The Sceptical Environmentalist - part 2
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And so the trick here is to say there’s a much greater leverage if you focus on innovation because if you innovate the price down below fossil fuels you solve the problem, where as if you subsidise you’re essentially making an unsustainable solution.” Whether it’s made a priority or not, research into green technologies will continue, eventually making cheaper and more efficient solar panels and the like, but, “We are not going to be able to cut carbon emissions dramatically in the next 20 to 40 years.” What we need, Bjørn says, is something with a more immediate result and a way to, “Insure ourselves for something really bad happening,” and the only way to do this is via geo-engineering, that is: engineering projects on a planetary scale. In the case of climate change it means, “Essentially, being able to set the thermostat of the world.” “We looked at some of these proposals,” he says of the solutions put forward at the Consensus on Climate, “and what they basically told us was there’s potentially an incredibly cheap way of avoiding most of the climate problems.” He explains the basic science of marine cloud whitening, which is ‘making clouds a little whiter.’ The idea is to enhance the natural process of ocean spray by using fleets of ships or unmanned watercraft to spray ocean water into the air. This acts on low-level stratocumulus clouds and, basically, enables the clouds to reflect more solar radiation, “amplifying essentially a really natural process,” and hence cool the planet. While the solution seems mind-bogglingly simple to implement, its cost is even more surprising. “The beautiful thing about this is that they estimate that for about $6billion in total we could avoid all of the global warming of the 21st century. Compared to every other solution, we’re talking about something that’s 1000 to 10,000 times cheaper. That’s certainly something that ought to make us sit up straight in our chairs and think about this.“ To drive the point home further he adds that, “this is actually so cheap that Bill Gates could do this by himself.” And while he doesn’t think the world’s richest man will, he thinks it’s likely that someone, even just a single nation might decide to take action themselves. “I certainly think where we’re at now we would want this to be something that everybody could get together and decide on,” he says on the idea of a single nation or a small group of nations taking the initiative by themselves. “Whether that’s actually going to happen and whether we might stand in a very different position in the next 50 years, I think it would be premature to make that call, but certainly we should try to get everybody together.” Bjørn is also quick to point out that this solution, as great as it sounds, isn’t something that should be rushed into either, emphasising the need for caution. “We want to take a look at whether this would actually work, whether it would be feasible to implement and whether it would have negative side-effects,” and that the research could give us a backup in the event of worse-than-expected global warming effects. He also points out that while cooling the planet would be beneficial for many countries, “it would probably not be good for Canada or Russia, or Denmark for that matter.” He also notes that marine cloud whitening isn’t a silver bullet to fix all climate and environmental damage. “It will not, for instance, deal with ocean acidification.” Once the research is complete though, be it in the next few years or next few decades, is when the political scene will become more interesting. One of the fundamental problems of global warming policy, Bjørn says, is that, “Right now it’s about feeling good. It’s about saying stuff that sounds good or looks good on a page or gets you into the news paper.” While he thinks the likes of Al Gore and Barak Obama are genuine and above board in their beliefs on climate change and how they can solve it, he says it’s easy for them to say so because they know they’ll never have to really act on it. “Remember, nobody had any problem in Rio in 1992 to say that, in principle, we should get back to pre-industrial levels. Remember that everybody felt very comfortable saying that because everybody knew that nobody was ever going to actually do that. So in a sense what we’re saying is, ‘Oh yeah, we’d like to change the thermostat of the planet because we know we can’t do it.’
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