As I briefly mentioned in my end-of-year book recap, one of the best books I read in 2015, and one of the best popular science books I’ve read ever, is Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. Geoengineering refers to the intentional manipulation of climate, usually in the context of combatting climate change. It’s a contentious topic for obvious reasons — experiments sometimes go wrong, and experimenting with the planet could have terrible uninted consequences. On the other hand, our present large-scale dumping of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, from the historical value of about 280 parts per million to the present value of over 400 ppm, also counts as a giant experiment, though one without any coherent plan or control. Perhaps more importantly, as Morton notes at the start of the book, if one believes that (1) climate change is a real and serious issue, and (2) reaching zero or negative CO2 emissions is extremely difficult, it’s hard not to conclude that we must think seriously about geongineering. Both items (1) and (2) are, I think, quite clearly true. Having taught courses on energy and the environment several times, I’ve noticed that people seem surprised that the renewable sources make up only 10% of U.S. energy consumtion; solar power is about half a percent. Despite a steady flow of words about “sustainability,” it is clear we, as a society, aren’t actually committed to this.
The Planet Remade dives into the topic of geoengineering. It’s beautifully written — poetic in its descriptions of the natural world and humanity’s place in it — and consistently thought-provoking. Parts of the book, of course, go into the mechanics of potential geongineering schemes, for example injecting aerosols into the stratosphere. Much of it, though, is about less obvious things like the history of humanity’s views about its relationship to the Earth. Morton makes a strong case for seriously researching geoengineering approaches.
In addition to the argument of necessity noted above, Morton counters the argument that geoegineering is “unnatural” by noting that we already live in an unnatural world — a stunning 50% of the nitrogen in the food we eat, for example, is derived from the Haber-Bosch process, rather than from biological mechanisms. We’re mining nitrogen from the atmosphere at an enormous scale, and the impact on the planet has been profound: “As soon as humans replumbed the nitrogen cycle they were more or less committed to dealing with the follow-on effects of moving from a 3.5 billion person planet to one three times fuller.” With this and other examples, Morton makes the case that, as disturbing as it is, we’ve already moved from having a “natural” planet to a curated one, and so we may as well do a good, and deliberate, job of the curation.
Morton also counters the argument that geongineering should be thought of as a “last resort,” if we fail to reduce carbon emissions, by noting that aiming for large effects at late dates is precisely the most dangerous way to implement geoengineering. Rather, if one wants to reduce the risks of manipulating climate, one should conduct early, small-scale experiments, whose effects, and whose consequences, will be small. With these, one can test one’s models of climate perturbations, building up to meaningful impacts.
I was motivated to read The Planet Remade both because I’m interested in the topic, and because I was thinking of incorporating geoengineering into my Physics of Energy and the Environment course in Winter ’16. I didn’t manage to do that — I couldn’t decide on what to remove from the 10-week course to make room for this topic, and I didn’t put enough effort into rethinking the course — but I did at least discuss it a little bit, and also made geoengineering one of three possible topics for students’ final project.
It’s rare to find a book that combines excellent descriptions of complex science, broad and broad-minded views of history, and beautiful writing. Even though I haven’t really used it for anything concrete, it has definitely affected my views on energy and the environment.
… cherries in a glass bowl.