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Hack the Planet: Science's Best Hope - or Worst Nightmare - for Averting Climate Catastrophe [Hardcover]

Eli Kintisch

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Book Description

April 1 2010 047052426X 978-0470524268 1
An inside tour of the incredible—and probably dangerous—plans to counteract the effects of climate change through experiments that range from the plausible to the fantastic

David Battisti had arrived in Cambridge expecting a bloodbath. So had many of the other scientists who had joined him for an invitation-only workshop on climate science in 2007, with geoengineering at the top of the agenda. We can't take deliberately altering the atmosphere seriously, he thought, because there’s no way we'll ever know enough to control it. But by the second day, with bad climate news piling on bad climate news, he was having second thoughts. When the scientists voted in a straw poll on whether to support geoengineering research, Battisti, filled with fear about the future, voted in favor.

While the pernicious effects of global warming are clear, efforts to reduce the carbon emissions that cause it have fallen far short of what’s needed. Some scientists have started exploring more direct and radical ways to cool the planet, such as:

  • Pouring reflective pollution into the upper atmosphere
  • Making clouds brighter
  • Growing enormous blooms of algae in the ocean

Schemes that were science fiction just a few years ago have become earnest plans being studied by alarmed scientists, determined to avoid a climate catastrophe. In Hack the Planet, Science magazine reporter Eli Kintisch looks more closely at this array of ideas and characters, asking if these risky schemes will work, and just how geoengineering is changing the world.

Scientists are developing geoengineering techniques for worst-case scenarios. But what would those desperate times look like? Kintisch outlines four circumstances: collapsing ice sheets, megadroughts, a catastrophic methane release, and slowing of the global ocean conveyor belt.

As incredible and outlandish as many of these plans may seem, could they soon become our only hope for avoiding calamity? Or will the plans of brilliant and well-intentioned scientists cause unforeseeable disasters as they play out in the real world? And does the advent of geoengineering mean that humanity has failed in its role as steward of the planet—or taken on a new responsibility? Kintisch lays out the possibilities and dangers of geoengineering in a time of planetary tipping points. His investigation is required reading as the debate over global warming shifts to whether humanity should Hack the Planet.


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Review

* ""Geoengineering is generally defined as the application of engineering techniques to alter the planet as a whole...as Mr. Kintisch relates, these remedies are not necessarily simple and even their easy-to-envision consequences can be alarming.""
New York Times

Review

"Hack the Planet is a superbly written and reported chronicle of a remarkable story. In just a few years 'geoengineering' fixes to climate change--simulating volcanoes, CO2-sucking, cloud-brightening--have gone from crackpot to considered ideas. Eli Kintisch's book is boundlessly smarter and more deeply researched on this topic than Superfreakonomics. Expect to hear much more in coming years from the planet-hackers--and from Kintisch."
—Eric Roston, author of The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat

"As climate change goes unmitigated and continues to worsen, it seems we can no longer avoid a public debate on the prospect of planetary geoengineering--doing something probably bad to the planet to avert something even worse. It will be an Earth-changing discussion, and no one should feel competent to participate without having first read Eli Kintisch’s Hack the Planet, an indispensable introduction to the topic. The scientific ideas he explains and characters he depicts are compelling and occasionally riveting."
—Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science and Unscientific America

"Anyone who considers themselves scientifically literate had better get versed in the new discipline of geo-engineering--or planethacking, as Eli Kintisch calls it in this nuanced and useful new account. This discussion is not going to go away anytime soon!"
—Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making A Life on a Tough New Planet

"Loathe or love it, geoengineering has come in from the fringe. Is rewiring the atmosphere the riskiest weapon against global climate change or the only realistic one--or both? It's hard to imagine a more thorough and accessible guide to the science, and the stakes, than Eli Kintisch has provided."
—Jonathan Rauch, senior writer, National Journal and contributing editor, The Atlantic


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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  19 reviews
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and thought-provoking April 17 2010
By B. Kravitz - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Hack the Planet is a scary read, cataloguing the history of the unpleasant idea of geoengineering. It's filled with paranoia about potential disasters to the climate and the biosphere. It shows us nightmares about governance and the potential for future climate wars regarding setting the global thermostat. Unfortunately, such paranoia is well justified.

