The Viridian Design Movement

Viridian Note 00479: The Sulfur Cure

Key concepts:
climate change, Global Haze Proposal, Paul Crutzen, geoengineering, terraforming, sulfur in the stratosphere, volcanoes
Attention Conservation Notice:
This proposition is straight outta of Mark Twain's novel "The American Claimant" from 1892, except, uh, it just came out in WIRED.


(((Keeping up with the furrow-browed efforts of the global political class. They've been beavering away on Kyoto 2.0. Realistically, are these crumbling, oil-hungry nation-states and their violently disordered remnants gonna get on the same page? Even if the UN makes all the right noises?)))

(((A grimly detailed ten-point climate-change plan that's considerably less nutty than this one, only it'll likely get zero traction because it's from an unrepentant British socialist.)))

(((Yet another design contest for rousing public awareness of global warming. We Viridians were very into this kinda effort == about ten years ago. Nowadays we Viridians get rather more interested when large numbers of the public get killed by storms. Everybody now knows climate crisis is happening. They just figure maybe it won't bite them personally. Give it another ten years, and something like the "Greenhouse Mass Grave Design Contest" might be in order.)))

"God is still up there," says evil crank denialist James Imhofe. Precisely the sentiment I don't want written on my Greenhouse mass grave tombstone. That sentiment sure works for suicide bombers.

Metropolis is running a design contest for green energy, because Metropolis is hip. Plus, they've got good taste and ten grand! Wow!

Is anybody still worried about "Peak Oil"? You know what's happening this season? "Peak Solar." Everybody wants the silicon, and there just isn't enough to go round. So I guess we'll be eating dogfood out of cans soon. The suburbs are clearly doomed. Oh wait, did that make any sense? "Peak Solar" economics is so counterintuitive that I got all confused.

The real solution to our intractable difficulties: not artificial sulfur shot into the stratosphere, but bacteria that can eat junk. Okay, I'm kidding about that. Not.

Now for the good news. There's less methane in the sky. Nobody has a clue why. But hey, there's less, and that's good. It's great. Probably.

We didn't get blown to pieces by hurricanes in 2005. Hurricanes were remarkably few. Nobody has a clue why. But what the heck, we weren't Katrina'd straight to hell, and that was good. It was great. Merry Xmas.

Source: David Wolman, WIRED magazine

"Repeat after me: We humans have screwed up our planet. Feels better, doesn't it?

((("We humans have screwed up our planet, we humans have screwed up our planet, we humans have screwed up our planet." Hey wait! Facing the awful truth DOES feel better.)))

"Now that we've accepted this reality, at least we don't have to argue about it anymore. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are at the highest they've been in at least 800,000 years. Greenland's ice sheet is melting fast. Some == probably a lot == of the current warming trend is because of us, and so are the consequent threats to ecosystems, food supplies, coastal cities, and all that other stuff from An Inconvenient Truth.

"Of course, that means we're responsible for repairing the damage, but stopgaps like carbon sequestration just aren't going to cut it.

(((Actually, it means that we human beings from the last two full centuries of fossil-fuel use are "responsible for repairing the damage," and most of us are dead. I'd say the clearest implication here is that WIRED readers would also be dead long before "humans" fully repair this situation, but what the heck, read on.)))

"Luckily, a growing number of scientists are thinking more aggressively, developing incredibly ambitious technical fixes to cool the planet. (((Uh-oh. Ever hear the useful expression, "Be careful what you wish for, you might get what you want?" That would be the Viridian moment o' truth there, when the ecosystem design boffins just roll the gizmo right off the launching pad and turn the blue sky bright green.)))

"These efforts to remedy the accidental experiment of climate change with intentional, megascale experimentation are called geoengineering. (((Or, as Stewart Brand points out, "we're already terraforming so we might as well get good at it.")))

"Thus far, ideas include reflecting sunlight with gazillions of orbiting featherweight mirrors or by saturating the stratosphere with sulfur, or increasing the volume of microbes that eat CO2 by fertilizing the oceans with iron.

"Harebrained? Well, maybe. But somebody has to save the world.

"Typically, sober environmentalists have looked askance at geoengineering. In fact, they mostly think it's nuts. All the ideas on the table reek of foolhardiness. We have only one Earth, and it is a system of unparalleled complexity (in other words, no one knows exactly how it works).

"What if we muck it up? 'If you go down the path of geoengineering, it leads to taking ever-increasing environmental risk, and, eventually, you'll be unlucky,' says Ken Caldeira, a climatologist at Stanford University. (((Maybe we’re ALREADY unlucky. There are guys who argue that we altered the weather as soon as we invented agriculture.)))

"What's more, many greens worry that just talking about geoengineering could deflect funding and focus from the task of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. They'd rather we legislate higher fuel-efficiency standards and design better photovoltaics. ((("Funding and focus"? These guys don't know what a victory condition looks like. In the 2060s, damage from climate change is supposed to outpace the planet's entire GNP. That means ALL the funding and ALL the focus get used up by one issue: climate crisis.)))

"Enviros are right about the urgency of kicking the fossil fuel habit == that's a no-brainer. The problem is inertia; the changes we have wrought in the atmosphere will play out over decades (or longer) whether we junk all the SUVs tomorrow or not. (((Right.)))

