Reviewed 7/09/2010

Hack the Planet, by Eli Kintisch

Science's Best Hope—or Worst Nightmare—for Averting Climate Catastrophe
Eli Kintisch
New York: John Wiley & Sons, April 2010




ISBN-13 978-0-470-52426-8
ISBN-10 0-470-52426-X 279pp. HC $25.95

"Hack the planet" may well reverse the unfortunate use of the verb "hack" to mean breaking into a private computer system or committing some other crime involving computers. When personal computers were new, to hack meant to engineer some clever piece of code. This code might do something new on a particular model of computer, or it might be a smaller or faster way to do some task.1

Both of those meanings could apply to the tasks Eli Kintisch writes about. If we are to mitigate the effects of the ongoing rise in temperature that our planet is experiencing, much innovation will be needed. We will have to learn how to do things we've never done: to greatly reduce our consumption of coal and oil, in order to slow the release of carbon dioxide. We must also learn better ways of doing many things we now can do — like faster or less costly ways of pulling CO2 out of the air.

"It's not even clear right now that we understand our proximity to disaster. We're not sure how ice sheets melt, or how quickly. We can't quite track the world's carbon, whether it escapes into the atmosphere from a compact car or a rotting tree stump. Over the past century, scientists have steadily realized how subtle changes in the ocean, the sky, and the continents can have profound global effects. That raises the frightening possibility of catastrophes such as droughts or stronger snowstorms or hurricanes happening with little notice or after seemingly small pushes. But, conversely, a system that is responsive to subtle pertubations raises the hope that scientists might be able to use such levers in an effort to avert one disaster or another.."

– Pages 14-15

Eli Kintisch's book delves into the hot topic of geoengineering, currently defined operationally as "what to do if we need to adapt to global warming." Like Jeff Goodell's How to Cool the Planet, which came out a few months sooner, its emphasis is the riskiness of the proposition. Both books clearly convey the degree of risk, but Kintisch does a better job than Goodell in describing the various options that are being examined, especially in Chapter 6 where he looks at projects aiming to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere. On the other hand, like Goodell he gives short shrift to the idea of space-based means to reflect or otherwise diminish the amount of sunlight reaching Earth.

Each of the book's 12 chapters is preceded by a leaf of gray paper on which is described some episode of geoengineering enterprise or experiment such as the 2008 Russian attempt to screen the sunlight over a small plot in Siberia with aerosols, or California's Kesterson Reservoir which concentrated selenium to levels dangerous to wildlife.2 These examples illustrate the potential hazards of large-scale measures — as well as the risk that, by refusing to allow scientists to develop system-level understanding through small-scale experiments, we may put ourselves in the position of having to mount a crash program without really knowing what we're doing.

But even if one of the albedo-altering geoengineering methods Kintisch describes is found to work at cooling the planet without unpleasant side effects, it will not touch the rising level of CO2. And this poses dangers other that exacerbating the greenhouse effect.

For one thing, as CO2 concentration rises, the oceans take up more of it. In the process, ocean water becomes more acidic. This makes it harder for phytoplankton to form the shells they need. At some point, it will become impossible. Since these phytoplankton are the basis of the ocean's food chain, losing them would be bad news for us.

A rising CO2 level affects land crops too. Some people say this is a good thing; because CO2 is plant food, crops will grow better. Yes, extra CO2 can grow plants faster and bigger — but only if other nutrients are plentiful. Also, not all types of plants do respond to extra CO2, and many that do respond are weeds. Ironically, this is one area of geoengineering where experimentation is being done, and what's being learned is throwing up some big yellow caution signs.

These considerations are still more incentive to learn to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere efficiently and affordably, as well as slowing the rate at which we push it into the atmosphere.

"The climate crisis begins and ends with coal. The planet's more than 2,100 coal plants spew out roughly 21 percent of total world CO2 emissions from energy use. (The 150 largest of those facilities emit a whopping 10 percent of human CO2 emissions.) Coal is cheap and abundant, and humans have been burning it to produce energy for more than a century. It's responsible for more than half the electricity generated in the United States, and it's the climate nightmare that is only beginning: by 2030, forecasts the International Energy Agency, world coal power will double. Renewable energy, natural gas, and nuclear power will all help provide lower emissions in the years to come, but none will replace coal fast enough to matter. And if coal plants are using roughly the same technology in 2030 as they are now, says the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, world CO2 emissions would be 13 billion tons per year higher. If the world can obtain energy from coal without adding to its carbon problem it will be well on its way to stabilizing carbon concentrations. 'If we don't solve the climate problem for coal, we're not going to solve the climate problem,' Princeton physicist Robert Williams says."

– Pages 105-6

Every chapter, including the "grayleaves", has a set of endnotes. Kintisch uses the sentence-fragment method instead of numbers to connect these with the text. But that's a minor defect. There is a good index. I found one index error, stumbled on it really, did not methodically check. There are a few misstatements and a fair number of grammatical errors. None of this is enough to induce me to downgrade the book. Recommended with full marks.

1 It is true that this benign form of hacking was almost certainly unauthorized. But in those more innocent days, when computer bulletin board systems were springing up all over the country, when the Internet was new and the World Wide Web wasn't even a gleam in Tim Berners-Lee's eye, the intent was almost never malicious.
2 It is true that this was not an intentional geoengineering experiment, merely the result of continuing irrigation in California's central valley. But Kesterson was a natural sump that collected the runoff, and when the water evaporated it left behind its load of chemicals. The USGS identified 14 other sites besides Kesterson where selenium concentrations became dangerous.
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