Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

who hacks the planet?

Eli Kintisch’s 2010 book Hack the Planet explores the rise of geoengineering as a response to global warming: Since human beings are apparently unwilling to change their behavior in order to avoid unfortunate effects on the planet’s ecosystem, why not then change the way the planet responds to our behavior?

But the chief problem with hacking the planet is that you’d be hacking the planet, and, as Kintisch pointed out in a related article, it’s hard to envision ways of testing planet-hacks before employing them. You can’t really release sunlight-blocking aerosols in one unobtrusive corner of the atmosphere to see what they do. In the end, if such strategies are deployed — as David Keith of Harvard in a new book says they must be — then someone is going to have to bite the bullet and attempt on a huge scale an endeavor whose results will be pretty unpredictable.

And as Kintisch notes in a brief review of Keith’s book, geoengineering could be the source of major international conflicts in the 21st century:

solar geoengineering could be a major geopolitical issue in the 21st century, akin to nuclear weapons during the 20th—and the politics could, if anything, be even trickier and less predictable. The reason is that compared with acquiring nuclear weapons, the technology is relatively easy to deploy. “Almost any nation could afford to alter the Earth’s climate,” Keith writes. That fact, he says, “may accelerate the shifting balance of global power, raising security concerns that could, in the worst case, lead to war.”
The potential sources of conflict are myriad. Who will control Earth’s thermostat? What if one country blames geoengineering for famine-inducing droughts or devastating hurricanes? No treaties ban climate engineering explicitly. And it’s not clear how such a treaty would operate. [...]

Accepting the concept of the Anthropocene means accepting that humans have the responsibility to find technological fixes for disasters they have created. But little progress has been made toward a process for rationally supervising such activity on a global scale. We need a more open discussion about a seemingly outlandish but real geopolitical risk: war over climate engineering.

I think here of Robert Oppenheimer's notorious line: "When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success." To a lot of scientists planet-hacking looks technically very sweet indeed, and no doubt they'll be able to find politicians to agree with them. But which country will be the quickest to release its geoengineers to do their thing? Being first-to-market in planet-hacking may not be a good thing — for those of us who're getting hacked.


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