Geo-engineering the Earth’s Atmosphere: Is Seward’s Icebox Becoming America’s Oven? Mickey Glantz. January 5, 2011

Written by M. Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies

Published on January 04, 2011 with No Comments

Geo-engineering the Earth’s Atmosphere: Is Seward’s Icebox Becoming America’s Oven?
Mickey Glantz
January 5, 2011
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
This is a story in three parts.

1) In 1867, the US bought Alaska from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million in gold. Here’s a photo of the original check used to pay for it.
At the time, opponents of the purchase labeled it Seward’s Folly. William Seward was then the US Secretary of State, and he negotiated the sale. The land that he purchased (now Alaska) was then a territory completely unexplored by any but its native populations. It was perceived by the American public as being little more than a cold, snow-covered tundra, inhospitable to any possible future human settlement. Hence, Seward’s Folly.

2) In 1889, just a few decades after what became known as the Alaska Purchase, French science fiction writer Jules Verne published a story entitled, The Purchase of the North Pole. I have a feeling that Verne wrote the story with the Alaska Purchase in mind. The plot is as follows: Some American scientists and entrepreneurs got together and outbid both European countries and Russia in a worldwide auction for the North Pole region. Their objective for buying this perceived wasteland covered in ice and snow was to alter the planet’s inclination in order to melt the Arctic ice and then exploit the Arctic seabed for industry’s lifeblood for future progress at that time—extensive coal deposits. They intended to fire a large projectile from the Earth’s surface into space to jar the planet into a new inclination relative to the sun.

At first, people in the Europe and the United States of the novel were amazed by the proposal, in awe of it really: how brazen, how interesting. It seemed possible in theory, but in reality how possible was it really? As the time to the launch of the axis-altering projectile drew closer, people began to oppose the experiment because of its likely consequences to various parts of the globe. For the sole sake of profit, however, the American entrepreneurs remained resolute in their ambitions to purposefully change the global climate to their personal advantage. They had little concern for the consequences of resulting disasters that would befall others around the globe.

A few excerpts from the story illustrate how Verne captured some of the hypothetical (but possible) impacts of altering the planet’s axis:

“If the shooting [of the projectile] had been towards the north the consequences of it would have been much more disastrous for the more civilized parts of the earth. On the other hand, shooting toward the south the consequences would be felt in parts less populated and less civilized” (p. 121).

“If under the new oceans [rising sea level] only Samoyedens, Lapons of Siberia, Feugans, Patagonians—even Tartars, Chinese, Japanese, or a few Argentines— would suffer and be lost, perhaps the civilized powers would have accepted this sacrifice complacently. But too many powers took part in the great catastrophe not to raise a torrent of protest [against this scientific/money-making adventure]” (pp. 127-28).

3) Fast forward now to the present-day and to the climate change crisis that has befallen humanity. Scientists (and some entrepreneurs) have proposed that they can devise ways to alter the planetary climate system in order to avoid the worst consequences of a human-induced global warming of the earth’s atmosphere. And so they have, in half a dozen or so major geo-engineering schemes that have thus far been proposed to rid the atmosphere of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse (heat-trapping) gas of widest global concern. These schemes do not involve shifting the planet’s inclination, as in Verne’s tale, but they do involve several similarly ambitious—and dangerously foolhardy—climate-altering actions, such as: cooling the atmosphere by evaporating sea water to bright low lying clouds in order to reflect incoming solar radiation; mimicking a volcanic eruption to cool the planet by putting particulates in the stratosphere,, as happened during the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines; placing millions of small mirrors in low orbit around the planet to reflect the sun; planting mechanical [carbon attracting] “trees”; putting iron particles into the ocean to foster carbon uptake by algae; planting trees to pull carbon out of the air; sequestering carbon in abandoned mines.

The emphasis in these twenty-first century schemes, as it was among the scientists and entrepreneurs in Verne’s nineteenth century story, is on the science for the sake of the science as well as on the niftiness of the ability to design such experiments. In both cases, however, the potential impacts of the experiments, impacts that would not be felt equally by all around the world, are of little concern. Can we do it, is the first concern, followed by discussion of these schemes possible positive consequences. Little interest is shown in both cases to the victims at local and regional levels of the adverse consequences of altering the planetary climate system. To be sure, until now developing countries have had little involvement in discussions about the science of geo-engineering, even though they will most likely bear a disproportionate share of such schemes’ foreseeable adversities.

Seward’s Folly turned out to be the one of the wisest purchases of land since Jefferson acquired Louisiana from Napoleon for a steal. Indeed, Alaska was later found to be rich in fossil fuel reserves that have been important in powering America’s industrial development and economic growth. No success comes without a price, however, and scientists now indicate that Arctic sea ice will likely disappear altogether in the next few decades if the increases in global temperatures that have resulted from such industry and growth are not halted. This means that carbon dioxide emissions must be sharply reduced and/or a way to efficiently draw CO2 from the atmosphere and sequester it below the earth’s surface must be found. In a way, Arctic sea ice and permafrost in the circumpolar region, which includes but is not limited to Alaska, are the canaries in the coalmine of the global impacts of climate change because those high-latitude regions provide a first major indication of coming impacts for the rest of the planet. And those polar canaries are showing signs of faltering because of our continued and uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of confronting industrial addiction to fossil fuel burning, the heart of the problem, policymakers prefer to take the easy, short-sighted way out, turning to risky technological experiments that, if implemented, will have unforeseen and unforeseeable consequences for both climate and ecosystems worldwide. No place on earth provides a place to hide from climate change. The point is that bad policy decisions cannot be corrected with other bad policy decisions. The publisher of The Purchase of the North Pole noted, “Verne’s gift for prophesy was always based upon a sound scientific foundation which has earned him a literary permanence often lacking in his imitators or successors.” His legacy should serve as a warning to political leaders that they should tread lightly when it comes to scientific experiments that tamper with the global climate system.


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