview by Britain's Royal Society in 2009 noted that techniques such as cloud whitening and aerosol reflectors could alter local climate conditions and even damage the ozone layer. Other technologies would involve enormous amounts of mining activity or could pose risks to global food crops.

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