Living Under a Yellow Sky, or Detecting the “Mad Scientist”

As a fan of science fiction, I have been wondering how long it would be before someone started talking about terraforming planet Earth, and it has finally come up for discussion with scientists talking about pumping sulphur high into the atmosphere.

(See the transcript of Radio National’s Background Briefing here)

Anyone nervous yet?

History, rather than science fiction, is where we should start looking when this idea starts to grow legs. And grow legs it will, because
cheap and nasty will always appeal to economic rationalists.

This particularly nasty idea has all the hallmarks of being favoured for a number of reasons: It allows folk to continue abusing the planet thoughtlessly, politicians would love a short term fix, it involves getting to use big arse guns, and the scientists get to test their theories on a real planet.

If you are thinking that scientists won’t support this patch fix, then a brief look down memory lane is in order. Whether it be experimenting with live human beings like the Nazi doctors, or disposing of nuclear waste in the North Sea like the English, there are always scientists who will sign up for the action. Sometimes they will have 2nd thoughts after the damage is done, but youthful enthusiasm will always find ways to excuse the moral argument.

Working with the environment is a very complicated operation. Just ask the farmers who have tried the seemingly easily-achieved target of seeding rain clouds. They do have some success, but you need a statistician to prove the result. Also consider chemical warfare using two components. It’s very difficult to deliver accurately simply because of weather conditions, even with all the computer power attached to weather prediction. Building a climate modelling program has taken years, as thousands of variables have gradually been added to the model and I’m guessing it still has a long way to go. If the model isn’t accurate, then prediction is problematic.

Now we have a “quick fix” for a complex system that offers a far cheaper result if you don’t mind totally trashing the balance. Like the elegant English solution to nuclear waste, this has the unacceptable feature of being irreversible. When the problem rose of 44 gallon drums of nuclear waste splitting after a year or two submerged, they were not able to easily recover the problem drums, which are still sitting at the bottom of the North Sea.

The last, and most frightening aspect about this new idea, is that the United States can act unilaterally and damage everyone else on the planet. The Chinese probably fit in the same category. Large countries with the wherewithal and the arrogance will try something that ‘might’ work, regardless of what the world, or indeed their own people, want.

And tragically, we won’t even regard these scientists as mad until after the damage is done. Some folk will probably even be reassured by their sponsorship of the scheme. No matter how dangerous or crazy an idea is, someone will either believe it, or be prepared to sign off on it for money. These rationales are a pretty poor basis for deciding how to approach a problem, especially if it has long term consequences.. If economists only think ahead by five years and politicians only as far as the next election, then they are not the folk to be allowed to control the response to global warming.

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