In reading this book, it's obvious Kintisch has done his homework. His knowledge of climate science is spot-on, as is his history of geoengineering. One can tell he's been reading about this sobering subject for quite a while. He's traveled the world to meetings and talked to just about everyone in the field. If anyone could ever present a holistic, balanced picture of geoengineering, Kintisch certainly has the credentials, and he does not fail to deliver.

One of my favorite things about the book is his witty choice to precede each chapter with an interesting anecdote about how man's efforts to shape the climate around him has often led to ecological disaster. After reading these, one would think twice before approaching climate modification with even a shred of hubris.

He also brings home the important point about the very nature of scientific research, in that we will never know everything. Any uncertainties will always be critical to our understanding of such a complex, interrelated system.

That said, some of the concerns Kintisch addresses are overblown, especially regarding confidence in climate model predictions. He devotes a great deal of time to explaining how the uncertainty in our knowledge of the climate sensitivity could lead us to distrust the predictive power of our best tool for studying geoengineering, which is far from necessary. If we didn't believe the models, we wouldn't be worried about global warming in the first place. There's a story to tell even without lambasting the models: even in the middle range of climate sensitivity, society still faces potential catastrophe and a possible need for geoengineering.

Moreover, I dislike the idea of dividing geoengineering researchers into two camps, based on their leaning toward or away from calling geoengineering a necessity. I can understand that, for people not directly involved in the geoengineering debate, it can be helpful to have a general idea as to who is on which "side." However, even inside the debate, I've seen quite a few examples of misattribution of ideas based on the perception that someone belongs to a particular camp. I think that because the line of demarcation is too ill-defined, it's a bit premature to start assigning the researchers to one side or another. Kintisch does strongly make the point, and rather well, that nearly everyone in the geoengineering arena is calling for more research.

The book pleasantly ends with a lighter note. Hidden beneath the doomsaying is a faith in humanity, evidenced by his final anecdote, which is a success story. He seems to imply that, should we proceed with caution, foresight, and appropriate humility for our truly awesome subject, we may be able to understand geoengineering's role in making our climate better for all, whatever that role turns out to be.

This is an important read for anyone who wishes to enter the geoengineering debate. Maybe even an essential read. And certainly a fascinating one.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If you thought computer hacking was dangerous ... April 16 2010
By A. Siegel - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Geoengineering is getting increased attention within the scientific community and, increasingly, policy communities as the Global Warming picture becomes ever more dire and serious climate change mitigation action seems to becoming ever less a near-term likelihood.

Kintisch is an excellent writer who provides a review of the risks and, potentially, opportunities in the extreme option of geoengineering to avoid catastrophic climate chaos.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The search for the best worst-case solution to the climate crisis April 16 2010
By A. Wiener - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Kintisch is a climate-writing triple threat: He knows the science as well as anyone, he can put the science in a political context, and he has a writing style that can turn an informative scientific survey into a page-turner. A very worthwhile read for anyone who wants ahead-of-the-curve knowledge of a subject that will be getting major public attention in the not-too-distant future.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tour of the Horizon, the Smartest of Skeptics July 25 2010
By Robert David STEELE Vivas - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I bristled when I saw the title, but bought the book in association with my own talk to Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE) on "Hacking Humanity." I've put the book down glad I did not give up in the early pages, and thoroughly impressed by the author, clearly among the smartest of skeptics.

Although I was suprised to find no mention of HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program) which is striving for openness but still appears to have an unnerving patina of weather change and earthquake triggering potential--in my uninformed view. I'd love the author's informed opinion on HAARP.

What the author does provide in this book is a totally superb overview with multiple drill-downs of what is now called "geoengineering." Geo-systems are not in this book, and that is the greatest flaw with any contemplation of geo-engineering--you cannot engineer what you cannot understand.

