Can Dr. Evil Save The World?
Forget about a future filled with wind farms and hydrogen cars. The Pentagon's top weaponeer says he has a radical solution that would stop global warming now -- no matter how much oil we burn.Last summer, an elite group of scientists, economists and government officials gathered at Snowmass ski resort near Aspen, Colorado, to contemplate the end of the world.
The weeklong workshop, held in the shadow of 14,000-foot-high peaks at the Top of the Village lodge, was organized by the Energy Modeling Forum, a group of academics and industry leaders affiliated with Stanford University.
A few months earlier, Stanford professor John Weyant, the director of the group, had asked participants to consider a nightmare scenario: It's 2010, and global warming is not only happening, it's accelerating.
The Greenland and western Antarctic ice sheets are melting at an exponential rate, leading to predictions of a twenty-foot rise in sea levels by 2070.
In this scenario, southern Florida vanishes, New York City becomes an aquarium, London looks like Venice. In Bangladesh alone, 40 million people are displaced by the rising waters.
Droughts cripple food production, leading to widespread famine. If you need to put a "sudden stop" on emissions of carbon dioxide, Weyant asked, how -- short of shutting down the global economy -- would you do it?
At the Snowmass workshop, it was clear that putting a "sudden stop" to climate-warming emissions would require something more than investing in wind turbines.
In one presentation, Jae Edmonds, chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, suggested that the only way you could radically cut emissions without shutting down the economy would be to replace coal and oil with genetically engineered biofuels, which would not only cut pollution but would suck up carbon dioxide as they grow.
But making such a switch would require a massive expansion of agriculture, sweeping changes to the world's energy infrastructure, bold political leadership and trillions of dollars.
Then Lowell Wood approached the podium. At sixty-five, Wood is a big, rumpled guy, tall and broad as a missile silo, with a full red beard and pale blue eyes that burn with a thermonuclear glow.
In scientific circles, Wood is a dark star, the protege of Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the Reagan-era Star Wars missile-defense system.
As a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California for more than four decades, Wood has long been one of the Pentagon's top weaponeers, the agency's go-to guru for threat assessment and weapons development.
Wood is infamous for championing fringe science, from X-ray lasers to cold-fusion nuclear reactors, as well as for his long affiliation with the Hoover Institution, a right-wing think tank on the Stanford campus.
Wood hooked up his laptop, threw his first slide onto the screen and got down to business: What if all the conventional thinking about how to deal with global warming was wrong? What if you could do an end run around carbon-trading schemes and international treaties and political gridlock and actually solve the problem? And what if the cost to get started was not trillions of dollars but $100 million a year -- less than the cost of a good-size wind farm?
Wood's proposal was not technologically complex. It's based on the idea, well-proven by atmospheric scientists, that volcano eruptions alter the climate for months by loading the skies with tiny particles that act as mini-reflectors, shading out sunlight and cooling the Earth. Why not apply the same principles to saving the Arctic?
Getting the particles into the stratosphere wouldn't be a problem -- you could generate them easily enough by burning sulfur, then dumping the particles out of high-flying 747s, spraying them into the sky with long hoses or even shooting them up there with naval artillery. They'd be invisible to the naked eye, Wood argued, and harmless to the environment.
Depending on the number of particles you injected, you could not only stabilize Greenland's polar ice -- you could actually grow it. Results would be quick: If you started spraying particles into the stratosphere tomorrow, you'd see changes in the ice within a few months.
And if it worked over the Arctic, it would be simple enough to expand the program to encompass the rest of the planet. In effect, you could create a global thermostat, one that people could dial up or down to suit their needs (or the needs of polar bears).
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