|THE PLANET REMADE
How Geoengineering Could Change the World
Princeton University Press, November 2015
This book opens with two questions Oliver Morton heard at a lecture. An entire universe flows from the answers. I reproduce those questions here as the author does, and for the same purpose: to get you thinking.
"This is a book not just about a particular set of ways in which the world could be changed — it is about a world already changed in all sorts of ways that are not spoken of as clearly as they should be. It is a world in which the impact of the human is far greater than it used to be: a world in which the global economy has become something akin to a force of nature, in which the legacies of past generations and the aspirations of generations to come dwarf the impacts of hurricanes and volcanoes. Some people reject or denounce the implications of this change; others blithely accept them in a way that underplays their magnitude. I think those implications need to be opened up, inspected from different angles, interrogated, analyzed, appreciated. Only then will it be possible to make the necessary judgements and choices."
– Pages 4-5
Morton makes it clear that humanity has acquired power equivalent to the forces of nature once held to be forever unmatchable in magnitude.1 This level of puissance was reached well before burning fossil fuels became a cause for concern. The Haber-Bosch process2 initiated perhaps the most profound intervention. Invented in the twentieth century, this means of turning atmospheric nitrogen into nitrogen compounds plants can use — fertilizers — led to the Green Revolution and a great expansion of land under cultivation, allowing the human population to triple. It also gave us eutrophication of bodies of water, leading to algae blooms and dead zones.3
The claim that CO2 is plant food — which is perfectly true — has been used to argue against the transition from fossil fuels to carbon-free energy.4
More CO2, goes this logic, means more plant life: a greener world. And this is also true. However, the argument goes on to claim that this means more crops, more flowers, more forests — pure win. And here the situation is more complicated (as the author explains.) To put it briefly, plant growth requires other nutrients as well, and lack of any of these will curtail growth. Also, the plants that grow best with added CO2 may not be those we like, and the plants we like may not use the extra CO2 in ways that make us like them better. Finally, many plants are inhibited by higher temperatures; even a few degrees may make a big difference.
Currently, the Haber-Bosch process is used to manufacture 140,000 tons of nitrogen compounds worldwide, every year. (Another 35,000 tons — classified as NOx — result from the burning of fossil fuels and are dispersed in the atmosphere.)
But here his primary concern is the climate change being forced by the main product of burning fossil fuels: carbon dioxide (CO2) and the possibility of limiting the rise in temperature by means other than reducing CO2 emissions. These means fall under the general category of geoengineering, and can be regarded as "Plan B" where cutting CO2 emissions is Plan A.
In most cases, it's good to have a Plan B ready in case Plan A doesn't work out, and this is true for the case of climate change. However, geoengineering, at least in its most feasible forms, presents what is known as a moral hazard: with proven methods of geoengineering available, the nations of the world may stop reducing CO2. This is hazardous because more CO2 has another effect: it dissolves in sea water, making it harder for some ocean species we depend on to form shells. (Also, of course, continuing to burn coal, oil, and natural gas continues the other unwanted byproducts of that burning: fly ash, mercury and sulfur, NOx, and methane emissions.)
Morton examines the application of the more feasible geoengineering methods, devoting most space to the most feasible, which he terms veilmaking. This consists of distributing fine particles of sulfur compounds throughout the stratosphere. These turn into highly reflective clouds of sulfuric acid which will stave off a small percentage of the sunlight that Earth would otherwise hit Earth, and thereby lower its temperature. (Volcanoes do the same thing, but not in amounts we control, and never on our schedule.) The sulfur falls back out within a few years, and we don't need more sulfur on the surface. Thus, it must be continually replenished in the stratosphere for as long as needed; failing to do this brings the "termination shock" of a spike in temperature. Adding more sulfur in one hemisphere pushes rainfall toward the opposite pole, potentially expanding deserts.5 And, absent other measures, CO2 keeps on building up in the atmosphere.
In the last chapter, he presents some scenarios by which veilmaking might be a net win for the Earth and humanity. These are fraught with political as well as technical difficulties; but, like most difficulties, they are far from insurmountable given agreement on a goal and dedication to success.
Other methods of geoengineering exist. One is brightening clouds by pumping sea water into the air through small nozzles to atomize it. This might find local application, for example to cool the water around Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Adding iron to sea water fertilizes the growth of plankton, pulling more CO2 out of the air. Unfortunately, the CO2 removed in this way does not stay out of the air for very long. Slowing deforestation is beneficial, and planting more forests even more so. But planting enough to make a worthwhile dent in CO2 concentrations would take too much land. Capturing CO2 from power plant exhaust, where it is relatively concentrated, and pumping it underground makes some sense6 but is likely to face considerable opposition. Building machines to draw CO2 out of the air, where it is rare, would be an option if it were not so blasted expensive. And both these removal options face the quandary of where to put the captured CO2.
One method Morton mentions but passes over is putting mirrors in space to block some portion of sunlight from reaching Earth at all. I know this would be horrendously expensive and technically challenging, but he does not explore the possibility. I think this is a shortcoming of the book.
That is its only major shortcoming. It does require a good deal of patience from the reader, for Morton, in describing the many complex aspects of climate change and geoengineering, must employ long sentences and convoluted explanations that sometimes must be read twice. He also, as in his other books, takes the reader on excursions into the past century of history. But his work will repay the effort. It cites a host of individuals involved in climatology and geoengineering, as well as a few from the world of fiction. (For example, Kurt Vonnegut is featured, as is his brother Bernie, a scientist.) It even gives us insight into the cultural roots of our present inaction on climate change.
"The anthropologically attuned historian Joe Masco has pointed out that the nuclear age brought with it two incompatible futures: amazing plenty at some distant time and unparalleled devastation always a few minutes away. Fending off that prompt apocalypse meant perpetually preserving the present — freezing it as if in Ice-nine.7 The increasing ease of imagining the end of the world and the difficulty of imagining change in the way it is run are not independent of each other; each is to some extent the cause of the other."
– Page 310
I found it corrected a few of my preconceptions. But the best thing about it is its comprehensiveness and balance, and the hopeful outlook with which it ends. It also contains fewer grammatical errors than most books. The Bibliography contains 349 entries. Endnotes are provided, and the Index is excellent. Top marks, and I rate it a keeper.