The arrogance of those proposing "methods" to "hack" the Earth is truly outstanding, an arrogance I am glad to see that the author does not share. Among the long list of ideas:

Aerosols into the upper atmosphere
Aluminum mesh into the upper atmosphere
Ash in the upper atmosphere
Bury Co2 deep in the ground or under the seabed
Carbons into carbides into cement
Chemicals in the upper atmosphere
Cloud seeding
Divert rivers
Dust rings in the upper atmosphere
Grow lots of algae in the ocean
Harnessing volcanoes
Plants everywhere
Suck Co2 out of the air
Trillions of reflective disks floating in the upper atmosphere

All of the above are a right of center counter-attack to the left of center climate change carbon fraud that received a major setback when years of emails were released just prior to the Copenhagen conference. For a good time search for ClimateGate.

With any of the above, there is at least a 1 in 300 change of altering the climate toward extremes.

The four scenarios that scare people--and that the right of center scientists do not think will be addressed by carbon reducing strategies-- include:

Catastrophic methane release
Collapsing ice sheets
Megadroughts
Slowing of ocean conveyor belt

An enormous amount of ignorance is ably documented by the author, who certainly gives all those concerned their due in terms of brilliance, dedication, good intentions, and creative ideas. The models are "not even close" at the same time that the linkages are not understood. "Flawed data" and "bad analysis" are the norm. No real sense of levers and amplifiers among all those contemplating "hacks" on the earth.

I learn the word "homodisciplinary" and I love it--that alone is worth the price of the book because that one books slams down at least 80% of not 90% of all of the so-called "experts" that know everything about nothing and nothing about everything else.

I am stunned to see that the carbon fraud scheme by Maurice Strong and his trusty talking puppet Al Gore is said to be a one trillion dollar market--this certainly makes sub-prime mortgages look good in comparison.

The most promising offerings appear to be carbon into carbides into cement; algae in oceans, and cloud seeking. HOWEVER, as this book makes clear in both the text and the fine print, geoengineering is climate change fraud on steroids, a 9 billion pound gorilla with no idea of its potential for catastrophe.

I am pointed toward a number of excellent books by this author, including Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary; James Loveluck's The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning; and Bjorn Lomborg's Global Crises, Global Solutions: Costs and Benefits.

The author does a fine job of showing how tinkering leads to disaster, with case studies on the Aral Sea, Lake Victorial, the gall fly helping deer mice multiply as disease carriers, and dung beetles doing good.

A fine quote: "We just do not know the side effects" [of anything we might do].

In discussing the algae in the Arctic the author provides an excellent sense of the complex over-lapping and often contradictory and certainly debilitating jurisdictions and obstacles associated with multiple governments and within governments, between multiple agencies as well as many alert civil society elements.

The author wins his fifth star at the very end, when I realize that his balanced objectivety throughout has been concealing an erudite sarcasm about "Hack the Planet." He ends with a short brilliant discourse on "the problem of the dual and deceptive nature of control," and a quote with respect to how we are playing God and actually have no clue.

Although there is nothing in this book about ecological economics, true cost, scarcity and toxins and so on, this is a book by a journalist and I found it most satisfying; future books by this author will capture my attention.

Here are seven other books (Amazon limits us to ten, you can find the other 1600+ at Phi Beta Iota the Public Intelligence Blog, see especially 00 Remixed Review Lists (69) halfway down the middle column).

In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations
Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway
Climategate: A Veteran Meteorologist Exposes the Global Warming Scam
The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime
Water: The Fate of Our Most Precious Resource
The Future of Life
High Noon 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hack the Planet May 25 2010
By Craig K. Comstock - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
If the climate and energy debates were a house, what would be the elephant in the living room? In family therapy, this phrase refers to a lumbering presence that's almost too dangerous to discuss.

What would play the role of the elephant? Is it the hope, often unspoken, that technology will save us? That if our globe is warming, some miraculous technique (perhaps not yet even known) will be developed and deployed just in time? That thanks to the promise of ingenuity, we don't have to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases produced by enormously useful and omnipresent fossil fuels? And that we can continue (at least as soon as the economy revives) with business as usual?

This hope must serve as at least part of the reason we haven't panicked. It lies deep in the American psyche that, when we have exhausted all other alternatives, we will be saved by a "machine from the gods" (to reverse a phrase from ancient drama) or rather by a technique from scientists and engineers.

