By Noah Shachtman
Some of the military’s leading scientific advisers are looking into the idea of remaking the planet’s environment, to stave off global warming.
The idea of “geoengineering” — hacking the Earth’s climate, to prevent more radical changes — has been kicking around the scientific fringes for years. One scheme calls for adding iron to the ocean, to stimulate the growth of greenhouse gas-absorbing algae. Another for “loading the skies” with sulfate particles that “act as mini-reflectors, shading out sunlight and cooling the Earth.” A third, “covering the Arctic with dust.” Most mainstream climatologists have responded to the proposals with a combination of snickers and horror; the environment is such a chatoic system, they argue, that there’s no telling what such wholesale monkeying around with it will do.
In recent months, however, several “top institutions have launched efforts to study the subject,” the ScienceInsider blog notes. The Pentagon’s secretive JASON scientific panel is schedule to discuss geonengineering soon. The National Academies are hosting a workshop over the summer. The U.K. Royal Society should have study out by then, too.
The Defense Sciences Research Council, which advises Pentagon premiere research arm Darpa, is meeting today at Stanford University to explore geoengineering. But at least one of the scientists that’s scheduled to attend will be arguing against planet-hacking, not in favor of it.
“The last thing we need is to have Darpa developing climate-intervention technology,” Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science tells ScienceInsider.
He says he agreed to go to the meeting “to try to get Darpa not to develop geoengineering techniques. Geoengineering is already so fraught with social, geopolitical, economic, and ethical issues; why would we want to add military dimensions?” He adds, however, that he would support Darpa studying the topic in case an adversary were to use it.
Darpa has been working on environmental issues for years — putting money into algae-based fuel and trash-based “bioplastics.” It’s part of a larger, far-flung, often-disjointed series of Pentagon initiatives to kick the fossil fuel habit, and reduce the military’s carbon footprint. Giant solar arrays, wind-powered bases, and garbage-munching generators in Baghdad are all part of the mix. We’ll see if a more radical global warming answer will soon be, too.