Global Engineering

Global engineering is so far just an idea - the idea that there are possibilities of improving the world as a whole. There have been many proposals, but the individual proposals and the whole idea are controversial. Here's the position taken in these pages.

We regard the world as humanity's garden, to be arranged within humanity's capability in accordance with humanity's values and desires. This is different from the view that regards humanity as an intruder on Nature.

Humanity has always altered nature on scales consistent with human abilities. Some of these changes have been intentional, though with limited scope so far. Now much intention is focused on inadvertent changes due to emissions of CO2 and chlorofluorocarbons. These changes are feared, and a strong and widely prevalent ideology demands that there be no changes.

Wed May 9 22:45:53 2007 note: Nature for 2007 May 10 has an article about the revival of interest in geoengineering. The main scheme discussed is putting substantial amounts of SO2 in the upper atmosphere, perhaps globally and perhaps only in the summer in high latitudes. The effect would be to reduce the sunlight reaching the surface.

The ideological phenomena revealed by the article are as interesting as the discussion of actual technology. There is still an enormous objection to any kind of geoengineering on the ground that it diverts attention from the need to reduce emissions. There's nothing in the latest IPCC report about geoengineering, but advocates hope that IPCC will wake up to the possibility by 2012 when there may be another report. See ideology for a discussion of ideological phenomena including ideological memes among scientists.

According to simulations reported 2002 September 27 in Science, soot is an important influence on regional climate. The largest inputs are from cooking with coal and animal dung in China and India. Mainly it affects the weather in these countries and their neighbors. Its ideological sign is the opposite of that of CO2. It's the underdeveloped countries that cause the problem by their backward ways of cooking and heating.

The New York Times for 2003 December 10 has an article telling about a study by William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia suggesting that human forest clearance for agriculture inadvertently averted an ice age 5,000 years ago by increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere. I draw the conclusion is that the safety of humanity requires getting positive control of the climate. While we're at it, we might as well figure out how to get rid of a desert or two.

The fact that small quantities of various substances in the upper atmosphere can affect climate has its up side as well as a down side. If we can decide what is possible and get enough agreement on what is desirable we can re-arrange climate to something that suits humanity better. At least as important in the long run, humanity can avert catastrophes like ice ages, prolonged regional droughts, and asteroid impacts.

Some of the proposals on my Future page have a global or even solar system nature.

Here's an article Climate Controls by Gregory Benford, a physicist at UC Irvine and science fiction writer. He describes many possibilities for mitigating global warming.

Iron Fertilization of the Ocean

There are various schemes for getting the ocean to extract more CO2 from the atmosphere such as iron fertilization. This was proposed, then refuted and then rehabilitated technically by people who were against actually using it. Here's an amusing reference. The researcher, Kenneth Coale, ends up saying "I feel compelled to carry out this research in a way which is environmentally responsible." Presumably, he is one of those, along with Stephen Schneider, who are dubious about any form of "global engineering". An Australian study reported in 1999 confirms that iron fertilization can be expected to have substantial effects in the Southern Ocean.

Science for 2004 April 16 has two reports and a news article on a big 2002 series of experiment in iron fertilization in the Antarctic and subAntartic waters. The question was how much carbon ended up in the deep ocean rather than being recycled to the atmosphere. Some certainly, but it turned out that the amount also depended on available silica. Whether iron fertilization can be helpful in reducing the amount of CO2 ending up in the atmosphere requires further experiment, they concluded. The articles and the report were pleasantly scientific. Geo-engineering was mentioned but neither advocated nor denounced.

Wed May 9 23:00:13 2007 note: Nature for 2007 May 10 has an article by Johannes Lehmann advocating putting carbon into the soil rather than into trees. It seems plausible.

Here's a Tutorial on climate change. Since the subject is controversial the tutorial may have some biases.

Up to: main sustainability page

Send comments to I sometimes make changes suggested in them. - John McCarthy

The number of hits on this page since 2000 Mar 12. [The page has been here for several years, but I just noticed it didn't have a hit counter.]