On the one hand, such folks do have a point inasmuch as any global modification to the environment that went wrong would be a cure worse than the disease. On the other hand, it seems increasingly unlikely that a global agreement on emissions caps will be enacted anytime soon. The IPCC report claims that there is a high likelihood that Earth’s climate has already moved past the point of no return and that sea levels will continue rising for millennia. Simultaneously, billions of people in China and India are arriving at the First World banquet table: according to the International Energy Agency, in two years China will pass the United States as the largest source of carbon emissions. “The political impossibility of what I call the prohibitionist agenda–that is, carbon prohibitionism–brings a kind of hallucinogenic quality to the global-warming discussion,” says Benford. “No economist I know believes that global carbon emissions can be restrained within a century to even the level we have now. Every economist knows that the timescale for changing energy infrastructure is at least half a century to a century, just because of replacement costs. Economists are scientists too, and ignoring them isn’t just blind: it’s perverse.”
Benford has a proposal that possesses the advantages of being both one of the simplest planet-cooling technologies so far suggested and being initially testable in a local context. He suggests suspension of tiny, harmless particles (sized at one-third of a micron) at about 80,000 feet up in the stratosphere. These particles could be composed of diatomaceous earth. “That’s silicon dioxide, which is chemically inert, cheap as earth, and readily crushable to the size we want,” Benford says. This could initially be tested, he says, over the Arctic, where warming is already considerable and where few human beings live. Arctic atmospheric circulation patterns would mostly confine the deployed particles around the North Pole. An initial experiment could occur north of 70 degrees latitude, over the Arctic Sea and outside national boundaries. “The fact that such an experiment is reversible is just as important as the fact that it’s regional,” says Benford.
Is Benford’s proposal realistic? According to Ken Caldeira, a leading climate scientist at Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, “It appears as if any small particle would do the trick in the necessary quantities. I’ve done a number of computer simulations of what the climate response would be of reflecting sunlight, and all of them indicate that it would work quite well.” He adds, “I wouldn’t look to these geoengineering schemes as part of normal policy response, but if bad things start to happen quickly, then people will demand something be done quickly.”
Given that our social systems would crash without the economic growth that depends on the existing energy infrastructure that we have, Benford personally believes that governments can’t be counted on to develop and deploy alternatives: “Anybody who thinks governments are suddenly going to leap into action is dreaming.” Benford says that one of the advantages of his scheme is that it could be implemented unilaterally by private parties. “Applying these technologies in the Arctic zone or even over the whole planet would be so cheap that many private parties could do it on their own. That’s really a dangerous idea because it suggests the primary actor in this drama will not be the nation-state anymore. You could do this for a hundred million bucks a year. You could do the whole planet for a couple of billion. That’s amazingly cheap.”