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While the politicians in Washington D.C. were spending the past couple of years doing nothing to reduce the carbon emissions that cause global climate change, Science staff writer Eli Kintisch was diving into the warmer world that our collective inaction is creating. In Hack the Planet, he explores the once-heretical idea of deliberately re-engineering Earth’s climate system to stave of the worst effects of global warming.
Pumping millions of tons of sulfur pollution into the stratosphere. Brightening low-level sea clouds. Spraying a fine mist of water vapor over the Middle East. These proposals for geoengineering—or what Kintisch calls “hacking the planet”—seem like the stuff of science fiction. Yet respected scientists such as Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution are taking them seriously, because industrial society has so far proved unable or unwilling to make the serious emissions reductions needed to avoid potential catastrophe.
Eli Kintisch turns out to be the perfect guide for this journey into the frightening frontiers of climate science. A careful journalist who has also written for Slate, The American Prospect and The New Republic, he is fair-minded, lucid, and judicious, with no time for hype or hyperbole. He explains why planethacking may be necessary but he also shows why it is not a panacea, and why it should never be thought of as a substitute for emissions reduction.
The awful truth is this: It may already be too late to avoid some of the climate catastrophes—ice sheet collapse, megadroughts—that would ignite a public demand for the services of the planetary hackers. Since crises inevitably bring out profiteers, Hack the Planet profiles some of them, too — men such as Russ George of Planktos and Dan Whaley of Climos, for-profit rivals in the arcane field of “iron fertilization,” or dropping iron filings into the ocean to create algae “blooms” that suck carbon dioxide out of the sky.
Our warmer world, writes Kintisch, “will be full of budding geoengineers such as Russ George, persuasive to some and reckless to others.” Here’s hoping it will also be full of smart writers such as Eli Kintisch — we’ll need them keep an eye on these would-be entrepreneurs of planetary salvation.