Who decides for the human race?

Any overall strategy to avoid catastrophic climate change will involve geo-engineering

When things get too quiet on the Times’ opinion pages, it’s always easy to get a rise out of one of our faithful readers – Jim Lamberton, also known as the Rambling Man.

All we need to do is mention the words “global warming” and we’re almost sure to get an angry letter in response. The word “roundabout” also works well.

Last week we had a letter from Jim that was in reply to the previous week’s editorial. The editorial in turn was in response to a Gwynn Dyer column that had described fears about military conflicts in the Arctic as “nonsense.”

The editorial argued that military conflicts in the Arctic are, in fact, inevitable unless we move to end global warming quickly.

The central point of Jim’s response was that global warming is not something that could be turned on and off like a tap.

In this space we have argued before that any overall strategy to avoid catastrophic climate change will involve geo-engineering – the deliberate and large-scale intervention in Earth’s climate.

The conventional approach – trying to reduce civilization’s emissions of carbon dioxide through such things as greater efficiencies and substitution of energy sources – is not working.

We have passed the safe upper limit to avoid a climate tipping point.

Geo-engineering schemes follow two basic strategies: removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and reducing the amount of sunlight reaching Earth.

Some of the schemes to remove carbon dioxide, such as fertilizing the oceans, carry unknown risks. Others, such as planting more trees, would be good things to do even without climate change, but unlikely to make a meaningful dent in the megatonnes of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere each year.

Reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth would involve schemes such as injecting sulphur-based aerosols into the atmosphere, or constructing mirrors or other structures in space.

All of these would involve unknown risks and would require further research – but we do not have unlimited time.

Ultimately it comes down to not a question of science or technology but of politics – who decides for the human race?

We have argued in this space before  that the appropriate place for those decisions to be made would be a stronger and more democratic United Nations. And we’d better get moving on that too.

And by the way, Jim, having a roundabout would help with the fight against global warming too. People would spend less time idling their vehicles while waiting for a break in traffic.