Sunday, May 23, 2010

Book review: Hack the Planet

Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe (Hardcover)
~ Eli Kintisch - Wiley - 2010

Geoengineering or "planet hacking" is the emerging field of developing large-scale schemes to control the Earth's climate and negate the effects of global warming. In one of the first books on this important topic, Eli Kintisch has provided a highly readable introduction for a broad audience.
Planet-hacking was long dismissed by climate scientists as either an unfeasible solution or a subversive one being pushed to enable us to keep dumping carbon into the atmosphere. As Kintisch shows, highly respected climatologists are coming around to the idea that geoengineering must be studied even though it's a very risky last resort, something to be considered only if we fail to reduce our carbon output - or if we've already passed the tipping point.
The author takes us through the variety of schemes proposed - sowing the atmosphere with sulfur compounds to reflect sunlight, sowing the oceans with iron to make plankton bloom (sequestering more carbon in an enhanced ocean food web), and even more daunting projects like maintaining huge fields of mirrors in orbit. Kitisch talks with all the major figures (many of them as interesting as the ideas they study), takes us through scientific meetings in the U.S. and Europe, and shows a growing consensus that geoengineering must be better understood, even as we hope never to deploy it. Every geoengineering concept has side effects and unknowns, and none of them are without serious political, financial, and technical challenges. There are worries about individual nations taking unilateral actions that could affect the whole planet and even about the possibility geoengineering could be weaponized.
Kitisch has no doubts about anthropogenic global warming and provides alarming statistics to show how serious a threat it's becoming. This, he argues, is why geoengineering must be studied despite its risks: because a day may come when the uncertain risks of geoengineering are outweighed by the certain risks of continuing climate change.
People may differ about how immediate the climate threat is and exactly how much human activity affects global temperatures. What can't be debated, though, is that our enormous conversion of carbon via fossil fuels amounts to an uncontrolled experiment on our own species. Kitisch and the scientists he interviews think we damn well better be aware of our options if that experiment puts us in imminent danger. His well-written book offers clear explanations and examples to bring readers up to speed on a subject that may determine our future on Earth.

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