IN JUNE, climate scientist David Keith and his neighbors in Calgary, Alberta, were ripping carpets and drywall from their flooded homes — again. In 2005, a “flood of the century” had shattered city records. The 2013 flood was even bigger and forced 100,000 residents to flee to higher ground.
To Keith, the city’s second 100-year flood in less than a decade seemed a little ironic. Calgary is the nerve center of Canada’s oil industry, including tar-sands giant TransCanada, developers of the Keystone XL pipeline, and home to plenty of folks who don’t seem to worry much about climate change. Maybe, Keith mused in an e-mail from the flood zone, this latest example of extreme weather would be “a bit of a reality check.”
Or maybe not. Resistance to global-warming alarms goes well beyond the corporate boardrooms of the oil business. There have been repeated international pledges for deep cuts in carbon dioxide emissions in order to slow the greenhouse effect, in which carbon dioxide gas traps solar radiation in the lower atmosphere. Yet global emissions keep rising. While several developed countries, including the United States, have recently managed to reduce the amount of carbon they pump into the atmosphere — thanks to a major shift from coal to lower-carbon natural gas, an uptick in both efficiency and in renewable energy use, and, last but not least, the global economic slowdown — these cuts have been canceled out by rising emissions from China and other rapidly developing nations. This inertia, and a growing feeling of alarm in the scientific world, has turned Keith into a leading advocate for the real-world testing of sometimes drastic measures that might cool the planet, collectively known as geoengineering.
For decades, geoengineering — which describes various technical proposals, from the seemingly straightforward to ideas that sound like they were dreamed up on Star Trek — was a dirty word among environmental scientists, who wanted less messing with nature, not more. But with carbon dioxide emissions rising and political forces having little global impact, it’s an idea now openly debated at scientific and policy forums. At the same time, it has gone from a side interest of Keith’s to a full-time gig, including writing a book, A Case for Climate Engineering, that comes out next week.
Skeptics think geoengineering is hubristic overreach that is bound to backfire — either by removing the impetus to cut emissions or by causing new problems for the climate, or both. Keith welcomes the debate, but he bristles at being cast as gung-ho. The risks of climate tinkering are real, Keith says. But willful ignorance is riskier. Left unchecked, a warming climate could one day cause enough harm that mounting pressure to do something, anything, to cool the planet quickly would leave few other options. If that day comes, he says, we’d better know what we’re doing.
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