"That's why it makes sense to start thinking seriously about radical countermeasures. (((Well, no. Logically, it ought to mean that it's time to start WORKING seriously on radical long-term countermeasures that take decades to carry out. But I quibble: come on, this is WIRED. These are rock-solid San Francisco values getting an airing here. On with the summer of geoengineered love.)))

"One of the biggest boosts to the idea of climate manipulation came last summer from Paul Crutzen, an emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. Writing in the journal Climate Change, Crutzen, who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for work examining ozone depletion, described a plan to shoot massive quantities of sulfur into the stratosphere.

(((Paul Crutzen. Nobel-Prize winning scientist. Not a lunatic. Sane European guy. Lives in world run by lunatics; cannot be helped. Note that Crutzen, as a boy, almost starved to death in Holland in the "Hunger Winter" of 1945 until the Swedes dropped food out of the sky. I think his proposal possesses some moral gravity.)))

"In theory, the sulfur would reflect sunlight == just as particles blown into the air by the eruption of Mount Pinatubo did in 1991 == cooling Earth and buying enough time for civilization to shift into green gear. (((I shudder at the thought at what this experiment would do to the weather, but at least we do have the on-the-ground historical examples of Pinatubo and Krakatoa to show that it doesn't destroy the planet instantly.)))

"Crutzen's not crazy, and he's no renegade terraformer. 'Until a few years ago, I would also have been against the idea,' he recently told an Australian newspaper.

(((He's also stated elsewhere that he considers his proposal to be a kind of interventionist publicity stunt. "It was meant to startle the policy makers," said Paul J. Crutzen, of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. "If they don't take action much more strongly than they have in the past, then in the end we have to do experiments like this." But Dr Paul's an old man; it may well be that planetary policy-makers thirty years from now consider geo-engineering to be the only serious and practical option.)))

"His journal article == and his clout == gave geoengineering an almost instant credibility boost. Soon other heavies, like Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, were also writing in favor of the concept.

"Their message: Geoengineering isn't, and shouldn't be, fringe science. 'Given that the climate-change problem might be more serious than we previously thought,' says Tom Wigley, a mathematical physicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, 'we should consider these radical solutions more seriously.'

(((He's got a point, so, here you go: geoengineering is here in your email, consider it.)))

" Stanford's Caldeira is keeping an open mind == he's even helping to organize an international geoengineering meeting at NASA Ames Research Center.

The shortsighted mistake here would be getting mired in the details of these wild plans. (Crutzen's scheme would mean we'd have to start loving smog == but imagine the psychedelic sunsets!) Yes, these ideas sound crazy. But we're in the earliest stages of what is potentially the single most crucial new science in history.

"Let's give the researchers a minute or two to get their PowerPoint slides in order and, more important, grab a slice of the admittedly modest budget for climate-change research. Just remember: Advocating the study of geoengineering does not mean campaigning for the deployment of every ludicrous notion that comes along.

"Smart people finally convinced us that we need to stop burning fossil fuels. Let's do that. But because what has already been set in motion tends to stay in motion, we need a well-researched, measured plan to get us (or, more realistically, our grandchildren) out of this mess. The real worst-case scenario is some kind of Bruce Willis-movie scheme deployed at the eleventh hour, after the climate shift has already hit the fan. == David Wolman

(((What's the pitch in the sulfur cure, or as it's described with a tad more dignity, the "Global Haze Proposal?" Giant balloons and giant guns.)))

"The Dutch climatologist, awarded a 1995 Nobel in chemistry for his work uncovering the threat to Earth's atmospheric ozone layer, suggested that balloons bearing heavy guns be used to carry sulfates high aloft and fire them into the stratosphere.

"While carbon dioxide keeps heat from escaping Earth, substances such as sulfur dioxide, a common air pollutant, reflect solar radiation, helping cool the planet.

"Tom Wigley, a senior U.S. government climatologist, followed Crutzen's article with a paper of his own on Oct. 20 in the leading U.S. journal Science. Like Crutzen, Wigley cited the precedent of the huge volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

"Pinatubo shot so much sulfurous debris into the stratosphere that it is believed it cooled the Earth by .9 degrees for about a year. (((Note that this cooling is not nine degrees, but point-nine degrees. Less than a degree.)))

"Wigley ran scenarios of stratospheric sulfate injection == on the scale of Pinatubo's estimated 10 million tons of sulfur == through supercomputer models of the climate, and reported that Crutzen's i dea would, indeed, seem to work. Even half that amount per year would help, he wrote.

"A massive dissemination of pollutants would be needed every year or two, as the sulfates precipitate from the atmosphere in acid rain."

(((What do I like about the design of this Global Haze scheme?)))

  1. It's been done before. By volcanoes.

  2. If "Global Dimming" theory is right, we may already be doing "Global Haze" right now as we speak, except in a filthier and stupider way. Link:

  3. It's got a volume dial. You can spew a little sulfur dust, judge the pragmatic results and spew more or less.

  4. It goes away by itself if you stop.

  5. It's cheap. Bill Gates could do it out of the petty cash.

  6. It's fast.

  7. Balloons and guns are time-honored proven hardware.

  8. It isn't digital, so at least it doesn't run under Windows.

  9. It might distract the attention of governments from the much simpler and more elegant 'Global Haze" scheme, which would be to use ICBM rockets to spew chemical and biological dust over areas where people fail to share one's family values, thereby drastically reducing carbon emissions by the simple Stalinist tactic of eliminating us all. "No people, no problem," as Kolya the Dread used to say.

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