This kind of last-minute salvation happened, for example, during our harrowing fight against the Axis. We needed to know where German subs were, and thanks to a genius named Alan Turing our side broke the enemy's naval code. Allies needed warning when hostile planes were approaching, and radar was invented. After a vicious fight across the Pacific, we needed to defeat Japan without an invasion of the home islands, and by then the Manhattan Project had produced a couple of deliverable atomic bombs.

Why reduce greenhouse gases if a technique will almost surely (or probably, or perhaps possibly) be developed that makes it unnecessary? For decades, scientists and others have floated various ideas for cooling the atmosphere. Together they are called "geoengineering" or, as science reporter Eli Kintisch says in the title of a brilliant and far-ranging new book, "hack[ing] the planet."

Geoengineering proposals take several forms: for example, you can try to reduce the solar radiation that reaches (or stays on) the earth. Proponents urge us to "brighten" clouds by spraying up droplets of sea water, as scientists are now trying to do with a little help from Bill Gates. Or let's simulate a volcano by seeding the stratosphere with sulfur particles (or some other chemical). Let's increase the reflectivity of some large surface by blanketing it with silicon balls. Let's, I don't know, let's deliver a cloud of mirrors into space between the earth and the sun.

Or you can try to increase the absorption of carbon dioxide, to get more of this troublesome gas out of the atmosphere. Make and bury "biochar" from plant materials, as in the Amazon of old. Dump iron powder in the seas and create algal blooms. Develop artificial trees or improve the existing ones by bioengineering. Or as Craig Venter proposes, bioengineer not trees but microorganisms to gobble CO2.

Or you can try to prevent CO2 from ever reaching the atmosphere by "sequestering" it, thus rendering coal combustion "clean," a wonderful challenge considering the cost and difficulty of capturing and pumping all the stuff and storing it securely. If practical, this technique would make a major difference: dirty as it is, coal generates more than half of our electricity and an even higher fraction in China.

A scientist may be drawn to a technique that seems "sweet" or "elegant"; an entrepreneur, to one that offers profit, perhaps from creating "offsets"; and a policy maker, to a technique that facilitates business as usual, causing no alarm to economic interests that contribute to campaigns and then surround him or her with lobbyists. And if the technique appeals to all three types of people, as some geoengineering project do, what's to stop it?

Well, experimentation on these methods hasn't got very far, perhaps because of the obvious danger of unintended consequences. What stands out in Kintisch's first-hand survey of the techniques is pervasive uncertainty. Science may know the planet is warming, but we don't know what to do about it, except reduce emissions globally or hope that our efforts to hack the planet aren't disastrous

On one half-page of Kintisch's book the following phrases appear:

"the United Nations couldn't say...
"scientists don't know...
"certainty is rare...
"it's unclear... [three times]
"we don't quite know...
"this chain of uncertainty ... restricts the ability of scientists to predict accurately...
"it's not an exact science..."

In other words, it's as if we're trying to find our way in an unfamiliar thicket of birch saplings in heavy fog. The white of uncertain menace hasn't looked so threatening since Melville's whale.

Nonetheless, we hesitate to insist on the reduction of emissions in the hope that a technique can prevent or undo the ghastly effects of climate change. What effects? Without considering all the ramifications, just think of a devastating reallocation of water, bringing drought to some regions, including fields that now yield food, and floods to other places not prepared for so much water, as in Kentucky or, a little earlier, New Orleans.

Kintisch writes his book as a well-informed, open-minded reporter, dutifully covering both the hopes of the proponents of hacking the planet, whom he calls the blue team, and the stoplight warnings of critics, the red team. (Actually, as his narrative makes clear, some of the "blue" players are nagged by questions, and some of the "red" ones, knowing the situation, hope that something will work.)

In Kintisch's view, a particularly troubling danger is that the sparkling promise of cheap geoengineering might function as a distraction from the serious, long-term work of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases. Another danger is that geoengineering experiments and possible deployment would be done in buccaneering style, without adequate oversight, exploiting for commercial motives the commons of the atmosphere and the seas.

In the last pages, Kintisch reveals his personal conclusion: "being forced to geoengineer would be a dismal fate" and "succumbing to the illusion of control" would mean replacing the burden of overhauling the world's energy system "with the much more risky burden of revolutionizing our relationship with the sky itself." Risky, dismal: when we discovered the less than obvious side effects, it might be too late.

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